Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Symbiont or Parasite?

Last week, Bonnie posted a writing on this blog about health and dis-ease. She included the following,

Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary defines “health” as “physical and mental well-being; soundness; freedom from defect, pain or disease.” Although cited as “obscure,” in the same dictionary the first definition of dis-ease is “uneasiness; distress.”

I have seen much dis-ease over the years that, in my view, is directly related to dis-connection from a sense of place, from Mother Earth, from each other, and from our inner emotional and spiritual selves.

At the risk of misinterpretation, I conclude the Mother Earth connection Bonnie referred to was a symbiotic one; not a parasitic one. In hopes of furthering the conversation, I pose this question; is Homo sapiens sapiens symbiont or parasite to the Earth? Corollary to that, is symbiosis with Earth a necessary condition for human good health? Should we as individuals strive towards this condition?

The online Dictionary defines symbiosis is “the relation between two different species of organisms that are interdependent; each gains benefits from the other ” Again from, a parasite is an “organism that lives in or on a host (another animal or plant); the parasite obtains nourishment from the host without benefiting (the host and may injure or) kill.. the host ”.

To me, it does not seem much of a stretch to consider Earth a living super-organism, along the lines of the Gaia Hypothesis proposed by James Lovelock.

Is Earth injured? I believe the evidence to be overwhelming.

Let's start with extinction. At an accelerating rate over the past several hundred years, humans have in effect been converting diverse biomass to human biomass. The extant sixth great mass extinction on Earth coincides with increasing population of humans.

According to Wikipedia, some scientists estimate as many as one half of current species could become extinct by 2100 as human population approaches 9 billion. Except in time scale, is our population advance really fundamentally different from that of yeast in fermenting wine? Further increases in human population come at the increasing peril of extinction of more and more species, including ourselves, just as the yeast finally becomes extirpated when the grape juice becomes wine.

For “those who have eyes that can see” (Daniel Quinn) resilience is an important corollary of diversity. Given choice (which in reality may not exist among humans, see “USER ILLUSION” by Tor Norretranders), symbionts would choose to limit their numbers so as to maintain the Earth resilience of diversity. Parasites mindlessly continue to increase their numbers at the cost of diversity, further degrading landscapes and increasing environmental degradation, thereby creating conditions of increasing fragility for Earth.

We see this fragility all around us, evidenced most strikingly by the current global financial and economic meltdown. It is one that I maintain is the result of a 500+ year history of economic exploitation suddenly beginning to yield marginal returns that have gone negative. The exercise of analysis of lost vegetable and animal breeds is also enlightening in this regard, and downright frightening.


Pharmaceutical drugs given to people and to domestic animals including antibiotics, hormones, strong pain killers, tranquilizers, and chemotherapy chemicals given to cancer patients are being measured in surface water, in groundwater and in drinking water at the tap. Large quantities of drugs are excreted by humans and domestic animals, and are distributed into the environment by flushing toilets and by spreading manure and sewage sludge onto and into soil.

When I go to an Appalachian mountaintop on a clear day, no matter how clear, no matter which season of the year or time of day, I can always see the faint brownish haze. Astronauts began to notice this haze about ten years ago, everywhere on the horizon. Smog is now enveloping the Earth. On the highest ridges of the Appalachians, the skeletal remains of trees provides further evidence of the slow, insidious poisoning of our atmosphere.

Here is a fascinating website about the Chernobyl radiation zone, an 865 square mile ( about 2/3's the size of Rhode Island) zone where humans may not safely live for up to another 900 years due to a nuclear accident.

How about the mountaintop removal coal mining zone in West Virginia, my home state, Kentucky and Virginia that is larger than the Smoky Mountain National Park at 500,000 acres. See photos here.

However, from the coal industry's perspective, it is possible to be a “Friend of Coal.” The coal industry plods along greenwashing their planetary rape and counting on the businesses they support and the neighbors of workers for political cover. Even though the coal industry now employs relatively few people here in Appalachia, everyone knows someone who has a well paying job in the coal industry. And the “Friends of Coal” are making a constant public presence for themselves in the area where the rape continues apace.

It is possible to go on to book length and beyond about the examples of human parasitism on the Earth. If the Gaia Hypothesis is correct, then clearly homo sapiens sapiens is currently a parasite upon the Earth as witnessed by the above examples.

From a more uplifting perspective, there is an ever increasing number of examples of real human beings living in degraded landscapes and applying hard work and ingenuity to reestablishing healthy ecological assemblies through ingenious systems like Permaculture Based upon Dictionary definition above, these humans are living in symbiosis with the Earth; at least on a smaller, local scale. Remember, “think globally, act locally”?

In the end, this is really all any of us can do effectively. Follow the advice of Mahatma Ghandi who advised, “If you want to change the world, change yourself.” and “be the change we wish to see.” No matter whether this results from the exercise of choice, or some other unexplained factor, this is the change we hope to help further effect by our project, EntropyPawsed. We want to inspire others to learn to desire and become a symbiont of the their small place on the Earth.

I would like to add one word of caution against a dominant human trait; “self-deception”. There is little to no chance of fully establishing a symbiotic relationship with Earth while continuing to move about the planet like a typically entitled American. Why? Just too much energy expended, and all the collateral damage. Many of us, including Frank and Bonnie, still have a way to go in this regard. However, as Mualana Jalaludin Rumi said eight hundred years ago in what is now present day Afghanistan, “increase thy need, oh necessitous one”.