by Peter Russell

Excerpted from book

I would like you to come with me on a great adventure, an exploration of humanity's potential as seen through the eyes of the planet, and to share with me a vision of our evolutionary future.

The journey will take us beyond this place and time, allowing us to stand back and behold humanity afresh, to consider new ways of seeing ourselves in relation to the whole evolutionary process.

We shall see that something miraculous may be taking place on this planet, on this blue pearl of ours. Humanity could be on the threshold of an evolutionary leap, a leap that could occur in a flash of evolutionary time, a leap such as occurs only once in a billion years. the changes leading to this leap are taking place right before our eyes-- or rather right behind them, within our own minds.

Put as bluntly as this, the hypothesis might seem to be an unbelievable fantasy. Yet I hope to show that it could be a very real possibility that an increasing number of people are beginning to take seriously. The seeds of my own explorations in this area were sown some twenty years ago while in high school. I can recall lying in bed one night, looking out at a starlit sky, and considering the rapidly increasing human population and the many ways in which we were consuming scarce resources and misusing the planet. It was no great effort to extrapolate these trends into the future and see that sooner or later impossible situations would occur. (To take an obvious example, there would eventually come a time when there would be more people alive than it was physically possible to feed.) But impossible situations do not occur, I reasoned. Therefore, before such points in time would be reached, humanity would experience some very dramatic changes. Whatever happened, we could not continue on this path much longer.

In retrospect, the conclusion is hardly profound, but for me it was an important turning point. It became very clear that during my lifetime I would probably witness the end of a set of trends that had been going on for thousands of years.

How would the changes come? At the time my attention was occupied with various "negative" scenarios such as nuclear holocaust, ecological collapse or worldwide famine. These all seemed quite possible ways in which humanity's growing size and consumption could be curtailed, halted, or even reversed. But gradually over the years another, far more optimistic scenario began to dawn within my mind. Rather than humanity suffering major setbacks, the dramatic change could be a growing-up and maturing of our species.

By this time I was at Cambridge University studying theoretical physics. Fascinated as I was by science, however, I was even more fascinated by the workings of the mind. Western philosophy and psychology seemed to offer a few insights, but I had felt for a long time that there was a vast amount of wisdom locked up in the East, in particular in various teachings on meditation. So I ended up spending a winter in the Himalayan foothills, studying with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and experiencing dimensions of my consciousness of which I had never dreamed. As a result I knew beyond any doubt that if everyone could contact such states of consciousness, the world could be transformed. Humanity could change its direction constructively, rather than be changed destructively. So I returned to England and spent much of the next few years teaching meditation, encouraging others to discover for themselves a different way of being.

My vision of a transformed world continued to evolve, though for a while I felt very much on my own. Then one day a friend introduced me to the works of Teihard de Chardin. Here was a philosopher who had considered similar ideas about humanity's future, considered them far more deeply, and had not been universally dismissed. I felt both inspired and strengthened.

From then on support started coming from many different directions: from developments in a number of sciences, from the writings of philosophers and visionaries both Eastern and Western, from conversations with others, and from my own experiences and insights. Piece by piece the jigsaw was coming together, and an overall picture began to emerge. More and more it appeared that we alive today might be standing on the threshold of an evolutionary development as significant as the emergence of life on Earth some 3,500 million years ago.

The nature of this possible transformation and the ways in which it could come about are what I want to explore with you....

Our inquiry will draw upon the insights and experiences of many individuals, from mystics and religious teachers to scientists and astronauts, as well as on recent developments in many different disciplines. Biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, psychology, physiology, medicine, sociology, and systems theory will all shed their relevant lights.

At times we will be looking at the similarities between aspects of society today and various phenomena in these sciences. In most cases these are not just analogies introduced to make a point clear; they illustrate a deeper, underlying pattern, what is technically called a homology. (The layout of bones in the forearm of a dog, elephant, seal, and bat, for example, are in each case similar to the layout in the human forearm. This is a homology revealing a more fundamental common pattern.) When we start finding consistent, underlying patterns running through the whole of evolution, they can give us a very strong reason for believing that society today may follow homologous developments.

The vision I shall be sharing is certainly a highly optimistic one -- some might even say Utopian -- and I make no apologies for this. As will become clear later, the image a society has of itself can play a crucial role in the shaping of its future. If we fill our minds with images of gloom and destruction, then that is likely to be the way we are headed. Conversely, more optimistic attitudes can actually help promote a better world. A positive vision is like the light at the end of a tunnel, which, even though dimly glimpsed, encourages us to step on in that direction.

The Living Earth
The view of Earth from space brought with it yet another insight: the possibility that the planet as a whole could be a living being. We Earthlings might be likened to fleas who spend their whole lives on an elephant, unaware of what it really is. They chart its terrain--skin, hairs, and bumps-study its chemistry, plot its temperature changes, and classify the other animals that share its world, arriving at a reasonable perception of where they live. Then one day a few of the fleas take a huge leap and look at the elephant from a distance of a hundred feet. Suddenly it dawns: "The whole thing is alive!" This is the truly awesome realization brought about by the trip to the moon. The whole planet appears to be alive--not just teeming with life but an organism in its own right.

If the idea of the Earth as a living being is initially difficult to accept, it may be due partly to our assumptions about what sort of things can and cannot be organisms. We accept a vast range of systems as living organisms, from bacteria to blue whales, but when it comes to the whole planet we might find this concept a bit difficult to grasp. Yet until the development of the microscope less than four hundred years ago, few people realized that there are living organisms within us and around us, so small that they cannot be seen with the naked eye. Today we are viewing life from the other direction, through the "macroscope" of the Earth view, and we are beginning to surmise that something as vast as our planet could also be a living organism.

This hypothesis is all the more difficult to accept because the living Earth is not an organism we can observe ordinarily outside ourselves; it is an organism of which we are an intimate part. Only when we step into space can we begin to see it as a separate being. Stuck like fleas on an elephant, we have not, until recently, had the chance to see the planet as a whole. Would a cell in our own bodies, seeing only its neighboring cells for a short period, ever guess that the whole body is a living being in its own right?

To better understand the planet as a living system, we need to go beyond the time scales of human life to the planet's own time scale, vastly greater than our own. Looked at in this way, the rhythm of day and night might be the pulse of the planet, one full cycle of every hundred thousand human heartbeats. Speeding up time appropriately, we would see the atmosphere and ocean currents swirling round the planet, circulating nutrients and carrying away waste products, much as the blood circulates nutrients and carries away waste in our own bodies.

Speeding it up a hundred million more times, we would see the vast continents sliding around, bumping into each other, pushing up great mountain chains where they collided. Fine, thread like rivers would swing first one way then another, developing huge, meandering loops as they accommodated themselves to the changes in the land. Giant forests and grasslands would move across the continents, sometimes thrusting limbs into new fertile lands and at other times withdrawing as climate and soil changed.

If we could look inside, we would see an enormous churning current of liquid rock flowing back and forth between the center of the planet and the thin crust, sometimes oozing through volcanic pores to supply the minerals essential for life. Had we senses able to detect charged particles, we would see the planet bathing not only in the light and heat of the sun but also in a solar wind of ions streaming from the sun. This wind, flowing round the Earth, would be shaped by her magnetic field into a huge, pulsating aura streaming off into space behind her for millions of miles. Changes in the Earth's fluctuating magnetic state would be visible as ripples and colors in this vast comet like aura, and the Earth herself would be but a small blue-green sphere at the head of this vast energy field.

Thus if we look at the planet in terms of its own time scales, we seem to see a level of complex activity similar to that found in a living system. Such similarities, however, do not constitute any form of proof. The question we have to ask is whether scientists could accept the planet as a single organism in the same way they accept bacteria and whales? Could the Earth actually "be" a living organism?

This no longer seems so farfetched. On the contrary, an increasingly popular scientific hypothesis suggests that the most satisfactory way of understanding the planet's chemistry, ecology, and biology is to view the planet as a single living system. The Gaia Hypothesis.