Biophilia and Gaia: Two Hypotheses for an Affective Ecology

THE GAIA HYPOTHESIS

The Gaia Framework
The rocks, the minerals, the water, the air, the earth and its visible inhabitants, the fungi, the plants, the animals: each creature, living or not, can speak to us, can help us feel at ease within our common home, the Habitable Earth (Gê oikouméne). We are all children of Gea (Γῆ), or Gaia (Γαiα), children of a very long and uninterrupted evolutionary history. We feel that we belong, not only to the human race, but also to the biosphere itself, and we can empathise deeply with the sacredness of each living form (Goodenough 1998). Little by little we re-discover our ecological selves, being part of our deepest self (Naess 1976). We do not need to put excessive demands upon our linguistical/verbal or logical/mathematical intelligence with discussions about environmental education or diagrams of the greenhouse effect because it is the locus naturae that educates our naturalistic intelligence (Hill 2000). And it will be our naturalistic intelligence that stimulates the manifestations of our other forms of intelligence, in all their shades, day after day more cognitive and affective (Goleman 2009) to become aware of our responsibility towards ourselves and to all creatures, a responsibility that derives from being the species that knows the other species (Volk 1998).

Gaia as a universal myth
Myths are timeless and they express with their archetypal contents some fundamental themes of humanity with universal validity that cannot be conveyed using rationality alone. Mother Earth is without doubt an archetype deeply rooted into our psyche. The concept of the Earth as a Mother is present in virtually all cultures and dates back to the Neolithic age: the idea is that the Earth is a sort of womb for life (Gimbutas 1989). In ancient Greek mythology, for example, Gaia is the starter of life: the Olympic Gods and all living creatures descended from Gaia (Koreny 1958). She is also the Roman Mater Tellus (Koreny 1958) and Hel in Norse mythology (Monaghan 1981). She is a mother Goddess that renews with each season (she is always a virgin and always fertile) and she knows the mysteries of life and death: she is a Goddess of knowledge. Over the course of the centuries, this Goddess has tended to be personified into ever more distinguished female figures, each one of which conserves an attribute of the original Goddess. For the ancient Greeks, the Goddess that best assumes the form of Gaia is Demeter, and her name (Δημήτηρ) again converts back to Mother Earth. Demeter, together with her other identities, Persephone and Kore, is at the centre of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the ancient religious rites that celebrated the cyclic seasons of life: Persephone’s Winter, Persephone being the wife of Ade and Queen of the Underworld, and the awaking of Kore in the Spring, Kore being the fertile Goddess of vegetation (Koreny 1958). It is possible to retrace the same myth structure to the Celts, with the epic deeds of Eire and Fodhla (Monaghan 1981), and even in the patriarchal Christian world, where the virgin and mother “Goddess” incarnates into the historical figure of Myriam of Nazareth who, starting from the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, became to be known as Theotókos, the Virgin Mother of God.

Gaia as a scientific hypothesis
The myth of Gaia was borrowed by James Lovelock (1979) to illustrate a scientific hypothesis that describes the dynamics that make the Earth a peculiar place to host life. The Gaia hypothesis was for a long time a controversial argument, in part because experimental verification was difficult to obtain (Kirchner 1989) and in part because the more orthodox academic culture does not like such a merger of science and myth (Margulis 1998). However, it is now commonly accepted that the Earth is a system characterised by the phenomenon of emergence (Schenider 2001). This presumes that life has a significant effect upon the environment (influential Gaia), at least upon the Earth’s surfaces and the atmosphere (Kirchner 1989; Kirchner 2002). In turn, the environment exerts its influence by limiting the evolution of the biosphere via Darwinian processes (Lenton 1998).

It is more difficult, however, to establish whether the biosphere influences the abiotic world in a stabilising way. If it were so, negative feedback loops should prevail in the dominant connections between biota and the physical world (optimizing Gaia). Life, in other words, would not only condition some chemical-physical variables in such a way that they adapted to life (for example, mean atmospheric pressure at 1 bar and the average surface temperature between 0° e 100° C, parameters that allow water to be conserved in the liquid state), but it should also be able to cope with oscillations of these variables such that it always returns to the reference values after a global perturbation. Overall, what one observes in reality is behaviour of Gaia that is both homeostatic, where negative feedback loops effectively prevail, and homeorhetic, where positive feedback loops prevail (Barbiero 2005).
The biogeochemical cycles of our planet seem to be fundamentally homeostatic: the feedback loops have a negative sign, that is, they tend to inhibit the perturbations from altering the overall structure of the system. In principle, however, it is possible that one or more positive feedback loop is established within the cycle; loops where the product of a reaction amplifies rather than inhibits the sequence of successive reactions, triggering a cascade process. A cascade process by nature tends to modify the equilibria consolidated in an irreversible manner and the system becomes unstable, remaining as such until a new point of equilibrium is attained (homeorhesis). The history of the Earth is constellated with episodes that have upset long-standing homeostatic equilibria, such that these points of discontinuity are used by academics to divide the history of the Earth up into geological eras. From the Proterozoic eon onwards, the protagonists of many of these points of discontinuity are diverse forms of life that inhabited the planet (Schwartzman 1999). One example is the transformation of the terrestrial atmosphere from a reducing to an oxidising one caused by photosynthesising organisms. This, not only contributed to changing the planet’s climate, by cooling it down, but they started to release molecular oxygen into the atmosphere that revealed to be lethal for life on Earth. For some time, the planet managed to absorb the oxygen, mostly via the easily oxidised minerals contained within the rocks, but once these deposits were saturated, the free oxygen in the atmosphere destroyed the layer of anaerobic organisms that covered the Earth (Schwartzman 1999). Following this ecological disaster, the terrestrial atmosphere never again favoured anaerobic life, although the new equilibrium attained permitted the evolution of eukaryotic cells (Volk 1998; Margulis 1998).
Whatever the true nature of Gaia may be – influential or optimising –, the hypothesis formulated by Lovelock gave rise to a rich and heuristic field of study: Geophysiology, which considers the biosphere and its matrices (atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere) as a single super-organism sui generis (Kump, Kasting & Crane, 2004).

GAIA FASCINATION RESTORES HUMAN BIOPHILIA

Gaia is not only a legend and a scientific hypothesis; Gaia is an essential element of our lives. We are discovering that Gaia affects us on a deep psychological level – as only a true mother would – activating our involuntary attention, fascinating our senses and favouring the restoration of our attentional capacity. If this is true, we stand before a crucial issue that needs to be addressed in its entirety: here, Gaia is the active subject, while humanity receives physical and psychological nourishment. Modern man is used to considering himself to be at the centre of the Universe. He tends to believe that he is the sole driving force, for better or for worse, of his own destiny. Here, we are dealing with a totally new perspective, which is much more humble: we depend upon the integrity of Gaia: as stated by Francis of Assisi in his Laudes Creaturarum (1224), Mother Earth really sustains and manages us, not only physically («et produce diversi fructi»), but also on the psychological («con coloriti flori et herba») level.

The Attention Restoration Theory
The primary question of my research is thus: why and in what way is attention influenced by certain natural environments? In the quest to answer this question, I have become greatly interested in the Attention Restoration Theory developed by Stephen Kaplan, psychologist at University of Michigan, particularly about the restorative power of fascination (Kaplan 1995) and mindfulness meditation (Kaplan 2001).

Fascination
Kaplan distinguishes two forms of attention: directed attention and involuntary attention, or fascination. The first form, we have already discussed above. To Kaplan, directed attention, in its essence, can be defined as the capacity to inhibit concurrent or distracting stimuli while carrying out a task (Kaplan 1995). When directed attention is subject to intense and prolonged use, it becomes exhausted and mental fatigue occurs: the subject is more easily distracted his/her behaviour becomes more frequently impulsive and hostile.
Involuntary attention (James 1892), or fascination, is a form of effortless attention, resistant to fatigue (Kaplan 1995). It permits directed attention to rest and regenerate until it returns to normal efficiency levels. Fascination can trigger open attention inasmuch as it emerges from the performance of processes (for example, from play, but also from listening to or telling stories, or problem solving) or by simply surrounding oneself with into wild natural environments perceived as reassuring and regenerating (wilderness Gaia).