- Animate Earth: Science, Intuition & Gaia dir. by Sally Angel and Josh Good
Directed by Sally Angel and Josh Good
Written by Stephen Harding
Distributed by The Video Project
Animate Earth, a documentary by Sally Angel and Josh Good, examines the roots of current ecological problems, suggesting that modern science—with its tendency to see nature as an inanimate machine—replaced an earlier, more intuitive worldview that encouraged a more reverential attitude toward nature. Paradoxically, however, modern science can also revive the earlier understanding of nature and thus help avert an ecological crisis of catastrophic dimensions. Animate Earth examines these two different ways of understanding nature.
The documentary is based on the work of Stephan Harding, author of a similarly-titled book. Harding is Resident Ecologist and Head of Holistic Science at Schumacher College, an institution devoted to promoting sustainable alternatives to ecologically-destructive practices. The film originally began as a Schumacher student’s dissertation project, but, seeking to reach a wider audience, Harding collaborated with Sally Angel from the BBC to raise funds and hire a production team. Harding provides narration for Animate Earth and interviews leading supporters of holistic science from a wide range of academic disciplines. The documentary also features stunning nature photography, interspersed with images of fast-paced urban life, and brief scientific explanations of the earth’s self-regulatory processes.
Animate Earth begins with an exposition of a transformation that Harding underwent while in graduate school at Oxford. While spending years collecting volumes of data on the muntjac deer, Harding felt that his inspiration for science was “drying up,” as science’s emphasis on quantifiable data, although important, seemed to be missing something. When Harding would put his notebook down and just observe nature, he began to get a sense of what conventional science was lacking—an intuitive understanding of nature that was qualitative rather than quantitative.
While both ways of understanding nature are valid, Harding believes that modern science has emphasized the quantitative focus at the expense of the qualitative and intuitive, the result of the scientific revolution that began in the sixteenth century. The film provides an historical account of the shift in understanding. The ancient Greeks had two words for knowledge, one emphasizing reason (episteme), the other intuition and imagination (gnosis). These two understandings of knowledge, along with a belief that the earth is a living being, were dominant in western culture until the sixteenth century. At that time, leaders of the scientific revolution came to see the earth (and more generally, nature) as part of a mechanized system with properties that could be measured. Science and its practical technological applications would now attempt to dominate, rather than mimic nature. While Animate Earth praises the scientific revolution, the one “key mistake” it made was to imply that the quantitative method was the only way to understand the world—“the only things that count can be counted,” in Galileo’s words.
Much of Animate Earth focuses on how scientists have challenged this “key mistake.” In the nineteenth century, Goethe, more known for his literary accomplishments, was also a skilled anatomist who emphasized the role of intuition in scientific understanding. More recently, James Lovelock, a British atmospheric chemist who was employed by NASA to study the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, developed a theory symbolized by Gaia, a [End Page 83] goddess who personified earth for the ancient Greeks. According to Harding, Lovelock had an intuitive insight—the earth is a self-regulating system—and then his numerical mind took this insight and quantified how the earth maintains global surface temperature, oxygen levels in the atmosphere, and the salinity of oceans (among other processes). Thus, Lovelock combined both the intuitive and numerical ways of knowing to gain knowledge that is crucial for averting an environmental disaster.
While Animate Earth provides an accessible introduction to the concept of Gaia, it fails to address the theory’s controversies. Although the notion that the earth is a self-regulating system has become integral to mainstream science, many scientists would scoff at Harding’s description of the earth as a “living being” that is “alive...