Earth, Gaia and Fire: Connectedness in the world’s plant, animal and human communities

Nick Gosman
Wednesday, 24th April 2019

Nick Gosman from Dance Camp East explores the Earth's connectedness and the need for humanity to grow a better society.

A morning stroll through the greenwood in early Spring reminds us that even in our crowded little island, where much of the land is managed or farmed, we are surrounded by vibrant communities of animals and plants.

A closer look at birds fluttering in the trees, deer stalking through the undergrowth and huge solitary bees humming by like areal charabancs, is that these wondrous communities are intimately and exquisitely interconnected, the complexity of which, Humanity is only just beginning to fathom. Those connections soar into the air thirty miles or more above our heads and extend underground into subterranean worlds hidden away more than three miles beneath our feet.

A little closer to home than the mysterious creatures of those unfathomable depths, and a little easier to experience, there is a world much beloved by permaculturalists that is composed of tree and plant roots with their associated fungal mycelia which fan out connecting individual plants together via their translucent tendrils. James Cameron had it right, the life in our world, like that of Pandora, is every bit as interconnected as it is in his movie, Avatar. We are only just coming to understand how fungi help plants to access moisture and nutrients in return for nutritious sap from the plant.

We are also slowly learning of the interactions between soil microbes and plants. Incredibly, our scientific understanding of this process came in answer to a question that we previously didn’t even think to ask, but was staring up at us from the teaming colonies we could see in soil samples down the microscope! The question was simple, “how can trees and other plants remain verdant and lush in even nutrient-poor environments?

From the towering Goliath’s in tropical rain forests to their coniferous brethren on precipitous mountain slopes, the answer is beguilingly simple, nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria take nitrogen from the atmosphere and create ammonia that plants can take up from the soil. In some cases, bacteria have become even more intimately associated with their providers. Not content with inhabiting the watery film around their roots, some bacteria have entered the tissues of their hosts, lining up alongside the photosynthetic powerhouses, the chloroplasts, to fix nitrogen in return for a sugary treat. Such a process of cohabitation my have led to a further step millions of years ago when a photosynthetic bacterium lost its ability to live independently and became a chloroplast. The result? All the wonderful and extraordinary beauty of the plants that we see around us (and the animals that depend for their existence upon them) owes its beginnings from an ancient pact between plants and bacteria.

It is, therefore, entirely possible that nitrogen-fixing bacteria may join chloroplasts at some point, to be entombed for all time within the cells of their hosts and one could wonder why haven’t they done so already. Nitrogen-fixation from the atmosphere is, after-all, a pretty neat trick and one that takes us humans ruinously large quantities of energy to perform using the Haber-Bosch process. Despite all the questions that remain about the molecular processes involved, what we do know for sure is that these microscopic companions are so important that their removal leads to the slow death of their mighty hosts.

Think of the last time that you lit a bonfire on a patch of soil. I have done this just once on the family vegetable plot at home one autumn and rued the day! The soil where the fire burned remained barren of all plants, even weeds, for the whole following growing season and only grudgingly recovered in the next year. The reason? I’d killed off the soil microbes and nothing could thrive without them. Even the seeds and plants we planted there were doomed to a slow death. The fact is, like us, plants cannot live and thrive without their associated microbial communities, now known by the flashy term, microbiome.

The last night bonfire at DCE festival

The microbiome is a dynamic that changes its functionality according to the environment the plant finds itself. If drought hits, the community of microbes around the roots put their collective shoulder to the wheel and help the plant to secure moisture. Whilst it’s dynamic, the microbiome and its associated qualities can also be transplanted along with the plant, another one of Nature’s handy tricks which could be exploited using permaculture approaches. The microbiome is also capable of protecting its host from harmful pathogens and to even moderate a plant’s physiological adaptation to the environment!

How, might you ask, did all of this complexity arise? If we assume that Nature, like Richard Dawkins’ blind watchmaker, assembled all that we see from the elements, then such a process must have taken time. Our Mother Earth is old, 4.5 billion years old in fact, and we are only just starting to understand the intricacies that have evolved since the first spark of life that occurred almost as soon as it was possible for Earth to support it.

In the 3.5 billion years since the first autonomously-dividing cell sprang mysteriously into existence in the primordial soup, life has pierced the Earth almost to its core and soars to dizzying heights in its nutritious atmosphere. Knowing this, it is difficult to conceive that life will ever be completely be extinguished until the Earth itself dies in the fiery crucible of our Sun’s supernova about 4 billion years from now.

A key word that emerges in all of this is connectedness. The concept of the Earth as an interconnected organism is encapsulated in the Gaia Hypothesis named for a personification of the Earth drawn from Greek mythology, Gaia, a primordial deity and ancestral mother of all life. Building on the roots of this concept of interconnectedness, Gaia is an ecological hypothesis which proposes that the biosphere and the four physical components of the Earth (atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere) are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on Earth in a preferred stable condition or homeostasis.

Originally proposed by James Lovelock as the earth feedback hypothesis, Gaia has in some quarters been elevated to the status of a theory since many of its supporters believe that it has passed key predictive tests. The Gaia Hypothesis grew from Lovelock’s work for NASA on inexpensive ways of detecting life on Mars and is based on compositional analysis of the atmosphere as a way of inferring the presence of life. Vociferously opposed at the time, use of such analysis procedures remains at the core of NASA’s current search for life on Mars and on other planets within and beyond our solar system.

Controversy aside over whether Gaia is a theory or must remain a hypothesis, the concept of Gaia can, and has been, extended to human communities by Gary Alexander, a (now retired) Professor at the Open University (OU) who pioneered the OU’s use of online collaborative learning. Alexander’s treatise starts from a premise that Humanity has become a global cancer, or wrecking ball that is blithely set upon a path to global destruction. Like Agent Smith in the movie, The Matrix, Alexander offers a cure to our global cancer. Unlike Agent Smith, Alexander’s cure doesn’t involve extermination of the human race, but offers a utopian alternative to our current path to destruction based on a Trinity of solutions, peace, sustainability and the right goals.

The first in this Trinity requires us all to work together in communities where acceptance is central to an ethos where conflict has been set aside. The second implores humanity to turn back from its destructive path, instead undertaking to organise our collective activities in a way that recognises the intrinsic value of the whole of the living Earth, ourselves included. Last, but not least, the right goals are nothing less than a root and branch transformation of the current economic and political structure of the world so that the goals of humanity are aligned with the wellbeing of the whole. Given the enormity of the changes required in the current status quo to implement the above checklist for a utopian world, one might be forgiven for being overwhelmed by the task. Rather than rising up and taking on the political establishment and associated elites, Alexander offers a way of growing solutions from their grassroots that involves the use of the internet as the driving force behind a new kind of free market economy, or eGaia, that promotes the wellbeing of the environment as well as all of Humanity.

The devastating effect of Humanity’s current onslaught on the world is to reduce the complexity of plant and animal communities which in turn destabilises the fragile homeostasis unleashing global environmental catastrophe. A similar simplification has occurred in human culture where modern society is becoming increasingly pared down to the needs of the individual with negative impacts on social cohesion and tolerance.

A physical embodiment of an intention to grow a better society from its grassroots led Alexander and friends to organise Dance Camp East (DCE) 27 years ago in a field near Aylsham in Norfolk. DCE eschews the convenience of modern day living so that Campers are able to re-focus their thinking on developing a community. Circle life and the ethos of voluntary giving and acceptance can be challenging, but very rewarding and Campers often talk about the feeling of peace that they take away from camp. The current organisers of the camp at its new site on an organic farm near Harleston in Suffolk, voluntarily give up their spare time and devote great energy into building a camp whose ethos is aimed at helping to change people’s minds and behaviours around community, the use of resources and recycling. In our modern world, many people who would live more sustainable lives are often overwhelmed by the problems that Humanity faces. However, DCE shows Campers that if we work together we can change minds in communities and, harnessing the resulting local behavioural change, we can together influence choices made by others in the wider world.

Further reading:

Dance Camp East:

Gaia: A new look at life on Earth. James Lovelock, Oxford University Press 1995

eGaia: Growing a peaceful, sustainable Earth through communications. Gary Alexander, Lighthouse Books 2002

The Rising Sun: Celebrating Dance Camp East, Gill Seyfang with David Easthaugh, Madeline Lees, Gary Alexander, Steve Seekings & Marion Fanning Eds. Published by Dance Camp East, 2005

Useful links

Watch: Replicating nature's systems, Toby Hemenway

Responding to crisis: regenerative agriculture and other solutions

Biochar: a soil building climate change solution