God and Gaia: Science, Religion and Ethics on a Living Planet

31 October 2023

Written by  Maurisa Zinira

The environmental crisis has reached an alarming stage. In the past 60 years, in particular, carbon dioxide emissions, global warming, ocean acidization, habitat destruction, extinction, and widescale natural resource extraction show remarkable destruction of our natural environment. It is widely accepted that humans have made significant contributions to ecological crisis. The anthropocentric behaviors constantly lead to the emergence of harmful actions, including behaviors observed within the contexts of religion.

Michel S Northcott, adjunct professor at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS), Universitas Gadjah Mada, responded to this issue by looking back at the relationship between nature, religion, and humans through his book, published by Routledge in 2023, God and Gaia: Science, Religion, and Ethics on a Living Planet. In this book, which was launched at the UGM Graduate School in October 11, 2023, Northcott explores the overlap between traditional religious cosmologies and the Gaia theory. It argues that a Gaian approach to the ecological crisis needs to revive ecological agency of human communities and of non-human beings that draws on sacred tradition.

Humans vs. Nature

Northcott commences his book with an examination of James Hutton's theory pertaining to the Earth system. James Hutton believed that the evolution of life on Earth can be attributed to the intricate interplay between the molten core of the planet, its surface encompassing the oceans, and the gaseous atmosphere. These components collectively constitute what is called ‘the Earth system”. For Hutton, Earth evolved through geophysical processes following the chronology of deep time, therefore, the concept of Divine Creator as well as the role of humans is clearly omitted from the Earth historical narratives. Northcott replies by saying that the emergence of this phenomenon has resulted in a distinct divergence between the realms of natural and human history, as well as a notable contrast between conventional cosmologies and modern scientific cosmology.

Unlike Hutton’s theory of Earth system, some scientists believe that humans contribute significantly to the Earth configuration. Therefore, instead of retrospectively delving into the distant past to cultivate ecological awareness, some Earth scientists think that the most effective approach to instigate concern for the future is revisiting Hutton's geological chronology to encompass the more recent and imminent history of humankind. Scientists like Paul Crutzen and Will Steffen suggest that we insert the paradigm of the "Anthropocene" that designates a novel epoch in the history of the planet. It is characterized by the ascendancy of human activities in influencing the bio-geophysical composition and processes of the Earth, which often lead to negative ramifications, such as the elevation of sea levels, the impact of plastic pollution on both marine and terrestrial processes, the unparalleled rates of biodiversity decline and species extinction, as well as the altering chemical composition of soils, oceans, and the atmosphere.

But the primary cause of the ecological disaster—according to Northcott is the culture of industrialism, which is controlled by machines, not the inherent antagonism between humans and the natural world. For him, the detrimental effects on nature are mostly caused by industrial agriculture, fishing, mining, and urban development. These activities are accompanied by a cosmological framework that views the Earth and nonhuman entities as self-governing machines. The Anthropocene narratives attribute the problem solely to humanity in general therefore, it advocates for the exclusive reliance on science and technology to rectify the negative impacts of the Anthropocene epoch.  This for Northcott is detrimental because relying solely on science and technology will instead invent the danger of scientism.  

Some scientists consider the Gaia theory a solution to the ecological crisis. The theory proposed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis emphasizes the active participation of the Earth and other species alongside humans including the vital nonhuman bacteria that contribute to human health and balance, as essential agents in the process of healing the planet. Lovelock calls it "planetary medicine," drawing an analogy to human health that considers the entire body as integral to achieving overall health and immunity.

Unfortunately, Lovelock's Gaia theory implies the absence of a preexisting divine mind preceding or transcending Gaia despite the fact that prior to the industrial revolution, individuals across various cultures primarily sustained their livelihoods through personal ecological agency and direct engagement with animals, plants, soil, water catchments, and weather systems. Hence, despite adopting the Gaia approach of a human-nonhuman connected system, Northcott raises doubts regarding the capacity of any scientific philosophy devoid of a transcendent divine origin to provide the necessary means to counteract the anthropocentric and Promethean trajectory that has come to define technologically advanced societies influenced by science. Therefore, Northcott proposes in his book a revival of aspects of traditions that provide purpose and values necessary for the Gaia movement.

God and Gaia

Northcott states that contemporary scientific and technological advances rooted in atheistic principles are increasingly divergent from “life”. The notion that life developed with a specific purpose is rejected, whereas many argue that scientists also have a responsibility to instill meaning into life, particularly in the Anthropocene period. Many contemporary atheist scientists believe that the Earth and nonhuman entities do not have inherent moral significance, as they are merely haphazard collections of self-governing elements. Humans, being the sole beings capable of assigning value, cannot gain ethical guidance for their own conduct solely from observations of the natural world. Having said so, Northcott suggests that modern societies cultivate novel or traditional belief systems and rituals that are aligned with new or pre-existing ultimate sacred principles. These practices would serve to promote a revitalized sense of responsibility toward the well-being of Gaia and all living beings. Religious rites have been proven effective for humans to develop mechanisms of social and ethical regulation, aimed at curbing excessive individualism and antisocial behavior. The establishment of sacred status for specific ideas, behaviors, entities, and sites helps the process of control, while the concept of temporal responsibility, which involves the intergenerational transfer of the condition of life and its habitats such as soil, forests, rivers, and oceans, has a rich historical presence in indigenous and Asian cultures, as well as in Western societies prior to the advent of modernity.

A temple’s irrigation system in Bali shows how religion can aid natural care. It demonstrates that the scientific "green revolution" is not always effective for green living. By citing Steven Lansing's Priest and Programmers, Northcott indicates that the Green revolution failed in Bali and prompted the Balinese to return to their own religiously managed hydrological growing system. Lansing’s work describes that the religiously governed calendars and cooperatively coordinated planting systems invented by the Subak Water temples' ten-century-old system of control were effective  to control pest infestations and water shortages resulted from the policy of continuous uncoordinated rice planting proposed by agricultural and development experts. Traditional techniques were proven effective, as careful sharing of water throughout the watershed coordinated by the water temples and annual double-cropping methods employing a variety of traditional Balinese rice varieties caused less water stress and prevented pest plagues.

Lansing translated Bali's traditional rice cultivation and water management system, which was regulated by religious principles, into a scientific framework that acknowledged the potential of religious tradition in ecological preservation. He showed that religion exerted a significant influence on the agricultural sector. Northcott says in his book: “But in a contest between development programmers, pushing modern industrial chemicals, hybrid seeds, and machines, and traditional beliefs and ceremonies which invoke and engage in divine energies in the waters, seeds, and soils of Bali, the priest beat the programmers”. Religious traditions possess the necessary resources to adopt what Northcott refers to as the "ontotheological turn," which entails revitalizing the co-agency of all species and beings, including Mother Earth or Gaia, in the process of reestablishing Earthly ecosystems that are conducive to the well-being of all forms of life. In all of these discussions, it is important to consider religion as an ethical basis for more holistic care of nature.