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Living Systems in Evolution

Elisabet Sahtouris

copyright © 1999 by Elisabet Sahtouris


Ecological Ethics


Let us begin this search for natural ethics by seeing that there is reason enough apart from our youth to adopt a little species humility. We have seen that no species can evolve apart from its co-evolution with all other species -- meaning that all have played their role in our evolution. We could not have evolved by ourselves. If we look at co-evolving living systems through eyes other than our own, we will quickly see that we have no more reason to consider ourselves a supreme form of life than have others.

Recall that mitochondria and chloroplasts, descended from ancient bacteria, make up half the weight of all plant and animal cells, causing Lewis Thomas to call us giant taxis for bacteria to get around in. Joking aside, the world from a bacterial point of view is indeed arranged nicely for bacterial survival. They live not only in their colonies and fabulous cities, but can and do live in -- or buzz in and out of -- all other forms of life, feeding off the living and the dead, passing around bits of DNA information in their WorldWideWeb.

They exist in vastly greater numbers than any other kind of living creature, and there is virtually no place on Earth -- from the depths of the sea to the highest mountain and the atmosphere itself, from the hottest springs to the coldest glaciers, from the surfaces of other creatures to the depths of their guts -- that is not teeming with them. They spread over Earth's entire surface and evolved even its geological features -- including the atmosphere and entire continental shelves and veins of minerals, transporting them about in quantity, forming the ore veins, such as the copper and uranium we mine today. All this they did by themselves for half of Earth's life, while even today they maintain a good deal of its functioning and balance.

Bacteria are responsible for forming the larger cells from which all other life kingdoms are constituted. Further, bacteria are the only creatures that could survive without all the others. Why should bacteria not think -- if they could think -- that the world is all theirs?

Then, take the fungi -- a kingdom of life in themselves. They, too, are spread out almost everywhere, and though most are too small or fine-webbed for us to see, some are so extensive underground that we know them to be the largest creatures on Earth! Every plant of Earth has funguses twined in its roots, bringing it supplies in return for ready-made food. Funguses live on animals as well as on plants. From their point of view, all nature would seem to have been created as their dinner table.

Animals might well look this way upon plants -- as though plants had been created especially to feed and serve them. After all, animals eat plants to burn out of them with oxygen the energy they need -- and that oxygen was made and put into the atmosphere by the plants themselves, as if to supply animals with breath as well as with food. Animals make use of plants even for their drinking water, lapping or sucking dew, drinking rainwater that was first pumped into the sky through the roots and stems and leaves of plants. Animals also use plants for shelter, making their homes in seaweed and among the branches and roots of land plants from the tiniest club mosses to the tallest trees.

Surely animals could not be blamed for believing that plants had evolved just to provide them with food, oxygen, water and shelter. But what if we shift our perspective to that of plants?

From their own point of view, plants might very well think that animals were created to provide for them. Plants -- that vast range of photosynthesizers from little more than fancy bacterial colonies to great banyan trees, each a forest in itself, have considerable reason to see themselves as superior creatures. Recall that animals evolved from creatures who lost their chloroplasts and thus had to spend their lives chasing after food. Plants need not run about chasing after food, but can sit right where they are, easily making their own food and energy from sunlight and soil chemicals provided by bacteria, funguses, worms, insects, and other animals. The carbon dioxide they use in making energy is also provided by animals. Insects carry pollen from plant to plant, making it easy for plants to reproduce without running about for that purpose, either.

When plants have made their seeds, animals continue to work for them, carrying the seeds about in their feathers and fur. Birds and grazing mammals also eat the plants' fruits and digest them. The animals thus moisten the plants' seeds and wrap them in packets of rich fertilizer, then scatter them in new places to grow. Animals, in fact, do all the running around for plants while plants sit smugly being served all their lives wherever they first took root.

And so all these forms of Gaian life -- bacteria, fungi, plants and animals -- could find reason to see themselves as superior to the others. Even rock, for that matter, could see the whole world as nothing more than its own dance, its endless transformation into living creatures and back into rock. Try for yourself the exercise of looking out over your world and seeing all of it -- the landscape, the sea and sky, the creatures, yourself and your fellow humans, their airplanes, their cities, the furniture in your house, this book in your hands -- all as no more and no less than rock rearranged.

The continents of the Earth are still on the move. Ever since the great single continent, Pangaea broke apart, they have ridden their tectonic plates slowly over the softer mantle beneath them. Africa and South America only separated around the time the dinosaurs disappeared, some sixty million years ago, as we saw. By moving apart, rock separated its life forms, cutting species members off from one another so they were forced into different lines of evolution. From rock's point of view, it directs even the course of evolution through its motion.

Rock might think it had recruited bacteria and protists into the work of rearranging its minerals. Protists, for example, have long been engaged in that endless work of moving calcium and silica about in huge quantities by building it into their shells and depositing it on the sea floor, which later thrusts itself up to become land. In the great carboniferous forests, plants were recruited to begin their job of burying carbon underground to become coal and oil. And so the Earth's rocky crust, itself formerly stardust, has reason to see the bacteria, protists, plants, and animals created in its metabolic dance as its own inventions, meant to serve its needs.

We humans, from all these perspectives, would be considered late-comers -- an upstart species coming in to upset the whole dance by killing off or endangering others as we make war on all five kingdoms including our own, as well as the crustal formations. We burn and cut forests, dam up and choke off rivers, create deserts, poison water, air, and soil. And in our unprecedented egotism, we behave this way while declaring ourselves the pinnacle of evolution!

Yet we alone are capable of holding a truly broad worldview that represents the whole of nature and includes all possible points of view in addition to our own, as we just saw. We can -- and we must -- gain enough perspective to see ourselves as one part of a much greater living system, or being, and learn to act accordingly. The body of humanity we have described in its present evolution is a new kind of body and, at the same time, an organ within the Gaian body -- the latest organ to evolve within it, one that is only now being tested to see whether it can function. Humanity has woefully little experiential intelligence or wisdom, yet it must evolve by its own free choice among alternative conscious ideas, decisions, and practices.

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Human ideas, concepts or pieces of information that become known and passed on by large numbers of people have come to be called memes. This name is intended to show a parallel with genes -- in the sense that memes can spread through human populations in patterns that influence their social evolution as genes are passed on in patterns influencing biological evolution. It is from memes -- particular ideas about ourselves and our world -- that we construct the worldviews that shape our societies.

What memes are now determining the formation and nature of the new body of humanity? The memes from which we have built our dominant culture worldview include, for example, ideas of ourselves as divided into competitive nations -- nations or blocs of nations competing for resources and power much as the ancient bacteria competed with one another before they formed a common protist nucleus and thus a protist identity.

Such ideas of separate nations in competition with one another must be transformed into ideas of cooperation among varied nations as organs in a single body. Blocs of nations such as NATO, APEC and the EEC have already been formed and function like organ systems that can carry out different tasks such as defense, economics and monetary systems. These systems, however, are independent of the United Nations and in some ways at cross purposes with it. We still lack the overall perspective from which to form a common plan, though our evolution to date has prepared us to make it.

If we transform the memes composing our worldview to a common scheme of voluntary cooperation -- a self-creative, autopoietic, body of humanity -- we will abandon our old ideas of the machinery of society and find new organic ways of reorganizing ourselves.

Bioregionalists, such as Van Andruss, Christopher and Judith Plant, have proposed, for example, that naturally bounded ecological areas such as watersheds make more sense as economic-political units than do our present states or provinces, with their arbitrarily drawn boundaries. The inhabitants of such areas would have natural interests in common. The natural boundaries of ecosystemic regions contained original human societies, which recognized their dependence on nature and did not yet see it as territory to be carved up arbitrarily. But most of us today do not think bioregionally, because we lack the concept as a cultural meme.

Unfortunately, we have lost some of the most important memes generated in human history. The massive upheaval of human society that began six thousand years ago, initiating an empire-building era lasting to the present -- was so thorough in promoting dominance and aggression over partnership and peace that we came to see such aggression as our natural heritage. Can we recover the memes of civilized equality and peaceful sharing of wealth that seem to have guided settled human societies during the preceding thirty or so thousand years?

Bioregionalism proposes that the inhabitants of an ecosystem, such as a watershed area, assess the natural species living there and the region's capacity for supporting them as well as the human occupants. The humans would then work out the rebuilding of community in harmony with its ecosystem, aiming at satisfying human needs locally as much as possible, within sound ecological constraints and importing only what is necessary. Bioregionalism could be a working model for the whole body of humanity, with careful urbanization and harmonious agreements on regional production and trade across regions, especially if combined with Hawkens' proposal that we emulate nature by eliminating the concept of waste, so that everything we produce is consumable or recyclable.

However we draw boundaries and organize ourselves, our new body of humanity must be flexible enough to evolve through still further stages. We can be sure that it will always be imperfect by the old mechanical standards. Whatever social forms it will eventually take, making the body of humanity into a healthy, functioning holon within the Gaian holarchy is the greatest task human consciousness has yet faced.

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It may seem that we have strayed from our task of finding a natural ethics, but that is exactly what we are building toward by seeing ourselves deeply as one part of the lifeweb, and by looking at how our ideas are passed among us like genes among bacteria. Now let's look once more at the matter of conscious reflective thought, as it is related to our search for ethics.

The Gaian system as a whole is part of the larger conscious cosmos. It is an intelligent system that knows itself, as reflected in our bodies' self knowledge -- all parts interconnected by all manner of communications. But it does not have our unique human consciousness, with its ability to see Gaian history linearly, to abstract patterns from its great complexity and to link past to future by planning. It does not seek to explain itself to itself, or make models of itself to use in deciding what to do next. Yet the Gaian system functions intelligently and wisely, learning throughout its billions of years of experience.

Human consciousness is the newest Gaian experiment, and in Gaian wisdom little has been entrusted to it as yet. Our bodies continue to manage themselves mostly without our conscious help or interference, and this is most fortunate, given the complexity of their functions. Our conscious scientific minds -- no matter how impressed we are with our ever growing knowledge -- are very far from understanding even a single cell or organ well enough to manage its ordinary daily affairs. Lewis Thomas recognized this is saying he would rather have to fly the most complex jet without training than to try to manage his liver for a day. Even a single cell is so complex we are still trying to understand it, and still making new discoveries about it.

It should come as no great surprise that the freedom of conscious decision making gives us a good deal of anxiety. We look around us and see other species functioning on the whole the way our bodies do, untroubled by questions of whether what they are doing is right or wrong, good or bad. Yet we are stuck with choice -- making conscious minds that are an experimental substitute for the innate evolutionary knowing of other species, and we must use those minds as best we can to decide how to behave.

It is because of this unprecedented degree of choice that we humans alone must ask ourselves what is right or wrong, good or bad for us to do -- personally, socially, and as a species. Modern science, however, has refused to concern itself with such questions -- on the grounds that they are ethical questions, which it sees as the domain of religion, not science.

When sixth-century B.C. philosophers suggested that ethical questions can be answered by looking to nature, religion and science had not yet been separated, both being aspects of the same search for orientation and guidance. Only much later, when they were separated by modern scientists, did ethics become the domain of religion while scientists insisted on their ethical neutrality, their freedom from values.

If the ancients were right -- as this book holds -- that nature is a source of guidance for human behavior, then surely science, as the study of nature, should concern itself with ethics -- with showing us what is wise or not wise to do in our relationship to one another and to the rest of nature.

We have seen historically how we strayed from this path. Since the time of those early philosophers we have come to see our own consciousness as an ego, or I, that could be set apart from nature -- an objective `eye,' viewing it, making theories about it, evolving a worldview to explain it. We developed a technology to help us view it through lenses and exploit it through machinery. Yet for all its early religious roots and in spite of its technological success, the mechanistic worldview that brought us to the present left us facing enormous problems without any scientific ethics to guide us in solving them.

We even thought we did not want such guidance, having become weary and leery of the mere mention of ethics. History has shown that ethics -- as traditionally defined and promoted by religious authorities -- has been used to make people obedient servants of those in power more often than it has been used for their own good. (Recall how the Greek definition of virtue as excellence was changed to mean obedience.) Still, when we are not handed our ethics, as was the Grand Inquisitor's flock, we are more than ever in need of guidance to overcome the anxiety that comes with freedom. We can hardly expect ourselves to take the responsibility for our actions until we have some way of judging what actions are right or wrong, good or bad.

The word religion comes from the Latin re-ligio, which means `reconnect.' Religion is a way of reconnecting ourselves to our origins, to our source. These origins are seen in religions as the creative acts of one or more deities, connection with which -- through prayer or priesthoods -- gives us guidance. But science, too, concerns itself with our origins, and thus reconnects us with source through a story of natural evolution. Why not find some kind of guidance in these connections? Is it not likely that nature built into us this need to reconnect because our survival depends on maintaining connections with our origins, including understanding our relation to our co-evolving environment or ecosystem so that we may play a balanced role within it? Having given us free choice, would nature not also have built in some guidance for making our choices?

We have already discussed the ethical guidance to be found in the organization of our own bodies, even in the evolution of our cells. But what of the popular impression that nothing could be more unethical than nature? To conclude that nature is cruel and insensitive, we have only to think of a panther attacking and killing a baby gazelle, an owl pouncing on a mouse, a praying mantis biting off her own mate's head, a wasp laying her eggs inside a live caterpillar, which her children will eat from the inside out. Many species defend themselves viciously by human standards -- plants with deadly poisons, spiky thorns, glassy stingers; butterflies eating poison plants that kill birds eating them; sea urchins leaving humans who step on them in pain for weeks; lions tearing up their hunters as well as their prey. Is all this not wanton, unethical cruelty?

Such arguments cannot be dismissed lightly, but let us remember that we make them from a human point of view. Indeed they reflect healthy human sensitivities which we shall discuss shortly. But to understand the Gaian system, we must see it also from the perspective in which life rearranges our planet's rocky crust into a multitude of species, all parts of a single whole in which they are necessarily recycled.

Right from the start, the first bacteria -- living packets of enzyme-driven giant molecules -- could build themselves only by consuming and using smaller molecules that had also been part of Earth's crust. Many of these molecules later were built back into rock; others became parts of new bacteria. Without such recycling, where would Gaia be? The world would have filled with bacteria that would simply have died when supplies ran out -- as the bubblers almost did -- and that would have been the end of it. Earth would have ended up as lifeless as Venus and Mars are today.

Recycling is the secret of life's endless creativity, and we humans are just beginning to understand the problems our own species has caused by using things up without recycling. As supplies of original molecules ran out, living holons were forced to use the manufactured molecules of other living holons. As we saw, for example, bacteria began consuming one another. Much later, animals had to evolve the equipment for chasing after their food rather than sitting in one spot making it like plants, which could make food from sunlight and local chemicals recycled by other species.

Thus large living holons evolved and maintained themselves by incorporating smaller holons and thus recycling them. What disturbs us is the fact that their food is often alive and must be killed to be eaten. But why are we so disturbed by these things which are in our own nature to do? Do we not protect ourselves against attack with the best weapons we know how to make? Are we not hunters and killers ourselves? Even vegetarians tear plants limb from limb, boil them to death, or crunch them up raw with grinding teeth. We cannot get along without feeding on other living things.

Is it the infliction of unnecessary pain and suffering that bothers us? Then let us note that our modern means of producing poultry and livestock, not to mention our use of research animals, is more cruel by our own standards than other species' means of killing. Our methods involve the lifelong torture of being imprisoned in extremely limiting boxes or cages or feed lots, with no access to ecosystems and conditions so unhealthy they must constantly be fed medicines. Animals chase and kill their free-living prey quickly. Further, there is good evidence that bodies which have evolved the capacity to feel pain as a trouble signal know when they can no longer protect themselves and turn off their pain system so they will not suffer needlessly. This seems to be so for the wounded mouse in the claws of a cat as much as for the human soldier wounded in a battle with his fellow man for far less justifiable reasons.

Plants use recycled supplies in ways that don't bother us. Though the molecules they take in through their roots may have been part of large creatures, they are taken in only when the creatures have been decayed by busy bacteria. The way bacteria eat doesn't bother us either, as they and their habits are quite invisible to us.

Rather than justifying our cruelties by accusing nature of cruelty, we should look at our own ability for compassion and do the least damage we can, as Buddhists urge.

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Just as we must renew our own cells, Gaia cannot stay healthy without replacing her creatures. Yet nature is such that every holon within every holarchy has enough self-interest to make it work at preserving its own life as long as possible, whether it is an individual cell, a creature, or a whole species or ecosystem.

This is the key to natural ethics -- that the self-interest of every level or layer in a holarchy is the best possible strategy, for only by means of that strategy can mutual consistency work itself out among all levels. We've already seen how this works, for example in our bodies, but let's look at the principle itself more closely. Mutual means shared, and consistency is harmony or agreement -- shared harmony is what we have called ecological balance. When every holon in the holarchy of an ecological system looks out for itself, a shared balance, or mutual consistency, results. A species holon, for instance, keeps itself healthy by producing a variety of offspring in competitive numbers, of which the healthiest are most likely to survive and become the parents of its next generation. But the species holon needs help in this selection -- help from the larger holon, which is its ecosystem and which is made of other species.

Among animals, it is clear that hunters are most likely to catch the weakest members of a prey species. A hunting species thus actually helps its prey species to stay healthy by weeding out its weakest members, while the prey species helps the predators by keeping them fed. Mutual consistency often involves mutual benefit.

Most species live on a very limited diet; many will eat only a single kind of food -- koalas, for example, eat only eucalyptus leaves and anteaters consume only ants. If a species eats too much of its food species, it will lose its own members to starvation. This gives the food species a chance to recover, and when it does, more of the eating species will live again. In this way species rebalance their imbalances and restore one another's health. Mutual consistency implies a continually dynamic balancing process.

We saw other examples of mutual consistency between individuals and their species in the territoriality and social structures discussed earlier. Individuals fighting for their own territory, for example, do so in such a way that the whole species benefits from protection against overcrowding and inadequate resources.

Nature tests the evolving patterns of species and their ecosystems against one another to see that they are in, or are able to restore, balance -- that they share harmony, or that they are mutually consistent. Whatever proves unable to gain consistency with all else around it cannot survive. This testing is seen as the progression from a new ecosystem, in which a few species compete for territory, to a mature ecosystem in which many species exist and demonstrate their mutual consistency.

Can any of us think of a better way for life as a whole to keep itself alive and in good health? The system is worked out so that every part looks out for itself without taking more than it needs and in doing so contributes to the welfare of the whole! Every part thus finds its dynamic balance with every other part, working out mutual consistency in such a way that the whole Gaian system works as a single healthy being -- every part, that is, except the experimental new human species, which does take more than it needs, wantonly destroying whole other species and ecosystems in the process, killing and starving large numbers of its own species, all the while accusing the rest of nature of cruelty.

What shall we make of this human sensitivity that lives in us side by side with our own cruelty? What of this pity that we profess to feel for other creatures as we torture and slaughter them? Both aspects of this human portrait are unique; no other species demonstrates either the wanton slaughter of, or the pity for, other species. Could these feelings of pity be made to serve some useful purpose in the dance of life, as most things surviving in nature seem to do? Could the feelings serve to awaken us to our own reckless cruelty and push us toward mutual consistency with other species?

Compassionate concern for others, as we saw, evolved in mammals along with emotions., behavioral choice and the birth of live young that needed care and teaching. A great deal of human behavior is guided by feelings, for better as well as for worse. As we humans have the freest behavior, the greatest choice, we might expect ourselves to have the strongest and most varied feelings. And so it seems to be.

When our feelings take over completely, we lose our ability to think about the possibilities and consequences of choice. On the other hand, when we use only our ability to think, we become cold and calculating in a way we think of as mechanical, or `inhuman.' Like everything else in nature, human thought and feeling are ever in need of balancing.

But let's get back to the particular human feeling of horror at nature's cruelty.

When Darwin announced that competition over inadequate resources was the sole driving force of evolution, his theory, as we saw, was quickly used to excuse cruelty in the human world. If all nature was a bloody battle `red in tooth and claw,' then why should humans be an exception? The competitive exploitation of resources and labor by the rich as they built an industrial world was thus justified on the grounds that it was natural. Even now there are sociobiologists who believe that aggression is our innate and therefore unchangeable animal heritage.

Another problem we have with ethics is that anthropologists, who study various human cultures, have told us that ethics is really no more than a set of behavioral codes specific to individual ethnic groups. What is ethical in one culture is unethical in another, so there is no point trying to find common human ethics.

Yet, common human ethics is what we now need more than anything else -- ethics to guide us in our behavior toward one another and toward other species in the natural world to which we all belong. Our basis for such ethics becomes very different when we no longer see nature as just a bloody battleground for competitive struggles over limited resources.

Competition is merely one aspect of nature's creative organization into mutually consistent holons within holarchies -- a mid stage in the unity-> unity cycle.. Young immature species are the ones that grab as much territory and resources as they can, multiplying as fast as they can. But the process of negotiations with other species matures them, thus maturing entire ecosystems. Rainforests that have evolved over millions of years are a good example. No species is in charge -- the system's leadership is distributed among all species, all knowing their part in the dance, all cooperating in mutual consistency. The best life insurance for any of the species is in giving off quality products useful to other species -- what a lesson for us new and immature humans!

What we see clearly in such mature ecosystems is that every holon's health depends on the health of the larger holons in which it is embedded. Thus every holon, in looking out for itself, must also cooperate with other holons to help look out for their larger holon's interests.

This, as we said, is the heart of ecological ethics -- the self-interest of every holon, whether a cell, a body, a society, a species, an ecosystem, or a whole living planet. All must be balanced in the mutual consistency of the whole and all its parts. Self-interest is bad only when not tempered by the self-interest of community.

For us this means recognizing how much we affect the living planet of which we are part and on which our continued existence depends. To truly look out for our own interests requires that we know the interests of our whole environment, which means our whole living planet. Our free choices, in order to serve our own long-range interests, must serve those of other species as well, for natural ethical behavior is that which contributes to the health of the whole Gaian system.

Our history has brought us to the shortsighted adolescent selfishness of warfare, hatred, distrust, and reckless destruction of our own environment. We have long-standing habits of believing that all nature is human property, and so we take land and resources from one another for reasons of profit. It is high time for us to realize that maximizing individual profits minimizes human social stability and welfare, while maximizing common profits destroys our natural life-support system. If we want to survive as a species we must learn to change our ideas and our lifestyles to live in a balanced recycling economy like the rest of nature.

In fact, it is high time to realize that all our old habits and vested interests, even if they form our individual and national identity, must be fundamentally changed. The changes required are deeper and more far-reaching than any revolutionary leader has ever demanded or even dreamed of demanding. And yet we can make those changes peacefully, and everyone can win.

One of the ways we are learning this in affluent countries is through the voluntary simplicity movement launched by pioneers such as Duane Elgin and Vicki Robin. Though a few of us may want to go back to the land building our own houses and chopping our own firewood, that is not what simplicity dictates. We need to discover -- or rediscover -- elegant simplicity, such as the Japanese and Balinese cultures have role-modeled. There can be many wonderful ways to do this in different cultures. Wouldn't it be wonderful to get rid of excess possessions requiring our time and attention, of junk that crowds our existence? How freeing to live lightly on the Earth, not only as volunteer individuals, but as a human species.

Such deep changes in humanity cannot be made at the point of a gun or by other kinds of force. They must be made voluntarily and that is perhaps more difficult. The profit motive is so ingrained in western society, for example, that scientists have actually criticized nature on the grounds of unprofitable inefficiency, pointing out that photosynthesizing plants use only a small fraction of the energy available in sunlight. Can such people learn to appreciate the fact that plants extract exactly as much energy as they need for themselves and to keep their environment's careful balance of energy exchange?

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The cure for the anxiety of freedom is the security of having some way of knowing what to do. If we agree to consider ethical human behavior whatever we sincerely believe, on our best information, to be healthy for our own species and healthy or at least harmless for other species, for the environment and for our planet, then we have such a guide.

Our age-old religious quest for reconnection with origins has been the search not only for our origins, but for our Creator as an inspirational source of guidance and security that would lead us to a better life. In the early childhood of human civilization we imaged this source in sacred nature itself, symbolized by the Great Mother. Then we shifted our attention and loyalty to a Father God, casting him in human image, making him a mathematician when we invented mathematics and an engineer when we invented machinery. In our adolescent cheek, science rejected the father God, believing there was nothing greater or more intelligent in all the universe than ourselves.

Now, on the brink of maturity, we can see that our earliest intuitions were most valid. The source of our creation is indeed an inspirational being far greater and wiser than ourselves -- a Gaian being that has nurtured us and can guide us to a better way of life. Gaia, our living Earth, is not a perfect superhuman parent, but the imperfect yet wonderfully resourceful planet of which we are one part, and which is itself part of a far greater being, a Conscious Cosmos. Have we the maturity to trust and heed these sources of our being for their guidance?

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