Monday, August 29, 2011

Doctor's Orders: The Body as Ecosystem, Ecosystem as Body

Save the fingers! Save the toes! Save the kidneys! Save the nose! I imagine myself as human organ, or perhaps one cell amongst many within a human body. In deteriorating health and the possibility of the need to remove body parts, it seems comical, almost absurd to turn to such slogans to curb these removals, such as in the case of an unhealthy diabetic facing amputations. Would a doctor consider these rallying cries in an attempt to encourage the patient to take better care of individual body parts, or would he or she instead insist on diet and exercise for the body as a whole. My guess, based on much evidence, is that doctors would overwhelmingly support lifestyle changes that target complete body health, rather than an attempt to focus on and save individual parts of a human organism.

Though obvious when considered at the scale of the human body, this holistic approach is taken much less seriously at the level of the ecosystem organisms of which we are a part. A continued call for the saving of endangered species and biological “hotspots” appeals to those who are unaware, or unwilling to recognize the inter-connected nature of the ecosystems of the planet earth. If we take a moment to consider the observations which have strongly suggested the existence of collective ecosystem intelligence and co-evolution, we begin to realize that the whole must be considered the target patient rather than the individual species and processes which make up the parts. As below so above, as within so without. We as an intact identifiable organism place mental constructs around the idea of what makes up a body. Our bodies, as humans, are enveloped by our skin and contain organs and systems that allow the body to function as a whole. But it does not end there, for we are in constant interaction with air, food, and water which enters our organism, bringing with them a whole host of “resources” and un-intended passengers, which our body processes and interacts with in a multitude of ways, and then excretes and expels to maintain a regulated system of healthy bodily existence.

There are though, levels below and above this of the scale of human body, both within and without. We know and understand much about the nature of microscopic communities that function as communities within and outside of our bodies. When taken as a whole, many times these “communities” of small individuals are considered organs; organs of the body, organs of communities with a common purpose and inhabited space. When looked at in scales bigger than the large mammalian organism, we see much the same with regards to common purpose and inhabited space. Balances are maintained in the life supporting processes of both regions of earth and at the planetary scale as well. The interconnected web of life is indeed an arrangement of complementary roles undertaken by individual species within it. Some are regulating temperatures and the levels of available elements. Others are participating in the regulation of the numbers of individuals within species. All are contributing to the biodiversity which drives these roles through processes related to our ideas of natural selection in co-evolution.

This idea of a “planetary organism” really came to fruition from the “Gaia Hypothesis” proposed by James Lovelock. He was one of the first to articulate the idea of the earth as a large organism, being the culmination of all life and life-supporting processes interconnected upon and within it. Bioregionalists have helped articulate this further by pointing out coherent ecological “units” within this greater organism, which share similar species, climate, geology, hydrology, geography and human culture. We take this a bit further and consider these coherent “units” to be in a sense “organs” of the body earth. Some will criticize this perspective much as they have Lovelocks, but we continue to see mounting evidence for the existence of functions which mirror those found within our bodies and within organs of our bodies. I might also mention that many not only rationally understand themselves to be part of a biological whole, but that they feel a rejuvenating surge of righteousness when considering themselves a functioning part of a greater organism. This can only be described in spiritual terms, typically unsupported by science as a field, but nonetheless lending support to our affinity for that which in some ways depends upon our informed cooperation.

All of this is well and good, but is of no use in practical terms unless we can understand how we fit in to this chain of being, what the levels of life existence actually consist of, and how we are to fulfill roles within them. If earth is a body, and “bioregions” its organs, then we must be microbic cells in comparison. This perspective would behoove us to look at other such arrangements at the levels of our own bodies and those of organisms much smaller than ourselves. To begin to view the regions we inhabit as organs and organisms onto themselves would be to recognize ourselves as integral and important to the biological processes inherent within them, as individual cells are to our own organs.

This perspective brings us back to the doctor’s office, a medical practitioner trained at the diagnosis of planetary bodies. She tells us that it is not the individual species and processes that should be focused upon if earth itself desires health, well-being, and longevity. It must approach health as a holistic practice of preventative medicine, combining a balanced planetary diet and exercise. The life-support systems must be brought back into balance. This indeed calls for a balance of the community of beings within.

As conscious parts of this organic whole, our task then is to begin to realize how we fit into these systems of life enhancing parts of greater wholes. We must work to understand which organs we inhabit, how these organs function, our role within them, and their roles in the health of the planetary ecosystem we call Gaia. Part of the purpose of the Envision Cascadia project is to assist in these understandings and to encourage and participate in realizing our communities and individuals within as the integral participants in this greater body we inhabit. It will take time, it will take effort, and along the way we will have to make concessions to focus on individual species’ salvation (save the nose!). But in the end, our task will be to truly be a beneficial part of an evolving self.

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