This essay was first published at the SolSeed blog.
According to James Lovelock’s popular Gaia hypothesis, all life on Earth, in combination with the geochemical cycles it interacts with, can be treated as a single living organism called Gaia. Humanity has an obligation to care for Gaia, but it is hard to empathize with Gaia because her rhythms are so much slower than ours that we can’t directly perceive them. Our core brain doesn’t care for those it does not empathize with. To powerfully motivate our core brain to care for Gaia, we’ve created a music video to help us empathize with her. The music video speeds up Gaia’s rhythms to match the rhythms of our hearts beating and our bodies breathing, so that our core brain can perceive Gaia as an immediate living being. We hope that regularly watching the video will increase our motivation to take care of Gaia.
The cells in my body don’t know who I am and they don’t care about me. And yet, by each cell doing its own little thing in its own little context, this miraculous thing called me emerges! Just like our body is composed of cells with many different forms and functions, so too there is a body of all life, composed of living organisms of many different species, of which we are a part. The body of all Earthly life has many names. Gaia is the most common and popular of these names.
One of our obligations as a species is to help Gaia flourish. Our role in Gaia is not one of special rights and privileges, but rather one of great purpose and responsibility. Evolving humanity was expensive. It took eons for Gaia to develop the biosphere and to deposit vast stores of fossil fuels. In the millennia of our infancy, we have caused the extinction of myriad other species and consumed Gaia’s densest reserves of concentrated energy. It will take a lot of doing to become worthy of our price, and it is past time to get started.
It is hard to fully embrace the needs of Gaia because it is usually only the rational parts of our brains that perceive those needs. These newly evolved outer layers of our brain have little power to shape our behavior when our rational interests conflict with the subconscious desires of our core brain, which evolved much earlier. The core brain is far more powerful in shaping our behavior, and empathy is the key to recruiting our core brain to take on responsibility for Gaia’s needs.
Empathy is the innate mechanism through which we understand and value the needs of others. When we see another human being or even a nonhuman animal in distress, we feel the distress ourselves. Our response is not an intellectual derivation created by the new rational parts of our brain. Our response is a visceral emotion arising from our core brain that evolved long, long ago.
The closer we are to the other, the more empathy for them we feel. This holds true for many types of closeness: genetic relatedness, romantic involvement, friendship, or even physical proximity. We feel more empathy for someone who is right next to us than we do for someone we glimpse from several hundred yards away. We also feel closer and show more empathy to those we spend the most time with. By extension, we feel more empathy for others who remind us of those we spend the most time with.
Unfortunately for Gaia, she is so large and her rhythms so slow it is hard for us to identify with her. When we can shrink her down to a size we can identify with, amazing things happen. The first image of the whole earth taken by Apollo 8 from space did much to shrink Gaia down to a scale we could identify with. This famous “Earthrise” photo was even selected by the editors of Time magazine for the central image on the cover of their book “100 Photographs That Changed the World,” because of the impact it had in giving rise to the modern environmental movement.
We made a music video called Gaia’s Heartbeat to speed up Gaia’s rhythms to a rate that would cause our core brain to implicitly recognize a living being. Our goal with the video was to create the immediate, visceral recognition of “living being” we get when we see the rising and falling of the side of a horse as it breathes.
Will watching this video actually lead us to act as better caretakers of Gaia? We think it’s a strong hypothesis and we hope it’s true, but it needs to be tested so we can learn more about how best to motivate ourselves to meet our responsibilities as part of Gaia’s body. We need your help to study this important question! Contact us if you’re interested in joining the experiment.
Brandon CS Sanders is a contributing member of the SolSeed Movement. His interests include cosmic and earth centered spirituality, fruits of religious practice, humanity’s obligations to the earth, and fostering nurturing community.