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Homo ecophagus:
Humankind as a Cancer

Homo ecophagus

By Gabor B. Levy

It is unusual to devote an entire editorial to the review of a single scientific paper, but I feel compelled to do so. It happens sometimes that a nagging complex of problems is suddenly revealed in full clarity. That was the case when I read the paper: “Why are there so many of us? Description and diagnosis of a planetary ecopathological process” [Population and Environment 12 (1), 9-36 (1990)], by Warren M. Hern of the University of Colorado. [Hern’s paper is given in its entirety on the Web at http://www.drhern.com/fulltext/why/paper.html (DB)]. As the title indicates, it deals with the destruction of the global ecosystem due to human overpopulation. It is a subject with which only the bravest dare to deal, because virtually all social and political forces are in opposition. So let me hide behind Hern and report what he has to say; much of what follows is paraphrased or a direct quote of his paper.

Humans can be studied in the same manner as other species and organisms. Biology shows that species whose populations are increasing rapidly are subject to severe fluctuations. If they exceed the carrying capacity of their ecosystem, they crash. The population after the crash may then return to an oscillation around the average carrying capacity. In general, populations tend to maintain themselves in a series of damped oscillations. Digression from this pattern always causes severe instability. It may lead to extinction, as crowding leads to pathology resulting in high mortality and diminished group survivability.

A distinguishing characteristic of human populations has been the ability to circumvent these stresses, especially by colonization. Thousands of years of migrations have resulted in permanent colonization of virtually every part of the globe. The development of colossal and rapidly growing human settlements envelop and engulf adjacent ecosystems. Surrounding colonies, or suburbs, become undistinguishable parts of the urban sprawl. Cities everywhere have exhibited “de-differentiation,” becoming a superorganism without form, invading and destroying the surrounding natural  environment, and expanding at a rapid rate. These cities are highly heterotrophic, parasitic ecosystems, since they consume much more than they produce. As early as biblical times the Mediterranean had been deforested. The destruction of the global ecosystem has been accelerating ever since. It has been estimated that 25% of all living species will become extinct within the next 50 years. As megacities of this century develop with urban centers of tens of millions of inhabitants, these cities are drawing energy from distant parts of the planet and create a quantum increase in entropy.

The rate of acceleration of this process is mind-boggling. In the early Pleistocene period, the annual human population increase was probably of the order of 0.001% and the population doubled every 100,000 years or so. In the Neolithic period, population increased at the rate of 0.1%, doubling every 700 years. By A.D. 1, the total human population was approximately 250,000,000 and doubled to 500 million by about 1650. The Black Death had removed about one-third of the human population, but the population reached 1.1 billion by 1850-only 200 years later. It reached 2.5 billion in 1950, and is now doubling about every 40 years. We are adding almost 100 million people to the world’s population each year!

Such population growth does not resemble that of any animal or plant species. It is only possible because humans have eliminated all their predators, learned to defend by artifice against microorganisms, adapt to basically uninhabitable places, and totally dominate the global ecosystem. It is like the biblical curse; we have eaten the forbidden fruit of the tree which brings knowledge and death. We have the body and the drives of an animal but our mind is that of a human. We suffer from a lethal mismatch. We are able to talk, write, introspect, even engineer – and we are still animals. I cannot blame our society and its leadership for being unable to come to grips with the disastrous population explosions and the global destruction of the ecosystem. It is unnatural to want to limit the growth of one’s own species – it seems instinctively wrong. But we must try to conquer our emotions and plan rationally.

Hern, as a physician, recognizes that this unrestrained growth is not like that of a saprophyte or a parasite. It reminds him of malignant growth: global cancer. His table of comparison is illuminating:

Malignant tumors Human species
Rapid uncontrolled growth Rapid population growth
Metastasis Colonization, urbanization
De-differentiation Adaptability through culture
Invasion and destruction of adjacent normal tissue Ecological destruction of global ecosystem
Grows until host dies ?

He concludes that Homo sapiens changed into Homo ecophagus (the man who devours the ecosystem). He hopes for a wiser Homo neontos (new being). I suspect that Homo, who could reason and talk, was always ecophagous. The process only accelerated enormously within the last few thousand years by being able to transfer information by writing. In any event, we must agree with Hern: “The idea that human population is a planetary cancer is a profoundly disturbing conclusion, but observations of the scientific community over the last 20 years have provided massive support for this hypothesis and little, if anything, to refute it. It is exceedingly rare that any cancer ever voluntarily or spontaneously stops being a cancer. If the human species can stop being a cancer, it will either be one of those remarkable exceptions, or my hypothesis is wrong. I will gladly accept either result.”

Levy, Gabor, “Homo Ecophagus.” American Laboratory September 1991: 8. Reprinted with permission.