Animate Earth: An interview with Stephan Harding

As part of our [email protected] on Earth interview series on the invisible impacts of digital technology, Stephan Harding, Head of Holistic Science at Schumacher College, discusses Gaia Theory, Nature reconnection and why we must learn to see our planet’s rocks and minerals as having inherent value in the Earth System.  

Dr Stephan Harding leads a ‘Deep Time Walk’ at Schumacher College, UK. Photo via Good Factory.

Tell us a bit about Gaia Theory. What is it?

Gaia Theory was put forward by the British scientist James Lovelock in the late 1960s. Lovelock’s idea is that the earth is a great self-regulating system. It’s able to regulate its climate, the distribution of key elements around the Earth and the acidity of the Earth, all of which are important parameters, particularly for life.

Lovelock says that this self-regulation emerges from complex interactions and feedback between all the living beings on the planet and the rocks, the atmosphere and the water. When the rocks, atmosphere, water and living beings interact through tightly coupled feedbacks, there is an emergent property- the emergent property of the whole Earth system, or Gaia as he called it, to maintain habitable conditions over geological time.

Is it just a scientific theory?

No. The importance difference between a scientific and a mythological view here, is that we must really feel that Gaia is alive- a great mysterious, animate being. We must understand that Gaia has purpose and that all the evolution that has happened up to this point is about something. That it is not just chance or blind natural selection, but that there is something deeply teleological, meaningful and purposeful about what is happening on the Earth and that human consciousness is an essential part of that story. To develop a Gaian consciousness is to align oneself with the deep, mysterious intention that the Earth herself is manifesting.

There are pre-industrial peoples who for millennia have had this insight of the living Earth very similar to Gaia Theory. For them the forest is totally alive. It has a vast intelligence that they can consult shamanically to find out what’s happening in the forest- where they can hunt, where they can’t hunt- not through science as we would do it, but through an intuitive connection. The forest is alive, full of meaning.

Different peoples have used different words for this being. One of the most famous words from South America is Pachamama, which is the same archetypal image of a living mother goddess, that in the West we call Gaia. For the ancient Greeks, Gaia was the Mother Goddess, Mother of All. She is the soul of the world rolled into the earthly sphere of our planet.

Gaia represents the energy that brings forth life and takes life back. From an indigenous point of view, She has incredible intelligence, consciousness and is full of intention. She can be fierce to those who disobey her rules and kind to those who obey her. Death and destruction are part of her creative process.

 

If we see our planet as a living super-organism, what kind of consciousness does the lithosphere- the realm of rocks and minerals that are less obviously ‘alive’ than animals or plants- have?

One way of thinking about it is that our consciousness is intimately connected to the lithosphere, because our bodies are made of it, at least partially. Because, after all, we are partly made up of lithosphere – carbon, oxygen, nitrogen… The question is what kind of consciousness the lithosphere has? Well here I’d probably like to leave science behind.

When you’re in the presence of, let’s say, a great red gorge of rocks– as I have been in the Outback – there seems to be something much more going on there in terms of consciousness. Those rocks where I was in Western Australia, they’re 3,500 million years old. And they’ve been part of the very ancient times of the planet and they’re very old and quiet.

Their consciousness is very mysterious… I think it’s something to do with the deep soul and memory of Gaia and of nature. In that sense the rocks have a deeper consciousness than ours – in which our little consciousness is immersed. So you could say that the whole Earth is a great consciousness. It’s not outside us; we’re inside it.

 

If the lithosphere is, as you say, ensouled and holds inherent value as part of the Earth System, how should we change the way we relate to this underground realm? 

If we develop this Gaian consciousness it must surely lead us to consider whether minerals including oil, coal and other fossil fuels, have rights- including the right to stay in the ground. They are not sentient and conscious as we are, but we can think of them as having a sentience because they are made of atoms, because they are matter.

From the point of view of mainstream culture this seems totally mad. But it is the mainstream culture that’s totally mad for not considering this. The western madness of anthropocentrism, of not believing, for example, that minerals have rights, is one of the things that has led us into this horrendous climate change crisis, this horrendous social crisis. It’s this point of view that is madness.

It is sane to believe that minerals have the right to stay in the ground. It is sane to converse with them and ask whether we can extract them, if we must, and how to do this with minimum harm.

 

Digital technologies are made up of minerals and metals destructively stripped from the Earth. Do you think they are playing a role in disconnecting us from our living planet and our greater selves?

In my own experience it’s definitely disconnecting. It has this power to suck you in. But like everything it will have a dark side and a light side. And the dark side is very powerful and overwhelming. But that’s not to say that there won’t be cases where it can be extremely beneficial.

For example, in the Colombian Amazon Martin Von Hildebrand introduced (digital) technology to young Amazonian indigenous people who were not interested in their ancient culture. He gave them computers and cameras and encouraged them to interview the old folks about the traditional culture. And through that they fell in love with their own culture, they rediscovered it, and they can share it with the whole world. So that’s an extremely good use of the technology.

I think it’s a question of habituation to an extent. Everyone sees trees, rocks, feels the air. And after a while, people just take those things for granted. Whereas with technology, there’s so much novelty there. You can go anywhere you want. And so in a sense, the technology habituates you to it, by de-habituating you to the lack of novelty (in the real world). I think, in order to de-habituate ourselves and be able to see nature, requires a lot of discipline and self-awareness to notice what’s happening to you when you are engaging with the technology.

 

In your life, how have you tried to cultivate that self-discipline?

 It’s a very common practice to have what’s known as a sit spot, or as I call it, the Gaia spot. I’ve had the same Gaia spot for 27 years.That’s to say, a space near your house, and it could be in your garden, but inside nature, where you go regularly and just sit and just watch and just be in it.

Just being aware of a place as it changes through the seasons over a period of time, many years hopefully, so you develop a deep relationship with that place. The place then becomes a wider personality with which you are relating and in which you are an integral part.

It stimulates your imagination. I remember when I was a boy, I wrote this little poem which was:

‘Imagination used to be the King, Until Television became the thing’

Our culture is excellent at disconnecting and making nature seem as if it’s something outside. But actually it’s not; it’s inside. It’s all a great inside.

 

 How do you think we should re-imagine technology for the great transition to the ‘Ecozoic Era’?

 All the technology would be in service of increasing the sense of being within. Then, we’d have technology but we’d be able to use it more carefully.

For example, I helped to develop an app called the Deep Time Walk app, which takes you on a 4.6 km journey wherever you are representing 4.6 billion years, which is the age of the Earth.

And as you walk you hear some characters describing what was happening at various points. You know, the collision with the moon right at the beginning, and the first bacteria etc. When I use it, it helps me feel more inside the Earth.

It’s not technology that’s the problem; it’s our lack of wisdom. So the question becomes ‘how do we cultivate wisdom’?

Now more than ever, we need to develop what we could call a ‘Gaian Consciousness’. That is to say a consciousness that primarily creates an awareness that we are embedded in a much larger body the size of a planet, upon which we are totally dependant but can effect to a very large extent.


Stephan Harding is Head of Holistic Science at Schumacher College. He has a background in ecology and natural sciences, having completed his doctorate at Oxford and worked for the Smithsonian Institute in Venezuela.