The Gaia Hypothesis

“The end of the world has already occurred. We can be uncannily precise about the date on which the world ended. Convenience is not readily associated with historiography, nor indeed with geological time. But in this case, it is uncannily clear. It was April 1784, when James Watt patented the steam engine, an act that commenced the depositing of carbon in Earth’s crust—namely, the inception of humanity as a geophysical force on a planetary scale.”   ~ Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World

April 24th.  That’s the day that my mom says the leaves will come out every year.  They’ve come late this year, probably due to our strange (though, perhaps we shouldn’t consider it to be so strange anymore) winter/spring/winter/spring weather — the snow and the sun and the snow and the sun made the buds hide for longer than normal.  But they’re here now, their green-ness slowly emerging, creating interlacing shadows on the sidewalk in front of my apartment. As I emerge the library for the first time in hours, after reading paper after paper about genocide and war and food insecurity, I breathe in the scent of the blossoms on the breeze and shake off the hazy film that coats my brain after I spend too long under fluorescent lights.  I let the fresh air wash over me, change the song to something gentle, and walk. I do this a lot as spring (do we have such a season? I do it as the frequency of warm days increases) comes, meandering about random sidewalks and expanding my mental geography; I sit on random benches, walk into churches, wander around stores, sit in fields, find shapes in clouds, watch sunsets and sunrises and moonsets and moonrises, talk with friends, pet cats (if they deem me to be worth their time).

It’s around this time of year, taking my many moseys around town, that I am thrown into a period of deep awareness of the interconnectedness of the everything surrounding me. Leaves emerging from branches, tulips pushing through the ground, snails on the sidewalk: all of these things only exist in front of me due to the interaction of — and their own participation in — wider systems of nature often not visible (whether they are too big, too small, too far away, or too close for us to see) to me, to you, to us.  Earlier in this semester, I learned about the concept of the Gaia hypothesis, which proposes, “that all organisms and their inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex system, maintaining the conditions for life on the planet.” Basically, the hypothesis conceives of the Earth as an organism (N.K. Jemisin is that you?) with the interactions between each of its various regulatory systems maintaining a delicate homeostasis; the biosphere, the evolution of each and every organism, each contributes to the functionality of atmospheric temperature, ocean salinity,  and other systems required for homeostasis. Thus, any interference upon the functionality of any one system will throw the functionality of the overall system off — if, for example, one species were to develop the capability to create technology that emitted certain warming gases into the atmosphere, thus throwing off the regulatory capabilities of the atmosphere, the overall system would experience the repercussions. Thus, the climate crisis as we know it is due to, in the words of Timothy Morton in the epigraph of this post, “the inception of humanity as a geophysical force on a planetary scale.” Our inception as a geological force arose out of a European-based, Enlightenment-motivated conception of ourselves, of humanity, as something outside of, or separate from nature. Thus, we undertook and (here’s the kicker) continue to undertake actions that inflict harm upon the wider planetary system in which we live, thus throwing off the functionality of this system, inflicting harm upon every organic and inorganic participant in the system, including ourselves. While initially a lack of awareness of the influence of human technology upon the environment could have excused this action, we have been aware of anthropogenic climate change and the harm that it could inflict for well over twenty years. Yet, many continue to utilize harmful technologies and lifestyles— at least, many of the rich, the powerful, the wealthy, the privileged enough to do so. Our inability to position ourselves, conceive of ourselves as a part of a wider system was and continues to be an act of violence, mindless or not.

When writing our collaborative blog posts, many of us were forced to overcome our inherent tendency to think of sustainability solely within the context of environmental sustainability.  Environmental sustainability certainly predicates the continued functionality of any other system but this does not mean that it is the only system with which we should associate sustainability; in fact, the definition of sustainability includes social sustainability and economic sustainability as integral to the function of our overall system.  I’ve been forced to overcome a similar attitude toward interconnectivity (which is, of course, inherently connected with sustainability). Of course, in thinking of how interconnected everything I consider the social and economic aspects thereof but the bulk of my thought turns toward the environment, to concepts such as the Gaia hypothesis and climate change. However, the truth is that interconnectedness goes in a myriad of different directions — environmental, social, economic, political systems are all deeply interconnected with one another.  

For example, when I walk out of the library and attempt to shake off the effect of the fluorescents and the after-shock of the readings I have just done on famine and war and genocide, I cannot and should not be able to fully remove them not only from my awareness but from my conception of the world surrounding me. Even though those terrible things I have read about are not occurring directly in front of me, this does not make them a true and real part of the world, of my world.  We must conceive of ourselves as a part of the wider social and economic systems, especially those of us with more privilege and those of us in more privileged societies.  Otherwise, we are (I am) inflicting harm through the idea that we (I) — in our (my) actions, our education, our consumption, our presumptions, our attitudes, our food, our sleep, everything — are not participating in those same systems that force others into oppression, poverty, illness, lack of education. The conception of ourselves as individuals, as societies, as species as separate from these wider systems only serves to perpetuate the violence that arises due to these systems, especially as this violence often arises due to the exploitation of those who are less-privileged by those who are more privileged.  

So, how do we begin to place ourselves within these wider systems? How do we acknowledge our position, our role in the violence perpetrated by a separation of self from the system?

There are likely many ways to place ourselves within these systems but the repositioning of self inherent within the viewing of art seems an especially effective vehicle for positioning not only the society but the self. Professor Nicodemi pointed out in her lecture on perspectives that most visual art is created with the perspective of the viewer in mind, showing us a to-scale print out of a painting and illustrating — through some calculations of distance and line — that the artist has crafted the perspective so that when the viewer stands from a certain distance, the painting looks not two-dimensional but three-dimensional.  Thus, the viewer is forced to participate in the representation in front of them as they are positioned, in a certain sense, within it. Steve Prince often seems to operate upon this technique in his art when he creates a perspective wherein figures are emerging from the canvas toward the viewer, marching past the viewer, staring into the eyes of the viewer. In works such as Prince’s, which address topics to do with social justice and violence, these techniques position the viewer in conversation with the canvas and, thus, position the viewer as a part of the wider systemic issues Prince often addresses in his art.


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