We normally use two different terms to describe our planet, these terms carry along with them important philosophical concepts. In the English language, these names for our planet are World and Earth, in Chinese, they are 世 and 地, in Spanish they are mundo and tierra, in Arabic they are العالمية and أرض and in Hindi, they are विश्वand पृथ्वी this separation is present in many different languages.
The term world comes from the Proto-Germanic word weraldiz, which was associated with the concepts of lifetime, worldly existence, mankind, and of course world. Earth, on the other hand, comes from the Proto-Germanic word erþō which means earth, ground, and soil. In Chinese, the symbol for 世 originated from a branching tree that is associated with generation(s), year, era, dynasty, and world. The origins of the symbol 地 show an agricultural plant as well as tools to till the soil, it is therefor clearly associated again with soil, ground, field, territory, and location.
The origins of the words show the two concepts with whom we describe our planet, one (and now we stick to the English language), World is more generalized, encompasses time and humankind, in short, it tries to describes our „World“, ie our reality. World often is used to differentiate our everyday reality from „other worlds“ or the „heavens“ which talk about spiritual concepts, the afterlife, or the universe. Earth, on the other hand, is rooted in the ground, it is associated with the soil on which we stand, which feeds us and the territories in which we live or in which we are rooted.
The 20th century with its grand modernist projects saw the rise of the concept of World (along with the nation and „international“) and the destruction of the (concept of) Earth. World Health Organisation, World Wars, „Workers of the world, unite!“, World Trade Organisation, World Wildlife Foundation, etc. together with various „International“ or „Nation“ concepts ruled the world. How could it be different? The century saw an unprecedented uprooting of people from the earth, whose ancestors worked the soil for centuries and who ended up either as industrial workers or in the urban slum (or both). This process (which was of course sparked by the industrial society and not the other way around) created incredible „wealth“, countless new technologies, it alphabetized billions, cured a number of diseases and put „a man on the moon“ but it laid also the foundation of climate change, unprecedented environmental destruction, and an incredible, unprecedented inequality.
The word we use and the concepts which go along with them are obviously shaped by the lived reality of the society in which we live, not the other way around. The concept of World is an important archetypical way to describe the only reality we will experience, ie living on this planet, as an expression of the complex biological, social and climatic processes that brought humankind into existence and the complex social processes that brought human civilization into existence. Although this concept was mostly used to create a universalist narrative, we can see now that it has a strong particular overtone to it, posing questions like: „Does Trump live in the same world as I?“ The clear and unequivocal answer is: „No, he doesn’t!“ This has nothing to do with the typical liberal complaint about „fake news“ and „alternative facts“, but is rooted in the fact that we all live in our own world, while we share this space with all other human beings as well, however, the specific situation of our century has lead to a rupture of our world (our reality), into different worlds. The great modernist projects of the 20th century all share the goal to unify the world, which grew together economically via the capitalist, industrial system, to create one reality in which humankind exists and – according to the theory – could thrive. This century witnessed the collapse of the World into different worlds. The concept of Earth which was disposed of during the 20th century, only to rise again with the ecological movement. Earth was associated during the 20th century with localism, backwardness, even Animism, and a strong particularity. However the concept of Earth – if you talk about our planet – can be used as a strong universalist concept. The Earth feeds us, keeps us alive, it grounds and shelters all of us, it created an equilibrium that propelled humankind and therefore the World(s) into existence.
The concept of Earth automatically opens a seat on the table of human beings to the other subjects of the planet, the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, the geosphere, inviting stones, and microbes, trees, and hummingbirds, fungi and algae to dine with us. This has nothing to do with a romanticized and utopic concept to abolish civilization, to go back to the forest and live there happily ever after. This notion or dream of „Primitivism“ is completely understandable given the harm modern industrial society exercises on its subjects (an all those who stand/stood in its way), combined with the failure of all liberatory projects of the 20th century who tried to create a just society and a new human. However, with 7,5 billion people living today on the Earth, there is no way such an amount of human beings can be sustained by hunting and gathering. Even if you keep away all the practicabilities – the various processes that are intrinsic to our planet created us and human society.
I do think that these processes could be described as the following:
- Our planet is a complex, but an unplanned system that is directed towards an equilibrium which is based on:
- The Diversity (and therefore resilience) of biological life
- The Expansion of its ecological systems
- The Complexification of the subjective (individual) and collective consciousness
If we do believe that the processes that happen in the evolution of consciousness and life have logic and aim behind them – who are we to run away from our responsibility, both as children of the Earth, as well as potential guards of the Earth.
With human civilization, the mode of its processes started to contradict first certain aspects of Earths’ processes, then fundamentally contradicting them. A good example of this is the creation of huge monocultures that often cultivate only one plant-species and are extremely vulnerable to diseases, soil erosion and therefore demand intensive care and an abundance of outside resources to be sustained. Another example would be the massive burning of fossil fuels which were buried deep in the Earth (gosh, I wonder why the process that created them put them also there, far away of the reach of any species) and which in turn lastingly altered the fragile equilibrium in the atmosphere which was created during hundreds of millions of years. Another example is the creation of an obscene inequality inside the human civilization which in turn drastically limits its own potential and resilience.
The task for our century is to re-orient human society which is currently contradicting essential processes of our Planet in a way in which they flow in the same direction. We need to learn from all concrete examples of human societies that were much better equipped to sustain themselves in a more or less equilateral way with their organic and inorganic surroundings. But none of these societies needed to feed and clothe billions, that’s why we cannot re-enact them, but rather learn from their approach, their attitude and mix pieces of various traditions, combined with new experiences of our century to create something which can restore the equilibrium within humankind and with the Earth. This path needs to embrace the concept of Earth but without rejecting the World, but rather to try to fuse them together maybe into a word that doesn’t exist yet, a word that encompasses humankind collective reality, the aspect of time, the rootedness in the ground but also the gaze upon the firmament and the profound sense of belonging.
Note: this article was informed and sparked by reading Bruno Latour’s book "Down to Earth", I had various instinctive thoughts similar to these before reading the book, but it helped clarify and generalize them. I strongly recommend this book to be read and discusses widely.
This article was published by Johannes Wiener originally on https://www.futuremagazineonline.com/the-world-and-the-earth/