Twenty-one wildfires are ravaging California, and the Bay Area chokes on air that is smoggier than that of Beijing. This catastrophe follows the wildfires that blackened the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and the deluge of four hurricanes that stomped the Caribbean and southern United States in quick succession. With weather systems so out-of-whack that nothing seems predictable, even sober, rational citizens are increasingly considering the possibility that a vengeful deity is demanding a stop to so much abuse.
An internet meme shows a supersized pickup truck emitting billows of black smoke into the air, with the caption “Yeah f**k you, Earth.” An image below shows an aerial view of the dense cyclonic clouds of Hurricane Harvey, with the caption “Well f**k you, too.”
As September’s hurricanes moved north, a social media commenter opined: “Having taken out the oil refineries in Houston, the earth protector spirit is aiming at Mar a Lago. It is harsh, but so is the situation it finds itself it” (Sept. 7, 2017).
Such social media posts suggest an implicit awareness of the limits of the punishment Earth can take, and awakening to the idea of sentience and agency within Earth herself. When the chemist James Lovelock proposed the Gaia hypothesis – the idea that the entire Earth is a complex, self-regulating entity that maintains the conditions for life through the complex interplay of biological and chemical factors – in the 1970s, he was widely critiqued for his implicit animism. While such awareness has existed for eons among Native and indigenous peoples, it is a relatively recent awakening among modern Americans. Terms that describe awareness of the sentience of other life forms – and even larger living systems up to the entire planet – like ‘animism’ or ‘panpsychism’ are often shunned from contemporary discourse.
The Mechanistic Paradigm
Most modern Americans are taught the mechanistic paradigm that gained prominence in Europe between 1500 and 1700, and spread around the world through European colonialism. In this paradigm, matter is divisible, corpuscular, passive, inert, and insensate, and thus ripe for management and control, according to the University of California - Berkeley environmental historian Carolyn Merchant. Her groundbreaking book, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, chronicles the religious, cultural, philosophical, political, economic, ecological, and technological shifts in early modern Europe that changed the ways society understood nature.
First published in 1980, Merchant’s book is as relevant today as ever. Our current understandings of modernity and progress were established 500 years ago with scientific, philosophical, and religious precepts that separated mind from matter and nature from context. The mechanistic paradigm that gained traction in the early modern period seeks power and control to create a certain, consistent, predictable world. Matter is context-independent and can be re-arranged according to mathematical rules. Nonhuman nature came to be seen as lacking intrinsic value and thus available for indiscriminate human uses. In this perspective nonhuman nature has no agency, direction, or purpose of its own, but is subject to manipulation and instrumental use.
The Limits of the Mechanistic Model
Some observers are beginning to recognize the limits to this mechanistic point of view, which gave rise to the conditions that allowed the atmosphere to be oversaturated with carbon dioxide, trapping more heat and creating the conditions for more intense hurricanes and wildfires. A more embracing and comprehensive understanding of nonhuman nature that incorporates agency and meaning may be more accurate.
Indigenous, Native, and non-Western peoples have respected the agency, and even intention, to the activity of nature for millennia. The evolutionary heritage of all humans includes close relations with nonhuman nature in ways that treat nature with respect and reverence. Recent work in biology and ecology shows that other life forms are not instinct-driven or insensate automatons, but rather have significant interests and preferences, which they communicate to others within and beyond their species group. For example, in his recent book The Songs of Trees, the biologist David George Haskell shows the many ways that trees communicate among themselves and with the larger world, including the human world
Moving Toward a Paradigm of Partnership and Care
It is time to take seriously the possibility that Earth is speaking to us in the most direct, poignant manner possible. The unprecedented series of weather perturbations, including hurricanes, wildfires, and extreme flooding in South Asia, are alerting people to the limits of abuse that Earth can absorb. Earth will retaliate when pushed too far.
To consider this possibility, we needn’t subscribe to a mystical perspective, but simply to recognize that all living systems have limits, and when pushed beyond those limits, they begin to break down. Humans, animals, and plants all behave in unusual ways when pushed to the limits of their physiological tolerance. It should not be surprising that a planet comprised of living beings would also behave unusually as the boundaries of its tolerance are reached.
Resilience is defined ecologically as the amount of change an ecological system can absorb before morphing into a new type of system. Earth – particularly its atmosphere, oceans and soils – have absorbed a tremendous amount of change over the past one hundred years, with the rate of change increasing with every year. Having been asked to absorb into the atmosphere, soils, and oceans more carbon that these great carbon sinks can handle, Earth is resisting this abusive imposition.
Transgressing Earth’s planetary boundaries will result in responses that make human life on Earth increasingly difficult. We have gotten a taste of this possibility over the past few weeks. It is time to pay attention to the unequivocal messages we are receiving about our impacts on Earth. The mechanistic paradigm no longer serves us. We must stop imagining Earth as an insentient machine, and start perceiving her as a partner to whom obligations of care and respect are owed.