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The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 16 of 16
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29. Gaia/Mother Earth Mythology

Until comparatively recently, the only notable expressions of Space Age mythology were pop-culture science fiction and UFO lore. Now, however, an alternate view, expressed in nonfiction and in revivals of pagan religions, is gaining ground. Its focus is the Gaia myth, which started out as a scientific hypothesis and has been merged with elements from ancient mythologies. The hypothesis, though controversial, has a firm basis in science; but it’s being extended in metaphorical ways and is proving to have great mythic power in our culture. Though some educated people take it more or less literally, I personally believe that the image of Planet Earth as a living—sometimes even conscious—being (as distinguished from the locale of interactions between living species) is a perfect example of a metaphor that emerges as a reflection of feelings about the universe.

We live in a culture in which people’s opinions are varied and often conflict— so in our culture, unlike earlier ones, it’s possible to have authentic myths that not everyone agrees with in even a metaphorical sense. That is, though a myth may express the attitude of some people, there are going to be others who not only don’t take it literally, but don’t share the underlying outlook. Some people do react in this way to space fiction; they are not emotionally attracted to it. And I admit that this is how I myself feel about the emerging myth of our planet as an organism, one of which we’re inextricably a dependent part.

Campbell, however, would have liked it, for he, like many others, rejected the idea of human dominance over nature. It has become very popular to say that this idea, which is expressed metaphorically in the Bible, is now obsolete. Personally I feel the Biblical myth was on the right track as far as human evolution is concerned—the fact that some people used it as an excuse for wanton destruction does not mean the whole concept should be thrown out. But the Gaia, or Earth-as-organism, idea condemns it by claiming that all lifeforms are of equal importance, a notion in direct opposition to the idea of evolutionary progress.

Some of you may disagree with me about this, and that’s okay. I find it’s impossible for me to write an “objective” account of a mythic view I not only feel represents a false view of our place in the universe, but believe to be potentially damaging to our future survival. I will have to simply present my own opinion. There’s no danger of any of you not being exposed to arguments opposed to mine, since the media are full of them. More and more books on the subject are also appearing.

The scientific Gaia hypothesis was originated by British atmospheric scientist James E. Lovelock and American microbiologist Lynn Margulis (who was once married to Carl Sagan). They named it after the Greek goddess of the earth. Certainly its underlying idea, which is that geology alone cannot explain the condition of our planet and that Earth’s climate and surface environment are controlled by the organisms that inhabit it, is valid. The hypothesis goes on to assert that this fact makes Earth a self-regulating “superorganism” which may have the equivalent of vital organs, so that if regions are damaged, the whole may not “recover”; this is more controversial. However, it’s still legitimate science as long as the concept of a “living Earth” is taken as a model, analogy, or metaphor in the sense of “shorthand” for describing ecological interactions.

But the popular quasi-religious movement that’s developed around Gaia goes much further than that. Fanatic environmentalists now often use its imagery to gather emotional support for policies that ignore the very self-adjusting properties of Earth predicted by Gaian theory (although originally, they were suspicious of its being seen as “an excuse to pollute”). Furthermore, it has become identified with Mother Earth/goddess worship, which is for the most part antagonistic to human progress and which fosters the notion that we as a species are wholly dependent on an unchanging Earth for our own life. The Commonwealth Institute of London, funded in part by IBM, teaches children to sing:

Gaia is the one who gives us birth.
She’s the air, she’s the sea, she’s Mother Earth.
She’s the creatures that crawl and swim and fly.
She’s the growing grass, she’s you and I.
Christian fundamentalists are understandably upset, but one does not need to take Judeo-Christian mythology literally to find this attitude toward our home planet damaging to human aspirations.

The belief that the Earth is a living creature to be worshipped as a mother is an ancient one, fundamental to many mythologies. (In fact, some forms of esotericism claim “life” and even consciousness for inorganic celestial bodies as well, so that the Gaia hypothesis has been criticized for attributing it only to Earth and not to all planets and stars.) And, significantly, worship of the Earth Mother has in past cultures generally existed alongside the rival concept of sky-god worship, sometimes prevailing, in others, being superseded. Thus the blending of this traditional metaphor with modern science represents not a new concept, but a revival, one with deep roots in the human unconscious. In itself, the concept is positive, and some of its implications are constructive. Earth is indeed our “mother world” and of course, we should always preserve and honor it.

However—and this is a point fanatic Gaians seem to miss—if the metaphor is going to be used, it should be carried to its logical culmination. Do adults depend on their mothers for continued life? Do we admire adults who want to live with Mother forever without striking out on their own? Why, then, should we believe that human beings are nothing apart from physical and spiritual oneness with Mother Earth?

The question arises as to why this new and inconsistent myth is so appealing, if, as I believe, it is maladaptive, not in the best interests of human survival. I think it’s partly that people are afraid of change, and they don’t want to admit that our immediate environment can’t stay the same in an overpopulated world as it was in an underpopulated one. Furthermore, a deep fear of ecological peril now pervades our culture, which in itself is a response to Space Age awareness of the planet’s limits—as is generally recognized—and, I believe, it’s a mythic rather than rational fear, one that many scientists don’t share. (If you doubt this, read the noted Dixy Lee Ray’s books, Trashing the Planet and Environmental Overkill.)

But there’s a deeper reason for the Gaia myth’s appeal. Its adherents often cite the image of Earth in space as evidence that this is, as Campbell put it in his book Myths to Live By, “the one oasis in all space, an extraordinary kind of sacred grove, as it were, set apart for the rituals of life... We have all now seen for ourselves how very small is our heaven-born earth, and how perilous our position on the surface of its whirling, luminously beautiful orb.” Emotionally, this is a very powerful image. It tends to make people identify with Earth, all of it, not just in the sense of considering it a single world in the political sense, but in the sense of truly considering the whole planet to be sacred in the ancient mythological sense of that term.

In my opinion, this reaction is a sign of our culture’s natural ambivalence about our perception of a universe larger than Earth. While people who enjoy space fiction respond positively to that perception, the Gaia devotees respond with apprehension—they shrink back from it, and allow the known environment to absorb their entire attention. Like Bettleheim’s words quoted in my paper The Mythic Role of Space Fiction, their view is comparable to Pascal’s famous remark about the terrors of infinite space.

It is not a logical view. Certainly we love our home planet, and certainly it’s beautiful—but to consider it “the one oasis in all space” on the basis of having explored no farther than the moon is utter nonsense! In the first place, there is no reason to suppose there isn’t life elsewhere, and in the second place, even if there isn’t, we will transport it elsewhere, not only ourselves, but whole ecologies. Lovelock himself admits this; in answer to the argument that Earth cannot be considered alive unless it can reproduce, he wrote a fictional account titled The Greening of Mars (co-authored with Michael Allaby, Warner Books, 1984). Gaians in general, however, ignore such considerations. I’m sure it would be impossible to convince them that if Earth is now in apparent poor health, it’s because She is pregnant.

Pregnancy being a condition that provides its own “cure” in the course of time, I trust, as an optimist, that the Gaia myth—its popular interpretation, in any case—will ultimately fade away. Essentially it’s based on fear, and on provincialism centered upon Earth itself rather than some particular region of Earth. It is the ultimate form of chauvinism. And this outlook toward the universe is the antithesis of that reflected in the rest of Space Age mythology.

[When I wrote this series for the course I taught in 1995, I believed that the metaphor of a pregnant Gaia was an original thought on my part. I’ve since found that although it occurred to me independently, it occurred earlier to other writers; I have encountered it on the Web. Moreover, I’ve found that some space advocates now embrace the Gaia metaphor, saying that it is our role to enable Gaia's reproduction by spreading life elsewhere in the universe. I certainly don’t object to this use of the image—I’m all for it if it can convince Gaia enthusiasts that space travel is a natural and important step in evolution. But the fact remains that the vast majority of people who worship Mother Earth do so as a retreat from facing the wider universe, and that to the general public, Gaia imagery fosters such an attitude.]


30. The Future of Space Age Mythology

We have seen that since the advent of the Space Age, metaphors expressing views of the universe and of our place in it have become common in our culture. But do these metaphors constitute an actual body of mythology— albeit one not self-consistent—or are they merely trendy? How do we know that space movies, for example, won’t fade in popularity, just as cowboy movies have faded? How do we distinguish myth from fad?

There is no sure way to tell, of course. Conclusive evidence will be obtainable only with hindsight: myth endures as long as a culture’s worldview endures; fashion doesn’t. But certain criteria do reveal the extent of a metaphor’s appeal, and thus of the depth of feeling it reflects. Fads are based on superficial feelings, not deep underlying ones. So, if we judge the popularity of a metaphor to be wide and persistent, the chances are that it’s more than a fad, and that, by examining it, we can gain insight into the outlook of the culture in which it has emerged.

The size of the audience drawn to a science fiction work has, so far, been the major objective measure of its mythic power. Also, the lasting pull of such a work is an important indicator: for example, the original Star Trek series is even more popular now, after countless reruns, than when it was first a hit. However, there is another index of a myth’s prominence: the extent to which it’s mentioned casually, without explanation, in unrelated media. That is, if allusions to metaphors or characters from space films appear frequently outside science fiction contexts, we can be sure they’re meaningful to the public at large.

Such allusions are becoming more and more frequent. Who in our society does not know what is meant by references in mainstream writing to Kirk, Spock, Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? Or to the Force? The expressions “beam me up” and “warp speed” have passed into our language. At the time of the last presidential election ,bumper stickers bearing the slogan PICARD/RIKER ’92 were in great demand.

Yet there is a far more profound sign of Space Age mythology’s significance than the prevalence of specific names: the spread of its themes into genres of fiction other than science fiction. People without background in the publishing industry may miss the importance of this, since to them, “science fiction” may be defined by the presence of such themes in the first place—however, to a writer, it is recognizable as a major development. Until the 90s, publishers were not willing to issue fiction dealing with hypothetical planets, aliens or space travel in lines other than those edited and marketed under an SF imprint and directed to the relatively small audience of established SF fans. (The sole exception, other than for the work of big-name authors, was in the children’s literature field; that was why I myself chose to publish in that field.) But recently, such themes have been appearing even in the once-narrow formula romance genre, which has huge press runs, and are now in great demand there. Their treatment in most romance novels, however, shows scant knowledge of space terminology on the part of writers and editors, let alone readers—incredibly, one bestselling trilogy misuses the word “galaxy” in place of “solar system.” What this means is that large numbers of average women, without any background whatsoever in science or SF, like to fantasize about visiting distant worlds and falling in love with starship captains or even ETs (as in the movie Starman.) I always predicted this might happen, but was nevertheless surprised to learn that the time is now at hand. There can be no stronger proof that Space Age mythology is here to stay.

Evidence such as this reveals more about our culture’s attitude toward the universe than do the rational conjectures of intellectuals. It is fashionable among the intelligentsia to be gloomy. It’s considered “realistic” to maintain that our one small planet is all we’ll ever have, and that we’re on the road to destroying it—when only hard data at hand are considered, many find this an inescapable conclusion. Yet exclusion of all other data is scarcely realism, since it’s obvious that our access to knowledge is limited. Thus undercurrents of mythopoeic thought prevail, even when viewed as childish—and certainly when legitimatized by the name of dreams.

Still, there is the alternate mythic undercurrent of fear, which emerges in Earth-worship and, I believe, in the experiences of UFO “abductees.” Does this represent a wholly negative view of our species’ place in the larger universe? I used to think so; but now, I am not so sure. There is a new phenomenon within the abduction syndrome: some experiencers, and some researchers, are now transforming such fear—of the alien and of human vulnerability—into a positive outlook toward cosmic order.

In reference to supposed alien warnings about Earth’s ecological danger, Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, in his book Abduction, writes, “Nothing in my work on UFO abductions has surprised me as much as the discovery that what is happening to the earth has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the universe. That the earth itself, and its potential destruction, could have an effect beyond itself or its own environment was altogether outside the worldview in which I was raised. But it would appear from the information that abductees receive that the earth has value or importance in a larger, interrelated cosmic system that mirrors the interconnectedness of life on earth.” I don’t agree with the fundamental premise of Mack’s interpretation, which is that whatever the cause of the abduction phenomenon, it “is, at its core, about the preservation of life on Earth at a time when the planet’s life is profoundly threatened.” In my opinion, there is no real threat, and the genuine perception of threat on the part of his patients—which they construe in familiar terms as destruction of the planet on the part of humans—has its roots in their unacknowledged fear of the environment beyond it. Yet his interpretation in itself is a clear example of that mythopoeic process: the process whereby the known (human damage to this world) becomes a metaphor for the unknown (potential peril to humans from contact with ETs or distant worlds). And this metaphor is closely connected to the source of its drawing power, for envoys from elsewhere are perceived as mediators—almost, perhaps, in the classic structuralist sense of mediation between the dichotomy “dangerous conditions at home” and “dangerous universe.” Initially terrifying, they are ultimately seen as proof of Earth’s place in a larger scheme.

Not surprisingly, it’s common for “abduction” experiencers to be transformed by recognition of such a pattern, whether or not it is articulated, and to be motivated thereafter by constructive, rather than panic-inspired, regard for our planet’s welfare. Mack considers this an indication that nonhuman influence of some sort, rather than mere stress, is the cause of their transformation. I say that their confrontation with contemporary myth is responsible. One of the prime functions of mythology is to put us in touch with imagery enabling us to make sense of the cosmos. It would appear that in the case of responsive abductees, it is fulfilling this function very well indeed: though they may still believe literally in Earth’s jeopardy, they have come to terms with the idea that we can’t remain isolated.

Does this represent a trend in human perception? Are we on the verge of recognizing the threshold at hand not merely in science fiction, where it is easily dismissed as “just fantasy,” but in reality? I think perhaps we are. This course focuses on science fiction because it is a Media Studies course, and is mainly concerned with Space Age mythology’s expression in the media. But I believe that its other expressions will become increasingly significant. It has been seriously suggested that nonhuman agencies control UFO “abductions”—whether actual or psychically induced—with the aim of accustoming us to the alien and inexplicable. Whether or not this is the case (and I suspect it’s not) the phenomenon will surely have that effect, simply through the power of its mythic impact. If its source isn’t external, it is at least unconscious, and thus reveals that we’re well advanced in the assimilation of our emerging mythology. The era of viewing Space Age metaphors as mere inventions is nearing an end.

Without an appropriate mythology, could our species evolve? I think not. I believe that mythopoeic thought is a primary mechanism of exosmatic evolution (see lecture 14). This is intuitively grasped by by those who credit science fiction with inspiring space travel, and also by many who are studying the alien abduction phenomenon: Mack, for instance, titles his final chapter, “Alien Intervention and Human Evolution,” even though he doesn’t see our evolution in terms of expansion to a new niche. If there were no Space Age mythology, there would be no Space Age. For that matter, without the human capacity for myth-making, we would still be living in caves.

Someday, we will venture beyond the orbits of this planet and its moon, and even beyond its solar system. Our mythologies will go with us. No doubt, most specific metaphors of today’s Space Age mythology will prove nonviable. It can’t be compared to ancient mythologies in terms of duration, since discoveries now come much faster, and what’s beyond comprehension in one century may be understood rationally in the next. Its fundamental concepts, however—concepts such as the value of exploration and of friendship with alien species—will surely endure. And there will always be mysteries, so new mythic ideas will keep arising as the old ones pass away.


Copyright 1995, 2003 by Sylvia Engdahl. All rights reserved.

If you got to this page by searching, please read the Introduction to the series.

More Reading
Books on SF films & myth
published since I taught this course)