In the days before scientific thinking took hold in the West the earth was seen as a vast living being worthy of deep respect and reverence. People felt that the entire world had a soul, the 'Anima Mundi', which made its presence felt everywhere and at all times. Good harvests depended on it, the timing of the seasons was its expression, and the life of man and other creatures took place within its all-encompassing embrace. Everything was felt to have a soul quality. Every tree, every boulder engendered a certain mood, and this mood-making was a felt communication between human and nonhuman souls, which were experienced as being essentially inseparable. People felt deep connections with particular on human life forms ranging from individual trees to entire mountains or rivers. A variety of cultures evolved based on these perceptions of the sacredness, aliveness and responsiveness of the non-human world. For the Greeks, the world-soul was called 'Gaia', the Earth Goddess. She was the first 'power' to speak through the oracle at Delphi and was consulted on all matters of import to the Greek city states. Gaia was known to be kind to those whose actions did not offend her. To those who did, her retaliation was ruthless.
This ancient, soul-full ecological perception has been experienced by virtually all cultures, including the pre-scientific West. It is no mere figment of a primitive imagination, fearful of the immense powers periodically unleashed by nature in the form of storms, crop failures and volcanic eruptions. It may represent the most accurate perception of how the world actually is as far as humans are concerned. This perception is deeply rooted within human consciousness, born of millennia of accumulated experience of closeness and peaceful cooperation with the non-human universe. It is a perception which has inspired, and co-evolved with the human species for the vast majority of its brief existence on the face of this planet.
The scientific revolution of the 17th Century put paid to this view. Bacon told us that we had to torture nature's secrets from her in order to gain mastery through the scientific method. Galileo declared that our everyday sense impressions, such as sounds, sights and scents mislead us about the true nature of the world. He said that only the quantifiable is real. Reality was thus apprehensible by a select minority who could master its complex mathematical language. Descartes asserted that the world had no soul at all. Notions of souls in trees, rocks, and air were seen as nothing more than outdated primitive superstitions. Reason, he maintained, showed us that the universe was a machine, a clockwork mechanism without soul, put there by God for the use and convenience of humans, the masters of creation. Only humans possessed soul, and therefore only humans were in touch with God.
Everything non-human was a dead machine, with which one could do what one liked since machines do not merit moral consideration. Strange as it may seem, this 'mechanistic' scientific perspective was greatly supported by the Christian Church, which wanted to get on with the business of colonising and exploiting the sinful, fallen outer world whilst concentrating on the real work, namely the preparation of the human soul for the world to come.
Scientific thinking allied with the power of the Church swept away the ecological outlook in every culture it contacted. The age of colonialism took the mechanistic view far afield, and resulted in the exploitation of nature in every corner of the globe. Now, in the late 20th Century we witness the results of this way of being in the world, namely an ecological crisis of geological proportions, equal to and possibly greater than the catastrophe which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
But is ecological perception dead and buried? Has it been lost from human consciousness for ever? Will it ever return to influence the relationship between humans and nature? In fact, a small group of talented individuals have kept ecological perception alive despite the onward march of mechanistic thinking. The great German thinker and poet Goethe developed a scientific approach based on the perception of nature as alive, and the Romantic poets saw nature as full of soul and consciousness. But this ecological counter-current has to date always been a minority concern.
Today, ecological perception is undergoing what can be seen as the beginnings of a large scale revival. It is as if Gaia, the old goddess of the earth, is calling us to awaken out of our 300 year-old mechanistic slumber.
It is paradoxical that ecological perception has surfaced most recently with great power within science, the very enterprise which has tried to hound it out of the human mind forever. Bubbling up from the mind of a great scientist, James Lovelock, ecological perception has recently appeared in the form of Gaia theory, which postulates that there are firm scientific grounds for seeing the earth not as a disjointed collection of unrelated parts, but as a living organism.
One afternoon in 1961 Lovelock was sitting in his office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena USA, lost in thought. His brief was to make life detection instruments for an unmanned mission to the red planet. He sat thinking that a dead planet would have an atmosphere in which reactions amongst its gases were all over. Then he pictured the atmosphere of a planet with life, such as earth. In his mind's eye he saw the planet's life forms constantly venting gases which violently react together, producing a dynamic, reactive atmosphere full of energy exchange and chemical excitement. He knew that the composition of earth's atmosphere had remained constant for hundreds of millions of years. How was this possible, given the amazing chemical turmoil of its atmosphere? It was at this moment that Gaia came upon him like a great storm of cooling rain sweeping across a parched, sun-baked land. The earth is alive! Life reveals itself by its ability to maintain constant conditions within its boundaries, and Lovelock saw that the earth as a whole was no exception. It too, through the interactions amongst its animals, plants, rocks, rivers and oceans, maintains the long term constancy of its atmosphere, despite the reactivity of its gases.
The scientific details, interesting as they are, are not relevant here. What matters is that Lovelock was the first mainstream scientist for about 300 years to deeply experience the earth as a living being. He felt it as a revelation, as a sense of awe and sacredness, as a moment of truth which transformed his outlook irrevocably. Gaia had spoken to him through chemical formulae, scientific instruments and dry technical articles. Lovelock had experienced a revolution in consciousness as great as that of Copernicus, and decided there and then to devote the rest of his already highly eminent career to working out a scientific justification for his extraordinary experience. To begin with, Lovelock had no name for his insight. It was William Golding, the novelist, who suggested that 'Gaia' would be appropriate.
Ecological perception has begun to speak to the modern West through philosophy as well as science. Arne Naess is one of the most distinguished of modern European philosophers, a specialist on Gandhi and Spinoza and prior to that on logical positivism. A mountaineer and lover of wild places, he has formulated what he calls 'the deep ecology approach', which is both a great movement and a philosophy for guiding our relationship with the nonhuman world. The key insight of the deep ecology approach is that every single life form, both human and non-human, has intrinsic value irrespective of its usefulness to humans, oriented to Gaia herself. Every life form matters simply because it has come into existence, and because it is part of the great living being which is none other than the planet itself.
Arne Naess, along with other Western philosophers has refuted Galileo by stating that our everyday, spontaneous experiences are primary, showing that all abstractions, such as mathematics and
science, are based on them. Our spontaneous experience of sounds, colours, tastes are co-created by ourselves and the emergent qualities of plants, animals, rocks, all of which are participants in the great web of being. The true nature of things is thus to be in relationship. Things cannot exist without relatedness. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has used the term 'interbeing' to describe this insight. This view re-awakens soul in things and in the world.
Ecological perception teaches us that humans do not have a privileged place in the scheme of things. In the words of another great ecologist, Aldo Leopold, humans are just 'plain members of the biotic community'. We are another species in the great being of Gaia, in principle as magnificent as any other species, but not more important. We understand that nature has not been put there for human use. It is evolving, and we are part of that evolution, not its masters. If we wish to remain part of her, we must behave as wise, responsible citizens of Gaia, its poets and admirers, not its overlords, stewards or planetary engineers.
So what are the implications of ecological perception for human lifestyles? Our immediate aim should be to remove our influence upon the earth's climate. This will involve a massive reduction in the frenzy of consumerism and industrial growth. It will involve the realisation that the American dream has turned into a nightmare from which we must at all costs wake up. In the longer term, living in harmony with Gaia will involve a far smaller human population, with vast areas of wild nature left alone to maintain habitable conditions on the planet. It will involve a rejection of large-scale enterprises such as big dams, the globalisation of trade and the dominance of huge multinational companies. Instead, there would be a variety of small scale local enterprises, benevolent to both man and nature. It will involve an emphasis on spiritual development, which knows no limits, rather than on the development of ever more powerful economies, which will inevitably disintegrate when they overstep the limits of nature.