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Living earth theory, in five minutes

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We often view the planet as a big rock with life on it. The living earth theory asks us to view our planet differently, as a whole superorganism of which we are one part. In other words, Earth itself is alive.

From this view, we can better see that humanity’s well-being is inextricably linked to that of Earth and all life on Earth. We are just one organ of a much larger being. We are the Earth. When we hurt it, we hurt ourselves. When we protect it, we protect ourselves.

Living earth theory, the longer version

Environmentalism is dead

Environmentalism as we’ve typically known it centers on this little guy.

Panda

The panda is cute and cuddly. We can see ourselves in its eyes. We think of forests being cleared and the pandas killed in the mayhem and we grow despondent. Why should the poor panda suffer because we want wood? How can the evil logging companies do something like that just for a quick buck?

This line of thought has been the basis for environmentalism for decades.

This is great. We all want to save the panda. It is a noble goal. But it’s also a narrow – and perhaps even privileged – goal. Traditional environmentalist priorities have appealed largely to folks who aren’t themselves coping with poverty, injustice, or violence, who aren’t themselves the most vulnerable to the climate crisis and other challenges. It hasn’t always shown the human impact of ecological destruction.

Because of this, environmentalism has arguably failed to broaden its appeal. It has become just another special interest.

Seventy-five percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 support government action to fight climate change (Monmouth). Yet, only 32% of Millennials consider themselves “environmentalists” – fewer than Gen X’ers, Boomers, and the Silent Generation (KPBS). We want to help Earth more than ever. But don’t call us environmentalists.

Perhaps one reason environmentalism as we have known it has largely failed is that it asks humans to be ashamed of themselves. How can we save the planet from the virus of humanity? How do we keep as much of the world as possible uncontaminated by our human wickedness?

Crazy that we haven’t been more inspired by this story!

Earth as an organism

The concept of a “living earth” – similar and related to the Gaia hypothesis – changes all of that. At its most fundamental level, living earth asks us to not see our planet as a big rock on which plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and other life have sprung up. Rather, it asks us to view the entire planet – and everything on it – as one big, living superorganism.

All beings on Earth are like cells in the human body. They are distinct individual entities, yet also inherently linked to and dependent on one another. Together, they create something larger and beyond any of them as individuals. If the greater being becomes ill – as Earth is today – then all other individuals within it are threatened.

The living earth concept is a potent alternative to environmentalism as we’ve known it. It asks us not just to consider isolated environmental destruction: decimated panda populations, dirty water, smog, etc. It asks us to consider all of these issues from a broader perspective:

  • How does our behavior affect how the whole planet functions as a system?
  • Can we gauge the health of that system?
  • How do we begin to heal that system?
  • What is our place as humans within that system?

Through this lens, we are no longer saving pandas because they are cute and cuddly and it makes us feel good. We are saving the panda, the ecosystems they live within, and the network of ecosystems in which they exist. We are saving them because they are all essential to our own survival. They are part of us and we are part of them.

Earth as an evolving organism

In the traditional environmentalist view, Earth is fully formed. It is the way it should be and we are simply trying to preserve what already is or restore what was. Our end goal is to make sure we don’t destroy it.

In this new view, our planet is an organism that has evolved and continues to evolve. Our goal is not just to keep it alive, but to nurture that evolution and growth.

Where environmentalism often casts humans as the enemy, living earth asks us to see humans as a beautiful part of our planet, perhaps even the leading edge of its evolution. Humanity holds the most capacity for intelligence, creativity, self-reflection, and love of any creature to ever exist on Earth.

Of course, humanity is also the single biggest threat to Earth’s well-being as well. It more than any other species has the potential to bring the Earth system dramatically out of balance. That can’t be denied or understated. But it also has the most potential to nurture and support Earth’s well-being.

Humanity isn’t separate from the Earth. It isn’t a virus or parasite. It is literally part of the Earth. It is Earth. And so are all other living beings here.

Cutting to the core

Our need to protect the planet goes far beyond saving the panda. Protecting the planet is protecting ourselves. It is investing in the very basis and origin of our life. It is accepting that we – all living beings on Earth – are inextricably linked to one another.

This doesn’t pit environmentalism against a thriving economy or poverty alleviation. It shows that our economy and society are dependent on a healthy planet. We can’t have one without the other. It gives us all a reason to care and to take action.

Environmental protection is not about lessening humanity’s impact on Earth. It is about transforming and harnessing our influence into something more constructive. It is about asking ourselves the essential question: How can we as humans foster Earth’s evolution intentionally for the good of all beings?

Perhaps when we fully acknowledge and appreciate the living earth, we will not only be concerned about our own survival or even our planet’s survival. Perhaps we will focus on what wondrous new life might emerge if we continue to nurture it.


Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth

by David Korten

Korten offers a Sacred Life and Living Earth story grounded in a cosmology that affirms we are living beings born of a living Earth itself born of a living universe. Our health and well-being depend on an economy that works in partnership with the processes by which Earth’s community of life maintains the conditions of its own existence—and ours.


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Peter Schulte

Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA, USA with his wife, son, and cat.