A War of Metaphors

In my writing here on View from the Side I often use the phrase “the living Earth.” It’s become a cliche for me, and, despite my feelings about cliches, I don’t plan to stop. It’s worth a moment for me to explain what I mean by “the living Earth” and why I say it so much. Word choices matter to me, and within the exigencies of my limited vocabulary and feeble imagination— not to mention the final limits of time, cash, strength, patience, and literary allusion— I do try my best to select the words that most perfectly exemplify and amplify the full intentions of my thought and emotion. Well, except when I’m just fookin’ around.

I believe the overall ecosystem that encompasses the planet Earth operates in a coordinated or semi-coordinated manner. Almost all earth scientists would likely agree with that.

My dispute with most modern climate and earth studies science is that the Earth system is understood, analyzed, and often “repaired” as though it were a machine. This is because the sciences that study Earth processes on the grand scale: Atmospheric science, geology, hydro-dynamics, etc… these are all considered “physical” sciences. The earth is studied as a complex mechanical device, a great machine. And that’s a bad idea. A bad metaphor.

You could say I’m at war against bad ideas. I’m in a battle of words against false logic, wrong thinking and phony comparisons. And I just hate shitty metaphors. I’m a poet, for fook’s sake, not a PhD or even a soldier of any rank at all. I’m a writer, and I’m at war with bad writing. I’m a thinker, opposed to all forms of bad thinking (except my own, of course). No, I’m not fighting against any person at all. But I’m all in against a bad idea.

I’m at war with a metaphor. The metaphor that says, “The Earth and its climate are a big machine.”

The living Earth is not a machine. That’s a false metaphor, and like bad thinking tends to do, that false metaphor has led our civilization into a desperate situation.

The notion of Earth as machine goes back at least as far as Descartes and was formalized and mathematicized by Newton. Descartes declared that the world around us, all the non-human world, was a great machine, without life or thought or desire, a clockwork mechanism functioning on simple cause and effect. Therefore the natural world was something that we could understand and control. Newton extended that idea of the great clock (the highest human technology of his age) out onto the entire universe. I won’t lecture more about this history of thought right now, but you can check it out yourself and get back to me on it.

Our civilization, our science, and our political/economic world have been living with the “earth is a machine” metaphor for the last 500 years or so. Treating the earth as a machine means it has no rights or needs of its own. Treating the earth as a machine means it belongs to us. You can use a machine without any concern for its well-being. Treating the earth as a machine misleads us into thinking it has disconnected parts, that it functions by simple cause and effect. That anytime it breaks down, we can repair it.

All of this is just wrong. And it has led us to the crisis of ecosystem collapse, mass extinction, and climate disruption that we see all around us. Our bad metaphor, inherited from long ago, is killing us and the Earth around us. I use the word, ‘killing’, in its literal, not metaphorical sense. I recently saw the figure 40,000 people per year who die from climate change related causes. However many, it’s too many.

Metaphors become habits of thought. And when those habits become destructive, they need to be changed. To understand why I think so, I’d just want to send you to two sources: Robert Frost’s lecture/essay titled “Education by Poetry” and Lakoff and Johnson’s crucial book Metaphors We Live By.

I’m at war with a bad metaphor, because we live by our metaphors, and we die by them, too. The metaphor of ‘Earth as machine’ is killing us.

But, I’m not just fighting against the bad metaphor which says “the Earth is a machine.” I’m fighting for a richer, better, more appropriate and accurate metaphor.

I believe the better metaphor, a truer and more useful way to understand the Earth is to see it as a living body. A living being. A biological, not a mechanical, system. The whole earth’s ecosystem can be viewed as a living thing, a huge body, in which we humans exist as a collection of cells lives inside a body.

Why is this a better metaphor? Think of it this way. Can we be ethical toward a machine? We will never develop the necessary “Land Ethic” that Aldo Leopold proposed if we think of the world as an object, a device, a thing. Only when we see it as a living being– the whole Earth alive, with us inside it– only then will we begin to treat the Earth with respect and ethical consideration.

And this metaphor is simply more correct, more accurate. Robert Frost’s standard for a good metaphor is simple. “The more you think about it, the truer it seems.” The Earth is more like a body in the interactions of its parts and its responses to stimuli than it is like a machine. This understanding is present in the writings of Charles Darwin (i.e. the famous “tangled bank” paragraph), in the speculations of Gregory Bateson’s “Steps to An Ecology of Mind”, and emerged in the scientific theory of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis unfortunately labeled the “Gaia hypothesis”.

When I use the phrase, “the living Earth”, when I say the Earth is best understood as a body, or a being, I mean something very much like what Lovelock and Margulis described, a responsive and integrated biological system. Not, in a gooey new agey sense a ‘goddess’ exactly. but more like a biological entity than a mechanical physical object.

No, folks, the Earth we live on is no machine. The whole Earth system is a unified living being, a body made up of billions of contributing cells of which we are a large and growing portion. Like any body, the Earth is a party, a gathering, a great collection of different smaller bodies co-existing in symbiotic competition which supports the whole organism. Just as our bodies are collections of cells and organisms of different types, we are part of the overall body of the Earth.

If we recognize the Earth as a body, we will treat it differently.

For example, we would see the solution for the damage we are doing to the Earth’s systems as healing, rather than ‘repairing’. And the first step in any healing process is to remove the cause of the sickness— CO2, for example, and our ongoing dependence on releasing enormous quantities of it into the atmosphere. And all the other poisons and plastics and pollutants we pour into oceans and streams, which are the actual bloodstreams of the living Earth, would not just be inconveniences, but threats to the life of the living planet within which we thrive.

Only when we change our metaphor we will be able to change our lives. Because we can die by bad metaphors. And we can live by better ones.

We live inside the body of the living Earth. And we humans can’t live anywhere else. As soon as we recognize these two simple truths, we’ll begin to live differently. We’ll feel differently– as we walk through the woods, or work a garden, or when we start to pour more black pavement over the still breathing ground. We will begin to feel the consequences of our footsteps as they echo inside the great body of the living Earth.

Perhaps we will begin to walk more lightly, if we know we are walking on living ground.

Before you dismiss all this as the ravings of a gaia-mind-blown-poetry-and-nature-nut (though in those respects I am guilty as charged!), take a read of this NYT science article that is guaranteed to blow your mind, too. Via my friend, Steve. The machine metaphor says this amazing phenomenon is a “power grid”. The living Earth metaphor suggests this network of electrical bacteria is a kind of nervous system. Either way, this article is well worth a read!

Metaphors make a difference, and that makes science the realm of artists, too.

I maintain that the unique insights of artists, designers, and makers present an opportunity for scientists to collaborate in the creation of evocative visual and auditory artifacts that invite the public to share in both the research process and the scientific conclusions of a study. These collaborations ultimately engender a more thorough and straightforward understanding of scientific knowledge.

So, why do I think this particular metaphor makes such a difference? Here are just a few of today’s examples of how badly the ‘Earth as machine’ metaphor is working. And what it’s doing to our human machine, too.

More heat heats up protests. No surprise that, as weather grows deadly, the response of the people suffering is going to grow in proportion.

Another whole level of protests will erupt when food shortages set in. This map of world-wide crop losses looks devastating. (I can’t yet vouch for the source or the science in this one. Dig in a little, if you dare, and let me know how accurate this shocking article is.)

This, though, looks fully verified. Antarctic sea ice is shrinking after a long period of growth. The question marks of ‘why?’ and ‘with what result?’ remain in this report. Um, warm water, melting ice… 2 plus 2, dudes.

In the Arctic north, though, the melt-off continues frantically. Have you joined View from the Side’s Office Pool on the Blue Ocean Event? The question we’re betting on is, “What year will the Arctic first be ice-free for some part of the summer?” My imaginary money is on next year, 2020. But you’d better enter soon, because 2019 could be the one. From a week ago, this report describes the Greenland ice sheet melting really fast this early summer, near recorded maximum.

And more climate crisis links! Because the living Earth is dying. And that’s a truth we should know.

More crisis in the oceans.

But National Cognitive Dissonance stops us from changing for the better. I call it bad metaphors. This article highlight the complexities of Climate Denial Syndrome writ large on a national scale.

Today it’s a heat wave in Alaska

Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, posted on social media last week that the northern Bering and southern Chukchi seas are “baking.”
Sea surface temperatures last week there were as high as 9 degrees above the 1981-2010 average.
The northern Alaska warmth is weeks ahead of schedule and part of a “positive feedback loop” compounded by climate change. Rising ocean temperatures have led to less sea ice, which leads to warmer ocean temperatures, he said.
The last five years have produced the warmest sea-surface temperatures on record in the region, contributing to record low sea-ice levels.

Yesterday it was Europe. Heatwaves are far more likely, as global temperatures warm. I can’t praise the Guardian enough for their constant climate coverage. Kudos from the Side!

And, from this morning. A tornado in Portland, Oregon. Here in my home bio-region, the Pacific Northwest, the weather lately has been more like what I remember from Ohio than a typical Oregon spring. It’s been warm, muggy, with thunderstorms blowing through every afternoon. We had a big windstorm here that knocked down trees a few days ago. Now this rare, though not unique, Oregon tornado strikes Portland.

According to the article, Oregon tornadoes are “weak”. Sorry about that, dude. I’m sure we’ll do better in the future.

I know, I know, you’re sick of words, and metaphors. You’re ready to pitch in and make this situation better. So, what can we do, in action, as individual people, other than just change our words. You can Be a Climate Voter! Tell your politicians to act. And you can get active yourself in the political action of the times. Join groups, sign petitions, contribute where you can. You can join the Extinction Rebellion. You can vote for Climate Candidates. That much, any American citizen can do.

Climate Voters are going to need some Climate Candidates. Check it out. Here’s the Greenpeace scorecard of Climate Candidates, which shows none other than Jay Inslee on top of the list.

Yes, folks, I’m telling you from the side. We need a new view on things. We need to change our metaphors. The living Earth is no machine. It’s a body, a living being, just like you and me.

When the morning comes, we’ll see.

Share This