Ceasefire: Ending Our War upon Bacteria

B7_gut-bacteriaBacteria are wondrous critters. They fix nitrogen in the soil to nourish plants, populate our intestinal tract so we can digest our food, and convert our milk into cheese. Yet, like the uncounted billions of stars in the night sky, their cosmos is vast and mysterious beyond our reckoning. They populate every nook and cranny of Mother Gaia, from the highest peaks of the Himalayas to the most abysmal depths of the ocean trenches to deep into the core of the Earth. They even ride the clouds. Within your own body, at this very moment, more E. Coli bacteria are thriving than the entire number of human beings who have ever lived!

Bacteria can also have a fearsome bite. Bacterial pneumonia, cholera, diphtheria, leprosy, plague, gonorrhea, tetanus, and typhoid are among the scourges our species knew all too well until the medical revolution of the mid-20th century, when antibiotics made their first miraculous appearance. For the generations that have grown up under their protective shade, it is easy to forget that a doctor’s first line of defense against an infected wound was once a scalpel or amputating saw, not a pill. No longer can a mere nick upon the chin while shaving carry us off by blood poisoning. No longer is it fatal to be in the same room when a stranger coughs.

There is no doubt that the advent of antibiotics was an extraordinary medical advance. Indeed, so pervasive and profound was the impact of antibiotics during their heyday that in 1969 the Surgeon General of the U.S. trumpeted that, “It was time to close the book on infectious disease.”

He could not have been more wrong.

I was reminded of this fact by our housing contractor, Danny, who, while laying our kitchen tile, shared with me how he had recently almost died from a necrotizing myositis – the type of bacteria better known by its ghoulish nickname “flesh eating” – which entered his system through a mere splinter.

Danny, a child of the age of wonder drugs, had a pretty relaxed attitude about sanitary operating conditions, and when he got a splinter in his hand he attempted to dig it out with a pocket knife. Before long, he started experiencing “malarial” like symptoms of alternating shaking chills and hot flashes. A visit to the doctor led to a prescription of a standard antibiotic. It didn’t work. Soon, blood blisters began to surface upon his hand and long dark lines emerged running up his arm. On his second visit to the hospital, in the E.R. the doctor looked him in the eye and said, “This could kill you.” Danny was rushed into quarantine where he remained for a week on an intravenous drip of a more powerful and advanced antibiotic.

Danny lived to tell the tale. But the narrow margin of his escape, if the predictions of the medical and scientific community are true, will become slim indeed over the next decades. If our present conduct towards the bacterial world doesn’t undergo a major change, some authorities are already decidedly apocalyptic about our prospects.

For example, in a recent BBC report, Prof Kevin Kerr, the director of infection prevention and control at Harrogate District Hospital, states “Resistance to antibiotics is rising inexorably and unless we face up to the seriousness of this problem now, the tide of multi-resistant superbugs, which at the moment is lapping around our ankles will rise even further.” He is seconded by Prof John Watson, deputy chief medical officer at England’s Department of Health, who says: “Antimicrobial resistance is one of the biggest threats to health security facing the world today and everybody must take action.” So serious is the perceived threat, Prime Minister David Cameron publicly stated that the world is on the brink of being “cast back into the dark ages of medicine.”

This isn’t hyperbole. It’s happening in our local hospitals right now, even in state-of-the-art facilities such as UCLA, where recently two people died after being exposed to an antibiotic-resistant superbug during specialized endoscopy procedures.

Regarding these emerging antibiotic-resistant superbugs, a World Health Organization report released April 30, 2014 states, “This serious threat is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country. Antibiotic resistance – when bacteria change so antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections – is now a major threat to public health.”

As well, word on the street has it that the pharmaceutical companies aren’t harboring or developing any more miracle cures such as we beheld in the 1950’s. Wikipedia, for example, reports “grave concern over the weak pipeline of antibiotics” now in clinical trials. A friend of mine at the FDA, however, assured me, “There will be new antibiotics – as soon as it’s profitable.” Yet he could not speak to their effectiveness. Instead, he quotes the “Red Queen Hypothesis” so central to much of current evolutionary theory: “It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place.”

We may soon be running all out. We may even be, once again, on the brink of a global outbreak of infectious disease.

In order to comprehend why it’s taken us such a short time to blow nearly all the credit that antibiotics extended us against disease, we must recognize how antibiotics were part of the weaponry deployed in what scientist Tim Flannery calls the Post-WW II “War Against Nature.”

The 1950s and 60s was, of course, an era of triumphal, simple-minded progress towards extinction. Heady and drunk, like “toxic teenagers armed with guns,” the communist bloc and the west carried on its war-time agenda against the very underpinnings of life itself. During the Cold War, at least five hundred nuclear weapons were detonated in our atmosphere, and our oceans became the favorite dumping grounds for nuclear waste. The Europeans alone dumped 220,000 drums, weighing 142,000 tonnes, of nuclear waste into the northeast Atlantic alone.* The Russians dumped seventeen superannuated nuclear submarines into the Arctic Ocean, where they also lie with their radioactive materials until the sea breaks in and floods their reactors.

Of course, these are the wastes we know about. Six years after the London Convention ratified the banning of disposal of highly radioactive waste at sea, the British secretly dumped all the waste from their Australian nuclear testing in the sea in 1978. Who knows what other disposal skullduggery has been committed by other industrial nations?

Far more analogous to our abuse of antibiotics, however, was the war against nature conducted with pesticides.

We can thank the Nazis for the invention of pesticides. As part of their chemical-warfare effort, German industry produced and stockpiled nerve gasses so dangerous that even the Nazis feared to use them. Yet, when American industries gained access to the technology, they quickly discovered that “with a little tweaking even the most deadly chemicals could be put to work exterminating pests.” Scientists and corporations envisioned a “sort of Final Solution” for pests, one “in which chemical weapons would be sprayed across continents, transforming gardens and fields into a fertile, pest-free, weed-free paradise.”

We’ll gloss over the details of the surrealistic, deadly assault that was launched upon nature during that era, but if you have a sense of the world being eerily empty as you walk through it, of a silencing of the joyous song and green sparkle, iridescent flash and busy hum and buzz that is meant to accompany us through our lives, you know some of the reason why.

Let us limit ourselves to a brief sketch of some well known facts. According to Flannery, “by 1960 around 290 million kilograms, made up of about two hundred different chemical compounds, were coming out of the chemical factories of the US per year, and they were being applied ‘almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes’…the amount of Parathion being used in California alone at the time was enough to kill the human population of the world five to ten times over.”

This was the era of death of ecosystems, such as the Thames, Yarra, Cuyahoga, and other rivers which “were turned into industrial sewers.” The bald eagle nearly went extinct. The human toll was also profound. Even today, after the banning of DDT, 42,000 cases of severe pesticide poisoning are reported annually in the U.S., and globally the annual death toll is approximately 220,000, with around three million suffering from severe but non-fatal exposure.” We are only beginning to reckon with the amount of disease and birth defects caused by pesticide’s toxins in our environment.

And, as with the war against bacteria, we’ve lost this one as well, despite Monsanto and DuPont’s desperate genetic modifications of crops and newer and newer generations of pesticides. “Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this war on nature was its manifest failure, for the pests were becoming more abundant than ever. Even worse, they rapidly gained immunity to the sprays.”

Is it mere coincidence that in the same decades that we rained deadly pesticides down from the sky, we carpet-bombed our bodies and livestock, and through us Gaia itself, with antibiotics (a word which literally means “against life”)?

Just as we foresaw a tidy future without weeds and bugs, it was also popularly believed we could eliminate the threat of bacteria in one lifetime. It is difficult to estimate how much antibiotic has been excreted or dumped into our landfills and seeped into our aquifers, but certainly the Earth has been saturated by millions of pounds of nonbiodegradable antibiotics since they became massively available.

And, just as our pesticide fantasies have gone awry, so have our antibiotic pipe dreams.

How could this be? What happened to Science’s triumphant progress?

As Earth Poet Stephen Harrod Buhner puts it, “This rate of resistance development was supposed to be impossible. Evolutionary biologists had insisted that evolution in bacteria (as in all species) could only come from spontaneous, usable mutations that occur with an extremely low frequency (to the tune of around one of every 10 billion mutations) each generation. That bacteria could generate significant resistance to antibiotics in only thirty-five years was considered impossible. That the human species would be facing the end of antibiotics only sixty years after their introduction was ludicrous.”

Yet here we are. Perhaps it’s time to declare a ceasefire in our war upon nature, for, as Albert Einstein said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”

One of those opposite directions is away from the metaphysical beliefs that underlie our violent assault upon the natural world — especially the superstition known as “mechanomorphism.”

Mechanomorphism is the doctrine that the universe is fully explicable in mechanistic terms. Yet it is more than a mere theory – it is the lens through which moderns have accustomed themselves to see and experience the cosmos as an insentient, unfeeling machine, set in motion millions of years ago, running blindly forward upon laws as fixed as the gears and cogs in a great clockwork mechanism.

It was based in this metaphysical assumption of a dead, mechanical cosmos that evolutionary biologists made their calculations that the spontaneous, usable mutations of bacteria would be so low there could be no danger of a backlash. As with our pesticidal assaults on weeds and bugs, we’d bomb those bacterial pests into the Stone Age!

Of course, the superstition of mechanomorphism, in which (by merest coincidence) human beings occupy the highest rung of conscious development, is now collapsing under the weight of scientific evidence that intelligence, language, volition, memory, and artistic creation are none of them unique to human beings. In fact, many scientists are now returning to Darwin’s original vision of a living, vital planet.

Yet it is deeply entrenched in the modern mind. For example, how many of you reading this little essay would state without hesitation that the humble, single cell microorganisms with no distinct nucleus called bacteria, those basic organic building blocks of life upon our planet, possess their own awareness, acquired wisdom, and even free will?

Probably not many. Yet the prominent biologist and ex-wife of Carl Sagan, Lynn Margulis could write,

“I’ve watched conscious bacteria for hours seeing things about which everyone would scream if they saw them. Unbelievable diversity! A microscopic theater with thousands of beings all interacting, dying, killing, feeding, excreting, and sexually provoking each other—all activities most people think are so specifically human. The idea that only people are conscious makes me laugh.”

As well, bacterial geneticist James Shapiro, of the University of Chicago, recently wrote,

“Forty years experience as a bacterial geneticist has taught me that bacteria possess many cognitive, computational, and evolutionary capabilities unimaginable in the first six decades of the twentieth century. Analysis of cellular processes such as metabolism, regulation of protein synthesis, and DNA repair established that bacteria continually monitor their external and internal environments and compute functional outputs based on information provided by their sensory apparatus…Bacteria utilize sophisticated mechanisms for intercellular communication and even have the ability to commandeer the basic cell biology of ‘higher’ plants and animals to meet their own basic needs. This remarkable series of observations requires us to revise basic ideas about biological information processing and recognize that even the smallest cells are sentient beings.”

Sentient being. That means able to perceive their environment and adapt to it. It means the ability to share information, display intentional behavior, recognize others, utilize tools, self-organize into communities, etc.

Another researcher, Eshel Ben-Jacob, states, “Each [bacterium] has internal degrees of freedom, informatic capabilities, and freedom to respond by altering itself and others via emission of signals in a self-regulated manner.”

Sounds just like us. Perhaps, like us, they can even meditate upon the nature of existence. Who knows?

It appears our hubris in treating the world as a dead, mechanical machine blinded us not only to the sentience of bacteria, but also to their adaptability. Bacteria are the oldest forms of life on this planet, subject to “three billion years of evolution in harsh environments and therefore have been selected to withstand chemical assault.”

In other words, they are very smart.

According to Stephen Harrod Buhner, “Bacteria have literally begun rearranging their genomes. The variety and number of solutions they can generate are immense, from inactivating the part of the bacterial cell that the antibiotic is designed to destroy, to pumping the antibiotic out of their cells just as fast as it comes in, to altering the nature of their cellular walls to make them more impervious, to even using the antibiotic as food.”

Bacteria also quickly began sharing information, much like war-time intelligence communities, across species and genus: “Anaerobic and aerobic, Gram-positive and Gram-negative, spirochetes and plasmodial parasites, all began exchanging resistance information,” something that, prior to antibiotic usage, was never known to occur. They even cast it forth like a message in a bottle. And, when bacteria pick up resistance information, they weave it into their DNA so all their descendents will inherit it. Bacteria can experiment, combining resistance information from multiple sources, even coming up with creative responses that aren’t even necessary!

Amazingly, bacteria are even generating resistance to antibiotics we have yet to invent. Placed in a nutrient solution with a newly developed and rare antibiotic, a single bacterial species not only developed resistance to that antibiotic but to 12 other antibiotics it had yet to encounter! The researcher, Stuart Levy, observed that, “It’s almost as if bacteria strategically anticipate the confrontation of other drugs when they resist one.”

Bacteria, it turns out, far from being cogs in a mindless, evolutionary mechanism, actually form a single global superorganism that “communicate in sophisticated ways, take concerted action, influence human physiology, alter human thinking and work together to bioengineer the environment.”

In short, the bacteria are outsmarting us. Bacteria, under our indiscriminate assault upon their realm, have displayed every behavior characteristic of conscious, aware, intelligent beings. It is humbling, indeed.

What is the lesson for our future, here? Certainly, our total war against bacteria is lost. If the emerging scientific view is correct, the best we can hope for in the future is to win local skirmishes.

Perhaps Einstein was right. Perhaps it is time to move in the opposite direction, to call off our “war on disease,” to make reparations, and to seek ways of knowledge acquisition that recognize a cosmos that includes, but is not centered upon, human beings. We have been at war with our environment so long that we have forgotten how to be at peace.

Yet how can we re-establish our friendly relations with Gaia? And can we do it in a way that integrates the scientific advances of the previous centuries? No one is suggesting that we should lay aside our research into more effective antibiotics!

Yet something more courageous and ingenious is now required of us. Although there still remains the possibility that we will use our rational, scientific thinking capacity to pull out of our plunge into global meltdown (we did, after all, save the ozone layer by banning CFCs by international global treaty back in 1987), there is scant evidence of our commitment to do so. For example, the estimates of the IPCC on global temperature change back in 1988 have been far surpassed by reality – the oceans are rising and the polar icecaps vanishing. The level of carbon in the air has actually increased from 2.8 parts per ten thousand in 1987 to 3.9 parts in 2000. Even as we gaze down the barrel of the mass extinction gun, we keep pulling the trigger.

Perhaps the experience of mythopoeic, or animistic, consciousness has a catalytic role to play in awakening us to our peril – and our unique opportunity – especially now as it makes inroads into Western society.

To put it simply, if your experience of the Earth is of an incalculably ancient, vital, sentient organism embedded in a vast, mysterious cosmos of awe inspiring power and beauty, it is far less likely that you would blindly dump 220,000 drums of radioactive materials into the waters of the Northeast Atlantic. It would be a sacrilege. If scientific rationality isn’t sufficient to overcome such profound imbecility, an instinctive veneration for the sacred womb of life would.

The experience of animistic consciousness wipes away the Cartesian distinction of an independent, rational self surrounded by a mechanical, dead universe. Gone is the hardened dualism of self and other, opening us to a form of apprehension that encompasses the innate, unique sentience of all beings, a reality now hidden from us by the blinders of our worldview.

In this way, animistic perspective is the great equalizer: you cannot recklessly poison the Earth with antibiotics, pesticides, GMOs, and radioactive waste if you recognize it as an organic extension of your own body and mind. Indeed, experience it directly as your body and mind.

If our ancestors could create a myth such as mechanomorphism, can we not now generate a new myth? One that integrates our contemporary sciences while embracing a living, vital cosmos?

Robert Tindall
Saranam, Mendocino, 3/24/2015