Planetary Cancer

Resistance-is-futileWhat is cancer? I’m certainly not an expert, but I know it has something to do with cells that start growing out of control until they eventually destroy the rest of the body. We know a little bit about why and how it happens and a tad about how to prevent it, but don’t have very effective treatments to deal with it. Sometimes we can cut it out or mix up a batch of nasty toxic chemicals that may be able to stop or slow it before the chemicals themselves kill us. If I say that cancer is out-of-control growth, then it becomes very easy to make analogies between cancer and the growth of predatory species.

Some species reproduce and spread rapidly, devouring their environment as they expand. Only when such a predatory species encounters a natural enemy or environmental limit does it stop expanding. If there arises a balance between the various species and the environment, then we have a balanced ecosystem. Otherwise, the process of natural selection leads to the extinction of inferior species in favor of the superior. What happens, however, when a species is so successful, that it destroys everything around it. We could call it a cancerous species.

Are humans a cancer upon the planet? Our only natural enemies include each other and microscopic organisms like viruses and bacteria. As long as we don’t completely destroy each other, we only have to worry about those tiny, adaptable, little pests that share the planet with us, and the environment of the planet itself. This includes, of course, large meteors that might accidentally smash into us and, in several billion years, an exploding or dying sun. Assuming we don’t get taken out anytime soon, you might say we’re like a cancer on the planet. Granted, we’re not really destroying everything. We try hard to protect anything that we like to eat, like cows and chickens. Unfortunately, when people can’t figure out how to own a resource, such as the fish in the sea, we as a society tend to be pretty incapable of protecting it. This situation often ends up creating a dilemna we call the Tragedy of the Commons. We’re also not so good at protecting other species that make non-obvious contributions to our well being, like bugs and plants with medicinal value, or are merely nice to look at in a zoo, like tigers and elephants.

Humanity is growing out of control and nothing yet appears likely to stop us. But if we are really growing like a cancer, are we also threatening some larger organism, like the planetary ecosystem? Maybe we are, but then maybe that’s just natural selection in action. We may destroy 99% of life on the planet, but will our descendents really care as long as the temperature stays moderate and we have enough to eat? They will probably have some really awesome virtual reality pods in the future that will simulate just about anything, so people will just sip lattes and direct robot servants to do all the manual labor. My main worry, however, is with those microscopic critters that are so very good at infecting and killing us and then mutating before we can kill them ourselves. We may need all the natural resources we can muster to combat them, so destroying the rest of the species on the planet may not be such a good idea.

If we can just figure out a better way to own and represent the value of other species, then we may solve the problem. Perhaps we can sell off the rights to the ocean and patrol it with a naval consortium using an advanced surveillance system to monitor activity? I’m sure we already have space-borne and undersea sensors that can be used to build this global surveillance network to protect property rights. It would not be good enough to just divide up ownership of the seas geographically, like we do with the land, because we can’t stop fish from migrating. People would just continue to fish as much as possible knowing that if they don’t, somebody else will.

Instead, we could create a new kind of commodity market to trade limited fishing, undersea mining and dumping rights for specific areas of the ocean. We already sell off electromagnetic frequency rights to communications companies and trade credits for the right to pollute, so this would not be an entirely new concept. If the same entity owned the rights to fish as well as to dump toxic chemical waste, then we might see some more responsible behavior emerge from the owners.

Unfortunately, I’m sure nobody will ever agree on how to implement such a scheme and it might just provoke another global war. Who would get the money raised from the initial sales and who would set the limits on how much fish can be caught, oil can be drilled or waste can be dumped? Does anyone want to leave it up to the United Nations? Who would be the biggest winners or losers? How would the money from the initial sales be spent? Maybe the global maritime superpowers should just get together and agree among themselves to divide it up as fairly as they can. If we don’t do anything, we’ll probably eventually end up fighting over ocean resources, in which case the most powerful nations will take the majority of it by force anyway.

In any case, let’s assume this is just a local, planetary issue that will eventually be solved. If we advance our technology enough to travel across the divide between star systems, will we spread throughout the galaxy destroying or transforming all that stands in our way? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that taking over the galaxy would necessarily be a bad thing. I’ve always been a Trekkie and I think it would be pretty cool if we could build something like the Genesis Device that can transform lifeless rocks into habitable planets (see Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Khan). But I think we may actually end up more like the Borg than the Federation, assimilating all that we encounter into our increasingly wired civilization. That is, of course, unless we encounter a superior intelligence that stops us. In any case, if you believe in my Anti-Entropic Universe theory, you will agree that it is just natural that we should do our best to help bring order to the universe.

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