Geoff Holland – What is the Gaian Way?
Erik Assadourian – For most of my career, I have been a sustainability researcher trying to understand how we get to a sustainable future. And over those twenty years, I’ve felt like we weren’t getting to the heart of the question. At the Worldwatch Institute, I and my colleagues kept offering solutions that are clear and sensical, but there are systems in place that prevent this transition. Ultimately, for me, what was lacking was a kind of a deeper philosophy—like the Deep Ecology that Arne Naess advocated for in the 1970s, a deeper way of living a truly environmental way, that could shift the underlying values and goals of societal systems and actors.
Add to that James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, which brings out a philosophy that recognizes that we are part of, and utterly dependent on, the living Earth. (And I wouldn’t say our living Earth; we are very much part of Gaia, not the other way around.) We’re part of this flourishing holobiont, this multi-species organism, and we’ve lost that understanding. So the Gaian Way tries to correct this loss by offering an ecological philosophy that puts Gaia at the center and tries to reorient our understanding and our way of life around that deep and essential knowledge—with a clear goal of crafting societies that recognize and embrace that. Finally, the Gaian Way is a practicing philosophy—with a community of practitioners, of Gaians, who gather regularly and support each other in their efforts to live the Gaian Way.
GH – Why develop this philosophy instead of trying to update an existing spiritual tradition?
EA – I actually grew up an Armenian Orthodox Christian. My grandfather was a priest, and my father was called later in life to be a priest. But I took a different path. I studied religion in college, and psychology and anthropology, and started to recognize that all religions are trying to connect us to the higher question of what is the purpose of life, the question: Why are we here?
But I no longer identify with any specific Western religious tradition or the idea that there are literal gods or a god. As I became an environmentalist, an agnostic environmentalist, I was searching to replace that deeper spirituality with an environmental purpose. But professional sustainability felt empty—we were trying to reduce ecological impacts but not create a more meaningful way of living and connecting with all the living beings that make up Gaia.
Indigenous people have long understood their connection to the living Earth and their dependence on that. So, I’m coming back to this idea that we are part of a living Earth, and that is a valid faith. It’s not paganism in the sense that there are no magical entities or gods or magic. It’s not a scientific religion, because that’s perhaps an oxymoron, but it’s a scientifically grounded one, recognizing that the living Earth is a real entity—and like all religions, it is through the religious community’s regular gathering that religion truly manifests.
This was probably the bit I missed most as a professional environmentalist. Sure, colleagues went to happy hours together and chatted around the proverbial water cooler, but there were no efforts to cultivate a shared way, mutual aid for those in need (even just a few hours of babysitting to a new parent or a casserole to someone who’s lost a loved one). Religious environmentalism, I feel, can go much deeper and challenge people to live in more connected ways, to be more present in the world, and, yes, to live more sustainably as well.
GH – Let’s take a step back: For much of your career, you were a sustainability researcher with the Worldwatch Institute. The Gaian Way seems like a bit of a departure. How did you decide to create this new spiritual path?
EA – In a few words, I blame Donella Meadows. When I was studying at Worldwatch, I kept digging deeper, focusing on how we can get to sustainability. I explored consumption, corporate responsibility, ecovillages, and education, but eventually, I found Donella’s work. I discovered her seminal article on systems’ leverage points. And her thesis was that if you can change the paradigm, you can have a greater effect on how a system functions, and even more effective is recognizing that paradigms can be transcended. Gaianism is an attempt to make a new paradigm, a new philosophy to orient people in a way that nurtures the planet and people (which our current consumer systems fail miserably at). A paradigm that brings us into a nurturing relationship with Gaia, that offers people purpose and community and healthy ways of living, creates a new civilizational path based not on growth and exploitation, but on regeneration and healing, and eventually balances with the living Earth, and all the species that nest within it.
The other twist of it is recognizing that Gaianism offers us a noble aspiration for our future. Any religion or any spiritual path today needs to help in getting us through the transition, through the societal collapse that appears to be looming, and not by blaming our sinful ways or promising that another world will be better than this dying one. This is not a millenarian religion—it’s not proposing that there’s a time specifically when the “great unraveling” occurs. Rather, it recognizes that systems are failing, because humans are living beyond Earth’s carrying capacity, and that needs to change. It also recognizes that those of us in the consumer world have few survival skills today. Most of us don’t know how to grow food, or how to get along without all the trappings of a consumer economy. The Gaian Way is a philosophy that along with offering an ecocentric philosophy, can also prepare people with the knowledge and skills needed to manage their lives as Earth’s systems are overwhelmed.
GH – Tell me more about what makes Gaianism distinct: What are Gaian practices?
EA – The beauty of cultivating a new spiritual path is that it’s pretty wide open. But that’s also the downside because there aren’t thousands of years of tradition to lean on. My friend and fellow Gaian, Bart Everson, has crafted a nice structure based on four types of Gaian practices. There are active practices: anything from gardening to activism to help heal the Earth. There are contemplative practices, such as meditation and fasting. There are community-building practices, and there are pedagogical practices—that is to say, learning more about our connection with Gaia and how Gaia works. There are so many books and so many research studies that reveal the nuances and beauty of the Earth’s living systems. So that’s an important part of our tradition that complements the direct connection to Gaia gained by spending time in nature and getting to know your local environment directly.
Another way to answer this question is through our guiding practices. Like all religious traditions we have a nesting of practices—some daily, some weekly, monthly, annually, and life rites. The Gaian Way encourages daily meditation outdoors—in the morning, at solar noon, and dusk. We have weekly forest meditations or Forest Services, which are only available right now where there are local Gaian Guilds. There are twice-monthly fasts on the new and full moon, as fasting is an excellent spiritual opportunity to recognize that we can do with less, as well as prepare ourselves for the physical hardships in the future, where food may not always be available.
And then there are annual cycles, specifically the Wheel of the Year, as well as other holidays like Earth Day, of course, and Earth Overshoot Day, which is a day of service and fasting, recognizing how fast we, as humans, are depleting Earth’s biocapacity. And even our admittedly made-up holiday #DoNothingForTheClimateDay encourages people to slow down, heal, and rejuvenate (which is actually good for the Earth too).
And there are rites of passage: We need to have better ways to celebrate birth, marriage, and death, which are all very ecologically destructive as practiced in the consumer culture. For example, funerals today are hugely expensive—both in financial and ecological terms— but you can have a green burial that is nourishing to the planet, more nourishing to the family and loved ones, and much less expensive, too. The same can be said about marriage and birth. So, a key aspect is transforming the rites of passage to ones that nourish people and the planet—and that goes for Gaians and, really, any environmentally-minded person.
GH – You are raising your son to be what you call an Ecowarrior. Can you explain what that means and talk about why raising children to be Earth citizens is important?
EA – When my son was born 10 years ago, I started a little blog called “ Raising an Ecowarrior.” At that point, I didn’t have the Gaian terminology yet in my head. I was just trying to recognize that my son will need to fight for a healed Earth. In fact, he’ll probably need to fight for survival as well. So ecowarrior felt like the right term.
Today, I would say I’m raising him to be a young man who is mentally, physically, and spiritually prepared for the changes coming; mentally, physically, and spiritually prepared to lead a transition to a sustainable future; and also to help his community, wherever he ends up, to be resilient in the face of the massive changes that he’s going to live through.
In between those two time frames, I directed Worldwatch’s last State of the World report in 2017. It was called EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, and it focused on that nexus of education, sustainability, and resilience, and on all those skills that are necessary—social and emotional learning, character education, ecological literacy, a relationship with nature, home economics, and so on. So I’m really trying to educate my son along those lines, both in what he’s learning, as well as all his extracurricular interests. He does karate, archery, and swims on a swim team. I feel like these activities are going to offer him skills, stamina, and values. Far better than playing soccer or basketball or football, for example, in helping him to be more prepared for what’s coming.
GH – You announced recently that you’ve added a non-human member to your organization’s board. Can you explain that?
EA – I can, although it’s become more complicated than I first thought, so the change might be delayed. But the idea was to give voice to Gaia in decision-making as well—and not just in a token form. As I talked with our council about that, it didn’t seem to make sense to just have one person also representing another species, but instead for all of us to go out and think about a species that we could co-represent as well. So, we will actually have four non-human beings on our board, because we have four human board members. For every person who joins the board, we will also have a nonhuman species that they speak for and think about through those dual aspects in every decision they make. I hope that will in turn help us think beyond our limited human perspectives.
GH – Where is Gaianism currently? Where do you hope it goes?
The Gaian Way right now is an emerging philosophy, and Gaianism is an emerging practicing religious community. It started just three years ago. We now put out regular communications in the world—a weekly reflection, and from that, a community has formed. We have regular conversations online. We have book discussions, online meditations, and seasonal celebrations. And slowly, Gaianism has started to take root locally, which is essential in the long term. After all, the disruptions ahead may quickly dissolve the virtual world that so many of us currently inhabit. I also think rooting this type of work locally opens up an opportunity to build a deep community with enlightened individuals who can help other community members both to connect with the living Earth and get through the difficult transitions that are coming. They can teach skills, and provide material, psychological, and spiritual aid. So that’s where we are. We have three local Gaian Guilds, as we call them: one in New Orleans, one in Connecticut, and one in Honolulu. This was not done strategically or intentionally. Those are places where Gaians who were inspired to start local efforts already lived. We hope that over time, other guilds will form and start growing local roots. We will continue to form those local roots, the growth of which it is hoped will help spread a philosophy that informs the transition that is coming and helps to bring about a different culture; a regenerative and ecologically conscious one.
GH – You’ve discussed in several essays that you are a practitioner of karate. How does that relate to this effort?
When I started karate, I did not know that this was going to be so aligned with the Gaian Way. The more I learn about karate, the more deeply I feel it is a parallel path in sync with Gaia. Karate originally meant Tang, or Chinese hand, as it was an imported martial art from China. But Gichin Funakoshi, a founding father of modern karate worked to change the first character to a different one, also pronounced Kara as was the original name, but meaning empty, shifting the meaning of karate to “empty hand.” And as Funakoshi noted in his autobiography, here empty not only means weaponless but also empty mind-empty heart, as in the Buddhist sense of the idea. The Gaian Way also teaches us to empty our expectations of the consumer way we’re part of.
Karate is as much a philosophy as it is martial arts training. And so combined with the real skills and exercise one is getting, most importantly, one is learning how to avoid conflict in the first place by being conscious of one’s surroundings, being humble, and not seeking out conflict when it is unnecessary—again important lessons for a destabilizing future. Ultimately, I have been struck by how many parallels there are between the philosophy of karate and the philosophy of the Gaian Way and the former has informed the latter.
GH – Let’s dive into collapse: The future seems dire for the human species—and countless others. Can the Gaian Way offer anything in helping navigate the difficult times ahead?
EA – I think there are multiple aspects. It’s not just a material transition that we’re going through or a societal transition, there is a mental transition and a spiritual transition. Just recently, I did a meditation with our local Gaian guild, a collapse meditation, just sitting with collapse, personally. We get so scared thinking of what’s coming, that we try to just push it out of our minds. In this meditation, we process what’s coming and how that’s going to affect us directly. It’s also a chance to reflect on what you wish you had done differently—learn a skill, spend more time with your children—and hopefully address that as many of us are still living before the collapse. My karate teacher often says “practice like it’s real so that when it’s real, it’ll feel like practice.”
That’s a key bit of wisdom that applies to collapse too. Essentially it means if you panic, you’ll make really bad decisions. But inhabiting the space beforehand allows one to be calmer when one is really living through collapse, and hopefully, it also encourages one to take steps to be more prepared—building a small food reserve, deepening relationships with your neighbors and community so that you can help each other get through the challenges, learning some basic skills, whether foraging, permaculture, or wilderness first aid, and so on. Those are a few of the ways where Gaian wisdom is helping. I hope one day, local Gaian Guilds will offer more opportunities, skills training, and so on.
GH – We often end up talking too much about collapse and forget that something will always come after. Do you have a vision for the “after-collapse,” and if so, what is it?
EA – That is a key question. I started grappling with that at Worldwatch in 2013 when we looked at the question of whether sustainability is still possible. The final section was titled “Open in Case of Emergency.” We included all these chapters on what could help us to get through a collapse scenario. And that’s where we usually stop. But civilizations have collapsed hundreds, if not thousands of times over history. Something has always come after, and most likely will this time too.
It was the science fiction novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, that first got me thinking about this; the story so perfectly captures this after-collapse scenario. Unfortunately, in the novel, after the collapse, the civilization that was rebuilt followed the same expansionist, imperial path of the old civilization and ended up destroying the world again. In that case, it was nukes, not climate change, that destroyed the world (twice).
I do worry that if systems break down, and there is no values shift, no alternative philosophy or way, then we once again will work towards growth, create Empires again, and try to consume more and more again (at least for the small number of the elite at the top). We need instead an alternative imagining of a system where humans are in balance with the Earth they are living in, regenerating soils, drawing carbon out of the atmosphere, and finding a new stability with the new hot planet we’ll be inhabiting.
Beyond that transition, in which we’re going to go through a massive depopulation and the horrors of that, as we find stability again, what will we strive for at that point? What does a new healing and healthy culture look like? What are the goals of science and technology and cultural development? I daydream about Gaian wisdom playing a role as figurative midwives to a new civilization. Could we also play literal midwives to the birthing of new planetary beings far into the future? Is there a way to stop the childish obsession with humans spreading to the stars, and maybe instead just simply helping to sow the seeds of life on lifeless planets so that in 100 million years after humans have disappeared from even the geological record, there will be more living and flourishing planets? Is that something we could strive for? In the shorter term, could we imagine an art and cultural transformation that brings us in direct connection and awe of our living Earth system? Could there be Gaian cathedrals that were not built from stone quarried from Gaia’s skin, but grown over 500 years from trees and other life, so that you’re literally walking into a living cathedral connecting you to all the life living in the canopy and around you? I mean, the sky’s the limit, in terms of reimagining what a living and healthy culture that nourishes humans and the planet could look like and be. It has to be imagined before it can be real.
Erik Assadourian is a sustainability researcher and writer who was affiliated with the Worldwatch Institute from 2001 until 2017 when the institute went into hibernation. He co-authored over a dozen books and directed and co-directed seven. He founded the Gaian Way in 2019 and now leads this philosophy, organization, and community.