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.