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Toxifying Communication: Human and GAIAN

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Although carbon dioxide (CO2) is the essential raw material with which plants and algae synthesize foods like carbohydrates, perhaps we should think of human-generated excess carbon dioxide (HUGECOD)as a toxin . . . rather than the "natural stuff we breathe out " as suggested by certain big oil honchos in-greed and in-denial. For just as toxins like mercury and PCBs absorbed by the bodies of 911 rescue workers ( for more info, see ) can apparently disrupt feedback controls in a human body, so too does HUGECOD perhaps likewise toxify the planet. The parallels may be significant.

Here 's the bottom line. Normally, potentially runaway processes are quelled -- SHUTDOWN by negative feedback. Your house cools, the thermostat senses it and switches-on the heat --your house warms. This could be dangerous if runaway, so the thermostat senses the temperature rising and SHUTS-DOWN the heat. There is always a second change (thermostat SHUTS-DOWN heat) that reverses the potentially dangerous-if-runaway first change (heat on) . . . lest the house burn up. This is feedback, a form of communication.

In the body: Your body-temperature cools, thyroid hormone is squirted into the blood by the thyroid gland & the body warms; but at the same time, another sensor (in several intermediate steps) SHUTS-DOWN the squirting of thyroid hormones, lest the body 's cells "burn themselves out. " This is only one of thousands upon thousands of negative feedbacks that prevent our bodies from "overdoing " various processes.

But there are also a few instances of normal positive feedback in the body. Here 's a goodie: blood proteins of the immune system "sense " bacteria like E. Coli; this leads to activation of a system of anti-bacterial proteins in the blood that also cause inflammation. In turn, this event leads to a few more protein activations that cause even more inflammation. Positive feedback --one change leads to even more of itself (AMPLIFIES itself). Why? Because ACUTE (short-term) inflammation in beneficial; it helps the immune system get rid of the bacteria. So more of it, for a short time, and in a limited area, is beneficial.

But soon after, a negative feedback also kicks-in to SHUT-DOWN the inflammation. Because CHRONIC inflammation is pathological (think asthma, Lupus, MS, Rheumatoid arthritis, for instance). So, positive (AMPLIFYING) feedback is okay --if transient and followed by a negative (SHUTDOWN) feedback.

From deep inside each cell . . . to among cells of a single system (like the immune system) . . . to among all the cells of all different body systems, a dense web of feedback communication --an InnerNet --has primacy. Think of the most complex, beautiful spider web you've ever seen. Now multiply its complexity by a million; now replace the flimsy silk strands with sturdier fabric-quality silk (such as might form a beautiful silk shirt). Let this image represent the dense web of communication, the InnerNet, that really is your body. As Deepak Chopra once framed it: "touch one strand and the whole web trembles. "

Now think of toxins as disrupting portions of this web, this InnerNet, distorting or even cutting one or more silk strands. The whole web trembles, and frequently, that trembling kicks-up inflammation. Somehow (and there are a plethora of potential mechanisms), some toxins may be able to kick-up the positive (AMPLIFYING) feedback and/or block the negative (SHUTDOWN) feedback physiological processes including inflammation, so that ongoing chronic inflammation occurs. Bad news. Toxins like PCBs or mercury might have done just that in the case of National Guardsman and 911 hero Major Sean Donahue (read his story at
), and perhaps by a slightly different InnerNet disruption in Guardswoman, Jonnette Kraft (read her story at

But given the chance, the body can send out new silk-makers --just like reliable web- 'bots --to do repair work on its silken web. But not while the toxins are still around. DETOXIFICATION IS KEY. Remove the toxins and it knows how to repair its InnerNet (in most instances). If you need a drug to quash symptoms, okay, take it for a while, but don 't ever expect IT to be the "cure. " The cure lies in the InnerNet!

And what of the earth, the living planet GAIA? The number of SHUTDOWN negative feedbacks in different integrated GAIAN biogeochemical processes (life-rocks-atmosphere-hydrology) is mind-boggling; millions upon millions --a web, a BiogeochemNet that boggles the mind, picturing it almost inconceivable.
But let 's simplify. Focusing solely on biological processes (which we really shouldn 't), the whole plant/algae --animal/decomposer "pairing " constitute a sort of very oversimplified negative feedback. Animals breathe out carbon dioxide, which would increase it in the atmosphere (dangerously, we now know from global climate change). But plants & algae (the point we started from) SHUT-DOWN that increase by using up the carbon dioxide to make carbohydrates by photosynthesis. (For simplicity, we 'll ignore the fact that they also, in the dark, produce carbon dioxide.) And this is NATCOD, natural carbon dioxide, part of the feedback web that GAIA "knows. " Breathing raises atmospheric NATCOD, Photosynthesis SHUTS-DOWN that increase --a negative feedback.

But, then there 's the GAIA-toxin, the HUGECOD, the extra carbon dioxide that makes what we and other animals exhale almost irrelevant. Perhaps, like PCBs in individual human bodies, HUGECOD behaves like a similar toxin in the GAIAN body, causing chronic GLOBAL-WARMING INFLAMMATION. (The analogy works in the sense that warming of skin and other tissues in body inflammation brings more heat to those tissues.)

This is already strongly suspected. For example, HUGECOD leads to global warming that melts glaciers, introducing more fresh water into the sea. By a complex process (but well-understood chemistry) that we need not go into, this may, by an effect on global ocean circulation (deep and surface water flow) reduce photosynthesis by algae. This is a positive feedback. More carbon dioxide (HUGECOD) leads to less photosynthesis and thus less carbon dioxide removal. Net effect: even more carbon dioxide (AMPLIFYING or positive feedback). There are, of course, other factors, like the fact that land plants might respond to more carbon dioxide by increasing their photosynthesis. It 's much too complicated to know for sure. GAIA 's BiogeochemNet is so complex, that we simply are too uninformed to take risks with it (computer models notwithstanding).

But add-in the fact that this diminished ocean circulation might well provoke a new ice-age in Europe because of its additional effect on heat flow, and there 's enough reason to be concerned that HUGECOD might well be GAIA-toxin. So the idea of HUGECOD as a toxin in the GAIAN body, analogous to, say, PCBs in the human body becomes perfectly plausible.

We see that we are simultaneously polluting both our individual bodies and the body of GAIA, mother earth, with toxins as a result of the ways in which we behave as individuals, societies, and a species. In many or most cases, the effect of toxins can be described in terms of their disruption of feedback communication in the webs --InnerNet & BiogeochemNet. Sure, toxins are chemicals, and they alter chemistry of the human or the GAIAN bodies. But, it is as (or perhaps, more) accurate to think in terms of communication (feedback) disruption, the disrupting of the human body 's InnerNet or of GAIA 's BiogeochemNet. This view that communication is as fundamental as biochemistry has really always been a foundation of both physiology and ecology. We may combine these ideas in what I 'll call the "EcoBody " perspective. It tells us of the intrinsic wisdom of these communication webs --the InnerNet and BiogeochemNet --and of the consequent repair healing that we can expect if only we can DETOXIFY (for evidence in the human case, please go to ).

And in the case of GAIAN detox . . . for you biodiesel advocates . . . please remember that biodiesel is only a stop-gap measure because it 's combustion, which generates carbon dioxide. Yes, it might reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but it's not detox. I keep hearing from undoubtedly well-meaning advocates that it doesn 't contribute to global warming. Sorry, burning (combustion) anything organic in air produces HUGECOD. The idea is NOT TO BURN organic substances of any kind (including trash). Does the wind burn organic matter? Does the sun? Geothermal? Tides?

Of course not, these energies derive from a number of other physical phenomena --gravity, nuclear fusion, etctetera. We 're the only combusters here. (Critics will argue that the production of carbon dioxide by all cells is a form of controlled combustion, but even so, that 's NATCOD --an integral silk strand in GAIA 's BiogeochemNet.)

And ultimately, the secret may be to mimic the very plants and algae we began with, who during the process of photosynthesis, separate hydrogen across a membrane inside their cells, using solar energy to pump that hydrogen. Some hydrogen researchers have suspected that we might be able to move closer toward duplicating this. Imagine, hydrogen produced by sunlight and used to run nonpolluting vehicles that form only water as a waste product. All other energy needs satisfied through electricity generated by solar (photovoltaic or PV), wind, or geothermal.

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Vin has a PhD in molecular biology, taught college science in Boston, and currently writes about science for various venues. His passion is the evolution of the US healthcare system far beyond its current oversimplistic (more...)
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Whew! A little heavy, Fritz! Yes, of course we ... by Jim Prues on Monday, Jun 5, 2006 at 3:55:19 PM
Jim, What the heck would make you think that I'... by VinL on Monday, Nov 20, 2006 at 8:20:18 PM