About twelve thousand years ago at the start of
the Neolithic period we humans began to modify our lifestyle from
that of roaming hunter-gatherers to that of agricultural village
people. In this article John Seed provides insights that address
our relationship to the Earth from the perspective of evolutionary
biology. John takes our family tree back into time’s recesses
to include our primate relatives who evolved from early mammals
living during the dinosaur epochs.
We have all grown up with images of dinosaurs
and their extinction. They disappeared approximately 65 million
years ago, yet still exist in our psyches in mythological scale.
This grand-dying-out marks the end of one geologic period and the
beginning of another that scientists refer to as the Cenozoic.
At the time of the meteor event that caused the
dinosaurs’ extinction the largest mammals were no larger than
today’s house pets. One particular species of the mammals
that survived became the primate species that is literally our fore-parent.
To contemplate this is mind-boggling, but it is a way into our connection
to early life forms. It is also helpful in providing an expanded
viewpoint for my discussions with John that lead to his following
story. John is one of the most committed rainforest activists in
the world today.
We discussed methods to understand the current
crises and put them into appropriate perspective. During the conversation
he wove a story that goes back billions of years to a time when
the Earth’s atmosphere had almost no oxygen. It is a transpersonal
backward reach in time encompassing our inherited development made
possible by the common heritage of our DNA.
To put this in geological perspective, our earth
has existed for about four and a half billion years. We have life’s
first fossil evidence, which is of blue-green algae, from three
and a half billion years ago, and life is assumed to have begun
several hundred million years earlier. The first cells with a nucleus
appeared a little more than two billion years ago. It was the emergence
of these cellular forms that provided the building blocks for more
complex life on Earth. It is this unbroken line of early species
stretching back into the far reaches of time and our imagination
that evolved into us humans. These beings are our actual ancestors.
There is a process for extending our sense of
being far beyond the tiny self that we’ve been taught to
identify with by our culture. It’s a fictitious self because
it disregards the air and water and soil out of which we are made
and on which we depend. As soon as we separate from the fabric
with which our lives are woven then any sense of who we are that
remains is mostly artificial. Our authentic Self has roots that
are nourished directly by the Earth and extend out through space
What has been particularly useful for me recently
has been to steep myself in the best understanding that I have
of the epic version of the story of our evolution – of how
we each came to be here. I remind myself that it was I who crawled
from the sea 400 million years ago and began to colonize the land.
It was I who survived the ice ages. Of course all of us can say
this. It wasn’t my personal "I"; it was the flame
that was passed from generation to generation accumulating the
experiences of each successive generation. Now I’m entrusted
with this flame, and with the flame comes its entire history.
This history includes not only the four billion years of life
on Earth but also the eight or ten billion preceding years in
which matter evolved, the galaxies evolved and the supernovas
flared forth creating the elements that would be the basis for
the present epoch.
Waves of Extinction
Something that I’ve found useful is to
explore the nature of extinction. As a rainforest activist I’m
aware that of the hundred or so species that we believe are disappearing
from the Earth every single day, probably more than half of this
holocaust is taking place within the rainforests. So I’ve
certainly been painfully aware of the current extinction spasm.
And it has been dawning on me over the last twenty years that
we are in the middle of an event of the magnitude of what took
place when the dinosaurs were extinguished. But I hadn’t
really followed that train of thought until recently when I began
studying the nature of what happened to the dinosaurs. Approximately
sixty-five million years ago, a meteor six miles in diameter crashed
into the ocean near the Yucatan peninsula, creating clouds of
dust. Smoke and water vapor blotted out the sun and drastically
reduced the temperature. As an immediate result of this event,
fifty percent of all of the species that had been on the Earth
died out, including everything large. It’s speculated that
no animal larger than a cat was able to survive.
One of the interesting things about that, which
also seems to be true about the previous extinction events, is
what it says about the survival of the fittest. It seems that
all bets are off during such extraordinary times. The survival
of the fittest seems to apply only during the epochs that separate
such extinction events. The meek may not always inherit the Earth
but in particular times of emergency, like these, indeed they
When that meteor collided with Earth, those huge
creatures that had been the fittest and strongest, who could take
what they wanted, and had grown used to having plenty, were unable
to survive in a time of scarcity. Those creatures that had been
marginalized and had to learn how to make do – those that
had been hiding in holes in the ground in fear of the successful,
dominant creatures above – now it became their turn.
Going back to the last extinction spasm before
the dinosaurs at the end of the Permian period 251 million years
ago, not only species but also whole families of species –
like the Trilobites – disappeared. It is now estimated that
ninety-four percent of the species that had existed until then
were wiped out. Everything alive today radiated forth from the
six percent that survived. According to Edward O. Wilson, a leading
advocate of global conservation and University Professor at Harvard,
the period of perhaps five to ten million years following each
of these extinction spasms is a period of incredible experimentation,
novelty and creativity because many ecological niches are empty,
which allows the next epoch to begin.
This understanding gives me a sense of hope because
I had honestly felt sometimes that life, itself, was threatened
by the extinction spasm that we’ve launched. As I learn
about the tenacious bacteria that are eating away the fuel rods
in the nuclear reactors and those that exist in airplane jet engines,
I realize that life has this tremendous resiliency. Of course,
human beings, mammals and such may well be in trouble. But I’m
heartened by my kinship with the entire story rather than just
the present chapter. And this has given me a tremendous refuge
where I can retreat and re-gather my strength – especially
after suffering losses in the campaigns that we engage in.
There are far more losses than there are victories.
For every forest we save, a hundred disappear. But particularly
at those times when we see the destruction continue unabated,
it is important to remember that whatever happens now, there will
be a sequel. This epoch will end in extinction of some species,
as have all previous ages; but it will merely be clearing the
stage for the next magnificent chapter in the story of Life. And
the very things that threaten us today may become the mainstay
of Life in the future.
Perhaps the first of these extinction spasms
took place when photosynthesis began on the Earth. Previously,
there had been a rich chemical soup and the bacteria – which
were the first life forms – would live from these chemicals.
Eventually, the bacteria had proliferated to the extent that all
of the free chemicals had been used up and a time of scarcity
began. Then some of these bacteria evolved the ability to capture
photons of light from the sun. They used this energy to split
the tough chemical bonds between carbon and oxygen in the plentiful
carbon dioxide (CO2), and between hydrogen and oxygen in water
(H20), which was also plentiful. They consumed the carbon and
hydrogen and were able to grow and reproduce. And each time they
did this, atoms of oxygen were released.
At first, this oxygen oxidized everything in
sight. All of the great iron bands – thousands and thousands
of feet thick in the geological record – show the tremendous
amounts of oxidation that took place. Eventually everything that
could be oxidized had been. Then the oxygen began accumulating
in the atmosphere and poisoning the bacteria that were around
at that time. Most of the species of bacteria were unable to adapt
to the situation and so disappeared, except where they still exist
in compost heaps, in swamps, etc. In these locations anaerobic
bacteria are still with us. But their period of dominating Earth
had ended. The time of the aerobic bacteria started then –
those that could survive while exposed to the air – from
which we are descended. Similarly, the things that are the pollution
crises in this epoch could easily become the food and drink of
the beings of the future.
Joy in the Process Without Attachment to Goals
When I first had this vision, I was afraid that
it would erode my commitment to conservation. I thought that only
hysterical fear of oblivion and utter despair could motivate me.
If it was true that extinction spasms merely clear the stage for
the next big show, then perhaps there is no need to save anything?
So I was concerned that maybe all the enthusiasm for my conservation
work would evaporate! After all, if we’re going to be followed
by equally diverse and magnificent life forms that will have their
million years – or hundreds of million years – in
the sun, what does it matter what happens now? So I thought perhaps
this awareness would lead me to a place where I was no longer
interested in the path that I had been following for a quarter
of a century in the conservation of nature.
What happened, instead, was that I discovered
my motivation for activism includes honoring my own incarnation
and epoch. Although this Cenozoic Era is only one tiny aspect
of life, and life itself is clearly not threatened, nonetheless
I’m here as an expression of life. And I have tremendous
loyalty to mammals, human beings and the natural environment that
we depend on to survive and thrive. I also have nothing more meaningful
to do than to struggle on behalf of life, as we know it today.
But what this vision did do for me is to provide a tremendous
sense of relief and comfort – and a relative detachment
from the fruits of our struggles. I’m much better able now
to cope with all the losses.
At the moment, only a small proportion of the
species of the Cenozoic (the 65-million-year geologic period since
the dinosaurs) have disappeared. But the rate of extinction has
accelerated rapidly over the last hundred years. And with the
loss of habitat – which is the contiguous wild nature that
is needed for different species to survive – the writing
is clearly on the wall. A recent, extensive poll of biologists
found that three quarters of those interviewed believe that half
of the species will be lost within a century. A large but unknown
percentage of that loss seems to be inevitable. Even if humanity
awakened today and put aside its destructive competition for financial
wealth and political power, many of the species that now exist
would still be among the living dead. Because of the human population
explosion and what we have done to the Earth, they no longer have
any future – regardless of anything that could happen to
reverse this trend. What is not yet known is whether human beings
are also on the list of coming extinctions.