The Nancho Consultations
Lyall Watson

Nancho Lite

Lyall Watson

- Verbatim Excerpts -

Nancho: Much of your work in the last few years has focused on the idea and implications of Gaia. Could you explain what the Gaia Hypothesis portends?

Lyall Watson: In short words? Let's start at the other end: The importance of the concept is that only once you can see Earth as an organism, as a creature, as the largest living thing in the solar system, can you begin to understand how things fit together inside it. Until you will accept that it is an animal and look at it as a creature in its own right, it's difficult to accept intellectually that every time a blade of grass is plucked in Tibet, I know about it. That every time I do something, it affects all the lawns in California.

Whatever connections might exist sound terribly tenuous and meaningless to us in our daily lives and when we try and function according only to the scientific description of reality, it doesn't make sense that way because the connections are just not visible. You can't measure them. You can't weigh them. You can't see them. They just aren't there. But when you begin to think of the planet as an organism, then, knowing what we do about organisms and how they work, knowing that in a brain with a hundred thousand million different neurons there are an infinite number of connections - we can begin to weigh and measure these things. We can see them with an electron microscope. And it becomes easier to accept that one cell knows what the other is doing. And once you can look at the Earth organism in the same light, then it's easier, much easier, to accept the fact that when a blue whale dies in the Antarctic it does affect us. It does move me. I am involved. And it matters.

What is necessary - and it's particularly hard for the Japanese character to accept this - is responsibility of that kind. The difficulty is to break away from a resource-oriented ideology. What Japan is very good at doing is going out and tapping resources, which they do extremely well. What is hard to do is to take responsibility outside Japan for doing so. And that was why I got involved in the whale campaign at all. One of the times I came to Japan was purely to talk about whales and whaling. Because one has to take responsibility for resources of that kind, a global responsibility. And the difficulty was to communicate to Japanese administrative people that they were involved in this kind of global organism and the responsibility had to be taken seriously. And it wasn't a racial campaign. We weren't just trying to stop Japan whaling. We were trying to get everybody to accept that some resources had to be shared and had to be equitably and decently handled.

What it means for all of us is that we have to go back to think of diversity as we used to be able to do. Victorian naturalists, people like Darwin, went out and enjoyed diversity for its own sake. Darwin went and where ever he went he collected - looked at every kind of butterfly, looked at every kind of orchid, looked at every kind of insect. Until when he added enough detail together suddenly it began to make patterns - and that's what happens when you do this. And anyway it was when he got to the Galapagos halfway through his world tour on the Beagle that he'd got to a point where his body of information reached a critical mass, crossed a certain threshold. And he could begin to see meaningful relationships between the things, the bits and pieces that were being thrown up to him. The danger of tapping the resources without that kind of attitude - a sort of reverence for diversity for its own sake - is that we get tied into use-oriented approaches to it all. We get obsessed by iron ore, hardwood, whatever the resource might be, for its own sake. And we are not any longer seeing the detail.

Only because there is diversity can there be symbiotic nodes of odds and ends which get together to produce unexpected strengths. If all the world existed only of rice and potatoes, yams and taro, and there weren't the other 950,000 species of plants that we don't eat, we would not have the ones that we do. They wouldn't exist. Everything rests on this foundation of diversity, on this extraordinary manifestation of difference and richness. And while we pick pieces out for use we're also unconsciously drawing on the strength of the parts we are not using. In mental terms, in intellectual terms, we are able to have consciousness - we at the cutting edge of evolution - our species and the best of us, are what we are because of the rest. We couldn't exist without it. We could not be what we are in isolation. And that whole realization comes out of Lovelock's Gaia concept. What he has done is draw that all in together in one place and say, "All this is difficult and all these concepts are awkward and hard to describe and explain 'unless' and 'until'..." He then just embraced the whole thing and said, "God, it's an animal. It's alive. It's just one thing floating there like a misty sapphire in the darkness of space. And it lives. Gaia lives! And Gaia knows."

And does Gaia know she knows?

LW: Aah, I think so. I think so.

Talking about diversity, I don't know if you ever read the braggadocio from various Japanese Prime Ministers about the strengths of Japan's homogeneous and monoethnic society...

LW: Yes, I have heard of that. And there are strengths in having such. A termite colony, an ant colony, a beehive are object examples of that kind of strength in unity. But it's a specialty. And while you're very good at what you do, you're not very good at anything else. And the real strength, the strength to adapt to changing circumstance, comes from being a generalist as an individual or as a society. That is why in the end, it is the society which is multiplex, which is multifarious, which has all these strengths - that's the one that's going to win through every single time. Evolution is an object lesson in this. The anteater is terribly good at eating ants but hopeless as soon as the ants disappear. He can do nothing else. He's got no teeth left in him or he lost them. He's very, very good at finding and eating ants, better than anybody. But he doesn't swim, he doesn't climb, he doesn't fly. He can't suck an orange.

I kept catching bleak notes in your earlier conversation. You're not part of the benevolent apocalypse school of thought?

LW: One tries to be, but I have bleak days, more often more recently. I live at a difficult time. My generation came along at the worst possible time in many ways, because we saw how it used to be. We're the last who did. The world changed beyond recognition with the war, and the immediate aftermath of the war. With mass transit, jumbo jets, international travel, and the sort of prosperity that produced a global Coca Cola culture. The Coca- Colonization of the world began in about 1948, 1949, '50. And that changed everything very radically. It was a quantum change, it was a qualitative change. It changed things very quickly, very dramatically. And those of us who are old enough, who were in our teens and early twenties, to have see things before they changed feel an enormous pain as a result. Because most of the changes have not been for the better. My younger brother, or anyone who comes along in the generation behind me, even by as little as ten years, doesn't see that at all, feels none of that pain. Because they never knew it any other way. You might sympathize with me when I say that but I don't think you can experience that same pain.

I was in the Amazon before any of it had been cut at all. I was in the Antarctic before tourism began, before pollution had started, before penguins died of DDT. I was in Indonesia when one could go to islands that no foreigner had ever been to. I was the last, the last of the explorers. One can't do that anymore, even now. That was only twenty years ago. And that worries me. Because the changes I have seen are so big, so invariably destructive that it upsets me.

Given that history of sadness there's a forking path. It either goes to despair or it goes to the barricades...

LW: I think it's too late for the barricades. I fought several battles on the conservation front and succeeded up to a point. But I think that's as far as we can go. We've lost the rain forest battle already. It's too late. When we talked about diversity a moment ago, we're talking about 96, 98% of all species on earth will be gone by the end of the century.

You're pronouncing that lost?

LW: Yeah. It's gone already. It's too late to turn it back now. Because any change you made would take a generation to filter through. And we don't have that time. We're losing a hectare a second, which probably means ten species a second - most of which have never been described. We don't even know what's there. We're just estimating that that's the rate of loss. And it's just a geometric progression at the moment.

So where does all the New Age effusiveness come from?

LW: Well, I don't think they understand. But, and this is the up end of it, I am speaking as a biologist. What I'm lamenting is the passing of my particular enthusiasm. In global terms, in Gaian terms -- no problem. Because what will happen is that this system will be superseded by another. And in the long term it's just a hiccup in the life of Gaia and she will recover. And there's reason for optimism in that. But it's an optimism for whatever succeeds this system. I think we'll wreck this one. And because I am of it, and immersed in it - because I spent all my life studying this neighborhood, getting to learn where I live, and liking it -- it depresses me. But in the long term, no, there's no reason for concern at all. Something will go on. Who knows what? Cockroach heaven...

That's perhaps OK if you are totally identified with the planet, but if you're rather fond of your children and your friends and the world that you've known, it's not much consolation...

LW: There's not any kind of justified optimism on those grounds. Not if you know enough about it. If we have time to do anything at all -- we don't have time to change our bodies - but we do have time to change the mind, that means the group mind. Because we don't have 5,000 million years of evolution to play with. What we have is perhaps five. And you can change your mind in a second, but you can't change your body in that time. And if the mind is going to change, whether it's by the "hundredth monkey" phenomenon of reaching a necessary critical mass where there will be a quantum leap, or whether it's a slow osmotic process that goes step by step, I don't know which way it's going to work. But I'm rather hoping the former because I think that's our only hope of salvation -- a quantum leap, brought about by reaching a threshold of some kind which will make us completely different willy-nilly, even against our will. Probably better that way. And I think that's how it works.

- End -

Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak

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