A Parallel: Human Biology and Achieving Sustainability


I’m not a biology expert, but I keep thinking about the parallel between how the human immune system works and how we as a species address the need for sustainability.  Just as the human body generates and “trains” immune system cells with the keys (molecular structure) to recognize and deal with microbial threats to the body, the human species must generate new members with the knowledge, understanding, creativity, and ability to deal with the problems we confront ourselves with, and our environment presents to us. Human groups that work against knowledge, science, and understanding parallel certain infections of the immune system, and are among the problems that, in the end analysis, are essentially threats to our survival as a species. So how do we produce a future population of humans capable of dealing with groups that work against sustainability, creating and maintaining a sustainable ecology, increasing the probability that we will survive in the long term, and minimizing suffering along the way?  Can we learn from the parallels that can be drawn between the ways our bodies work and the ways global human society works?We are past the point where we can beat our problems by force of numbers, just as, in the face of a particularly virulent infection, there is a point beyond which the production of more white blood cells will not improve the situation.  In business we sometimes observe that putting six engineers on each computer keyboard will not make the work go six times faster.  If we can have less children (which we need to) can their decreased numbers help increase their average educational levels?  Smaller class sizes and smaller loads on our school facilities wouldn’t hurt, especially in the urban areas where we have the biggest problems with drop-outs and low educational levels.   Smaller families could allow parents to more easily afford to take care of their children, and might allow a bit more time to be spent with each child.  Better education seems to go along with a lower birth rate, too, and I believe we need to get a self-sustaining cultural trend established in which family size continues to be reduced and children are increasingly better educated.  Higher quality and less quantity has always been a smart position, and will be a key principle in the future.Education provides both the keys to understanding the problems we face and the tool set to deal with them. Science is the knowledge that puts the edge on the tools and illuminates the problems to enable us to understand them.  Just as the spleen serves as a “university” in which T-cells are trained to fight specific infections, our schools must be made as healthy as possible to train people to address our problems with maximum efficacy.  We must work to improve our educational systems at all levels, and fund basic research and not just research around applying what we already know in the interest of making money.  Corporations have a great stake in applications research, and it serves their short-term objectives, but relatively few invest in longer term, more basic research.  This is where we need our government to provide more funding and research programs aimed at creating and developing new, fundamental areas of knowledge.  Will we always have to rely on big, high visibility projects, like putting a man on the moon, to get public support behind basic, government-funded research?  If so, we need to “put more men on the moon”, and if we can cast the big challenges of achieving sustainability in such a way as to woo and intrigue the public we should do so.  Certainly, problems like increased coastal erosion and drought due to climate change are getting increased attention, and drawing increasing resources to address them, just as the body mobilizes against injury with inflammation and increased blood flow, but putting a higher purpose behind the effort, such as getting back on one’s feet quickly to minimize lost wages, can produce more effective results.Unfortunately, there always elements in our society who, for a variety of reasons, try to deny science and twist educational systems to promote their own points of view, in a way similar to certain infections in the body that directly impact the immune system.  How can we counter the impact of science- and education-resistant groups on the pursuit of sustainability?  One way is to find a way to reach and educate members of such groups, perhaps through an active cultural movement of some sort.  From a social perspective, the challenge is that this must be done in complete respect of everyone’s right to believe what they wish, and this creates an extremely complex social dynamic.  Just as our bodies train immune system cells to identify specific types of objects in our bodies and deal with them appropriately, educating people to understand the social dynamics and creatively work through related issues is important.   Should our educational system be more focused than it is today on creating and providing knowledge that reaches and gains the support of the general public while addressing sustainability-related issues?  Although I believe evolutionary forces will reduce education- and science-resistant groups over time, both because facts tend to impose themselves on people sooner or later and cause them to reconsider their beliefs and because we all have finite lifespans, as a species we don’t have time to spare.  Our problems are threatening to become much worse within the next generation.   Some of the groups in question are quite resistant to reason, and do not accept what science sees as direct evidence of problems with overpopulation and our current un-sustainable situation.  The memes that sustain these groups are powerful and highly resistant to change, and some have an amazing capacity to convert (infect) individuals under stress and/or without the education to understand what is happening.  Taking a passive role in society or actively fighting the education systems, the dissemination of scientific information, and the growth of critical thinking skills in people of any age, works against the survival of life on the planet, but must be allowed in a free society.   Our young people must be sufficiently educated to understand both the dynamics of human society and the scope of the problems we face, and to be open-minded, critical thinkers who will never stop asking questions, nor fear answers they might find troubling.  I believe people with these qualities will be less likely to join science-resistant groups.Fortunately, the tendency of highly educated people, who can be expected to be more successful, and economically powerful and influential as a result, is to face the facts and work to help us all towards a more positive future.  As the Christians say, “God helps those who help themselves.”, and there are religious groups of all faiths beginning to acknowledge our ecological situation as factual, and working to control and reverse the developing problems.  However you believe we got here, it becomes ever more obvious that we are our own worst enemies, and that we need to take steps to learn more, reduce our birthrate, reduce each individual’s impact on the environment, and work together to achieve a world situation with better long term prospects for all of the interdependent life forms on the planet.  Like the human body, we have great resilience and the ability to evolve to meet the challenges of life.  I look forward to a world where practically everyone is smarter than me, and our prospects on the planet are more positive than they appear now, hopefully within my lifetime. 

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