Humans as Cancer
by A. Kent MacDougall
When a spot on a person's skin changes color, becomes tough or rough and
elevated or ulcerated, bleeds, scales, scabs over and fails to heal, it's
time to consult a doctor. For these are early signs of skin cancer.
As seen by astronauts and photographed from space by satellites, millions
of manmade patterns on the land surface of Earth resemble nothing so much
as the skin conditions of cancer patients. The transformation of the natural
contours of the land into the geometric patterns of farm fields, the straightening
of meandering rivers into canal-like channels, and the logging of forests
into checkerboard clearcuts all have their counterparts in the loss of normal
skin markings in cancer victims. Green forests logged into brown scrub and
overgrazed grasslands bleached into white wasteland are among the changes
in Earth's color. Highways, streets, parking lots and other paved surfaces
have toughened Earth's surface, while cities have roughened it. Slag heaps
and garbage dumps can be compared to raised skin lesions. Open-pit mines,
quarries and bomb craters, including the 30 million left by US forces in
Indochina, resemble skin ulcerations. Saline seeps in inappropriately irrigated
farm fields look like scaly, festering sores. Signs of bleeding include the
discharge of human sewage, factory effluents and acid mine drainage into
adjacent waterways, and the erosion of topsoil from deforested hillsides
to turn rivers, lakes and coastal waters yellow, brown and red. The red ring
around much of Madagascar that is visible from space strikes some observers
as a symptom that the island is bleeding to death.
If skin cancer were all that ailed Earth, the planet's eventual recovery
would be less in doubt. For with the exception of malignant melanoma, skin
cancer is usually curable. But the parallels between the way cancer progresses
in the human body and humans' progressively malignant impact on Earth are
more than skin-deep. Consider:
Cancer cells proliferate rapidly and uncontrollably in the body; humans continue
to proliferate rapidly and uncontrollably in the world. Crowded cancer cells
harden into tumors; humans crowd into cities. Cancer cells infiltrate and
destroy adjacent normal tissues; urban sprawl devours open land. Malignant
tumors shed cells that migrate to distant parts of the body and set up secondary
tumors; humans have colonized just about every habitable part of the globe.
Cancer cells lose their natural appearance and distinctive functions; humans
homogenize diverse natural ecosystems into artificial monocultures. Malignant
tumors excrete enzymes and other chemicals that adversely affect remote parts
of the body; humans' motor vehicles, power plants, factories and farms emit
toxins that pollute environments far from the point of origin.
A cancerous tumor continues to grow even as its expropriation of nutrients
and disruption of vital functions cause its host to waste away. Similarly,
human societies undermine their own long-term viability by depleting and
fouling the environment. With civilization as with cancer, initial success
begets self-defeating excess.
It's easy to dismiss the link between cancer the disease in humans and humans
as a disease on the planet as both preposterous and repulsive--or as a mere
metaphor rather than the unifying hypothesis its leading proponent claims
for it. Only a handful of limited-circulation periodicals, including this
one (see Forencich 1992/93), have granted the concept a respectful hearing.
Accepting the humans-as-cancer concept comes easier if one also accepts the
Gaia hypothesis that the planet functions as a single living organism. To
be sure, the Earth is mostly inanimate. Its rocky, watery surface supports
only a relatively thin layer of plants, animals and other living organisms.
But so, too, is a mature tree mostly dead wood and bark, with only its thin
cambium layer and its leaves, flowers and seeds actually alive. Yet the tree
is a living organism. Earth behaves like a living organism to the extent
that the chemical composition of its rocky crust, oceans and atmosphere has
both supported and been influenced by the biological processes of living
organisms over several billion years. These self-sustaining, self-regulating
processes have kept the Earth's surface temperature, its concentrations of
salt in the oceans and oxygen in the atmosphere, and other conditions favorable
James Lovelock, who propounded the Gaia hypothesis in 1979, initially rejected
humans' cancer-like impacts as a corollary, declaring flatly: "People are
not in any way like a tumor" (Lovelock 1988, p. 177). But before long he
modified this view, observing: "Humans on the Earth behave in some ways like
a pathogenic micro-organism, or like the cells of a tumor or neoplasm" (Lovelock
Others have stated the connection more strongly. "If you picture Earth and
its inhabitants as a single self-sustaining organism, along the lines of
the popular Gaia concept, then we humans might ourselves be seen as pathogenic,"
Jerold M. Lowenstein, professor of medicine at the University of California,
San Francisco, has written. "We are infecting the planet, growing recklessly
as cancer cells do, destroying Gaia's other specialized cells (that is, extinguishing
other species), and poisoning our air supply....From a Gaian perspective...
the main disease to be eliminated is us" (Lowenstein 1992).
Dr. Lowenstein isn't the first physician to examine the planet as a patient
and find it afflicted with humanoid cancer. Alan Gregg pioneered the diagnosis.
As a long-time official of the Rockefeller Foundation, responsible for recommending
financial grants to improve public health and medical education, Dr. Gregg
traveled widely in the years following World War II and observed the worldwide
population boom. By 1954 he had seen enough. In a brief paper delivered at
a symposium and subsequently published in Science, Gregg (1955) compared
the world to a living organism and the explosion in human numbers to a proliferation
of cancer cells. He sketched other parallels between cancer in humans and
humans' cancer-like impact on the world. And he expressed hope--unrealized
to this day--that "this somewhat bizarre comment on the population problem
may point to a new concept of human self-restraint."
It has fallen to a physician who is also an epidemiologist to flesh out and
fill in Gregg's sketchily drawn analysis. Warren M. Hern wrote his Ph.D.
dissertation on how the intrusion of Western civilization has increased birth
rates among Peruvian Amazon Indians. He does his bit to keep the US birth
rate down by operating an abortion clinic in Boulder, Colorado. Hern (1990)
published a major article that laid out in detail, and buttressed with anthropological,
ecological and historical evidence, the ways in which the human species constitutes
a "malignant eco-tumor." He proposed renaming us Homo esophagus (for "the
man who devours the ecosystem"). Illustrations accompanying the article included
aerial photographs of US cities juxtaposed with look-alike photos of brain
and lung tumors.
Dr. Hern has delivered papers on the hypothesis at symposia organized by
the Population Association of America, the American Association for the Advancement
of Science, and the American Public Health Association. Two papers have subsequently
been published (Hern 1993a, 1993b). But in general the scientific community
doesn't take his hypothesis seriously, preferring to see it as a mere metaphor
or analogy. Indeed, it has evoked hostility in some quarters. When Hern presented
the hypothesis at the International Conference on Population and Development
in Cairo in 1994, listeners reacted angrily, with one threatening, "Are you
ready to die?" A Denver radio talk show host called Dr. Hern an "ecoquack"
and a "fellow-in-good-standing of the Sky-Is-Falling School."
Such disparagement can be seen as yet another parallel between cancer the
scourge in humans and humans as a carcinogenic scourge on the world. For
just as Warren Hern encounters indifference, denial and downright hostility
to his views, until recently American doctors routinely kept their cancer
patients in the dark about the nature of their illness. The aim was to spare
patients the shock, fear, anger and depression that the bad news commonly
evokes. Families were reluctant to admit that a relative had died of cancer,
and newspaper obituaries referred euphemistically to the cause of a death
from cancer as "a long illness." In Japan, cancer remains a taboo topic.
Public opinion polls indicate that people would rather not know if they have
cancer and doctors would rather not tell them. When Emperor Hirohito was
dying of cancer of the duodenum, his doctors lied, telling both him and the
public that he had "chronic pancreatitis" (Sanger 1989).
In the United States, even some environmentally enlightened analysts remain
in denial when it comes to the humans-as-a-planetary-cancer hypothesis. Christopher
D. Stone, a law professor at the University of Southern California and son
of the late leftist journalist I. F. Stone, authored an influential essay
on environmental law, Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for
Natural Objects. But in his latest book Stone (1993, p.4) casts doubt on
the proposition that "the earth has cancer, and the cancer is man." "The
interdependency of the earth's parts does not amount to the interdependency
of organs within a true organism," he notes. "The earth as a whole, including
its life web, is not as fragile...the Gaian relationships are not so finely,
so precariously tuned."
Even deep ecologists acknowledge that Earth is qualitatively different from
a true organism, that its legitimate status as a superecosystem falls short
of qualifying it as a superorganism. Frank Forencich, who argued in "Homo
Carcinomicus: A Look at Planetary Oncology" (Forencich 1992/93) that "the
parallels between neoplastic growth and human population are astonishing,"
concedes that even a nuclear winter wouldn't completely destroy the living
biosphere, much less the inanimate lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere.
"We can't kill the host," he says. "Civilization will break up before the
biosphere goes" (Forencich 1993).
Still another objection is that any generalization about cancer is suspect
because cancer is not a single disease, but rather a group of more than 100
diseases that differ as to cause and characteristics. Some cancers--breast
cancer, for instance--typically grow rapidly and spread aggressively. Others,
such as cancers of the small intestine, usually grow slowly. Prostate cancer
often grows so slowly that it causes no problem. "It's completely possible
for an organism to have cancer cells for its entire lifetime and suffer no
ill effects" (Garrett 1988, p.43).
The lack of a perfect correspondence between cancer the disease in humans
and humans' cancer-like effects on the Earth invalidates the humans-as-cancer
concept for some observers. But Warren Hern insists humans-as-cancer is a
hypothesis because it is subject to verification or refutation and because
it is useful as a basis for further investigation. Frank Forencich, in contrast,
is content to consider the concept a metaphor. "That humans are like cancer
is indisputable," he says. "But humans are not cancer itself."
Whether as metaphor or hypothesis, the proposition that humans have been
acting like malignant cancer cells deserves to be taken seriously. The proposition
offers a unifying interpretation of such seemingly unconnected phenomena
as the destruction of ecosystems, the decay of inner cities and the globalization
of Western commodity culture. It provides a valuable macrocosmic perspective
on human impacts, as well as a revealing historic perspective in tracing
humans' carcinogenic propensities back to the earliest times.
The progenitors of modern humans exhibited one of cancer cells' most significant
characteristics, loss of adhesion, one to two million years ago. Because
cancer cells are attached more loosely to one another than normal cells are,
they separate easily, move randomly and invade tissues beyond those from
which they were derived. Our direct ancestors, Homo erectus, demonstrated
this trait in migrating out of Africa. Living in small mobile groups, these
foragers/scavengers/hunters spread across Asia and Europe. The next hominid
species in the evolutionary line, Homo sapiens, extended the dispersal into
previously uninhabitable northern forests and tundra. Their successors, anatomically
modern Homo sapiens sapiens, have spread to every continent and major ice-free
island. With the aid of clothing, shelter, technology and imported supplies,
they now occupy forests, wetlands, deserts, tundra and other areas formerly
considered too wet, too dry, too cold, or too remote for human habitation.
Humans now occupy, or have altered and exploited, two-thirds to nine-tenths
(estimates vary) of the planet's land surface. It seems only a matter of
time before they take over all the remaining "empty" spaces.
Humans' ongoing expropriation of the planet has proceeded apace with the
eruption of human numbers; and the eruption of human numbers has features
in common with the proliferation of cancer cells. In a healthy body, genetic
controls enable a large number of individual cells to live together harmoniously
as a single organism. Genetic switches signal normal cells when it is time
to divide and multiply, and when it is time to break apart and be absorbed
by neighboring cells. When the genetic switches are damaged, as by chemicals,
radiation, or viruses, they can get locked in the "on" position. This turns
normal cells into malignant cells that divide and multiply in disregard of
the health of the entire organism.
When humans lived in semi-nomadic bands in harmony with an environment they
did not dominate, they limited their numbers so as not to exceed the supply
of food they could gather, scavenge, and hunt. Nor did they produce more
young than they could carry between seasonal camps. Their contraceptive measures
included coitus interruptus (withdrawal), pessaries, and prolonged breastfeeding
to depress the hormones that trigger ovulation. When these methods failed,
they resorted to abortion and infanticide. Like normal cells in a healthy
body, hunter-gatherers seemed to know when to stop growing.
However, technological and cultural contaminants upset this delicate natural
balance, permitting humans to multiply beyond numbers compatible with the
harmonious health of the global ecosystem. The first and still the foremost
contaminant was fire. By 400,000 years ago--perhaps even earlier--hunter-gatherers
had learned to control and use fire. Thus began the transformation of humans
from just another large mammal in competition with other fierce predators
into the undisputed overlord of all species, plant and animal. Addiction
to combustion has defined human existence ever since, and has escalated into
the current orgy of fossil-fuel burning with the potential of overheating
Gaia and jeopardizing the existence of all her inhabitants.
Fire was generally benign when used by hunter-gatherers to thin dense forests
into more open and park-like landscapes supporting more game. But the increase
in food supply that more effective hunting and the cooking of tough meat
and fibrous vegetable matter made possible swelled hunter-gatherer populations.
As humans proliferated and spread out, overhunted and overgathered, large
game and suitable wild foods became less abundant. This made hunting and
gathering less efficient, leaving horticulture, which previously hadn't been
worth the extra effort, as the only viable alternative.
Clearing forests to farm began some 10,000 years ago in Asia Minor. About
2000 years later, shifting horticulturists began slashing and burning their
way northwestward across Europe. They overwhelmed and pushed aside less numerous
hunter-gatherers before giving way in turn to agriculturalists whose plow
cultivation of permanent fields permitted more intensive food production
and denser populations.
Agriculture condemned peasants to a short, harsh life of monotonous toil,
an inadequate diet, the constant threat of crop failure and starvation and
exposure to virulent contagious diseases. It fostered social stratification
and sexual inequality, cruel treatment of animals, despotism and warfare.
And it encouraged further cancer-like encroachment on wilderness to feed
increased populations and to replace fields and pastures eroded and depleted
of soil fertility by overcropping and overgrazing. The elites that came to
dominate sedentary agrarian societies caused still more woodland to be cleared
and marshland to be drained to maximize production they could expropriate
for their own use. This economic surplus, in turn, helped support an increasing
concentration of people in river valleys, along seacoasts, and in cities.
The massing of humans into cities is all too similar to the way crowded cancer
cells harden into tumors. Whereas normal cells in a tissue culture stop reproducing
when they come in contact with other cells, cancer cells continue to divide
and pile up on top of one another, forming clumps. Normal cells display contact
inhibition, growing only to the limits of their defined space and then stopping.
Cancer cells never know when to quit.
Likewise, human populations grow even under extremely crowded conditions.
The very essence of civilization is the concentration of people in cities.
As scattered farming villages evolved into towns, and some towns became trading,
manufacturing, ceremonial and administrative centers, the city was born.
Fed by grain grown in the provinces and served by slaves seized there, the
administrative centers of empires grew large; Rome may have reached one million
people at its height in 100 C.E. Yet not until industrialization and the
extensive exploitation of distant resources after 1800 did cities really
begin getting out of hand, and in 1900, still only one in ten people lived
in cities. Half will in 2000, with 20 metropolitan areas expected to have
10 million or more people each.
The propensity of modern cities to spread out over the countryside--absorbing
villages, destroying farm fields, filling in open land, and creating vast
new agglomerations--was noted early in this century by the Scottish garden-city
planner Patrick Geddes. Geddes (1915) identified half a dozen such "conurbations"
in the making in Britain, and he foresaw the approach of a 500-mile megalopolis
along the northern Atlantic seaboard in the United States. Geddes compared
urban sprawl to an amoeba, but it fell to his American protege Lewis Mumford
to liken disorderly, shapeless, uncoordinated urban expansion to a malignant
tumor, observing that "the city continues to grow inorganically, indeed cancerously,
by a continuous breaking down of old tissues, and an overgrowth of formless
new tissue" (Mumford 1961, p. 543).
A malignant tumor develops its own blood vessels as it grows. Similarly,
cities vascularize with aqueducts, electric power lines, highways, railroads,
canals and other conduits. A tumor uses its circulation network to pirate
nutrients from the body. Similarly, cities parasitically tap the countryside
and beyond to bring in food, fuel, water, and other supplies. However, just
as a tumor eventually outgrows its blood supply, causing a part of it, often
at the center, to die, inner city neighborhoods and even older suburbs often
atrophy. Alan Gregg (1955) noted this parallel 40 years ago, observing "how
nearly the slums of our great cities resemble the necrosis of tumors."
Humans are increasingly concentrated along seacoasts. Sixty percent of the
world's people now live within 100 kilometers of a seacoast. In Australia,
one of the world's most highly urbanized nations, nine of every ten people
live along the coast. The boom in international trade, from which coastal
areas receive a disproportionate share of the benefits, helps explain the
worldwide trend; but the pattern goes back thousands of years and parallels
yet another carcinogenic process: metastasis.
In metastasis, a tumor sheds cancer cells that then migrate to distant sites
of the body and set up secondary growths. The medium for the migration of
the cells is the blood and lymphatic systems. In the ancient world of the
Mediterranean, another fluid--water--facilitated the migration of people
and goods. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthagenians and Romans all took advantage
of the relative ease of travel and transport by water to establish colonies
all around the Mediterranean. At the height of the Roman Empire, no fewer
than 500 settlements flourished along the African coast from Morocco to Egypt.
Just as secondary tumors in the human body destroy the tissues and organs
they invade, colonizers of the ancient Mediterranean devastated the fertile
but fragile ecosystems of the coastal regions they colonized. They logged
coastal forests for ship timbers and building materials, to provide charcoal
to fire bricks and pottery and smelt mineral ores, and to create farm fields
and pastures. Overcropping, fires, sheep and goats prevented regeneration.
Intense winter rains washed the thin, easily eroded soil down hillsides into
coastal plains to smother farm fields, choke the mouths of rivers, create
malarial marshes, bury port cities and strand many of them miles from the
sea. The slopes, left barren, have not recovered to this day.
The voraciousness of secondary tumors as they invade and consume tissues
and organs has its counterpart in the orgies of destruction that states and
especially empires have engaged in for 5000 years. In many cases, the destruction
has exceeded what was in the destroyer's own self-interest. Many invaders
routinely obliterated the cities they conquered, massacred their inhabitants,
and destroyed their fields and flocks instead of just taking them over. Carpet
bombing of cities and the mass slaughter of their civilian noncombatant populations
during World War II constitute the modern equivalent. Ancient Romans ransacked
their empire for bears, lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, hippos and other
live animals to be tormented and killed in public arenas until there were
no more to be found. European invaders of North America and Siberia did in
the fur trade from which they so hugely profited by the self-defeating overkill
of fur-bearing animals.
Human destruction of ecosystems has increased relentlessly since industrialization.
The annihilation of 60 million bison on the North American Great Plains was
made possible by the intrusion of railroads and the invention of the repeating
rifle. The reckless exploitation of whales was speeded by the invention of
the explosive harpoon, cannon-winch and engine-driven ship. Enormous nets
towed by today's factory trawlers permit oceans to be strip-mined for fish--and
any other creature unlucky enough to become ensnared in these curtains of
death. Tractors and other modern farm machinery alternately compact and pulverize
topsoil, increasing its vulnerability to erosive winds and rains. Chain saws
and bulldozers level forests faster than axes and hand saws ever could. Dynamite
and drag line excavators permit strip mining on a scale hitherto unimaginable,
decapitating mountains, turning landscapes into moon craters, and rendering
islands such as phosphate-rich Nauru in the South Pacific all but uninhabitable.
Boring holes in the earth to get at minerals, of course, resembles the way
cancer bores holes in muscle and bone. As Peter Russell (1983, p.33) has
observed, "Technological civilization really does look like a rampant malignant
growth blindly devouring its own ancestral host in a selfish act of consumption."
Just as a fast-growing tumor steals nutrients from healthy parts of the body
to meet its high energy demands, industrial civilization usurps the resources
of healthy ecosystems that their natural plant and animal inhabitants depend
on for survival. In 1850, humans and their livestock accounted for 5 percent
of the total weight of all terrestrial animal life. Today, that portion exceeds
20 percent, and by the year 2030 it could reach 40 percent (Westing 1990,
"Never before in the history of the earth has a single species been so widely
distributed and monopolized such a large fraction of the energetic resources.
An ever diminishing remainder of these limited resources is now being divided
among millions of other species. The consequences are predictable: contraction
of geographic ranges, reduction of population sizes, and increased probability
of extinction for most wild species; expansion of ranges and increased populations
of the few species that benefit from human activity; and loss of biological
diversity at all scales from local to global" (Brown and Maurer 1989).
Decline in diversity is common to both cancer and civilization. In both cases,
heterogeneity gives way to homogeneity, complexity to simplification. Malignant
cells fail to develop into specialized cells of the tissues from which they
derive. Instead, "undifferentiated, highly malignant cells tend to resemble
one another and fetal tissues more than their adult normal counterpart cells"
(Ruddon 1987, p.230).
De-differentiation in human societies is at least as old as agriculture and
animal husbandry. Farmers have been replacing diverse species of native plants
with pure stands of domesticated crops for thousands of years. Instead of
the thousands of kinds of plants that pre-agricultural peoples gathered for
food, just seven staples--wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, barley, sweet potato
and cassava--now supply three-quarters of the caloric content of all the
world's food crops. The world's astonishing abundance and variety of wildlife
is going fast, with many species soon to be seen only in zoos and game parks,
their places taken by cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and other domesticated livestock.
Despite their value in providing wildlife habitat, modulating flood waters
and filtering out pollutants, more than half of the world's swamps, marshes,
bogs, seasonal flood plains and other wetlands have been drained, dredged,
filled in, built on or otherwise destroyed. Temperate forests dominated by
trees of many species and of all ages are giving way to single species, same-aged
conifer plantations supporting far fewer birds and other wildlife. And the
tropical forests that harbor more than half of all species on Earth are being
mowed down faster than their bewildering biodiversity can be identified,
leading some experts to warn that we are causing the greatest mass extinction
since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
The tendency of civilizations to homogenize and impoverish ecosystems is
nowhere clearer than in urban areas. Major cities are becoming indistinguishable
from one another in appearance and undifferentiated in function. Central
business districts so resemble one another that travelers can be forgiven
for forgetting whether they are in Boston, Brussels or Bombay. Shanty cities
in poor countries look alike, as do suburbs in rich countries.
As Lewis Mumford pointed out more than 30 years ago, the archetypal suburban
refuge in the United States consists of "a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable
houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a
treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same
income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances,
eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming
in every outward and inward respect to a common mold, manufactured in the
central metropolis. Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our
time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is
impossible" (Mumford 1961, p.486).
Globalization of the economy is enclosing the entire world in a single market
for machine-made goods that are increasingly standardized whatever their
country of origin. Western material values and capitalist commodity culture,
led by American television, movies, music, street fashions and fast food,
are dominant internationally. Local and regional individuality, along with
indigenous cultures, languages and world views, are fading fast.
The decline of natural and cultural diversity is as threatening to the planet
as undifferentiated cells are to the cancer patient. Whereas a well-differentiated
prostate cancer tends to grow slowly, remain localized and cause no symptoms,
a poorly differentiated one often spreads aggressively. Similarly, traditional
farmers who keep weeds, pests and plant diseases in check by rotating crops,
fertilizing naturally, and maintaining the tilth of the soil don't threaten
Earth's health the way single-crop plantations relying on pesticides, synthetic
fertilizers and heavy machinery do. Unfortunately, monocultural agriculture
is becoming the norm on every continent.
Hemorrhaging is still another symptom of the carcinogenic process. The first
sign of cancer is often spontaneous bleeding from a body orifice, discharge
from a nipple, or an oozing sore. Vomiting can warn of a brain tumor or leukemia.
Signs that Earth, too, has cancer abound. Cities vomit human sewage and industrial
wastes into adjacent waterways. Mines and slag heaps ooze mercury, arsenic,
cyanide and sulfuric acid. Wells gush, pipelines leak and tankers spill oil.
Farm fields discharge topsoil, fertilizers, pesticides and salts to silt
up and poison rivers and estuaries. Cattle feedlots add manure. Most serious
of all, deforested, eroded hillsides hemorrhage floods of mud.
Fever is another symptom of cancer in both humans and the planet. Cancer
patients become fevered because of increased susceptibility to infection
caused by a depressed immune system. Chemotherapy and irradiation can also
cause fever, as can temperature-elevating substances released by a malignant
tumor. Global warming is the planetary counterpart. Waste products released
by industry and motor vehicles, deforestation and other feverish human activities
pump inordinate quantities of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons
and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere where they trap heat and raise
Wasting, or cachexia, is still another sign of advanced cancer. A cancer
patient becomes fatigued and weak, losing both appetite and weight as the
tumor releases toxic hormones and makes metabolic demands on the body. "Many
cancer patients die not of cancer itself, but of progressive malnutrition"
(Rosenbaum 1988, p.264). The planetary counterpart includes loss of forests,
fisheries, biodiversity, soil, groundwater and biomass.
It's not in a tumor's self-interest to steal nutrients to the point where
the host starves to death, for this kills the tumor as well. Yet tumors commonly
continue growing until the victim wastes away. A malignant tumor usually
goes undetected until the number of cells in it has doubled at least 30 times
from a single cell. The number of humans on Earth has already doubled 32
times, reaching that mark in 1978 when world population passed 4.3 billion.
Thirty-seven to 40 doublings, at which point a tumor weighs about one kilogram,
are usually fatal (Tannock 1992, pp. 157, 175).
Like a smoker who exaggerates the pain of withdrawal and persists because
the carcinogenic consequences of his bad habit don't show up for 20 or 30
years, governments generally avoid the painful adjustments needed to prevent
social, economic and environmental disasters in the making. "Governments
with limited tenure, in the developing as well as in the developed countries,
generally respond to immediate political priorities; they tend to defer addressing
the longer term issues, preferring instead to provide subsidies, initiate
studies, or make piecemeal modifications of policy" (Hillel 1991, p. 273).
So it usually takes a crisis, often a catastrophe, before even the most commonsensical
action is taken--and then it is often too late to avoid irreversible ecological
Is the prognosis for the planet as grim as it is for a patient with advanced
cancer? Or will infinitely clever but infrequently wise Homo sapiens alter
geocidal behaviors in time to avoid global ruin? Even the most pessimistic
doomsayers concede that humans have the capacity to arrest Gaia's deteriorating
condition. Cancer cells can't think, but humans can. Cancer cells can't know
the full extent of the harm they're doing to the organism of which they are
a part, whereas humans have the capacity for planetary awareness. Cancer
cells can't consciously modify their behavior to spare their host's life
and prolong their own, whereas humans can adjust, adapt, innovate, pull back,
Gaia's future, and humans' with it, depends on their doing so.
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A. Kent MacDougall (911 Oxford St., Berkeley CA 94707) is professor emeritus
of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He completed his
25-year newspaper reporting career in 1987 with a 24,000-word series of articles
for the Los Angeles Times on deforestation around the world and through the
ages. The series won the Forest History Society's John M. Collier Award for
Forest History Journalism.