Synopses & Reviews
Modern science and western culture both teach that the planet we inhabit is a dead and passive lump of matter, but as Stephan Harding points out, this wasn't always the prevailing sentiment and in Animate Earth he sets out to explain how these older notions of an animate earth can be explained in rational, scientific terms. In this astounding book Harding lays out the facts and theories behind one of the most controversial notions to come out of the hard sciences arguably since Sir Isaac Newton's Principia or the first major publications to come out of the Copenhagen School regarding quantum mechanics. The latter is an important parallel: Whereas quantum mechanics is a science of the problem--it gave rise to the atomic bomb among other things--Gaia Theory in this age of global warming and dangerous climate change is a science of the solution. Its utility: Healing a dying planet becomes an option in a culture otherwise poised to fall into total ecological collapse. Replacing the cold, objectifying language of science with a way of speaking of our planet as a sentient, living being, Harding presents the science of Gaia in everyday English. His scientific passion and rigor shine through his luminous prose as he calls us to experience Gaia as a living presence and bringing to mind such popular science authors as James Gleick. Animate Earth will inspire in readers a profound sense of the interconnectedness of life, and to discover what it means to live harmoniously as part of a sentient creature of planetary proportions. This new understanding may solve the most serious problems that face us as a species today.
"The conception of the Earth as a living, self-organising system, known today as Gaia theory, is an ancient idea and yet one of the most radical and far-reaching scientific theories of the 20th century. In this remarkable book, Stephan Harding, who has worked closely with James Lovelock, tells the story in a way that is scientifically sophisticated, yet easy to understand and captivating. Harding writes about Gaia with great passion, and he eloquently discusses the theory's philosophical, social and political implications. I recommend Animate Earth to everyone concerned about the fate of our planet."--Fritjof Capra, author of The Hidden Connections, The Web of Life, and The Tao of Physics
Review by David Abram:
"This book offers a brilliant new approach—at once rigorous, experiential, and intuitive—to the most up-to-date research within planetary ecology. Harding is a close associate of James Lovelock, the polymathic scientist who formulated the Gaia hypothesis—the theory that the chemical composition of the earth's atmosphere, its temperature, the salinity of its oceans, and a host of other variables are continually monitored and modulated by all the earth's organic constituents acting collectively, as a vast planetary metabolism. Originally considered an utterly radical hypothesis when first proposed in the 1970s, Lovelock's insight early on attracted the active support and research interest of one of the most far-seeing American biologists, the audacious microbial biologist Lynn Margulis, and has since, as their evidence mounted, garnered more and more respect from the scientific community. Today most of the theory's tenets have been integrated within the standard account of planetary ecology.
Harding—the staff scientist at Schumacher College—brings a new, deeply participatory approach to the articulation of whole earth science, employing a nuanced sense of philosophy and the history of ideas in order to demonstrate the transformative, paradigm-shattering power of Gaian theory. Throughout his lucid presentation of recent and ongoing empirical research, Harding strives to show the relevance of these remarkable discoveries to our most personal experience of the world immediately around us.
Current evidence is pushing various researchers in the natural sciences away from the through-going objectivism of previous science toward a more animistic acknowledgment that the biosphere in which we're immersed is more a living subject than a determinate object, and hence that their research is less a pursuit of inert and unchanging "facts," than it is an ongoing participation, and dialog, with a vast, spherical sentience whose corporeal complexity we can never completely fathom, and whose actions we can never entirely predict. At every step in his presentation, Harding offers richly imaginative and meditative exercises for the reader to try, as a way to experience these insights viscerally and corporeally - as a way to EMBODY this new understanding of our physiological interdependence (or interbeing) with the animate earth, and so to let this understanding resonate within our daily life.
At such a precarious historical moment as this one we're in, such creative, interdisciplinary visions as Harding's are catalyzing a new and more mature kind of science. They provoke a new kind of intelligence - a rationality informed by our ongoing sensory experience of the world around us, and by the empathic heart beating within our chest - a keen and rigorous intelligence that places itself in service not to humankind alone, but to the wild, more-than-human community of life."
Midwest Book Review-
"Author Stephen Harding's doctorate in ecology from Oxford and his interest in holistic science creates a satisfying blend of modern science and new age ideas, so add in a dose of history of how older ideas of an 'animate earth' can be explained through a blend of modern science and spirituality and you have a powerful set if ideas indeed. GAIA theory, scientific insights and a focus on a living earth make for wonderful, revealing reading in his new book. Animate Earth is a very strongly recommended for the non-specialist general reader with an interest in science and metaphysics."
A Love for Gaia
Edmund O'Sullivan appreciates Stephan Harding's love of the "gift of life". Resurgenceby Edmund O'Sullivan:
"Over the last thirty years I have read many books that have helped me to deepen my ecological consciousness and to strengthen my commitment to the care of this wonderful planet that is the source of the gift of my life. A few of these books stand out and they are ones that I have the occasion to teach with and also re-read from time to time. Let me name a few.
I think of The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry, Fritjof Capra's Web of Life, David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous, New and Selected Poems of Mary Oliver and Charlene Spretnak's Resurgence of the Real. These are authors that leave you with the feeling that they truly love and care for the ground on which they walk. After reading Stephan Harding's Animate Earth, I now add this book to my list.
This is an absolutely wonderful book that I would urge every reader of this review to make a part of their permanent library. Harding writes with a profound love, wonder, deep intuition and intelligence: conveying to the reader the utmost urgency of our present moment on the Earth, encouraging us to recover the ancient view of Gaia as a fully integrated, living being consisting of all her life forms, air, rocks, oceans, lakes and rivers, if we are ever to be able to halt the latest, and possibly the greatest, mass extinction. He also makes it clear, citing Stephan Jay Gould, that we have to "love what we want to save". Animate Earth is the author's work of love for Gaia.
Substantively, the task that Harding has set for himself is twofold. First, he takes his readers on an intellectual journey, helping them in the absolutely necessary transition from the mechanistic science of modern Western thought to a holistic science embedded in the very processes of the Earth and the universe. This is a paradigm book.
At the same time, Harding mentors his readers through meditative exercises into Gaian intuitions so that they can palpably feel what he is getting at when he talks about "animate Earth". The subtitle of the book sets forth the dual task: Science, Intuition and Gaia.
In covering the scientific aspects, Harding introduces the concept of "animate Earth" through a deep order elaboration of James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. In this work he is propounding an excursion into a post-modern animism that is based on the deep intuitions of indigenous peoples coupled with the findings of modern science. While at this task, the scope and range of his scholarship are breathtaking. He embeds Gaia, that is our "animate Earth", in the wider universe processes akin to the work of Swimme and Berry's Universe Story, then brings us into the minute details of the micro-cosmos that we see in the work of Margolis and Sagan's Microcosmos. It is demanding work for the reader, but vitally necessary. It might be said that Harding 'leaves no stone unturned'.
The hard scholarship is combined with wonderful meditative interludes throughout, to help the reader grasp what Harding is talking about at a deeply intuitive sensate bodily level. The reader is asked, at the beginning of the book, to find his or her own 'Gaia Place' to do these meditations. I consider them so valuable that I have committed myself personally to incorporating them into my ongoing personal practice.
Finally, the book reveals the personal character of the author. Harding loves the "gift of life" given him, and I certainly came to appreciate his gratitude as I read this book. A real treat on all levels!" - Edmund O'Sullivan is Professor Emeritus and Associate Director of the Transformative Learning Centre at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
"When James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis first advanced the hypothesis of a self-regulating planet in the 1970s, they came under severe attack. Biologists disliked the idea of Earth being in any sense "alive". It is misleading at best, they said: life is about Darwinian evolution taking place against a dead, inorganic background. Lovelock and Margulis's notion of a self-regulating planet - christened "Gaia" by the novelist William Golding - seemed nonsensical.
How attitudes have changed. Today scientists accept that living things have a significant impact on the composition of the atmosphere and the oceans, and that they in turn respond to those changes. Self-organisation is no longer an alien concept, and we are comfortable with the idea that organic life and inorganic Earth mutually sustain each other through a vast web of feedback loops. This shift in popular thinking is immediately apparent in Lovelock's new book: Gaia has been elevated from a hypothesis to a theory.
In this I am reminded of another revolutionary idea from my own field: general relativity. In Newton's classical world, the laws of nature are played out against a backdrop of inert space and linearly moving time. Einstein, however, showed that the structure of space-time (read Earth) is curved and twisted by the presence of matter and energy (read life) and that in turn the motion of matter and light is affected by the curvature of space-time. Matter, energy and space-time are now players locked into the same game. Gaia is becoming as accepted as relativity. Yet it was not a new idea even when Lovelock championed it. Many native American groups have long seen the world in this way, as evinced by their prayer "All my relations", in which the definition of relations starts with members of the tribe and then extends to other two-legged creatures, then to four-legged creatures, then to fish, birds, trees, rocks, thunder and "beings" under the earth.
The ecologist Stephan Harding, who is based at Schumacher College in Devon, UK, and has collaborated with Lovelock on creating computer models of Gaia theory, is very much in harmony with these views. His new book Animate Earth begins with a discussion of one of his first research projects, a study of the Reeves muntjac deer in a wood near Oxford, which involved a painstaking quantitative survey of the area's vegetation. In the midst of this "mind-numbing number gathering", Harding would relax and feel himself merge with the environment, until he came to realise that he was learning more in this way, as a "sensing organism", than through factual analysis.
His conclusion is that a scientific approach to ecology must be tempered with a deep reverence that allows our powers of intuition to bring us into contact with the natural world. It is a move towards what the eco-theologian Thomas Berry calls "a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects", and towards Goethe's "active looking" and "deep questioning". Harding's book is a series of meditations designed to encourage an intuitive approach to our understanding of Gaia. However, these excursions are unlikely to produce an instantaneous religious awakening in the likes of Richard Dawkins and other neo-Darwinians.
Lovelock and Harding's books complement each other and together provide an excellent account of the life of Gaia and the crisis she faces. Rising carbon dioxide levels are warming the planet, threatening to raise sea levels and disrupt ocean circulation. An even greater disaster, both authors point out, could be the release of frozen methane hydrates, since methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas. Lovelock also draws attention to an as yet unquantified factor: methane leakage from homes and industry, and the threat of sabotage of natural gas pipelines.
What is to be done? Lovelock and Harding agree that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is key, though they differ in their approach to how this should happen. Harding makes it personal: reduce heating in the home, turn off lights, walk or take public transport, drive a little slower, make fewer air trips, eat locally produced food, recycle and reuse. For Lovelock, things need to happen on a grander scale. We simply do not have the time to wait for cheap solar energy, he says, and it is madness to use land to grow crops for biofuel, since Gaia needs its forests if it is to prosper. Likewise, he calls wind power "outrageously expensive and unreliable". Lovelock's answer - nuclear energy - has got him in hot water with his fellow environmentalists, yet he is sticking with it.
He argues for fission in the short term and fusion in the longer. Fission, he says, is a safe energy source, and disposing of nuclear waste is not as difficult as critics claim. Here I have some reservations because his assessment is based on the experience of a few highly developed nations with well-run infrastructures. The safety or otherwise of nuclear power resides not so much with the technology as with the governments, institutions and technicians that run it. And what of nuclear programmes in small nations where there is a tangible risk of terrorism, or where there are dangerous cross-border tensions?
Lovelock is thinking big—this is full-on Earth System Engineering—and he doesn't stop at nuclear technology. He seriously entertains reducing solar radiation, and thereby global warming, using large sunshades in space. And while he acknowledges that sequestering frozen carbon dioxide underground is impractical—a year's output would make a mountain one mile high—he says it is technically possible to convert it into magnesium carbonate and use it as a building material. He also suggests adding sulphur to aviation fuel to create sulphuric acid droplets in the stratosphere, which would reflect sunlight back into space and help reduce global warming. What's more, he envisions high-tech sailing ships for emissions-free travel, and redesigned compact cities where people could walk to work and the shops. As he points out, 75 per cent of energy usage goes into transport and buildings.
What's clear is that good ideas and good intentions on the part of an enlightened few will not be sufficient. In the annual David Hall lecture at the Law Society in London last year, writer George Monbiot drew attention to what he termed our "collective denial" in the face of climate change. It is easier to fly across the Atlantic and enjoy a hot summer holiday than face where we are going and change how we live. In this light, perhaps Harding and Lovelock are both right: we need to change our day-to-day behaviour, and we need to think big. Perhaps the only thing that will save us is a "bible" setting out how to live decently on Earth and why we should be concerned about its desecration. Gaia theory and a thought for "all our relations" would be a good place to start." - F. David Peat, New Scientist, March 2006
"This is a wonderful and beautiful book, a teacher's treasure." --James Lovelock, author of The Revenge of Gaia
"Animate Earth represents systems science at its best...gives a whole new dimension to what 'environment-friendly' really means." -- Jonathon Porritt
"The conception of the Earth as a living, self-organising system, known today as Gaia theory, is an ancient idea and yet one of the most radical and far-reaching scientific theories of the 20th century. In this remarkable book, Stephan Harding, who has worked closely with James Lovelock, tells the story in a way that is scientifically sophisticated, yet easy to understand and captivating. Harding writes about Gaia with great passion, and he eloquently discusses the theory's philosophical, social and political implications. I recommend Animate Earth to everyone concerned about the fate of our planet." —Fritjof Capra, author of The Hidden Connections, The Web of Life, and The Tao of Physics
"For depth of understanding of Earth functioning and our human role in the process, Stephan Harding's Animate Earth is the finest of recent studies. It should be read, meditated on, and adopted as a guide to our human course of action if we would avoid the disaster of an ecological collapse of life on Earth." --Thomas Berry, author of The Great Work
Electronic Book Review-
"Animate Earth is important because Harding walks its swaying rhetorical tightrope with grace and poise to spare, at many moments with moving poetic force, and brings the narrative to his destination, the mutual enhancement of vital scientific ideas and crucial ethical recognitions. The success of his discursive gamble (above and beyond Lovelock's Gaia gambit, which he has absorbed and transformed) is all the more important because, with global ecological disaster closer than anyone had thought up till the end of the last millennium, it seems beside the point to quibble about pedagogical methodology and ontological niceties. Yes, in order to diagram the sort of holism involved in "holistic science," Harding elicits the "mandala" of Jungian wholeness, with its compass points of thinking, sensing, feeling, and intuition. This is not science; it is another serviceable heuristic device, and Harding's discussion does not commit one to the further armatures of Jungian archetypalism. Rather, it prompts one to admit that there may be something to be said for the vision of a culture in better psychological balance."
"This book offers a brilliant new approach at once rigorous, experiential, and intuitive to the most up-to-date research within planetary ecology."--David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous
How Gaian science can help us to develop a sense of connectedness with the ?more-than-human? world.
About the Author
Stephan Harding holds a doctorate in ecology from the University of Oxford. He is the coordinator of the master of science degree in holistic science at Schumacher College at Dartington, where he is also resident ecologist. He lives in Dartington, Devon, UK. Lynn Margulis is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, her publications span a wide range of scientific topics including original contributions to cell biology and microbial evolution. She is best known for her theory of symbiogenesis.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
1. Anima Mundi
2. Encountering Gaia
3. From Gaia Hypothesis to Gaia Theory
4. Life and the Elements
5. Carbon Journeys
6. Life, Clouds and Gaia
7. From Microbes to Cell Giants
8. Desperate Earth
9. Gaia and Biodiversity
10. In Service to Gaia