Fear of a Living Planet

Does the concept of a living planet uplift and inspire you, or is it a disturbing example of woo-woo nonsense that distracts us from practical, science-based policies?

The scientifically-oriented nuts-and-bolts environmental or social activist will roll her eyes upon hearing phrases like “The planet is a living being.” From there it is a short step to sentiments like, “Love will heal the world,” “What we need most is a shift in consciousness,” and “Let’s get in touch with our indigenous soul.”

What’s wrong with such ideas? The skeptics make a potent argument. Not only are these ideas delusional, they say, but to voice them is a strategic error that opens environmentalism to accusations of flakiness. By invoking unscientific concepts, by prattling on about the ‘heart’ or spirit or the sacred, we will be dismissed as naive, fuzzy-headed, irrational, hysterical, over-emotional hippies. What we need, they say, is more data, more logic, more numbers, better arguments, and more practical solutions framed in language acceptable to policy-makers and the public.

I think that argument is mistaken. By shying away from the idea of a living planet, we rob environmentalism of its authentic motive force, engender paralysis rather than action, and implicitly endorse the worldview that enables our destruction of the planet.

This article originally appeared in the Fall | Winter 2013 issue of Kosmos Journal. To read the entire text, please download it as a PDF here.


  1. I just read your piece titled “Synchronicity, Myth, and the New World Order”. Truly excellent stuff, well-versed argument to debunk either-or objectivist type thinking. This, on the other hand, I find to be a little dismissive. You seem to understand the argument behind limiting our “living world” hippy jargon in the quest to save the planet. But you dismiss it just as an objectivist might dismiss the existence of Santa. Number and statistics and all that have transformative power, just like airy-fairy hippy talk. If it’s numbers that policy-makers want, then it’s up to us (by “us” I mean those of us who believe the earth is a sacred, living being, deserving of respect and love) to give them some. Let’s imagine for a moment that all the activist protesting and campaigning and poetry in the world could never be enough to change the minds of the guys who employ the wood-choppers to take their chainsaws to the trunks of 1000-year-old trees. (So far, this has been true.) Then, if there is some guy sitting in some office somewhere, wondering whether or not he should chop down a heritage forest for its financial gains, telling him the earth is alive is not a useful tactic. It is strategically flawed. In fact, it might even work in the opposite direction, infuriating our hypothetical pencil-neck to the point that he wants to chop the forest just to silence the hippies. In such a situation, it would be far more advisable to wear a collared shirt and shave our dreadlocks, so that we might step into hypothetical-pencil-neck’s office and show him some numbers and some statistics about how chopping heritage forests leads to severely negative impacts on his company’s public relations, thus negatively affecting his profit margin. I suspect this tactic might be much more successful in saving the forest. And, in a battle of wits between hippies and economists, it is not the value of our beliefs that matters, but the forests we’re arguing over. I don’t mean sacrificing or hiding our beliefs. I just mean translating them into the language of those who don’t necessarily share them on the surface. All too often we will find that, on many fundamental levels, we do share beliefs with hypothetical-pencil-neck. We just don’t like speaking his language because our ego thinks its gross. Yes, I still believe the earth is a living being. Yes, if hypothetical-pencil-neck asked me that question directly, I would answer with a yes. But if I was in the business of asking hypothetical-pencil-neck to preserve a forest (as it happens, I actually am), then I wouldn’t light up a joint in his face and tell him to chill out and save the trees. If I was with my friends, sharing my natural language of understanding, then I would happily express the love and joy I feel at connecting with the sacred spirits of nature.

  2. I think you are missing the point regarding certain opposition you find to the idea of the Earth as a living being. It is not because it is “crazy”, or will alienate people. I think the problem is that it does not necessarily lead us to do what is necessary. I think the problem is that there are powerful economic and political forces at work, operating under a system, capitalism, that must be understood if we are to know how to fight to change that system. The system is a social product and the power to make changes to that system reside within us – but only if we act in a collective manner to make those changes. That takes human collective social action. Focusing on powers that are posited to be outsides of ourselves – some kind of spirit, or religious notion can help us to understand the predicament we are in. But it can also often be a block to taking action. Too much focus on individual personal growth, Yes, the very idea that “love will heal the world”, is true but creating a world where there is a lot more love out there, does not come about only from the “idea” of love. It comes about from people taking action together to protest, revolt, create, etc. There is often too much focus on talk about love, about spirit, about nature – all great things to talk about, but maybe we need to realize we have to take serious action, have to revolt.

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