A Growth

The metaphor of the earth as a self-contained organism, a metaphor once considered the domain of out-there hippies, has been slowly gaining mainstream acceptance. The idea that Mother Gaia is the emergent system composed of all the organisms and ecosystems on the planet, including us humans and our societies, provides a useful framework for us to grasp the interconnectedness of life on earth, the subtle balances that are necessary to keep the whole system in equilibrium. And indeed, who is to say that the emergent system isn’t more than a metaphor? There is no reason why parts of an emergent system should have an obvious experience of the system as a whole. We should count ourselves lucky that we are self-aware enough to conceive of the possibility.

Let’s approach this as a metaphor, at least. Just like an animal has different tissues and organs, Gaia has different species and ecosystems. Just like an animal’s organs must work within well-orchestrated parameters for good health, so too must the various species and ecosystems interact in certain ways in order to allow the whole to thrive.

What happens to an animal when a particular tissue grows unimpeded and disrupts the clear working of the organism? We call it a cancer, and if left untreated it can kill its host. What are we to make of current human civilization, then, which is growing exponentially in a way that disrupts entire ecosystems and threatens life on the planet? Surely we are currently a cancer festering in Gaia, and we threaten its very survival. (OK, here we are stretching the metaphor to its limit. Though we may well kill ourselves and much of life as we know it, some form of life will almost certainly survive our climate catastrophe, and Gaia will metamorphose into a different system. And whether one of those life forms will once again be “intelligent” in the way we supposedly are remains to be seen....)

To be clear, this is not to say that human beings are inherently a cancer on the earth, but rather that our global civilization as it currently exists could arguably be characterized this way. Just as an animal’s cancer is due to mutations in the genetic code that cause the tissue to reproduce uncontrollably, so too our Gaia-cancer is caused by errant instructions that teach us to colonize the planet, to bend it to our own short-sighted ends, to maximize our immediate convenience without regard to the rest of the planet. And just like in a cancer the ultimate cure would be to fix the genetic code so that the once-errant tissue can start to coexist rather than destroy the rest of the organism, so too the ultimate cure for our scourge on the earth is to fix our own memetic code by changing the ideas, the systems, that instruct us to grow without limit, our impact on the environment be damned.


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