Book of the week: “Life Rules” (Part 3)

This week we are presenting the book “Life Rules. Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it” by Ellen LaConte.

According to David Braden, Ellen discusses 9 aspects of “Life’s /Eco/nomic Survival Protocol” that continuously puts life into upward spiral in spite of the geologic history of crises that life has faced. Her analysis is insightful and fascinating.

On Monday we presented an interview with Ellen, last Wednesday we summarised the most important ideas introduced in her book and finally today we focus on the idea of “Critical Mass” that is on of the keys of the text.

What is Critical Mass?

“In his 2007 bestseller Blessed Unrest, natural capitalism proponent and best-selling author Paul Hawken observed that one of the reasons most of us have not yet grasped the severity and complexity of the Critical Mass of crises we’re facing is that we haven’t had anything to compare it to. Most of us grasp something new more easily when we see how much it’s like something we’re already familiar with. We like analogies, similes and metaphors. Ostrich meat tastes like chicken, only stronger.

The iPad is comparable to a notebook computer but it’s even more portable and it’s still a cell phone. Et cetera.

In the same book, Hawken provided the key that opened my mind to an analogy I believe explains our mega-crisis and points the way to what’s caused it.

Referring to the “Gaia hypothesis,” (Sir James Lovelock’s seminal insight that Life on Earth works in ways that are similar to the way an organism like our body works) Hawken wrote that “If we accept that the metaphor of an organism can be applied to humankind [too], we can imagine a collective movement that would protect, repair, and restore that [planetary] organism’s capacity to endure when threatened,” as it presently is. Hawken proposes that such a movement—of individuals working through non-governmental organizations—would “function like an immune system” and the individuals and organizations in the movement could be thought of as antibodies.

That’s it! I thought. A threatened immune system, antibodies. . . That’s why we’re exceeding Earth’s capacity to support Life as we know it.

Critical Mass is the Earth’s equivalent of AIDS.

This insight became more compelling the longer I considered it.

Scattered around the world just as the diverse parts of the immune system are scattered throughout our bodies, Earth’s diverse natural communities and ecosystems have in the past worked together to provide the same sort of protective, defensive and healing services for Life as a whole that our immune systems provide for us. That’s what James Lovelock and others have meant when they’ve said that Life learned how to create and maintain the conditions in which it can continue to exist on Earth despite challenges like ice ages and asteroid collisions. Life evolved its own version of an immune system. And our activities are threatening to undermine it.

But, if we’re the ones who are compromising Earth’s immune system, why haven’t we hit global Critical Mass sooner? It’s not because we used to be more virtuous, intelligent or wise. We just didn’t have the tools for whole-planet conquering.

For the past 30,000 to 40,000 years, whenever we’ve arrived on a new continent, we’ve killed and eaten enough of the largest, slowest mammals we found there to render them extinct within a few thousand years. Their disappearance changed the make up of ecosystems everywhere we went to the extent that the phenomenon has a name: the Pleistocene Overkill. But mega-fauna (large animal) overkill was the only widespread destruction we were capable of back then and it happened one region and continent at a time over thousands of years. And after we’d wiped out the mega-fauna, we settled into our new locations.

New ecosystems arose around us and settled in, too. We wreaked very little additional havoc until the first civilizations arose around 6,000 years ago. Most indigenous (native) peoples have continued to fit themselves into their natural surroundings.

Civilizations, on the other hand, have always compromised the health and the healing functions of natural and human communities that were within their reach. They have always induced regional Critical Mass. But for most of the historic period, the larger planetary immune system (the majority of natural communities and ecosystems, which no civilization had yet compromised) was still intact and functioning. Compromised regional ecosystems eventually recovered and new ones, adapted to civilizations’ trespasses, arose. New, smaller-scale, less excessive human communities developed with them after the offending civilizations collapsed, and for a while these smaller communities live within Earth’s means.

We have only been technologically sophisticated enough to exceed the whole Earth’s capacity to support us and to undermine the function of all of Earth’s natural and human communities—the whole planet’s immune system—for the past one hundred, fossil-fueled, globally industrialized years. And that’s just what we’ve done. Put simply, then, Critical Mass is attacking Earth’s immune system— the methods Life has evolved over four billion years to protect and heal itself—in the same way that AIDS attacks the human immune system—the methods Life evolved over several million years to protect and heal our bodies.

Critical Mass poses the same sort of risk to human survival and Life as we know it that AIDS poses to the lives of the people it infects. If it is allowed to run its course, Critical Mass will lead to a protracted and profoundly unpleasant demise for all but the hardiest, most adaptable forms of life.”

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