Balancing elements

The Ancient Greeks observed nature and theorized that everything was made up of four elements: air, fire, earth, and water. Everything, including human bodies, was a combination of these four elements in different proportions. Greek medicine adopted the theory and people believed that diseases and disabilities resulted from an excess or lack of one of these four elements.

That sounds simplistic to our 21st Century minds but parts of the theory have value, at least for illustrative purposes. James Lovelock sees Gaia as having an intricate series of checks and balances that keeps the environment in optimum condition for life. For example, oxygen levels must be kept at a constant level of 21% to facilitate life as we know it. Even a small increase in oxygen would increase the danger of fire and vegetation would not survive. A small decrease in oxygen would make combustion and other chemical processes reliant on oxygen much harder to produce. Gaia maintains this constant level of oxygen through methane production and carbon burial. For fear of losing readers, I wonʼt get into the details of the science except to simplistically say that Gaia increases one input to check the other when the second one is getting too dominant. The elements of air and fire and the balance between them ties the theory back to classical Greek thinking.

Aristotle wrote about the golden mean, the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. This idea of balance, avoiding extremes, is something overlooked in our current culture. We see excess everywhere — extreme wealth for a very small part of the society and poverty for the rest. The current political dialogue not surprisingly mirrors the economic extremes. Economic growth is considered an asset even though the growth is clearly not sustainable. Gluttony and greed used to be considered deadly sins. Yet now they seem to be accepted as part of the culture. How did our culture evolve in this manner when the Ancients believed in balance?

Keep in mind that the Greeks were not the only Ancients who believed in balance. Classical Chinese thinking sees a balance between yin and yang. Traditional Chinese Medicine works on bringing balance back to the human body. Classical Indian Medicine, also known as Ayurveda, also works on creating balance in the body.

I donʼt claim to know how our culture changed from respecting balance to accepting excess. But I do think a respect for balance could be recreated through greater involvement with nature. I mean experiencing first hand the cycles of nature, seeing how winter gives way to spring, how aphids on roses lead to an explosion of ladybugs. Through first-hand observation, one learns that nature does not allow excess to exist long without checking and balancing it. An example is the snowshoe rabbit and the lynx. The lynx preys on the snowshoe rabbit and when rabbits abound, lynx have plenty of food and thrive. The following year, the lynx population grows but the rabbits are not so plentiful because more lynx are preying on them. The scarcity of food results in fewer lynx the next year. With fewer lynx, the snowshoe rabbit population rebounds. The following year, lynx increase because of plentiful food. The cycle continues.

The need for balance is only the beginning of what I see we can learn from Gaia. We can also learn about transformation and transmutation, a topic I plan to cover next week.

Till next week, my brothers and sisters of Mother Earth!


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