Aging is a primordial force of nature an innate form of belonging to the great flow of life. With respect to the environment, aging is a form of natural participation with the creative energy of existence. Every human life flows inside a creative torrent of life that has animated the planet across a vast amount of time. Aging is a medium, an immersive surround, of perpetual change; human nature is inexorable change, transience, and impermanence.
James Lovelock defined Gaia as: “a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.” (Environment and Ecology: “Gaia Hypothesis”)
To see ourselves as participants living inside, not just on Earth is the essence of planetary awareness. To presume the Earth is alive and animated by a form of intelligence to great to fully comprehend is to return to our roots. When we are connected to Gaia, the experience of aging is not just about becoming older, it is about belonging and participating in the great flow of life on Earth.
The Age of Life
The average life expectancy at birth of a person born in 2013 in a highly-developed society was 80.2 years. The scientific consensus on the age of the Earth seems to reach consensus at 4.6 billion years. Relative to the age of the Earth, an individual human life is a remarkably brief flash of light.
Some interesting quick facts about the rise of humanity can help place our own lifetime into context:
- In “Age of the Earth,” the U.S. Geological Survey reports that:
- The age of the universe is estimated to be 10 to 15 billion years old.
- The age of the Milky Way Galaxy is estimated to be 11 to 13 billion years old.
- The age of the solar system and Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old.
- In her article “How Long Have Humans Been on Earth,” Elizabeth Howell reports that:
- The birth of humanity occurred approximately 6 million years ago.
- Civilization as we know it began approximately 6,000 years ago.
- Industrialized or modern civilization began in the 1800s, or approximately 100 years ago.
- Finally, in “The Great Human Migration,” Guy Gugliotta reports that:
- DNA analysis traces the origins of humanity to Africa.
- Human migration from Africa began approximately 200,000 years ago.
- Humans migrated first to Asia approximately 80,000 to 60,000 years ago.
- 45,000 years ago humans settled Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Australia.
- 35,000 years ago humans were well established in Europe.
- 15,000 years ago humans arrived in North America.
Relative to the age of the Earth, human presence has occupied only .1% of that time. An average life expectancy of 80.2 years is insignificant relative to the age of the Earth. The experience of aging is a form of momentary participation inside a vast amount of time.
How many of us can live here?
Human life expectancy has made great gains. Not only is the global population increasing, more people are living longer. The Population Division of the United Nations estimates the human population to be approximately 7 billion people. The United Nations estimates global population to reach approximately 9.7 billion people by 2050.
An interesting resource to explore the history of population growth on the planet is the interactive World Population Map produced by World Population History. By dragging the slider at the bottom of the timeline, you can see changes in world population growth over time. You will notice from approximately 1800 to present day, global population growth accelerated dramatically.
The term “carrying capacity” is used to describe the limit of the Earth’s ability to support human life. Some scientists estimate that the maximum carrying capacity of the Earth is 9-10 billion people. However, given the destructive nature of human activity on the planet, it may be significantly less.
Many people argue that we are well over a sustainable number already, given the lifestyle choices many of us have made and our reluctance to change them. In support of this, they point to the problems of climate change, the biodiversity extinction crisis underway, mass ocean pollution, the fact that one billion people are already starving and that another one billion people have nutrient deficiencies…
Ultimately the real determinant is how we choose to run our society. If some or all of us consume a lot of resources, the maximum sustainable population will be lower. If we find ways to each consume less, ideally without sacrificing our creature comforts, Earth will be able to support more of us. (BBC Earth: How many people can our planet really support?)
In today’s age, each one of us is born into a period in which human activity is threatening the well-being of the planet. Some ecologists refer to humanity as a kind of disease or plague that threatens the viability of the Earth’s biosphere.
Life Expectancy of the Earth
The Sun is expected to explode in 4-5 billion years. If the Earth is currently 4.6 billion years old, then we can presume that its lifespan is approximately 9-10 billion years. Mother Earth is approximately half-way through her own life cycle.
We tend to live in a way that is defined by our own experience of aging; some might say that the carrying capacity of the Earth is not a concern because they won’t be around to experience it. On one level, self-centeredness is a deficiency in our ability to see past our own wants and desires. On another level, a self-centeredness is a form of violence that presents itself as collective arrogance that fails to provide for future generations.
Some aboriginal people refer to trees as “standing people.” This is a beautiful and insightful expression that simultaneously inspires us to recognize the aliveness of a tree, as well as to recognize the natural “treeness” and wildness that permeates the human soul. We are also deeply rooted in the Earth.
Our worldview of aging is too small to properly inhabit. We tend to view aging as something that is uniquely human. Aging is our connection to the great flow of life and the spirit of Mother Earth. If we view the Earth as an inanimate object rather than a living organism, we exile ourselves in remarkably destructive, arrogant, and self-centered behavior.
The Great Flow of Life
The great flow of life existed long before our birth and will continue on into a vast future after we are gone. Our life is a brief momentary flash inside a confluence of creative energy that conjures a remarkable array of variations on the theme of existence.
Aging permeates the great flow of life. All forms of life experience aging in the sense that they emerge into the world, experience something called life for a while, and then disappear back into the creative energy of the Earth. As we become older, so does everything else around us.
Aging is unidirectional. The idea of “reverse aging” is nonsensical. We cannot age backward, nor do we have any medical technologies that return the body to a previous state of youth. Just as questionable is the notion that we can “slow” the aging process down. Reverse aging is a delusional claim grounded in a fatal dose of puffery.
Aging inside the great flow of life is an idea that invites us to consider aging as a primal connection with the natural world. It is a way to help liberate ourselves from the incessant whine of the modern world. It encourages a sense of mindful aging that serves to broaden and expand our awareness of our primal appreciation and innate source of belonging to the creative energy of existence.