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Cosmological Wisdom & Planetary Madness

November 11, 2015

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Editor’s Note: Sean Kelly presents a brief overview of the evolution of the consciousness of the universe and its current crisis as humanity continues to destroy the life-support system of Earth. It is a deep and profound article worthy of reading fully to the end. –Rabbi Michael Lerner

Cosmological Wisdom and Planetary Madness

Sean Kelly


It is a bitter irony of our times that, just as the collaborative effort of natural scientists and other researchers have revealed the outlines, at least, of a comprehensive cosmology,[i] we should find ourselves plunged into a maelstrom of unparalleled planetary madness. The madness: runaway catastrophic climate change, an accelerating mass extinction of species and generalized ecological deterioration, and a brutal, empire-driven regime of planetary apartheid. The wisdom: among the proposals for “Big History” type grand narratives[ii], Swimme and Berry’s The Universe Story (1992) that I will draw from in these pages. It is a story that encompasses the mysterious origin in a “primal flaring forth” (popularly referred to as the Big Bang), a growing, if perhaps never complete, understanding of the main stages of cosmic evolution, the complexities of embodied intelligence, the main thresholds of human history and the varieties of cultural expression, a sense of the lure or telos of the evolutionary adventure, and a prescient sense of growing planetary crisis.

The details of such a narrative have and continue to be provided by the assiduous efforts of countless individuals working in their respective fields of specialization. The real keepers of such narratives, however, are those (scientists or not) who dare to transgress the otherwise sensible mutual isolation of individual disciplines (and even inter- and multi-disciplines), and who are called instead, however provisionally, to articulate the nature of the Whole. In this case, the Whole includes not only the strictly physical or material-energetic dimension—whether on the large, small, or medium scale—but also the depth dimension of consciousness, interiority, meaning, and purpose. It is only when the Whole, or cosmos if one prefers, is considered in both these dimensions that the narrative becomes truly grand and a candidate, at least, for an expression of cosmological wisdom.


For present purposes, I focus on an expression of such wisdom that I find both economical and particularly generative—namely, Swimme and Berry’s proposal for a threefold “cosmogenetic principle,” (Swimme and Berry, 71) or as I prefer to call it, a trinity of cosmogenetic principles. These principles—differentiation, autopoiesis, and communion—“refer to the governing themes and the basal intentionality of all existence” (71) and can be said to reveal the deep structure of cosmogenesis. They are three mutually implicated dimensions or moments of the emergence, persistence, and evolution of form “throughout time and space and at every level of reality” (71). Swimme and Berry invoke these principles to help us understand the integral nature of cosmic evolution, from the primal flaring forth (with the mysterious relation between the original singularity—if indeed there was a singularity—and the initial break in symmetry, with its perfect, fine-tuned calibration between gravitation and the forces of expansion or spatiation and also among the four fundamental forces), through the emergence of particles, atoms, galaxies, stars (especially our own Sun), and planets (especially Earth or Gaia), to the emergence of life, human societies, and civilizations. In all cases they underline how the three principles “are themselves features of each other.” (73) In fact, as they say, if were there no differentiation, “the universe would collapse into a homogenous smudge; were there no subjectivity [which Swimme and Berry associate with autopoiesis], the universe would collapse into inert, dead extension; were there no communion, the universe would collapse into isolated singularities of being” (73)

I. Wisdom:

Swimme and Berry state that their understanding of the cosmogenetic principle is based on post hoc generalization from consideration of the manifest cosmos rather than on some a priori metaphysical (whether philosophical or theological) concept or doctrine. At the same time, however, it must be conceded that this principle is remarkably coherent with expressions of the nature of wisdom in triadic form found in the world’s great metaphysical traditions (see Kelly, 2010). We know that, before turning to scientific cosmology, Berry had undertaken a deep study of Asian traditions, particularly Neo-Confucianism. The great Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi, for instance,

discerned a tripartite patterning or principle of the emergence of the person, and by extension, all the other objects or events of the world in terms of form or principle [li], dynamics or vital force [qi] and their unification via the mind-heart [xin]: the mature schematic is form, dynamics and unification. Moreover, once this unification of the principle and vital force was achieved and perfected, the outcome, at least for the human person, was a state of harmony or balance. (Berthrong)

Zhu Xi was influenced by the earlier Tiantai “original enlightenment” school of Buddhism, where we find the notion of the “threefold contemplation in one mind” (一心三観)—that is, the integral nature of the three truths of emptiness, conventional existence, and the middle. In the words of a later Japanese Tendai commentary on the threefold contemplation (isshin sangan):

Everything from our own speech to the sound of the waves rising or the wind blowing is the threefold contemplation in a single mind, the originally inherent three thousand realms [i.e., all dharmas]. There is nothing to cultivate and nothing to attain…. The forms of all things exerting their functions and arising in dependence upon conditions, is, without transformation, the threefold contemplation in its totality. (Stone, 178)

I am not suggesting an unambiguous identification of the three cosmogenetic principles of autopoiesis, differentiation, and communion (my preferred order) with the Neo-Confucian triad of li, qi, and xin, or the Tendai triad of emptiness (kuutai), conventional existence (ketai), and the middle (chuutai). I do believe, however, that all three triads participate in the same archetypal complex, or “cultural invariant”, to use Raimon Panikkar’s term, which he calls the “radical Trinity.” “I may also use a consecrated name:,” he writes,  “advaita [“not twoness”], which is the equivalent of the radical Trinity. Everything is related to everything but without monistic identity or dualistic separation.” (Panikkar, 2010, 404) The most encompassing expression of the radical Trinity is the integral or non-dual “theanthropocosmic” intuition of  “Reality comprising the Divine, the Human, and the Cosmic in thoroughgoing relationality.” (xviii) “We are together with other Men,” Pannikkar observes, “on a common Earth, under the same Sky, and enveloped by the Unknown.” (268) These three terms remind one of the traditional Chinese triad of Heaven, Humanity, and Earth. In Panikkar’s case, however, though deeply informed by both the non-dualism of Hindu advaita vedanta and the Buddhist notion of dependent co-arising (pratityasamutpada, which he translates as “interindependence”), the deeper source is speculative Christian Trinitarian theology (with which Berry was obviously also familiar, despite his lack of formal training in theology and his self-designation as a “geologian”). The key insight here is the “perichoretic”, or mutually generating, relation among the three “persons” of the Trinity. “For Panikkar,” as summarized by Rowan Williams,

the Trinitarian structure is that of a source, inexhaustibly generative and always generative, from which arises form and determination, “being” in the sense of what can be concretely perceived and engaged with; that form itself is never exhausted, never limited by this or that specific realization, but is constantly being realized in the flux of active life that equally springs out from the source of all. Between form, “logos”, and life, “spirit”, there is an unceasing interaction. The Source of all does not and cannot exhaust itself simply in producing shape and structure; it also produces that which dissolves and re-forms all structures in endless an undetermined movement, in such a way that all form itself is not absolutized but always turned back toward the primal reality of the Source. (xviii)

Echoing Swimme and Berry’s statement quoted above regarding the mutual implication of the three cosmogenetic principles, Pannikar states: “God without Man is nothing, literally ‘no-thing’. Man without God is exclusively a ‘thing’ not a person, not a really human being, while the World, the Cosmos, without Man and God is ‘any-thing without consistency and being; it is sheer non existing chaos. The three are constitutively connected.’” (Panikkar, 1979, quoted in Sabetta)

Like Panikkar’s “cosmotheanthropic” vision, Swimme and Berry see their cosmogenetic principles active throughout the entire universe story. It is in our middle realm or Midgard of Earth or Gaia, however, that we see the principles in action most clearly and consequentially.

II. Planetary:

1. autopoiesis and climate catastrophe

The auto-poietic or self-organizing dynamics of the Earth are apparent from the time, 4.45 billion years ago, that the now cooling planet brought forth the early atmosphere, oceans, and continents, the main organs of planetary physiology. In contrast with the other planets of our solar system, the Earth was graced with just the right mass, in just the right position, to allow for an exquisite dynamic balance of gravitational, nuclear, and electromagnetic forces, allowing it to become “the advanced edge of cosmogenesis in the solar system.” (Swimme and Berry, 84) The Earth continues to be geologically very active (Mars and Venus, by contrast, are geologically frozen). This activity is not only due to its unique physical-energetic profile, however, but to the presence of life, which emerged remarkably early some 4 billion  ago. While the appearance of the first organisms can be considered as initially local emergent properties of early Gaian physiology, life quickly pervaded the oceans and began colonizing the continents, constituting a new Gaian sphere in its own right—the biosphere. As Bruce Clarke notes: “Autopoiesis and Gaia fit together as interlocking, micro- and macro- modes of systems theory: biological autopoiesis defines the minimal formal requirements for living systems, beginning with the cell, and Gaia captures the ‘planetary physiology’ of the biosphere, for which the atmosphere is the autopoietic membrane.” (Clarke)

One of the great insights of Lovelock and Margulis’s Gaia theory—an insight presupposed by all subsequent Earth system science—is that the chemical composition of this membrane was established and maintained by the evolution of the biosphere, which itself depends upon the life-constituted atmosphere for its continuing existence. From the reduction of the carbon-rich early atmosphere by the prokaryotes (single cell  organisms without a nucleus)—which precipitated the first ice age—through the subsequent oxygen crisis and its eventual resolution some 550 million years ago (since that time, atmospheric oxygen has stabilized between 15-35%), the biosphere “altered the terrestrial unfolding. Earth’s adventure became a conversation among the hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere.” (Swimme and Berry, 93)

This millennial, or billennial, conversation has deteriorated in our own times, however, into a literally deadening monologue. For the first time in over 800,000 years, concentrations of atmospheric CO2 have surpassed 400 ppm. As a result, at the time of writing, the combined average global temperature across both land surfaces and oceans has already increased by .87 degrees C relative to the 20thC average. At just less than one degree of warming, we are witnessing significant increases in extreme weather events (storms, floods, heat waves), changes in patterns of precipitation, intensifying droughts, major fluctuations in the jet stream, acidification of the oceans (which have been acting as the major carbon sink) and indications of possible disruption of major ocean currents. The warming in the Artic is three times higher than the global average. This is especially significant due to the critical role played by Artic ice in cooling the planet. To begin with, Artic ice reflects up to 90% of sunlight back into space—the so-called albedo effect. Especially given the higher level of warming, Artic ice is melting, decreasing the albedo, which increases the rate of warming, resulting in ice-albedo feedback. Complicating matters are the enormous stores of methane stored in both permafrost beneath the ice and in the form of hydrates in the Artic ocean. The danger here, assuming a worst case scenario, is that

further warming of the Arctic Ocean will unleash huge methane eruptions from the Arctic Ocean seafloor, in turn driving temperatures up even higher and causing more intense wildfires, heatwaves and further extreme weather events…. A polynomial trendline points at global temperature anomalies of over 4°C by 2060. Even worse, a polynomial trend for the Arctic shows temperature anomalies of over 4°C by 2020, 6°C by 2030 and 15°C by 2050, threatening to cause major feedbacks to kick in, including albedo changes and methane releases that will trigger runaway global warming that looks set to eventually catch up with accelerated warming in the Arctic and result in global temperature anomalies of 16°C by 2052. (Arctic News; or the most recent consensus view, only slightly less alarming see also see also Mooney)

Even if this worst case scenario does not pan out, the fact remains that the most recent IPCC report, which has set 2°C of warming as the upper limit beyond which we can expect irreversible catastrophic climate change (climate scientist James Hansen, by contrast, who first warned of the danger of global warming the 1980s, claims that 1°C is already catastrophic), does not factor in the feedback from the release of Artic methane.

The literature on global warming and climate science is increasing exponentially, and there is no way I could summarize even the most relevant recent findings, projections, and analyses. While many of these are contested, and all carry a degree of uncertainty, it can be said with increasing confidence (though the word “confidence” seems emotionally out of place here) that the situation is dire. Even the most likely best case scenarios seem to involve massive climate disruption and associated environmental catastrophe and likely civilizational collapse.

The irony of the situation, as stated in the introduction, is that the climate crisis has become the primary occasion for a growing public awareness of the self-organizing character of the Earth system. Though perhaps not conversant with the details of complex dynamical systems, more and more non-specialists understand what is meant by “tipping points” and “positive feedback”. More importantly, this awareness is coupled with the realization that human beings, far from being outside observers of the “environment”, are integral to the planetary system. The climate change in question is largely “anthropogenic”. What this means, theoretically, is that a more adequate view of the Earth or Gaia must include, alongside or interwoven with the geosphere and biosphere, an anthroposphere as its most recent epigenetic expression.

Since autopoiesis, linked as it is to systemic closure, identity, and memory, points “to the interior dimension of things” (Swimme and Berry, 75), one could say that the emergence of the anthroposphere represents the stage in the evolution of Earth where the self-organizing dynamics of Gaia bring forth, in explicit relief, the latent potential of the biosphere for self-conscious, value-driven, agency. Of course, at this point, the quality of this self-consciousness is at best fragmentary or at least functionally dissociated. Despite a growing global awareness of the threat of climate catastrophe, the overwhelming inertia of human actions and the values supporting them are in the direction of business as usual, which is to say, in support of the interests of global capitalism, in general, and of the fossil fuel industry, in particular. The dissociation is well captured in the subtitle to Naomi Klein’s epochal book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. (Klein) “So we are left with a stark choice,” she writes: “allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate.” (22) And not just the economy, of course, since “we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible…. For any of this to change, a worldview will need to rise to the fore that sees nature, other nations, and our own neighbors not as adversaries, but rather as partners in a grand project of mutual invention.” (23)

2. differentiation and mass extinction

The cosmogenetic principle of differentiation manifests itself in the evolution of the Earth from its inception as the variegated cloud of stellar elements that gathered to form the initial ball of molten rock (there are 92 known naturally occurring elements; oxygen, iron, silicon, and magnesium account for 90% of the mass of the geosphere). The settling of core, mantle, and crust, and then the primary organs of continents, oceans, and atmosphere manifest the larger scale geophysiological differentiation (in terms of elements, the oceans are 86% oxygen and 11% hydrogen by mass, while the atmosphere is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen by volume). Though the early biosphere, constituted of single-cell organisms, was relatively homogenous, life would eventually differentiate into a staggering diversity of expression. It is estimated that over five billion species have emerged from the autopoietic creativity of Earth, a little more than one species for every year of its existence to date. 99% of these, however, have perished, mostly during the past five mass extinction events.

Though the news was slow in making its way into the mainstream media, it is now widely recognized that we are currently in the beginning, though accelerating, phase of the six mass extinction event. (see Ceballos et al., and Pimm et al.)[iii] The previous, Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction of 65 million years ago took out some three quarters of the Earth’s animal and plant species, including the non-avian dinosaurs, and was likely caused by the impact of a large meteor or comet that struck the Yucatan Peninsula. The current mass extinction underway, however, is happening much faster, and it is entirely due to human activity. Like the current global climate crisis, in other words, the sixth mass extinction is anthropogenic. Though this would seem to bolster the choice of the term “Anthropocene” to describe the new geological age that humans have initiated (bringing the prior 65 million year Cenozoic to a close), the fact that humans are also on the potential extinction list should cast considerable doubt, or at least irony, on this choice of terms. While it is true that the previous mass extinctions made way for new waves of speciation—diversification through annihilation, one could say—it is quite possible that the striking exfoliations of life following the Permian and Cretaceous extinctions were Gaia’s last great gestures of biological exuberance. In any case, since it has taken many millions of years for the biosphere to recover from past extinctions, and since the average life span of mammalian species is one million years, it is highly unlikely that humans will be around to enjoy what other life forms manage to survive.

The major drivers of the current mass extinction include habitat loss (especially forests and wetlands), ecological degradation (including mono-cultures, invasive species, pollution), species exploitation (over-fishing, hunting), ocean acidification (a special case of pollution), and of course global warming. Global warming not only exacerbates the other drivers, but is coupled with them, and especially habitat loss and ecological degradation, in a death-dealing positive feedback loop. The main driver, however, is the activity of the anthroposphere itself, whose global footprint, under the capitalist regime of industrial growth society, is currently at one and a half Earths and projected to be at three Earths by 2050 (that is, it would take three Earths to provide the resources consumed and to absorb the wastes produced). (see Global Footprint Network) Of course, there is only one Earth, and most of what will be consumed or lost (fossil fuels, the remaining old growth forests, countless species) can never be replaced. As far as the current mass extinction and global warming are concerned (and the two, as I have said, are coupled in a mutually amplifying feedback loop), we seem to have a very short window—a decade at most—to turn things around and avoid the worst case scenario.

Though perhaps initially counterintuitive, the assault on Gaian biodiversity can be understood as the result of a hypertrophy of the principle of differentiation in the anthroposphere. A distinguishing character of the human is the ability to order its experience and its world through the mediation of symbols. Though symbolic consciousness is naturally associated primarily with language, it is present wherever categorial distinctions are in play. In social contexts, for instance, one finds the primal distinction between insider and outsider, divisions of labor, levels of status or privilege, and so on. In terms of the current planetary crisis, we could point to three related paradigmatic or meta-level expressions of hypertrophic differentiation. The first is patriarchy, which has dominated socio-cultural evolution throughout the historical period. Feminist scholars have demonstrated the intrinsic alliance between the subordination of women and women’s value spheres, on the one hand, and the domination of nature or the material realm in general, on the other (see Merchant, Spretnak, Keller). As for the domination of nature, while it is true that humans have spoiled, denuded, or otherwise disrupted their natural environments for many thousands of years, it was not until the advent of modern science and technology—the second expression of hypertrophic differentiation—and particularly following the industrial revolution and the exploitation of fossil fuels, that humans became ecocidal on a planetary scale. The modern scientific paradigm is founded on the root metaphor of the cosmos as machine, the constitutive elements of which are thought of as lifeless and merely externally related to one another. Scientific knowledge is primarily instrumental, allowing for the prediction and control of objects for human use.

Again, however, even patriarchy and modern science and technology would not, by themselves, be able to lead the planet to the edge of catastrophe were it not for the third expression of hypertrophic differentiation—namely, global capitalism. Making full use of the other-dominating, instrumentalist attitudes and practices of the first two expressions, capitalism, to begin with in alliance with colonialism and then also in the form of corporatocracy, quickly became its own planet-wide autopoietic force. While it is the case that the universe story and the Gaian consciousness that it celebrates would not have emerged without this world-making force, its creative role is now overshadowed by its apocalyptic potential.

3. communion and Empire

Like the third moment in the Hegelian dialectic, or the Holy Spirit of the Christian Trinity, the third cosmogenetic principle—communion—is simultaneously presupposed by the first two, and the expression of their harmonious interplay. It is presupposed because there can be neither self-making nor differentiation without real internal and external relations. At the same time, true communion is impossible between essentially lifeless (no identity) or completely identical (no difference) entities. It is only with the full expression of communion, therefore, that the creative potential of the cosmogenetic principle can be fully actualized. “The universe,” write Swimme and Berry, “evolves into beings that are different from each other, and that organize themselves. But in addition to this, the universe advances into community—into a differentiated web of relationships among sentient beings.” (77) The principle of communion is evident at all scales of the cosmos and at all stages of the evolutionary journey: in the quantum entanglement of elementary particles; in the mutual gravitational attraction of galaxies, stars, and planets; in the miraculous origin of life in the prolonged courtship of organic molecules and lightning in the primordial oceans; in the symbiogenetic mergers that birthed the first eukaryotic cells; in the complex webs of ecosystem communication; in the millions of years of mammalian bondings; in the forgotten gatherings of archaic hominid societies; in the many histories, mostly unwritten, of creative human collaboration, mutual assistance, celebration….

“The loss of relationship,” by contrast, “with its consequent alienation, is a kind of supreme evil in the universe…. To be locked up in a private world, to be cut off from intimacy with other beings, to be incapable of entering the joy of mutual presence—such conditions were taken [in traditional religious contexts] as the essence of damnation. (78) While every living being will, at one time or another, experience moments of alienation, and while human history is in no small measure a history of oppression, our own times are the first to be organized on the basis of systematic alienation on a planetary scale. Granting such remarkable achievements as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and a widespread affirmation, in principle at least, of the ideal of universal human rights, it is nevertheless the case that approximately half the world population lives in extreme poverty and the deprivations with which it is associated. Thomas Pogge sums up the situation as follows:

The collective income of all these people—the bottom half—is less than three percent of global household income, and so there is a grotesque maldistribution of income and wealth. The bottom quarter of the human population has only three-quarters of one percent of global household income, about one thirty-second of the average income in the world, whereas the people in the top five percent have nine times the average income. So the ratio between the averages in the top five percent and the bottom quarter is somewhere around 300 to one…. (Pogge)

The statistics on global wealth inequality are even more obscene, with the wealthiest 1% owning more than the remaining 99%. (see Elliot and Pilkington) Measures of relative wealth and poverty are perhaps the single most revealing indicators of the full range of inequalities, beginning with access to—or quality of—food, water, and shelter, and including access to education, social services, and other factors contributing to quality of life.

As it now stands, the world situation can be described as a kind of planetary apartheid. I use the word planetary instead of global here so as to include other than human beings in the equation, the larger portion of whom, as we have seen above, are on the verge of extinction.[iv]Along with the billions of humans living in misery, there are 10 billion animals (approximately 1.3 for every human being on the planet) reared in concentration camps (factory farms) each year for human use. The two classes of oppressed—human and other than human—are the victims of a single overarching system or regime, which can perhaps best be described with the term Empire. In David Korten’s formulation, Empire is based on

the hierarchical ordering of human relationships [among humans and between humans and other than humans] based on the principle of domination. The mentality of Empire embraces material excess for the ruling classes, honors the dominator power of death and violence, denies the feminine principle, and suppresses the realization of the potentials of human [and other than human]maturity. (Korten, 20)

Unlike smaller empires throughout the historical period, the current global Empire does not have a single standing army to impose its rule. While the military industrial complex, or complexes, together constitute a significant player in the global economy, the rule of Empire is maintained through the pervasive power of global capitalism—which is to say, the private ownership (overwhelmingly by the 1%) of the forces of production. The latter include the various industries, the goods produced (whether material or informational), and the labor used to produce them, along with mechanisms not only to profit through the trading of financial capital, but the power literally to create money out of thin air (fiat currency). Marx was the first to articulate the ways in which individuals and classes are alienated under capitalist modes of production—alienated from the products of their labor, from the process of production, from other people, from the natural world.

There are three mutually enabling features of capitalism—an unholy trinity, if you will—that I would underline here, which I could describe in terms of motive, means, and mode. The main motive is cupidity or greed for gain, which takes the form of the pursuit of maximization of profit and continuous growth in revenues. This is achieved by various means, but must ultimately rely on the discovery or creation of new markets, cheap labor, the disposability or obsolescence of products, and the stimulation of desire for new products. As has now become obvious, the successful pursuit of continuous growth has also relied on the assumption of infinite resources (material and energetic) and the so-called externalization of costs to both human societies and the natural environment. The latter form of externalization, which amounts to a degradation of natural systems, exacerbates the effects of resource depletion through over-exploitation (for instance, ocean acidification from CO2 pollution amplifying collapse of marine species through over-fishing).

The means by which global capitalism achieves its motive is the private ownership of what would otherwise be—and arguably, what ought to be—owned in common. As long as one could ignore externalization of costs, it is at least understandable how people could be blind to the injustice of private ownership of productive forces. Unless one is persuaded, as I am, by the Marxist ethical analysis of how profit depends on alienated labor—on a form of theft, in other words—it might not be evident why, for instance, a creative and hard-working entrepreneur should not be able to own his own business—say, a chain of grocery stores that caters to educated, environmentally conscious consumers—especially if his employees are all paid above the minimum wage.

Where the wrong of private ownership of the commons (including labor) becomes glaringly obvious is when the nature of productive activity is set in its full ecological context—that is, in the planetary or Gaian commons in which we live and have our being. In this context, there can be no “externalization” of costs. This realization first came to public awareness with the cross-border effects of acid rain, but of course is now fully apparent and calling for decisive action in connection with the catastrophic effects of atmospheric CO2 generated by capitalist industries. Though less obvious, the same concern ought to be extended to the presence and continued release of radio-nucleotides, persistent organic chemicals, and other toxins into the biosphere. The presence of all such toxins, including CO2, though suffered by every living thing on the planet (and more immediately and intensely by the socio-economically disadvantaged), are the result of capitalist modes of production, and thus flow from the decisions of the 1% (who also reap most of the benefit). The same is true, of course, for the generalized degradation of the biosphere (habitat loss, decimation of plant and animal species through over-exploitation, industrial mono-cropping, etc.). The point, therefore, is that the greed-guided, private ownership of productive forces that constitutes capitalism is incompatible—in both real and ethical terms—with the fact of the global commons.[v]

The mode of global capitalism, or of Empire, can be described in terms of the root paradigmatic assumption of the dominant late-modern worldview. The latter has been characterized variously as mechanistic, techno-centric or technocratic, reductionistic, instrumentalist, rationalistic, economistic, and disenchanted. All of these terms presuppose a view of the universe as a “collection of objects” (Swimme and Berry, 243)—that is, as essentially inert things with merely extrinsic value (which, in the capitalist system, is defined in terms of commodities). Regardless of where one might stand, given their autopoietic nature, with respect to the subjectivity of fundamental particles, atoms, stars and galaxies, or even of the simpler organisms, it is now almost universally recognized that human beings are not objects to be bought or sold (this despite the persistence of human trafficking, and both wage and debt slavery). Because of the ecological solidarity of human beings with the Gaian system, however—a solidarity which means that the Earth is not merely our environment, but in a very real sense our extended body, which, through rampant privatization of the commons, is being bought and sold—we are brought once again to the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, again, well captured by the subtitle of Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, and the subtitle of Korten’s earlier, more comprehensive work, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.

As an indication of the supraordinate character of the principle of communion, Swimme and Berry make the following claim: “That the universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects is the central commitment of the Ecozoic”. (243) The term Ecozoic is their proposal for the geological age in process of succeeding the 65 million year Cenozoic. “The comprehensive objective of the Ecozoic,” they affirm,

is to assist in establishing a mutually enhancing human presence on the Earth…. The immediate goal…is not simply to diminish the devastation of the planet that is taking place at present. It is rather to alter the consciousness that is responsible for such deadly activities. (250-251)

Swimme and Berry speak of the need to evoke a “counter to the commercial-industrial mystique” (250) that has “misenchanted” the modern mind. (Segall) Overriding traditional political and ideological divisions, they assert that

the dominant issue of the immediate future will be the tension between the Entrepreneur and the Ecologist, between those who would continue their plundering, and those who would truly preserve the natural world, between the mechanistic and the organic, between the world as collection of objects and the world as a communion of subjects, between the anthropocentric and the biocentric norms of reality and value. (250)

Conclusion: homo sapiens-demens and the Gaianthropocene

Though I agree with its spirit, I would amend the terms of the last opposition in the passage just quoted. It is certainly the case that the human presence on the planet has become ecocidal. To my mind, however, the root problem is not so much anthropocentrism per se as a mutilated understanding of anthropos, where the human has set itself, in deed if not in theory, above or outside of the cosmological reality in which it is in fact embedded. At the same time, however, it is equally true that this cosmological reality is only given to us as mediated through our specifically human life-world. It is, after all, human science and reflection that have brought forth the universe story. Practically speaking, moreover, it is the case, as Swimme and Berry themselves recognize, that if “the emergence of the Cenozoic in all its brilliance was independent of any human influence, almost every phase  of the Ecozoic will involve the human. While the human cannot make a blade of grass, there is liable not to be a blade of grass unless it is accepted, protected, and fostered by the human.” (247) It is for these reasons that there is a growing consensus around the term Anthropocene to describe the dawning geological era. The danger of this term, however, is that it will amplify the hubris in the dominant, mutilated and myopic understanding of the human as preeminently homo faber, technologicus, or economicus.

As for the self-designation of humans as homo sapiens sapiens, the lone survivor among the genus homo, one might understandably question the unqualified attribution of the term “wise”, let alone its doubling (the “wisest among the wise”). We have, it is true, the undisputed brilliance of human intelligence as seen not only in our own times with the grand, if still and perhaps forever incomplete narrative of the universe story, and more generally in the awesome variety of human cultural expression (in art, religion, and philosophy; in the human and social sciences generally; in the myriad traditions of indigenous knowledge and practice). At the same time, the human story has also been one of violence and bigotry, of superstition and illusion, and at least throughout the historical period, of domination through war, slavery, dispossession, and persecution. In the last century, the destructive potential of our species reached planetary proportions with the first world wars and the three symptoms of planetary madness that I have focused on in these pages: climate catastrophe, mass extinction of species, and planetary apartheid. Given this shadow that has always accompanied the light in which we would like to behold ourselves, a more apt term for our species, as Edgar Morin has proposed, would be homo sapiens-demens, the “wise-mad” animal.

This potential for madness, however, is not limited to the aggression of the Freudian death instinct (thanatos). The demens in question, though it can and has expressed itself demonically, is also the source of the daimonic—that is, the imaginal, inspirational, ecstatic, and participatory modes of being in the world. The attempt to banish the daimonic is its own form of madness, a dissociation of that which is, or should be, complexly interwoven. “The bipolarity of sapiens-demens,” writes Morin,

is the extreme expression of the existential bipolarity of the two kinds of life which weave our lives, one serious, utilitarian, and prosaic, the other playful, aesthetic, poetic…. Moreover, sapiens is within demens and demens is within sapiens, as with the yin and yang, each one containing the other. Between one and the other, in a manner both antagonistic and complementary, there is no clear boundary…. A totally rational, technical, and utilitarian life would not only be demented, but inconceivable. A life without any kind of rationality would be equally impossible…
Human beings live not only through rationality and tools; they make use of and give themselves over to dance, trance, myth, magic, and ritual…. Play, celebration, rituals, are not simply forms of relaxation that allow one to return to the practical life of work. Belief in gods and ideas cannot be reduced to the status of illusion or superstition: they have roots that plunge into the depths of human nature…. This is the paradox, the richness, the prodigality, the discontent, the happiness of homo sapiens-demens. (Morin 2001, 131)

Acknowledging the truth of what is suggested by the term Anthropocene, though affirming the ideal of the Ecozoic as conceived by Swimme and Berry, the new era that we have initiated might best be described by the term Gaianthropocene. Like the bipolarity of homo sapiens-demens, the advantage of this term is that it suggests the complex character of the relation between humans and Earth. Complex because the nature and destiny of each term is interwoven with the other (com-plexere, to weave together). Though there was once an Earth without humans, there is will longer be an Earth without the presence of the human. Even after the passing of the last of our species, whether through self-induced extinction or through the inevitable demise of what remains of the biosphere (at the limit, when, in 3 billion years, the oceans begin to boil off from steadily increasing solar radiation), Earth’s geochemistry, if nothing else, will still carry the signature of our world-transforming activities (for instance, to mention just one example, with the global presence and distribution of anthropogenic depleted uranium, whose half life is over 4.5 billion years).

The relation between Gaia and anthropos is also complex (in Morin’s understanding of complexity) in that it is dialogical, recursive, holographic, and uncertain.[vi] It is dialogical because human being is both complementary (as a potentially synergistic partner) and antagonistic (to the point of ecocide) relative to the wider Gaian system. It is recursive in that, though an emergent product of Gaian evolution, the human has itself become a significant causal factor in this evolution. It is holographic insofar as each term, in important ways, both contains and is contained by the other (that humans are part of the encompassing whole that is Gaia should be obvious. That Gaia is contained by the human is most apparent with the idea and fact of the anthroposphere, the outermost though, as we have seen, most consequential layer of the Gaian system).

           Finally, the relation is uncertain, not only relative to the ultimate ground and details of their respective origins and entwined histories, but also in their ultimate fates. While there is a relatively solid consensus around the likely demise of the planet in cosmological terms (a maximum life expectancy of another 3 or 4 billion years), in the near to middle term, at least, there is an unknown set of possible alternative futures. With each month and year that passes, however, a future that includes the kind of magnificent biodiversity that preceded and has always supported our species, if indeed a real possibility, becomes less and less probable. As the web of life itself continues to unravel, so too will the recently woven fabric of planetary civilization. We do not yet know, though surely some alive today will know, if we can halt our hurtling ever deeper into planetary madness. If there is hope, it is because we (many of us, at least) know what is at stake, know what must be done to have a fighting chance of avoiding the worst.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Brian Swimme, Jorge Ferrer, and Michael Mayer their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Sean Kelly, Ph.D., is professor of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS).  He is author of Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era and of Individuation and the Absolute: Hegel, Jung, and the Path toward Wholeness. Sean’s work is guided by the conviction that we are being called to participate actively in the awakening of Gaia, our planet-home, guided by the twin virtues of wisdom and compassion in service of the entire Earth community.


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[i] By “comprehensive” I mean inclusive of the known universe at all levels of organization, from the microphysical to the large-scale cosmic. Of course I recognize that various theories (the singularity and Big Bang, for instance) in each of the individual disciplines are contested and that there is no universally recognized overall account or “meta-theory” encompassing all of the disciplines. Nevertheless, the widespread consensus around such things as universal expansion, the history of Earth, the evolution of species, and climate change give an indication of the breadth of agreement within and among major scientific disciplines.

[ii] The field or discipline of Big History traces its formal origins to the work of David Christian (2005), who coined the term. In fact, however, classics in the field include Swimme and Berry’s Universe Story (1992), Teilhard de Chardin’s Human Phenomenon (1955/1999), Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series (1980), Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man (1973), and much earlier works, including especially von Humboldt’s Cosmos (1845), and the early 19C works of Lorenz Oken and Schelling, among others.

[iii] Ceballos et al. represents the most recent, conservative estimate of 100 times the background extinction rate; for the more likely rate of 1000 times, see Pimm et al..

[iv] For the meaning of the term global apartheid, see Mutassa.

[v] I know that many will say that the problem is not capitalism as such, but “predatory” or “unregulated” capitalism. If I am correct in my view of the motive, means, and mode of capitalism, however, capitalism is “predatory” by nature, which is why, if it is to exist at all, it needs to be heavily regulated! In this connection, see David Graeber’s piece on “savage capitalism” (Graeber).

[vi] For an extended discussion of Morin’s “paradigm of complexity”, see Kelly 2016.

Cosmological Wisdom & Planetary Madness

November 11, 2015

It is a bitter irony of our times that, just as the collaborative effort of natural scientists and other researchers have revealed the outlines, at least, of a comprehensive cosmology,[i] we should find ourselves plunged into a maelstrom of unparalleled planetary madness. The madness: runaway catastrophic climate change, an accelerating mass extinction of species and generalized ecological deterioration, and a brutal, empire-driven regime of planetary apartheid. The wisdom: among the proposals for “Big History” type grand narratives[ii], Swimme and Berry’s The Universe Story (1992) that I will draw from in these pages.

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