If we accept that the planet is an overarching, self-regulating biological mega-system as posited by scientists who use the “Gaia Theory” to explain the way organic life has evolved, as was discussed in the second part of this post, we must therefore consider the possibility that the expansion and domination of the human race is to some extent comparable to the way cancers behave in organisms.
As Agent Smith mentions in his rant to Morpheus about humans being a virus (which I have quoted to death in this post):
Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.
Malignant cancers operate through metastasis, where they use the bloodstream of the body to migrate to and invade different parts of the body. They effectively leach off the energy sent to those areas through the body’s metabolism. This counters the body’s ability to self-regulate its energy levels and achieve homeostasis. Subsequently, this inhibits the role of a certain tissue or organ and may even break down the process of an organ system, which is fatal for the organism.
It can be argued that, much in the same manner, humans have conquered the threat posed to other species through natural selection (the earth system’s method to regulate the balance of life in nature) and have migrated across the globe to populate every corner of it. But there is a finite amount of energy – and the resources needed to generate it – in the earth system; so, the more we grow, the more we take, and the less there is for other organisms to consume. And this will result in massive pressure on the self-regulating abilities of the overall system of organic life here on Earth. Sounds a lot like a cancer when you put it like this.
We are a unique species in our ability, not only to spread across the planet and multiply like wildfire, but also in exploiting and exacting as much of the planet’s resources as possible. In fact, we are as a species largely dependent on the continued exploitation of the environment. The human population is growing at an overwhelming rate, as I discussed in my previous post on global environmental change, and we are struggling to feed the current population as it is. It would take the equivalent of three earths to sustain the human population if everyone were to enjoy the same living conditions and consumption patterns as citizens in the developed world do.
It’s almost getting to the point – or it has already reached the point – that we’ve overstayed our welcome here and are becoming a threat to the overall ecology of the planet. A 2005 report backed by 1,360 scientists from 95 countries warned that almost two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on Earth was being degraded by human pressure. According to the Guardian article linked to above:
The wetlands, forests, savannahs, estuaries, coastal fisheries and other habitats that recycle air, water and nutrients for all living creatures are being irretrievably damaged. In effect, one species is now a hazard to the other 10 million or so on the planet, and to itself.
Never before has one species wreaked this much damage on its environment by itself. But what’s more concerning is that we’ve already broken down three of the main processes in the earth system that would be the planetary equivalent of organ systems in an organism, and these changes are beginning to prove both potentially dangerous and irreversible.
Our increased urbanisation, animal-hunting and global land use for agriculture (which have all been necessary to sustain our ever-increasing population) have seen modern global extinction rates approach a level 1,000 times higher than the norm, a number that rivals the five mass extinctions of past geologic history. This has altered the make-up of the planet’s ecosystems which are contingent on biodiversity, and will continue to change them in the future.
Meanwhile, we have significantly altered the earth’s nitrogen cycle as a result of many industrial and agricultural processes, most of which result from the Haber process of generating ammonia for fertilisers. Thanks to this process, humans have joined Rhizobium bacteria to become the only two species able to fix nitrogen directly from the atmosphere.
These fertilisers are responsible for feeding one third of the human population, yet they are removing the amount of nitrogen that can be received by plants, which need it to grow. Subsequently, much of the nitrogen ends up in our water systems, which may become oxygen-starved as a result of the increased bacteria and algae production caused by the increase in nutrients reaching them. The world’s oceans have already felt the effects of nitrogen wash-up, resulting in the pushing of marine ecosystems over ecological thresholds of their own.
Then there’s climate change. We have monumentally increased our contribution to the carbon cycle by shifting almost half a trillion tonnes of carbon from the planet’s rocks into the atmosphere and oceans. More Carbon Dioxide in the system has resulted in warmer temperatures because it is a proven heat insulator. Consequently, global surface temperatures have risen by almost 1 degree Celsius and this is a fixed change; as a result, it has become a new norm for extreme weather events and natural disasters to be more frequent and more extreme. Climate cycles and weather patterns have been critical to the continued evolution of organic life, so if these changes continue to manifest, it may be disastrous for life itself.
While some argue that carbon emissions are potentially beneficial for plants who consume the Carbon Dioxide, it will decrease the amount of water they’ll have access to as more of it will evaporate due to increased warming – too much CO2 may also reduce their ability to photosynthesise.
These are but three of the Earth’s processes being affected by human interference. As we can see, due to the massive interconnectedness of organic life, our impacts in one area affect changes in other areas too. So, just like a cancer starts breaking down the system of an organism by attacking its system processes, so are we humans breaking down the earth system by attacking its.
But does this really mean we are killing off the earth system? At the moment, it’s too early to determine. We are causing massive changes to the planet but that doesn’t mean we will kill off organic life itself. We are not yet bigger than organic life in the form of a co-evolved super-organism known as “Gaia”. It may still be able to regulate itself and flush humanity out.
Humans could prove to be the cure to their own cancerous existence as well. Humans have proven throughout history to become more and more efficient in their consumption of resources and management of territory. They can only become more efficient, and this should improve their ability to coexist with other life forms in the earth system.
Moreover, as we advance we will surely look to colonise new planets and develop new ecosystems suitable for our habitation. We may even create our own Gaia systems based on our improved knowledge of how life co-evolved here on planet Earth.
Of course, the Gaia Theory isn’t yet accepted by the majority of scientists, and this is the hole in my whole argument that we are, in a biological sense, a cancer on the Earth. But nonetheless, the idea offers a fitting metaphor to reflect upon our collective actions’ impact on the ecology of the planet. We now need to consider our ecological footprint, otherwise we will risk upsetting the conditions here on Earth that have allowed us to survive and reproduce.
And this, to me, is the best reason for viewing our species as a cancer. We need to begin looking at our ability to practice homeostasis with our environment, instead of pursuing unrestrained metastasis. We need to begin regulating ourselves so we don’t disturb the conditions that helped us prosper as a species.
We are not a cancer in a biological sense, but our anthropocentric view of the world, and the universe, is cancerous. We need to stop viewing ourselves as the center of the universe, and everything else, whether it’s biotic or abiotic, are subservient to our needs. We have to start reconceptualising our existence as interconnected with the rest of nature – we are a part of, and are connected to, the environment that we are exploiting for our own personal gain. Nothing is more cancerous than trying to over-exploit the body we are trying to subsist off of.
As for Agent Smith, well his character in the movie offers one final point to reflect on. Take the following passage from Matrix Wiki revealing another juicy philosophical nugget from the film:
The dialectical opposition between Smith and Neo is a strong indication of what their respective characters represent. Smith is pitiless and single-minded, focused on finality, conformity and inevitability. As such, Smith represents determinism. By contrast, Neo, with his unpredictable, emotional human nature, represents unbounded free will and the power of choice. Neo’s solitary role as The One is contrasted by Smith, who, by replicating himself, becomes ‘the many’. When Neo asks the Oracle about Smith, the Oracle explains that Smith is Neo’s opposite and his negative.
The philosophical implications of this thought are as endless as Smith’s ability to reproduce himself (it’s ironic that he eventually turns into a virus himself), especially with regard to whether we humans are a virus or cancer. They are far too mind-boggling for me to elaborate on in this post, though I may return to them in the future. I will leave it to you to reflect on what it means about human nature and our ability to choose our fates.