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 Five Elements of Ecology


Satish Kumar

Gaia, Deep Ecology, Permaculture, Bioregions and Creation Spirituality are five new ideas upon which we can build a more holist world-view.

The contemporary thinkers of the green movement are collectively developing an ecological world-view. It has five basic ingredients, or five key terms; they are: Gaia (James Lovelock), Deep Ecology (Arne Naess), Permaculture (Bill Mollison), Bioregionalism (Gary Snyder et al.) and Creation Spirituality (Matthew Fox). These five elements give us a structure for an integrated view of Nature.

Gaia is a scientific explanation for understanding the Earth. The majority of scientists do not see the whole Earth as one living organism, or as an interdependent and interconnected whole. But the Gaia hypothesis is changing that. For example, my body is one system. On the top of my head I have my hair which is totally connected with the toe-nail in my foot. Similarly the whole Earth is one body — Gaia.

The Earth as one system has been very graphically presented to us by the pictures of the Earth from space taken by astronauts. They saw, from space, this beautiful icon, looking like a great work of art, all of a piece; there is no division there; you don’t see Africa or Europe, white or black, Muslims or Christians, Arabs or Jews, poor or rich, human or non-human, living or non-living — there is no division. You don’t see the division between the rainforests, the oceans and the earth. All are part of one body — a planet home.

I experienced that the living Earth as one organism in my own way when I walked around the world. Going across the continents and the countries, across the religious boundaries and the language boundaries, across deserts and wilderness, mountains and valleys, across rivers and forests, was quite an experience, a similar kind of experience as if I had gone into space and seen the Earth from space, because I saw that all those boundaries were artificially created out of fear by the human language. If we can transcend our perceptions and prejudices, we can see that the Earth is truly one.

The Sanskrit scholars of India believed that vasudhaiva kutumbakam which means "the whole Earth is one family". So a tree is not a utilitarian object to build a house with, or make furniture. A tree is a member of my family. Even a worm in the earth is not merely a creature to create nice soil for the food to grow. The worm is a member of my family. If we have this kind of thinking, we will not upset the balance of the Earth, we will not destroy the fabric of nature.

Gaia is an emotional experience as well as a scientific discovery. It is a poetic expression as well as an intellectual concept. Scientists and ordinary people can relate to Gaia equally. Everyone knows that we depend on each other; not only on human beings, but we depend on the worm. If worms were not in the soil working for us, we would not be alive, we would not be able to speak, we would not be able to stand. Whenever we eat our delicious meal we must thank the worms without which the food would not grow.

Once we have understood that the whole Earth is one interconnected entity, then Deep Ecology becomes the next step. The Gaia hypothesis will not be of much use without realizing that everything upon this Earth has intrinsic value — a tree, a worm, a river, all and everything are good in themselves. The tree is not good because it will make nice furniture, or a nice house, or nice firewood. Those are all useful but secondary aspects. The most important thing is that everything upon the Earth has a deep intrinsic value; all things maintain a deep intrinsic relationship to each other. They are good in themselves. We have no right to think that we human beings are more important than, say, rainforests.

There are seven elements, from which this whole universe is made: the earth, fire, water and air are recognized as basic elements by most people in Europe, but for the Indians and Chinese the fifth element is space. Without space we cannot exist. And the sixth one is time; not clock time, but eternal time. And the seventh element is consciousness. Without consciousness we would not be able to relate to anything. Here I will not ponder on the question, whether consciousness came first and then Gaia emerged out of it, or whether Gaia came first and produced consciousness. Perhaps it is truly the chicken and egg problem.

These seven elements are intrinsically and inherently good. Even an earthquake is good. It shows that in the short term it is very painful. But in the long term the Earth is managing, maintaining, correcting and balancing itself. Everything that naturally exists has its own natural balance and harmony; that is Deep Ecology.

Once we accept that Gaia is good, how do we interact with it? We human beings need food; we have to cultivate land; and we have to fulfil our vital needs. We have to collect some trees to build our house; we have to take water from the river; we have to make clothes; we have to make fire to keep warm; we have to breathe air, and we have to use animals. What is the guiding principle upon which our relationship with Gaia is determined? That principle is Permaculture — a culture of permanence, of sustainability.

When we are tilling the soil, or making a product, whether it is paper or shoes or clothes or furniture or electricity or whatever we are producing, we need to do it in a sustainable way. Whether we are in business or farming, in politics, or industry, Permaculture is applicable in every field. The idea of permanence is very much an old idea. The American Indians believed that whatever you do, remember how your action is going to affect the seventh generation. Permaculture helps us to think of posterity, of our children and grandchildren and great-great-great grandchildren, and how they are going to be affected by what we do today. So we cultivate the land, we produce goods, we run our economy, we run our business — we need to design all our activities in such a way that all designs for living contain the idea of permanence. In the back of our minds we need to keep the question, is it sustainable? Is it only for a short-term profit, or is it a long-term, continuous and durable design? The economics of permanence is Permaculture.

Now, once we accept that our relationship with the Earth should be based on the principle of permanence, we need to develop a sense of the place. The Earth is a large planet. Can we depend on butter from New Zealand, coffee from Kenya and tea from India? The Japanese cars are exported to Britain and the British cars are exported to Japan; is this sustainable? Here we have the idea of Bioregions. Mahatma Gandhi called it swadesi. Bioregionalism is a decentralized, locally-based economy.

Whatever things can be made locally and produced locally, we should use them first; and things which cannot be produced in our immediate locality should be imported from the nearer neighbourhoods and districts. If they are not available within that area and we still need some, and if it is a vital need, maybe we should get them from a national area. If we still need a few things — but only very, very few things — then we might get them from a continental area. But free World Trade is neither ecological nor sustainable — the amount of energy, the extent of bureaucracy, the amount of time, the degree of administration spent on import and export of goods is wasteful. We need to understand the carrying capacity of a local region, and maintain a stable population. We learn to celebrate the genius of a place. There are so many things growing without even cultivating, but we don’t know them — because we think that an exotic thing is exotic only when we get it from Africa or China. But there are also exotic things under our noses.

We are always chasing the foreign market. Governments always say that the only way to develop and strengthen the economy is to find the export market — but what about the home market? They forget it, and they are chasing a competitive market abroad. A bioregional economy is a complementary to the concept of good and durable Gaia. Big institutions cannot be sustained in an ecological world. Bioregional Politics is also an important component. Present national boundaries are residues of past empires and military conquests. Gaian boundaries will be based on biological realities such as rivers, mountains, valleys, cultures and languages.

Gaia, Deep Ecology, Permaculture and Bioregions are practical ideas for an integrated view of nature. But the world cannot be sustained with practical ideas alone. It also needs the spirit. If we do not have a place for the spirit, we will lack meaning. Therefore Creation Spirituality which helps to develop a sense of the sacred is an essential part of an ecological world-view. What does Creation Spirituality mean? It is not a religion, it does not mean that you have to go to church or you have to read the Bible. It means that the human soul and the soil are imbued with the divine principle.

Creation Spirituality helps us to see nature and ourselves differently. The Earth is sacred, trees are sacred, rivers and mountains are sacred. In India people say, "This is the holy river of Ganges". The river of Ganges symbolizes all rivers of the world and they are all sacred. In India there are lots of tree shrines. We don’t need to build temples, every tree is a shrine. Creation Spirituality develops a sense of reverence for all life, not just for human life but for all life. Most people accept that human life is sacred, but we cannot choose human life. We value a human being for what he or she is. We believe in the sanctity of human life; we have to extend it to all life. Within human relationships we accept help and service from others. On such occasions we say, "Thank you", and we express a sense of gratitude — that gratitude is Creation Spirituality.

In the same way, when we select a fruit from the tree, or a branch from the tree to make fire, we should say, "Thank you, tree". Even if we don’t verbalize it, even if we don’t articulate it, it doesn’t matter. But deep in our heart if we have that sense of gratitude, then it is Creation Spirituality. If we have that sense because of our attitude of reverence, then we will never be able to pollute or destroy or deface nature. The modern industrial society doesn’t have that sense of reverence for nature, and it results in the pollution and degradation of the Earth. The crisis of environment comes out of a utilitarian, materialistic, non-sacred, non-spiritual world-view — "the Earth is there for us to use, for our comfort, for our convenience." As a consequence we have taken from nature without knowing its limits. When we have a sense of reverence, we shall take from nature only what meets our vital needs. And when we take something, we thank, we show gratitude — like we take milk from the mother’s breast; the mother is very happy to give her milk in the same way as the Earth is happy to give its fruits as long as we take only what we need. When the baby is full, he or she stops sucking and doesn’t go on sucking. Well, unfortunately we humans go on sucking the Earth. Mahatma Gandhi said, "There is enough for everybody’s need in this world, but not enough for anybody’s greed." So need and greed have to be differentiated. How can you differentiate them? A government cannot legislate for it. A dictator cannot force it. It has to emerge out of our own individual heart, from a sense of beauty, a sense of the divine. When we have that, then we take things from the Earth and always replenish her for what we have taken.

In India every citizen was required to plant five trees and see them to maturity; take care of them, nurture them, look after them, and worship them. That was the pancavati of India. Those five trees were seen as a contribution every citizen was making as an act of replenishment, an act of yajna. They were for the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, and for posterity. The earth provides enough essence for the humans, animals and birds to eat, but also enough to return to the earth; the peels, the straw, the pips, the skin, the fruits and vegetables have plenty of good for us to eat and plenty to put back into the compost which goes back into the earth. Thus the earth is replenished. A tree stands out naked, there all winter without leaves; the tree is now replenishing the earth with its leaves; all the leaves have gone back into the earth; they are rotting, making the soil fertile, so that the roots are nourished which in turn gives life to the leaves and to the fruits, a beautiful cycle of replenishment. Nature is our great teacher, and we can learn to replenish and not waste. There is no greater teacher than nature. Even the Buddha and the Christ learned wisdom from nature.

Creation Spirituality is not dependent on any organized religion. It is a sense in your heart that there is much more to life than meets the eye; there is a greater mystery than we can know or measure; and there is greater meaning behind the world of appearance. The light is burning inside us. We need to close our eyes and look within, not in a temple, or in a mosque, or in a synagogue, or somewhere else. The light is not outside. The spiritual light is inside our soul.

The world cannot be saved just by the technocrats, or by the shallow ecologists. They say, "We can manage the environment, we are clever people". But everyone knows that environment cannot be managed. We can only revere environment; we can only respect environment; and we can only see environment as part of us and us part of environment. This total unity can come only when you have a spiritual base and not just a utilitarian base.


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