Greta and Gaia

For a long time, perhaps too long, we have regarded the earth, literally and figuratively, as a mother, a benign provider, supportive of our endeavours and blind to our faults. It has suited us to do so. We have treated natural resources as though they were infinite and our use of them justifiable. Our thinking has been limited to a timescale of years rather than decades, centuries and millenia. And we have been negligent of our impact on the planet’s resources, turning a blind eye to the earth’s fragile biosphere. Throughout we have assessed the extent of our damage through rose tinted spectacles, been selective with the evidence, dismissive even when uncomfortable. We have all allowed this to happen either by commission or omission.

Sure we have been vocal about the urgent need for change, with our fingers crossed behind our backs, endorsing toothless policies couched in empty language. We have made schoolkids into celebrities, patted them patronisingly on their backs whilst doing nothing. Taking a selfie of yourself with Greta Thunberg is not a commitment to meaningful action. But then it’s easier to applaud than it is to act.

How will we answer for ourselves in front of our children? How will we explain our wholly inadequate custody of the earth? How will we justify the systematic abuse of their planet on our watch? Can we really look our children in the eyes and tell them that we thought it was for the best?

We have changed the map of the world forever. All that Amazonian deforestation, who raised a hand? Islands the size of Spain made entirely of plastic. Who complained until our holiday beach snaps were littered with milk cartons, plastic toys and kinder eggs? And who, in the face of volatile petrol prices, was prepared to concede that our love affair with the internal combustion engine was an abusive relationship?

Before you bridle at my preaching, let me stand up and say Mea Culpa. I never made the connection between South American logging and climate change. I never worried about plastic mountains and valleys. I drove big gas guzzling sedans where I could have chosen differently. I admit it.

But that’s not enough. I do not absolve myself with the panacea of ignorance. The truth is, when we turn the spotlight upon ourselves, that we did make the connection between losing forests and gaining carbon dioxide. We did know that plastic would be in our environment forever. We did know that big thirsty engines polluted more. You see what I mean – we are even kind to ourselves when we know we are wrong.

I am 63. To quote Roy’s final speech in Blade Runner, I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe. I have lived through what you might consider to be the golden age of consumerism, an age of plenty. LPs and CDs reproducing music with infinite fidelity. Television and radio reaching all parts of the globe. Computers shrinking from the size of houses to the palm of your hand. The Internet and the democratisation of information. Hyperrealistic videogames. Virtual reality for those who can’t cope with real reality. I watched a man walk this on the moon. Supersonic airliners briefly shrinking the world. Cruise ships the size of cities wandering from sunspot to sunspot.

And now, in 2021, we find ourselves like acquaintances at the end of restaurant meal, our gaze downward to avoid eye contact, wondering who will pay. For pay we must. Because it’s time to realise the uncomfortable truth – that this was not our planet to abuse. We have ruined it for our children. How are we going to explain that? I didn’t know? I didn’t think it was important? I didn’t realise it was happening?

I don’t think it matters. That may seem a ridiculous position in the light of everything mentioned above so let me explain. I don’t think it matters because I feel we may already be beyond the tipping point. We have been consistently told that we have a decade to mend our ways or face catastrophic change. I don’t think that’s the case. I believe we have already done so much damage to the planet’s biosphere that we cannot reverse it. There is no consistent agreed and enforced global climate policy. Nor will there ever be one. Every climate accord has opponents. Trump (and I really hoped I would never have to write his name again) sacrificed the planet on an altar of consumerism. He had the opportunity and could just, only just, have made a difference. He chose not to, presumably secure in the knowledge that his kids would pick up the check.

Greta expressed it better than anybody when she said that our house is on fire, lending a sense of immediacy and urgency to our actions. Sadly, she, like Trump, seems no longer relevant. The prickle of conscience in 2019 was swept away in the viral terror of 2020. Greta’s message is as clear as ever. But nobody is listening. We have become obsessed with our own homes, our micro environment, that the world and its issues seem more remote.

In the 1970s, to initially only polite interest, James Lovelock began to expound his theory of Gaia. Named after the Greek goddess and conceptual embodiment of the earth, the Gaia hypothesis postulated that the entire planet’s biosphere was essentially a large symbiotic organism of infinite complexity, capable of autoregulating its own environment. In essence it responds to challenges to its own existence with appropriate correctional strategies. If a species brings value to the Gaia biosphere, conditions will provide succour. If on the other hand a species threatens the integrity of the whole, Gaia responds accordingly.

And how might Gaia respond to a species that has created all this damage? A virus perhaps that might endanger human life? Maybe coronavirus was merely Gaia’s warning. An indication of what mother Earth is capable of. Maybe explosive global warming will be her definitive response to man’s intervention. The notion of Gaia has no place, or at least no special place, for humanity. We are merely one of a great, but rapidly dwindling, number of species. It cannot have escaped Gaia’s notice that we are, in planetary terms, a bit of a problem. Maybe she’s decided to act.

Everywhere in the world, weather seems more extreme. The benign bountiful earth of Constable replaced by the violent elemental malevolence of Turner. The forests burn, the seas boil, the icecaps melt. This is not the future, this is now.

Gaia has had enough.