Another world for Gaia and her people

Ruth Thomas Pellicer
17 February 2003

the Earth seen from space

‘Another world is possible’ runs the slogan of the World Social Forum (WSF). The buoyant mood of the third event at Porto Alegre seemed to vindicate this optimism. But what is it like, this other world in the minds of those 100,000 people from all walks of life who gathered there in late January?

Whenever those who hope for a better world come together, they focus on the need to re-create that which some have mis-created in the name of power and arrogance. They claim better, more equal, conditions for the world’s inhabitants. The WSF was no exception – there too, they were building strategies to fight for fair trade, access to natural resources, education, gender equality and religious freedom.

But there was a second agenda being addressed at the forum. Visionary, it goes beyond the anthropocentric approach to address the reality of an earth that enjoys a life of her own – some have named it Gaia after the Greek goddess of the earth.

It differs from social justice in a number of ways. It is less a rational discussion on rights than a creative experience of responsibility towards Gaia; less an interaction between conflicting interests, as a humble cooperation of good wills.

Although it attracted less attention, this new trend of going with nature, not above it, had its share of expression during the third WSF. Form and content came together in workshops such as those on eco-villages and the Earth Charter: the eloquent speeches and strong arguments were interspersed with singing and dancing. Therein lies the novelty of Gaia-centrism; if we are to feel and live in nature, rational argument must go along with developing the sensitivity to embrace Gaia.

Neolithic sculpture depicting the Earth mother from Nuragic Sardinia.

Animist cultures in Africa and America acknowledge the connection between the natural world and the existence of our life. Theirs is still a culture which does not divide body and mind, nature and civilisation. The same goes for eastern philosophies: Buddhism, Shintoism. These other ways of understanding and living in the world do not place the human being in a privileged position within the natural world.

The detachment of our deeds from the natural environment appears to be a process exclusively undergone by the western mind. It has its roots in Aristotelian philosophy, in the Cartesian division between mind and body. According to this model, the res extensa (or extended matter) made up of animals and plants humbly serves the human res cogitans (or thinking matter). It is this clear-cut hierarchy of elements which has, to a large extent, brought about an environmental crisis.

Logical positivism, the manifestation of the Cartesian/Newtonian dual paradigm in the 19th and 20th centuries, has been sufficiently widely believed by scientists and laypeople alike to become incorporated in the way we organise and operate in our society.

Eco-feminists claim, and it is hard not to agree, that the stereotype of western economic man epitomises this claim of the superiority of logos over matter: young, fit, ambitious, rational, mobile and unencumbered by obligations. This is why the western conception of rationality excluded women from public life for so long, and why it is still failing to regard the natural world as worthy of moral concern. The result is a materialistic consumer society which allows damage to the environment to go unchecked. However, Gaia-centrism is gaining in momentum.

At the WSF, the Brazilian theologian and philosopher Leonardo Boff declared that Gaia-centrism was, by definition, more important than social justice. Not because fairness is not important, but because we must pay attention to the over-arching reality embracing us: the physical limits of the earth.

The way of the Goddess by Linda Garland

Many of us refuse to face Gaia and its constraints because to do so means facing a gloomy, scary picture of the future. It forces us all to question our current lifestyle. It calls for a change in the very way we tread the earth. It demonstrates that we can no longer afford to be competitive and exclusive, that we must take responsibility, become compassionate and cooperative.

The Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler posed an arresting question to one of the workshops at the WSF. Ziegler, who sat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission’s recent ‘Right to Nutrition’ committee, had just offered a detailed picture of hunger in various parts of the third world. ‘Can you live on the right to food?’ he concluded. ‘Does it feed you?’ He was calling for an intellectual and social revolt. It would take nothing short of that to ensure that everyone on earth had enough to eat, he believed.

He spoke for Gaia. It is no good claiming the right to clean water if somebody has polluted it. We must become accountable beings in a shared place. If you poison a river with chemicals, you are poisoning Gaia, the water from which plants drink and which, in turn, feed you. The logic of ecosystems cannot be one of partial realities.

Gaia-centrism scares those who cling to power, which is why in the developed world, issues crucial to the planet’s survival – resource depletion, CO2 emissions, waste disposal – are not given the media prominence they deserve. Nation states find green issues a hindrance. Triggered by economic policies requiring insatiable growth, ecological crises cross frontiers, regardless of the political status quo. Look up, not down. Whose is the stratosphere? To whom does the ozone shield belong? To no state, yet we all need it.

An anarchist egalitarian system of responsible beings would be better able to respond to crises such as the scarcity of available fresh water than the nation state. But ethics are essentially idealistic. So we return to the question: how shall we make this other world possible? The WSF offered two ways forward.

The first, well under way, consists of all the local initiatives, the grassroots work by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the social movements. According to the Worldwatch Institute’s 2003 annual State of the World report, what is often called an impossible revolution is already happening in a surprising number of small success stories around the world. We, the peoples of the world, some gathering, many not yet, at the WSF or its local or regional versions worldwide, are already changing the world.

At the same time, a new global protest movement is gathering momentum, one that offers a powerful means of defending both local and global issues. The internet allows us to defend single issues simultaneously in different parts of the planet. The anti-war marches planned across the world on 15 February are one example. Another is the developing strategy to prevent further privatisation of basic natural resources across the developing world.

Of course, we must make sure that we don’t give up the battle for social justice. Our final Mecca is no struggle for rights but recognition of our own responsibility. It is we who are responsible for the survival of Gaia in an atmosphere kind enough to nurture all of us.


The Roman goddess Tellus (Earth) in a bas relief from the Ara Pacis (altar of peace) in Rome, consecrated in 9 BCE.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData