Gurdjieff International Review

Gurdjieff and Ecology

We did not come into this world. We came out of it, like buds out of branches and butterflies out of cocoons. We are a natural product of this earth, and if we turn out to be intelligent beings, then it can only be because we are fruits of an intelligent earth, which is nourished in turn by an intelligent system of energy.   –Lyall Watson

James George


o make a case for regarding Gurdjieff as a father of modern ecology, while possible, would be unnecessarily provocative. It is probably closer to the mark to claim that his work has been a major unacknowledged influence contributing to the paradigm shift that includes the environmental movement and all other aspects of the more holistic approach that is obviously beginning to permeate contemporary culture.

The “ecological age,” as Father Thomas Berry has christened it, can be said to have begun in 1968 with an Apollo astronaut’s photograph of the earth as we had never seen it before, a beautiful blue planet hanging in the black emptiness of space. That image changed human consciousness. It showed us our only home, with no political boundaries—one fragile, integral spaceship of life. It made the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Environment possible. But, forty years earlier, Gurdjieff had been on an Apollo mission of the imagination that was much more than science fiction. He had been writing about Beelzebub observing the earth from space, earth’s role in this “ray of creation,” the laws that apply at every level of order, and the way human behavior looks to a being of higher intelligence who can see human foibles from a cosmic perspective in a time frame of thousands of years.

In science, the key ecological concept of the biosphere is usually attributed to Gurdjieff’s Russian countryman, V. I. Vernadsky, whose paper on the subject was published in Leningrad in 1926. Ten years earlier, in the same city, Gurdjieff had outlined to p. D. Ouspensky and others in their group his vision of organic life as a sensitive film covering the planet and interacting with forces having their origins in the other planets, the sun and the stars.

In his careful record of these early teachings, Ouspensky quotes Gurdjieff as saying: “Organic life is the organ of perception of the earth and it is at the same time an organ of radiation.”[1] “In nature everything is connected and everything is alive.”[2] “Nature transmits to us through our impressions the energy by which we live and move and have our being.”[3] In Beelzebub’s Tales ... Gurdjieff later develops this idea further as a “Trogoautoegocratic process,” the interlinking of all life in a chain of interdependence of eating and being eaten, or “reciprocal maintenance,” through which energies involve and evolve in a cosmic circulation of descending and ascending forces. An earlier epoch might have called these forces “angels,” and a later time may consider some other hypothesis to explain why the universe does not simply run down entropically through the passage of time, which Gurdjieff calls merciless.

As Gurdjieff’s Kurdish philosopher, Atarnakh, puts it, “In all probability, there exists in the World some law of the reciprocal maintenance of everything existing. Obviously, our lives serve also for maintaining something great or small in the World.”[4]

To show us our place in the great scheme of Nature is not enough to wake us up. It can remain no more than an ecological or cosmological idea, filed in mental memory, unconnected with our feelings and our being. To be touched by our situation and that of the earth, we need not only to “know” it, we need to experience our real living connection with Nature, our essential relationship. When we are truly related to Nature, we too can share in the “sudden expansion of awareness” that Edgar Mitchell felt when he saw earthrise from the moon. Nothing less than a taste of that awareness will affect our actions. Nothing less will change anything or reduce the harm we are inflicting on the earth.

Gurdjieff makes this point early in Beelzebub’s Tales, in a chapter significantly called “Becoming Aware of Genuine Being-Duty.” Here Beelzebub tells his grandson (and us) that in order to prepare himself to be able to fulfill the obligations of a responsible three-brained being:

It is indispensably necessary that every day, at sunrise, while watching the reflection of its splendor, you bring about a contact between your consciousness and the various unconscious parts of your general presence. Try to make this state last and to convince the unconscious parts—as if they were conscious—that if they hinder your general functioning, they, in the period of your responsible age, not only cannot fulfill the good that befits them, but your general presence of which they are part, will not be able to be a good servant of our common endless creator, and by that will not even be worthy to pay for your arising and existence.[5]

Beelzebub is tireless in explaining to his grandson how the “un­becoming” behavior of humans on planet Earth is disturbing the natural order:

And when I had ... begun to observe and to study their strange psyche, only then did I finally understand to which end Great Nature herself ... always patiently adapts ... to everything, and concerning this, the following personal opinion was formed in me.

That if these favorites of yours would at least properly ponder over this and serve Nature honestly in this respect, then perhaps their being-self-perfecting might as a consequence proceed automatically even without the participation of their consciousness and in any case, the poor Nature of their ill-fated planet would also not have to ‘puff and blow’ in order to adapt Herself to remain within the common-cosmic harmony.

But unfortunately for everything existing in the Megalocosmos, there is no honesty in your favorites even in respect of their fulfillment of their duties to Nature.[6]

And, in an earlier passage:

[As] they created for themselves all sorts of conditions of external being-existence thanks to which the quality of their radiations went steadily from bad to worse, Great Nature was compelled gradually to transform their common presences by means of various compromises and changes, in order to regulate the quality of the vibrations which they radiated.... For the same reason, Great Nature ... gradually increased the numbers of beings there.[7]

When we consider the tremendous contribution that the population explosion is making to the ecological crisis, it may be of special interest to consider Gurdjieff’s highly original views on the causes of the growth in the number of people on this planet. Where others have seen the population explosion as a function of the improvement in health services and nutrition, and the reduction in mortality, Gurdjieff proposes that the fundamental reason is that Nature needed more people because the quality of the vibrations of humans on this planet had degenerated to the point where Nature had to make up in quantity for the decline in quality. In Beelzebub’s Tales, he attributes to this:

Concerning the absence in [their] psyche ... of a cognized need of absorbing these higher sacred cosmic substances, ... [and] together with the cessation of the intentional absorption of these definite cosmic substances necessary for the arising and existence of higher being-parts, there disappeared from their common presences not only the striving itself for perfection but also the possibility of what is called ‘intentional contemplativeness,’ which is just the principal factor for the assimilation of these sacred cosmic substances, then from that time on ... Nature gradually had to adapt herself to arrange that for each of them, ... such ‘unexpectednesses’ [shocks] should occur.[8]

These extracts from Gurdjieff’s writings also show how he holds that Nature tries to maintain a homoeostatic environment favorable for life—just as James Lovelock believes, in his Gaia hypothesis. Recently, however, Lovelock has said that he thinks that Gaia can easily cope with anything we humans may do to hurt her. In this respect, Lovelock[9] seems to be considerably more optimistic than Gurdjieff—and most scientists—about the earth’s capacity to withstand the depredations of human beings over the long term. Lovelock’s Gaian colleague, Lynn Margulis,[10] is closer to Gurdjieff in her description of the nature and role of the film of organic life.

Many influences have been important in the development of modern ecology and the environmental movement, but I think both may owe much more of a debt to Gurdjieff than has so far been generally acknowledged. A case in point is the story of E. F. Schumacher, whose Small is Beautiful[11] was as seminal in the ‘seventies as, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring[12] in the ‘sixties. What is not widely known is that Schumacher was for many years a friend of John G. Bennett, from whom he had a detailed exposition of the Gurdjieff Work. This is perfectly clear from Schumacher’s last work, A Guide for the Perplexed,[13] in which Gurdjieff’s ideas appear on virtually every page.

Another case is the writings of Carlos Castaneda. Any Gurdjieffian will recognize, especially in his later works, that Castaneda was an astute student of Gurdjieff’s and Ouspensky’s books, to say nothing of the fact that Lord Pentland and other leading members of the Gurdjieff Foundation in California met with him on several occasions prior to 1984. In the introduction to The Power of Silence,[14] Castaneda describes using body awareness as an instrument of knowing in order to face the riddles of mind, heart and spirit.

At the end of Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff describes the river of life dividing into two; one stream terminates in the crevices of the earth and is lost forever, while the other stream empties into the boundless ocean. Then he adds:

As long as we remain passive, not only shall we have inevitably to serve solely as a means for Nature’s “involutionary and evolutionary construction,” but also for the rest of our lives we shall have to submit slavishly to every caprice of all sorts of blind events....

[But] even for you, it is not yet too late....

The foresight of Just Mother Nature consists in the given case in this, that the possibility is given to us, in certain inner and outer conditions, to cross over from one stream into the other.[15]

By his own account, in The Herald of Coming Good, Gurdjieff’s own search began early in his life with “an ‘irrepressible striving’ to understand clearly the precise significance, in general, of the life process on earth of all the outward forms of breathing creatures and, in particular, the aim of human life in the light of this interpretation.”[16] A satisfactory exposition of Gurdjieff’s life had to wait until 1991 when James Moore’s biography appeared. In it, Moore concluded his note on “Gurdjieff as Proto-Ecologist” in this way:

Gurdjieff disdained slogans and tendered to the ecological movement nothing comparable to Albert Schweitzer’s Reverence for Life or Ernst Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. He was neither concerned with a pantheistic liberal theology nor a utilitarian aesthetic. His vision was not teleocentric, still less anthropocentric; he envisioned nothing less than a dynamic and sacred universe with all its relationships implacably submitted to the Law of Three and all transformations to the Law of Seven. Nevertheless his intellectual triumph was to reserve within this awesome schema a plausible avenue for a man’s evolution in terms of being.[17]

Following a long and distinguished career as a Canadian diplomat, James George turned his attention to ecological issues, playing a leading role in the adoption of a moratorium on high seas whaling and in the international effort in 1991 to extinguish the Kuwaiti oil fires. His books include Asking for the Earth: Waking Up to the Spiritual/ Ecological Crisis,[18] The Little Green Book on Awakening,[19] and Last Call: Awaken to Consciousness.[20] He has been active in the Gurdjieff Work for seven decades and was a close student of Mme. de Salzmann. This text is from is from his book, Asking for the Earth: Waking Up to the Spiritual/Ecological Crisis, pp. 128–132.

[1] p. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous (1949) New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., p. 138.

[2] Ibid., p. 322.

[3] Ibid., p. 181.

[4] G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950) NY: Harcourt, Brace, pp. 1094–1095.

[5] Ibid., p. 78.

[6] Ibid., pp. 1106–1107.

[7] Ibid., p. 106.

[8] Ibid., p. 783.

[9] James Lovelock (1919–) is an independent scientist and environmentalist. He is best known for his Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system.

[10] Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) was an evolutionary theorist and biologist, science author, and educator, and was the primary proponent for the significance of symbiosis in evolution.

[11] E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) Blond & Briggs.

[12] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962) Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[13] E. F. Schumacher, A Guide to the Perplexed (1977) New York: Harper Perennial.

[14] Carlos Castaneda, The Power of Silence (1987) NY: Simon and Schuster.

[15] Beelzebub’s Tales, pp. 1231–1232.

[16] G. I. Gurdjieff, The Herald of Coming Good: First Appeal to Contemporary Humanity (1933) Paris: Privately printed; (1971) New York: Weiser, p. 13.

[17] James Moore, Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (1991) Element Books Ltd., p. 344.

[18] James George, Asking for the Earth: Waking Up to the Spiritual/Ecological Crisis (1995) Rockport, MA: Element, Inc.

[19] James George, The Little Green Book on Awakening (2009) Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press.

[20] James George, Last Call: Awaken to Consciousness (2016) Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press.


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Featured: Winter 2019/2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (1)
Revision: August 13, 2020