Health of the Earth–Are Humans Cancer?

A lot of spin is devoted to making global warming feel immediate. The earth has a fever is one of my favorite sayings, maybe because I’m a doctor. But I have to say, the fever analogy still just doesn’t work for me. Maybe it’s because, in some small part of my mind, I’m aware that fevers can be good. Or maybe it’s because a fever doesn’t seem as ominous as global warming should feel. So what analogy would work better? 

cells_cancer_web.jpgI think, instead, that we humans are evolving into cancer of the earth. The idea isn’t my own, but, instead, that of my 13-year-old daughter, who was almost incoherent with emotion when she found that her eighth grade English teacher had assigned the class an essay (four paragraphs only!) about whether “survival of the fittest” justifies whatever humans want to do to the earth. My daughter sat over her keyboard, her face twisted with emotion, literally sputtering because she couldn’t get her indignation out fast and coherently enough. It was as if she believed that this essay, this moment, was the time when she could convince everyone in her class to care. It represented an Oscar stage of attention, when the world stood still and listened, but you had to get it all out before the band started playing and the emcee started talking over you and the tall plastic-faced women pulled you off by the arm.

Soon, she was in tears. She said that people in her class talk about how humans are the highest form of life, and are therefore justified in whatever they do to animals or the earth. How could she counter that argument? In order to help her, I tried to explain the concept of strong germs killing off all competition, and overgrowing in a petrie dish. 

Somewhat calmer, my daughter finished her essay and let me read it. She had taken the idea a step further by saying that the earth needs balance between all its life forms (or cells)—if one type overgrows because it is the strongest/smartest/most aggressive (humans), it can become a cancer.

It is a beautiful analogy, for many reasons. The concept of cancer fits that of human development. Cancer forms when cells grow out of control. Cells overgrow when the normal checks and balances—the restraint, if you will—is removed. Like cancer, humans are dependent on their energy sources, and cancer is exquisitely sensitive to its blood supply. Once cancer cells learn how to exploit blood vessels for energy, their growth becomes unlimited, and that is when damage to the host ensues. Cancer, like humans, does its greatest harm when it crowds out the normal functioning parts of the host. When cancer becomes too large for its energy source, and is cut off from a normal environment, the centers of large tumors begin to rot in the middle (industrial blight and despair). Under a microscope, the appearance of cancer cells is described as being immature (or “blastic”). How can a part of the body crowd out and kill the host–and itself in the process? You would think it would be programmed to know better. Cancer has a hard time seeing the big picture. 

I would argue that, with global warming, we should look to our successes and failures with cancer in trying to come up with a solution. So how do you get a cancer cure? Well, with cancer, old-fashioned treatment is often almost as bad as the disease. The traditional approach is to kill off cells indiscriminately—that is the basic theory of chemotherapy. Widespread, Katrina-level destruction ensues, with the hope that healthy cells are left behind. 

A more modern approach to cancer is to try to restrict the energy supply. By limiting blood vessel growth, the cancer can be kept manageable. That is the hope of today’s Bali agreement. But usually that’s not a cure.

The future of successful cancer therapy is that of getting the immature or blastic cells to mature (or differentiate). If you can trigger the molecular steps that teach a cell its role, and give the cell a defined job, and a decent environment, the cell stops being, by definition, cancer. It acquires restraint. It knows and respects its place in the greater scheme of things.

The earth may have a fever—but a fever is a symptom. Not a diagnosis. Cancers can cause fevers. But when I think of a fever, I first think of an infection—something that might have a quick fix. That’s not the situation with global warming. It’s time to call the disease by its name. If each person sees that they might be a potential cancer cell afflicting the earth, there is individual accountability. I don’t want remission. I want a cure. So here’s my question for you, and me—how blastic is your life? As a cell of the world, how mature are you? Let’s not get to the point of earth chemotherapy, okay? I’d really hate that.

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