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Bacteria ‘R’ Us

Valerie Brown, Miller-McCune
Emerging research shows that bacteria have powers to engineer the environment, to communicate and to affect human well-being. They may even think.

… [bacteria are] an unsuspected realm that has profound consequences for human beings. Regardless of the scale at which we explore the biosphere — whether we delve into the global ocean or the internal seas of individual organisms — bacteria are now known to be larger players than humans ever imagined.

… Strictly by the numbers, the vast majority — estimated by many scientists at 90 percent — of the cells in what you think of as your body are actually bacteria, not human cells. … The total number of individual bacterial cells in the gut is projected to be on the order of 100 trillion…

These facts by themselves may trigger existential shock: People are partly made of pond scum. But beyond that psychic trauma, a new and astonishing vista unfolds. In a series of recent findings, researchers describe bacteria that communicate in sophisticated ways, take concerted action, influence human physiology, alter human thinking and work together to bioengineer the environment. These findings may foreshadow new medical procedures that encourage bacterial participation in human health. They clearly set out a new understanding of the way in which life has developed on Earth to date, and of the power microbes have to regulate both the global environment and the internal environment of the human beings they inhabit and influence so profoundly.

… The human gut is filled with large numbers of a wide variety of bacteria; clearly those that cause disease must rank high on the priority list of those to be studied, but the picture emerging from new research is that pathogens and beneficial bacteria are not necessarily mutually exclusive organisms. A microbe’s effects on the human body can depend on conditions. And if you approach the human body as an ecosystem, some researchers are finding, it may be possible to tune that system and prevent many diseases — from acute infections to chronic debilitating conditions — and even to foster mental health, through bacteria.

Recent research has shown that gut microbes control or influence nutrient supply to the human host, the development of mature intestinal cells and blood vessels, the stimulation and maturation of the immune system, and blood levels of lipids such as cholesterol. They are, therefore, intimately involved in the bodily functions that tend to be out of kilter in modern society: metabolism, cardiovascular processes and defense against disease. Many researchers are coming to view such diseases as manifestations of imbalance in the ecology of the microbes inhabiting the human body. If further evidence bears this out, medicine is about to undergo a profound paradigm shift, and medical treatment could regularly involve kindness to microbes.

… Researchers have found several reasons to believe that bacteria affect the mental health of humans. For one thing, bacteria produce some of the same types of neurotransmitters that regulate the function of the human brain. The human intestine contains a network of neurons, and the gut network routinely communicates with the brain. Gut bacteria affect that communication. “The bugs are talking to each other, and they’re talking to their host, and their host talks back,” Young says. The phrase “gut feeling” is probably, literally true.

For example, it’s been known for a while that sick people get depressed and anxious. This seems so obvious as to be a no-brainer, but research suggests that some of the fear and fatigue associated with infections stems from immune responses affecting the brain.

Mark Lyte of the Texas Tech University School of Pharmacy noticed that lab mice dosed with Campylobacter jejuni, bacteria that are commonly a cause of food poisoning, were more anxious than control mice. After several experiments, Lyte’s team concluded that the vagus nerve, which extends into the colon, was probably transmitting the news of a gut infection to the brain areas involved in emotions. Reporting their results in the August 2007 Brain, Behavior and Immunity, the team also conjectured that the anxiety often exhibited by victims of bowel disorders may operate on the same network, which is not under conscious control.

Even more intriguingly, there have long been hints that some bacteria, including Bifidobacteria commonly found in yogurt, can improve mood. A common soil microbe, Mycobacterium vaccae, has recently been found to cheer up lab mice in experiments …

The grand story of human exceptionalism — the idea that humans are separate from and superior to everything else in the biosphere — has taken a terminal blow from the new knowledge about bacteria. Whether humanity decides to sanctify them in some way or merely admire them and learn what they’re really doing, there’s no going back. And if there’s any hope of rebalancing the chemistry of a biosphere deranged in two short centuries by humans, it very likely lies in peaceful coexistence with the seemingly brilliant, deceptively simple life-forms comprising the domain Bacteria.
(18 October 2010)
Fossil fuels have enabled us to use brute force methods in medicine and agriculture — to kill anything that **MIGHT** be a problem. Valerie’s article indicate that there is a more co-operative approach. For a similar approach in gardening and agriculture, see Soil food web – opening the lid of the black box. -BA

Cultural Impersonations and Appropriations: A Fashion Report

Al Sandine, Monthly Review
… Thorstein Veblen would become famous for what he wrote about the fetishized commodities of consumers.

Veblen assumed that use of machinery and exposure to industrial processes made workers more rational, less inclined to superstition and animistic beliefs. Away from the mill or factory’s secularizing influence, however, they would buy not only things they needed but also what they thought they had to have to feel respectable. Veblen’s car buyer not only wants a car. He wants the kind of car his brother-in-law has, a Ford Flex, let’s say. According to Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption” (or “invidious” consumption), the things we own tell others where we stand in the social hierarchy. As a sociologist puts it, “Goods are the tools that signal to others who we want them to think we are and who we want to be.”

… Over the past few decades, however, standards for personal appearance have been transformed in ways that seem to turn Veblen’s conspicuous consumption idea inside out.

For Veblen, all the nonessentials that we purchase as consumers reflect standards of respectability established by the upper class. The “motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation,” he wrote, not just of others but of wealthy and powerful others.

… Downscale Intrusions

Veblen also wrote that … the “upper leisure class sets the pace in all matters of decency.”13

Oh? How might upper-class emulation and lower-class irrelevance explain such recent fashion phenomena as designer construction boots, “garage couture” trucker hats, white trash chic (“wife beater” shirts, etc.), ghetto chic (cargo pants, front-to-back caps, the board game Ghettopoly, etc.), hobo chic, and hooker chic (see Bratz Dolls or visit an urban public high school)?

… Consuming Rebellion

In the 1950s, rebellion in America ceased to be an organized political project—rabid anticommunism saw to that—and became a matter of individual style. David Riesman (in The Lonely Crowd) wrote that we had lost our inner bearings and had to look to others for clues as to how to conduct ourselves. The Beats suddenly appeared and seemed to hold a giant mirror up to the nation. Many recoiled in horror. Conformist? Square? There must be some mistake, they thought, and cast about for an alternative, some other image. They found one in the defiant youth of Blackboard Jungle, The Wild One, and Rebel Without a Cause. Such movies thrilled a generation, and “being a ‘rebel’ [became] the new aspirational category.”21

Capitalists quickly caught on to the fact that many people would rebel by buying rebel products. Soon the rebel had become “the central image” of consumerism.22 Consider popular music. Rock and roll, punk, hip hop, grunge: one defiant musical genre followed another, as each became commodified in turn, right down to “alternative’s reconciliation of rebellion and capital.”23 As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote more than twenty years ago, capitalism “had taken the anger and yearning of the poor and sold them to the restless youth of the middle class.”24

… Even corporate executives now cultivate the three-day growth of stubble on their jaws that was formerly the mark of a hobo or combat-weary soldier.

… The Symbolically Dispossessed

A sociologist points out that the working-class men and marginalized others whose cultural symbols have been appropriated by the middle class are victims of a kind of gentrification.40 Take muscles. Everyone has them, but formerly one would expect to see their definition mainly on the arms of laborers, boxers, wrestlers, convicts, certain kinds of criminals (e.g., “strong-armed” robbers), and the like. “Lower-class” muscle builders hoisted iron in poorly equipped gyms and garages. That was then, before middle-class men and women learned to treat their bodies as objects to be attractively sculpted or, as Veblen would have it, as conspicuous symbols of leisure. The pumped-up outcomes of such efforts make the carnival strong man (played by Anthony Quinn) in Fellini’s La Strada look undernourished. And the economic outcome of all these middle-class workouts is a private health club industry that, by 2004, had attracted 41 million members and sucked up more than $15 billion in revenue.41 Such clubs are generally not a working-class venue.

Al Sandine ( is an independent writer and researcher. His most recent book is The Taming of the American Crowd: From Stamp Riots to Shopping Sprees (Monthly Review Press, 2009).
(September 2010)

Existential Comfort in the Age of Hopkins and Greer, Part V

Erik Lindberg, Transition Milwaukee
… History’s I; History’s Eye

As I have previously argued, The Ecotechnic Future is based on an understanding of history that is, in its “mode of emplotment,” Tragic. Tragedy, recall, is characterized by a gain in consciousness for the spectator, realized as he or she witnesses the way in which the protagonist’s failure and, ultimately, demise, reveals the ineluctable laws of fate, nature, history, or human institutions, rather than a protagonist successfully completing his or her quest. The lessons of tragedy include the limits of human will and freedom in the face of far greater forces. Yet tragedy also provides a hard-won moment or two of reconciliation. Its other lesson is the power of human consciousness, especially when it humbly accepts its limits. This is of course in contrast with Romance, which tells of the triumph of the human will and freedom and suggests the possibility of near total reconciliation between humans and their desires.

One of the principle arguments in The Ecotechnic Future is in this vein the limited nature of our freedom given the overpowering ecological forces which provide the stage for humanities often futile struggle to design a sustainable world: “history is an ecological phenomenon, governed by the same laws as other processes in nature” (241). The purpose of a tragic understanding of history is to dissuade us from the belief—ultimately even more perilous, Greer would say, than the ecological forces to which we must submit–that we can overcome these ecological laws of nature, whether by permanent technological progress, or by the sort of enthusiastic coming-together (at this most momentous moment in history) that the Transition Movement advocates. As Greer coolly puts it: “the human ecology that succeeds best under any set of environmental conditions depends much more on those conditions, and the way they interact with available resources and technology, than on the choices we make” (36).

It is the spectator’s (or in this case the reader’s) ability to become conscious of these conditions, and to accept, perhaps even adapt, to them with humility, that rescues Greer’s otherwise bleak and futile vision of “the wheel of life” or of “history’s steamroller” from hopeless despair. But this rescue and the moment of respite that it provides must be carefully constructed, narrated, and dramatized. The spectator/reader must be given a vantage point safe from direct involvement in the tragedy’s merciless unfolding. While the players in the drama fail to satisfy their desires, the spectator/reader must be inspired to adopt a narrative desire that can be realized.

Among the most important features of this vantage point and a realizable narrative desire is that it must stand outside the historical drama that is being narrated. This positioning takes some work: for the drama that is narrated is not just a story of the past, it is also the story of the present and future—of OUR present and future.

Slavoj Zizek has noted that the purest form of fantasy involves a disembodied gaze so removed from the world that the fantasy becomes about our absence from the world. Zizek notes as an example Tom Sawyer witnessing his own funeral (who among us has not imagined our own) and Alan Weisman’s apocalyptic The World Without Us, whose impact on the reader is far less troubling than would be, I think, the more visceral fact of our absence from the world, not to mention the gruesome process by which we might be removed.

Greer proceeds in a similar way, though with a crucial difference that humanity does, in fact, survive. As we learn about the insuperable laws of ecology and the limits of our freedom we are increasingly encouraged by Greer to step back from a usual sort of identification with humanity, which becomes a sort of Other to the reader. There are of course many examples throughout The Ecotechnic Future where the reader is positioned at a distance from the history he or she is witnessing. Or perhaps the reader is positioned to witness history free from human wants, needs, and typical modes of identification. Disembodied, freed from mortality, the reader is encouraged to (mis)identify with the timeless rhythms of nature and ecology. Or as Greer puts it, “to see humanity’s trajectory into the future in this way, ultimately, is to consider ourselves through nature’s eyes rather than our own” (144).
(21 October 2010)
Continuing series on the thought of Rob Hopkins and John Michael Greer, whose articles appear regularly in Energy Bulletin. The four previous parts appeared previously on EB. Erik Lindberg is a member of Transition Milwaukee. -BA

John Bellamy Foster: The ecology of consumption

Excerpt from `The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth’

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, with the permission of Monthly Review Press, is excited to offer its readers an excerpt from the The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, an important new book by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York. Links’ readers are urged to purchase the book. Please click here to order your copy. You can download (in PDF) the chapter, “The ecology of consumption”, below the following introduction, or read it on screen.

* * *

Humanity in the 21st century is facing what might be described as its ultimate environmental catastrophe: the destruction of the climate that has nurtured human civilization and with it the basis of life on earth as we know it. All ecosystems on the planet are now in decline. Enormous rifts have been driven through the delicate fabric of the biosphere. The economy and the Earth are headed for a fateful collision—if we don’t alter course.

In The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, environmental sociologists John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York offer a radical assessment of both the problem and the solution. They argue that the source of our ecological crisis lies in the paradox of wealth in capitalist society, which expands individual riches at the expense of public wealth, including the wealth of nature. In the process, a huge ecological rift is driven between human beings and nature, undermining the conditions of sustainable existence: a rift in the metabolic relation between humanity and nature that is irreparable within capitalist society, since integral to its very laws of motion.

Critically examining the sanguine arguments of mainstream economists and technologists, Foster, Clark and York insist instead that fundamental changes in social relations must occur if the ecological (and social) problems presently facing us are to be transcended. Their analysis relies on the development of a deep dialectical naturalism concerned with issues of ecology and evolution and their interaction with the economy. Importantly, they offer reasons for revolutionary hope in moving beyond the regime of capital and toward a society of sustainable human development.

John Bellamy Foster is editor of the US-based Marxist journal, Monthly Review. He is professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and author of The Ecological Revolution, The Great Financial Crisis (with Fred Magdoff), Critique of Intelligent Design (with Brett Clark and Richard York), Ecology Against Capitalism, Marx’s Ecology, and The Vulnerable Planet. …
(29 October 2010)
PDF of the chapter

In Chile, the lessons of isolation: humans are not wolves

Theodore Dalrymple, Wall Street Journal
The performance of the miners shows that humans are not wolves, set to descend upon each other

We are always tempted to suppose that conduct in extreme situations reveals more about human nature than conduct in ordinary situations: that the concentration camp, for example, tells us more about who and what we are as a species than the convenience store or dinner party. But all aspects of reality being equally real, is it true that extreme circumstances are uniquely informative?

Given our prejudice in favor of the pedagogic value of the extreme, it is hardly surprising that lessons about human nature should be sought in the burial alive, survival and rescue of the Chilean miners. They were, after all, trapped underground for a record period of time.

That they behaved with great fortitude, courage, faith and dignity will hardly be denied by anyone; the efforts to save them were inspiring. There was no major violence between them (beyond a few reported early scuffles), and no cannibalism either. None of them attempted to save himself at the expense of others, and their leader showed the quality of his leadership by being the last to leave the mine. For once, we humans could feel good about ourselves as a species. Angels could hardly have done better.

Writers have always loved to describe situations in which a man or men (rarely women) have been isolated in the most difficult circumstances, individually or collectively. Generally speaking, what those writers have tried to show is that the civilization of civilized men is but a veneer that is easily stripped off by a little (or much) adversity. Man is thus what he has always been: a wolf to himself. They rarely draw the conclusion that the veneer is the most important thing about civilization.

… It has long been known that strong religious or political convictions preserve people’s morale even in the worst of circumstances. Those who survived best in the Nazi camps had some transcendental belief system, whether it was religious or secular (such as Marxism). Those for whom life was essentially only one random event after another, without any particular telos or end, were inclined more quickly to submit to the circumstances, gave up the struggle and were willing, perhaps even eager, to die.
(16 October 2010)
Related at Common Dreams: Can the Right Spin the Chilean Miners Story?. -BA