Humans have told a lot of stories about how awesome we are, but there’s one emerging hypothesis that casts our species in a very anti-heroic light. In terms of the planet, are we behaving like a disease?
With the human world currently reeling under the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and other species getting a slight breather, this is a great opportunity to take a step back and look at the havoc we’ve been causing, with this question in mind.
The big C
Consider the way cancer works. Its defining characteristics are unrestrained, rapid growth, the destruction of other tissues, distant metastasis (new cancers spreading far from the source), the production of toxic metabolites, and dedifferentiation (the reversion of specialised cells or tissues to unspecialised, primitive forms).
In terms of growth, world wars and pandemics notwithstanding, the human population has grown from 1 billion in 1800 to almost 8 billion in 2020.
This kind of exponential curve is very familiar to any oncologist.
The environmental destruction associated with our population growth can be seen in the conversion of vast areas of the planet to serve human needs (‘destruction of other tissues’ – species/eco-systems), with highways, powerlines and pipelines behaving similarly to the blood vessels that feed malignant tumours.
The ‘toxic metabolites’ in this analogy can be seen everywhere from the Alberta Tar Sands to the oceanic microplastics, from massive oil spills to the mountains of waste generated daily, and of course also the climate-changing C02 and methane being pumped into the air.
Every night on the news, experts discuss whether the economy is growing enough. Like cancer cells, we seem unable to think beyond the short term, or face the awkward fact that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet.
Human economic interests and the accompanying exploitation and waste cycles have reached our tallest mountains and our deepest oceans. We have touched every corner of the globe, every molecule of the atmosphere, and every drop of the ocean.
Instead of treating those who have profited most from this destruction as the dangerous and criminally insane individuals they are, we continue to make them richer.
Now the wealthiest of these people are devoting a significant share of their profits to literally reach past planetary limits, attempting to metastasise beyond the damaged ‘body’ of the Earth. This behaviour is starting to look less like cancer and more like a virus.
The accompanying collapse of democracy and the rise of ever more extreme forms of greed and wealth inequity (to the cost of higher human achievements like arts and science) mirrors the rise of ‘unspecialised, primitive forms’ (dedifferentiation).
Around the world, there are clear political parallels illustrating this transition.
Named after the Greek goddess of Mother Earth, Gaia Theory is not very fashionable these days in the scientific and ecological community, particularly since the man behind it, James Lovelock, started spruiking nuclear power.
But from the moment we first saw our planet from space for what it is – a life-sustaining blue speck in a deeply unfriendly universe – it’s been hard for many of us to go back to seeing our world simply as a place plonked down for human plunder.
Whether the planet is conscious, or a living entity apart from the numerous other living entities that constitute the biosphere, there is some evidence that the whole system is self-regulating, if it’s allowed to be.
Ocean salinity, for example, has been constant at 3.5% for a very long time, despite the ongoing addition of salts from land.
Some have suggested that the Mediterranean Sea is acting like Gaia’s kidney. Organic processes certainly seem to be involved in some way, although the exact details are still mysterious.
Another example is the regulation of oxygen in the atmosphere, with Lovelock and others arguing that higher oxygen levels in the past led to more fires which led to less oxygen, which led to regained equilibrium, with the assistance of bacteria producing nitrogen.
In the case of CO2, plants and simple animals play a vital role in regulating how much is in the atmosphere and how much is in the soil, having literally created the conditions for human (and most other animal life) to come into being.
Unfortunately, like spoiled children, most of us behave as though we’re entirely ungrateful.
Natural and unnatural selection
Whether Gaia exists or not, the rules of natural selection dictate that any organism which becomes too out of step with its environment will become extinct. Self-damage to the environment is no different. The system is self-correcting. Which brings us back to COVID.
The most likely cause of this disease is not Bill Gates, but humans pushing into new habitat, stressing and eating the animals there, and encountering a novel disease as a result.
This is a process that has happened numerous times before, particularly since we made the transition from being hunter-gathers to farmers, and began spending a lot more time with animals.
Famous diseases which made the jump to humans as a result include measles, swine flu, SARS 1, influenza A, mad cow disease, dengue, ebola, yellow fever, equine encephalitis and HIV.
You don’t need to believe in karma, Gaia or divine intervention to see that exploitation and lack of respect for animals and plants sooner or later leads to human suffering as well.
Are there similarities between the way this current pandemic is behaving towards humans, and the immune system of an individual facing a threat to life? I would argue the answer is yes.
Will one of these diseases eventually ‘cure’ the human disease afflicting the planet? Possibly.
Stark choices ahead
In spite of all the bumper stickers, we’re not going to kill the Earth – it has survived worse things than us – but we do have the capability to take a very large number of species with us if we choose the road to extinction (an estimated 150 species a day by current estimates).
Crises can be a good thing, if they don’t come too late. If you get your cancer or diabetes diagnosis in time, you have a better chance of curing it.
The various movements that have sprung up to embrace climate science, and correct the major inequalities driving our biggest problems, show that it’s not over yet for our human experiment.
Hopefully COVID-19 will give us the necessary wake-up call as a species, and then we can finally live up to our self-given brag name Homo-sapiens or ‘wise man’. If not, we have the next exciting instalment of the climate emergency to look forward to.
One way or another, like everything else living on this planet, we will either evolve or become extinct. Either we learn to live with our fellow species in a sustainable way, or we will become an unfortunate and short-lived episode of natural history.
Originally from Canberra, David Lowe is an award-winning film-maker, writer and photographer with particular interests in the environment and technology. He’s known for his work with Cloudcatcher Media as a campaigner against unconventional gas and coal.
David has also written about Australian history. Many years ago, he did work experience in Parliament House with Mungo MacCallum. David has lived off-grid in the Northern Rivers since 2008.
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