If you had to name the most powerful force in the universe, what would it be?
I imagine most people would answer something like “hydrogen fusion” (sun), black holes, or some such elementary energy. Maybe some of you said “life” or “love.”
Arguments can be made for any of these. But what about something that we cannot even see or measure, and yet shapes our entire existence?
What about consciousness?
This vital force is also one of the most mysterious forces in all the universe, one that confounds all of science, really. Because while it is accurate to say that consciousness is “correlated” with brain activity, giving rise to the field of neurology, science has never actually been able to solve the conscious paradox: how does something that is as immaterial and ethereal as consciousness arise from something as mundane and material as matter itself, whether in chemical or electrical form?
Electro-chemical impulses in the brain, after all, are just atoms, molecules, and free electrons. It’s a fundamental law of logic and science that like arises from like, and not from unlike. It follows, then, that science has never been able to approve that blood comes from rocks, or immaterial phenomenon arise from matter. Matter produces particles.
Our miraculous bodies, as an example, arise from an ovum in the first instance – though we should be mindful that at the moment of conception, there is a flash of light that emanates from that ovuum. If body and brain arises from ovuum, then perhaps mind arises from light? That would make more logical sense than the still unsubstantiated proposition that our mind arises from the grey matter of our brain. But even light is comprised of photons. So the paradox remains.
To say that consciousness is correlated with brain activity is like saying Netflix is correlated with activity on our HDTV screens. Does that mean that Netflix is an emergent property of my HDTV, or that its movies can be located somewhere inside our video consoles?
Physicist and science philosopher B. Alan Wallace answers this question succinctly:
“[C]onsciousness is not physical or physically detectable, and its alleged emergence from chemical and electromagnetic activity in the brain… is not comprehensible in terms of the laws of physics… Consciousness no more resides in the brain than it does in silicon-based computers or between the covers of books. It is not an emergent property or function of matter, and the unquestioned belief that its must be is the greatest superstition promoted by scientists today.”
And then there is quantum physics, which seems to defy the existence of any matter at all! When we get right down to the building blocks of the atom, we discover there is really no ‘there’ there. No “it’-ness we can point to.
The basic takeaway from quantum weirdness is that there are no “things” in the world, in the final analysis, only “relations.” Thus, local events can have non-local effects (entanglement, or Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”), and a molecule of fullerene, made up of 60 carbon atoms, can appear to exist in two places simultaneously, meaning it appears to us as either a wave or a particle – depending on how we choose to look at it (indeterminism, or Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty). It is impossible, we learned much to our surprise just last century, to remove the anticipatory effect of conscious experience, or observation, from the experiment.
And yet that principle of objectivity is the very foundation upon which science has been built, from the 17th Century Age of Enlightenment forward. Even Einstein struggled with this realization all the way to the grave (it was proven beyond argument only after he passed).
There are no objects in the world. Only relations.
Now what does any of this have to do with climate science and our approach to the climate crisis?
Plenty, it turns out.
Whether you have been following the climate crisis closely for decades, as I have, or just a few years, as most have, it is quite apparent that approaching it as a scientific, technological, and/or political issue has yielded plenty of disturbing facts – but little, if any, actual progress. We are going over the proverbial cliff in real time. Read “Uninhabitable Earth,” if you haven’t already. No need to make that case here.
In the opinion of close observers like Charles Eisenstein, myself and many other philosophers, psychologists, and social scientists, what will be required to cause humanity to back away from that cliff is nothing less than a radical paradigm shift in attitudes and views. As the great Bard said:
“Ah, there’s the rub.”
Shape Shifting Social Forces
Quantum physics, not quite a century old now, continues to catalyze one type of helpful paradigm shift, giving rise to ideas of interconnectivity on a global scale now. We see this quite vividly in relation to the coronavirus pandemic, for example. To say or think that everything is interconnected is one thing, and in recent decades it has become quite fashionable to say so (E.g., “All One” “It’s all good” “It is what it is” etc.). But to feel that interconnectivity and intersubjectivity in the fragile core and very biological depths of our being, as with facing our own mortality and the impermanence of all we love and cherish every time we walk out the front door, is quite another experience altogether. This is the experience of feeling directly, because of our inner- and inter-connectivity with the biosphere, the very trauma we have been inflicting on that sphere for too long now.
It’s very much like someone who has studied physics saying smartly that there really are no objects in the universe – and then having a profound realization at an intuitive, heartfelt level that we exist only relationally, in relation to all we have previously thought of as ‘other,’ and sensing directly that all that is other is imperiled. A peril that threatens our very existence.
For settlor-types like myself, so conditioned by a culture of reification and objectification, this heart-rending, intuitive more than intellectual realization is akin to the participatory sense of self that most Indigenous peoples have never lost, as expressed for example in the Native American expression “all my relations” – the sense of inter-being that includes not just their blood relatives and tribes, but other species as well, along with plants, elements, and even rocks, the oldest beings of all – and is embodied in the sacred ceremony of the sweat lodge, in which all of these relatives are included.
But of equal importance to the quantum paradigm shift right now, in this darkening age of climate crisis and pandemic, is the paradigmatic shift that has been taking hold over the last 50 years from seeing the planet as a resource, or a large rock hurtling through space, to seeing Earth as our life source, inextricably entwined with our own still-evolving sense of identity. This is the paradigm shift that is being catalyzed by what is commonly referred to as Gaia theory.
We have learned from close observation that the Earth acts as a living organism – a coherent, self-regulating assemblage of physical, chemical, geological, and biological forces, all interwoven to maintain a unified, sustainable whole. It is no coincidence that we learn this over the very same span of decades that we’ve learned we alone, among species, are undermining that cohesion with unsustainable relations to our home planet.
In 1979, the renowned British scientist James Lovelock, his research inspired a decade earlier by photos of Earth sent back from the moon, named this organism Gaia, after the Greek Goddess of Earth. Lovelock 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.”
While this idea actually is at least as old as Plato, who defined our world as “a single visible entity, containing all other living entities,” it is still difficult for modernized individuals to think of themselves as component parts of a larger living organism. Is it not?
Of course, this should not be surprising. It is equally difficult, and just as instructive, to think of our bodies as comprised for the most part of other living organisms. Ninety percent of the cells in my body have their own, non-human DNA. I am more accurately described as an ecosystem than I am an individual, though I, too, exhibit coherence and self-regulating properties that meet the definition of a living organism. And I imagine the various bacteria and other organisms that reside within my body also struggle to grasp the wholeness of the being they are integrated into. They’re probably just trying to get by from one day to the next, just like me.
This renewed appreciation of Mother Earth, from the perspective of sciences across all disciplines, is rightly leading to an elevation of Indigenous wisdom. However, there is still a major shift that must occur in our thinking in this regard, and it is meeting with a lot of resistance in climate activist, mainstream psychology, and social science circles. Because Plato, unlike Lovelock, also taught his students that “[t]he world is a living being supplied with soul and intelligence.” Was he right about that, too?
If we are to survive and thrive, it may not be enough simply to acknowledge, as most scientists do, that Earth is a living organism. We may also need to acknowledge that Gaia is a conscious organism, one that is both intelligent and capable of experiencing pain and suffering. In other words, we must come to see Gaia as a sentient being.
I have found this strange paradox in advocating for Gaia and the idea that what we term “climate change” is actually the largest trauma on the grandest scale: scientists and activists alike who have no problem acknowledging the Earth is a living organism have a big problem acknowledging that she is a conscious being.
This, too, is understandable. Paradigm shift does not happen all at once. We have all been conditioned our entire lives by the dominant paradigm of scientific materialism, and it continues to shape our world view in a way that can prevent us from connecting with the largest, most complex, and beautiful living organism that we have ever beheld.
How can we root this resistance out, and reconnect with Gaia psychologically, at the level of heart and intuition, without sounding like new age crackpots or appropriating Indigenous culture?
The answer, I have come to conclude, is to finally acknowledge what has been apparent to quantum physicists and other deep thinkers for almost a century now: scientific materialism simply gets it wrong in the most fundamental, paradigmatic way possible. The scientific materialist world view, the dominant paradigm from Descartes forward, was tragically flawed right from the outset, informed as it was by Descartes’ religious view of humans as God’s favored creation, and this flaw in thinking helps explain both the climate crisis itself and our collective paralysis in the face of the most existential threat that has ever faced us.
Once we acknowledge this, and apply the corrective in our thinking, it becomes impossible not to see Gaia the way Plato, and more recently Carl Jung, saw her – as a highly intelligent, deeply sentient, self-regulating organism. A living being capable of, say, bringing a destructive, out-of-control species in her biome to heel.
Paradigm Shift: A Conscious Universe
While dominant, the modern scientific materialist world view has never achieved universal status. As an instructive sampling of dissent, both the ‘Father of American psychology’ and the ‘Father of quantum physics,’ William James and Werner Heisenberg, rejected the scientific materialist world view in favor of “monistic idealism” which, given its popularity with quantum physicists in general, can perhaps best be thought of as the ‘quantum world view.
Monistic idealism represents a radical paradigm shift that, like quantum physics itself, turns science and the dominant paradigm on its head. As modern quantum physicist Amit Goswami has persuasively argued, monistic idealism allows us to make sense of all that quantum weirdness:
“A strict adherence to an idealistic metaphysics, one based on a transcendent, unitive consciousness collapsing the quantum wave, resolves in a non-arbitrary fashion all the paradoxes of quantum physics.”
Scientific materialism posits that matter and energy, which Einstein showed to be interchangeable, are the primary phenomenon, building blocks, or ‘stuff’ of the universe – meaning that all other phenomena, including consciousness, are considered derivatives (‘epiphenomenon’) of matter and energy. From the perspective of this world view, it is easy to see how everything – from nature to animals to pre-pubescent girls – can be objectified. And from there, with the ascendance of capitalism, it is just as easy to see how these objects would inevitably be commodified.
This is the world view of the hyper-consumer culture that is killing us and snuffing out all life on Earth. The world view of ‘everything has a price.’
The quantum world view says that Descartes, in laying the philosophic foundation upon which modern, experimental science was constructed, got it exactly wrong. The reason science is unable to explain just how it is that consciousness arises from matter is, quite simply, that it is consciousness, not matter and energy, that is the primal ‘stuff’ of the universe.
“Physics explains phenomena,” as Goswami explains it, “but consciousness is not a phenomenon: instead, all else are phenomena in consciousness.” Another way of stating the same thing, using slightly different nomenclature, is that consciousness is the only phenomenon – and all else is epiphenomenal.
At first blush, this almost sounds like a theistic idea – and, indeed, it is not inconsistent with theism. That is actually a good thing, if you think about it. All mystics from every tradition tend to agree on some version of this same, central thesis. Notably, however, it doesn’t have to be thought of that way.
The reason it’s so easy to think of Earth as a living organism, and yet so difficult to think of her as a conscious being, is that science has convinced us that our brain and our mind are the same thing. If that were true, however, then how to explain people who can recall perception from brain-dead states, like comas and near death experiences?
One famous heart surgeon, Pim van Lommel, became so intrigued by the recurring phenomena of patients recalling in great detail events that occurred while they were clinically dead on his operating table that he gave up surgery to devote the rest of his career to the study of such phenomenon. In an early paper of his on “Non-Local Consciousness,” published in the Journal of Consciousness studies, van Lommel summarized his findings:
“The conclusion seems compelling that endless or non-local consciousness has and always will exist independently from the body… The function of the brain should be compared with a transceiver, a transmitter/receiver, or interface.”
Decades of research by Dr. Peter Fenwick, a highly regarded neuropsychiatrist who has been studying the human brain and consciousness for 50 years, backs up van Lommel’s conclusions. Fenwick now believes his extensive research suggests that consciousness actually exists independently, outside of the brain, as an inherent property of the universe itself, like dark matter, dark energy, or gravity.
Now let’s consider the universe as a meta-conscious entity. Maybe this famous illustration will help:
No, I’m not going to bore you here with a bunch of blah blah philosophical speculation about the difference between pantheism, panentheism, and animism, etc. You can do that research yourself. My intent here is just to shift the world view of people in the climate movement, and to suggest as well that we are fatally failing to call on our secret weapon and most powerful ally in this battle for world survival: Gaia Herself.
As Eisenstein says in his fabulous book Climate: A New Story, we only fight for what we love.
And everyone loves their mother.
So I’m hoping we can all agree that there is certainly good reason, from a pragmatic, utilitarian perspective, to agree that Gaia has a psyche (Greek for ‘soul’) just like us, just like animals, ensouled and eminently entitled to personhood in the affairs of nations. As I would hope anyone can see, it is a real problem if we’re willing to countenance corporations enjoying the legal status of personhood, while not insisting that the living planet corporations tend to exploit be accorded at least equal status.
Still, for all the skeptical (‘rational’) activists and journalists in the world swimming in the dominantly paradigmatic ether of scientific materialism, which pervades all professions (e.g., journalists train to report the news “objectively”), how do we first convince ourselves that this idea of an ensouled Gaia is not – as it is with corporations – just a convenient fiction?
An Integral view of Conscious Awareness
As someone who has a lifetime of experience in science, psychology, philosophy, law, activism, and logic, I would like to ‘prove’ to reasonable skeptics everywhere that Earth is not just a living organism, but is also conscious and even has agency. In the wake of proposing a new taxonomy of trauma that includes the superordinate trauma of Gaia, I’ve come to learn that many leading thinkers in the movement have no problem thinking of Earth as a living organism, but shy away from treating her as worthy of personhood. I’ve even heard the objection more than once that Earth is not capable of experiencing trauma from our continued assault on her body, because while she may be alive it would be a mistake to presume that she is conscious.
To these well-intentioned advocates I would like to point out that our approach to date has proven to be largely ineffective, as Greta Thunberg points out at every opportunity, and that it is therefore incumbent on us to continually consider if there is something fundamentally missing from our overall strategy. How could it be that we are not winning the hearts and minds of people with enough conviction to avert extinction of our own species?
My concern is that if we continue to cling to our conditioned thinking from being raised in this dominant settlor paradigm of world as resource, and the corollary commodification of Nature, then it really doesn’t matter if we accept the fact that Earth is a living organism or not. If she has no feelings, if she’s incapable of suffering, and if from the standpoint of consciousness she is no different than a single-celled amoeba, then who really cares? From that perspective, it’s really all about us, with all the marchers’ signs pleading to save ‘our,’ planet, as if we’re fighting a foreclosure, and it stubbornly remains a largely intractable political issue, a squabble among property owners.
But if she is a sentient being, ensouled as we ourselves are ensouled – if by way of illustration the coronavirus can actually be viewed as some kind of intelligent sign from her, a signal to our species – then that could be a real game-changer. I think most activists, if they think it through on their own, would agree with that point, and so I won’t belabor it here.
Which begs the question: just how do we prove Gaia is sentient?
Considering the question from the quantum world viewpoint of a conscious universe, we must first ask ourselves just what is it in a consciously manifesting cosmos that experiences consciousness on the order of psyche? Stated differently, in a world without objects, is there something that unites and is common to all conscious subjects? A distinguishing characteristic we can “point to” with our minds that informs us “yes, this being is conscious”?
And this is where awareness comes in…
As Wallace puts it: “Just as emergent properties of matter arise from primitive material constituents in complex configurations, so do complex configurations of consciousness emerge from a primitive continuum of awareness…” So we observe that the more complex a life form is, the more complex is its consciousness. But all consciousness is grounded in awareness. That’s the key to solving this puzzle.
As subjects, we cannot seem to help but experience consciousness (thoughts, feelings, emotions) as an individual phenomena. My consciousness is mine, after all, and yours is yours. Right? And a whale’s consciousness is a whale’s consciousness. We can record whale calls, we can study them enough to realize that they actually have language and individual names, and even observe them singing to one another, but unless we actually communicate with a whale, how can we ever really know that it is conscious, in the way we subjectively understand consciousness? Really, we can’t. Except we can see that it is aware, and we know that our own awareness is what permits us to experience conscious thoughts, feelings, etc.
Awareness unites all conscious beings. Awareness seems to be that ‘witnessing’ experience of consciousness – the feeling of subject, not object. We are aware of our own thoughts and feelings, and while we cannot directly perceive or measure the thoughts and feelings of another being, we can at least determine if they are aware or not. If we are able to observe their awareness through our senses, then we can safely conclude that they are conscious. In a similar vein, when we lose awareness, we are deemed to be unconscious.
So the first level of awareness we experience is self-awareness, which is only subjectively experienced and can never be proven or disproven by objective empiricism, the gold standard of scientific materialism.
What we are engaging in when we conclude that our dog is aware of us is, by contrast, called subjective empiricism, and it has a much longer history than Western science. We are witnesses to our own consciousness, and it is through the miracle of awareness that we can observe our minds in such a way. This was the subjective empirical method that ultimately led the Sakya Prince Guatama to fully penetrate the mysteries of conscious being at the base of a tree more than 2500 years ago. After that, he was simply known as the awakened one, or Buddha.
It is a mistake to dismiss the Buddha’s rigid empiricism as religious belief. It has been rigorously tested in Tibet for more than a thousand years, culminating with the science of mind interactions between H.H. Dalai Lama and scientists from every discipline conducted on an ongoing basis through the auspices of Harvard University.
So we can have some confidence in the science of subjective empiricism, even if it is rejected from the perspective of scientific materialism – which itself is premised on false duality between mind and matter. One way of comparing these two sciences is to understand that Buddha was clearly able to see reality as it really exists, stating for example that forms are empty, and in emptiness there is form. Western science did not ‘prove’ this rather shocking and counter-intuitive reality for another 2500 years; that is, what appears to us to be solid is now proven by physics to be 99.99% empty space, and when we try to find the material components that give the appearance of solidity, they disappear into clouds of probability.
Apparently, Buddhas methodology was sound.
Now let’s consider the next level of awareness. Beyond simple self-awareness, we have the commonly experienced phenomena of shared awareness. Again, this is something we can all verify from our own experience. When we gaze into the eyes of an intimate other, we experience awareness in communion, or in an inter-subjective way. It can often feel like we are reading one another’s mind in real time, and most of us have experienced that, too.
In 2015, a psychologist in Italy figured out how to induce a drug-free altered state of consciousness by asking strangers to sit and stare into each other’s eyes for 10 minutes, without interruption. Another study, reported by the BBC, found that “mutual gaze leads to a kind of partial melding of the self and other.” Anyone who has ever participated in one of Joanna Macy’s workshops on processing climate grief knows this experience well, and of course this is one of those experiments you can try at home, boys and girls. It is quite revelatory, really. When we stare into each others eyes for a prolonged period of time, self-consciousness subsides and we tap into a distinctly different kind of awareness. It can even feel like all our ancestors are present in that steady, deep gaze. Something ancient and primal, at least, seems to emerge. Perhaps it can be said that we experience a taste of the Indigenous participatory consciousness, where the boundaries between psyche and ecology dissolve.
Shared awareness can be thought of as awareness in common. Like breathing the same air. It isn’t mine, and it isn’t yours – it is just a kind of phenomenological experience that we inhabit together. And unlike Descartes, we have likely all had this same experience with animals, too – whether our dog, a monkey at the zoo, a bird on a wire, or a wild animal in nature. When our gazes lock, time slows down to a standstill, and there is an experience of shared awareness. We feel that otherness as something quite familiar, it seems. Service dogs are a prime example of shared awareness approaching intimacy.
So clearly, we no longer question whether or not animals are conscious, as we once did. The animal rights movement arose out of this new appreciation of shared awareness. In fact, primates are so like us that many countries have granted them personhood status for purposes of protecting them from cruelty.
Don’t ask me why cows and pigs are treated differently.
Indeed, the modern ecology movement is sometimes traced to the experience of Sand County Almanac author Aldo Leopold looking into the eye of a dying wolf he and his friends had hunted down. As he watched the “green fire” fade out in that frozen moment in time, Leopold woke up not only to the awareness he shared with animals, but with the mountain he and the wolf were on, and with the life of the planet itself. For the first time, he understood the proper place of humans within the biotic community.
So what happens when a human being makes ‘eye contact’ with Gaia?
Almost without exception, astronauts – these eminently trained scientists steeped in the materialist world view – report a cognitive shift in awareness after they’ve had the unique opportunity to stare out the window of their space capsules at planet Earth. Likely newly minted lovers, they’re drawn back to this gazing whenever they have any free time up there, never tiring of the deep sense of communion they feel in her breathtakingly beautiful presence.
There is even a name for this phenomenon: the overview effect. It refers to a “state of mental clarity [that] occurs when you are flung so far away from Earth that you become totally overwhelmed and awed by the fragility and unity of life on our blue globe.” (De Luce, I. “Something profound happens when astronauts see Earth from space for the first time,” Business Insider, 7/16/2017).
“Many astronauts have reported when they looked down on the Earth, they experienced radical shifts in consciousness, some of which can feel deeply emotional and promote a sense of connectedness with the Earth and with one another. Termed ‘the overview effect’ by White (1987), he described this effect as ‘a profound reaction to viewing the earth from outside its atmosphere.’ This overview effect has been described by many astronauts as one of the most meaningful moments of their lives.”
Shaw, S. (2017), “The Overview Effect” (Psychology in Action).
As NASA Astronaut Sam Durrance said:
“You’ve seen pictures and you’ve heard people talk about it. But nothing can prepare you for what it actually looks like. The Earth is dramatically beautiful when you see it from orbit, more beautiful than any picture you’ve ever seen. It’s an emotional experience because you’re removed from the Earth but at the same time you feel this incredible connection to the Earth like nothing I’d ever felt before”
(cited in Redfern, 1996, p. 1). Kevin Ochsner, director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Columbia University, says this of the experience:
“You’ll experience this sense of a diminished sense of self in the face of something larger and bigger than you that has existed for a longer period of time than you. It’s sort of incomprehensible within the lifespan of a single person and it has interesting transformative effects on people in the short-term and long-term.”
Simpson, D. (Feb. 11, 2016) “The Metaphysical Astronauts” (Vice). NASA astronaut Ron Garan describes the feeling as being “flooded with both emotion and awareness” in his book, “The Orbital Perspective.” In the short documentary on the overview effect, author Frank White describes the effect as conveying a direct knowing “that the Earth is one system. We’re all part of that system, and there is a certain unity and coherence to it all.”
Gaia, in other words. In that same film, philosopher David Loy suggests that this pattern of inter-subjective experience “seems to imply a new kind of self-awareness.”
Actually, it isn’t so new. Carl Jung placed capital-s “Self” at the center of our psyche, and considered it to be representative of anima mundi, or world soul. At the deepest levels of our self conscious being, according to Jung, there is a kind of primordial ground from which dreams and archetypes surface, and this ground is not separate from the larger consciousness we now call Gaia.
Given our own experiences of shared awareness, a phenomenon we can posit through subjective empiricism is conventionally true, and the profound, life altering shift in self-awareness that highly trained, indoctrinated scientist/astronauts experience in gazing for prolonged periods at Earth from space, is it not logical, from the perspective of quantum phenomenology, to conclude that Earth is not only a living organism, but a highly intelligent, ensouled life form? A subject, not an object, with whom we can actually experience a kind of inter-subjective, shared awareness? A beautiful being who actually seems to cast a spell over those lucky few scientists who happen to cast their eyes upon her countenance?
And, as compared to more utilitarian arguments, isn’t she worth fighting for? Isn’t she even worth dying for?
A scientific materialist who hasn’t been in space might predictably protest that we are projecting human qualities onto the living organism, Earth.
First of all, I don’t think for a minute that Gaia’s consciousness is anything like human, anymore than my consciousness is anything like that of a bacterial organism in my own biome. But certainly if the higher forms of life on Earth, like whales and humans, experience self and shared awareness, then by necessity Gaia, the highest form of life we know, would at least share that common kind of awareness. Amoeba have been shown clearly to have agency. Humans have agency. It is actually anthropocentric to presume that Gaia is just one of Rene Descartes soulless machines, and that humans therefore remain at the top of the “consciousness” food chain. By contrast, to accept instead that Gaia is uniquely conscious is Gaia-centric.
Resurrecting Human Nature: Recasting Our Social Movement
Of course, the overview effect does not mean we have to travel to outer space in order to experience Gaia as a living, sentient being. Rather, it points to the profound effect shared awareness with Gaia has even on those most steeped in a scientific materialist world view.
Back down here on the ground, we have general confirmatory evidence from the entrained experience of the natural world reported by Indigenous peoples who’ve never been forcefully separated from Nature, as most of us have; and, more specifically, we can look to testimonials from Indigenous shamans from a millennia-long lineage of healers, who have always communicated most directly with Mother Earth through her medicinal plants. Psychologist Jorge Ferrer characterizes Indigenous awareness as a kind of participatory consciousness, which yields more holistic knowledge than what we have come to value most in Western civilization:
“[P]articipatory knowing refers to a multidimensional access to reality that includes not only the intellectual knowing of the mind, but also the emotional and empathic knowing of the heart, the sensual and somatic knowing of the body, the visionary and intuitive knowing of the soul, as well as any other way of knowing accessible to human beings.”
Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (2002).
One thing we can learn from Indigenous people generally, and shamans in particular, is that there are many different kinds of awareness, or different modalities of awareness. Take the awareness of trees, for example. Unlike animals, over the course of centuries trees sink deeply into soil networks and stretch up high into the sky, appearing almost like the ganglia of Gaia’s brain.
Until very recently, nobody really suspected that trees were aware. It sounds like the stuff of fairy tales, but as revealed in astonishing detail by German ecologist Peter Wohlleben in his 2015 book, The Hidden Life of Trees, forests have remarkably complex electro-chemical communication systems embedded in the tissue of individual trees, extending outward into the canopied airways and down through the mycelium layers of soil. Much like our own central nervous systems, these networks carry impulses back and forth throughout the forest in response to external stimuli (e.g., pests, droughts, etc.), allowing the forest to adapt in ways that a mere collection of individual trees could not.
Shocking as it may seem to those of us steeped in the scientific-materialist world view, trees turn out to have feelings, senses of smell and taste, can sense when individual trees in their community are ill, and can even send them medicine for getting better. Wohlleben’s research has been repeated in other areas of the world, confirming that mycelial webs of life in the soil create communal networks of information-sharing and awareness that mimics an animal’s brain, exhibiting a much higher intelligence than we could ever have imagined looking at a forest ‘objectively,’ the way silviculturists to when deciding how to ‘manage’ a forest (badly, as it turns out).
As forest scientist Dr. Suzanne Simard summarizes this growing body of research:
“The wood wide web has been mapped, traced [using radioactive isotopes], monitored, and coaxed to reveal the beautiful structures and finely adapted languages of the forest network. We have learned [for example] that mother trees recognize and talk with their kin, shaping future generations.”
What would Descartes think of that?! “I think, therefore I am… a tree?”
These same mycelium networks, of course, also produce the plant medicines by which shamans and, in growing numbers, we ‘moderns’ have directly plugged into that same Gaian intelligence exhibited by the natural world. As Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, puts it, “people on psychedelics report a deeply felt sense of peace, oneness and unity with the planet which has been shown to have a profound and enduring effect on the way they live their lives.”
How would it be possible to feel unity and oneness with a living organism, whether from gazing upon that organism or merging with its own neural pathways, if that organism were not conscious?
As if in response to the biospheric and atmospheric traumas being experienced by Gaia, millions of people are now feeling called into sacred circles all over the planet to ingest entheogenic substances like ayahuasca, psilocybin, and bufo alvirius. So many, in fact, that entheogenic use has been decriminalized in cities like Denver and Oakland, and the media now seems to lump entheogenic medicine in with cannabis as mere reflections of our society’s changing mores. (It wasn’t that long ago that getting busted with LSD at a Grateful Dead show would get you a ten-year minimum stay in a federal penitentiary).
Bradbrook, on behalf of XR, advocates the use of plant medicines as a means for increasing people’s awareness of, and concern for, the climate crisis: “The causes of the crisis are political, economic, legal and cultural systemic issues but underneath that are issues of human trauma, powerlessness, scarcity and separation,” she says, and thus “psychedelic medicines are opportunities to help us shift our consciousness.”
Like Bradbrook, one thing has become quite clear to me over the course of a career in environmental advocacy and ecopsychology that spans four decades: without a paradigm shift in human consciousness, we will not take the collective actions necessary to survive, let alone preserve life as we’ve known it over the last eleven millennia (a.k.a., ‘civilization’). The reason I went back to school at 55 to study ecopsychology, and the reason I have attempted to merge ecopsychology and quantum physics, is to better define what that paradigm shift will look like, and how we can provide the catalyst that will help it attain critical mass.
My conclusions are elementary, dear reader.
What we have mislabeled “climate change” is actually biospheric trauma, which we are now experiencing both psychologically (e.g., ‘eco-anxiety’) and physically. The only way to resolve trauma is by focusing awareness on the inappropriate, unnatural relationships that give rise to that trauma, and coming into proper relationship. With climate trauma, that means coming into proper relationship with Gaia and the natural world. But until we collectively awaken to the personhood of Gaia, and see ourselves as an integral part of her body and ‘mind,’ there is no real basis in awareness for coming into proper relationship with her. We will continue, in other words, to experience her trauma as our anxiety over ‘climate change,’ or as an external threat (not seeing the pandemic as her auto-immune system kicking in, for example), or as discrete weather events happening somewhere else. And we will continue to view the world we are trying to save from ourselves as “our planet.”
She is not ours. Earth does not belong to us. We are hers. We belong to Earth.
To see what this paradigm shift will look like, we can look to the 2008 Ecuadorian constitution as an example. That instrument of law protects the rights of ‘Pancha Mama’ (Mother Earth), the Nature “of which we are part,” including protection of the inherent right of non-human life to sustain itself and evolve, as well as the right of every human being to a healthy environment, with access to clean water and wholesome food. As the coronavirus is trying to teach us, there can be no lasting human health without planetary health.
Once we in the climate movement embrace our Mother as Ecuadorians have, once we acknowledge her as our life source and make the climate movement about her and her children (plants and animals) – rather than making it about ourselves, ‘our’ planet, and apportionment of our so-called ‘natural resources’ – then this social movement will become unstoppable. It could even become a planetary right-to-life movement, with the same fervor, rectitude and determination as we’ve seen from the religious right over the past several decades. Except this movement will be fueled by love, as all great social movements are, and not religious intolerance.
Because when we embrace the cause of Mother Earth, then we’ll have Gaia on our side. How could we lose?