Gaia in the West Country by Stephan Harding

Written by Stephan Harding

Stephan Harding explores Gaia theory as an antidote to the mechanistic worldview of the West, and looks at ways we can develop our own deep connection with Mother Earth.

Imagine Europe suffering from major droughts and heat waves in summer. Soils would dry out. Hosepipe bans would be imposed, and there would be less water to dilute dangerous pollutants in our rivers. Imagine winter rains of an intensity normally seen only in the monsoon-prone tropics. Imagine the flooding, the soil erosion, the land slippage, and the incapacity of our existing sewer networks to deal with the vast volumes of water. Imagine how pest species such as the grey squirrel, the dreaded Phytopthera fungus, and new pests never seen before in our part of the world would severely impact our woodlands and farmland crops. Imagine some of our favourite beaches and coastal scenery disappearing under the waves as sea levels rise.  

We in Europe are very likely to experience these effects, and many more, as our climate changes. Some will appear to be beneficial – there will be more summer sunshine – but most will be detrimental. The changes could come very soon, indeed most are already happening.  

Similar changes are taking place not just in Europe, but all over the world. There is now no doubt that the planet as a whole is going through a massive upheaval involving severe disruption, not just to climate, but also to our ways of living, and to the lives of the millions of species with which we share our planet. The situation is immense: the Earth has not experienced average temperatures as high as today’s for about 700,000 years. I say all this not to spread doom and gloom, but to help us ‘get real’ – to encourage some sober and realistic thinking about what is likely to happen so that we can take action to limit climate change.

In my work as a founding member of staff and resident teacher at Schumacher College, I have spent many years delving into the causes of this planetary crisis. The immediate causes are obvious and widely agreed upon. A major one is that our burning of fossil fuels is putting greenhouse gases into the air. But there is a deeper cause that lies not in our outer actions, but in the very way that we have been taught to see the world ever since childhood. This is a worldview so dangerous that it has led us to wage an unwitting war on nature that we cannot possibly win, a worldview that we must quickly modify.

Our death-dealing worldview is this: our great turning world is no more than a vast machine full of ‘resources’ that have value only when they are converted into money. For us, mountains, forests, and the great wild oceans are all dead things, free for us to exploit as we wish, without let or hindrance. This worldview, which took hold especially strongly during the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, is literally laying our world to waste, and is at odds with a more ancient sensibility, which saw the Earth as a living being worthy of reverence and respect. Strangely enough, the idea that the Earth is alive has come back in an unlikely arena – within science itself. James Lovelock, the great British scientist and a West countryman living in Devon, proposed that the Earth is a great ‘self-regulating system’ called Gaia, after the ancient Greek divinity of the Earth. A key insight from Lovelock’s theory for us to ponder the idea that we are indissolubly a part of Gaia. 

Perhaps it is time to counter our dangerously outdated ‘mechanistic’ worldview, with a more fruitful, soulful idea. Try it. Imagine that we are living inside a great spherical, sentient living creature that has been charting her yearly path around the sun for 4,000 million years. Her law is that any being that destabilises her climate will experience responses from the whole ‘system’ that will curtail the activities of that being. 

We have a choice. We can carry on with business as usual and live in rightful fear of Gaia. Or we can learn to love her hills, her wild forests and her oceans, as we love a cherished grandmother. Perhaps only then, motivated by this love of all earthly things, will we find the inspiration for mending our ways and for massively reducing our impact on the great being that gave us birth – who is none other than Gaia, our animate Earth.

On a practical level we can work on two fronts to help the situation – the personal and the societal. Research by people such as David Reay at the University of Edinburgh has shown that we can make a massive difference by means of small modifications to our personal lifestyles, such as turning down our heating in winter by just 1 degree centigrade; using our cars less; composting organic waste; avoiding flying; driving at or below speed limits; eating locally produced food; reducing, reusing and recycling; turning off all standbys and transformers. Have a jolly good think before you buy anything new – could you buy it second-hand, or even do without? Get involved in strengthening the local community; find satisfaction in talking, telling stories and making music together, rather than in the consumer products promoted by the mass media for filling the gaps in our lonely lives. All of this doesn’t seem like much, but if enough of us adopt these practices, we will make a huge difference, thereby removing the need for several new power stations in the UK. 

On a societal level we need to lobby government (via our MPs) to take climate change seriously, by giving significant tax breaks and other incentives for implementing energy saving measures; for a massive research effort into renewable energy, and for developing ecologically sound ways of food production, building and transportation. We must also lobby government to strongly and rigorously regulate greenhouse gas emissions – a move that, amazingly, is being asked for by the business community, so they can get on and make massive profits out of selling the new technologies required to meet the new regulations. What business is demanding, you see, is a level playing field – and only government can give it to them.

Last, but not least, focus on developing your own deep connection with our animate Earth, for this will give you the energy and insight to do all of the above.  Spend time outdoors – gazing at the sea, or lying on the ground and feeling the great spherical body of our turning world at your back, as she dangles you over the infinite expanses of the cosmos. Just try it. I guarantee that you’ll find an unexpected wealth of happiness and connection in that one simple act.


Stephan Harding

Stephan Harding holds a doctorate in ecology from the University of Oxford and is the Resident Ecologist at Schumacher College, where he is also the coordinator of the MSc in Holistic Science. Stephan Harding’s book, Animate Earth: Science Intuition and Gaia, is published by Green Books.

Issue OneWill Chapman