Deep Ecopsychology

Ecopsychology is a profound and necessary intellectual development in Western consciousness.  It is profound because it is a formidable argument against the lamentable Cartesian dualism that has enthralled science, western philosophy and religion for far too long and at too dear a price. It is necessary because another hundred years of Cartesian-based cultural values and socio-economic policies will be disasterous.  We need a synthesis of mind, soul and biosphere that can transform the current human venture of materialistic exploitation and human alienation into embodied wisdom, wherein self-knowledge and knowledge of the biosphere and the Cosmos are one. Given the extraordinary popularity of the movie, Avatar, it is reasonably clear that millions of people from every country want this revolutionary transformation to occur. Ecopsychology provides a radical psychology, but it needs to go deeper. We need a Deep Ecopsychology that provides an epistomology that permanently supplants Cartesian dualism.

I believe that the following essay I wrote years ago points to that epistomology. Gaia – A Cybernetic Emergence was an exploration of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. In it I related Lovelock’s insights to the insights of Gregory Bateson into the phenomenon of consciousness or mind.  In doing so, I believe that I stumbled upon a new way of understanding consciousness and mode of self-knowledge that could be a foundation for human culture based upon sacred wholeness. Here is the essay in full with observations to follow in the Afterword:

Gaia: A Cybernetic Emergence
(original August 11, 1996 by Carl Golden)

In 1979, James Lovelock’s book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, was published.  Through this work, Lovelock introduced a relatively new hypothesis about why Earth is a live planet rather than a dead one and how this state of vitality has been maintained for 3.5 billion years.  He argues that life itself maintains the viable conditions on Earth through a variety of cybernetic processes, known as homeostasis.  His first glimpse of this process occurred while exploring the significance of entropy reduction in the detection of life.

In the 1960’s, Lovelock was employed by NASA to help with the development of the Mars probes of the Viking program.  The probes were being developed to detect life on Mars.  Lovelock was fascinated with the challenge of detecting life on Mars, but he was not in agreement with his colleagues as to how this should be done:

At that time, the planning of experiments was mostly based on the assumption that evidence for life on Mars would be much the same as for life on Earth. Thus one proposed series of experiments involved dispatching what was, in effect, an automated microbiological laboratory to sample the Martian soil and judge its suitability to support bacteria, fungi, or other micro-organisms . . . . After a year or so I found myself asking some rather down-to-earth questions, such as, “How can we be sure that the Martian way of life, if any, will reveal itself to tests based on Earth’s life styles . . . [and] “What is life, and how should it be recognized?” . . . Some . . . colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories mistook my growing skepticism for cynical disillusion and quite properly asked, “Well, what would you do instead?” At that time I could only reply vaguely. “I’d look for an entropy reduction, since this must be a general characteristic of all forms of life.”1 (p.1—2)

Lovelock knew, that designing a universal life-detection experiment based on entropy reduction would be somewhat challenging, because no one had successfully defined what life is.  After some time, though, he surmised that life of any kind would require a medium through which it could derive nutrients and energy and expel waste. The medium would need to be fluid, such as water or atmosphere, in order to act as an agent of exchange (“conveyer-belt region”) for food and waste and as an environment of chemical and energy distribution.  He, then, realized “that some of the activity associated with concentrated entropy reduction within a living system might spill over into the conveyer-belt regions and alter their composition.  The atmosphere of a life-bearing planet would thus become recog­nizably different from that of a dead planet.”2 (p.5-6) With this insight, he returned to the Jet Propulsion Laboratories where he was joined by Dian Hitchcock.  Together, they tested Lovelock’s hunch, using Earth as a model.  The results were convincing:

Our results convinced us that the only feasible explanation of the Earth’s highly improbable atmosphere was that it was being manipulated on a day—to—day basis from the surface, and that the manipulator was life itself. The significant decrease in entropy—or, as a chemist would put it, the persistent state of disequilibrium among the atmospheric gases—was on its own clear proof of life’s activity. Take, for example, the simultaneous presence of methane and oxygen in our atmosphere. In sunlight, these two gasses react chemically to give carbon dioxide and water vapor. The rate of this reaction is such that to sustain the amount of methane always present in the air, at least 1,000 million tons of this gas must be introduced into the atmosphere yearly. In addition, there must be some means of replacing the oxygen used up in oxidizing methane and this requires a production of at least twice as much oxygen as methane. The quantities of both of these gases required to keep the Earth’s extraordinary atmospheric mixture constant was improbable on an abiological basis by at least 100 orders of magnitude.3  (p.6—7)

The results of this early test stood against the prevailing model for the generation of Earth’s atmosphere, which was under­stood to be more an end-product of planetary outgassing.  “Oxygen, for example, was thought to come solely from the breakdown of water vapor and the escape of hydrogen into space, leaving an excess of oxygen behind. Life merely borrowed gases from the atmosphere and returned them unchanged.”4 (p.7)   Lovelock knew this view was no longer viable as a scientific explanation for Earth’s atmosphere; instead, he realized that our particular life-sustaining atmosphere was generated and maintained by the biosphere, which he called Gaia (borrowing from the ancient Greek mythological name for our planetary deity).  Over the ensuing years, and after much more experimentation, observation and reflection, he defined Gaia in cybernetic terms with the help of Dian Hitchcock, Sidney Epton, Peter Simmonds, and especially Lynn Margulis:

We have since defined Gaia as a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet. The maintenance of relatively constant conditions by active control may be conveniently described by the term “homeostasis”.5 (p.11)

Lovelock’s reasons for making this hypothesis were these:

Life first appeared on the Earth about 3,500 million years ago. From that time until now, the presence of fossils shows that the Earth’s climate has changed very little. Yet, the output of heat from the sun, the surface properties of the Earth, and the composition of the atmosphere have almost certainly varied greatly over the same period.

The chemical composition of the atmosphere bears no relation to the expectations of steady—state chemical equilibrium. The presence of methane, nitrous oxide, and even nitrogen in our present oxidizing atmosphere represents violation of the rules of chemistry to be measured in tens of orders of magnitude. Disequilibria on this scale suggest that the atmosphere is not merely a biological product, but more probably a biological construction: not living, but like cat’s fur, bird’s feathers, or the paper of a wasp’s nest, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen environment. Thus the atmospheric concentration of gases such as oxygen and ammonia is found to be kept at an optimum value from which even small departures could have disastrous consequences of life.

The climate and the chemical properties of the Earth now and throughout history seem always to have been optimal for life. For this to have happened by chance is as unlikely as to survive unscathed a drive blindfold through rush—hour traffic.6 (p.5—10)

Over the years, Lovelock has buttressed his hypothesis of a cybernetic Earth with several informed and tested observations and experiments, such as his prediction of the presence of the compounds—methyl iodide and dimethyl sulphide—in the atmosphere for the transportation of elements essential to all life—iodine and sulfur.  As well as his discovery of the relationship between the growth of marine algae, their emission of dimethyl sulphide (DMS), and the formation of clouds and climate7 (p.215 – “Soil as Model for the Earth’). The role deep-sea radiolaria (diatoms) plays in keeping the oceans from becoming too salty, as well as the roles earthworms, lichens, and mosses play to help keep atmospheric oxygen at 21% by exposing soil and rock which results in oxidation (consequentially, opening more ground in which to sink carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas).  Of course, one of Lovelock’s most famous models of the Earth’s cybernetic character is Daisy World, wherein a hypothetical planet covered by black, white, and gray daisies is able to keep an ambient optimal temperature merely on the reflective/absorptive qualities (albedo) of the daisies.8 (Ages of Gaia)

All of these examples (and many others) certainly make the case (more or less) for cybernetic activity in the biosphere, but does Lovelock go too far in equating the sum of all these acti­vities (known and unknown) to a homeostatic entity, called Gaia? His critics clearly think so. Connie Barlow, an evolu­tionary biologist, raises the following objection:

There is an awareness that everything known to be self-regulating in the universe is either alive or, like a central heating system with a thermostat, built by something that is alive (Wright 1991). Indeed, self-regulation implies a self. By attributing self-regulation to the biosphere, Gaia proponents have made the biosphere an individual within the hierarchy of life . . .

I am somewhat perplexed by Barlow’s reasoning.  If she were arguing that everything that is self-regulating is alive (or built by something alive), then I would suppose the inverse of this statement is true as well.  Everything alive is self-regulating.  If she were to agree with this statement, then surely it is a simple logical progression to admit that the biosphere is alive.  And granted that, then surely the biosphere is self—regulating. So, why is she so loathe to state the obvious? Is it because, according to her line of reasoning (with which I happen to agree), to do so would confer “self” to the biosphere? Her objection appears more a matter of personal and professional bias than scientific observation.

The heart of most scientists’ (mainly biologists) objection to Gaia is their difficulty in ascribing individuality and homeostasis to an aggregate.  According to them, only indivi­duals can be homeostatic. This line of thinking seems to miss the forest for the trees, because every “individual” is comprised of aggregates—cells, organelles and organs–and is an aggregate of a more comprehensive “indi­vidual”—society–as well.

I think Gregory Bateson, an exceptional scientist, recog­nized and understood this blindness of most biologists and life scientists, and be labored hard throughout his life to correct it.  In chapter four of his work, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, Bateson addresses this problem of defining “self” (which he calls “mind”) through establishing a list of cybernetic criteria by which any aggregate could be measured. He says of this list, “[I]f any aggregate of phenomena, any system, satisfies all the criteria listed. I shall unhesitatingly say that the aggregate is a mind . . .”10 (P.91) His list follows in its entirety, and I think it lays a strong epistemological ground for Lovelock’s Gaia:

I shall argue that the phenomena which we call thought, evolution, ecology, life, learning, and the like occur only in systems that satisfy these criteria. . .

  1. A mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components.
  2. The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a non-substantial phenomenon not located in space or time; difference is related to negentropy rather than to energy.
  3. Mental process requires collateral energy.
  4. Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination.
  5. In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e.- coded version) of events that preceded them. The rules of such transformation must be comparatively stable (i.e.. more stable than the content) but are themselves subject to transformation.
  6. The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical type immanent in the phenomen.11 (p. 92)

So, does Gaia meet these criteria?  1. Is Gaia an aggregate of interacting parts or components? Yes, the biosphere is comprised of myriad life forms that interact with each other and the abiotic environment. 2. Is the interaction between the parts of Gaia triggered by the difference between negentropy and entropy? Yes, the various life forms comprising the biosphere either compete or collaborate to maintain negentropy (survival).  3. Does Gaia require collateral energy? Yes, the biosphere requires solar radiation. 4. Does Gaia require circular (complex) chains of determination?  Yes.  A vast network of homeostatic processes sustains Gaia. 5. In the Gaian process, are the effects of difference regarded as encoded versions of events that preceded them?  Yes, Gaia evolves, and the path of Gaian evolution is encoded geologically, genetically (and morpho­logically), and psychologically (memory/instinct/ learning). 6. Do the description and classification of Gaian processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena? Yes, natural history itself is a description of ever increasing biological and ecological complexity brought about by specific adaptations at various levels of scale that are embedded in a global context.

Gaia is alive, and this awareness of “her” and our rela­tionship to “her” is going to restructure the way we think of ourselves and of life in general. If we are going to understand “her”, then I expect that we shall need explanations different from those that would suffice to explain the character of her constituent parts.  Lovelock has suggested that a meta-life science be developed that would incorporate geology, chemistry, biology, physiology, and ecology.  He calls this new discipline Geophysiology.  The whole is always more than the sum of the parts—out of the sum of the parts something new emerges.

End Notes:

1   Lovelock, J.E.; Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth:OxfordUniversity Press,Oxford.England 1979; Pgs.1-2

2   Ibid; pgs.5—6

3  Ibid; pgs.6—7

4  Ibid; pg.7

5   Ibid; pg.11

6   Ibid; pgs.9—10

7   Lovelock, J.E.; “The soil as a model for the Earth”; Geoderma, 57 (1993) pgs.213—215

8   Lovelock, J.E.; The Ages of Gaia; W.W.Norton & Company,New York,N.Y., 1988

9   Barlow, Connie, et al.; “Gaia and evolutionary biology”; BioScience, Vol. 42 (9), October, 1992; P9.688

10 Bateson, Gregory; Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity; E.P.Dutton,New York,N.Y., 1979; pg.91

11 Ibid; pg.92


Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and Bateson’s guide for identifying consciousness lay down the bedrock for an epistomology that recognizes mind at the aggragate level — the biophere. This view is beautiful in that it promotes a sacred wholeness in our self/world conception, and it inspires people to throw off the old Cartesian split.

The Gaian view inspired James Cameron to portray a union of scientist, renegade warriors and the Na’vi in his story, Avatar, that successfully challenged the destructive threat of a corrupt and dying worldview premised upon dualism. Avatar points to a synthesis of the ancient Animistic worldview with the emerging quantum worldview that sees consciousness as a phenomenon of life and the Cosmos itself.  Cameron’s work is only one spectacular example of how a deep ecopsychology is taking root in the hearts and minds of people around the globe.

The Gaian/ecopsychological worldview is already bringing about revolution in the real world as alliances are made between indigenous people, cultural renegades, activists, educators, artists, politicians, business leaders, environmentalists, scientists, journalists, students, and a host of others in service to a way of life that seeks to bless rather than destroy. With the establishment of Earthday and the international growth of the environmental ethic, the shift from Cartesian dualism to a worldview of Nature as embodied mind is underway. The Gaian hypothesis is becoming the new explanatory myth of wholeness, and ecopsychology is becoming the new epistomology the world needs to get us to the promised land of a green and sustainable future, where the voices of all living things are respected as self in the body politic.

This entry was posted in Animism, Consciousness, Deep Ecology, Ecology, Ecopsychology, Philosophy, Re-Enchantment of Nature, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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