Thinking like a chloroplast

12 10 2011

It is the height of arrogance to think that it is up to us to save the planet.  The biosphere has recovered from disasters far worse than anything we have the power to inflict.  The Earth will be here long after we are gone.  We can be symbionts, enabling Gaia to know herself, or we can be parasites who know no better than to sicken their host.

Disease organisms must be constantly on the move.  They are attacked by the defenses of their host, and if they are successful in warding off that attack, it is a pyrrhic victory.  A debilitated host is a poor one, and a dead host is worse.

Parasites that do not debilitate their host can get along indefinitely.  But the relationship that works the best is that of symbiont.  Bacteria have been at it for literally billions of years.  At some point prokaryotic cells found a comfortable shelter inside larger cells, and lent their particular expertise to their host’s success.  The chloroplasts within the cells of leaves have their own distinct DNA.  They do the photosynthesizing to provide the abundant supply of energy that the plants enjoy.  Within animal cells, mitochondria do something similar, in that they are small powerhouses providing benefit to the cell.  They, too, show evidence of their colonial past in their distinct DNA.

Termites are able to take advantage of a rich source of energy, the cellulose in wood.  Indigestible to most animals, termites are able to break it down into its component parts, make use of the sugars, and excrete the waste in the form of pellets that they use for building their nests.  Within the gut of the termite is a symbiotic microbe which does this digesting for them.  But the credit doesn’t even stop there; the microbe relies on a bacteria within its own structure to secrete the enzymes needed for the process.

Organisms within organisms, providing mutual benefit, the recipe for long-term evolutionary success.  If we are wise, we will mimic this strategy.  We will seek ways to become a contributor to the overall health of the greater organism.  Chloroplasts and mitochondria didn’t plan out their success; it wasn’t intelligently designed.  Countless millions of other viruses and bacteria were mutating, evolving, swapping genetic code like computer geeks at a freeware convention.  This worked.  It was perpetuated.

We, on the other hand, don’t have to stumble about blindly trying things and failing catastrophically, repeatedly, in order to seek out something that works.  We can reason it out.  We can see the success of others and imitate that success.  We can even choose to leave behind previously successful adaptive behaviors and acquire better ones.

If we choose to be the equivalent of Gaian cancer, or Gaian plague, or the Gaian equivalent of bedbugs, we run the risk of getting exterminated for the pests we are.  We may make our host so sick that she can no longer support us.  But unlike bacteria, we can’t just go infect some other planet.  We die with the host.  In the case of the Earth, life will recover and go on without us.  Tubeworms deep in the oceans will evolve into the next dominant species.

So the reason we need to choose a new, less exploitive strategy for interacting with the planet is not some tree-hugging reverence for Nature for Her own sake.  It’s not some enviro-Disney love for bunnies and Bambi and the pretty birds that sing.  It’s a cool, rational, right-wing Republican sort of cost-efficiency and profit motive.  We want to succeed.  Long term.  Like, millennia.  Okay, so maybe it’s not the best analogy. Corporate thinking isn’t so good with long-term models.  We need to get past the short-term thinking, maximize profits for this quarter and to hell with next year.  Disease organism thinking.

We need to think like chloroplasts.




2 responses

3 11 2013
Michael Koester

Thank you for the insightful perspective, Mel. You’re spot-on, and we should all get on board in every way we can. Is there a way that we can send the parasites off to some other host, and leave ours to those who understand symbiotic success?
Okay, I am not as perfect as I would like to be, but I understand the danger that humans have created, and agree it’s time to rationally evaluate a new path forward. I’m old enough to remember the first Earth Day, and am deeply saddened that current actions have not stayed true to those ideals. Perhaps a revival is in order?
While the long-term benefits may not be for us personally, are we not enjoying the benefits that were provided by those who came before us? And are we not responsible for ensuring the health of the host for our children?
Thanks again, Mel

3 11 2013

Glad to hear from you, Michael.

I wish I could be more optimistic. I, too, get awfully frustrated with the willful blindness and short-sightedness of our fellow hominids. All we can do is keep putting forth sensible strategies and try our best to live by them, however difficult the lifestyles encouraged and promoted by the dominant culture make it for us. My greatest optimism comes from the fact that science continues to progress, and enlightened thinking based on a healthy mix of science and compassion (both are critical) appears to be ever so slowly growing. I look at attitudes over the course of thousands of years of history, and I realize I shouldn’t despair over the lack of progress in a single generation. Institutions such as slavery and warfare, once taken for granted as necessary parts of human existence, are being questioned and, especially in the case of slavery, are moving towards extinction. Patience!

On the other hand, the J-curve of environmental degradation may not allow us the leisure of gradual evolution in our attitudes. But perhaps a real, frightening, comprehensive crisis is what we need to speed things up. We humans are remarkably adaptable when we have to be. In the mean time, all we can do is all we can do.

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