Lately I’ve been contemplating different aspects of health, and how it can be applied to various entities. The health of people, sure, but then also more abstract definitions, like the health of systems or of the planet itself. This has been due in part to my repeat run-ins with people, places and things of late that are not in the best of shape. It’s really got me musing about how we gauge illness and the role symptomology plays in providing key information… if we choose to listen.

But before I go all abstract, perhaps I should explain how I came to think about our current climate situation from a completely different angle.

Thinking about the rising temperature from a different perspective

It’s fast approaching wintertime here in Australia, and people are spending an increasing time indoors now that the air has a chilly bite to it. This invariably leads to more people mixing in close proximity; thus sickness is easier to spread.

Several people I know have recently gone down with colds and COVID, and in talking with them remotely, many of them described suffering through a fever – burning up and doing what they can to manage the sweats. Though they understand it is the body’s natural defence, few (if any) ascribed the experience as something they appreciate.

And that got me thinking about what we’ve all been collectively experiencing in the last few decades, specifically the climate crisis. There’s no doubt that the planet is heating up thanks to human activities, namely pollution, environmental destruction and rampant greenhouse gas emissions, but what if the rising temperatures weren’t just a by-product of our own bad behaviour? What if the planet was warming as a protective measure, just as the human body raises its internal temperature to ward off illness?

Could humans be an infectious disease? Was Agent Smith right all along?

In case you haven’t seen The Matrix, early in the film the villainous computer program known as Agent Smith delivers a diatribe about how humans are similar to a virus, in that they consume all their resources and then move on the next host, spreading exponentially and wreaking havoc along the way.

Only, unlike germs that are less inclined to care about killing their host, humans at least have the foresight and awareness to realise that continuing down our current path of ecological catastrophes is probably not in our best interest. We’ve got the brain power to realise the planet is sick, and it is within our collective power to live an existence that is less damaging by helping to restore the natural order of things.

Can we return the planet to homeostasis then? Do we, like the germs we hate to encounter, have the propensity to evolve so that our way of living is less destructive? Viruses tend to mutate, becoming more passive over time in order to prolong their survivability, along with that of their host. But that takes several generations to occur and usually results in some critical cases early on. We simply don’t have the time, or the luxury, to risk the health of our host, planet Earth.

A young person with beads of sweat on their forehead.
The Earth is experiencing people-fever. Credit: Hans Reniers/Unsplash

The Earth’s immune response has been triggered and is in full swing

Maybe you haven’t seen The Matrix, but it’s highly likely you’ve encountered some form of discussion about humanity’s ongoing issues with the climate. In a nutshell, humans have been on a tear, developing industrial complexes, building cities and reproducing at an ever-increasing clip. All that action has required some serious resources to facilitate and put a massive strain on the environment. Rampant deforestation, pollution and overpopulation (among other human activities) have destabilised the systems that would normally have kept our planet harmonious and hospitable for all walks of life.

As a result, the ecosystems that would normally regulate things like carbon emissions have been compromised, rendering them ineffective against our destructive tendencies. The planet has been warming, ice caps have been melting and sea levels have been rising. And that is not a good thing, as although you may think it would dampen the chill of winter it equally expands the upper temperatures of summertime too. Imagine permanently hotter heat waves and uncomfortably warm days year-round… yeah, no thanks.

You might also have heard people talking about 1.5°C, which is the threshold for things going completely off the rails. It may not seem like much, but so many elements of life on our planet require consistency in the environment, and that includes temperature. Increase the upper or lower bounds by too much, too soon, and you can fundamentally inhibit an ecosystem’s ability to function at all. And none of this is new information. Scientists have warned for decades that if the temperature increases by in excess of 1.5 degrees Celsius, that we may be unable to stop further increases, which will eventually lead to a chain of chaotic events, including our extinction as a species. Heavy stuff.

What if the rising temperatures is Earth’s way of sweating us out, just our bodies deal with a virus by triggering a fever?

The good news is that governments and industries have been pledging support behind an initiative to limit the rise of global temperatures to that all important 1.5°C number. The bad news is that we are about to breach that threshold, and far sooner that anyone thought.

People have been arguing the world over about the complexities of economic activity, and how we’ll just have to figure out new technologies that allow us to keep expanding as a species. Only, things aren’t that simple – especially if you bring it back to the sickness analogy. Undoubtedly, we are the cause of Earth’s rising temperatures, but what if we looked at things from the perspective of a virus-immune response? Would that enable us to think more logically on this pressing issue? After all, we’ve been privy to some incredibly damaging ecological events thanks to the extreme temperatures we’ve all had to endure these last few years.

What if the rising temperatures is Earth’s way of sweating us out, just our bodies deal with a virus by triggering a fever? A small rise in body temperature above the normal set point can help to eliminate viruses and bacterial infections, though you can feel horrible throughout the duration. And, just like a fever, if the temperature goes beyond the marginal and ‘safe’ upper bounds, things can become terminal for both virus and host.

So, with humanity staring down the barrel of what may very likely be the hottest next few years on record, maybe we should prove Agent Smith wrong. Let’s be better than a virus. Unlike them, we can choose a more hopeful future, one where we don’t take out our home, or end up succumbing to an overpowering environment. Instead, we can back off, settle down, and learn to live in harmony with the planet.

Maybe we should be focused less on finding loopholes that allow us to sustain our destructive ways and spend more time cultivating an existence that is in equilibrium with our environment. After all, the planet is burning up, and it doesn’t look like this fever’s going to break any time soon.

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