We know that Mars was much more likely to have had life in the past than it does now. The atmosphere had to have been much denser. The temperature had to be higher. We can deduce these things with virtual certainty from the facts gathered by the many robotic missions we’ve sent to the planet, including almost a decade of rover presence on the surface. As yet we’ve no compelling evidence of life there. But the speculation is virtually unanimous that, if we do find life, it will be a trace of what was much more abundant in the past.
But, mark my words, the headlines will be all about how life on Earth is not unique. Completely overlooked will be the fact that we will have established beyond a doubt that a living planet can and will die. That an extant sign of life on Mars would be such proof is simple: almost no one would propose that that planet now constitutes an example of a living being. Mars is now clinically dead. But she would have had to have been alive once upon a time to still show any evidence of life there.
Discovery of convincing evidence of life on Mars, past or present, will send shock waves through our traditional religions unlike any religion has ever survived before. But don’t expect any of them to just roll over and expire. Religions are built on faith, not fact. They survived the discovery that the heavens aren’t Heaven, and they may survive the blow that God didn’t build the universe just for us (lower case!) as well. Religions have always stretched and bent to incorporate new facts as they gained and/or defended their footprint in the cultures of the world.
Last time we were presenting the basis for recognizing Gaia as a living being. What else seems “alive” about Gaia?
Well, there’s the atmosphere. Its similarity with water in terms of pushing stuff all around the place, staying within the confines of the whole, and being essential to Gaia’s overall well being is self-evident.
James Lovelock, back when he was first introducing “Gaia” as a model to help in the search for evidence of extraterrestrials, described several key indicators we could look for when examining alien worlds. An especially useful one was the steady state of certain chemicals in the atmosphere. The ability to maintain a constant proportion of some elements which would not persist on their own implies they are being replenished.
Additionally, some chemicals are created by life. So, for example, the element methane in the atmosphere on Earth seems to be associated with either life or volcanism. Not all planets have volcanoes. Methane, if not replenished, disappears rather promptly. So, if a planet displays a strong presence of methane in its atmosphere, but has no volcanism, it immediately becomes an object for further study to see if it might be the home of life. There are, of course, other methods of generating methane, so this alone is not sufficient reason to conclude that the planet in question harbors life. But it is a good reason to look at it more closely.
Similar kinds of biological activities maintain balances of chemicals in our own bodies. So, the ability to maintain steady states of numerous atmospheric chemicals, or, for that matter, oceanic chemicals, is a pretty good support of this idea of Earth as a living entity.
But I’m probably belaboring this point. You only need to have a good look at Her to know Gaia is a single living being. But thinking She is about to die–in the short term–isn’t about to cross the average person’s mind.
Or, at least, most people don’t entertain that thought. And the idea that the activities of man could be the cause is a possibility almost no one is willing to embrace. Homo sapiens is such a small player on the stage of all species on Earth, and Earth is so much larger, even, than that. How could it be?
We cannot comprehend, let alone accept, the idea that we have made such a horrible mistake through the simple means of our greediness for our own success. Our evolutionary origins virtually prohibit it. In the world as it was meant to be–as it always was–the species that survived was the one that was best at looking out for itself. It was not only natural to think of “we” as being only humanity, it was counter to evolutionary pressures to enlarge that concept beyond allowing “our” domesticated plants and animals into the sphere of our “protection.”
But now, if we are willing to look, we can see that it was just such a bit of cleverness that has led us to the place where we have to expand “we” to “We.” If we are to have any chance of saving any of “Us”–which, to belabor the point, includes all of “us”–we have to realize that We are all in one boat, and live or die as one.
Let us examine possibilities yet again. Like my claim that “Gaia is a living being” is an obvious fact transparent to anyone who looks at Her from the vantage point of deep space, my making note of the alarming similarity between the night images and x-rays of a tumor is no stretch. Anyone can see it.
But, again, scale can thwart our ability to see the implications. You can’t see a human from orbit, let alone from deep space. But the tumor at night you can see. From one perspective, the intuition says, “no way.” From the other, you have to be alarmed.
In our own lives, a common question is “how does cancer kill?” It’s actually quite counterintuitive: cancer is not an alien bacteria or virus invading the body and taking over. Our bodies have seen and known the cancerous family’s cells since the womb. It has no reason to suspect them of doing anything but their job. And, in fact, they do nothing overtly harmful, although they sometimes cease to perform their intended function. Usually, in fact. And their failure in that regard can, indeed, be fatal. But cancer’s not generally destructive of the other tissue in the body–it simply crowds it out.
As I type this, my best friend from college lies in a hospice bed a few feet from me. The doctors say he’s within days of death. He suffers from a particularly odious form of cancer unlike, in many ways, any other I’m familiar with. But, in the most important way, precisely as cancer always is.
Pann’s first hint of trouble came when his bowel suddenly became painfully obstructed. When they went in to see what was wrong, they found he’d been oozing a sticky, viscous mucus material from his appendix, probably for years, into the peritoneal cavity. That’s the space between the organs and the interior wall of the rib cage, going all the way down to the groin. The cavity had become so full of this pus that there was no room for normal passage of food through the intestine. Everything came to a screeching halt. It was like a semi flipping onto its side in front of you on the freeway.
That was about seven years ago. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and he’s been highly engaged in the battle every since. But it’s apparently about to come to an end. They’ve twice had him on an operating table for most of the day while they attempted to remove all trace of the mucinous growth from the inside of his body and the outside of his intestinal tract. He kept a medical blog through it all at http://blog.ourmanpann.com/medical_r/ and a more detailed description of the radiology and chemotherapy treatments at http://blog.ourmanpann.com/medical/chemo/. I don’t know how the web works, but I hope they stay up and become a medical resource, for their perspective and intelligence is unique.
Each time they tried to purge it, it has come back in a slightly more tenacious and altered form, starting as from scratch and winding up very much as before. Except it no longer is dependent on the appendix for its source and has gotten more and more rigid. The growth is now tumorous, hard and lumpy. Tonight, as they changed his bedding, I caught a glimpse of his distended stomach. Besides incredibly old, it looked like a gunny sack full of balls of various sizes, ranging from a marble to something almost as large as a softball. It would have been almost funny if it weren’t so grotesque and such a great tragedy.
But tragic it is.
Pann is dying, mainly, from malnutrition. And that is a very frequent version of death by cancer. It’s primarily a side effect of loss of appetite in Pann’s case, although it doesn’t help that they had to take out a large part of his intestine in the last operation. In addition, I’m sure the tumor is making sure it gets more than its fair share of what he does eat.
Another common fatal complication is the loss of some vital function performed by an unrelated organ that finds itself crowded out by, or drowned in some byproduct of, the overly zealous cancer cells. Like the intestines in Pann’s case. But it could be his heart, or his kidneys, or who knows what.
Those are the most common ways cancer kills. It essentially either strangles its mother or stops fulfilling some vital role it once did wonderfully well. Unwittingly and unintentionally, but inexorably. Of course, oftentimes the treatments we apply trying to control the cancer may so weaken un-targeted cells as to open the doors for some other kind of malady to enter and become the source of the ultimate endgame.
And so it goes with the cancer that is humanity. We are crowding out virtually every non-beneficial species on the planet. “Non-beneficial” from our own, myopic, view,
We’ve produced so many byproducts that tracking their effects is arguably impossible. Many effects are difficult to classify, anyway. For example, are dead zones in the ocean a consequence of overfishing, ocean acidification, pollution, some combination, or something we’ve not even imagined?
Many others, because of factors connected to their very existence, may be difficult to recognize as negatives in the first place. To wit: Polluters finance campaigns to deny climate change. Capitalists propagandize for the “essential” positive aspects of growth in human numbers. And money, agriculture, and technology have all gained such a stranglehold on our way of life as to transcend any questions regarding their possible roles in Gaia’s demise.
Some, like air conditioning and the automobile, are too popular to allow serious discussions suggesting significant modifications.
Many actions that may at first seem palliative of our ill effects on Gaia may lead to unexpected results with substantially more severe consequences for the environment than the original situation. So, for example, the transition from wagons to cars might have at first appeared to be good news because it removed a lot of horse manure from the world’s streets. Of course, no one at that time was even looking at this kind of question. But, in the long run, the impact of the automobile is clearly more negative for Earth than one can imagine the horse having ever been. For a more current example, I call your attention to the “A.P.U.” described below.
I’ve recently been reading a book entitled “How many people can the earth support?” Striking in this and all similar books I’ve encountered on the topic of carrying capacity for the planet is the universal stress each has on, “How much utilization of resources can the Earth sustain?” If you can figure that, then Gaia could support, forever, the number of people corresponding to the total of the resources.
That is the issue that is usually meant when “carrying capacity” is used, for the topic arises from the study of environmental systems in which we want to maximize the success of a particular plant or animal without jeopardizing its yield in the future. It might be a crop, such as barley or a herd of some sort.
In such circumstances, the actual death of the region is not a concern. This makes total sense, since environmental regions on Earth are, essentially, never truly isolated. It’s virtually impossible to kill everything in a region on this planet because life from outside the region is so profoundly diverse that something always propagates into the fallow ground as soon as the earlier occupants are gone. Hence we might, for example, be able to deprive the plains of nitrogen through our reliance on monoculture if we planted corn, say, without regard to the carrying capacity for that crop. But it is almost impossible to imagine some form of grass wouldn’t repopulate them if we accidentally succeeded in doing so.
Logically, involved here are two questions which I maintain can be regarded as equivalent. On the one hand, there’s, “What’s the maximal number of people Earth can support forever?” On the other is, “How many people would it take before there are too many for the Earth to survive as a living being?”
There are, however, many who would dispute my claim that the two proposed hypotheses are equivalent. I think the root of most belief in the invulnerability of Gaia in the face of too many people, and hence the unwillingness to accept my judgment that the statements are equivalent, lies in the perception there is a vast gap between there “being too many people for them to survive” and there “being enough people to kill the planet.”
Ironically, Pann, while lying on his deathbed, raised an excellent question in response to my discussion of the Gaia Hypothesis. “How does one determine when a sophisticated life form has died?” This is a problem that people have long dealt with in human affairs, for the event of death is an important legal concept to many of those who aren’t the actual participants. Often, the exact time is an issue, so the topic has been the subject of much discussion.
There were times when the absence of a fog on a mirror held to the face, the lack of a perceptible pulse, or no audible heart beat, were the criteria. Now, in the developed world, when the issues are important, the official test usually involves some form of examining the patient’s brain waves. In no case, however, does the time of death of the patient coincide with the death of every cell in his/her body. For example, the microbe in the intestines always survives longer than the person. As do cancer cells, in fact.
What, then, would constitute a test for the death of a planet? Obviously, the first step is to concur that it makes sense to consider the planet as a living being. But let’s not go over that ground again.
In the case of Gaia, one would surely look for a cessation of the currents that constitute the circulatory systems of the creature. So, if the jet or gulf streams were to cease their flow, that would be, at the least, a strong indicator that the planet was either dead, or nearly so. BTW, there’s been talk about just such an interruption in the gulf stream in some scientific circles as a possible consequence of climate change.
Just like with microbes from our intestines, we probably shouldn’t include attention to the well-being of any particular species as a primary indicator of the status of the (larger) individual. Yet a decline in biodiversity must surely be a warning sign. Should Mars prove to harbor life, however, such a consideration might not be an inappropriate thing to examine.
How about ambient temperature? Venus is about as surely “dead” as any planet we know of. And the clearest indicator is its ambient temperature. With a background temperature that melts lead, there’s little chance of our judging Venus to be alive any time in the near future. Had it ever been alive–and we currently have no meaningful evidence on that, one way or the other–we’d pretty likely judge it “passed away” by now. Of course, bringing up ambient temperature is growing less and less likely to draw anything but irrational wrath from your local talk show host, so let’s just pretend I never mentioned it.
My point in all this is to suggest that the question we ask about “human carrying capacity on Earth” ought to be “How many of us can exist on the face of Earth without our presence killing Her.” That’s a very different one from “How many of us can we get on this planet and maintain that number?” The second has protection of humanity as its motivation. The first is about protecting the planet.
If you err in your response to the first, you are more likely to reign in humanity’s growth short of “Gaiacide” than accidentally destroy a vital underpinning of world economies. If you err with the more traditional question, you get what we’ve been getting since the environmental movement was started: more of the same. Doing the former will be painful in the extreme, but doing the latter is a guaranteed dance with death.
This is the identical problem my anthropomorphized cancer cell confronts and his answer is the same. From Joe Cancer-Cell’s point of view, everything is just fine with his host. If anything has to worry about its future, it’s the cancer. There’s no way the whole host will succumb to the workings of a mass of beings as small and insignificant as himself, no matter how large or obnoxious the conglomerate might become. Much more likely the whole will realize the insult of the cancer and drive it to extinction, or at least to having to start over. Joe thinks, just like us, “we’re likely to die, but He/She will live on.”
It never crosses Joe’s little mind that he and his kin will kill Her/Him. Further, if truth be known, it never really becomes real to Joe that, should the whole die, for whatever reason, so shall he.
As I sit here, watching Pann struggling to stay alive, I find myself loving him all the more for his spirit and resilience. But I know that it’s a reflection of his own spirit that drives the cancer that is killing him. In a sense, it’s a perversion of his strongest trait that is defeating him. Joe Cancer only wishes to stay alive.
But, if Joe exists in any meaningful way other than in my imagination, then I do hate him. I hate the stupidity and the utterly self-destructive greed that blinds him to any apparent appreciation of the cathedral in which he resides.
And, to the extent mankind behaves cancerously, I do feel the same about us. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing Mr. Hyde.
Who are we??
Next time: Pann passes at 8:50 a.m. EDT, 7-11-11. Cancer dead by 9:30. Plus: Why we have to look at this?–Why it matters?