Prologue: Gaia, Time, and the Origins of Humanity

First, an explanatory note:

“Gaia”, sculpture by Lena Lervik (See Lenalervik.se)

Each of the previous two books in this trilogy, Believing Cassandra and The Sustainability Transformation (original title: The ISIS Agreement), begins with a prologue that draws upon a figure from myth. The Cassandra tale is obvious: she is the seer of Troy, doomed by Apollo never to be believed in her prophecies, even though they were destined to come true. Cassandra was a perfect metaphor for the scientists of the mid- to late 1900s, who attempted to warn humanity about the threat of global exponential growth in resource use, pollution, and the degradation of the planet’s ecosystems. (In fact, these scientists were often called “Cassandras” as a term of insult, usually by economists. The irony of this is difficult to overstate.) The title of my first book stems from the paradox that the only way to make Cassandra’s prophecies false is to believe them, and to act in time to prevent them.

For the second book, I chose the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, and focused on Isis’ successful campaign to don disguises and reassemble the pieces of her husband, Osiris, who was nailed into a golden coffin, killed, cut up, and hidden all over Egypt by the evil Seth. The golden coffin symbolized our growing global economy and monetary system — beautiful, comfortable, but a deadly trap. Isis herself was a metaphor for the sustainability change agent, who must learn to work across many different contexts and disciplines, to reassemble a systems perspective, and help bring about long-term, transformative change — symbolized by the birth of Isis’ and Osiris’ far-seeing, eagle-headed son, Horus. (It was no small irony that I was forced to abandon Isis because of the appropriation of her name by another group, also committed to transformative change, but of a very different kind.)

Gaia, from Greek myth, is one of our most ancient figures, and she represents the Earth itself. The name gained new notoriety when it was applied to the “Gaia Hypothesis,” James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’s scientific conjecture that the entire Earth was a self-regulating system, where the planet’s living systems worked together with geological processes (not intentionally of course) to maintain the conditions for life, over billions of years. The Gaia Hypothesis spawned, in turn, a wave of “green mysticism,” which was certainly not the scientists’ intent.

When I first conceived of this book and its title, and dug into the mythological sources, I was quite surprised to discover that Gaia was not portrayed as a loving goddess, nor as the mother of humanity. She is a distant figure, who has bigger matters on her mind. Humans were created as an afterthought, an amusement, by another member of the early Greek divinity. Gaia’s only interest is to make sure these humans understand that they belong, ultimately, to her — for they must return to her after they die. The myth of Gaia helps set the human project in perspective: it suggests that there are bigger forces at play than us. We are not the center of universe, except to ourselves.

I first drafted this prologue for Gaia’s Dreams in 2008, just a few months after completing The Sustainability Transformation. I have taken some liberties.

*

Before the beginning, there was only Chaos.

When Gaia appeared, everything began.

Gaia gave birth to the Sky, the Mountains, and the Sea.  She took Sky as her husband, because he could cover her completely.

With the Sky as her lover, Gaia gave birth to a race of gods called the Titans. But the Sky hated his children, and he hid them away in darkness — deep inside the body of Gaia.

Grieving and tormented, Gaia released her children and armed their leader, Time, with a sharp blade of unbreakable metal, so that they might vanquish their father Sky and be free once more.  And this is how Time castrated the Sky.

But then Time, also called Chronos, grew jealous, and evil, and as his sister-wife produced children, he ate them.  So she hid one child away, and the child grew to be Zeus, whom Gaia prophesied would dethrone Time.

After he had grown to full godhood, Zeus caused his father Time to disgorge the children he had eaten, Zeus’s brothers and sisters. These became the Olympians.

Zeus and the Olympians — the children of Time, the grandchildren of Gaia — went to war against Time and the Titans.  After ten years of war, the Olympians went to Gaia for help and counsel, which allowed them to win. The Titans were banished.

But not forever.  For Zeus relented: he released all the Titans but Atlas, who must forever hold up the neutered Sky.

*

And so the Olympian gods, the beings of the heavens, multiplied in their numbers.  But there were no beings of earth.

It happened that Cura — who is but a name in the chronicles of the gods, a being of no importance — fashioned a human out of mud.  At her request, Zeus gave this being of earth breath, and life.  But then Cura, Zeus and Gaia quarreled over who should name the being.

Time, the vanquished Titan, was released to play the role of judge. This was just the first of many such disputes that Time would be called upon to resolve.

Gaia, declared Time, would retake the body of each earthen being after death. Zeus would take the soul. Cura, the god who had fashioned the being, received nothing at all.

And the name Time gave to this being of earth was homo, or human, after the humus, the soil from which the being was made.

*

And the humans grew, learned, spread, prospered. They were given fire by Prometheus, whose name means “forethought.” Inspired by Prometheus and his gift, they learned to predict what would happen in the future, and to prepare for it. They learned to imagine things that did not yet exist, and then find ways to make them real. They began to feel more powerful, even godlike — and they began to call themselves sapiens, “the wise.”

Gaia watched as homo sapiens discovered her secrets, one after the other. These humans, creatures of her own soil, learned to till that soil, cultivate crops, build civilizations. They dug into her for her metals, groundwater, and for the ancient plant matter that she had converted into condensed energy over millions of years. More and more of her living skin they turned into their farms and fields, cities and factories. They buzzed around her greatness like billions of tiny bees. They grew and grew, until they began to alter the ordering of all life, to change the very envelope of air that surrounded her.

Using what they learned and extracted from Gaia, the humans invented tools that vastly multiplied not just their physical strength, but the strength of their already-powerful minds as well. Not only did they become ever better at foretelling the future, ever more able to imagine new possible futures and make them real.

They began to gain power over the very nature of the Future itself …