Gaia's Fever:
Humanity as Disease

Humanity as Disease

Our Mother, Gaia, is sick. She has a profound fever, and disease organisms are growing rampantly. By mere chemo-physical processes, the temperature of the atmosphere is rising, droughts are desertifying arable land, heavy rain is washing away those soils, creatures are migrating because cooler climes are becoming warmer, glaciers and polar ice caps are melting, oceans are rising, deadly temperatures of 36 degrees Celsius are being recorded, and jet planes are being grounded from overheating, because the Earth's eco-climatosphere-system cannot shed heat fast enough. One explanation of a fever is that it's one way the body has of fighting a disease organism. Perhaps the heat of a fever is produced by the disease organism burning up its host's fuel reserves.

We don't think of ourselves as a disease any more than a virus, a bacterium, a protozoa, or a parasite would, if it were conscious. We, as they, seek to survive and propagate. But just as an organism extracts the abundant gifts of its host until those gifts are exhausted, so we do the gifts of the global ecosystem; just as that organism grows its demands without bounds, so we grow our demands of water, fish, arable land, soil nutrients and minerals; just as that organism extracts the energy reserves of the host at such a rate that it burns in fever, so we extract oil and heat the Earth; just as that organism produces waste the body cannot metabolize, so we produce plastic waste that cannot be digested by any organism; just as that organism absorbs nutrients and occupies cellular systems without care or replenishment, so we swallow our aquafers, rivers and soils; just as that organism dumps toxins into the body until the body cannot operate, so we have dumped nuclear and chemical toxins into the body of Gaia, until even the insects are in retreat. Just as that organism might kill its host, so might humans destroy Earth's capacity to support life. If oceans are without fish or corals or kelp, and continents are without forests or grasses, is Gaia even alive? Humanity in its habits of extraction and consumption is to Earth what a disease is to us, consuming the contents of cells and commandeering their machinery of growth, we grow like a virus or a cancer, and as Gaia's fever mounts, the systems that support life weaken. Thus shall Earth rid itself of the disease known as humanity, if it survives to recover.

Humanity and life in our time face existential dangers, and without dramatic systemic change, the global climate regime will fail, and Earth will experience its sixth mass extinction, possibly not excluding Homo sapiens. There are many who are trying to understand what systemic changes are needed, but if the obvious science were sufficient to motivate politicians and populations, changes would be easy to make, and we wouldn't need to compel them. The critical question now is "How will we force those changes?" That vast bulk of humanity who will do the suffering, lose the livelihoods, lose the lives, must forcefully demand changes. And to move them, we must engage in broad-based education, the telling of new stories, the making of new myths and metaphors. Humanity must know why the weather is changing, the seas are rising, the soils are being blown or washed away, why the fish are all gone, and why Gaia has a fever. The vast innocent bulk of humanity must know how human beings became the disease, so it will rise up and demand the deep change that Gaia, and humanity, needs.

Anthropocentric Ecosystem

Gaia's fever began to build when humanity began to use coal for fuel, and accelerated with the accelerating use of petroleum and natural gas. But fossil fuels aren't the only source of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. As plant material is metabolized by fungus and bacteria, cutting forests emits carbon, plowing wild prairie and grasslands emits carbon, raising animals for meat, in feed lots, emits carbon, and over fishing the oceans emits carbon. And the green-house effect isn't the only effect of carbon, as CO2 acidifies the ocean, also. And while these direct bio-physical effects of CO2 are bad enough, cutting trees reduces the amount of carbon they can capture and the oxygen they can produce, destroys wildlife habitat and biodiversity, and drives indigenous peoples out of their homes. Converting prairies into farmland destroys ecosystems and their bio-diversity, and sometimes results in desertification. The acidification of oceans kills corals and their ecosystems and bio-diversity, making them sterile and unable to support any life, and overfishing disrupts ecosystems that produce 80% of the Earth's oxygen. The oceans cover 3/4ths the Earth's surface. If the oceans die, and the forests have forgotten how to grow, and the soils have blown away or been washed into the ocean, is Earth still alive?

All of these terrifying effects can be traced to human activity, and the pursuit of raw materials to be converted into products that human beings want. Gaia's fever is a direct vertical result of a consumption driven over exploitation of Earth's natural and fossilized organic resources. Humanity is destroying Earth's life-sustaining climate systems, in pursuit of the materials it needs to make life luxurious for the rich one eighth of humanity.

The dates, measured from Jan 1, on which each country of the world has used all of natural resources and ecosystem services which that country produces in a year.
For the rest of the year, consumption degrades habitat & ecosystem services, and borrows resources from the future.

How is it even possible to live beyond our means? Simply, not all resources can be harvested sustainably. They might support human life while we have them, and then not when they are gone. In the same way that two mice can produce thousands of additional mice when they find a farmer's storage bin of grain, and then have nothing to eat when the grain is gone, humanity has expanded beyond the means of our planet to support its entire population (caveat: the rich 1/8 consume 1/2 the resources). Before petroleum, fields were plowed with animals, and a lot of people were needed for farming, and even though food could be shipped by wagon or horse, enough food could not be produced or shipped, to sustain large urban industrial populations. The economy necessarily has an output proportional to its energy throughput, and before petroleum, that through put supported about a billion people on Earth. Today, supported by the fossil-carbon ecosystem, Earth supports almost 8 billion. Living beyond our means happens when the resource that supports that population is not renewable and cannot be sustained.

Economists give credit to "innovation" for the life-style of the global north, and the temporarily augmented carrying capacity of Earth, but this is a self-congratulatory conceit. The true measures of economic activity are the quantities of energy and extracted resources flowing through the economy. "Innovation" is simply the process of finding ways to use the energy and materials to productive effect. But remove the energy, and the innovation becomes junk littering history.

Coal made possible trains and boats that could be used to ship food across continents and oceans. Petroleum made large mechanized farms possible, and reduced the time and expense of transporting food to large population centers, making possible the migration of large numbers of farm workers into cities and industrial areas. There, with this labor, petroleum made possible sophisticated machinery, chemistry, and nitrogen conversion, which further increased food supplies. And petroleum chemistry produced plastics, which replaced wood, metal, and natural fibers, making possible many more very cheap consumer goods, increasing yet further the number of people the planet could support, in the short term. This is how overshoot is possible.

Together, extraction, innovation and energy, produced the "green revolution", which would avert the starvation of a great number of poor farmers around the world. It was great, we are told, because it fed people who might have starved, without any sacrifice by the rich countries. Because instead of leaders needing to change the system so that food would be distributed equitably, so that the poor could be educated and choose smaller families, so that the wealth of the economy would be used to help the poor, instead of addressing injustice just when the population of the planet was still sustainable and the planet was still climate stable, the leaders of the world promoted the "green revolution", another market solution which produced super crops, insecticides and genetically engineered Round-up ready crops, allowed the birth of billions more people, and allowed the global capitalists to continue to accumulate their wealth. Before the green revolution, there was fear of starvation of some of 3 billion people, but not of global ecosystem collapse. After the green revolution, the consumption of wood, fish, palm oil, and petroleum, to feed and sustain the nearly 8 billion people on our planet today, and attend especially to the needs of the richest one billion, threatens global ecosystem collapse and, in the wake of that collapse, the starvation and death of an unpredictable fraction, perhaps totality, of humanity.

All of these changes were made by innovators pursuing opportunities for a better life, as given to them by luck or circumstance. These opportunities frequently included militarily conquering lands, enslaving people, or genocide. It includes the cutting of precious rain forests to plant palm oil plantations, the clear cutting of forests for the lumber to build the housing that the most wealthy of people need, it includes the enslavement of laborers across the world today, it includes single use plastic packaging clogging sewers and rivers in the global south, it includes dumping the wastes of entire cities into oceans, it includes such a heavy burden of chemicals and insecticides in the soils of North America that even the insects are in decline, including the pollinators we need for our foods crops to yield food, and it includes pumping enough CO2 into the atmosphere to completely alter the climate system.

The world energy supply is still based almost entirely on carbon based fossil fuels

To look back in history and judge a person for doing something not intentionally destructive is immodest. Who's to say you or I would not have done the same, given the opportunity and means? What is done is done, and some of what has been done might prove a benefit to life on Earth and humanity (which does not disprove the contra-factual possibility that other choices could have produced a better world). There is much humanity has accomplished which we can be proud to give to our children. But the wealth of the few has been built from the unsustainable liquidation of nature, on the backs of the poor, the colonized, the exploited. Today we know better, and today we can act to correct those mistakes, and must act to save our lives, and the lives of creatures that 3.6 billion years of evolution have given us.

Only a fraction of humanity has benefited from the carbon revolution, and those who will suffer the most contributed the least. The carbon revolution has operated side by side with property ownership to create inequality of wealth, health, and opportunity, and to reduce the stability and functionality of integrated (indigenous) low carbon, sustainable communities. While some incipient civilizations have destroyed their habitats, denuding landscapes of forests, and converting them to deserts, in no time previous have humans pursued the intentional liquidation of nature - even the global atmosphere itself! - for "profit", on such a massive scale.

Hans Rosling, screen capture The Magic Washing Machine, describing the distribution of fossil fuel use, as of 2010.

While the largest impacts follow from the rampant use of petroleum, natural gas and coal, which causes the greenhouse effect and drives major climate-system shifts, Rockstrom (2008) and Steffen, etal, (2015) have described nine "planetary boundaries", within which the global ecosystem must remain to provide a viable and sustainable environment for human life as we know it. Their system needs additional work, but captures the necessary ideas.

The existential question we face is whether Homo sapiens is capable of self-restraint. Is the animal - with the largest brain, the capacity for symbolic and abstract thought, the only animal capable of recording its history exosomatically, the first large brain generalist capable of living in every land habitat on the planet, the only living species capable of self-sustaining use of fire, of harvesting energy from fossilized stores and even directly from the sun, of making exosomatic tools that use exosomatic energy, and apparently the only species capable of destroying life on Earth through it's own correctable behavior - capable of restraining its ambitions, setting limits for itself, and abiding by them, correcting its behavior, despite the temptation, and selfish benefits, of crossing those boundaries? If the answer is "No", we indeed destroy the one habitat in our solar system that can sustain us.

There is good reason to believe we can resist those temptations. Humanity has lived in balance with nature far longer than out of balance. And the advantage we have today - given our capacity for abstraction, learning, and anticipating the future - is that we know better. Our science informs us in ways that the science of no previous civilization has been privileged to. We have a huge diversity of cultures to choose useful parts of ( And some of us still remember the old ways, the sustainable ways.

But there is good reason to believe that humanity will cross those boundaries, and do so with conviction. An article in The intercept described 25 billion dollars in new subsidies - which "critics say, ... subsidizes industry 'greenwashing' for the fossil fuel industry." The wealth engine is unremitting, and in control of the narrative which guides policy. That narrative is told and shaped in an ideological bubble, but the thought leaders who concoct those narratives are brilliant, ambitious, determined, and endowed with enough money to do anything they want to. They changed the key phrase "Global Warming" to "Climate Change", something far less threatening. They have a firm grip on the narrative of our economy, the people who elect the politicians, and the politicians who dole out the money. Our task is daunting.

The popular image to explain the 9 Boundaries. See references for a link to a Ted Talk for an explanation.
Steffen, W., et al. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet.
Science, 347(6223).

Our task is daunting, and we are divided across varied interests, and while so many of us are mobilizing for change, most of us have no understanding of the dangers. Those of us who believe that Gaia's Fever is an existential threat, who argue against the short term interests of the extractivist wealth class, who argue for cooling the economy and the planet, must find common cause with each other, across our varied sub-interests. We must write a new narrative (Shiller, 2019) to guide all economic, social and political policy, bring the vast mass of humanity into common cause, as they implicitly are, and mobilize vast demonstrations, and interfere with business as usual, to disrupt business as usual, while also implementing that narrative on local and national scales. Then, we must be prepared when the inevitable crises present us with opportunities, and plan to act with confidence. We must learn to engage opportunities we do not expect, and we must do so together, with a commitment to get through this together. Because Gaia's fever is already killing us.

Internet image, attribution citation welcome


BBC. (2011, March 16). James Lovelock—The Gaia Hypothesis 13:40 m:s: Vol. Video capture BBC production.

Kensington TV. (2008, April 30). James Lovelock Explains Gaia Hypothesis on The Sacred Balance (TV) 4:29 m:s [Video 4:29 m:s].

Naked Science. (2014, May 21). Gaia Hypothesis—James Lovelock 28:46.

The Guardian. (2014, April 11). We should give up on saving the planet—James Lovelock 4:03.

Rockstrom, J. (2015, March 5). The 9 limits of our planet … and how we’ve raced past 4 of them. Ideas.Ted.Com.

Rosling, H. (2010). The magic washing machine [Video].

Scheidel, W. (2017). The great leveler: Violence and the history of inequality from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century. Princeton University Press.

Shiller, R. J. (2019). Narrative economics: How stories go viral & drive major economic events. Princeton University Press.

Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S. R., Vries, W. de, Wit, C. A. de, Folke, C., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Mace, G. M., Persson, L. M., Ramanathan, V., Reyers, B., & Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223).

Steffen, etal-2015-Planetary Boundaries.ppt. (n.d.). The 9 limits of our planet … and how we’ve raced past 4 of them. (2015, March 5). Ideas.Ted.Com.

Steffen, W., Richardson, K., Rockström, J., Cornell, S. E., Fetzer, I., Bennett, E. M., Biggs, R., Carpenter, S. R., Vries, W. de, Wit, C. A. de, Folke, C., Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Mace, G. M., Persson, L. M., Ramanathan, V., Reyers, B., & Sörlin, S. (2015). Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347(6223).

Colby, G., & Dennett, C. (1995). Thy will be done: The conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the age of oil (1st ed). HarperCollins. Scheidel, W. (2017). The great leveler: Violence and the history of inequality from the Stone Age to the twenty-first century. Princeton University Press. Scott, J. C. (2017). Against the grain: A deep history of the earliest states. Yale University Press. Zinn, H., & Arnove, A. (2015). A people’s history of the United States (Thirty-fifth anniversary edition). HarperPerennial.

Scott, J. C. (2017). Against the grain: A deep history of the earliest states. Yale University Press. Zinn, H., & Arnove, A. (2015). A people’s history of the United States (Thirty-fifth anniversary edition). HarperPerennial.

Zinn, H., & Arnove, A. (2015). A people’s history of the United States (Thirty-fifth anniversary edition). HarperPerennial.