I have a great deal of respect for nature, and I have a great deal of respect for humankind as well, but those forms of respect are different. Nature has practiced making sure life thrives for over 3 BILLION years – she has a track history of making that work. Humankind has a recent history of thinking that being clever is more important than being life affirming, an addiction we are in the middle of, right now.
Given that everything we have depended upon seems to be under threat, disorganized, and falling apart, including our weather, it appears to me that actions that are life enhancing might be more important, than even our collective ego. If staying alive, if staying healthy, if thriving, is more important than being clever and even more important than ‘getting my way,’ where should I look for support and inspiration?
I’ve spent decades trying to understand nature, trying to learn how she’s ‘done it.‘ Many others have looked into this as well and I’m eternally grateful to them; Janine Benyus (Biomimicry), Thomas Berry (The Great Work, among others), Brian Swimm ( The Universe is a Green Dragon, among others ), Wendell Berry (Poet), Andreas Weber (Biology of Wonder, among others) Fritjof Capra (Hidden Connections, among others), James Lovelock (Gaia, among others) and so many more. We continue to learn. It turns out that deep learning is hard because we have stood outside of nature and that distorted our understanding and even the questions we asked, let alone the answers we received.
I’ve taken a values-based approach. I learned from Jane Jacobs (Systems of Survival) that values form systems. Bringing my learning about living systems from Capra into play, that was revolutionary. Earth’s values are also a system. All living systems behave the same and have the same attributes – this was critical to my newly awakened understanding of value systems and how they operate. If all of this interests you, please take my course, “Values for the Coming Crisis” where I go into these ideas in more depth.
A start to understanding Earth’s Value System, is understanding the intent(s) she has for life. Her first intent is the foundation , the key, the whole point – she intends for life to continue to thrive! Now you may say, duh, to that, but really think about it. She doesn’t want it to thrive, she doesn’t hope that it thrives, she INTENDS it will thrive. Everything she does is to that end, and more importantly all of the parts of which she is comprised intend that life thrives too, or almost all of the parts. The only part that is also a part of her that does not always adhere to that principle, is humanity.
Humanity, under the cover of free will, often does things that limit the ability of life to thrive – pollution comes to mind. WE soil our own nest. WE poison the atmosphere; WE poison the oceans and foul them with plastic. WE kill our soil – a living system in its own right, by our manufacturing style of farming. WE do not consider, nor seem to care, if our actions make it impossible for others to also live.
The second intent is connected to the first, as are all the rest. These are components of a living system after all. The second intent is continuity – making sure that life, once formed, continues. She has clear ways of being and doing that make sure things flow and move forward. She knows how to make the very best out of what currently exists. Earth is a closed system, except for power, which comes from the sun. What we have is what we got. Everything living system on the planet understands that and lives in ways that support that. Every living system, except one, us. WE burn, pile up, and create inedible stuff all the time. WE act as if there is no tomorrow, as if there is an unending stream of materials for us to use forever – and there isn’t.
The third intent is resilience, the ability to adapt and continue on under stress. The ability to dance with changing times in a way that ensures life continues to thrive. Understanding the magic of how that happens is mind-blowing! WE – all living systems that are part of the living system that Mother Earth is, are SO exquisitely designed to do this – It. Is. Amazing! We all actually know how and even do it, but only one living system chooses to not listen, to disbelieve OR to believe impossibilities, and in so doing flies in the face of…nature – yup, us. She destroys to facilitate rebirth, we destroy to eliminate.
The fourth, and most fun intent, is evolution. Evolution is how she learns. Each living system continues to learn and, in so doing, makes continual adjustments as it learns to finesse and improve its chances at life. If those adaptations are really successful, then it may choose to keep them and pass them on to its progeny. New life forms happen all the time, and some stay and some don’t make it. Nature experiments in SO many ways, and some of them work! WE are the only living system that intentionally makes changes in other living systems. WE are the only living system that makes changes in our own system – without natures help or encouragement.
Each intent has four values that activate it. These intents and values constitute a living system of values by which Earth keeps it all together AND is able to grow in complexity – to thrive. All other living systems play their part. There is only one other living system that actively works to simplify the living systems of which it is a part, and that, of course, is us. We seek to simplify, to limit, to eliminate complexity and diversity, there-by weakening the fabric of nature. WE seek to reduce the number of species, the number of kinds of species, and in so doing we make the whole system much more vulnerable to collapse as we are eliminating a key aspect of resiliency.
So here you have four aspects of nature against which you can check your own actions in life, your decisions, the decisions of your local, state and even federal government. How do they stack up? Are the actions you support life enhancing, do they ensure life continues with ease, do they reinforce the adaptability of the life it impacts, and finally does it support an evolution into a more complex and resilient world? Are you engaged with your life through connection, or are you acting on your life from outside, from a point of separation? Each of us is responsible for our own actions. Each of us can only control our own actions. If we all shifted so that we could say YES to supporting each of these intents, then we will get through all these shifts and changes, just fine. WE will become partners with the Earth, with Mother Nature. WE will have learned to listen to nature not in the ‘what should I do,’ conversation, but in the ‘how should I do it’, kind of conversation. And, that’s one that has been missing for centuries.
Gaia is a Living System. What is true about systems is that they are wholes, composed of parts. We are not used to seeing wholes, we see only parts. That is not only confusing, but it is at the root of our deep misunderstanding. The parts are intrinsic to the whole – they can’t be removed or replaced; all of the parts are needed! Do you understand how very profound those statements are? Every part of Gaia is needed.
Our bodies are the whole we are most familiar with. Every part is needed! It is true that we can lose limbs and still function, but life will be much harder and more difficult. If we lose toes, then balance is affected. If we lose fingers, then our dexterity becomes difficult. Nature does not tolerate waste of any kind. New research suggests that the appendix is designed to protect good bacteria in the gut. That way, when the gut is affected by a bout of diarrhea or other illness that cleans out the intestines, the good bacteria in the appendix can repopulate the digestive system and keep you healthy. Nothing is useless, we just aren’t always smart enough to understand why something is important. All parts of any whole are necessary, but not all the time.
Gaia is no different from our bodies. ALL of her ‘parts’ are necessary – every life form on this planet is a needed and necessary ‘part’ of the whole that Gaia is. Let me say this again. Every life form on Gaia is a necessary part of the whole, of life. The parts fit, only because they are different, and I’ll say more about that later – that fact, alone, is glorious! Like the appendix, no part is superfluous, no part is extraneous, no part is not needed – that includes humans. For life to continue, it is imperative to maintain the integrity of the whole.
Humans are very good at interrupting that integrity. We destroy forests with an incredible nonchalance. Denuding vast areas without a thought. We replant trees and call it good, but lots of trees do not a forest make. We pave over grass. We kill soil in SO many ways. Think about that – we kill the life beneath our feet, we don’t even know that it’s there. We create huge dead zones where polluted rives run into the sea as the algae, encouraged by run off nitrogen and phosphorous, remove all the oxygen in the water. We encase rivers in concrete, and even change their course, and dam their waters. We poison enormous stretches of land, killing all life forms we don’t want, and assume it doesn’t matter. Yes, nature can limp along without her fingers and toes, but there are always consequences.
Our latest blasphemy is to propose sucking up all life on the floor of the ocean to acquire nickel and cobalt for electric engines. Impossible Mining, a B Corp run by a woman, Renee Grogan, proposes to use robots to pick up the nodules laying on the ground instead of killing everything. See the wonderful article about this in Time, April 13, 2022. There are even trees that ‘bleed’ metal. Researchers have been studying a specialized group, known as hyperaccumulators, that have evolved to take up the normally toxic metals into their stems, leaves and even seeds. We need to slow down and see what our beautiful planet offers.
A big part of maintaining the integrity of the whole is scale. We move too fast and there are too many of us, so we overshoot what the planet offers. The World Wildlife Fund says, “Humanity’s annual demand on the natural world has exceeded what the Earth can renew in a year since the 1970s. This “ecological overshoot” has continued to grow over the years, reaching a 50 per cent deficit in 2008. This means that it takes 1.5 years for the Earth to regenerate the renewable resources that people use, and absorb the CO2 waste they produce, in that same year.
How can this be possible when there is only one Earth? Just as it is possible to withdraw money from a bank account faster than to wait for the interest this money generates, renewable resources can be harvested faster than they can be re-grown. But just like overdrawing from a bank account, eventually the resource will be depleted.
At present, people are often able to shift their sourcing when this happens; however at current consumption rates, these sources will eventually run out of resources too – and some ecosystems will collapse even before the resource is completely gone.
The consequences of excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are also already being seen, like climate change and ocean acidification. These place additional stresses on biodiversity and ecosystems.”
The Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) uses this graphic to clarify what both overshoot and undershoot mean and how they impact our life on this planet:
I find it fascinating that we are overusing Earth’s resources, and at the same time, under serving our human populations. Maybe our ‘human centric’ way of being is just greed?
The integrity that is invisible and that we ignore all the time, is the pace of cycles. Our planet offers an infinity variety of options, possibilities, and resources IF we use things up at the same rate they are created. WE overdraw our back account regularly, doing so is out of integrity!
WE are part of the whole. We are special only in the same way everything else is special. We are unique and therefore offer unique capabilities in service to life, but we must move from a human centric approach, drop our greed, and move to a life centric way of being. We need to become part of the whole again.
Ah, what a strange value, don’t you think? When the earth functions with this framework, it is the long view, the grandness of being, that springs to mind. Yet I’d like to suggest that since we are little wholes inside bigger wholes, that creating that resonance, that alignment, and coherence, is our key contribution to the integrity of the whole.
As little wholes, each of our actions brings into being more and stronger resonance or not. If we choose dissonance then the ripples are small and almost unnoticed, they go flailing out disturbing the resonant whole and dissipate. If we choose harmony, then those tiny ripples spread out and join the others, and we ride a gentle wave, almost unnoticed. Each of our actions seem so tiny, so unimportant, so unnoticed.
In my studies of ethics, these insignificant actions don’t ever seem to rise. Most discussions of ethics want to speak to the bigger actions, the ones we see and the ones that create very big ripples, yet life, LIFE is composed of many, many smaller ripples, the ones that we do every day and most often don’t even see.
For me, the ethical life is composed of context. It is context that informs us of the larger whole. It is context that can be misleading, and it is context that offers the mirror to see if our tiny ripples support LIFE or flies in the face of it, dampening that possibility. The example I’ll use is the teaching of distrust. We have whole industries dedicated to this, take marketing, for example.
“Let the buyer beware” suggests that only fools believe what they are told. If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t. This is the institutionalizing of the corruption of innocence. It’s a way to ‘protect’ from and ’teach’ about the ugly facts of disappointment and misunderstandings we rationalize, but without developing the skills of discernment.
We teach distrust by not keeping our word, by making promises we don’t keep, by rewarding impossible promises and punishing truth tellers – politics is the fertile ground for this practice. We teach distrust when we laugh at humor that showcases the ‘fool’ being shown the results of her misplaced trust as the chair is being pulled out from under her.
Nature never lies. She always tells us what works, we have learned not to listen, and we have believed that we could ignore her, which we have done, ignoring Dynamic Stability, but that’s the subject for another time. We have gotten so good at believing our own cynicism that we don’t even notice what we are doing.
Harryette Mullen, in her poem, We Are Not Responsible, showcases this so very well when she says in her first two verses:
We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives.
We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions.
We do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for handouts.
We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.
Your ticket does not guarantee that we will honor your reservations.
In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your carrying on.
Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments.
Here she shows just how deeply we work to make sure people understand the ‘appropriate’ level of trust, so, we rationalize, we are not responsible…. And how foolish you are for trusting.
Steven R. Covey, in his book The Speed of Trust, shows the damage and the ineffectiveness not trusting creates in the workplace. Our lives are built on trust – those lines on the highway – we trust other drivers to obey them, and so many other instances where trust makes things work, yet we want to defy it – to what end? Every time we teach distrust, we tear at the fabric of the whole – destroying its integrity.
We have been taught in the past few decades that people are NOT of good will. Our entire form of government is based on trusting that people are of good intent, that is why differences of opinion are so important. We need other eyes to see the whole – IF – the intent is to strengthen the whole to deepen the alignment with LIFE. Now we are being taught that there is only ONE way, but that is not how nature works. It is having many ways that gives nature her resilience, so that we can trust that she will keep her balance even if things change.
We are so inured to noticing how we teach distrust; we desperately need each other to begin to sharpen our discernment. We must hone that skill of seeing when trust is being destroyed and develop the social scaffolding to support each other in acting on that discernment. We do this much better and faster when we engage with others in a commitment to develop and build trust, than when we go it alone.
Begin to open your own eyes by actively noticing when our culture is teaching distrust. Find someone or someones who are willing to join you in this discovery, and then seek, together, to build countermeasures. This is such a crucial action to take at this time! This is a hero’s journey.
Kathryn Alexander MA has been absorbed by trying to understand how we should live. Is there some way to actually determine right from wrong and ensure a moral life - and there is. It does not conflict with any religion, creed or ethnic culture. It clarifies and strengthens them all, and at the same time can be independent of them, as it stands on its own. Live in connection with the Earth.