Staying power: the complexities of homeostasis

White five-leaf dwarf bramble (Rubus pedals) in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey CrawfordI was going to write an essay about the Earth Charter but got derailed by a line in a news article. The charter is a blueprint for a way forward, setting forth sixteen principles, four in each of four pillars. Respect and care for the community of life; ecological integrity; social and economic justice; and democracy, nonviolence, and peace. I plan to return to it after this sidetrack; for now, I want to note the variety of people who got together to create it. They included former USSR head Mikhail Gorbachev and South American theologian Leonardo Boff. Nobel Prize-winning African environmental activist Wangari Maathai and Jordanian activist Princess Basma Bint Talal. Maori elder Pauline Tangiora and teenage Canadian activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki. There were twenty-three on the commission, but people and organizations worldwide participated in the thirteen years leading to its June 29, 2000 formal launch at The Hague. 

In comparison to our very fractured present, I started wondering what it was about that time, only a short while ago, that allowed for that degree of cooperation and enthusiasm. Then I read an article about the results of recent primary elections held in various states. One incumbent lost his bid for another term because voters found him “too bipartisan.” Not that long ago, voters rewarded politicians for being able to work across the aisle to accomplish their goals. To vote for politicians who won’t do that is to choose a constantly stalemated government. What drives us to make such a choice?

A margined white butterfly (Pieris marginalis) in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey Crawford
A margined white butterfly (Pieris marginalis)

One of the challenges we face, worldwide, is that we need big solutions to big problems and need to implement them quickly. Crucial economic and social foundations of our culture need to change. Which is frightening, and we get understandably resistant. Even when we can clearly see that things aren’t working, we want the overall structure to stay the same, or at least close. We prize the stable, the familiar.

Interestingly enough, so does the cosmos. That’s why homeostasis is one of cosmologist Brian Swimme’s powers of the universe that I have been exploring. Without it, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, and you wouldn’t be sitting there reading it. Every second of every single day the bodies of every animal on earth are held in one form of homeostasis or another. Blood pressure and pH. Heartbeat. The rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. Body temperature. There is never a moment when such forces aren’t quietly holding us in an evolutionarily stable place.

Homeostasis as ecosystem: lichen draped tree in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey Crawford
Iconic scene in the Hoh Rain Forest ecosystem: a luxuriantly lichen-draped tree

Plants are engines of homeostasis: water levels, photosynthesis, interconnections with soil microbes and pollinators. Ecosystems are, as well. The interrelations of plant, dirt, fungi, microbes, roots, leaves, water, sunlight, and creatures are all working at keeping the entire system stable. The photos accompanying this essay are from one such teeming ecosystem, the Hoh Rain Forest in northwestern Washington. The earth itself — its oceans, air currents, shifting plates, soils, waterways, its core — depends on this power. Solar systems and galaxies are all gravitational miracles of ongoing homeostasis. 

It doesn’t mean that things don’t change. We also wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. Whatever form of homeostasis existed before the Big Bang was succeeded by another homeostatic state, then another, and another for 13.7 billion years. Sometimes these states would form the basis for the ones that came after them. Some would disappear altogether. Some lasted billions of years. Most lasted millions. 

A mix of Hoh Rain Forest plants including white largeflower fairy bells (Prosartes smithii) and little hard fern (Blechnum penna-marina) with a liberal sprinkling of spruce pollen. Photo taken by Betsey Crawford.
A mix of Hoh Rain Forest plants including largeflower fairy bells (Prosartes smithii) and little hard fern (Blechnum penna-marina) with a liberal sprinkling of spruce pollen

The disruption of homeostasis brings challenges, even cataclysms — illness, ecosystem collapse, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, climate change. These in turn disrupt homeostasis down the line. A tectonic plate shift can lead to a volcanic eruption. Debris covers the flank of the mountain, destroying both plant and water ecosystems. Ash flies into the sky, altering the atmosphere’s homeostasis. This can shade sunlight and lower temperatures by blocking heat. As this atmospheric ash falls it can change the pH of oceans, choke plant life, acidify soil. Volcanism is suspected in all five of the great historical extinctions. 

In spite of periodic upheavals, the earth’s atmosphere has kept a relatively stable temperature for the last 2.58 million years, the length of the Cenozoic Era. As the amount of carbon dioxide has ebbed and flowed there have been warmer periods giving way to glacial periods in approximately 100,000-year cycles. This has happened despite the fact that the sun has been getting hotter every year since Earth pulled itself together. This adaptation to the sun’s increasing heat is one of homeostasis’ greatest accomplishments. By and large, the temperature has been consistent and the changes slow enough to enable a great variety of life on earth to evolve. The last 12,000 years of the Holocene Epoch have been particularly temperate, changing the course of human and earth history as agriculture could reliably take hold planet-wide.

Bright pink salmonberry flower (Rubus spectabilis) in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey Crawford
Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)

Given geologic and cosmic time, disruptions in homeostasis can bring subsequent leaps in evolutionary creativity. Arguably the most important biochemical process on earth, photosynthesis, caused one of the greatest homeostatic breakdowns in earth’s history. When the process filled the atmosphere with toxic oxygen many of the anaerobic bacteria alive then perished. But those species that responded by developing mitochondria to take advantage of the available oxygen thrived on this abundant, powerful energy source. A new homeostasis stabilized which continued to evolve, billions of years old, into almost every living cell today. 

It gets complicated when one out-of-whack homeostatic force meets another. The climate crisis we face today is a sudden disruption of the atmospheric state so long maintained in relative balance. Human activities have loaded the atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane, spurring global warming. Solutions to the emergency this has created in turn require disrupting cultural and economic arrangements we have come to believe we can’t live without. The earth’s geophysical homeostasis is bumping into our emotional homeostasis. 

White one-flowered wintergreen (Moneses uniflora) in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey Crawford
One-flowered wintergreen (Moneses uniflora)

Unfortunately, we don’t have geologic time on our hands. We are going to have to learn to move quickly to adapt ourselves to the needs of a planet we utterly depend on that is suffering from our behavior. And yet the very power that keeps life stable inspires us to do exactly the opposite of fast change. We want to stick with the familiar. For the changes we need we turn to more of Brian’s great cosmic energies. Allurement to a better way of being on the planet. The deepening understanding that everything is profoundly interrelated. The uncomfortable but life-enriching powers of transformation. Accepting the potentially disastrous power of cataclysm. Trusting in the mutual creativity of emergence to bring to life new paths out of the old. 

The great dilemma, as Brian points out, is that “the power of homeostasis eliminates the vast majority of novel emergences.” It works to exert “constant vigilance to make sure a disruption will not take down the vitality of the whole.  But now that vitality is threatened. Our concern, amplified since the start of the industrial era, has been with what Brian calls a subunit — the human experience. By working to maintain homeostasis only for this subunit, “the larger whole that enables this life is dying because of this misplaced allegiance.”

Orange pinewood gingertail mushrooms (Xeromphalina campanella) in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey Crawford
Pinewood gingertail mushrooms (Xeromphalina campanella)

There are manifold challenges here. One is changing our human mindset to recognize that we are “involved with a community that is making decisions about the vitality of the whole,” not just for one species, or one country, or one way of life. Another is overcoming our resistance to emerging ideas. Then mustering the creative energies to envision and implement the necessary changes. All the time inspiring ourselves to see beyond the limits of our current worldview. The old standards and battles — socialism! capitalism! GDP! growth! more highways! more weapons! — are exhausting even to list, much less fight over. It’s time for new visions, not for re-litigating old ones that have clearly failed to take the whole into account. It’s time to put aside our need for emotional homeostasis and allow ourselves to enter a state of creative emergence. The “vitality of the planet requires all of the components to flourish.

Normally, in my essays on Brian’s powers of the universe, I celebrate the way these energies are constantly moving through us as manifestations of the cosmos itself. And I am certainly delighted to be sitting here with my heart beating on this temperate day, surrounded by blooming life. All of it the gifts of homeostasis. But I see how complicated this particular power is, both enabling us to thrive and holding us to structures that threaten all thriving. Yet we are capable of coming up with a vision like the Earth Charter, with its call and blueprint for a just, sustainable way of participating in life on Earth. 

Hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey Crawford
Hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villosus)

In the abstract, you would think no one would argue with a principle like “Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love.” Or “Promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace.” But the reality is that there are powerful forces that prosper by doing the exact opposite. We go along with them to the extent we do because we live in a culture built for these forces because it’s built by them. Nevertheless, in the face of these challenges, millions and millions of people worldwide are working toward that just and sustainable vision. Who understand, as Brian says, that we arise “from a four billion year process we call the earth community.” People who are resisting the lure to remain in the familiar state of cultural and emotional homeostasis to bring a renewed evolutionary stability to life on earth.

Homeostasis as ecosystem: stream flanked by riparian ecosystem in the Hoh Rainforest, Olympic Peninsula, Washington by Betsey Crawford
A stream creates a lush riparian ecosystem within the rainforest ecosystem

Top photo: five-leaf dwarf bramble (Rubus pedatus)

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1 thought on “Staying power: the complexities of homeostasis”

  1. Betsey, once again you have nailed it! Thank you so much for your very lucid and compelling writing, punctuated with the singing earth through your remarkable photos. I love your exploration of homeostasis… What is the opposite of the very alive quality of subtly fluctuating homeostasis? Resistance? Entrenchment? Contraction into fear and self-preservation? This essay highlights our capacity as a human community to engage in visionary ventures, like the Earth Charter… and many more that do not make it to the newspaper headlines. And allurement…. Yes! To let ourselves be lured out of our complacency, our stagnant thoughts and feelings (which are definitely not homeostasis!), and our addictions…. so many, gross and subtle, that it is hard to name them all! Thank you for this, and your ongoing dedication to the Soul of the Earth!

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