Fritjof reflects on exciting new discovery of “Deep Life” during recent global online Alumni Gathering

On the 20th January, 2019, 30 Alumni and the Capra Course team gathered online for our third Global Alumni Zoom Gathering. This time, the format of the gathering was that Fritjof first shared some of his reflections on recent news and his upcoming engagements and plans. Then we held a live Q&A session with Alumni on the call, followed by a very lively online workshop held by one of our Alumni, Felipe Taveros.

To kick off, Fritjof shared what in his eyes was some of the “hottest news from the edge of science” to emerge recently – news of a vast underground ecosystem teeming with microbial life discovered recently by a global team of 1,200 scientists from 52 countries. The size of this subterranean biosphere is twice the size of the world’s oceans. Its biomass is hundreds of times the combined mass of every human on Earth.

This discovery, based on research of about 10 years, is absolutely sensational. These scientists are now talking about “deep life” — life that flourishes at depths of up to 5 km, way deeper than the ocean floor, in environments of extreme heat, total darkness and extreme pressure. In the call, Fritjof reflected that his discovery is not only scientifically fascinating, but also profound in a spiritual sense. The Earth is alive, all the way down, and we are *still* discovering life in places we did not suspect.

Researchers say that the diversity of microorganisms in this subterranean biosphere is comparable to that of the Amazon or the Galápagos Islands, and it is still largely pristine because there has been very little human intrusion. The strangest thing is that some of these organisms have metabolisms that are so slow that they can exist for thousands of years. They barely move, except with shifts of tectonic plates or eruptions.
What this means is that there is as much life within the Earth as on its surface. Naturally, the conversation with Fritjof brought up many questions from our Alumni, and a very lively discussion ensued.

Did life originate deep down in the Earth, or did it migrate down from the top? What can we learn from this new reservoir of life about life’s origin and the evolution of Gaia? And finally, if deep life is so different from life on the surface of the Earth, what does this imply for the possibility of deep life on other planets? Mars is thought to have had water present in the past – perhaps life started on the surface and migrated down underground. Could life on other planets really be subterranean? — Lots of intriguing questions!
One of our Alumni, David from Edinburgh, asked “Won’t humanity just start mining deep carbon as resources?”

Fritjof responded, “That’s my concern too – we need to be very careful. We need to start a deep life movement for safety of deep life – people will think of exploiting it. If there’s such a diversity of microorganisms – we know we can use them for all types of purposes – the biotech industry will try and exploit that.”

Another Alumni, Mike, commented “The good news is that it is very deep and hard to reach!” and also asked “Do you think that layer gives us extra resilience then as life on the planet?” Fritjof responded with “Maybe, if the organisms stay down there 5 km and barely interact with us. Even the idea that the earth is alive deep down there is fascinating.”

Later on, another Alumni, Namrataa from India, asked “What, in your mind, might be the implications of this new biosphere that has been discovered – on our existing life..?” Fritjof answered that he did not think there was a huge impact, since unless there is a volcanic eruption they will not come up. He commented “I think the impact is more emotional and spiritual if you wish – to really feel that the Earth is very deeply alive.” This news has large implications for the Deep Ecology movement, which brings ethics and a questioning of our purpose and values when considering our environmental impacts and ecological role on the planet. This long-range deep approach, proposed by Arne Naess in 1972, involves redesigning our whole systems based on values and methods that truly preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems.

Geoff, another Alumni from the US, commented, “If they found deep life deep in the earth, did they find deep water? And did they go down deep enough to go into the crust of the earth, or is deep biological life only in sedimentary earth that used to be living material?”

Fritjof said he had the same thought when he read about this: life needs water, where is the water? “The study talks about deep vents of water. This is the reason why I think life would have originated in water and then travelled deep down. Even so in metabolic processes, even if they are very slow, water leaves a cell and enters a cell and also includes water.” Another intriguing question, thank you Geoff!

Lisinka from the UN was reminded of Brian Swimme’s book with Elizabeth Satoris who describes these microorganisms and how they just need to touch each other and then they pass on information to each other… And these tiny microorganisms have high rise buildings, and taxis and wifi – she said “it’s amazing to think of just what is down there. I also wonder if these microorganisms have their own way of stopping us from exploiting them.”

Fritjof suggests reading the book “Microcosm” by Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan, which he relied on heavily when writing his book, The Web of Life. There is a whole chapter dedicated to this subject, called “The Unfolding of Life”.
Fritjof also mentioned his friend John Feldman who made a wonderful film about Lynn Margulis’ life called “Symbiotic Earth” which is now available in viewings around the world.

Hannah, another Alumni, was excited about these new discoveries as proof for the Gaia Theory. Her question was whether there are groups around the world who may use this as proof that the Earth is alive and ask “How can we protect it all?” Fritjof suggested reaching out to Stephan Harding of Schumacher College who is a long time collaborator of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis who is the author of a beautiful book on Gaia called Animate Earth. “In this book you would find out more information on Gaia Theory.”

All in all, we had a very interesting and wide discussion about these discoveries, and the Capra Course Team wanted to thank our Alumni Community for joining us and for asking such fascinating questions! To find out more, a report of this sensational discovery was recently published in The Guardian (UK), and there is also a slightly more technical report on the website of the so-called Deep Carbon Observatory, the umbrella organization for this research. Here are both links:
 
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/dec/10/tread-softly-because-you-tread-on-23bn-tonnes-of-micro-organisms?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other
 
https://deepcarbon.net/life-deep-earth-totals-15-23-billion-tonnes-carbon
 
Fritjof sends this message: I hope you will enjoy reading these reports and will share my excitement. 
 
If you wanted to watch the recording of the discussion about Deep Life (which is the first part of the longer Alumni Zoom Gathering), it is available here on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/312627377.
 
We host regular Alumni Community Zoom Gatherings, once every 2 months. By joining Capra Course and going through our 12-week course, you automatically become one of our Alumni and have access to all of our Alumni events and engagements. At the end of the gathering, Fritjof talked about his dream of working up a systemic network of systems thinkers and activists and made an invitation to anyone reading to share the news of the course with others who may want to join us. We want to keep building this community with people out there who want to do this work together.

Registrations for the Spring Capra Course, which begins on February 27, have started. Again, we are expecting a large cohort from many countries around the world, and I greatly look forward to continuing stimulating discussions with our global network of systemic thinkers and activists. Please help me spread the word about my online course, and I also hope that you will consider joining the Capra Course community yourself.

To sign up to the course, please visit www.capracourse.net/info.

Thank you for reading!

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Phoebe Tickell

Hello! My name is Phoebe Tickell and I am the Publicist and Course Development Manager for the Capra Course. I manage the Capra Course blog, social media accounts, partnerships and course development. I can be reached at capracoursepub@gmail.com. I wanted to also share a little bit more about my background. I have a degree in Biological Natural Sciences from the University of Cambridge, and since graduating have been working to connect the world of science, technology and social change. I teach at Schumacher College, UK, and work on various social change and education projects, with a focus on transformative education and building networks that enable social change. I look forward to the upcoming Capra Course.