With the death of James Lovelock last week at the ripe age of 103, the obits have been full of his quotable remarks. He once said, ‘Too many greens are not just ignorant of science, they hate science.’ Lovelock wrote this in 1964 in his seminal book Homage to Gaia, reflecting on his hypothesis that the earth was like a self-regulating organism. It seems unimaginable now, but this idea that greens hate science held through the 70s and into the 80s. That was when the shift started to take hold and green politics was shedding off its hippy-come-new age origins. I recall being on the crust of that wave and how it changed my life.
My early childhood in the 60s was peppered with tie-dyed t-shirts, peace signs, Joan Baez and psychedelia. Although I was only superficially aware of it, the 60s saw the birth of the ecology movement and green politics. Although Lovelock was publishing his Gaia hypothesis before this time, the science behind his ideas hadn’t yet taken hold in the popular mindset. Unlike environmentalism today, the hippies and new agers lead this eco-awareness by pointing the figure not only at governments, but also at scientists that gave us the technologies that polluted our air and water. The emphasis was on returning to the sanctity of nature. This would have a huge influence on my thinking for years to come, aided and abetted by my post-divorce mother, who was a compulsive shopper for spirituality.
My late childhood and teen years were marked by a parade of Hindu swamis, mediation groups, psychic readings, Course in Miracles meetings and creative consciousness workshops, dabbling along the way in the Kabala, Zen Buddhism, Sufism and the writings of Carlos Castaneda. All of this was laced with pop psychology, and all of this was seen as cool. The highlights were the spiritual retreats led by the spiritual group du jour out into nature – forest preserves near Chicago or a jaunt up to the Wisconsin countryside. Since my family didn’t own a car, any trip that was devoid of public transport and that meant getting away from city neighbourhoods and skyscrapers was itself an otherworldly experience. Meditation and chanting were not required.
At these retreats that, alongside tree-hugging – I mean this literally – I was exposed to a dangerous dichotomy. Spirituality seemed anti-science because it accepted phenomena (e.g., psychic healing) that could not be explained by science. Scientists, especially medical scientists, didn’t know what they were doing. Like the materialists, they were seen as corporate and were pushing us away from higher consciousness, formerly known as God. I was aware of some of the ironies even then. The new age movement was in its own way commercial and corporate and had its share of charlatans, looking to separate people from their money. The biggest irony of them all was that scientists were the ones informing us about the long-term consequences of pollution – the greenhouse effect and climate change.
I was also troubled by this polemic as a teenager as my interests in biology and astronomy was growing in parallel to my interests in literature and language. Such is the mind of a teenager, where everything and nothing seem possible. I suspected a non-spiritual career move into the sciences would have had a detrimental effect on my relationship with my mother, self-righteous and judgmental in her quest for spirit.
As my world opened through education and travel, the spiritual movement was losing its grip on me. But something in it, perhaps its comforting familiarity or the idea that these spiritual paths went against convention, still held an attraction for me. It was there like an old song from childhood, a welcomed earworm.
In the mid-80s, when I was a postgrad at Edinburgh studying linguistics, my mother would write to me hinting that I take advantage of being in Scotland to visit Findhorn, a spiritual community in Inverness. It was known at the time for its organic farming and less charitably as a place that Americas visited to become hippies. I was intrigued enough to take the four-hour train journey – but on my own terms. I attended an environmental conference held at the community. It was a heady mix, intended to bring together spirituality and environmentalism. Interestingly, despite the distinctive styles and ways of speaking, the two domains did not clash. I realised that these worlds were no longer divided as they were in my childhood. As an aside, in the years since then, Findhorn has renamed itself as an ‘ecovillage.’
While my mother thought I was at Findhorn discovering spirit, I was meeting with Green Party members and representatives from environmental NGOs. And it was there that I encountered Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, in all its beauty, its science and metaphor rolled into one.
I satisfied my mother’s spiritual needs in my letter to her with a new age spin on Gaia – that is, the Native American’s has been saying this all along – and I mentioned to her the Druids and self-proclaimed psychics and healers that I had met. I left out the geology, chemistry and biology supporting Lovelock’s work.
That was the last ‘spiritual retreat’ I went on. Gaia was the footbridge that took me into the sciences, leaving behind on the other side a dubious spiritual land. The river in between flows with psychology that I dip into and accept and the mindfulness in my daily meditation practice that can be seen as spiritual and/or physiological.