Monday, June 27, 2011

An Anthropological Perspective on the Gaian Perspective

I have been working on a review of two books written from the perspective of the Gaia hypothesis: one was a collection of the most recent Gaian science ("Gaia in Turmoil," Eileen Crist & Bruce Rinker, eds.) and a futurologist's polemic on what to we need to do in the climate crisis ("Requiem for a Species," Clive Hamilton). I found serious problems in their perspective, and wrote about them in my review. However, that resulted in a review that was too long for the journal it is to be published in - it's possible we'll have to cut it. But I found the assumptions these authors made about "pre-modern" people interesting and want to explore it more. I thought I'd publish the final 1/3rd of the review essay here. Has the Gaia hypothesis been useful in anthropology? Share!

While the Gaia hypothesis has been useful in clarifying ways we think about the interlinkages among complex adaptive systems, much of it remains in 1960s systems theory – the teleology, the linking of everything to everything, the inability to specify mechanisms for some of these relationships (and especially for a superorgasmic Earth with emergent consciousness). In particular, as an anthropologist, I find the models and visions for the future presented by these authors highly culture-bound. They show no understanding of the dynamics of human institutions or of the time scale of the existence of Homo sapiens, leading to a variety of contradictions and incoherencies.

Ethnocentrism is the judgment of other people by one’s own standards, imagining others as simply the opposite of ‘us.’ Hamilton, in particular seems to see the world in terms of a in a Levi-Straussian hot/cold dichotomy. Cold societies are those that are “outside of history,” retaining mythic modes of thinking. We are modern, the ones who change, progress, advance. It is a binary opposition – modern (the growth fetish, consumerism) vs. “pre-modern” (archaic, loving the Earth). These futurologists telescope the past with current adaptations; those without complex technology or bureaucracies are “archaic” and, in this dichotomy, the solution to what ails us today. This is romanticized ethnocentrism – the primitives or people of yore universally lived in harmony with the Earth, had an Earth Ethic, a love of Gaia (or, as Hamilton suggests in his big finish, a sky/climate god, pp. 219-221).

The species Homo has been around for about 2.5 million years, but these authors lump together all of the ‘pre-modern’ societies despite the range of variety in political economies from foraging bands to pre-industrial states. Hamilton pays lip-service to the ways in which our desires arise out of the consumer/commodity culture of the west, but all of these authors in fact have limited and shallow understanding of the dynamics of social formations. As a result, their suggestions for transforming the currently dominant political economy are preposterous. Many of the authors call for ‘radical democracy.’ Yet democracy is a form of political organization found in states, and by their very nature states have political elites. If our inability to address climate change is due to the vested interests of elites, then democracy might not actually resolve anything. Human history – the whole of human history, not just ancient civilizations from 3000 years ago – shows us that increased population density is closely associated with ever more complex political formations and increasingly more intensive forms of food-production. Hamilton, to his credit, specifically notes the huge numbers of poor and vulnerable around the world who are most likely to suffer in the climate crisis, but his solutions read like New Age middle-class elitism – we should all cultivate a Buddhist mind, for instance. Having lived in Buddhist societies, I can assure Mr. Hamilton that all Buddhists are not, in fact, in gentle harmony with the Earth and all of its living creatures. Like so many other religious forms, how it is practiced depends on the total configuration of political, economic and social structures, as well as cultural meaning, of the system within which people live. All of the authors in these books assert a desire to save ‘human civilization,’ but how precisely can this happen at current population densities? Consumption is not just about individual use of natural resources, but state use as well. This includes state consumption for infrastructure – hospitals, schools, roads, and libraries, for instance. Some seem unaware of the reality of the great divide in access to resources. Foresman’s Earth Operating System fails to notice that his imagined democracy will accrue to the elite (us) who have access to computers. For the poor, spatially-enabled technology can become yet another form of control by government elites, as I have noted in my study of the uses of GIS in northern Thailand. Along with the assumption of an intentional Earth, there is a pervasive sense that human systems are also purpose-driven; the implication is that we can decide to change the social systems of all people on the planet, and it will happen. Statements by these authors that Gaian thinking will be helpful in rethinking human systems (e.g., Litfin, p. 207) are manifestly untrue.

Another key theme in these assessments of the success of ecosystems and species is sustainability. This, too, this leads to logical consistencies. Microbes in a modeled flask (Lenton and William) or soil arthropods (Rinker) are judged as successful because they have ‘enhanced’ their environments for their own long-term success (see also Harding and Margulis). By these standards, humans are a successful species. The rules of nature must also apply to humans as a biological species. We are successful, and we have been successful by cooperation; we survive by living in social groups and creating meaning; we have altered our environment to suit our needs. The difference is that humans have, in the Gaian perspective, destroyed or perturbed their environment past recovery. It is a matter of sustainability. However, by what time scale do we judge sustainability? Is two and a half million years of a species an evolutionary failure?

Neither can we assume that all systems of co-evolution will match together perfectly through time. The Gaian perspective does not account for shifts, change, and open systems; it implies that each ecological community is an organism in and of itself and worthy of saving in that form and no other. The time frame by which Gaians assess the human species is a very short one, as well as ethnocentric (the three key historical points mentioned are the last 40 years, the Industrial Revolution, or ancient Greece). Yet the story of the evolution of life I teach in anthropology courses tells us about profound change and great diversity in adaptations. The Gaian perspective analytically separates humans from nature, applying the standards of judging success differently for the human and other species, possibly because of the blind spot in their perspective for the full time scale and diversity of human life around the planet. Their negative tone toward the evolutionary success of the human species is, in part, based on their perception that humans are destroying the environment for other species – counter to their argument that diverse cooperating species create a successful ecosystem – but this then shifts the discussion back to altruism. Therefore, despite their arguments, inter-species altruism is indeed a core element of the Gaian model of life.

Despite Hamilton’s and others’ points about how the culture of rationalistic science has bounded understanding of holistic linkages in ecosystems, they fail to understand that all humans live within cultural systems of meaning and social relations that create the parameters of a ‘known’ universe. They do not see that their own individualism is culturally-constructed. Hamilton, Thomashow, and others set out from individual psychology (including attribution of motivation to climate deniers) to understand human relationships with the environment (most commonly citing works from journals such as Journal of Environmental Psychology), but they are unable to make the linkages between individuals and the social systems in which they live. Foragers such as the !Kung San or the Mbuti have strong community identities because community identity is produced by specific social relations, rights, and obligations to each other. Imagining a future means we need to comprehensively understand how humans live. When Hamilton says the climate crisis is not the ‘fault’ of individuals, and that individual choices will not change the coming crisis, but then argues that the solution is a change in personal attitude toward humility, compassion, and selflessness, his argument is contradictory.

Finally, these authors argue that the Gaia hypothesis provides us with a powerful metaphor (see, for instance, Volk, who is otherwise quite critical of Gaia for science) that will help us to avert the looming climate crisis by personalizing our relationship with the biosphere. This personification, they say, is a useful metaphor for learning to respect the earth, to take better care of it, to be humble about our place in it and the limits to our consumption. Is this a valid statement?

We all use metaphors – that’s what language and modeling are. To say that science is rooted in metaphor is not to question the validity of science. It is a matter, however, of recognizing that metaphors not only make a positive model (what things are) but also blind us to assumptions and possibilities (Lakoff and Johnson 2003). However, as scientists, we need to constantly question these, just as we verify our results. Our goal is, ultimately, to come to a greater verisimilitude with the world. Metaphors are useful in this; they can also be a hindrance if the metaphor does not fit with the phenomena we seek to explain. This makes the Gaia metaphor is invalid and even dangerous. The metaphor places humans outside of nature, while making a super-organism out of the Earth as a whole. Gaians have performed a reversal of a dichotomy inherently built into their model, as if they can only envision a vague, utopian opposite in which we are all subject to a new moral ontology, similar to what they imagine “pre-modern” people to have had. The metaphor also leads scientists to assert that Gaia has consciousness and intentionality. In so doing, these thinkers are trapped by the individualism of Western social life. This is the Animate Fallacy, the inability to perceive communities outside of an (implicitly) intentional life force of the superorganism itself. Ironically, these authors in fact extensively demonstrate that they are people of their own cultural system, the western culture of individualism, in their obsessive focus on Gaia as a living entity.

Ultimately, what do we need Gaia Theory for? Clearly, Gaian influenced science has come a long way, e.g., the forest and water studies, the study of nutrient and carbon flows. The Gaia hypothesis inspires us to love and respect the wonderful processes that created this living planet. And an amazing thing Earth is, indeed, as are the processes of life and multiple levels of complex adaptive systems. But I do not need to think Gaia is a living presence to be overwhelmed with the wonder of the web of life and feel a heightened sense of despair and outrage over what humans have done to the planet.


Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (2003). Metaphors We Live By, second edition. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.


Editor B said...

I know this post is a couple years old but I have to ask — did you really mean "superorgasmic" or should that be superorganismic? A couple letters makes a big difference here!

Kate G said...

Yes, the authors really, truly, do use that. In anthropology and sociology, we're more likely to use Super-Organic. It led to lots of giggling jokes when I was an undergraduate.