The True Coronavirus, True Cancer

[ Written in February 2020, at the very beginning of the coronavirus epidemic.]

Today, February 5, is International Cancer Day. My Mother passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2013, and I helped family members to nurse her through the final weeks. It is a terrible, merciless slayer. Witnessing someone pass from cancer is a grinding, awful experience.

But however its horribleness, this kind of cancer is not the true cancer: one death, and the body is gone. Cancer does not ever infect neighbors or family. Cancer does not spread uncontrolled through populations. The true nature of a far more dangerous cancer — a far more dangerous dis-ease — is elsewhere than the one which ravages a single body, even a single family. AIDS is like that (while being transmissible). Lou Gehrig’s disease is like that. Many bodily diseases are like that: a single unit, a single body where it is carried out. The body dies, end of story.

But in these days of coronavirus-paranoia, it seems to me we should not lose perspective on the true cancer that terrorizes our life, and the true cancer that terrorizes this whole planet. In the face of our ego-based fears of losing our bodies and our lives, it seems we need always to keep in perspective the true nature of the most destructive version of this most destructive disease. The actual disease we should fear is far, far scarier than these life-enders that only threaten our singular bodily existence(s). The real nature of a more dangerous disease lies elsewhere.

According to the American Cancer Society, “[Cancer] starts when cells grow out of control and crowd out normal cells. This makes it hard for the body to work the way it should.” Cancer is uncontrolled cell division and hyper-growth of its attendant damaged to such an extent that it crowds out, subverts, grinds down, and destroys the intricate functioning of all the other systems of survival in the larger body-system.

Human beings behave as a cancer. We are a cancer on this world.

It is strange when you find yourself agreeing wholeheartedly with Agent Smith, the arch-villain of The Matrix movie series, at least in part. I am referring to when he says that human beings themselves are a cancer and a virus whose out-of-control growth and expansion is destroying life itself on this planet. The scene wherein he interrogates Morpheus contains a searing diagnosis of the existential threat that human life poses to every ecosystem that it comes to inhabit, functioning precisely like a cancer:

I’d like to share a revelation during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.

Is this too harsh a judgement? Maybe this is some over-dramatised Hollywood doom-saying?

In 1974, the Club of Rome published their second seminal report, Mankind at the Turning Point. From it comes the famous statement, “The Earth has cancer and the cancer is Man.” This phrase seemed so unduly harsh, at the time, that this entire report — and even the Club of Rome itself — was demonized by media and the usual religious conservatives (to this day) for being alarmist, overly dire, even purposely designed to mislead the public into opting for One World government of this or that kind.

Yet the view that runaway population growth — and its attendant resource depletion — is at the core of our anthropogenic planetary suicide is now quite commonplace. An American scholar, W.M. Hern, wrote, in an essay “Why are there so many of us? Description and diagnosis of a planetary ecopathological process” Population and Environment volume 12, pages9–39 (1990) that it our human existence itself contains all four major characteristics of the growth of malignant bodies like cancer:

The human species, through the instrument of culture, has become the dominant force of planetary ecological change. Our adaptations have become maladaptive. Moreover, the human species as a whole now displays all four major characteristics of a malignant process: rapid, uncontrolled growth; invasion and destruction of adjacent normal tissues (ecosystems); metastasis (distant colonization); and dedifferentiation (loss of distinctiveness in individual components). We have become a malignant ecopathologic process. If this diagnosis is true, what is the prognosis? The difference between us and most forms of cancer is that we can think, and we can decide not to be a cancer.”

Interesting (though completely not surprising) how the author of this study points to runaway population growth as being a “cancer on the planet.”

Dae Soen Sa Nim used to say the same thing to us, in Dharma talk after talk. He was saying these things as far back as the 1970s, emphasizing that human beings were the only true disease we needed to worry about. He believed that the world was grossly over-populated, and this over-population threatens all living things. “Soon, in the future, there will be a great disease which kills many many people. Maybe 30% of people will die as a result of this. This is cause-and-effect from the natural world. Human beings do many bad things to animals, many bad things to all beings. One day, this whole world will fight back against human beings. When so many people die, there will be balance again in the world. That is because human beings are number-one BAD ANIMALS, and nature will hit them and make them wake up!”

Someone asked me, recently, if I am worried about the coronavirus, since my work requires the use of planes (a few), trains (more), and automobiles (seldom). Actually, this virus will pass, as the Spanish Flu of 1918 passed, taking with it 50 million souls. I’m not worried about the coronavirus. Sometimes I’m worried more by the inevitability that we’ll survive the coronavirus than that it will be something we need to fear.

Graphic: Joan Cornellà

It is not coincidental that these exotic new flus and epidemics arise (or “crossover”) from animals to humans in places where humans live in dense concentrations, and this density interacts with wildlife animals kept in poor, unsanitary conditions. Interestingly, these diseases arise in situations where we keep animals and sell animals for their exotic health-benefits.

The appearance of this coronavirus has come as no surprise to people who study the breakdown of ecosystems caused by the unbridled destruction of resources for human-centred benefit.

I visited the wild-animal markets of Hong Kong several times, these places where the H1N1, H5N1, the swine flu, and SARS are widely believed to have been born. You could see quite graphically, in these locations, the obvious insanity of having such a variety of life-forms all crammed together in cramped spaces, and also chopped and sliced open on chopping blocks with flies swarming all over, circulated through these dank, humid spaces by huge lumbering fans caked with dust-hairs that extended out like furry tentacles.

During a period when I stayed in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, our local temple sometimes sent us down to these wet markets with bags of cash donated to the temple membership expressly for the purpose of “liberating” these creatures from sale and slaughter. So many strange and interesting creatures, all jammed into bamboo cages, stacked on on top of another, as far as the eye could see! The creatures were in miserable straits — stacked like this, they literally just peed and shit on top of each others’ heads for days on end, until such time as someone would mercilessly purchase them for their virility-soup. I remember vividly the image of birds whose wings were caked with the excrement of the birds stacked for layer after layer above them!

The members of the temple would buy up whole stalls of animals. The sellers were overjoyed and could go home early for the day, their suffering supplies exhausted by the bald-headed meditators, and we could drive into the mountains above HK to release the animals back into the wild all while chanting madly for their happiness and protection. Everyone was very happy! And the animals — released from their cages, at first they could not “believe” their freedom, or were too stunned to realize it — would become overjoyed, fluttering around our bald heads for long periods before finally fleeing the evil of human presence.

Being the cynical Westerner, at first I was critical of all these funds being raised simply for releasing caged animals back into the wild. What a wasteful thing not do, I thought. Won’t these same animals be trapped again and sold again, maybe next time to some far less scrupulous customers than us? Couldn’t that money be sent to Greenpeace or World Wildlife Fund, to enact more carefully-reasoned programs which were based on science and research>

But the real nut of the problem is this over-population and reliance on meat-eating culture run amok. Whether separately or together, these are two of the forces driving our own extinction most decidedly. The virus replicates out of bounds — too much desire.

I am sometimes asked to comment on this new life we lead under COVID-19. People wonder when we will be able to contain the spread of the virus, or develop effective inoculation against it. But while I hope, like anyone, to have this human suffering alleviated (especially from the frontline workers and especially the economically/socially disadvantaged who it harms the most), in my heart of hearts, I believe, as Agent Smith does, that the real virus that needs an effective vaccine is really not the one with the tell-tale protein spikes and lipid envelope. That virus, it seems, by its lethality against human populations, might actually be the inoculation itself, against the virus which has proven a far, far greater and unstoppable lethality: the human species itself.

Agent Smith says something else that is becoming patently clear: “Evolution, Morpheus. Evolution! Look out that window [at human civilisation]. You had your time. The future is our world. The future is our time.”