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Sleeper agents in the (somewhat) enchanted biosphere

When I was a young boy, I was afraid of creatures I called "hoppers" who I believed lurked under my bed. They were patterned after animated cartoon figures appearing in the closing credits of "Fractured Fairytales," a segment of the popular children's television program "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." My bedroom had to be checked each night for these creatures before I could enter and go to sleep.

Of course, over time, the hoppers disappeared from under my bed. But, the world never quite lost its enchanted if sometimes menacing quality. Though only vaguely aware of it, I continued to react to animals, plants and just plain objects of all kinds as if they had unusual potency in the affairs of humans--potency with malevolent possibilities.

As a young man in my 20s this peculiar version of reality became conscious to me when I read Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's essay entitled "General Description of Types." Since that day I have learned to sift carefully through my experience and thoughts for the undue influence of this psychological disposition and rigorously question any overly positive or negative conclusions that might have been influenced by it.

Still, the enchanted world of the introverted sensation type (which is clearly my personality type) has never been fully extinguished from my awareness. Jung explains the psychology of the purest form of this type:

[The pure type] lives in a mythological world, where men, animals, locomotives, houses, rivers and mountains appear either as benevolent deities or as malevolent demons. That they appear thus to him never enters his head, though that is just the effect they have on his judgments and actions. He judges and acts as though he had such powers to deal with.

Now every modern, up-to-date, educated person will scoff at such a way of encountering the world. To the extent that any of us remain unconscious of the effects of this kind of archaic psychology in our own thinking, we are slaves to forces that can cloud clear thinking. But, my question is this: Do such psychological forces always cloud clear thinking or can they, when properly understood, be a gateway into a deeper understanding of the world around us?

A modern, up-to-date, educated person has usually been convinced that humans are the only agents in the world. Humans consciously manipulate the world to their benefit. Only humans can actually "manage" planet Earth. Everything else acts by dumb instinct or physical laws. The question becomes: Are those instincts and physical laws "dumb"? That is, are they merely mechanical repetitions of innate patterns or do they display an intelligence all their own?

Perhaps the purest modern manifestation of the idea that the Earth's systems as a whole display intelligence comes not from a poet, but from a renown scientist, James Lovelock. Lovelock posited a superorganism called "Gaia" (after the Greek goddess of Earth) which maintains habitable conditions on Earth for all its living organisms through the interaction of both living and nonliving systems. Lovelock's idea was popularized by his 1979 book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.

The respected scientist was widely criticized for being nonscientific. But his theory spawned subsequent research that unlocked the broad interactions of the living and nonliving worlds and their relationship to the creation of a stable living environment for Earth's organisms.

Now, it stands to reason that every living organism is attempting to ensure its own survival and the continuation of its kind. While the evolution and everyday life of organisms are chiefly determined by their environment, each organism also ACTS UPON the environment in attempting to achieve its goals. In other words, it competes (and sometimes cooperates) with other organisms to obtain food, water, space, heat and light. And, in doing so it interacts with the nonliving world of minerals, air and water.

That means that all organisms on Earth are active agents within Earth's natural systems, both living and nonliving. Humans and every other living organism on the globe are co-evolving in an endlessly complex web of interactions.

This is the web of interactions which we modern humans believe we can "manage" to our benefit without catastrophic effects.

Lovelock disagrees. He wrote a second book entitled The Revenge of Gaia. His thesis: The living world system has been provoked by overuse of fossil fuels, land clearing and other human activities and now has a fever which we call climate change. But, we humans have done other things also touched on in one way or another in the book that threaten their own future: overharvesting of fisheries and forests, soil degradation from industrial farming and the poisoning of air, water and soil with novel toxic chemicals, just to name a few.

Now, we are seeing the world's natural systems "fight back." It is as if sleeper agents in the biosphere have been activated for the battle and created conditions increasingly dangerous to humans (and unfortunately, many other organisms). How can I justify using such words? Because it is conceivable that these trends, if uninterrupted, will lead to dramatic reductions in human population.

The biosphere would thus be destroying the main cause of the problems listed above. I'm not assigning consciousness to the biosphere, but I am assigning agency and intelligence. Before you criticize, remember Friedrich Nietzsche's dictum: "What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent."

The biosphere is vastly more complex than our limited human intelligence can comprehend. To those who believe we can simply manage our way out of our current set of predicaments, I respond (with apologies to Dr. Phil): "How's that workin' for ya?"

It is a conceit that we can manage planet Earth in a way that will allow us to continue business as usual. Our management to date has brought us to this point of peril. Wasn't it Einstein who said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity? Managers and would-be managers of planet Earth, take note.

It turns out that my childhood perception of the world as a place full of organisms and objects with agency and intelligence and the potential for malevolence was not entirely incorrect. But we moderns believe we need to divorce ourselves from such perceptions in order to become rational, right-thinking, scientifically bounded adults. In doing so, we divorce ourselves from the world of agents all around us who act and strive in ways surprisingly similar to our own.

Our task then is not to suppress such perceptions, but to transcend our childish interpretations of them--putting these perceptions into the proper framework for acting and living in a world that is very much more alive, intelligent and full of agency than we have been led to believe.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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