“Mother Earth, the mother of us all, the oldest of all, hard, splendid as rock. Whatever there is that is of the land, it is she who nourishes it, it is the Earth that I sing.”- Homer
On Christmas Eve of 1968, from far out in the frigid and limitless expanses of space aboard the first manned spacecraft to the moon, the Apollo 8 mission, astronaut William Anders took a revolutionary photograph known as Earthrise which gave us our first outsider’s glimpse of the ‘pale blue dot‘ that we call home. This historic moment had a profound, paradigm-shifting effect: it placed the delicately wrought balance of our biosphere into a stark and humbling perspective. There were the characteristic green, brown, blue, and white hues of this unique and multifaceted global community of life forms suspended on one solitary, life-sustaining sphere. It then dawned on us that this is our only home, that there is no other hospitable world to escape to (that we know of!). These nascent realizations, spurred by the powerful visual confirmation of our uniqueness and vulnerability, coincided with the birth of the modern environmental movement on Earth Day, April 22nd, 1970. Earth Day’s founder, then Wisconsin Senator, Gaylord Nelson, dreamed of spearheading a movement that would place threats against our home planet- air and water pollution, oil spills, the widespread use of pesticides, and similar ecological disasters that were of particular concern at the time- at the center stage of human consciousness.
“Even the natural world’s most remarkable sources of life are now being steamrollered by development, by the frenzied and unchallengeable rush for growth, by the monstrous uncontrollable runaway scale of the human enterprise: here was the curlew, bubbling the spring, and accompanying it the hammer, clanging and tolling its doom.”- Michael McCarthy, The Moth Snowstorm
Ruminating on modern-day environmental crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss, British environmentalist and author Michael McCarthy eloquently summarizes another crucial impact of the Earthrise image which is as relevant today as it was in 1968: “On glimpsing the planet from deep space, we saw not only the true wonder of its shimmering blue beauty, but also the true nature of its limits…thanks to Earthrise, we now understand it in the intuitive way, in our souls: what we are wrecking is our home.” Indeed, this momentous period and its associated new perspectives on human-earth relationships yielded landmark environmental works such as The Limits to Growth, which utilized sophisticated computer simulations to show that if the rates of economic growth, surging populations, and resource use continued unabated, our home would soon experience socioeconomic and environmental collapse. Today, with a rapidly warming atmosphere that portends more frequent and intense storms as well as crop failures and rising sea levels, vanishing woodlands, increasingly acidic seas, and the global disappearance of over half of our planet’s vertebrate life (invertebrate losses could be as high if not higher), phenomena which are due almost exclusively to unrestrained human activities such as annual resource consumption levels equivalent to 1.6 planet earths, we are beginning to apprehend the dangerous consequences that can arise when earth’s limits are disregarded.
“But in your impetuous coursing free into strict snares you ran, spurning all convention, forcing wide the narrow laws of man.” Goethe, Faust (Part Two)
The term ‘Gaia’, meaning ‘deep-breasted earth’, refers to the great deity of ancient Greek mythology (Suzuki, 1999). She is the origin of all, including the Titan and the Olympian gods (this group includes familiar characters such as Zeus, king of the gods, and his offspring, Apollo, Athena, etc.), as well as human beings and all of nature. Developing the notion of the earth as the ‘mother of us all’ would be especially beneficial in these trying modern times. Gaia is the very source of our being; not in an abstract or theoretical sense but quite literally. The nourishing soil beneath our feet contains essential elements that breakdown organic matter so that it can be recycled and used for new growth. The seasonal rains and movements of our planet’s grand water cycle bring life to the land and seas, keeping them intimately linked to one another. Trees and plants provide shade, food, and the oxygen that we breathe (as well as other photosynthetic organisms such as phytoplankton), in addition to soaking up the excess carbon that we release. We are related genetically and biologically to the extraordinary profusion of life that we share our home with. They are our family, our companions on Spaceship Earth. The landscapes we inhabit, the plants and animals that we co-habit with, and the ancient earth processes that shape and maintain our lives make us one with Gaia. There is no part of her that is not also part of us, and thus to destroy her is to destroy ourselves.
“Through our evolutionary history, we are related to all other beings present and past- they are our genetic kin. When we see other species as our relatives rather than as resources or commodities, we will have to treat them with greater care and respect.” – David Suzuki, The Sacred Balance
Now, over four decades since the birth of the image that launched all manner of new social movements, new conversations, new international agreements, and new organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, all centered around working towards re-harmonizing our relationship with Gaia, Earth Day 2016 is upon us. On this last Sunday before Earth Day, I spent my time wandering amidst the magnificent grandeur of the Banyan trees and similarly stunning tropical flora and fauna at Pinecrest Gardens, a local park that features such wonders as a farmers’ market that sells a wide array of fresh and sustainably sourced goods, a petting zoo, and various activities geared towards educating the public about South Florida’s priceless natural wonders. It is an oasis of tranquility amidst the hectic pace of Miami life. More importantly, it is a place where one can commune closely with Gaia’s incredible beauty and reflect on all that she provides for us, on all that she is to us. While I do believe that every day should be Earth Day and that we should never cease to ponder the effects of our actions on our life-support systems and co-evolutionary kin, while doing all we can to stem the tides of destruction, it is a sign of hope that such a day exists wherein millions all over the world gather to take part in Gaia-friendly activities. Now let us make it so that the compassion and enthusiasm for Mother Gaia displayed by so many on Earth Day is made a permanent rather than a transient feature of everyday life.
“Today, our faces covered in tears, we come to kneel before you, compassionate and holy Mother, to tell you that, ‘Yes, Mother, you can count on us.’” – Hanh, Thich Nhat, Love Letter to the Planet
Content by Heather Alberro