Participating in the Gift of Gaia (Pt. 2)

This is part 2 of a 3-part essay exploring the nature of gifts and the transformative potential of entering into a gift relationship with the ecological world.

The Gift of Gaia: Emergence of a planetary gift ethic

The common understanding of a gift is based on intentionality – a gift is something given willingly without the expectation of payment, and so must be an act of consciousness. However, we have begun to explore a deeper articulation of gift exchange, where the gift is in fact an emergent property of a particular set of relationships. Of course there may be intention behind a gift, such as when the salmon-people willingly assume the form of salmon so as to give themselves as food; yet in some sense the spirit of the gift has a life of its own and needs no specific intention from the individual participants in a gift exchange if that interaction is part of a larger gift circle. As a dynamic flow of interaction within a self-organizing and self-regulating system, the gift ethic may find expression outside of the purely human domain.

How might we come to understand this gift ethic from the viewpoint of science? At its core, the pursuit of science is an exploration of and opening to the world. As such, it is not inherently a process of pure rationality. From an intuitive perspective, many of us humans have experienced life itself as a gift. We have done nothing ourselves to earn this life, yet every morning we wake up and here we are! More precisely (and regardless of our views on karma and rebirth or the presence of a divine creator), we have individually done nothing to earn the conditions that permit life on earth to exist at all – namely the specific chemical composition of our atmosphere, the relative stability of our climate, and the infinite source of energy radiated out by the sun. The gift of life thus finds expression in processes as seemingly insignificant as the production of dimethyl sulphide (DMS) by marine algae (a process which seeds cloud formation and thus climate regulation, but which mainstream science has not completely understood), to the infinitely significant self-sacrifice of the sun:

‘The Sun, in each second, transforms four million tons of itself into light…[T]he Sun’s extravagant bestowal of energy can be regarded as a spectacular manifestation of an underlying impulse pervading the universe. In the star this impulse reveals itself in the ongoing giveaway of energy. In the human heart it is felt as the urge to devote one’s life to the well-being of the larger community.’ (Swimme 1996: 41-42)

From the now widely accepted perspective of Gaia Theory, the conditions for life on earth have been maintained for roughly 3.5 billion years as a result of a co-evolutionary process between life and its environment (Lovelock 2000). It is not simply a happy accident that the atmosphere has maintained a nearly optimal proportion of oxygen for the past 350 million years, or that the earth has maintained a stable temperature within the optimal range for life despite the sun’s luminosity increasing by 25% since life began. These conditions for life have been co-created as part of a self-organizing, self-regulating Gain system encompassing the oceans, atmosphere, surface environment and crustal rocks of the earth. ‘[Gaia] is an “emergent domain” – a system that has emerged from the reciprocal evolution of organisms and their environment over the eons of life on Earth.’ (Lovelock 2000:11)

In this context, it becomes possible for us to both understand and experience the gift of Gaia as none other than the very conditions for life on earth. Based on the dynamics of gift systems previously discussed, the very possibility of life is continually made manifest through the complex cyclical web of relationships and interactions that constitute Gaia. Through the transformative process of self-regulation, every exchange within the various sub-cycles that make up the Gain system (carbon cycle, hydrological cycle, nitrogen cycle, etc.) are “intended to recognize, establish, and maintain community” – the community of life. As Primavesi states, ‘givenness is an emergent property of the entire Gaian system’ (2003:130).

Another way to understand the gift of Gaia is through the framework of planetary boundaries developed by Rockstrom et al (2009). Through extensive research into the biophysical processes that enable the self-regulating capacity of Gaia, Rockstrom and team have developed a preliminary model of the “safe planetary playing field” within which life and its environment can exist in stability. The nine planetary boundaries identified in this model can be understood to constitute the boundaries of the gift of Gaia, for within these boundaries the earth’s regenerative capacity absorbs our wastes and maintains the optimal conditions for life.

As we transgress these planetary boundaries, our gift relationship with Gaia may be severed and the gift no longer given. We are already experiencing this in the widespread loss of species, drought, failed harvests, mineral and fossil fuel scarcity, and perhaps most dangerously, our loss of connection as a species to these sources of our existence. As far as our gift relationship with Gaia is maintained, all of our existential needs continue to be given freely to us. However, as in all gift systems, if the gift is hoarded, accumulated, degraded, not given onward, used for private gain – in short, if the gift is not received as a gift, then the spirit of the gift dies and with it the entire gift system (Hyde 1999: 37).

According to Rockstrom et al’s calculations, humans have already transgressed three of the planetary boundaries: climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and disruption of the planetary nitrogen cycle. As the earth system is highly complex, these boundaries are interdependent in many known and unknown ways. Thus, we do not know how transgressing one planetary boundary might affect other boundaries, let alone the impact of transgressing three at once. Since complex adaptive systems like Gaia are subject to rapid non-linear changes in system state once tipping points are reached, the earth system is now in a highly uncertain and precarious position.

Recognized as either an emergent property of the self-regulating Gaian system or as the regenerative capacity of the earth to absorb our wastes within a set of planetary boundaries, the gift of Gaia sustains life in all its manifold forms. From this planetary perspective of gift exchange, a renewed relationship with Gaia is essential for human and non-human flourishing.

So how might human participation in a gift relationship with the ecological world transform our conception of self and the place of humans within the community of life? We will explore this question in the final installment of the series next week.

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