The earth and all the species in it, including humans, co-exist defined by their respective boundaries and interconnectedness, write Christopher H Lim of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and physician Diane L Lim of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Australia. As long as the human race is locked in the current pro-growth economic orthodoxy and does not respect the equilibrium of the planetary microbiome, without an urgent reset, the global ecosystem’s natural immune system that is essential for the survival of all species will break down.
Credit: Parabol Studio / Shutterstock.com
The world is fully preoccupied and burdened with two crises – the yoke of climate change and the impending global food shortage. They are having devastating effects on economies worldwide, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. Can these two catastrophes be mitigated? Time is not on our side. According to a study published in Nature in April 2022, the human race could face attacks from at least 10,000 virus species, most of which are circulating among wild mammals. Researchers from the US and South Africa predicted that climate change and modifications in land use will make it possible for these viruses species to spread from their once geographically-isolated hosts.
By examining the boundaries and territorial rights of species as well as their interconnectedness, we will understand better how the activities of humans have direct bearing on other species, their ecosystems and the planet as a whole.
Particularly instructive is to look at some isolated phenomena and specific actors in nature and how these species perceive their boundaries and territorial rights.
Magpies During breeding season, magpies in Australia are well known for their prowess, persistence and intelligence in defending nesting areas against intrusion by all other species. Despite their mall size – they weigh only about six ounces – magpies build nests that are on average 20 inches wide and 30 inches tall and are as high up on a tree as 30 feet. A magpie will attack any potential predators including humans within 100 meters of their nests by swooping in from behind like a jet fighter.
Human microbiome From the findings of the Human Microbiome Project, the research initiative of the US National Institutes of Health to improve understanding of the microbiota involved in human health and disease, we learn that each human has a unique human microbiome, very much like our individual fingerprint. In addition, each microbiome operates like a dynamic engineering system that changes through our lifespan even for healthy individuals.
Furthermore, even for the same individual, there are microbial communities all over the human body. The distribution of five common types of microbes at different locations such as skin, mouth and gut reveals a significant degree of heterogeneity.
The latest research conducted at University of Helsinki found that even the introduction of a single course of antibiotics for an infant can led to a reduction in the number of gut bacteria. This change in the gut ecology will be a contributing factor for the possible development of chronic inflammatory diseases.
From other microbial research published in Nature in 2016, we learn that a human body is estimated to consist of 30 trillion human cells and 39 trillion bacteria. It is this diverse microbial community that enables a human to develop immunity early in life, thus providing indispensable nutrients such amino acids and essential fatty acids for the human body. Upon death, a different community of micro-organisms will colonize the body.
In addition, studies conducted on first- and second-generation immigrant communities in the US found that, among those from non-Western countries, their native strains of gut microbiome diversity and function were lost and replaced by US-associated strains and functions. In short, in each human, there are countless colonies/communities of microbes that are intertwined and interconnected, but they occupy unique localities within specific zones and serve different functions – but can adjust or change according to the person’s living environment.
Plant microbiome There is growing awareness around the world of an impending global food crisis, the prospects for which have intensified with the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war. Agricultural business interests are, as a result, paying closer attention to the plant biome. This is because by 2050 it will be an enormous challenge to feed the planet’s population, which according to forecasts will reach 9.7 billion (recent estimates put the current world population at 8 billion). This will be a challenging task, given the expected rise in extreme weather and the depletion of arable land due to climate change and land-use shifts.
It is the interactions of plants with microorganisms in the soil including bacteria and fungi that generate plant microbiome that is vital part of food production. With the industrialization of agriculture and the need to maximize yields, a chemical-based agriculture system has taken over, with the introduction of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers.
The industrialization of chemical-based agriculture coupled with the promotion of monocultures in crop planting have had a detrimental impact on the natural balance of the soil and the ecosystem, harming the microbiome of plants. Farming, particularly industrial agriculture, produces a significant carbon footprint, contributing to global warming. This further disturbs the soil dynamics and soil-microbe interactions. In short, due to the interconnectedness of microbes in soil, food and the human gut, having healthy soils is necessary to have healthy plants and food – and healthy humans.
Geopolitics – the Ukraine war Encroachment of boundaries happen not just in microbiology but certainly also in the macro world. Consider the geopolitics that have led to the Ukraine war. At the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Western countries and the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made no commitment to leaders in Moscow (either Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin) that there would be no expansion of NATO to include republics of the USSR. In a September 15, 1993, letter to US President Bill Clinton, Russian Federation President Yeltsin was categorically clear that he was concerned about NATO enlargement up to his country’s border. Like any giant host, empires and superpowers – whether the Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Ottomans, British or Soviets – can be brought down and even broken apart by “microbes” within that had previously been under their control or parts of their ecosystem. Take the US withdrawals from Vietnam, the Philippines, Iraq and Afghanistan. The expansion of NATO into what Russia regarded to be its sphere of influence led to Moscow’s invasion to counteract that breach.
Boundaries between nations are political a construct but they essentially mimic the “borders” in the body, in societies and in ecosystems. The collective observations and findings across disciplines in the social and natural sciences make clear that every species, whether organism, avian, human, plant or nation possesses the instinct to maintain and protect their respective boundaries.
The lines of control of all species are non-negotiable. Once infringed, species will wage war in different forms and scale to defend, protect and recover their boundaries. The consequences of defensive reactions may not be observable. It may be years for the effects to be discernible, as in the case of antibiotics on an infant’s gut, chemical-based and monoculture on soil-microbes ecosystem, or Russia’s need to repel NATO encroachment.
For most of the last 50 years, many policymakers, politicians and thinkers have dismissed the 1972 seminal work on sustainable development, The Limits to Growth by American environmental scientist Donella H Meadows and her team, as well as other publications of the public intellectuals group, the Club of Rome. The main counter-augment by mainstream economists critical of Meadows and her ideas at the time was that technological advances would address the concerns for the ecosystem and worries about resource constraints.
But across the planet, in countries and regions regardless of political system or level of development, the desire to pursue the material “American Dream” and consumption lifestyle has exploded. Globalization spurred by multinational corporations and promoted by globalist institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the World Economic Forum has stirred these aspirations, fueling the zeal for lowering barriers to trade and investment and the advance of digitization, telecommunications and transportation technologies and infrastructure. This greater interconnectedness was suddenly truncated in the spring of 2020 when the world began to grind to a halt due to Covid-19.
With the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions in recent months, many countries and their citizens are returning to their old ways of interaction, desperately trying to recapture the pace of pre-pandemic days. The coronavirus is only just beginning to recede – indeed, there are still infection surges across the world – yet all the discussions and reflections at its peak about how society has to move fast and resolutely to reset if only to avoid or prepare for future public-health crises and climate change have already been forgotten. The sense of urgency has dissipated.
Paradoxically, the prevailing economic paradigm and public-sector management model, regardless political orientation, remains grounded in pro-growth orthodoxy without alternative – and without conscious regard for consequences of the transgressing the boundaries and resources of other species.
Human beings, as social and political beings each made of 30 trillion cells, are totally delinked or decoupled from the world of microbes. As such, they do not see and respect the limits of boundaries of non-human species. Based on the research findings by Human Microbiome Project and Earth Microbiome Project, one can visualize the world as a “planetary microbiome” – a series of rings, with different organisms and species organized in a series of rings, with each inhabiting a different level as determined by their specific requirements for life and activity – from temperature to nutrition, from weather to availability of resources.
If any species tries to break out of its ring – its specific ecosystem – by expanding beyond its pre-assigned or permissible space or consuming resources on which other species rely, then there will be conflict of some kind. The planetary microbiome is a collection of communities – separate yet fully interconnected and supposedly in some kind of balance or equilibrium. The reality is that the interconnectedness of the global marine and soil microbiome, particularly through microbes, support the existence of all higher trophic life forms including humans.
Humans, however, act supreme and can behave as if detached from the planetary microbiome, living and operating in ways that intrude on the ecosystems of other organisms and species. The human race – locked as we are in our growth and consumption paradigm – infringes on the boundaries of all other species and will continue to do so unless we would be willing and able to reset our societies.
In essence, we must recognize micro-organisms, humans and climate are all intertwined. Micro-organisms generate and consume greenhouse gases, and at the same time, they are affected directly by global warming and human activities. The global environmental crisis is largely due to the failure of mainstream economists, policymakers and political and business leaders to heed the warnings about consumption and resource constraints issued decades ago. The world is doomed if this mistake is repeated. The inability of the international community to make the concerted commitments necessary to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius is proof of the detachment of humans from the realities of the planetary microbiome.
This is the time to pause and consider the power of hibernation. This is the time to press the reset button to protect our planet’s immune system. Humans need to begin a new relationship with nature, with other species, among themselves. Conservative estimates indicate that some 10,000 virus species will infect humans if, their boundaries violated, they are stirred and pushed out of their harmless isolation within the ecosystem of wild animals and into the microbiome ring that people inhabit where they can wreak havoc worse than Covid-19.
Chan, Yuen-ying; and Wang, Jasmine Yixin. (December 16, 2021) “The Wild Boar and Us: Taking on the Public-Health Risks”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Lim, Christopher H; and Lim, Diane L. (July 15, 2021) “Don’t Let This Crisis Go to Waste: The Danger of Treating Covid-19 as Endemic”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Lim, Diane L; and Lim, Christopher H. (April 8, 2021) “Clinging to the Conventional: Enduring Presuppositions Can Kill”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Christopher H Lim
S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU)
Diane L Lim
Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre