“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

The Planetary Era

The title of the course I’m participating in at Schumacher College is “Gaia and the Evolution of Consciousness.” Biologist Stephan Harding and philosopher Sean Kelly are leading us through the scientific and cultural history relevant to these issues. Another biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, will join us for a few days next week to share his view of what a re-enchanted study of life might look like. We’re only two days into the course, but I wanted to develop some ideas and introduce you to the other students (see next post).

Earlier today (Tuesday, June 22nd), Sean lectured on the meaning and historical unfolding of the planetary era. When exactly the earth as a whole first became a concept human consciousness was capable of contemplating is difficult to discern. Perhaps a practical awareness of earth’s extent dawned with the age of exploration in the 16th century, when colonial war and commerce began to link Europe with Africa, Asia and the Americas. Copernicus’ heliocentric intimations in On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, published just before his death in 1543, are more than symbolic of the changes in humanity’s self-conception, but it is quite clear that by the middle of the 20th century, both as a result of the global paroxysm of the world wars and the technological feat of landing men on the moon, the thought of all humanity living on a fragile blue sphere drifting through the depths of space was impossible to ignore. World War II ended when the power of the sun was unleashed over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the iconic earth rise photograph revealed the as yet unimaginable beauty of our home planet to human eyes. Sean echoed the panoptic thinker Edgar Morin by suggesting that this photo represented “earth viewed from earth,” both in the sense that it was only first developed and observed by anyone (aside from the astronauts who took it) after the film had been returned to earth, and in the deeper sense that the human organism was born and is made out of the substance of the planet itself, and so represents that part of the earth that is both willing and able to escape its own gravity to experience itself from the outside.






4 responses to “The Planetary Era”

  1. Joe Norman Avatar
    Joe Norman

    Ha I must have sensed you posting as I just replied to your previous blog, which was the only one up when I replied. Sounds like a fun group. Good luck on the presentation. I just finished The Timeless Way of Building this morning (loved loved loved every bit of it). I think Alexander’s approach to building is an essential ingredient in the kind of ‘competence-based’ global mindset that needs to be achieved. Perhaps at some point you could share some of his ideas with your group.

    Say hi to Rupert for me 😉

    1. matthewdsegall Avatar

      Hey Joe,

      Yeah I agree about Alexander. There is an architect here from Mexico that is familiar with his work. We spoke briefly about it, and while he loves Alexander’s ideas, he says he still personally has a desire for more “modern” designs. Sean also had heard of him from some people he met at Findhorn a few weeks ago. He gave a talk there several years ago, and apparently their impression was that he came off a bit full of himself. I guess that is a risk you run when you try to develop some sort of objective gauge of beauty.

      Rupert arrives on Tuesday, and all of us are trying to get Sean and Stephan Harding to do a trialogue with him. So far they are reluctant, but even if nothing official is organized, hopefully the kind of conversation we’re hoping for will spark up naturally in the bar after class. I’ll definitely write about it all!

      1. Joe Norman Avatar
        Joe Norman

        It doesn’t surprise me that he would come off as full of himself (and he very well may be.) This is why they say ‘don’t meet your heroes’ (I’ve made that mistake before ;). It also doesn’t surprise me that practicing architects would rather do something more modern, as the profession of ‘architect’ would go out the window (so to speak) if we all really took Alexander seriously. Also, I think some of his ideas may be harder to swallow when one is trained as a modern architect, whereas his thoughts may seem more familiar and at home from a biological slant, especially through a ‘complex systems’ lens (after all, he is after the organic growth of buildings). The last two chapters of the book really put a lovely bow on the whole thing, and I really hope you read that volume at some point.

        Interesting you bring up trialogues, remember I was saying something I think Rupert and pals got wrong in that book was their likening the (apparently orderly) phenomenon of life with the order that arises in crystalline structures as the cosmos cools? In the last chapter, Alexander specifically addresses this issue, basically suggesting that modern architecture has committed this same fallacy. Rather, Alexander recognizes the quality which makes something ‘alive’ is the balance of (what we might call) order and disorder. For instance, an exact right angle is not as desirable as an approximate right angle which adapts to the local forces and therefore is not likely to be exactly 90 degrees. This resonates with me deeply. That first picture of Schumacher in this post seems to be a wonderful example of living architecture. Notice the windows follow a general pattern, yet each is unique in some way, really giving the impression of a ‘personality’ in the building. I’m sure you have noticed this, have the buildings like this given you a sense of ‘life’ that cookie cutter buildings do not? Hard to even find examples to really test his theories for myself here in FL (as you well know.)

        I will stop my ramblings now, but great to hear from you. Keep doing what you’re doing, my friend.


  2. Dad Avatar

    Say hello let me know what is going on. Have new phones they are quite amazing

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