This episode is a powerful immersive sound journey through the 4.6 billion year history of Gaia, as told by Dr. Stephan Harding. You’ll learn to “walk well into the life of Gaia“, as Stephan puts it.
Stephan Harding, Ph.D., obtained his doctorate in behavioral ecology from Oxford University and is one of the founders of Schumacher College, where he is Deep Ecology Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer in holistic science. A student of James Lovelock, he has taught Gaia theory, deep ecology, and holistic science all over the world. He is the author of several books, including Animate Earth and Gaia Alchemy.
Before going on this Deep Time Walk, the Way Out Is In presenters, Brother Phap Huu and Jo Confino, introduce the episode and explain why it is a good fit for the series, and share their special friendship with the team producing and presenting Outrage + Optimism. Jo also has some insights from a transformational moment that occurred while studying with Dr. Stephan Harding.
The O+O presenters – Christiana Figueres, Paul Dickinson, and Tom Rivett-Carnac – take a mindful breath as they acknowledge the passing of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (this episode originally recorded as part of Outrage + Optimism five days after Thay’s passing). Speaking from Plum Village, Christiana shares a few heartfelt words about Thay and how grateful we are to have such influential teachers in our lives.
By inspiring global leaders to shift their worldview to a Gaian view of life, Stephan Harding has had a massive influence on the climate movement. What you are about to listen to is an exercise of that shift.
It is in this spirit of deep gratitude and stubborn optimism for the continuation of our teachers that the O+O team offers this The Deep Time Walk audio journey.
The episode ends with a Gaian meditation guided by Dr. Stephan Harding – one often given on Deep Time Walks at Schumacher College.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Outrage + Optimism
The Deep Time Walk Project
The Deep Time Walk Field Kit
The Deep Time Walk App
Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet
“Stephan has the most remarkable ability for drawing you into a broader consciousness of what the living Earth is. And, without a hint of irony or exaggeration, Stephan completely changed my life. I discovered later that he also changed the lives of many other people who are quite central in the climate movement. Nigel Topping, Paul Dickinson, Lindsay Levin; all previous guests on this podcast who also began their journey by hearing from Stephan about the Gaian world that we inhabit.”
“It’s a 4.6 kilometer walk representing the 4.6 billion year lifespan of this Earth. And it’s an opportunity for us all to deeply connect and engage with the fact that, actually, this moment we’re in now, where the Earth is threatened with so much destruction, this moment is the creation, is the culmination of this extraordinary journey of development of the Earth and all living beings. And it gives us the opportunity to really appreciate the extraordinary beauty and complexity of this living planet, Gaia.”
“Can we develop a Gaian consciousness in which we feel ourselves to be symbiotic with our planet, in which we feel ourselves to be living inside this great living, planetary motherly body of ours, Gaia, our own Earth, whom we have to protect for our own self-interest and for our own well-being and for her well-being? That’s up to you. The best thing you can do now, as a human being, is to become a Gaian human being, a human being part of this great living planetary community of life, rocks, atmosphere, and water. Part of this great move towards living well with the Earth.”
Welcome, dear friends, back to another episode of the podcast series the Way Out Is In.
I am Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems change.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk, a student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition.
And today we are going to bring you a very special bonus episode, which is a collaboration with our good friends, Global Optimism, and their podcast series Outrage and Optimism.
The way out is in.
Hello everyone. I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And today we’re here to to introduce a very special episode with our dear friends Christiana Figueres, Tom Carnac and Paul Dickinson, who run the podcast series Outrage and Optimism. And we are carrying one of their episodes. And one of the reasons is to appreciate their extraordinary generosity, because it’s down to them actually, Phap Huu, that this podcast series exists in the professional way rather than an amateur attempt by us. Because when we spoke to Christiana and Tom about wanting to do this series, they immediately jumped in and said, ‘We would like to support you.’ And the way they’ve done that is profound, and practical, which is their great producer, Clay, who looks after all their episodes so beautifully, has been loaned to us. And Clay has been editing and producing all of our episodes. Brother, do you want to tell us a little bit about Christiana’s role in supporting Plum Village and also our podcast series?
Yes, Christiana Figueres is a dear friend of our teacher as well as our community, and this episode was recorded when Christiana Figueres was staying in Plum Village and when she came to practice with us during the week and during the month when our teacher passed away. And she was a part of all of our ceremonies and she was a part of our team in communication through the passing of our teacher. And in this episode she shares also about her connection to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, our teacher, as well as her appreciation. So we think that this episode is also a very good friend of our podcast. The Way Out Is In.
Yes. And the particular episode we have picked, because there are many we could have done, is a deep time walk. And this episode is a conversation, in fact a journey with a very well-known ecologist in the UK called Dr. Stephan Harding, who is based at the Schumacher Institute in Devon, in the southwest of England. And Tom Carnac went to visit him because he does this extraordinary walk, actually, it’s a 4.6 kilometer walk representing the 4.6 billion year lifespan of this Earth. And it’s an opportunity for us all to deeply connect and engage with the fact that actually this moment we’re in now where the Earth is threatened with so much destruction, this moment is the creation, is the culmination of this extraordinary journey of development of the Earth and all living beings. And it gives us the opportunity to really appreciate this extraordinary beauty and complexity of this living planet, Gaia. And in the episode, there’s an appreciation of Dr. Stephan Harding, who has, as you’ll hear, has changed the lives of many climate leaders over the years. And Stephan also actually had a deep impact on myself, because when I was doing my master’s degree in sustainability and business, I spent a week with my cohort of fellow students at Schumacher, and as part of that, we were taken for a journey into the local forest, and we were split into pairs and one of us was blindfolded and the other was asked to lead us on a journey. And, and I was blindfolded, and my fellow student was asked for the first 15 minutes just to walk me, allow me to step into the forest and to touch everything in my surroundings and just to experience nature. So I would put my hand out and I would touch the bark of a tree, and touch the moss, and touch a sort of a plant, and a flower, that sort of thing, which was all really lovely. And I thought, ‘Oh, where is this going?’ And then after 15 minutes we were asked to change our mindset and we were asked to imagine how the Earth and the environment we were in was experiencing us. And I have to say it was a deep transformational moment because I realized that everything I’d always seen outside of myself was just from me, from a human centric position was that I was the one who was experiencing the flowers. I was the one who was experience the trees. I was the one who was experiencing nature, but then being asked to say, to actually think and to experience ‘what is nature experiencing for me?’ How is nature experiencing me? And to realize that actually there was a completely different way of seeing my relationship to the planet, that actually I was being experienced as well as being the experience. So we really hope you enjoy this journey through the lifespan of Gaia and as a result of it that you can imagine how it can sort of really rebuild your wish to protect and nurture this extraordinary Mother Earth.
Hello and welcome back to Outrage and Optimism. I’m Tom Rivett-Carnac.
I’m Christiana Figueres.
And I’m Paul Dickinson.
Today, we bring you a special introduction to 2022 with a meditation on what it is to live on this beautiful giant planet. Thanks for being here.
So, friends, this is, of course, the beginning of another huge year on climate. We’ve been out for a few weeks. We’re feeling refreshed. We hope you are too. We’re ready to come back. And we’ve been thinking, how do we begin this year? As ever, there is so much at stake. And we’ll be back in a couple of days with a substantive introduction to the issues that we think are going to shape the year, the places we need to focus our activism and engagement. But we thought that we should begin, and that’s what we’re going to do today, with something a little bit deeper. So, please, enjoy this meditation with Dr. Stephan Harding. Stephan is a scientist, a Gaian scientist, and has a remarkable ability to make us all feel like we’re part of a beautiful, interconnected system that we are participating in. So we had this idea before Christmas, but it now feels even more pertinent to begin because just a few days ago we experienced the passing of the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. And Christiana, I wonder if you’d like to just say a few words about that. He’s obviously been such an influential figure in the world and in your life, and maybe you could just briefly introduce listeners to that and why that’s the case. And then we’ll go over to the interview.
Well, I will try to do this without tears. Okay, that didn’t work. Let me see. Well, I’m actually greeting you today in this new year for all of us from Plum Village, which is the monastery in France that was founded 40 years ago by Thich Nhat Hanh, in addition to his other ten monasteries that he has around the world. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master and teacher who passed on just five days ago and his monastery is being led by Plum Village, but accompanied by all of the others, have been in both grief, sorrow, but also celebrating the beauty and the contribution that Thich Nhat Hanh had to all of us as individuals, and also to the planet. He started his life in Vietnam as a very young monk, became a peace activist, was exiled from Vietnam, and then moved to the United States and then Europe to devote the rest of his life to teaching how to use his contemplative tools for internal healing. And then how to use that for peace and betterment of the world. He was an active environmentalist, writing quite a few books on the relationship between environment and spirituality. He’s probably the pioneer on spiritual environmentalism, and his very last book that was just published a few months ago, Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, was actually quite fortuitous, that that was his last book, almost as a gift to all of us who work on social and environmental issues and who understand that all of those issues are actually interlinked and that we are all interlinked with all forms of life on this planet. So a very special moment for for the spiritual world and for all of us to just stop, pause, breathe, and be grateful for the fact that we have such teachers in our lives.
Thank you. Christina. That was absolutely beautiful. And, you know, what what an extraordinary life to celebrate. And if I may say one thing about teachers, I work in climate change because of Stephan Harding. And I’m very much I hope you will in all enjoy the insight of this extraordinary individual. But thank you, Christiana, for your words.
Thank you, Christiana. And we’ll certainly come back to Thich Nhat Hanh and the teachings in early episodes this year. As you say, the book Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, the remarkable presence and participation of Phap Huu and Sister True Dedication, and so many others at the COP that had a really big impact, I think, on the outcome over so many years. So we’re at a moment when the community has moved through this acute moment. It would be great to come back and speak to some of them. And of course, the podcast The Way Out Is In is so fantastic that we would encourage everybody to listen to.
Produced by Clay Carnill.
Produced by Clay.
Wait, wait, wait. Produced by Clay and Cata, who’s sitting here right next to me.
Hey, Cata, hey. So, so, as I said, we will return on Thursday with a substantive update in terms of things you need to look out for for the year, where we need to focus, how we can move forward on climate. But for now, please enjoy this conversation with Stephan. It feels very apt. I mean, Stephan is not necessarily associated with Thich Nhat Hanh, but the work that he is engaged in to help everybody feel part of an interconnected Gaian system is actually very close to the concept of interbeing and the understanding of ourselves in the broader system that Thich Nhat Hanh has made so popular and so well understood around the world. Apart from Paul Dickinson, myself, Nigel Topping, lots and lots of people, all of us got into climate because of Stephan and trudging around Dartmoor with him as we talked about…
Extraordinary human, an extraordinary human.
I would encourage you to sit back, listen to this. Clay has done a beautiful job with some sound design. And we will see you on Thursday with some analysis for the year. So for now, great to be back. Great to be talking to you. Enjoy the episode. We’ll see you in a couple of days.
Bye for now.
So listeners to Outrage and Optimism, we have a very special conversation for you today, and I’m just going to take you a little bit back into the history to explain who I am sitting with here, in his garden, in Dartington, in the south of England. About 20 years ago, I arrived at a place called Schumacher College in Dartington, and, at the time, I sort of didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I’d lived as a monk, and I’d been a chair maker, and I met many inspiring people in Schumacher College. But one of them is a man called Dr. Stephan Harding, who is an ecologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford and an author. And Stephan has the most remarkable ability for drawing you into a broader consciousness of what the living Earth is. And I say, without a hint of irony or exaggeration, that Stephan completely changed my life. And what I discovered later is that he also changed the lives of many other people who are quite central in the climate movement. Nigel Topping, Paul Dickinson, Lindsey Levin, all previous guests on this podcast also began their journey by hearing from Stephan about the Gaian world that we inhabit. So, Stephan, it is an enormous privilege to be sitting with you here today, and I’m just so excited to invite our listeners to hear this story. So I’m going to be quiet. I’m going to hand over to you, and I would love to hear from you, the Gaian story that we are privileged to be part of at this moment.
Thank you, Tom. Is it really lovely to be with you, especially sitting out here outside, you know, with the birds around us and the trees, and even though it’s winter, it’s very beautiful. Lovely to see you. And an honor to be asked to do this. So maybe we should start with a few words about Gaia. What do you think?
Let’s do it.
So, you see, in our culture, Western culture, for the last 400 years, we’ve thought of the Earth as just a great lump of rock with a thin smear of life on the surface, which has some influence on the whole planet, but not much. It’s basically it has been thought of as a dead planet, like a big sort of geological machine with the rocks in charge, you know, spewing out carbon dioxide, thereby setting the temperature of the planet and the poorer lifeforms that have to adapt to those conditions. But they have very little influence in what the surface looks like. And if you think of the Earth like that, you think, OK, well, if I want some coal, let’s rip it out. If I want some forest, let’s cut it down. You know, let’s just get the stuff we want so we can increase our economy and make ourselves richer and more comfortable. We treat the Earth like a set of resource, a resource dump, and a place to place our waste. Now that’s completely wrong. We know that now from the science.
My teacher, one of my great mentors was James Lovelock, who came up with the Gaia hypothesis. He was a scientist, a very hard scientist. He turned the view of the Earth around completely. He showed us that the Earth is not a machine, it’s a living organism the size of a planet. Can you imagine that? We live inside a gigantic planetary organism in which all the life forms, let’s just say the bacteria, the fungi, the plants, the animals, the small protozoans, and all of their little animal… little beings, they have huge influences on the climate and on what the surface is like. And then the final idea is that all the living beings and the rocks, the atmosphere and the water, which are not biologically alive, so all the biologically alive entities and the non biologically alive entities – rocks, atmosphere – they interact through complex feedbacks. And what emerges from all those interactions is the ability of the whole planet to regulate its surface over geological time, within the limits, the narrow limits that life can tolerate. So that’s the idea of Gaia. And the Deep Time Walk or that Deep Time Approach, which we’re going to share now, is a sort of journey into how that self-regulation has evolved over thousands of millions of years. And this is a sort of meditation which takes you deep into the life of your own body, your wider body. My friend David Abram, the great American philosopher, he points out that we have two bodies.
One is our own little physical body, and that lives inside a wider Gaian planetary body, just like bacteria live inside our guts and on our skin and everything, so do we live inside this great planetary being. Gaia is actually the ancient Greek name for the divinity of the Earth. So, you see, the Gaia, I hate to say this, or I’m nervous to say this, but in Western culture, but there is a very strong spiritual dimension to the idea of Gaia, which we need to connect with as well. So the idea, I mean, we can talk about this until we’re blue in the face as we’re doing, but you need some actual experience, bodily experience of the age of the Earth and the evolution of Gaia over time. How do you get that? Well, the obvious thing is to walk it. You walk a distance which represents the history of Gaia from her very beginnings up until now. In fact, before there was Gaia, there was the Earth. So it’s a long story. And we know the Earth is about 4600 million years old. Just take a moment to ponder that: 4600 million. It’s pretty hard to imagine a million. We’re talking about 4600 of those millions of years. So what we do in the deep time walk to bring that alive into our bodies, to feel it with our bodies and with all of ourselves, is we walk a distance of 4.6 kilometers, which is not that long, but it’s quite long.
And that represents the whole evolutionary history of the Earth and later on with Gaia. And on that scale, you ready for this, on that scale, 4.6 kilometers equals 4600 million years. Every millimeter is a thousand years. Every millimeter you walk is a thousand years. Now, isn’t that already unbelievably mind blowing? In fact, you don’t need to do the walk. Every time I think of that, I’m already in the presence of Gaia and her ancientness, and her sacredness. So every millimeter is a thousand years, every footstep is 500,000 years. Every meter that you walk, every two footsteps is a million years. So we set off walking and we start off when the Earth began, 4600 million years ago, more or less. And then we walk towards the future. And it takes a few hours and we do various activities and meditations and exercises and games on the way. So obviously we can’t do the walk, Tom and I, now because we are sitting down here, all this electronic gear and stuff. So we’re just going to do the meditation. I’ll just take you through the story of Gaia. So if you’re sitting comfortably, we’ll begin.
So take a few deep breaths. Just relax. Just feel yourself in your body. Try to clear out all the worries and clutter in your mind. I know it’s not easy, but just try, just to give yourself some space to enter into the Deep Time Walk, the Deep Time Meditation. And we’re going to go back to the time before there was an Earth, before the Earth existed, let’s say around 4700 million years ago or so. There was a very, very large star in this part of the Milky Way galaxy before the Solar System existed. Can you imagine this very big star is getting very, very big. The pressure is building up inside it. And what happens with these big stars like this is that eventually they explode.
Huge explosion. And what happens in this explosion is that hydrogen and helium gas that was in the star, these gases sort of combine to form the heavier elements all the way up to carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, iron. It’s a complex process. We won’t go into the details. But the basic point is when the star explodes, heavy elements that have been forged inside the star, the elements that will become life and that will become the Solar System, become the planets, are spewed out as a kind of dust into an area of space around the exploding star, which has now vanished. So can you imagine the star has gone and there’s a sort of cloud of dust of these heavy elements have just been created inside the star and they’re floating around in space. The molecules and atoms start clumping together into little bits of rock and little bits of dust, and bigger bits of dust. And they start orbiting around a cloud of hydrogen gas that ignites to form the Sun.
So the Sun ignites, our Sun, a much smaller star than the supernova that exploded. And around it we have this ring of dust that’s gradually accreting to form basically the planets. It takes a while. By around 4500 million years ago, the Solar System’s in place, and we have the planets. And one of those planets is our Earth, but the Earth then looks nothing like the Earth today. It’s not a blue jewel at all, it’s a red hot ball of magma. Can you picture that in your mind? This very Earth that you’re sitting on now, this very Earth that’s dragging you down to the Earth with her gravity, with all her trees, and all her plants, and all her atmosphere, was once a molten ball of magma, a most unpromising molten ball of magma. You would never think that you’d get all this life out of a molten ball of magma, but that’s what happened. So just ponder that for a moment. All of this life, your life, your body, your consciousness, your awareness, trees, plants, animals, microbes, bacteria, fungi. All of it has been formed out of that molten ball of magma, which gradually cools, gradually cools over time, and by around 4450 million years ago.
So we’ve walked 50 meters now in our deep time walk. 50 meters later, 50 million years later, another cataclysm happens, without which we wouldn’t be here. And that is a huge impact with another planet the size of Mars, called Theia, that was in the same orbit as the Earth. And they collide. There’s a huge collision and molten rock is flung out into the nearby space and it forms itself into another planet, which is still there today. You can probably imagine who she is. Yes, you’ve got it right. It’s the Moon. And the Moon is then also molten ball of rock, about ten times closer than she is to us today, because she’s been moving slowly further and further away. Now, this impact with the Moon is incredibly important because the gravitational relationship between the Moon and the Earth stabilizes the axial tilt of the Earth. So imagine we could, by magic, fling the Moon today right out of the Solar System into space, so we have no moon. What would happen is that the Earth’s axis would start to wobble around chaotically, unpredictably, and we wouldn’t have predictable seasons. And therefore, multicellular life like us couldn’t exist without predictable seasons. We bring the Moon back, and that stabilizes the axial tilt of the Earth. It moves slightly, but not much. And that’s allowed this kind of life to develop. So just ponder that, you know, how extraordinary it is that an infinitesimally unlikely kind of impact between these two planets produces the Moon, which then sets the stage for the evolution of Gaia in the future.
Is it chance? Is it more than chance? Is there meaning? I’ll leave that to you. By about 4000 million years ago, the Earth has cooled sufficiently so now there’s a crust on, a crust of rock on the surface. There’s still no life, there’s still no life, but also what happens around about now, another very important thing is, you see, is that Earth gets her water. We have to have water for life. And up till now, there’s been no water. And the water, we think, has come from two places, one probably from gigantic lumps of ice in the asteroid belt, a sort of many thousands of kilometers across crashing in towards the inner solar system. Some of them hit the Sun and disappear with little puffs of steam. Can you imagine? And about five or six of them hit the Earth and give us water. They also hit Venus and Mars and give them their water. And this has happened because of some gravitational disturbance to do with Jupiter and Saturn. It’s as if the Solar System planets are settling into a comfortable state and they move around a bit, particularly the large ones, Jupiter and Saturn. And in that movement, there’s gravitational disturbance which sends these ice meteors towards the Earth. But in whatever way the water came, we now have an ocean planet.
4000 million years ago. Just contemplate what that was like. There was no oxygen in the atmosphere. Mostly, probably carbon dioxide. The sky was probably pink. The oceans were maybe dark brown. There were no continents, but there were volcanic islands that were spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide from the deep Earth into the atmosphere. Scattered volcanic islands, and no life. But now the water is dissolving chemicals out of the rocks into the ocean. And those chemicals are sort of thinking to themselves, Hey, brothers and sisters, look at this. This is a comfortable here. We’ve got liquid water. You know how rare it is to have liquid water on a planet? Let’s let’s start getting together. Let’s start seeing what we can do together. And the creativity of these molecules is stimulated and they start combining in different ways. And this combination carries on and carries on for another roughly 500 million years. So we walk another 500 meters until we get to around 3500 million years ago, roughly. We don’t know exactly when this happened, but roughly around then the miracle happens. The first living cell assembles itself from out of itself with no external help whatsoever, with no genetic manipulation of any kind, of course, long before humans, into the first living cell, or what we call Luca, the last universal common ancestor. And this cell eventually develops and it becomes what we would call the first bacteria. They can’t spread very far at the moment because the first bacteria have to use chemical energy that’s coming out of the deep Earth where there are volcanoes.
And it’s a smelly kind of business, a smelly kind of place to live. And so, if I may say, think for bacteria. I mean, they don’t think like we do, but they are immensely creative and they have a sense of self and they care about themselves like all living beings do. So they kind of think, in inverted commas, to themselves, surely we can do better than live in this smelly kind of place. They feel the energy of the Sun and they think, Now if we could use that energy, solar energy, to get hydrogen from certain substances and combine it with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we can then make more of ourselves, make our bodies out of ourselves from these substances and from the energy of the Sun. Now, pause, it might be going too much in detail, is it? Okay. Basically, what I’m saying is they invent the first kind of photosynthesis. So these bacteria invent photosynthesis. I mean, and what an extraordinary thing for matter that was once locked up in rocks, liberated by the water that’s dissolved them out of the rocks to be doing, to inventing solar power right at the start of life. So the first photosynthesis was very primitive.
Nowadays, life uses sunlight to split water, but water is very hard to split. And those early bacteria couldn’t do that, it was just too complicated. So instead, they use sunlight to split a gas called hydrogen sulfide, which is the rotten egg gas. You know, why don’t you let an egg rot in your fridge for a while? Take it out of it, let it rot, and then crack it open and smell the hydrogen sulfide. It stinks. But the good thing about hydrogen sulfide is that it comes out of volcanoes, where the bulk of the bacteria are living, and it’s quite easy to split using sunlight into hydrogen and sulfur. The sulfur they spat out as yellow goblets of solid sulfur, and the hydrogen they combine with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make organic material, their bodies basically, which is made out of basically carbon and hydrogen. And that’s how they survived. So these bacteria do really well. But then, of course, the problem is that they’re still living in a very smelly kind of environment with hydrogen sulfide. And they think to themselves, Hey, we’re surrounded by this stuff that’s full of hydrogen, known as water to us humans, H2O. If only we could use the sunlight to split water, which is everywhere, then we could live all over the planet. We could leave our little islands of H2S around the volcanoes, and and live all over the planet. Just think what that would be like. But of course, they tried and they tried to use sunlight to split water, but they couldn’t do it. Why? Because the hydrogen and the oxygen in water, in the H2O, they really love each other, you know. You have to use kissing sounds. And they sort of bond, it’s a kind of trio, they’re bonded to each other. Two hydrogens, one oxygen. Boy that is stable. And they’re very hard to get them to split up from each other because they like being together. You need a lot of energy to do that. And the bacteria for a long time couldn’t do it.
So now let’s move on to around 3000 million years ago, what we call the Archean Eon. One bacterium, we think, did it. Just one bacterium managed to put together two completely different early photosynthetic systems and invented a new process called the water splitting complex and linked these three things together. It’s unbelievably unlikely and unbelievably difficult, but by doing that, this new bacterium, I call her a she, although there probably wasn’t, there weren’t any shes or hes. She was able to use sunlight to split water. And this was an incredible achievement, perhaps the most incredible creative achievement in the whole history of life. But it changed everything. Because, you see, what happens now is that this one bacterium shared the information for how to split water using sunlight with all the other bacteria in the ocean.
So here we have to have a little digression to tell you about horizontal gene transfer. So what bacteria can do, they have been doing it all this time, they even do it today. Once an innovation appears in a bacterium, the bacterium can make genetic copies, it can copy genes for that innovation, make lots of copies inside itself, and then it spits those out and other bacteria can pick those up and start to express that trait. Now, the great American evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, may Gaia rest her soul, she pointed out, she uses this lovely analogy that if we, multicellular beings, engaged in horizontal gene transfer, it would be like this. Imagine I would walk up to an elephant, really close to an elephant, and I would… The elephant would breathe on me and I would breathe in some of the genes that the elephant was breathing out for tusk formation. I would then start making tusks. And if I got close to a rose or a nice, beautifully perfumed rose, and I breathe in some of the genes that it’s sending out for rose smelling, I would then be an elephant-tusked-human-being that smells like a rose. That’s what bacteria can do with horizontal gene transfer. So in a few hundred million years, which is not long from a Gaian perspective, this ability to split water using sunlight had spread to the whole bacterial community on the whole of the surface ocean of the Earth. Horizontal gene transfer. Now, when this happens, we have the birth of Gaia. Up until now, we haven’t had a Gaia, we haven’t had a planet that’s been self-regulating because of the interactions between all the living beings and the rocks and the atmosphere and the water, because the bacteria, the living beings have been confined to very few areas where, you know, there’s hydrogen sulfide and other gases. But now, that they can use sunlight to split water, the bacteria that use this kind of photosynthesis, water splitting photosynthesis, are all over the surface of the planet, all over in the ocean. And they start drawing down huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and they start cooling the Earth. There’s even a signature in the geological record that shows a massive cooling around about now. And this is dangerous, of course, because if they keep doing this, if they keep extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, this could freeze the Earth into a snowball Earth. And we were getting close, but this was prevented by another kind of bacterium that lived in the bottom of the ocean. These are the fermenting decomposing bacteria, and they decompose the dead bodies of the photosynthesizers that floated down from the surface down to the bottom, into the depths, into the murky depths where the gooey sort of gunky sediment are, you know, very nasty gunky stuff. And those bacteria, the fermenters, they’re necrophiliacs, you know, they love dead bodies […] And they start decomposing them. And that releases carbon dioxide and methane into the water and that bubbles up into the atmosphere and that warms the planet up.
Now, James Lovelock, who, of course, is a tremendous scientific genius, he realized that he could make a mathematical model of these two bacterial ecosystems interacting with each other. You know, the ones at the surface, the photosynthetic bacteria that are sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and cooling the Earth, and then the ones in the sediments that are decomposing the dead bodies of that, those bacteria, when they reach the bottom. And those fermenting bacteria are releasing warming gases, CO2 and methane back to the atmosphere. And there’s a balance between the two. And what he found was that quite automatically and unconsciously, these two dynamics, the cooling dynamic and the warming dynamic, balance each other out, and you get the most beautiful regulation of planetary temperature within the limits that the bacteria can tolerate. This is the birth of Gaia. Gaia, the self-regulating planet is born, and it’s purely bacterial Gaia only run by the bacteria. It’s around 2800 million years ago. Roughly at this time we also think the plate tectonics got going. So, remember, up till now, it’s only been volcanic islands. That’s the only land we’ve had in a global ocean. Now, for complicated reasons, the magma from the deep Earth starts coming up and forming plates and solidifying. And these little plates start crashing together and they form continents, small continents. But the dynamics of the Earth, it’s the right size, the right temperature, the magma is the right temperature. Plate tectonics begins. So we’re getting continents.
Now, let’s keep walking. We keep walking. We walk to around 2500 million years ago. It’s been so far a bacterial Gaia. And now, another incredibly big thing happens. And we could call this after Lynn Margulis, who coined this term, endosymbiosis. Endosymbiosis. Symbiosis is a living together closely of very different organisms. This is even more than symbiosis. This is the living of different kinds of bacteria, one inside the other, to make a completely new kind of cell, which is the kind of cell that we have, the kind of cell that trees have and the kind of cells that fungi have and seaweeds have. I should have mentioned, of course, that bacteria don’t have cell nuclei, that bacterial DNA is in a loop inside their little bodies, whereas our DNA is inside of a nucleus. So what happens around this time is that one kind of bacterium is a kind of predator and it’s engulfing other bacteria and digesting them. Now, one of the kinds of bacteria that’s being engulfed and digested by this bigger, sort of gloopy amoeba like bacterium, is a little organism, little bacterium that likes to use oxygen to break down food. And say, can you imagine the big bacteria engulfs a little oxygen breathing bacterium? Normally it would digest it, but they have a sort of conversation. And the oxygen breathing bacteria says to the big one that it now finds it inside itself, inside of, Hey, don’t digest me. Let’s do a deal. Let me live inside your lovely cozy body, and when you need some food breaking down, give it to me and I’ll use oxygen to break it down. And that way you can get more energy, you can grow bigger, you can have all your DNA in a big nucleus. You can become much more complicated, much more intelligent and aware. And the engulfer says, Yeah, let’s do it. So a new symbiosis is formed in which we get a new kind of cell. We call it the eukaryotic cell, the kind of cell that we have, that all animals have, the plants have, that fungi have, that seaweeds have. Plate tectonics around this time intensifies, and we’re getting really large continents now made of granite, but there’s no life on the continents, or maybe around the edges, but no life in the interior of the continents. And now we walk for a long, long time without much happening. I mean, scientists call this kind of period the boring billion. We might walk around a thousand million years without much happening or that we know about anyway. Although maybe around 2000 million years ago, we may get the first hints of multicellular life, but nothing major. And we walk, and we walk, and we walk for a thousand million years, a kilometer or so in our walk. Can you imagine this huge stretch of time when there’s only single-celled organisms in the ocean with maybe a few experiments at multicellularity that aren’t working very well.
So we’ve got the bacteria and we’ve got the eukaryotes that are, of course, the products of this endosymbiosis between different kinds of free living bacterium. Later on, towards the end of this period, the bacterial cells that now have these little oxygen breathers in them, which we now call the mitochondria, which are the little beings inside our cells that are burning oxygen to give us our body warmth and make us warm and burn our energy. These cells, some of them absorb photosynthetic bacteria into their bodies. So now we get a branch of these new cells that have got mitochondria, which produce energy from oxygen, and also what we now call chloroplasts, which do photosynthesis. Okay, so we walk and walk just these single celled organisms until they reach 600 million years ago. And now something dramatic happens.
We think that the oxygen went up to around 10%, and this allows the sudden rapid appearance of multicellular life, the sort of multicellular life that we’re quite familiar with. We have, for example, the first sponges in this shallow ocean, the first mollusks, the first worms, the first jellyfish, and the famous trilobites. And there are even little animals with very primitive backbones who will eventually give rise to the vertebrates, including ourselves eventually. This is known as the Cambrian explosion. And now things start to happen really quickly. We move to 480 million years ago in the Ordovician. The trilobites diversify. We get the first fish in the ocean. Now, I should just point out that all this is happening in the shallow ocean. The lands, the land is still pretty much devoid of life until 480 million years ago, when the land starts to be colonized by the very first land plants, which are very similar to modern mosses, and liverworts and hornworts.
They evolved from green algae and they colonize the margins of the continents, and they probably did this with the help of fungi who also evolved in the ocean. The fungi, these tubular organisms that love to make symbiotic relationships with other organisms, and it’s probable that the fungi linked up with these early plants to form a kind of very early, primitive kind of root system that allowed these early plants to get minerals from the rocks. So that’s about 480 million years ago. Can you imagine? Now, the edges of the continents are gradually being colonized by these green plants with the help of fungi. Not in their roots, they didn’t have roots, but in their sort of rhizomes, we could say.
That’s 480 million years ago. Then we moved to 443 million years ago. And now these plants have developed quite nicely and they become moss forests, moss forests, and they start growing along streams and lakes along the edges of the continent. So they start actually penetrating into the more interior of the continents where there’s enough rainfall and enough water. Also, some of these plants now start to develop internal tubes so they can carry food and water more effectively. But they still have no roots. But of course, the fungi are helping them by forming kind of roots.
We also get the very first terrestrial animals, millipedes, early spiders. The fish in the oceans are diversifying. Can you imagine this land ecosystem? Mosses in the wetter places spreading into the continents, millipedes and spiders scuttling around amongst these early plants. Still no trees, of course. Still no flowers. Oxygen, maybe still around 10%. Now we move to 400 million years ago, the Lower Devonian period. Now we’ve got forests of plants making spores, covering almost all the continents. We’ve got plants with the first roots and the first proper leaves and the first the first seeds. We get the very first stable soils, and the climate cools as these plants draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And those invertebrates that we saw earlier, some of them have evolved into insects. Some of them even have evolved primitive wings. And they join a thriving community of scorpions and mites and millipedes and spiders and other animals without backbones, other invertebrates living in these forests. And in the ocean we get fish now that have developed jaws and they’re able to thrive much better in the ocean. So we keep going until we reach 360 million years ago, the Upper Devonian. Now we have abundant reef communities, coral reefs in the oceans, fish dominate the oceans. And an amazing event happens. Some of those fish evolve into the very, very first amphibians. They crawl out of the ocean onto the land where they can live.
And we also have the first extensive forest with an incredibly important new substance that the plants have created, and that’s called wood-lignin. And this lignin is going to become very important as we evolve further in the history of the Earth. Now, let’s move just 50 million years to around 350 million years ago to the Carboniferous. Now the amphibians have moved to land big time. We’ve got large forests, club mosses and cycads and other very primitive looking trees. Now this becomes a problem because of course the wood is made out of carbon dioxide that was once in the atmosphere and nothing can break down the wood at the moment. It’s such an incredibly difficult stuff to break down wood. It’s complex and tangled, and no living being at this point in the Carboniferous can decompose the wood and the wood is building up all over the place. Trees, dead trees are falling into swamps, making coal, coal that we use today for wrecking our own climate. Whilst coal swamps appear, nothing can break down the wood. And this is extremely dangerous because if this continues, the Earth will be plunged into a snowball Earth, be covered in ice, which will wipe out all of multicellular life, and which will then mean that all the evolutionary innovation that we’ve had up up until now will be lost. But at the very last minute, one kind of organism finally discovers how to break down the wood.
And that organism is, of course, the fungus or the fungi. They send their tubes into the dead wood. They send their enzymes out into the wood and they digest the lignin and they release carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. And that saves the Earth, saves Gaia from becoming a dead snowball earth. And the climate warms and we get a new kind of self-regulatory dynamic. So carbon dioxide is cycled back between the wood and the atmosphere by the fungi. Now, at this time, in the Carboniferous, some of the amphibians have evolved into very primitive reptiles and we get the build up of a supercontinent is happening with the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlas Mountains building up. Now we moved to 300 million years ago and the supercontinent Pangaea has formed, straddling the globe from north to south. And this produces vast deserts in the continental interiors and the dry climate favors the first modern trees, such as the conifers and also different kinds of cycads. Most of the insects are like cockroaches. The reptiles do really well in the dry climate. Some become huge herbivores and carnivores. And now, around this time, around 250 million years ago, a mass extinction takes place, the biggest of all mass extinctions, probably because of all the volcanic activity that’s being produced by the coalescing of the supercontinent Pangea. We lose around 96% of all the marine organisms. They vanish in the fossil record and 70% of all the land species vanish, and it takes the Earth about 30 million years to recover. The temperature increase is about eight degrees centigrade. If we’re not careful, we’re going to do something similar with our industrial culture. In our modern times, we could trigger a mass extinction of a similar magnitude.
So now let’s move to 200 million years ago. This is now the age of reptiles. We get the first flying reptiles, those famous pterosaurs we’ve seen in films. And the first dinosaurs appear, but they don’t become dominant for another 50 million years ago. Also scuttling about the toenails of these gigantic dinosaurs, we get the first true mammals appearing, our own direct ancestors. The amphibians are still present, some get very large. And we get a hot, dry climate. Forests are everywhere, even at the poles. Conifers are everywhere. There are fish, of course, massively abundant in the oceans. So now we move on in our evolutionary story to around 180 million years ago when the great supercontinent Pangaea begins to break up into separate continents. North America, South America, etc. And we move on to 136 million years ago to the lower Cretaceous, when suddenly the whole planet bursts into color on the land, because we have the first flowering plants, we have the first bees, the first butterflies, the first termites, the first ants.
Dinosaurs continue to dominate land, but there are mammals still present. South America and Africa begin to separate. The Rocky Mountains begin to be built up. And we move now to 65 million years ago to the last great extinction event when a relatively small meteorite, maybe ten or so kilometers across, crashes into the Yucatan Peninsula and releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide and changes the global climate to such an extent that most of the dinosaurs go extinct, with the exception of the birds. And we get mass extinction. Many species go extinct. And the tremendous climate change that this produces, that’s the last mass extinction. Now let’s move really fast towards the present and towards the end of our deep time meditation and our deep time walk. Let’s go to around 300,000 years ago, a mere 30 centimeters from the end of our walk, 30 centimeters 300,000 years. This is when we get the oldest human remains, Homo Sapiens remains that we know about. Then it goes into a series of ice ages until around 13,000 years or so, when the recent Ice Age ends with humans present, of course. Now we go to eight millimeters from the end of the walk. That’s 8000 years ago. The farming revolution starts round about this time. Humans learn how to farm, how to grow crops in the soil. Then 6000 years ago, six millimeters, recorded history begins in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Ancient Egyptian civilizations, the pyramids go up, the Nile floods and the tremendous spirituality of the ancient Egyptians appears. Let’s move now to 2000 years ago. That’s only two millimeters from the end of the walk, 2000 years. Bear in mind, everything that’s happened up until now and now we’re only 2000 years from the present moment, two millimeters away from the end. This, of course, is the time of Jesus and the monotheistic religions around the world, the modern calendar appears. And then point two of a millimeter from the end of the walk, about a fifth of a millimeter. Two hundred years ago, a man in Dartmouth, not far from where we’re sitting, invents the steam engine in about 1712 and starts the Industrial Revolution. And so that coal that was buried during the Carboniferous period is exhumed and burned in these new steam engines. And that starts to radically change the climate of the Earth until we reach now, the present moment, when climate change is becoming extremely serious, when our Western civilization is destroying the marvelous biodiversity of the planet, and when we face this extremely dangerous global crisis, perhaps the biggest global crisis, Gaia, our planet, has ever faced entirely because of our consumerist Western culture. And now it’s up to us. Can we develop a Gaian consciousness in which we feel ourselves to be symbiotic with our planet, in which we feel ourselves to be living inside this great living, planetary motherly body of ours, Gaia, our own Earth, whom we have to protect for our own self-interest and for our own well-being and for her well-being. That’s up to you. The best thing you can do now, as a human being, is to become a Gaian human being, a human being, part of this great living, planetary community of life, rocks, atmosphere and water. Part of this great move towards living well with the Earth. And finally, I would say, to do this, we need to rediscover our indigenous way of being part of our planet, just like our ancient ancestors did right at the very beginning and the very dawn of human consciousness.
There’s one more thing I’d like you to do. This is a very nice Gaian meditation that we often do at Schumacher College on a Deep Time Walk. So, if you can find somewhere to lie down on the floor or on the ground outside, even better. And just lie down with your head pointing north, your head pointing north, if you can. And just make yourself very comfortable on the floor in your room or outside, and then just feel the weight of your body on the ground or on the floor. Just really relax and feel the weight of your body on the ground. And of course, we normally say that it’s gravity that’s holding us down against the floor or against the ground. But let’s go back to a more ancient idea, an idea that we had long before we got the notion of gravity, and that is that it’s not gravity that’s holding us down, it’s love. What’s holding us down is the love that the great body of the Earth beneath our backs feels for the matter in our body. Feel yourself being dangled upside down over the cosmos by the great Earth behind your back, by the love of the great Earth behind your back that’s dangling you safely upside down over the cosmos, preventing your body from floating up and hitting the ceiling, if you’re indoors, or preventing your body from floating off into outer space, if you’re outside. Feel the love of this great round being behind your back, holding you safely upside down over the cosmos. And now, to the North, imagine your body expanding to whatever lies north of you towards the North Pole. Maybe forests and mountains and oceans. Feel yourself expanding northwards. And then now to the South. Feel yourself expanding towards the south, wherever you are, towards the South Pole, over forests, mountains, oceans, deserts, wherever you are. Just let yourself flow into the south, let your body expand to become the body of the Earth as you do the same towards the East and to your West. Let yourself become the whole body of the Earth. Let your body become the body of the Earth which is dangling your little human body upside down over the cosmos, wherever your little human body happens to be.
And just relax and let yourself become Gaia and dwell there for a while. Feel your forests and your coral reefs and your mountains and your deserts and your tundras and your rainforests and your temperate forests, your soils, your birds, and your creatures, your bacteria. They’re all you. And when you’re ready, slowly bring yourself back to your little human body lying there upside down over the cosmos, being dangled safely by the love of the great body, the Gaian body behind your back, your Gaian body feels for the matter in your little human body. And make yourself comfortable now as you return back into your little human body, but now bringing back the gifts that this Gaian experience has given you. And when you’re ready, get up once again, stand up into our two-legged stance and go off into the world working now for the benefit of all beings, including human beings. Walk well into the life of Gaia.
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Hello, this is Dr. Stephan Harding. Thank you so much for listening to this podcast. The Deep Time Walk’s a powerful experience that I’ve been leading for many years and I’ve seen how it really has a massive effect on people all over the world. And I’ve been working very closely with Robert Woodford, who’s been leading an initiative called the Deep Time Walk Project. And the first thing we did on this project was to create what we call the Deep Time Walk App, which you can download for free, and it allows you to do the deep time work anywhere you are on the Earth. It gives you a narration of the whole process of the deep time that you heard. There’s also a mobility assisted function on the app. It works very well. You can use that too. It’s free anyway. You can download it anywhere, it’s free. And there are also resources on the Deep Time Walk website, which I’ll mention in a minute. For example, there are deep time walk cards that can help you learn how to lead your own deep time walk. We’re very keen for people to lead deep time walks themselves and learn how to lead them. And there’s a growing international community of practitioners and facilitators who are leading deep time walks all over the world. For example, for COP26, Robert organized 50 deep time walks all over the world, starting with New Zealand and moving along with the sun. So, please, download the app, enjoy it. It’s a wonderful thing. Visit the Deep Time Work Project website which is DeepTimeWalk.org. Thank you very much and enjoy your deep time walks. Bye bye.
Dear listeners, we hope you have enjoyed this bonus episode and our appreciation, our deep appreciation to Christiana Figueres, to Tom Carnac, to Paul Dickinson, and to everyone at Global Optimism with a special thanks to Clay. Clay, you’ve been an extraordinary supporter of this podcast series, and we just want you to know that we love you very much and and so appreciate all you do for us.
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The way out is in.