Chapter 64: Mindful of Little Things
“It’s easy to keep hold of what hasn’t stirred,
Easy to plan what hasn’t occurred.
It’s easy to shatter delicate things,
Easy to scatter little things.
Do things before they happen.
Get them straight before they get mixed up.
The tree you can’t reach your arms around
Grew from a tiny seedling.
The nine-story tower rises from a leap of clay.
The ten-thousand-mile journey
Begins beneath your foot.”
~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)
The late great biologist and entomologist E.O. Wilson had a felicitous phrase to describe the billions of microorganisms beneath our feet: “the little things that run the world.” When we think about biodiversity loss and endangered species, we tend to picture the “charismatic megafauna” that populate our zoos and our nature documentaries. This is perfectly natural: we occupy the space between the microcosm and the macrocosm: the mesocosm. The human realm is the Middle Kingdom between what Pascal called the two infinities, the little window between the infinitesimal of the suboptical and the infinity of the superoptical. The meso is both our milieu and our metier.
The microscope and the telescope represent the extension of our sight and insight into the spaces beyond our little window, and we tend to think that the micro and the macro are opposites. But as the ecological crises have moved into our collective Overton window, a new picture is emerging. According to the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, the microbiological substratum that makes life on Earth possible is a global, integrated system. Lovelock has been widely misinterpreted as positing the Earth as a kind of super organism, but that is not what he is talking about. Rather, his position is that the Earth—specifically, the thin layer of chemical, biological, and atmospheric stuff that enspheres the planet—is a self-replicating and self-regulating system. It is like the Anthropic principle in a more scientific key. Put another way, the perpetuation of the macrocosm that we call life of Earth depends on the microcosm. Some have interpreted this as a “second Copernican revolution.”
This reverses the trajectory of civilization since its inception. The movement has always been toward bigger, higher, broader, more—more territory, higher buildings, more productivity, farther travel. This movement, of course, eventuates in the adventure into space, its telos is interstellar travel, with Mars a kind of halfway house. It is encapsulated in Elon Musk’s insistence that we must become a space faring civilization.
What the Gaia hypothesis suggests is that this is not the triumph of a rational, scientific worldview over a mythic, superstitious worldview. It is one story—the Earth revolves around the sun, and is just one planet in a vast universe—supplanting another—that the sun revolves around the Earth, which is our permanent home. If the Ptolemaic worldview was humanity’s infancy, the Copernican standpoint is our adolescence; the desire to run away from home played out on a world-historical stage. As Bruno Latour puts it, “we have never been modern.”
“Bases on Mars” are the secular, scientific equivalent of the “Ether” and “Heaven” of the pre-Copernican cosmology and its attendant religions; that is, they are unreachable fantasies that blind us to our actual standpoint. In the age of Gaia, what we call the Earth and the Heavens are, for all intents and purposes, the thin green line made up of little things separating us from the third rock from the sun and the cone of sunlight that keeps it alive. We have already found “little green men,” but not where we expected: not on Mars, but in the soil. The only way forward—the only way to there being a future—is not upward, but downward. Space flight is only important and worthwhile to the extent that it enhances our knowledge of the Earth system and how we can sustain it. Our gods must not be the sky gods that dominated civilization, but the Earth goddess that always made it possible. Our demigods must not be the space (and cyberspace) barons of Musk, Bezos, Branson, and Zuck—but the ancestral wisdom of the world’s indigenous cultures.
The little things that run the world now depend on what we do in this century. Or rather, what we do not do. Or more precisely, how well we are able to “not do.” Today’s chapter also reads: “Do, and do wrong; hold on, and lose. Not doing, the wise soul doesn’t do it wrong.” This has a curious implication: it is not we that are the little things that run the world. Stewart Brand famous said that “we are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” This is usually interpreted as a Promethean statement, but it all depends on what we mean by “gods.” We are as Gaia, and might as well get good at it. The ten-thousand mile journey to 2100 not only begins beneath our feet, but will proceed in the right direction only if we clearly see where we are standing.
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”