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.