Sunday, 14 August 2016

Gaia calling

Back when I was a grassroots political activist in my 20s, the discussions that I had with friends and fellow travellers would sometimes turn to the need for vision.

We were always protesting against – against the Gulf War, against uranium mining, against cuts to university funding, against violence towards women – but almost never on the front foot for something. We struggled to bring our ideas of what we valued to light and to create a program or vision for the kind of world we wanted.

This problem has dogged the anti-globalisation, Occupy and other mass movements for progressive change in recent times and made them easier targets for criticism from conservative elites and media. It becomes more convenient to dismiss a movement, to label it as "fringe", when it presents a potpourri of complaints attacking one institution after another and offering no overarching, constructive narrative.

The core of the matter is not about the laziness of activists, nor is it solely to do with human nature, which makes it more appealing to be critical than to aim for the positive. The issue lies considerably deeper, in what could be called the mythical dimension of existence, and specifically in the lack of correspondence to an available myth.

Myths are action-inspiring ideas that take root in the collective psyche, shaping culture and society and the way people understand their world. In the modern West the myths of Progress, Growth, Science and Equality have been perhaps the most important, motivating the creation of the kind of civilisation in which we live. Myths are the engine room of action while also providing the glue, the common causes that bind a society. When a myth breaks down, when it no longer serves the collective, a new one has to be found to replace it.

Myths are supra-rational – they relate to and influence the ordinary level of being, of thoughts and emotions, but are on a wholly different plane. And while people can strive to create myths, the dynamics of their existence are essentially a mystery. They arise organically in response to particular human needs at particular historical times and they die organically when those needs are no longer relevant.

Because they exist at a less tangible, and in some sense elevated dimension of being, myths can take on religious quality. They become magnets for devotion, attachment and zeal. One only has to think of the all-embracing regard that Science has in the West to appreciate this religious dimension, with scientists serving as pseudo-priests dispensing all knowledge about life. Myths have a non-rational flavour and they must be reckoned for what they inspire in the human heart and soul.

In our time there is one myth on the rise that has the potential to affect all others and radically reshape human attitudes and actions. That is the myth of Gaia, the blue planet that we and so many other life forms call home. This myth, given impetus by chemist James Lovelock in his Gaia hypothesis, holds that the Earth is a living being and an integrated whole. Like all myths it relates to material realities – the existence of the planet and its ecosystems – as well as a series of attitudes current to the time, most notably that human activity is dramatically threatening the Earth’s capacity to support life. The myth has an evocative impact on human feeling, calling forth the ancient respect and connection to earth, reverence for and communion with life, love of place, and a sense of the unity and solidarity of all that exists on the planet. The myth emerges out of thinking and understanding that is increasingly global in nature.

In her book on contemporary spiritual trends, The New Believers: Re-Imagining God, Australian broadcaster Rachel Kohn approached the Earth myth in this way:

"Believing in the earth has all the elements of a full-blown religion, with its idyllic Eden, its fatal hell and its ethical program of life that calls for some of the highest human virtues, such as diligent study, sacrifice, patience, love, humility and simplicity in service to ends that are not overwhelmingly focused on the self."

Though myths move according to the mysterious ways of the psyche, they are fed by the actions of multitudes of people over many years who in turn are energised and transformed under their influence. The work of creating vision for positive change then becomes, if not easier, more available to those who take on the challenge. For an example of such a time we can look to the 1960s-70s, when the world was charged with a liberatory energy that empowered millions of people towards new horizons of being. Some four decades later the stakes are considerably higher, namely the future of the very planet on which we live. Gaia calls us forward.