Earth Dharma: Mind Maps, Climate Solutions, and the Earth Year

Jill S. Schneiderman discusses Dan Siegel’s theory that humans need a mental map to relate themselves to the earth.

Jill S. Schneiderman
16 November 2010

Jill S. Schneiderman discusses Dan Siegel’s theory that humans need a mental map to relate themselves to the earth in order to make wise decisions regarding climate change.

Dr. Dan Siegel, author of Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation and a participant in a recent Garrison Institute retreat on climate, mind and behavior has commented that among the ways we can consider the brain in relation to climate change is by using maps. By way of example, he states that while you have a map in your brain of your body sitting in a chair you may or may not have a map of your relationship with the earth. Siegel avers that if human beings do not have the capacity to conjure mental maps of our relationship to the planet, we won’t make wise decisions regarding climate change. In the Garrison Institute’s autumn newsletter Siegel wrote:

We need to have experiences which create maps of “earth-relatedness,” just to make up a term. Without that it is irrelevant what is happening with the planet. With it, it’s vital. The maps determine what we do.

I couldn’t agree more. Earth formed roughly 4.6 billion years ago—that’s 4,600 million years ago—so it’s difficult to get a sense of this vast length of time. I think that a mind map of such deep time is invaluable to the project of responding sensibly to all types of global environmental change.

Therefore, to aid the project I’ve constructed a metaphorical map that can help others begin to foster their own “earth-relatedness” mind maps. I call it “This Day in the Earth Year” and hope that as a map of Siegel’s “earth-relatedness,” it will help us cultivate humility and behave accordingly as relative newcomers on the planet. We start with tomorrow, Nov 17th.

Using a calendar year as a metaphor for the 4.6 billion years of Earth history and using January 1, New Year’s Day, as the Earth’s birthday, I calculate the current date’s location in the Earth Year and detail what was happening paleontologically at that moment in Earth history. For example, November 17 is day 321 out of 365. With so much of a calendar year having elapsed, one might think that at this point in the Earth Year, some familiar organisms might have been roaming the planet. Not so.

In geologic time, November 17 represents 555 million years ago, the latest Proterozoic. Many of the most important events in earth history took place during this era–formation of an oxygen-rich atmosphere and evolution of eukaryotic cells for example. Still, at 555 million years—the moment in geological time just prior to the evolution early fishes—the only living things on Earth were ocean-dwelling, soft-bodied organisms.

In November of the Earth Year, humans are not yet even a glimmer in Earth’s eye. May we carry that map with us throughout the Earth Year.

Jill S. Schneiderman

Jill S. Schneiderman

Jill S. Schneiderman is a professor of Earth Science at Vassar College and a 2009 recipient of a Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.