TCS Daily

Gaia or God?

By Roy Spencer - July 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Whether it's global warming in particular, or environmental issues in general, people tend to split into two camps on the subject. The two views really aren't reconcilable, and most folks can't even articulate why they feel the way they do. This is because our beliefs reflect an underlying philosophy, a worldview, a paradigm of the way things work that has been shaped by our culture, upbringing, and our personal strength of spirit.

Not many folks will think about it much or question it. For most people, either you believe that the world has been created for mankind's use, with a certain resiliency and stability, or you believe it is just a cosmic accident, fragile, and overly sensitive to our meddling. The creator may be the biblical God; or as a scientist friend of mine believes, some as yet unrevealed Life Force. For many of those who don't believe in a creator, the spiritual need in their lives results in the uplifting of Mother Nature as the ultimate spiritual entity. Some even deify the Earth as a living, breathing being, usually called Gaia. A few people so strongly believe this that they are willing to commit acts of domestic terrorism to keep Gaia from being violated with the chainsaw or SUV. When we confer the same rights on trees as we do people in today's world, conflict is sure to follow. A number of Christian churches have become very active in the environmental movement, pushing the envelope of stewardship over the creation to what some would consider to be Earth-worship.

I believe that science cannot resolve this issue, even though science can be employed to list a variety of evidences that will support one or the other world view. There's no question that mankind has the ability to negatively impact his environment. The real issue is, how do we feel about this, and to what lengths will we go to limit it?

Maybe it's useful to first look at nature. Animals and plants do their thing, leaving the resulting waste lying about, and we call it "good." How is it that we view nature's pollution, littering the forest floor and contaminating the streams as acceptable, and yet the refuse of humans is bad? Indeed, why do we tend to view ourselves as separate from nature, rather than as part of it? Some people say it's because we have the ability to produce some kinds of waste that are highly toxic. Another argument is that humans have the power to indiscriminately destroy so many forms of life in the pursuit of their daily activities. But the deer and birds in my backyard are also very good at indiscriminately destroying plant life, spreading the damage equitably in all directions, and leaving the remains to waste away. And who is to say that these acts aren't just a natural consequence of what the human species does? If you believe in evolution, why not view all human acts are the inevitable domination of our species over some less evolved ones? The view that humans are violent, and nature is peaceful, certainly can't be defended -- not with the daily life-and-death struggle for existence being played out in the natural world.

The rise of the Green Party as a powerful player in many countries is evidence that environmental issues are becoming increasingly real and important in daily life. The Greens' dominant role in European politics, especially in the German government, and the general sentiment in the EU that Americans are a wasteful lot, are all evidence that Gaia has been steadily, if not secretly, expanding Her power base. The Greens' ability to sway the results of elections in our own country by siphoning off a small, but critical number of votes from the Democrats, potentially puts environmentalism on par with the war in Iraq and the economy for its political influence.

Global warming and the concerns of environmentalists aren't just obscure, side issues anymore. They are creeping up on us with the power to change how we live (or how the government will allow us to live). Al Gore's book "Earth in the Balance - Ecology and the Human Spirit" was a wakeup call that the number of eligible voters is now increasing rapidly as trees and other forms of life are, in effect, conferred the right to vote.

It would be worthwhile for everyone to think seriously about what they believe mankind's role on Earth is, and how much influence over nature humans should assert. Since this is ultimately and inevitably a religious question, I fear that science will be misused in the effort to disguise it as a scientific one. Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, as well as Nobel laureates, should have no more say in the policy implications of science issues than John or Jane Doe. Yet gaggles of esteemed scientific experts are routinely gathered to make some pronouncement about what society should do about some perceived problem. Luckily, we live in a country where grassroots support is necessary for just about any major policy change. This makes it imperative that the grass roots spend some time deciding which direction they want to grow, and why.


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