Oscar Wilde once wrote: “Nothing succeeds like excess.” He was right as far as he went, i.e. inveighing against the timorous moderation of the middle classes. But Wilde’s truism pertains only in the short run. In the long run, success, and especially excessive success, can turn not only problematic, but disastrous. Consider the phenomenon now widely known as “blowback” (Shakespeare referred to a similar turnabout more poetically as “hoist by his own petard.”) The United States has suffered from this confounding product of its success several times in recent years. Perhaps the most well-known instance concerns Afghanistan. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Russians sent their forces to Afghanistan in order to keep it under the control of the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), but they ran into fierce resistance by guerilla groups like the Mujahideen (lit., one engaged in jihad; actually begun as 19th century opponents of British rule). Seeing this as an opportunity to laden the Soviets with their own Vietnam, the U.S. Government (and others like Saudi Arabia) gave enormous caches of arms, ammunition, money and general support to these mujahideen, routinely referring to them as “freedom fighters.” Among these ‘freedom fighters’ was a wealthy leader from Saudi Arabia called Osama bin Laden. The mujahideen eventually (1989) forced the Soviets out, ousted the DRA’s last president in 1992, and consolidated into what Mullah Mohammed Omar called the “Taliban.” Osama bin Laden was then able, from this relative safe haven in Afganistan, to organize al Quaeda, and eventually its 9/11 attack upon the new enemy he had switched to—his one-time backers, the United States of America. The Taliban, of course, became the rulers of Afghanistan for a time, and, despite eleven years of war by the U.S. forces against them, continue to wreak havoc against US-backed puppet governments in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to this day.
Blowback. Watch out what you hatch; it might come back to bite you in the ass. As, for another example, ISIS or the Islamic State now running rampant in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, is also the product of the idiotic American machinations in the Iraq invasion. We ousted Saddam Hussein, disbanded his army and de-authorized his Sunni military and government officers, and in so doing gave power to the Shia forces now allied with our presumptive enemy, Iran. We also paved the way for al Quaeda in Iraq to rise and grow (there had been no al Quaeda in Iraq before the invasion), and, they, allied with those Sunni forces we sidelined and offended, have become the core of ISIS, taking over half of the allegedly “free” Iraq we spent so much American life and treasure to “liberate.”
Of course, it’s not just in international relations that this phenomenon exists. Consider the ‘success’ humanity has had, first when homo sapiens, with its big brain, out-competed all other apes to become the clear winner in populating the entire globe. So excessive has this ‘success’ become that the human population has now reached 7 billion and is on a path to exceed 9 billion within a few years (a mere 250 years ago, world population was only about 800 million!). Such runaway growth strains not only the planetary resources needed to feed, clothe and house so many human beings, but also the space that all other species require to live. And the waste products generated by this one runaway species, homo sapiens, have become a gathering menace to the oceans (think of the ‘islands’ of plastic now circling in several oceans; of the over-fished species now reaching the brink of extinction) and the land increasingly polluted by it. Allied with this, obviously, are the inventions that this one species has created to allow it to thrive. Forget fire and the wheel; antibiotics have succeeded in nearly wiping out several diseases that used to plague humanity. But their excessive use (not only for humans, but in keeping livestock ‘healthy’, which means humans consume antibiotics in their meat without knowing it) has contributed increasingly to the development of ‘super-bacteria,’ that is, those new strains resistant to antibiotics. The problem daily threatens to get out of control if any of these super strains outstrips the methods that are still able to contain them.
All of these examples might be grouped under the one rubric of autoimmune diseases. Such diseases have become more and more prevalent as modern medicine has grown ever more successful in eliminating most of the conventional diseases that used to bedevil it. Little needs to be said about arthritis, except to point out that it is an autoimmune disease, i.e., one in which the body’s immune system attacks its own proteins, often with inflammation. The list of autoimmune diseases is amazingly varied and too long to include here, but it includes such diseases as lupus, rheumatic fever, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, eczema, some forms of diabetes, celiac disease, Addison’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Crohn’s disease, and many more, possibly including cancer itself. While there is no easily summarized general theory of these autoimmune diseases, one idea struck me as quite telling. Rob Dunn, in his 2011 book The Wild Life of Our Bodies, cites Tufts University researcher Joel Weinstock’s theory that sufferers from Crohn’s disease (wherein the immune system attacks the gut to cause severe digestive problems and intestinal blockages), found mostly in the U.S. and developed countries, were missing something that used to be common: intestinal parasites. Rather than the conventional idea that we get sick when foreign species invade our bodies, Weinstock theorized that our success in ridding the body of parasites left our immune systems devoid of their usual targets, the parasites like tape worms that almost all children used to have. In their absence, Weinstock theorized, the immune system attacks its own gut. Weinstock, Dunn reports, did experiments to show that by introducing parasites into the bodies of Crohn’s sufferers, many got better. There is more to the theory, but basically it involves the idea that the human body evolved with parasites to fight, and that without those parasites (including their possible production of compounds that suppress the immune system’s attacks against them), the immune system begins to attack its own flesh. And the more general point Rob Dunn makes is that our success in sanitizing our environment, our war against microbes, has upset the balance and relationship to all other life in which we evolved. And it is making many of us, no longer developing normal immunities, sick.
The biggest example of the autoimmune epidemic, of course, has to do not with the individual human body, per se, but with the collective body and the planet on which humans must survive. Since the advent of the industrial age, humans have been burning fossil fuels to obtain energy, most significantly to run machines that produce power and heat, and machines to pamper us and transport us effortlessly around our cities and the globe. This burning of fossil fuels, mostly gasoline from petroleum but also fire from burning coal, has put enormous tonnages of CO2 into the atmosphere, and created what is known as the ‘greenhouse effect.’ That is, CO2 collects in the upper atmosphere and creates a kind of gaseous shell around the globe from which heat cannot escape. The result (heat coming in but not getting out) is global warming—a rapid warming of the planet that is unprecedented in human history, and threatens to melt the polar regions (already happening at an alarming rate) and raise sea levels to disastrous levels for coastal cities, and heat the climate so much that all flora and fauna, including those we depend on for food, will be negatively affected. The most important point about this CO2 effect, this greenhouse effect, is that we humans are doing it to ourselves. There is no longer any serious question about this. Despite the climate deniers, virtually all scientists agree that climate change is human caused. It is our civilization that is at fault, we ourselves that are responsible.
The most dangerous autoimmune disease of all, in short, is the one threatening civilization itself. Humans of the last 250 or so years have been amazingly successful in using our large brains to adorn ourselves with the kind of comfort and products that not even the wealthiest potentates of old could have imagined. Success is ours! We have triumphed over nature. Become free as gods. We have won.
The problem lies in the blowback. Our very success in producing machines to make us dominant and mobile and safe has led us into what appears to be the gravest crisis humanity has ever faced. Our machines have paved the way for a deadly reaction by the planet itself, by its feedback mechanisms, by what we might call its immune system. And what those feedback mechanisms are telling us, in the immortal words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, is: we have met the enemy and it is us. What they are telling us is: Change the way you think, the way you see; for if you do not, you will perish from your own success. It is as if humanity has suddenly regressed to an ancient Greek theater dramatizing in slow motion the peril that the Greeks found most threatening—the peril of hubris. The peril of presuming to arrogate to themselves the prerogatives of the gods. Whether collective humanity can gather itself and humble itself enough to alter its current disregard for everything but its own short-term comfort remains to be seen.