This project has progressed to the point where I need to pin down what, exactly, is the metaphor for Terra. My doctrine post entitled “Gods” has been sitting unfinished since I started it back in 2020. Looking at it is a constant reminder that the center of this whole thing remains nebulous.
How do we think about Terra? What do we do about that thinking?
Answering these questions will, I think, provide the spine of this theology. It will shape how we respond to whatever fundamental problems, cosmic mysteries, or eternal demands this theology will articulate. It will inform us how to act. It will show me the way.
Yesterday I watched Strange World, a new Disney movie; some spoilers ahead. It centers around the idea that the world of the characters is an organism (a turtle, in fact). Generating power is killing the turtle, so the protagonist must stop generating power in order to save the world. Civilization will suffer, but the world will live, and that’s what matters; so the movie goes.
It reminded me of Lovelock’s Gaia, the Earth as a lifeform. But there is a difference between the Gaia and Strange World’s turtle. Gaia, in Lovelock’s imagination, creates and stabilizes life. The turtle on the other hand, doesn’t. In fact, the turtle isn’t shown to have any higher wants or desires at all. It merely exists, we don’t know whether the turtle prefers to live or to die, if it has accepted the sickness the protagonists are fighting against, or if it is unaware of what is going on. It’s the protagonists and all the other critters in the turtle that care, because their life depends on the life of the turtle. The critters at least, are the turtle.
Now, what interests me is the role of the humans on this turtle. It is established that the source of power the humans rely on is parasitic. The power source can be thought of as a disease to the turtle. But humans themselves? It isn’t established whether the humans are a native part of the turtle like all the creatures in it’s body, or whether they are contaminants; bugs on it’s back. But what is shown is that humans don’t have a predefined role in this world. They are superfluous. The humans in this movie have to make themselves fit because they don’t without effort.
Are we superfluous? To the Earth, yes. The Earth, a rock in space with attributes that foster life, does not need us. Humans, like any other species, could go extinct tomorrow and the Earth would fine because the Earth has no needs. If we returned to being simple animals, we would eventually go extinct like all the others and that would make no difference to the Earth. But to Terra, it’s the opposite. We are not bugs on Terra’s back, we are Terra. We are the critters inside the turtle. We are the brains, the senses, the immune system. Terra emerges from us. If we were to go extinct tomorrow, so would Terra.
So then we don’t need to figure out a way to fit. We already fit. The path isn’t about figuring out how to fit in a system that considers us visitors. The path is of collective transcendence; goodness that can be practiced forever; something sustainable. Not a place, a practice.
It’s about making our world divine.
So what metaphor can we use then? How do we think about Terra?
The easy one I was considering was of Terra as a person. They would be like a traditional god; anthropomorphized, articulate, direct. But the image just didn’t seem right. The metaphor pushed too far, it imagined Terra in a way that was unhelpful. The temptation was to imagine Terra caring about you personally, as it is with all anthropomorphized gods. We’re social animals, if we see another human we expect them to care about us, even if it is antagonistic. But Terra isn’t human, and Terra doesn’t care about individuals. So it’s not useful to think of Terra this way.
Another metaphor was available, the one offered by Lovelock and Strange World, of Terra as an organism. I believe this metaphor is really common, especially among environmentalists today. Since there is no scientific reason to see the Earth as an organism, looking at it this way is a modern belief system; not a religion exactly, but a sort of civic spirituality. I’ve been leaning this way for a long time, but my understanding of ecology pushed up against certain assumptions that accompany this civic spirituality. What bothers me is that it sees humanity as visitors, extras, bugs on the turtle’s back; usually nasty bugs like ticks or mosquitoes. I resist this thinking. We are not visitors, this is our home! But also, foul notions follow these ideas quite easily; notions like humanity is a disease, the world is overpopulated, and suffering is the way towards sustainability. We become transformative in only the worst ways; a force of degeneration and decay. It’s a grim view, preoccupied with the notion that humanity should “return” to when we were “natural” and an unintrusive part of the environment. But this is a fantasy; no such time has ever existed for humanity or any other organism. Not a single creature on this Earth is an unintrusive part of the environment. All beings impact each other, for better or worse. We are no different, we are simply the most powerful example.
We should understand ourselves correctly as transformative and integral. We aren’t just a burden to a larger organism, we are the organism. We make this world just as much as it makes us. What metaphor can we use to bring this across?
What if Terra is a ship? A spaceship?
For a while now I’ve been thinking of using a traveller as a sort of supplemental metaphor to the more primary organism. But why not lean into Terra as a traveller completely, making Them a ship? It does several things right.
It avoids the problems stated above with the human and organism metaphors. If Terra is a ship, They are taking care of us through some innate attributes, but They require upkeep and direction. The ship is a construction, unlike a person or an organism, lending it a certain syntheist quality. Humanity can be understood as the crew of the ship; both transformative and integral. And importantly, understanding Terra as a ship would clarify Their relationship with the Earth. Earth is the vessel, life is the crew, and the stars are the ocean we must navigate. But Terra is a ship with no port. To be Terra, crew and vessel, is to search for ways that we may be sustainable, transcendent, eternal; to travel the stars forever.
Some implications seem necessary in this metaphor. Thinking about Terra this way, a ship out in space, encourages us to find sustainability through domestication. Whether or not we retain “wild” spaces is besides the point, the decision to keep them “wild” is in the service of a global goal of domestication. It is all about systems, control, responsiveness, and movement in this view. We don’t want anything to happen on this Earth that “we” (Terra) cannot respond to. Terra should be able to regulate Their temperature, defend against asteroids, utilize every joule of the sun’s rays, and above all, keep it’s members alive. We must be able to right the ship.
Solarpunk visions of the future come to mind. A world where we don’t see ourselves as distinct from “nature” but as a single complex invested in running for as long as possible. We will use the tools, resources, and species at our disposal to shape a system that provides what we need for as long as we need. The obsession wouldn’t be growth, but optimization. We would look out unto the stars and see the beautiful abyss, not unlike the deep blue of the ocean. It is vast, beautiful, and deadly. Terra can travel forever, but it is up to us to make it happen.
I need to read more. I’ve heard recently about the philosophy of hyperobjects by Timothy Morton. I want to read his work and explore this idea of Terra as a ship more deeply.