Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Humanity as Gaia's Teenage Nervous System

An old intent buddy, Maya-Gaia, who has a great internet site you should all check out, wrote in respone to me recent essay, “Climate Change, Environmentalism, and the Problem of Human Evil” some interesting comments worth responding to, including a practical matter to clear up:

“Gee willergigs - Conrad!....I respectfully must protest that in my 100-page website, nowhere is there any essay about "Humans as Cancer". There IS the following comment: "If we accept the Gaia Theory, what is inescapable, is that human civilization is analogous to Earth's cancer. The personal challenge then, for each of us, is to evolve from a virulent to a benign strain, by raising our environmental consciousness." This is from my page about the Gaia paradigm and is a fervent call to practical action- to support and participate in environmental and wildlife conservation projects. Eco-spirituality doesn't have anything to do with our ego's atavistic guilt about humanity's intrinsic evil but is an intuitive response (occasionally evoked from  direct revelation) to the real-world devastation being wrought on Gaia and her beautiful, innocent, disappearing nature. Our species is not evil but is endowed with the means and will to survive and overpopulate at all cost to nature. Raising ten children, in a rightous act to feed his growing family, a single poacher, homesteading on the borders of Udege Legend National Park in Far-Eastern Siberia- harvests gall bladders to sell to the Chinese apothacary trade. He- singlehandedly- can easily wipe out the Himalayan black bear to extinction. The ecospiritual approach- pacificenvironment.org/article.php?id=2993 - is to set up infrastructure to train him to become a wildlife ranger for ecotourism and provide birth control for his community.”

Okay, first things first, on this page at the Maia-Gaia website, under the heading "Our Greatest Challenge..." one can find the above quote, and one can clearly see that the words "earth's cancer" are highlighted as a link to a webpage, where the essay "Humans as Cancer" by A. Kent MacDougall can be found. So yes, this essays is linked, I assume with some degree of approval, on the Maia-Gaia website. Perhaps Maia-Gaia forgot he had done so, but there it is for all to see. Of course, I'm not suggesting that he entirely approves of this message or its point of view, but he does seem to find it a logical and perhaps even necessary part of the Gaia hypothesis. I can't say I entirely blame him, since this viewpoint is quite common in the spiritual-ecological movement, and even James Lovelock seems to give it serious consideration.

But this is just the problem I'm pointing to. In the first place, I would strongly suggest that the Gaia hypothesis, that the earth is a living organism which regulates its own ecosphere, does not indicate that the human species is a cancer growing within that organism. Nor is it a virus, a parasite, or a pathology of some kind. This suggests a distorted and deeply biased understanding of how organisms grow and prosper, and the stages of development they pass through.

It's important first to ask oneself what kind of organism the Earth is, and what role human beings play in it. Obviously, there's something rather special about human beings, or we would not be discussing their place in the ecosphere in the first place. Human being are the only highly sentient technologically civilized speices on the planet. If we were a cancer, we would be a simplistic organism that merely made very large tumors, such as giant ants might build massive anthills over the face of the earth. Obviously we are the most highly sophisticated organism on the planet, at the very head of the food chain, and capable of altering the earth on an unprecedented scale. There are many analogies to this in biology, and cancer is simply not one of them.

The best analogy I can think of is the evolutionary and developmental example of the human nervous system within our own bodies. Our brains and nervous system consumes a great deal of energy and resources in our body. For it's tiny weight, it consumes a highly disproportionate amount of protein, glucose, oxygen, and all kinds of vital nutrients. Most of our body is dedicated to keeping our brain alive at whatever cost to the rest of our system. When resouurces are scarce, the body directs an even greater portion of them to our brains, even at the expense of other vital components of our body. This is actually good for the body. In evolutionary terms, our bodies have also paid a great price for developing our brains. It has required us to grow large heads, which increases mortality at birth, and produces a very long extended childhood, which makes us very vulnerable for a long period of time and requires a massive investment from parents for many years to protect and raise us. The total investment of resources in these large brains of ours hardly seems worth it if the survival of the body is the sole measure of our worth and purpose.

But of course survival alone is not the sole measure of our body's worth and purpose on this planet, nor is that the case for the planet itself. Just as our bodies are subservient to the development of our brains and nervous systems - because these in the end benefit us the most - so are the earth's resources subserviant to the development of the human species, it's culture, and most of all, it's intelligent consciousness. Mother earth certainly loves all its creatures, but she values human beings above all other creatures in the same way that the body values the brain over all other organs and parts. This does not mean there are no limits to be set for human beings. Like any mother, she knows that we need discipline as well as nurturing. But there is no sense in which she ever sees us as a cancer, or anything remotely resembling a pathogen. A mother does not see her child as an evil invader who must be cut from her body, but only, perhaps, as an unruly adolescent who needs to be grounded or disciplined. Human beings are essential to the very purpose of this planet, and our consciousness is more akin to the nervous system of our world. 

One of the facts of life for human bodies is that our nervous systems grow in haphazard fashion. At several stages in our development, our nervous systems vastly overgrow themselves and have to be pruned back. Adolescence is one of those periods. The human brain embarks on a massive growth spirit in the early years of adolescence, growing synapses and connections at a massive rate, consuming massive bodily resources and even spinning out of control. This is one of the reasons adolescence is such a difficult time mentally and emotionally. The brain is literally overcharged and overgrown. At a certain point, the brain actually stops growing these connections, and switches over to killing them off. It has made too many connections, and over the next ten years, up to the age of about twenty-five, the brain actually engages in a massive pruning operation, cutting out and killing off about 20% of our dentrites and synapses, trying to get rid of the ones that don't work properly. This is an entirely necessary exercise, and has nothing to do with some notion that parts of our brains are a "cancer" upon us. They are not, they are just part of the natural growth process, as is pruning them back,

I would suggest that what the human species, and our planet, is going through right now is akin to adolescent brain development. We have been rather haphazardly and even chaotically overgrowing ourselves, establishing all kinds of wild and new connections, and to some degree, creating ones that don't entirely work. In the process we've been using up resources like a teenager at the dinner table, eating as much as possible of anything and everything, and not always with much discrimination. We eat healthy food and junk food and anything that isn't nailed down. Our Mother may not like everything we are doing, but she still encourages us to eat, because that's what we are supposed to do at this stage in our growth. And likewise, we are supposed to be acting a bit crazy and undisciplined, we are supposed to be letting our brains grow wild and establish all kinds of new connections, even though some of them aren't going to turn out to be useful, because we will be pruning them back over time as well, until we settle down into adulthood. Teenagers are not a pathology. But the idea that teenagers are some kind of cancer on the family is a disturbed, neurotic, and dysfunctional pathology which needs to be cut out as quickly as possible. It's hard enough being a teenager without being made to feel guilty about it, as if teenagers are some alien invader into the peaceful home of our planet who should be suppressed and made to feel as if they are bad, when all they are is being teenagers. 

So yes, I think this notion that human beings are cancers in the earth's body is a completely dysfunctional and pathological interpretation of the Gaia hypothesis. It's completely off-base and without any spiritual foundation. The people who put forth these kinds of ideas really need to examine the plank in their own eye first. 

As I said before, it also great over-exaggerates the damage human beings are doing to the planet. Certainly we are throwing a wild party, but any lasting damage is really pretty minimal. I'm pretty confident that the global warming hysteria is just that - people overreacting. In some sense, the overreaction is itself just another example of teenagers going crazy, this time in the other direction, blaming themselves and forming negative self-images, trying to control and regulate each other and so forth.  This too is part of what teenagers must go through as their brains go through these massive growth and pruning periods. Emotionally it is very difficult to form a properly discriminating perspective on these things. From the viewpoint of a mature spirituality, it's not to be taken terribly seriously one way or another, but allowances have to be made for what teenagers need to go through in the process. There certainly are violent and destructive impulses that need to be curbed, but one should not confuse the ordinary patterns of adolescence with such things. 

There certainly are good and mature people taking steps to introduce discipline to the unruly teenagers on our planet. Maia-gaia cites some good examples of that. I approve of a great many things being done by the ecological movement. The Global Warming scare is a mistake, I think, but it will pass too, like most such things, and we will even learn something from it. Humanity will eventually emerge from its adolescence with a heightened sense of purpose and discipline -  the signs of that are already present. We must simply be patient, and let the kids grow up in a natural fashion. Eventually if we are patient and loving towards one another there will be a long period of mature growth ahead. The earth is not being destroyed. We must have faith in the process of our own development, and in the powers of our Mother to guide us properly. We are all greatly loved and cherished, even the more boisterous among us. There is no evil among us here. Teenagers are easily spooked by scary stories and horror movies, but it's just a stage of mental development for most, not a reality we need to take seriously. The few individuals who really are sick and pathological will be taken care of by our immune systems. We should not characterize the whole by the failings of a few. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting article.

Personally, I think the fundamental difference in viewpoint we have over Gaia is that not all of humankind corresponds to the brain of Earth. In fact, I believe an individual human is rather like a single cell and only a few of them belong to the 'brain' portion of Gaia.

In this regard, I obviously do agree that the entirety of humankind can never be considered cancer. That would be the same as considering your own body as cancer and it just doesn't make any sense.

That said, I do believe a significant portion of humankind is acting like cancer. Taking up resources to fuel their unmitigated expansion of desires is eerily similar to the endless procreation of cancer cells.

Just remember that cancers can kill. Sometimes the natural immune system is not enough to let the disease run its course. You take a positive stance and I respect that but not all of future is unambiguously free of gloom and worries. I'd take a step further to assert that Gaia/World Soul can treat cancer in the name and form of karma or natural rebound or whatnot. Perhaps it can even act through humankind itself.