Gaia is dead and we have killed her

God is dead and we have killed him

Gaia is dead and we have killed her

Eorlif[1] is still alive, but we must relife herm.

………………………………………………….

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who, in a now famous aphorism, proclaimed:

God is dead … and we have killed him

(The Gay Science, 1882 book 3 125 page 181, 1974 edition).

As an atheist, presumably Nietzsche meant that humans had invented God to give authority and coherence to a moral world view. Once that world view was replaced by science (e.g., evolution) and rationality, God was no longer needed and could be metaphorically killed-off.[2] This remains true even if some people continue to go to Church and pray: they are the ghosts of God.

A new moral order had to be invented and that was one important part of the Enlightenment project. In the tradition that later became a strand of existentialism, the elimination of God presented human nature as a blank slate waiting to be filled-in, brutally summarised as ‘existence precedes essence’.

Animism

Prior to the invention of the God of the Abrahamic religions, there were animistic belief systems held by indigenous people the world over. In these circumstances, animism can be understood as meaning that all things are alive, that a life-spirit can exist independently of material bodies and that such a spirit is present in the whole cosmos-universe. Humans were connected to all other objects and beings by virtue of sharing a common life.

The word ‘animism’ comes from the Latin anima, meaning soul and has Indo-European roots in ‘anə’, to breathe or to have breath. In animistic belief systems, the breath of life is in everything.

 As scholars of animism have argued, such belief systems bring humans and nature together in an intimate relationship. The loss of such animistic beliefs severs that intimacy. Carl Jung understood this relationship better than most:

As scientific understanding has grown, so our world has become dehumanised. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional “unconscious identity” with natural phenomena. These have slowly lost their symbolic implications. Thunder is no longer the voice of an angry god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree is the life principle of a man, no snake the embodiment of wisdom, no mountain cave the home of a great demon. No voices now speak to man from stones, plants, and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear. His contact with nature has gone, and with it has gone the profound emotional energy that this symbolic connection supplied. (Jung 1964, 95).

As the animistic cultures of the world have been usurped by aggressive colonisation, Christian conversionism, enlightenment science and commercial materialism, this view as the Earth being ‘alive’ has been desolated as the cultures that supported it in language and knowledge were colonised and disrupted. There are now hardly any indigenous cultures left substantially ‘intact’ anywhere on Earth. They have been ‘corrupted’ in the true sense of the word and the endemic parts of the world that were once their animistic ‘homes’ are being ‘developed’ in myriad ways.

While, as scholars of ‘sacred’ ecology such as Fikret Berkes have argued, there is still space for “creative hybrid cultures” (2008:252) to emerge, by and large, traditional cultures find it difficult to escape from the powerful influence of western science/technology and its anti-animistic, scientific, reductionist, technological and managerialist practices. The new world is now under the powerful attractor of ‘development’ with forcings such as global anthropogenic climate change and its global change model (rapacious capitalism). The Earth is being ruined by corrumpalism.

Despite this full-frontal assault, many indigenous cultures and their people still retain elements of their ‘traditional’ beliefs and knowledge and are doing their best to re-learn and revive their own cultural knowledge. As humans lose the biodiversity of the Earth and engineer the conditions where their own species is at risk of endangerment (climate chaos) there has been a noticeable revival of animistic belief systems. This revival has been driven, in no small part, by indigenous people and their communities wanting to re-establish a separation of their own traditional and sustainable systems of belief and those of an ecocidal, and, at times, genocidal, global colonial culture.

The belated realisation of the value of indigenous knowledge in the minds of many non-indigenous people has also seen emergent hybrid land/environment management systems established in places where cooperation between ‘old’ culture and ‘new’ science is both desirable and possible (Berkes 2008).

However, in a time of pervasive change to the world, it could be asking too much of Indigenous peoples to save their world and the world of non-indigenous people by using the knowledge found within the wisdom of elders’ animistic beliefs.

Sensing the need for a revival of animism, modern writers such as Amitav Ghosh, have very optimistically suggested that individual humans can re-animate a dying Earth. He argues;

The planet will never come alive for you unless your songs and stories give life to all beings, seen and unseen, that inhabit a living Earth – Gaia (Ghosh 2022 p. 84).

If indigenous cultures are struggling to revive past animistic beliefs and arrest what Gosh has accurately called the ‘great derangement’ generated by globalised development, I fear that such an appeal to billions of contemporary, cosmopolitan humans without indigenous ties could be seen as ‘hopium’.  

In addition to new ‘forcings’ such as climate warming, there is the compounding issue of nature deficit disorder (Louv 2008), environmental generational amnesia (Kahn 1999) and ecoagnosy (Albrecht 2019). What these conditions signify is the ongoing alienation of each generation from all past baselines of relationships with nature. This applies to animism as well. As each generation is exposed to diminishing nature, less education and socialisation that has animistic connotations, the ‘breath of life’ is strangled.

In the so-called ‘developed world’ our children often live within a fictional animistic world when young, but by the time they come of age, it has all been beaten out of them. No fairies at the bottom of the garden. As Roszak has argued:

For ecopsychology, as for other therapies, the crucial stage of development is the life of the child. The ecological unconscious is regenerated, as if it were a gift, in the newborn’s enchanted sense of the world. Ecopsychology seeks to recover the child’s innately animistic quality of experience in functionally “sane” adults. (Roszak 1993:320).

The big question now becomes, how do we get alienated adult humans to reconnect with life in ways that will bring forth neo-animistic relationships that take us out of the Anthropocene and help us enter the Symbiocene, a new era where all humans re-integrate with life?

The Earth renamed as ‘Gaia’.  

There is a contemporary form of animism that has come to us through systems science in the form of Gaian theory (Lovelock 1991, 1988). Gaia is the name given to the Earth as a living organism by James Lovelock (via the novelist William Golding). Gaia, in Greek mythology was the ancestral mother of all life on Earth. 

The ancient idea that the Earth is, or is like, a living organism, has been presented anew but from within systems science and neoanimism. As I wrote in ‘Earth Emotions’; “for those who see the Earth as alive, the Gaian world view is more than a materialist, scientific explanation of the way the world works, its animism also gives us a spiritual dimension to life”. (See also: Ruether 1992, Harding 2006).

When Lovelock writes books with titles such as ‘The Revenge of Gaia’ (2006), we are taken back into an animistic world view that attributes human emotional states to the state of the Earth and ‘its’ feelings. Lovelock himself encourages such a view:

We now see that the great Earth system, Gaia, behaves like the other mythic goddesses, Khali and Nemesis; she acts as a mother who is nurturing but ruthlessly cruel towards transgressors, even when they are her progeny. (2006:188)

It then becomes difficult to reconcile the many faces of Gaia. As a super organism (the whole Earth as alive) with intentionality (keeping homeostasis) one would expect that humans, as but one aspect of life, would not be able to get to the point of committing, ecocide (regional) or tierracide (planetary).

Gaia, in the interests of life in general and its ‘harmony’ should have ‘balanced’ us long before now. The very idea that Gaia is a self-regulating super organism is not supported by scientific evidence.

Such a conclusion is reinforced by one of the co- founders of the Gaia hypothesis. Lynn Margulis, contra Lovelock, has argued:

In popular culture, insofar as the term is at all familiar, it refers to the notion of Mother Earth as a single organism. Gaia, a living goddess beyond human knowledge, will supposedly punish or reward us for our environmental insults or blessings to her body. I regret this personification. (Margulis 1998:118)

That Gaia is perceived as female (she) only adds to the confusion. In an inversion of the Biblical patriarchy where all human life originates from the absurdity of Adam’s rib, the Gaian matriarchy has all life emanating from the parthenogenic, primordial female.

The concept of ‘Mother Earth’ as Gaia is ancient, yet it might be just as alienating for men as ‘God the father’ is for women. As argued by feminist scholars such as Carolyn Merchant, the ‘mother nature’ or ‘mother earth’ concepts were ambiguous and could not only be used as the foundation of a moral constraint against rapacious male practices, but also used to condone or support such practices as mining, because the female was seen as a mere mechanism and could be exploited with impunity by ‘superior’ male rationality, manifest in extractive technology and machinery (see Ruether 1975 and Merchant 1980: 1-41).

In the Lovelockian intentional theory version, innocent Earthlings are being wiped out (extinction) while Gaia decides when she will be ruthlessly cruel to all humans (innocent and guilty) for creating this mess. The God of floods in the Old Testament was more decisive than this! ‘Waiting for Gaia’ to punish us has its correlates in the vengeful male Christian God (post Eden and the Flood) and the unending existential dread of waiting for Godot (Beckett 1953).

There are many who would wish that this state of affairs be arrested and for Gaia to return to health without the need for human intervention.  Big picture systems theorists might see major intervention in the climate issue with geoengineering as a form of ‘planetary medicine’ (Lovelock 1991). However, we do not know enough about big systems management for the Earth as yet, and our efforts to intervene just might make matters worse than they are now.

In addition to Gaia failing to self-regulate, there is the issue of just how far can we take the Gaia ‘hypothesis’ seriously? A hard-headed materialist will tell you that the Earth is the 3rd rock from the sun with a thin skin of life on its surface then below that is 6,437 kilometres deep of mostly molten hot rock in the inner and outer core, reaching temperatures of approximately 3,700 degrees Celsius in the centre.

While recent science has found that there is a deep earth microbiome, about as deep as it gets is 10 kilometres from the surface. The most extreme thermophile bacteria, living at the vents of deep undersea volcanoes, can live at temperatures close to 120c. That means there is over 6,000 kilometres to the centre of the Earth that is lifeless. There is no life in the inner or outer core of the Earth. It is too hot even for Gaia! The deep Earth is dead.

Lovelock (1991) anticipated this possible conclusion by suggesting that we need to think about the ontology of a large tree such as a Redwood. Most of it (97%) is dead tissue (old bark and dead wood) so the Earth might be thought of as lifelike and ‘treelike’ (Lovelock 1991: 31-33). However, the dead mass of a Redwood tree is made from once living tissue; the molten core of the Earth has never been alive. It is a false analogy. Gaia is not a living organism.

Indeed, it could be argued that one of the most significant features of life is that it has its origins in non-life, quite possibly from beyond this solar system, and continues to use non-life to maintain itself in symbiotic associations with other life forms. The classic example of this association is the symbiosis between plants and fungi. Hard to find and extract essential-to-life elements such as phosphorous are obtained for plants via fungal mycorrhizae and their filamentous tip, the mycelium. In return, plants give the fungi sugar energy. Plants exploit the non-living Earth to build life. Animals exploit plants and other animals to build theirs.

An indigenous critic of Gaia theory might also see a form of neo-colonialism where grand-scale systems replace the animistic views of people ‘in place’. Harmony between people and place is not a matter of abstract ‘systems’ agency at planetary level, it is human action at specific locations on Earth with their own endemic characteristics. Harmony and homeostasis between humans and nature are achieved on a daily basis in unique locations by specific acts of culturally reinforced respect, animism, spirituality, repair, maintenance, exploitation and management. This harmony is constantly fine-tuned by thousands of generations of actively learning humans. Grand-scale systems and humans living-in-place with their own intentions are not compatible conceptual spaces.

The late James Lovelock[3] has gifted us a rich hypothesis and it will live on as earth systems theory and with the idea of planetary boundaries. However, due to its colonialist, patriarchal and pseudo-scientific foundations, in the spirit of Nietzsche, I make the bold claim that:

 Gaia is dead and we have killed her.

What this means is that Gaia, like God, is yet another human creation that is now functionally extinct. People might still worship at the altar of the idea, but ‘it’ no longer has sway over the future of this planet.

Relifing the Earth

What is in a name? What is in sex?

It is time to acknowledge that the word, ‘Earth’[4], is a good one for a planet that is both living and non-living (dead).

We now have a dilemma, no god, no gaia. We cannot even use ‘gaia’ as the name for that part of the Earth that is alive as its ‘problems’, outlined above, preclude its legitimate application.

There is no doubt that humans are now in a genuine crisis, one that has emerged from what is commonly called the period in history known as the Anthropocene. The period of human dominance over all other forces on this planet have not only put biodiversity into retreat, it has put the diversity of human cultures, their languages and their animism into retreat.

To reverse this decline into total tierracide, I have proposed the Symbiocene, a period in the near future where humans reintegrate with life. In what follows, I shall argue that such reintegration will also offer the possibility of a new form of animism for non-indigenous people.

In proposing this new animism, I feel it is necessary to forward two radical things, a new name for the living part of the Earth, and a new gender, one suitable for the sexual diversity of the fecundity of life.

As alluded to above, there have also been major problems in the past in identifying nature with either the exclusively male or female sex/gender. The identification of nature, the Earth, nature or Gaia as female not only opens one avenue of exploitation of the female, it opens another that alienates the male from the generative. Both binaries have excluded non-specific genders.

The exclusionary gender divides continue within contemporary symbiotic theory. Susan Simard’s notion of ‘Mother Trees’ as nurturing females is compelling; however, it is not biologically sound. Trees, especially angiosperms, have a bewildering array of sexual diversity in their reproduction strategies. Ian Ramjohn provides us with a useful summary of the sex life of plants:

The demarcations of human sexuality have become a major issue in the culture wars, but for plants, sexual diversity is the norm. There are plants with “perfect” flowers that are completely hermaphroditic, with fully functional pollen and eggs produced in the same flower. There are monoecious plants, which produce both male and female flowers. There are dioecous species, with individuals that only produce male or female flowers. And then things start to get complicated. Gynodioecy is the phenomenon in some plant species in which individuals are either female or hermaphroditic. (Ramjohn 2017).

Herm?

Either we get rid of all sex-gender pronouns for nature and the earth or we come up with a new one that is inclusive of all. Given the diverse forms of sexuality in plants and many other life forms[5], I shall take them as a guide to champion inclusivity.

The gender word, ‘herm’ is derived from a shortening of the word ‘hermaphrodite’, understood as a biological term to describe a living being that has both male and female reproductive organs and characteristics[6]. However, more generally it also can describe a person or living thing in which two opposite forces or qualities are juxtaposed. A ‘herm’ can also refer to a male version of an ancient Greek stone sculpture with only a head and a penis.

The very idea of a hermaphrodite has its origins in Greek myth where Hermes (male god) and Aphrodite (female goddess) produced a son, Hermaphroditus, who united with the nymph Salmacis to form a single united body, one with both male and female characteristics, hence, a hermaphrodite.

As the Greek myth is somewhat confusing, I wish to de-biologise, de-patricise, de-penis and de-nympho all past forms of hermaphrodite and create a new form, the interplay and transitions of male and female, but with everything in between these so-called norms. In varying degrees, all humans are herms no matter what gender they wish to claim as their own.

Eorlif is still alive, but we must relife herm.

Eorlif is my suggested name for the living part of the Earth. It is derived from Old English ‘eorthe’ (Earth) and Old English līf (life), hence, earth-life. The rationale for such a name is to acknowledge the special status of life in what appears to be an otherwise lifeless cosmos. Maybe, to ascribe living status to the whole of the cosmos, is to denigrate the uniqueness of life here on this skin of the Earth.

In Earth Emotions (2019), I argued that Anthropocene ‘dysbiosis’ must be replaced in a new social order, as indicated above, the Symbiocene. In this new social order, humans will be re-united and re-integrated with the life and living processes left on this damaged planet. Dysbiosis (dissociation) is sickness and premature death, symbiosis (association) is health and a good life.

Our material human world has become a lifeless technological support system using inanimate raw material extraction that destroys life (biocide) and by taking living beings and turning them into dead objects (trees into furniture and houses, animals into meat). Plus, we have plenty of thana-objects that directly or indirectly kill living things (wind turbines, cars).

The Re-placement Economy

We cannot do this for everything, but how about we put life back into our technologies and hybrid cultures? How can we reanimate the artefacts of the human constructed material world? Can non-indigenous people re-animate their world? Can we do this at local and regional levels and avoid the globalised Titanism and metastasizing homogeneity of the Anthropocene?

Our non-indigenous human world becomes animistic by taking life from nature and putting it back into human affairs. In this way, we demonstrate relifing[7] as a scientific and ethical imperative driving technological change.

The use of symbiotic science to return life into the substances we use, the technologies we use and the production of materials and energy, becomes the foundation of our economies. There has to be a biocoalescence[8] of life with the materials and technology that humans use to build the Symbiocene. Artefacts become sumbiofacts. We build the Symbiocene via a ‘re-placement economy’.

Pioneering examples of biocoalescence include fungi as bricks, microbes for food, microbes for energy, algae for energy, algae for fertilizers, mushrooms for packaging. This is more than biomimicry, it is the incorporation of life, by symbiomimicry and biocoalescence, into our future material and technological world.

Via symbiomimicry, we engender a new respect to life as it becomes intimate/close to our human life and home. In order to keep things alive, you have to look after, or nourish them (sumbalere[9]). This is more than caring for pets, it instils care for all life because it enables humans of all ages to directly experience vitality and sustain themselves.

When finished with biocoalescent technologies and products, we simply return them to the cycles of life where they become the food or compost for more generations of life! We will be able to eat our utensils after a protein meal produced from our domestic microbes. We feed our biolights to keep them shining. Some of that energy needed to keep the lights on might even come from our own bodily waste as feces and urine. In the Symbiocene, non-indigenous humans bring their lives closer to those of Indigenous humans who still hold traditional animistic beliefs. Symbolic animism is supported by symbiotic animism.

Eorlif is a name for that part of the Earth that is alive. That name might be genderless, but if it does have a gender, it is a herm! Here, in Eorlif as a herm, there is an end to the gender/biology wars, the end of his-story and even her-story.

Hermstory commences with the re-animism of the Symbiocene. It is here that in addition to biocoalescent technologies and materials, new cultural forms of animism can take place. New songs, new dances, new stories and poems will replace the alienation of the Anthropocene. When humans are able to reconnect to the past and create new forms of caring for place, re-animating and re-lifing become an Earth obbligato by all humans in Eorlif’s symphony.

God is dead and we have killed him

Gaia is dead and we have killed her

Eorlif is still alive, but we must relife herm.


[1] Pronounced ‘awelif’

[2] One of my favourite moments when at university in Western Australia in the early 70s, was discovering a pair of aphorisms on the toilet wall in the Arts Building. The first was “God is dead” (Nietzsche), while the second, and directly underneath, was “Nietzsche is dead” (God).

[3] James Lovelock died on the 26th July 2022 on his 103rd birthday. His life’s work greatly influenced my own and his neo-organicism was, in part, the inspiration for my PhD thesis on Organicism.

[4] From The Free Dictionary: Middle English erthe, from Old English eorthe; see er- in Indo-European roots.] er-Earth, ground. Extended form *ert-. a. earth from Old English eorthe, earth; b. aardvark, aardwolf from Middle Dutch aerdeeerde, earth. Both a and b from Germanic *erthō.

[5] Included, for example, are; Amoebas, Anemones, Corals, Echinoderms, Flat worms, Fresh water hydras, Limpets, Salmon, Sea dancers, Sea sponges, Slugs, Snails, Trematodes.

[6] Mammals are not hermaphrodites, but all humans vary greatly in the levels of sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. In other words, male, female and LGBTQ+ humans share common sex hormones.

[7] Re-lifing means to put life into formerly inanimate objects or to replace inanimate extractivism with animate re-lifing. To convert from non-life to life in what can be called, the ‘Re-placement Economy’.

[8] From bio = life and from Latin coalēscere from co- + alēscere to merge and increase, and from alere to nourish.

[9] From sumbios (together) and alere (to nourish).

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