Cultural Psychology

The Gaia Hypothesis and 9/11

leave a comment »

Last weekend I drove my elderly father somewhere and, while waiting for him, felt an impulse to check the trunk of his car.  While straightening out the messy trunk I noticed a road map and sensed it would be useful. When we got home, I placed the map in my own truck and didn’t think about it again.

That is, not until later, when I drove from Paso Robles (California) to Pleasanton, 200 miles north, where I consult.  On Interstate 101, just north of Salinas, there was a large traffic jam – unusual for a Sunday afternoon.  It  promised a long, nerve-wracking delay, so I pulled off the road, hoping to wait it out.  Then I remembered the map: maybe it would show a back-road to bypass the traffic.  As luck would have it, the map covered the Salinas area, and, what’s more, showed a back-road nearby.

I backed up on the roadside and headed to the alternate route – and a ramble through the hills north of Salinas, an area I’d never previously visited or knew existed, surrounded by oak trees and small farms.  This ended at the mission town of San Juan Bautista, a laid-back place where chickens still roam about.  From there I cut back over to Interstate 101, having bypassed the traffic.

Things jammed up again, however, a few miles further, past Gilroy, but Fortune relented a second time:  again the map showed a handy side road.  This time I was treated to a shady jaunt through a horse ranching area.

I picked up the interstate again south of San Jose.  At this point there was no traffic jam per se, just the ordinary ordeal of five lanes (each way) of congested, fast-moving traffic.  I’ve driven this stretch many times in recent months, but this time noticed it in a new way.  There was something palpably unpleasant, agitating about it — a kind of negative energy or ‘vibration’, one might say.  It was as though the collective angst and frustration of all the drivers was pooled together and could be felt.  What made me notice it so vividly this time was precisely that I had spent the previous hour on tranquil back roads.

It reminded me of a story I once read about a modern Arctic explorer – a man who kayaked from Greenland to Alaska.  He described how, after months in the wilderness, he returned to civilization and felt ill, disoriented, and out of place.  Even as early as arriving at Alaska’s North Shore oil fields – with no other person present, but merely the signs of modern civilization – he felt nauseous.

That’s something like how I felt, though on a lesser scale.  The abrupt change confronted me with something that I, and perhaps most other people, usually try to ignore or forget:  that modern urban life is radically out of balance and against our needs and wants as human beings.  If we weren’t habituated to it, we might see that it’s literally sickening.

Remember this commercial?

In 2001, when 9/11 occurred, I was living in Los Angeles. I was involved in the effort to save Ahmanson Ranch, one of the few remaining undeveloped tracts of land in LA Country and an important wildlife refuge.  This brought me into confrontation with the materialistic values of my native Southern California and with the “greedy corporate mentality” that was trying to develop Ahmanson Ranch over everybody’s objections.

When I saw the first images of the Twin Towers in flames, my first reaction (after initial disbelief, and natural concern for the victims) was something like, “Well, what else did people expect!”  I wasn’t consumed with hatred for the terrorists or a thirst for revenge.  Rather, it seemed apparent to me that American society had become so completely dissociated from Nature, and from human nature, that this result was almost predictable.

The Gaia Hypothesis

I’ve kept these thoughts mostly to myself these last 9 1/2 years.  But the experience last weekend somehow jogged my unconscious, and I saw how they could be expressed in terms of the Gaia hypothesis.  A short definition of the hypothesis is as follows:

The Gaia Hypothesis is the theory that living organisms and inorganic material are part of a dynamic system that shape Earth’s biosphere, in Lynn Margulis’s words, a “super organismic system”  The earth is a self-regulating environment; a single, unified, cooperating and living system – a superorganism that regulates physical conditions to keep the environment hospitable for life.”  Source:

Flavors of the Gaia hypothesis range from a New Agey kind of metaphysical view (‘Gaism’ as a of religion), to a more scientific view based on ecology, biology, and systems theory.  In any case, the Gaia hypothesis comports with intuition, common sense, and experience alike in suggesting that, if you push Nature around enough, you can expect push-back.  (“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”)

Consider an example.  Some suggest that a bee-hive is really a super-organism.  If one bee starts doing things against the good of the hive, it can expect, first, a few angry pokes from the others, and, if that doesn’t work, to get stung.  A superorganism has feedback and control mechanisms built-in. The only way a complex system can survive long is if it has such mechanisms.

By 2001, society had, in my view, already broken down in Los Angeles.  Traffic was horrendous.  There was no affordable housing in the city or nearby areas.  Many people were driving 60 miles to and from work because they couldn’t afford to live any closer.

Greed and Selfishness

Others responded with personal real estate speculation: the game was to buy the most expensive property one could afford, on the assumption that, with continued increase in house prices, one would build up a large equity within 5 years, to be taken as profit.  In short, people denied or ignored the unlivable lifestyle, hoping that, in a few years, they could cash in. Never mind that, besides literally betting the farm on the wrong assumption that real estate would appreciate indefinitely, this scheme only worked by passing on the burden of higher prices to the next buyer.  It was completely greedy:  “let the other poor sucker pony up an extra 50 grand for the house, even though its intrinsic value hasn’t changed, and put it in my pocket.”

Real estate developers and banks (and the federal government) were only too happy to accommodate this personal greed by building and financing bigger houses.  Families of 2 or 3 were buying 5 bedroom mansions (the bigger the house, the more money to be made on speculation.)  On every developable piece of land the largest possible house was built.  Cookie-cutter villas were packed into grids so densely that neighbors could reach out their windows and shake hands.

This also negatively affected the workplace.  Californians were now deeply in debt, stuck with large mortgage payments.  Because keeping ones job became essential, nobody would dare do or say anything to jeopardize their paycheck. Working in the pharmaceutical field, I witnessed a remarkable decline in the conditions and values of the industry.  What began as an earnest attempt of idealistic professionals to make medicine, cure disease, and reduce human suffering became an endless quest for yearly, double-digit corporate profits, to be achieved at any cost.  The industry was surviving more by endless mergers and restructuring than by producing anything.

This same pattern was being played out in other industries and regions of the United States.  We were clearly a culture in decline.  This had not happened suddenly.  Dire warnings about the environment and society had begun in the 1950’s.  In 1982, the remarkable movie, Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance, supplied a vivid artistic portrayal of the problem.  But despite foreshadowings of what was to come, nobody took the warnings to heart. By 2001 things were at least twice as bad as in the 80’s.   Much more ominously, nobody was even talking about the problems any more, much less trying to address them.  All interest was on a series of political and pop-culture distractions:  Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, O. J….one media circus after another.

Note the uncanny and chillingly prophetic, almost subliminal scene at 1:43 in this clip.  That’s not one of the Twin Towers collapsing.  This was filmed 20 years before 9/11.

The Gaia hypothesis implies that, when things get too far out of balance, a correction is inevitable.  It seems reasonable to try looking at the 9/11 disaster in this way.  Some may object:  but it was Osama bin Laden and the terrorists, not Nature, that did this.  That’s almost irrelevant; maybe, in theory, ‘Gaia’ could have responded with a wholly natural event, like an earthquake or flood.  But if that had occurred, would we have paid attention, or would we have just written it off as a random event?  Instead, perhaps Nature chose to act by pushing some borderline terrorists over the edge in their disordered thinking. Stranger things have happened.

What should have ocurred soon after 9/11 – after looking after the survivors, caring for the affected families, and taking sensible security precautions — would have been to ask: “what have we done to make these people so mad at us?”   Possible answers aren’t hard to find.  It suffices to say that, not only have we done our best to destroy our country, but we’ve also managed to export our crass materialism to the rest of the world.  Can this be said out loud yet:  if we weren’t Americans, we’d be angry with America, too?  In fact, we were already blowing ourselves up – witness Timothy McVey and Ted Kaczynski.

Instead our leaders fell back on the most ridiculous response imaginable, claiming:  “they hate us because we’re free!”   Rather than engage in any kind of concerted self-examination, we externalized all blame and lashed out, throwing not one, but two hellish, trillion-dollar temper tantrums in Afghanistan and Iraq, unleashing new aggression and violence to further upset the planet.  As a consequence, we are, in 2010, much worse off.

Implications of the Gaia Hypothesis

Fortunately, the Gaia hypothesis has a positive aspect.  If the Earth is something like a superorganism, hopefully it still wants to keep us around; we do manage to do nice things now and then when we try.  Perhaps, like God, Gaia chastises those whom she loves: the point is not to destroy, but to improve us, and, ultimately, to place us back on the road to happiness.

Let’s get back on track, America.  Let’s, first of all, end this wretched war in Afghanistan, and not start any new wars.  Then let’s admit the problems that face us – environmental deterioration, urban sprawl, lack of planning and foresight, inane or nonexistent cultural values, a political climate of continual hostility and ill-will, domestic injustice, and indifference to the needs and suffering of the rest of the world.

The recent, interminable succession of crises and catastrophes was in a general sense, accurately predicted by the Harvard sociologist Pitirm A. Sorokin as early as 1937.  Based on an exhaustive analysis of world history, Sorokin saw that severe crises inevitably accompany a transition from one cultural epoch to another.  But he also recognized that, at the same time a culture becomes decadent, a contrary force emerges – and this force gathers strength rapidly.  We have already seen signs of this counter-force in the form of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and emerging ideas like the environmental movement, the 1960’s peace movement, holistic health, sustainable living, and more recently anti-globalization concerns.  The path forward is there – it’s just a matter of enough people disengaging from the mentality of the dying ultra-materialist culture.

I can think of no better way to end this post than with the words of the 1969 Joni Mitchell song, “Woodstock”:

We are stardust, we are golden,
Caught in the devil’s bargain.
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the Garden.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: