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A Matter of Self-defense

Defense. What comes to your mind when you consider that word? There are so many uses for the word: military and weapons like ballistic missiles help provide our national defense, karate and martial arts help provide us self-defense, and seat belts and mandatory safety inspections help provide us defense in our cars. And the list goes on, a litany of applications using the word defense; the more you ponder it the more applications arise.

We aren’t the only ones to do so: every species of plant and animal has their own unique means of self-defense ranging from poison, teeth and claws, powerful scents, and even vivid colors. Plants also defend themselves, but lacking mobility they are not overtly effective of course but consider poison ivy and the bane of my personal existence here in RI – bull briars and their impenetrable thorns.

And what of our biological defenses? There is the immune system itself, the primary means of protecting us from germs, bacteria and illness. But we try to help it, bolster it, with little things like good hygiene – washing our hands for example – and we use hand sanitizer and disinfectants. And during cold and flu season we try to avoid close contact with people, but being humans, we invariably find ways to still catch something or another. And of course, we can’t forget the granddaddy of self-defense: vaccines. We inoculate ourselves against anything and everything for which medical science is able to develop a vaccine. (At least most of us, incredibly and truly sadly, but that for another writing….)

But today’s consideration is our blue marble, the good earth; what is mother earth’s defense? How does the earth protect itself? If at all? The question of self-defense from an inanimate object is moot; but while earth may not be on many people’s first cut of a list of living things, it is decidedly not inanimate and is, most decidedly, living. But being as immense and complex as our planet is, figuring out which things are for the sustainment of the planet versus which are specifically for self-defense is difficult. Certainly the atmosphere – including the ozone layer – is crucial for survival of most everything that defines this a living planet and could be counted as self-defense, although the atmosphere protects the inhabitants, not the planet per se. Some might argue that earthquakes are a form of self-defense, but I personally disagree. I believe that earthquakes are integral to the formation and preservation of our earth’s surface – a rejuvenation of sorts. And much the same with typhoons, hurricanes, blizzards and the like; all part of the larger system to regrow and replenish.

Frankly, the earth is such a perfect system that, in my opinion, it needs no real self-defense; not as one would normally define self-defense. Anything I have been able to immediately think of as possible planetary self-defense can be argued to be for the plants and animals, not for the geosphere itself. If someone has some thoughts on what could be defined as an actual self-defense mechanism for the planet itself, and not us who live here, I’d be delighted. If you have an idea on this, please feel free to leave a comment or email me.

I suppose that at the heart of the issue is how you define the planet; does it remain a viable entity if there are no longer plants and animals? If humans cease to be? I say yes simply because that is how it began. I guess philosophically you could make the argument that the earth is here to provide a home to the species that reside upon it and if they (we) are no longer present, the earth no longer serves a purpose and therefore anything it does to provide for and protect its inhabitants is a form of self-defense, but I am not on the side of agreement with that argument. The earth spin on whether we are here or not. The moon is barren and lifeless but has purpose; tidal effects alone are more than enough to demonstrate that. And the same in one way or another with all of the planets – they are “functional” in one way or another, even if only to balance the gravity and equilibrium of the solar system. So in this sense, the planet remains viable regardless of a daisy, a butterfly, a sparrow, or a human.

But this all assumes a symbiotic relationship between the planet and its inhabitants; or more specifically, a non-parasitic relationship. As I discussed earlier in a post last year, there are three types of symbiosis: commensal where one organism benefits from the relationship greatly while the other is not helped but is not harmed, a mutual relationship is one where both organisms benefit, and a parasitic is a relationship where one organism benefits but at the harm and expense of the other. I am sure you’ve all seen the bumper sticker “Coexist”? A common version uses a variety of symbols from different religions to create the letters to help reinforce the message that all different religions should live together in peace and harmony. Such the same with relationship between earth and its inhabitants; the relationship should ideally be mutual, but certainly communal at best; it should never be parasitic. No species residing on this planet should cause harm or damage to the planet – intentionally or otherwise.

Can we, collectively, look into a mirror and affirm that we have not harmed this planet? Without getting into a whole discourse on the ozone layer, climate change, groundwater contamination, strip mining, deforestation, and a lengthy list of similar sins – of course we can’t. We’ve inflicted great harm to earth and the cumulative damage is now increasing that harm exponentially. The earth is a marvelous and majestic system of complex and dynamic workings that renews and replenishes itself regularly. But every time the earth finds another way to compensate for something we’ve done to it, we go and do ten more harmful things to it and in my opinion, the earth is suffering – reeling – from our assault on it. And not just the earth, but the other species too; consider how many other species we have either eradicated from this planet, or about to eradicate. It is a somber read should you take the time to research it dear reader, staggering actually.

We, the former custodians of this round rock, have become parasites. We have brought great damage, devastation, and destruction to our planet and to those who merely wished to coexist with us. How supremely arrogant and self-serving of us! Of course, I can’t say it was intentional; it grew slowly and almost imperceptibly. And when the toll of our damage became undeniable to those who took the time to recognize it, they tried to warn us, even fifty years ago there were dire warnings on what we were doing to this planet. And much like the panhandlers I just wrote about in this blog, most people wanted to ignore the whole thing and criticized and made fun of those sounding the alarm. They were labeled tree huggers, hippies, and pot smoking nuts who hadn’t even the simplest grasp of science. How sad and how typical. The first form of self-defense with people who are scared by the message and wish it all to go away is to shoot the messenger – discredit them with ridicule and derogatory remarks.

One of the least attractive forms of self-defense.

I was part of it too; perhaps not insulting or cruel, but I trusted in the concept that this earth is far more complex than our simple minds can comprehend and surely can, and does, protect itself from us. But without even spending a modicum of effort in research, it is becoming painfully and horrifying clear to me that we are destroying our planet and it very well may not be able to survive us. So let those who don’t wish to face the truth go ahead and feel free to make fun of me and call me a tree hugger while they stick their heads in the sand to ignore the obvious because it is uncomfortable. I’ve been called worse.

Can earth protect itself from us? I don’t think so, at least in the way you would think. Most self-defense is aimed at stopping the harmful behavior by some means or another and I do not see how earth could muster a defense to stop all we’ve done – are doing – to it. But I do believe that earth, nature, has another means to try and stop us – disease. Think back over the last 30 years or so. There was HIV, SARS, swine flu, bird flu, ebola, zika virus, and now the coronavirus. There is a long history of disease ravaging the human population and arresting our growth, at least temporarily. Think back to the plague, the black death, yellow fever, smallpox, measles, and polio – prodigious killers all. But in most every case mankind figured out how to arrest the spread and then to prevent the reoccurrence; especially over the last 30 years. (Editorial note here: measles killed 122,000 in 2012, this a disease all but eradicated thanks to vaccines but now resurging due to some irrational fear of the vaccine.) Are these diseases a result of earth trying to slow us down, shrink our numbers, and focus our time and money on combatting the disease instead of developing new ways to harm the planet?  

When is it too late? I like to think never, that it is never too late to start to turn things around, to help rather than to hurt. But in this case? I shake my head in despair…witnessing the steadfast denial that anything is wrong with our earth, coupled with the derision and ridicule heaped upon those who suggest otherwise is leading me to think there is no reversal. And our politicians and other people of great wealth and power lead that pack. Personally, I believe the reason is two-fold: it is logistically too huge and complex to even attempt to wrap your head around, so easier to disbelieve than try to fix it. And secondly, the world’s economy is deeply and I think, irrevocably intertwined with the very things that are damaging the planet and to consider anything that will be impactful and positive to the earth will be damaging to industry and big business and will damage them financially – not in their best interests. Hate to be pessimistic, but that is my belief.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though! I recycle, as vigorously as I can. I am burning wood to burn less oil in the furnace (and as you may know dear reader, I am enjoying the side benefit of carrying on this time-honored tradition). I treasure our forests and woodlands and plant vegetation as often as I can. I donate to causes I believe are honest and sincere in trying to help our planet. And I will vote – not according to the candidate’s party, but their position on the environment. We need to use the power provided us in our respective elections – it is a beginning.

Part of the real problem though, is that specific issues and the exacting responses remain unclear, at least to me. Incontrovertible and undeniable empirical evidence abounds showing our CO2 levels on earth. That is a real and immediately pressing issue, but I have no understanding on what, exactly we can do, to fix it. And as I have written in the past, whatever we do has to be scientifically thought through, tested, and retested. We have to be sure we don’t cure the disease by substituting a different disease; and don’t cure the disease and kill the patient. The solution(s) need to be precise, clear, effective, manageable, and agreeable, palatable, (at least on some level) to masses – the general populace. And mitigating large-scale economic impact will be critical to ensuring the support of big business and the politicians. Truly a tough task. But so overwhelmingly urgent.

I treasure this planet every time I am fortunate enough to roam through the forests. And it is easy to be lulled into believing that nothing is wrong when you are out there – life abounds. But the melting of our ice caps, the deforestation of the Amazon as well as much the rest of our green earth, the ground and water pollution, the skyrocketing carbon dioxide levels, and thousands of more data points toughen the ground so much that I can no longer stick my head in it. This is real and this is happening. I beseech you all to do the little things that you can in your daily lives, but mostly to place the right people into the right places in order to help us all; vote based on a conviction to our earth and a plan to help it.

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