The view that humanity is a cancer or a parasite on the planet is a sentiment that is becoming more common in the culture in recent years. I have heard it a few times recently and it always strikes me as a fascinating perspective that says so much about the holder’s worldview and about humanity’s self-perception in the 21st century.
If you listen closely enough you can hear echoes of Eden and the archetypal Fall; Nature is an idealised paradise that has been, and is being, destroyed by humanity.
To call humanity a cancer, a parasite or a virus is to believe that there is something special about humanity — that we are different to all the other animals no matter how closely related. We are something different — an aberration.
In this article we’re not going to be disagreeing with this perception of humanity’s specialness; we’re just going to flip it on its head. Rather than seeing humanity’s uniqueness as an evil aberration, I want to argue that humanity’s uniqueness is the planet’s only hope. Contrary to this cancerous framing of humanity, I will argue that it is not our difference from the rest of the tree of life that is the cause of our pillaging the planet, but the opposite — it is what we share with our cousins that is causing such gratuitous destruction and over-consumption.
To do this we are going to be looking at three case studies:
the life cycle of bacteria,
the elk in Yellowstone
the introduction of rabbits into Australia.
Then we are going to extrapolate and reflect on humanity’s place in this grand drama and how it is precisely our wisdom and intelligence — i.e. that which makes humanity special — that gives us a fighting chance against this all-too-natural destruction of the planet.
This perspective basically argues that mankind is unnatural in its behaviour. It is destructive and parasitic in the way that it consumes resources in the environment with no sense of what is sustainable. Running parallel to this overconsumption is the growth in our population to unsustainable numbers.
Given the present global situation, you can see why people might think this way. We are presently staring down the barrel of the biggest mass extinction event since the dinosaurs waved bye bye 65 million years ago.
We are plundering every resource on the planet from coal, oil and gas to lithium, fresh water and even sand.
We know we are doing this but we are incapable of stopping ourselves. By just about any metric you could choose we are transforming the planet in a massively unsustainable way.
So the ‘humans are cancer crowd’ definitely have a point. There is something going on. The problem is this cancer/parasite/virus analogy isn’t a good fit. Instead of making giving us a better understanding of the situation (as good analogies are supposed to do), this analogy actually obscures the problem.
It makes it seem like the issue is human nature (with the emphasis on human). Whatever is exceptional about humans is what is causing this problem. That perspective leads us to search for the solution in a return to nature. It encourages us to look elsewhere on the tree of life for our salvation. If only we could be more like sloths or trees.
But I want to argue that exactly the opposite is the case — that it is in fact our shared nature as children of Planet Earth’s evolutionary game that has trained us towards this over-consumption with zero foresight and over-breeding with zero foresight.
And more than that, our only chance of overcoming this problem lies in what is particularly human; what makes humanity different is what gives us even a fighting chance however small of curbing this trend.
Bacteria and the Meaning of Life
First off then let’s take a quick look at the life cycle of bacteria. So if you put 100 types of bacteria in 100 different petri dishes filled with the tasty goodies that bacteria love, you’ll see the same population trend in each and every petri dish.
This trend is the bacterial life cycle and it has four distinct phases.
The first phase is known as the lag phase. During this phase the bacteria are adapting to their new environment and so their population stays more or less stable. The bacteria hasn’t fully mastered its organisation and its relationship with the resources in the environment and so there are no dramatic movements in the population.
As the bacteria figures out its environment and fully adapts, it enters what is known as the log phase (short for logarithmic) They have adapted to their environment and they begin consuming at warp speed despite the best advice of their bacterial sustainability committees and all of their recycling initiatives. The bacteria do what bacteria do: they consume and they multiply.
During the logarithmic phase the bacterial population multiplies at a monster pace. The flatline of the lag phase gives way to a near-vertical line in the log phase. The population of the bacteria is growing exponentially (or technically logarithmically since apparently exponential and logarithmic are opposites. Who knew?)
As the bacteria consume their way through their environment, there comes a point when the resources begin to dwindle. The number of bacteria begin to exceed the amount of resources and so the log phase gives way to the stationary phase. The stationary phase is a return to population flatline but it’s a very different reality.
During this phase there are as many bacteria dying as there are being born. It’s a shitshow out there. Literally. The bacteria have now pillaged the resources of their environment and they are consuming in an environment that is increasingly filled with their own waste and with the bodies of their fallen brothers/sisters. They are essentially eating and multiplying in a mass toilet grave. Happy days.
Inevitably this stationary phase gives way to the death and decline phase. In this phase the resources run out, the party is over and now there is nothing but death. The population numbers take a steep decline as their numbers disintegrate.
The dying bacteria split open unleashing their insides upon the environment. This gives their peers one last burst of nutrients to gouge on as they create spores who float off into the environment in search of a new environment to pillage.
The ecosystem is destroyed. The bacteria have consumed their way through it and you are left wondering what the point of this exercise could possibly be. But of course the bacteria managed to divide millions of times over and so there was plenty of room for evolution and the continuation of the species. The bacteria live on with the genetic lessons gained from the exercise. Bacteria live and bacteria die but the species and indeed life itself goes on and that is what matters at the fundamental level of life. It is about survival. Nothing more (unless you’re a cheese- or yogurt-maker in which case all this is about making cheese and yogurt).
Just for comparison let’s overlay the human population curve over the past few centuries with the bacterial growth curve. What you’ll see is something very interesting. We are very much in the log phase (or technically if you look at the global decline in birth rates from five births per woman in the 1960s to two and a half births per woman in 2012, you could argue that we are entering the stationary phase but that’s a question for another video).
The bottom line is that humans aren’t cancerous; we’re bacterial.
We have in the past few centuries, moved from the lag phase into the log phase. We have fully adapted to our environment — in this case Planet Earth — and we are consuming all the resources in that environment without foresight. We are compelled by this deeper level of nature.
Long term thinking is not common in nature. Life lives by scarcity. It consumes the resources that are near to it in order to pass on its genes most effectively. The havoc resulting from our consumption and breeding is not a result of our human nature but simply of old-fashioned nature with a capital N.
It’s an animal thing
Hopefully after hearing the story of bacteria you might be questioning the diagnosis of humanity as a cancer. But we don’t just want to stop at that.
There are some who would argue that being bacteria isn’t much better than being a virus or cancer (shocking I know). What about the zebra? What about the tiger? You don’t see them going around destroying their environment with abandon. And so we have to talk about a little place called Yellowstone and a little species called the Rocky Mountain Elk.
You’ve probably heard about the successful reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone in the mid-90s. It was a great story for conservationists but an even better story for ecologists.
It also happens to be the perfect illustration of our point here.
The Age of Culling
Back in the 1926, park rangers eliminated the last Gray Wolf from Yellowstone National Park. Without the ecosystem’s apex predator, it was down to humans to manage the population of animals in the park and so there were annual cullings in the park.
These culling efforts kept the population of the elk in the park down but it was not having the desired effect. Despite having a lower population the elk were still overgrazing the lowlands — chewing the tree saplings to nothing and eroding the river bank.
In the 1960s the large scale culling was stopped. And this is when we really see the bacterial trend truly emerge. Obviously there is no lag phase in the case of the elk — they are already native to the area and so fully adapted to their environment.
What is interesting to observe is what happens the second the two control mechanisms of the wolf and the human culling are released: the elk population explodes. This happens in a fashion that is much like the bacterial log phase. The elk population takes a near vertical increase.
The elk were destroying the park and their population showed no signs of levelling out. The only hindrance to this growth was the fires in Yellowstone in the 1980s which knocked a solid chunk off the elk population but by the early 1900s they were back to full form. The whole ecology of the park was suffering because of the excessive consumption and breeding of this one species. Sound familiar?
The Return of the King Wolves
Fortunately for the other organisms in Yellowstone, this lag phase was cut short by the reintroduction of wolves into the ecosystem. The wolves didn’t just kill the elk. This is the magical part of the story that gets me every time — they changed the behaviour of the elk. The presence of the wolves drove the elk away from the lowlands — something that culling never could.
The presence of the wolves drove down the population of the elk and drove them away from the beleagured lowlands. This gave the park time to recover — trees grew back which in turn brought nesting birds. Bears were fed by the berries of these trees and which also provided the raw materials for beavers to build their dams. These dams stabilised the course of the river and also habitats for many different types of fish. With the kills of the wolves lying around, there was also a return of the birds of prey.
In short the reinstating of the wolves rebalanced the ecosystem. The deer no longer pillaged the environment and not because they listened to their sustainability advisors, not because of their pure innate harmony with Nature but because the checks and balances of their natural environment were reinstated.
The story of the elk in Yellowstone had a happy ending but the lesson for us is in that phase before the reintroduction of the wolves. What we see is that when the balance of an ecosystem is upset animals will behave like bacteria. The only reason animals don’t consume until they completely destroy their environment is because they are entrenched in a balanced ecosystem. When a resource becomes overabundant, organisms don’t restrain themselves; they throw themselves at it with abandon and then suffer the downstream costs.
If the wolves had not been reintroduced and humans did not interfere, the elk would have followed the bacterial curve. We saw them consuming the resources in the environment; we saw their numbers logarithmically increasing. The elk would have continued to consume and multiply until the environment ran out of resources at which point their population would have plummeted.
This isn’t the way of bacteria or humans; this is the way of life. The balances of an ecosystem don’t evolve overnight. They take thousands of years of co-evolution.
Breeding like Rabbits
The same thing happened in Australia when farmer Thomas Austin brought 24 wild rabbits to the continent. He released 13 of them. Within three years they were considered pests. Austin reported that he had killed 20,000 rabbits on his estate and estimated that there were at least 10,000 remaining. By 1953 the Australian government estimated that there were between 500 million to a billion rabbits in Australia.
The Nature of Life
Rabbits, like mountain elk and bacteria do not restrain themselves in the face of an abundant ecosystem. The gorge themselves. But we do not think of them as cancerous. That would be a poetic metaphor that does nothing to help deal with the problem. The problem in the case of the rabbits and the elk is that they are used to being a part of a balanced ecosystem. They have predators that curb their behaviour and they are in an evolutionary arms race with these predators. Remove the checks and balances of such an ecosystem and you end up with a rabbit problem in Australia and an elk problem in Yellowstone.
Remove the checks and balances on humans and you end up with a problem like climate change.
Not A New Problem (for Humans)
This isn’t a new problem in the case of humans either. This isn’t just a question of industrialised society. What is different about our current predicament is its scale.
Our ancestors were no better. When humans first came to Europe, North America and Australia, they encountered an ecosystem dotted with megafauna. In Europe and North America there were giants like the woolly mammoth and the woolly rhinoceroses. In Australia there were the giant wombat creatures diprotodons and the giant goannas Megalania. All of these species were wiped out within a short period of humanity’s arrival.
There is no hope in idealising our hunter-gathering ancestors any more than there is hope in idealising the animal kingdom. The problem we are facing lies in our ancient nature.
The story of Easter Island in another prime example. The Stone Age Rapa Nui culture created a microcosmic version of what we are currently going through. The island was so totally denuded of forest that the inhabitants couldn’t even build escape boats. The ecosystem collapsed, food and fresh water quickly diminished and since escape was impossible resource infighting started, the island’s great statues were toppled. The population was decimated.
The plundering of the Earth by our industrial society is an ancient problem on a new scale. It is what happens when a godly intelligence is strapped onto ancient instincts. The plundering and overbreeding is the exact thing we share with the rest of the tree of life.
In looking for a solution to our problem, a naive and nostalgic glance back at nature won’t be enough. Our only hope lies in our uniquely human capacities: wisdom and intelligence.
Two Paths to Salvation
As we stare into the abyss that is the global ecological crisis, it seems that our fate is more likely to be that of the bacteria than that of the elk. There is no wolf we can reintroduce that will balance out the human pattern of consumption. There is no hope of an external constraint.
As I see it there are two schools of thought at play. Each of these schools allies itself with a quality that is unique to our species.
The first school throws its lot in with the uniquely human trait of wisdom. Homo sapiens after all means “the wise man”. What is different about us is our wisdom by which I mean our capacity for long term planning, for seeing consequences and choosing to take a different course. Wisdom is the opposite of the bacterial side of our nature.
The trouble is, this new faculty of wisdom shows little capability for outgunning the more traditional drives in the species. Wisdom is relatively new on the scene; the consumptive organism is closer to four billion years old.
But we are trying. We are making efforts to curb climate change. We have voices of wisdom like Greta Thunberg which — though we might critique such voices for their simplicity and naivete at times — we must commend for speaking the simple truth: this way lies death. If we do not correct our course then we are headed for a major collapse.
The second school is counting on the other uniquely human quality: culture. I mean culture in the broadest sense here as being the opposite of nature — culture as the human capacity to accumulate knowledge generation on generation. This is the secret to humanity’s ecological triumph. Humanity succeeded at reaching the top of the food chain not because we got stronger but because we learn and we pass on that learning to the next generation who refine it further and pass it on again; human society is built on the accumulation of thousands of years of culture. We develop new techniques, tools and weapons to meet whatever problem we encounter.
The hope of this school is that we can come up with new technologies that enable us to weather the storm we have kicked up. Carbon capture technologies, renewable energies, more advanced batteries. The culture club pin their hopes on this potential for innovation.
To many this hope seems as futile as the path of wisdom.
It seems that we are up against a challenge that is greater than our capacities. Nature and Life are apathetic. They have a compulsion to continue their existence. That is all. There is no empathy or compassion. There is just life. The problem that humanity faces in the present moment isn’t that it is unnatural but that it is too natural. Our capacities of wisdom and culture give us a fighting chance against this nature within us. It is our very humanity that is our hope.
If we fail, it is humanity and our colleagues in the present ecosystem that will suffer. Life as a whole will go on filling in the niches as she goes. In the grand scheme of things it will be just another fork in the tree of life, another footnote in the story of life on earth.