What is it like to be a plague?

“What is it like to be a bat?” is a seminal paper on the theory of mind by Thomas Nagel, first published in The Philosophical Review in October 1974. In it, Nagel speculates about the essential component of consciousness. He puts forward that the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means that there is something it is like to be that organism.

the essence of the belief that bats have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a bat.

Building on Nagel’s idea, I wonder whether there is something that it is like to be a an army ant, a locust infestation or a cancer. What is it like to be plague?

Yes, I am talking about the consciousness of a group of synergistically interacting organisms of the same species —a superorganism. Are those superorganims conscious? Probably not. Does it matter? Probably yes. Why?

There are two subtlety related meanings of consciousness. One is the state of being characterised by sensation, emotion, volition, and thought, i.e. the qualia discussed by Thomas Nagel. Nobody knows what qualia is for, so we do not know whether it matters and why. But there is another meaning of consciousness which is awareness, especially, concern for some social or political cause.

You and I may be conscious of humanity’s impact on our environment and its potentially catastrophic consequences, but unfortunately, like the ants in the marabunta, the grasshoppers in the infestation or the cells in a tumour, we cannot act upon our concern at individual level. Only our superorganism, that group of synergistically interacting human beings we call society (or economy), is in a position to act. So far that superorganism seems mostly unconscious.

To the best of my knowledge, plagues —like every form of unconscious exponentially growing superorganism, from marabuntas to cancers— end up in collapse. They are a flash in the pan. That’s the reason why many people today, at individual level, or as part of small “conscious” organisations, are trying to scale up consciousness. Three weeks ago, it was the latest IPCC report on climate change. Last week, WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018.

The evidence becomes stronger every day that humanity’s survival depends on our natural systems, yet we continue to destroy the health of nature at an alarming rate. It’s clear that efforts to stem the loss of biodiversity have not worked and business as usual will amount to, at best, a continued, managed decline. That’s why we, along with conservation and science colleagues around the world, are calling for the most ambitious international agreement yet – a new global deal for nature and people – to bend the curve of biodiversity loss. Decision-makers at every level from individuals to communities, countries and companies need to make the right political, financial and consumer choices to realize the vision that humanity and nature can thrive. This vision is possible with strong leadership from us all.

WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher.

Some will argue that doomsayers, from Malthus to the Club of Rome, have been crying wolf for too long. Yes, they’ve been doing it, but that doesn’t mean there is no wolf out there.

To summarise: the difference between a plague and a successful galactic civilisation may —or may not— lie in gaining global consciousness. Just in case, repeat after me: We are a plague!

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Featured Image: Richard Bledsoe “A Plague Upon the Prairies”

4 comments

  1. Even if I liked your post, I do not fully agree with it. I have the feeling you are too much influenced by the “doomsayers” you mention in the post.
    In a way, it is evident that all change (in nature or anywhere) implies the destruction of what is there before. This is evident and unavoidable, the result is what counts. Of course, it may happen that the result is not interesting and self destructive, but I think there is too much pessimism and fear around in the conservationism movement.

    Should it not be better to say: “We might become a plague”, instead of “we are a plague”?

    In any case, I do not think “the plague” can avoid being a plague.
    I

    • Thank you very much for your comment. It forces me to be more precise on this funny theme. I will set aside the question of what a plague is, because I think the term is semantically charged: A plague is something dangerous or that we don’t like, so a plague would likely never consider itself a plague. And of course, my successful galactic civilisation can be seen simply as an even worse plague. This is for another debate (happy to have it). I will concentrate now on the reasons for being conservative and how to be a successful plague.

      You are right that, to a certain extent, I am taking sides with conservationists, but it’s been only to make my point. I still remember you are probably the first person I heard to talk (rather frivolously btw) about the virtues of a fake countryside (campo falso) and I said to myself: Why not? Maybe Pepe is right, and the vision is to fully “transform” the planet and the whole environment in a campo falso able to fully serve our needs (terraforming Earth, so to speak). There seems to be plenty of room: https://pacojariego.me/2018/05/27/biomass-on-earth-a-true-game-of-thrones-in-the-kingdoms-of-life/

      With an optimistic and not too reflexive view, one might argue this is what we are doing. However, with a less optimistic view we seem to lack a proper strategy but growth growth growth. And it seems pretty obvious that growth can go only to far (carrying capacity). You have to be extremely faithful to support our current strategy of forging ahead optimistically trusting all problems will be eventually solved, only because so far we’ve managed to cope. Here is where I think that a self-conscious plague would have a better chance. In my humble opinion, preaching about change and transformation without a proper understanding of the ends and the means, is religion.

      If I have to say what I prefer, I must recognise I have doubts. I would prefer to live in a less populated planet, where you can go and do without interference (Eden-like). On the other hand, I also have to confess that I am all for a project aiming to getting beyond our current boundaries and limitations. If we need to burn the Earth to propel us to the stars, let’s do it!!!

  2. Interesting reply…

    Regarding the first part of the comment, it is true there is no plan (at least at conscious level) and, therefore, optimism may be misplaced and, after all, maybe we are a plague.

    But I also doubt that cyanobacteria who started oxygen on Earth had any strategy at all. No matter why, they made a radical transformation of Earth environment and that caused us to be here. Perhaps we are a mistake, but I would prefer not to think so, even if we really are cyanobacteria with eyes and the only thing we can do is grow, grow and grow (even without a strategic plan …).

    However, I do hope that we do not need to burn the Earth in order to go to the stars. Besides, I am not sure we need to go to the stars, at least in the coming weeks! (…Probes are all right, cheaper, dispensable and more informative; possibly the new cyanobacteria with chips… but this is difficult to say).

    • Following your argument, the question is: Would cyanobacteria recognise themselves in us? And therefore: Will we recognise ourselves in what comes after us? (Specially if we act, as I suspect cyanobacteria did, unconsciously)

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