Human Symbiosis: Positive or Negative?

By:  Priscilla Hayes

I have been teaching symbiosis for a number of years. In presentations to recycling professionals, sustainability experts and others, I described the recycling behavior of the dung beetle in moving dung into holes in the ground, where it served as food for both dung beetle babies and the seeds that had been pooped out by whichever animal the dung was from. My next slides were of our own waste—from home or business to garbage truck to landfill was no way to practice the symbiosis of the dung beetle. Recycling, which took bottles, cans, paper and cardboard to a MRF where they were baled and sent in huge cubes to places like China to be made into new products seemed a better approximation. If you ever get a chance to visit a MRF, put on your hardhat and go—it is like a giant game of chutes and ladders.

But it was in an intensive lichen course in Summer 2014 that I discovered that we humans were actually in a symbiotic relationship with the earth, despite what seem our best efforts to totally separate ourselves from it and all of its organisms.  We pride ourselves on being the smartest and most innovative organisms on the planet, and increasingly seem to feel that things like food, come from the equivalent of a replicator, as on the Starship Enterprise, and waste simply disappears.

No, actually we are in symbiosis with the earth. But it is not the mutualistic symbiosis of the dung beetle, where every organism in the chain, including a host of soil organisms, derive a benefit from what the dung beetle does. Instead, our symbiosis is of one of the other two basic varieties, parasitism, where one organism benefits and the other is harmed.

I think our symbiosis is most akin to that of the tick. The tick settles onto a living host, begins to suck blood into its body, and as it disengages, injects or regurgitates disease organisms into the host. The host gets sick, the tick goes off to reproduce.  This blog is meant to help me and all of us achieve a more positive symbiosis with the Earth and each other.


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