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Global Brain or Global Cancer?

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I was once asked by someone why I had named my blog after Moe Greene, an incidental character in The Godfather. Hmm. This blog focuses on environmental statistics related to Missouri. Hence the name Mo-green-stats. For the most part, I have stuck to that theme, only deviating a few times. This post is one of the deviations.

I want to share with you my perspective on humanity as it relates to Earth’s environment. Overall perspectives like this aren’t meant to be fully accurate. They only work with respect to some characteristics. With regard to those characteristics, however, they can be illuminating, and provide a quick way to sum-up complex issues. In short, don’t take what follows literally, but rather as a darkly evocative vision.

My perspective originates from Peter Russel’s The Global Brain. (It’s a book and a video. The book is available through Amazon, and you can find the video on YouTube. There are other works with the same name by other authors. Be sure you get the one by Peter Russel.) It presented two views of the role of humanity. Russel was a proponent of the Gaia Hypothesis – the idea that the Earth itself is a self-regulating entity, a unitary whole with many parts, that is analogous to a single living organism. Russel noted the way humans have built electronic data processing and communication systems around the world, and the way we have organized and brought more and more systems of the globe under control. He thought that in animals, those were functions performed by the nervous system, especially the brain. He wondered if human beings could be regarded as the Earth’s brain – a global brain, hence the title of his book.

He also noted, however, that we had proliferated without limit, and the rate was increasing. He noted how we had displaced other species from their locations and environmental niches. He noted how we seemed to consume an ever larger share of the Earth’s resources, converting more and more of the Earth to satisfy our needs, and he noted how we polluted and poisoned the planet with our waste. He wondered if, instead of a brain, we were actually a cancer.

He concluded that the ensuing decades would make clear which we were.

It has been 47 years since the publication of his book. The electronic, communication, computer, and artificial intelligence trends he noticed have done nothing but accelerate, and his view of an interconnected world has become more and more true. At the same time, however, the overpopulation, displacement of species, consumption of resources, and pollution of the planet have also done nothing but accelerate. Perhaps both are true. Perhaps we are both the global brain and the global cancer – the global brain cancer.

The analogy between humanity and a cancer brings certain characteristics into focus. Cancer starts as normal tissue. Take a colon cancer, for instance. When we are born, we start off as just a few undifferentiated cells. As we gestate, more and more cells accumulate, and they begin to differentiate. Some become brain cells, some lung cells, some heart cells, some colon cells, and so forth. The body has ways of controlling all this.

Like all cells, the colon cells of the young individual seek to nourish themselves, grow, and replicate. As they do, a colon grows in the fetus until it becomes an intact, functioning organ. The body has ways of controlling all this.

The colon cells stay only in the colon. They don’t migrate to the head and fill your head with colon. They don’t go to your foot and fill your foot with colon. The body has ways of ensuring that they stay right where they should.

After birth, the child continues to grow, and the child’s colon does, too. The growth of the colon keeps pace with the growth of the individual. At some point, the individual reaches full size, and he/she stops growing. Amazingly, the colon does too. The body has ways of managing all this.

But when colon cells become a cancer, something happens. One or more colon cells escape the regulation of the body. Outside the body’s control, they do what all cells seek to do, only they do it without limit: they start replicating like crazy. They grow and grow, when they shouldn’t. As they do, they recruit more resources from the body to fuel their growth, and they excrete toxins which damage the tissue around them, providing more room for growth.

Pretty soon, they have filled all the space in their immediate vicinity, killing or pushing aside other cells. When all the space has been taken, they burst out into the rest of the body. This is called metastasis. Once out in the rest of the body, they travel to distant locations, places where they have no business being, and set up colonies there.

The original cancer grows, and the metastases grow. They convert more and more of the body’s resources to fuel their growth, depriving the other organs of the resources they need. And they put-out more and more toxins, slowly poisoning the other organs of the body. Being deprived of needed nutrition and poisoned by toxins, the host body weakens. Eventually, it gets to be too much, and the host dies. When the host dies, the cancer dies too; somehow, it never thought of that beforehand.

Similarly, humans started out as a few individuals of a specific and unique type, like cells of an organ. Our population grew slowly, but only to a point. We filled an ecological niche, doing our part to contribute to the overall balance, what Disney popularized as the Circle of Life. Like cells, we wanted to nourish ourselves, grow, and multiply. But the Earth had ways of holding our numbers down and keeping us in our place, and for a long time our population remained low, and we stayed in our niche. Do you see the parallel with normal colon cells?

At some point, however, we escaped the Earth’s control, and we began to multiply like crazy. As we did, we began converting the resources of the areas around us to serve our needs and nourish our growth. We displaced other species, and we began producing all manner of waste which polluted and poisoned the land and the waters. Just like a cancer.

At some point, we filled up all the living space around us, and we burst out into the rest of the world. Just like a metastasizing cancer, humans spread to the far reaches of the globe, often to places that are hostile to human life, places where you might say we didn’t really belong.

The population of our original settlements grew, and the population of the places we colonized grew. Like a metastasized cancer, we converted more and more of the earth’s resources to fuel our growth. Like a metastasized cancer, we produced more and more toxins, poisoning more and more of the planet. The Earth is weakening, and I have documented many of the ways in this blog.

Eventually, it will get to be too much, and our host, The Earth, will suffer a severe decline in its ability to support life (its equivalent of dying). When the Earth dies, just like the cancer, we too will die. Somehow, we won’t have managed to think of that beforehand.

It’s a dark vision. Most people like to think of mankind as, in the words of the old Jefferson Airplane song, the “crown of creation,” unique in the universe, fashioned in the image of God. To see humans as none of that, to see us as a global cancer, is quite a “come down.” What a bummer!

What would we do if we stopped seeing ourselves as the crown of creation, and started seeing ourselves as a global cancer? What if, in addition to seeing all of the triumphs of mankind as advancements, we also came to see them as the relentless progress of a deadly cancer? It would make a lot of things look very different!

It is such an uncomfortable perspective! And yet, I can’t help feeling that it is important for us to step outside the grandiose view of mankind. We need to wonder if all of our triumphs are really such good news, after all.

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This is my second-to-last post on Mogreenstats. I will be summing up and ending the blog next week.

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Sources

Russel, Peter. Undated. The Global Brain. Video originally published in Viewed online 9/30/2019 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1sr9x263LM.

Russel, Peter. 1983. The Global Brain: Speculations on the Evolutionary Leap to Planetary Consciousness. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher. This and also more recent editions with slightly different names are available on Amazon.


1 Comment

  1. hopegr says:

    Thanks for sharing John. And for all of the work you’ve put into this. I see noted that your next posting will be your last. Best wishes on closing this chapter and journeying on to the next.

    Kind regards,
    Hope

    Hope Gribble, LEED AP O+M, Green Classroom Professional | Education & Green Schools Manager
    U.S. Green Building Council – Missouri Gateway Chapter | http://www.usgbc-mogateway.org
    4651 Shaw Blvd. St. Louis, MO 63110 | hope.gribble@mobot.org | 314.577.0225

    Upcoming Events:
    October 22nd | USGBC-MGC Member Social
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