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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Are We a Virus?

I was listening to an author on the radio this morning and she was talking about living in the desert. She made a remark that stuck in my head. It reminded me of the scene in the Matrix with Mr. Smith and Neo, in which Smith was pointing out that humans believe themselves to be mammals, but mammals generally know how to live in balance with their environment. Humans exhibit qualities found in another kind of life form -- the virus.

That view seems at best cynical, but it is worthy of some scrutiny. Viruses invade their host, but they do not always completely consume it. Most viruses want to keep their host around so that it can spread the virus around some more. However, there are viruses that do kill their host.

One of the problems an extremely deadly virus has is the potential to wipe out all available hosts and thereby bring about its own demise. Some of these viruses (like ebola) have found a way to live outside their target host either by being able to remain dormant, but viable; or by residing in a secondary host that is only a carrier, but not symptomatic (what is sometimes referred to as a vector).

The underlying question here is: does any species have built-in limiters that cause them to self-regulate their numbers. Evidence would suggest otherwise. Recently, Pollsmoor prison (where Nelson Mandela was once held) was evacuated due to a rat infestation. It seems that the prison was overcrowded by 250% causing issues with excess waste and drain blockage. This provided additional food and the rats prospered.

Humans have been able to successfully subdue any limiting factors to population growth...until now. We may be hitting a planetary wall. We can learn from smaller scale infestations. They are usually devastating to the surrounding environment. The Earth may never have experienced an infestation of the magnitude that humans are foisting upon it. We don’t really know what the end game looks like or if it will truly be an end game.

If small scale infestations can be used as a model, when the population overruns the available resources, there will be some sort of catastrophic population adjustment. The end of an infestation is rarely an orderly affair.

Life, whether protozoan or human, has certain characteristics in common. One is that we are all trying to be as successful as we can. It appears that “success” is measured in shear numbers. Seven billion is better than six billion. The problem is exponential growth. The larger the numbers, the faster the growth rate. We find ourselves at the elbow of a growth curve that is about to go ballistic unless something intervenes. What will intervene and when is hard to predict.

The only chance for an orderly conclusion is a planned reduction in growth. There are ways to do it. I’ll be sharing some ideas about that soon.

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