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.”

Tasty

It might not be possible to be a 100% faithful vegetarian. It may not be possible to have the pure militant intensity of a vegan. But we can at least limit our involvement in this violence. It’s definitely worth a try. For this baby, it makes all the difference in the world if someone makes a vegetarian choice that day.

Real Tweets

Recent fascinating scientific investigations reported in the renowned magazine Science reveal that songbirds are adapting to the reduced noise of the lockdown period by modifying their sounds. Due to a reduction in traffic-noise and machine noise and other ambient sound pollution in the months since the lockdown ground our unsustainable economies to a halt, birds are literally changing the way they sing. They are even modulating their bird-song to be expressed at lower frequencies, which can travel over greater distances. There is seen to be new variation in “trills,” which is an expressive device in birdsong. This enhances communication among bird populations, and can even lessen conflict between or inside bird communities because territorial boundaries can be communicated more clearly, and reproductive and feeding opportunities can also be better exploited — the dull grey static and throb of human activity having dropped away, birds are actually producing song such as has not been recorded since the 1950s!

I don’t usually read scientific studies. But this was so fascinating, simply for what it pointed to in our lived experience. Buddhist teaching emphasises the interdependence of all life — of all matter, really; all substance, at the sub-atomic level — and so I could not resist reading through this study. It was so painful to feel how the everyday background noise that we take for granted is, in fact, a mega suppressor of the voices and the communication patterns and frequencies of other beings.

For this reason, rather than just offer a link that some might not open easily on a smartphone, it seemed more helpful to pass on as many chunks of the study itself. I have included the sections most salient for us non-scientific types to grasp some of the material implications of our behavior — of our very lifestyle itself — for the way other beings can carry on their lives, their “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

Actions taken to mitigate the threats of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) to human life and welfare have inadvertently resulted in a natural experiment offering unanticipated insight into how human behavior affects animal behavior (1). Worldwide, elective quarantine and stay-at-home orders have reduced use of public spaces and transportation networks, especially in cities. Anecdotal media accounts suggest that restricted movement has elicited rarely observed behaviors in commensal and peri-urban animals (2). Though not all of the reports have proven to be accurate (3), widely publicized observations like coyotes crossing the normally heavily trafficked Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco (SF) Bay Area (California, USA) have provoked widespread fascination with the prospect that animals rapidly move back into landscapes recently vacated by humans.

Reports also indicate that animals have been exploiting newly emptied soundscapes. A number of media outlets have noted people becoming newly aware of more conspicuous animal sounds, such as bird songs, particularly in normally noisy areas (4). While people staying home may simply be paying closer attention to the animals around them, it is possible that restricted human movement reduced use of motorized vehicles, effectively unmasking bird songs otherwise obscured by associated noise pollution. Theory also suggests animals should respond to reduced background noise by altering their acoustic signals to optimize the transmission of information (56). Resolving this uncertainty presents an unprecedented opportunity to address enduring questions about how human behavior alters soundscapes and animal acoustic behaviors (7), while offering vital insight into biotic resilience to long-standing anthropogenic pressures.

…The inference that the observed shifts are due to a reduction in the high energy, low frequency sound generated by motor vehicles is supported by traffic flow data from the Golden Gate Bridge; whereas vehicle crossings have progressively increased since the bridge opened in 1937, vehicle crossings in April—May 2020 returned to levels not seen since 1954 (Fig. 2C). Although noise recordings are not available from the 1950s, this benchmark indicates that a relatively brief but dramatic change in human behavior effectively erased more than a half-century of urban noise pollution and concomitant soundscape divergence between urban and nearby rural areas. In other words, the COVID-19 shutdown created a proverbial silent spring across the SF Bay Area.

We found clear evidence that birds responded to the reduction in noise pollution during the COVID-19 shutdown. Consistent with prior studies (1122), we found that birds sang more softly when noise levels were lower (β = 0.27 dB ± 0.04; t281 = 7.0, p < 0.0001, e.g., the Lombard effect) and at shorter recording distances (β = 0.43 dB/m ± 0.08; t281 = 5.3, p < 0.0001) before and during the shutdown. Notably, birds produced songs at even lower amplitudes during the shutdown (β = -4.08 dB ± 1.4; t87 = -3, p < 0.004; Fig. 3, fig. S3, and table S3), well beyond what would be expected from the Lombard effect alone. This departure reveals that prevailing theories of animal communication do not capture the potential magnitude of vocal responses to noise abatement beyond the Lombard effect. Despite a reduction in song amplitude, communication distance more than doubled during the shutdown (β = 8.4 dB ± 1.9; t87 = 4.4, p < 0.0001; fig. S4 and table S4), further indicating the impact of noise pollution on communication during normal conditions. This doubling in communication distance could elevate fitness by reducing territorial conflicts (23) and increasing mating potential. In addition, the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) doubled in relative energy (β = 6.5 dB ± 2; t95 = 3.3, p < 0.002; table S5), which helps explain media reports suggesting that bird songs sounded louder during the shutdown (4). A doubling would allow people to hear birds at twice the previous distance, or effectively four times more birds than usual (21).

Because the same individuals were not sampled at each time point (mean longevity of white-crowned sparrows is 13 months (24)), we cannot determine if the observed shift in vocal performance was due to immediate flexibility (25) or because males with higher performance (but typically more masked) songs outcompeted males with lower performance (but less masked) songs for breeding territories during the COVID-19 shutdown. It is nonetheless possible to infer that, on average, birds in urban areas exhibited significantly greater capacity to compete for breeding territories. This highlights the intriguing possibility that more juveniles preferentially copied higher performance songs during the shutdown. If so, then the shutdown may have altered the trajectory of cultural evolution within and among populations in the study region. Re-evaluating the same birds following the resumption of human activity would clarify what behavior(s) gave rise to the observed population-level shift in vocal performance and potential evolutionary outcomes of the COVID-19 shutdown.

Like the half-century soundscape reversion that occurred in more urban areas of the study region, some bird songs exhibited traits, such as trill minimum frequency, during the shutdown that have not been heard in decades (fig. S5). Comparisons of historical recordings illustrate that minimum frequencies have tracked a progressive half-century rise in background noise levels in urban songs. Notably, at the Richmond site in Contra Costa County (Fig. 1), the minimum frequency of the Berkeley dialect recorded during the COVID-19 shutdown approached lows not recorded since the spring of 1971 (Fig. 2D) (26).

“Singing in a silent spring: Birds respond to a half-century soundscape reversion during the COVID-19 shutdown” (Science Magazine, 24 Sep. 2020)