The Ecosystem Fights Back...PartOne
When I first read this article from the current issue of Utne
Reader (Sept./Oct. 1994) I thought, "hmmm...," this is interesting and
it ought to be passed along. I decided against it.
Then, this morning I chanced upon another article in the current issue
of Time about a virus (Filovirus) that, it is alleged, might be an
attempt by the Earth's ecosystem to fight back at the assault of
humankind. Both articles, taken together, clicked in a way that
singularly encountered they might have not... so have decided to pass
I am a superstitious man, believe in magic, and, as was graphically
evidenced when the first men went into space -thereby able to look down
upon our planet- believe that the Earth is an entity, living, breathing,
and perhaps, calculating.
The First Nations/First Peoples are firmly bound to the Earth and
accordingly are well aware of the ecological state of affairs. And so, I
wonder...AIDS, Hantavirus, Filovirus...could these be some sort of sign,
a tremor, a ripple from deep within Mother Earth?
As per the Spiritual Elders, Hotevilla, Hopi Nation:
now living in the fourth and final world of the Hopi. We are at a most
critical time in human history. It is a crossroads at which the outcome
of our actions will decide the fate of life on earth.
Fish Gotta Swim And Birds Gotta Fly, Utne
"Calling something a canary in a coal
mine is one of journalism's most hackneyed comparisons, yet it is a
remarkably apt description of the distressing plight of the world's
birds and fish. Sensitive indicators of the integrity of the Earth's
ecosystems, both piscine and avian neighbors are at a terrible
crossroads. We ignore what their reduced and sickened numbers are trying
to tell us at our own peril.
"Birds may be more obviously in trouble, in part because
their habitat is more vulnerable to human encroachment. Some 70 percent
of the world's 9,600 bird species are declining, according to Howard
Youth, writing in World Watch (Jan./Feb. 1994), and 1,000 of those
species are threatened with extinction in the near future.
"The direct losses are alarming enough in themselves-and
doubly so when you consider that birds keep animal pests such as insects
and rodents in check and also are essential to the vitality of many
"And to those who don't care about animals other than
themselves, Youth has this to say: 'Birds are particularly good
indicators of the health of other species-and of whole ecosystems.' In
other words, birds may be showing us that human lives could ultimately
be at stake.
"Birds are dying off for a number of reasons, reports Youth.
The most obvious is loss of habitat-rain, temperature, and boreal
forests, grasslands, plains, wetlands-to development and farmland.
(North America's 10 most common duck species alone have experienced a
precipitous 30 percent decline in 40 years.)
"To habitat loss add ingestion of pesticides; poisoning by
mercury, selenium, and lead; oil spills; acid rain; and the introduction
of alien species like snakes and cats to ecologically fragile
"Nature reserves help somewhat, says Youth, but bird and
wildlife sanctuaries make up less than 5 percent of the world's land and
some of them, especially in the Third World, are protected habitats in
name alone. Because so many birds are migrants or live year-round in the
tropics, say Youth, 'global efforts to organize bird-saving projects
will only succeed...if there is a strong local interest in the
"The world's fish populations, on the other hand, are endangered both by
overfishing and by habitat loss. Overfishing has caused declines in
stocks of fish throughout the world, says E Magazine (May/June 1994).
The catch of four commonly eaten fish-Atlantic cod, cape hake, haddock,
and silver hake-fell from 5 million tons in 1970 to 2.6 million tons in
1989, the magazine reports. In 1989, according to World Watch (Nov./Dec.
1992), hauls began to exceed the rate at which fish could reproduce.
Quotas have been instituted from Alaska to Iceland to stave off
disaster, but depletions are still readily apparent.
"With more than half the world's people living within 100
kilometers of a coast, coastal habitat loss has become a huge problem
for fish, E Magazine reports. Many cities have degraded their coastal
habitats through development; San Francisco Bay, for example, has shrunk
60 percent in 140 years because of land reclamation; it is now overrun
by alien species and can no longer support commercial fishing.
Chesapeake Bay, once one of the most productive fishing grounds, saw its
annual oyster catch fall from 20,000 tons in the late '50s to 3,000 tons
in the late '80s, largely because of pollution. Meanwhile, 5 to 10
percent of the world's coral reefs have been reduced by pollution and
destruction; 60 percent of what's left is threatened in the next 20 to
"Perhaps more troubling than overfishing, which can be
controlled, is sickness and contamination among the fish that remain.
Since 1964, reports Lisa Lefferts in E Magazine (Jan./Feb. 1993), liver
cancer has been found in 15 species from 50 polluted sites in the United
States, and many other fish, especially those in the Great Lakes, are
contaminated with PCBs and methyl mercury.
"Indeed, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report released in
1992 found that 'PCBs, mercury, and biphenyl were detected at more than
90 percent' of the 388 inland sites they evaluated, according to Michael
Castleman in Sierra (March/April 1994).
"Although the EPA doesn't believe the cancer risk for fish
injesters to be very great, the Environmental Defense Fund disagrees,
saying the EPA's consumption estimates were based on surveys done before
fish became as popular a food as today.
"Pollutants that cause reproductive and developmental
failure are also responsible for some of the dwindling of the fish
population. In addition, animals that eat tainted fish can themselves be
affected, accelerating the the loss of wildlife such as birds and mink.
Indeed, according to the World Wildlife Fund's Theo Colborn, quoted in E
Magazine, 'all top predator species dependent on fish from the Great
Lakes are suffering reproductive problems.'
"As Clyde Dawe, the Harvard scientist who discovered the first fish
tumors back in 1964, put it, if fish (and, we might add here, birds) are
adversely affected by pollutants 'human health is in jeopardy as well.'
"Doesn't it follow, then, that we owe it to ourselves an to our planet
to rescue the denizens of ocean and air as soon as possible?" Rhetorical
But, what if the ecosystem recognizes it's enemy and starts to assert
itself in ways from which humankind can neither retreat nor cope?
When the world ends, it will be like when
the names of things are changed during the peyote hunt. All will be
different, the opposite of what it is now. Now there are two eyes in the
heavens, Dios Sol and Dios Fuego. Then, the moon will open his eye and
become brighter. The sun will become dimmer. There will be no more
differences. No more men and women. No child and no adult. All will
Now, according to the current issue of Time (Sept. 5 '94) we read of a
laboratory accident involving the Sabia virus at Yale, just last week,
in which the scientist was infected. He failed to report the accident,
as he ought to have.
Time magazine, Sept. 5
1994, pp. 63:
"The accident must have
come as a horrifying shock, even to an experienced scientist. One
minute, a sample was spinning in a high-speed centrifuge. Then,
suddenly, the container cracked, and the sample-tissue contaminated by a
rare, potentially lethal virus-splattered the inside of the centrifuge.
Fortunately, the Yale researcher working with the deadly germs was
wearing a lab gown, latex gloves and a mask, as required under federal
guidelines...he didn't bother to report the accident [after following
all other safety procedures]...and a few days later he left town to
visit an old friend in Boston.
"Bad move. Although he would not realize it for about a
week, the scientist...had been infected with the mysterious Brazilian
"...Sabia is almost certainly carried by rodents and is not
contagious by casual contact (the afflicted scientist evidently got it
from tiny bits of tissue that flew into his unprotected eyes or nose or
"Sabia and several other related viruses-Junin, Machupo and
Guanarito in South America and Lassa in Africa, all members of
arenavirus family-are particularly frightening because they can kill in
such a grisly way. Characteristic symptoms are high fever, uncontrolled
bleeding in virtually every organ and finally shock. The liver turns
yellow and decomposes. Blood can leak from literally every bodily
orifice, including the eyes and pores of the skin.
"Sabia was never seen before 1990.
Time magazine, Sept. 5 1994, pp.
"Several days after a victim contracts the
virus, his eyes turn red and his head begins to ache. Red spots appear
on his skin and, spreading quickly, become a rash of tiny blisters, and
then the skin rips. Blood begins to flow from every one of the body's
orifices. The victim coughs up black vomit, sloughing off parts of his
tongue, throat and windpipe. His organs fill with blood and fail. He
suffers seizures, splattering virus-saturated blood that can infect
anyone nearby. Within a few days the victim dies, and as the virus
destroys his remaining cells, much of his tissue actually liquefies...no
movie will match the real-life terror described in Richard Preston's
-The Hot Zone (Random House, $23)...soon in stores later this
"Writing with great flair, Preston introduces his readers to
the terrors of the FILOVIRUS, a family of threadlike viruses found in
the rain-forest regions of Central Africa. He describes a 1976 outbreak
that spread through villages near the Ebola River in Zaire, killing as
many as 90% of those infected. This so-called Ebola Zaire virus is the
deadliest of the filoviruses, but its Ebola Sudan and Marburg kin, while
not as deadly, cause equally horrible symptoms.
"Such dangerous viruses may seem a distant menace, but as
[the] Yale researcher learned last week, accidents can happen. The Hot
Zone details a 1989 Ebola crisis that occurred not in the forests of
Africa but in Reston, Virginia, only 15 miles from Washington. It all
started at the Reston Primate Quarantine Unit, run by a company that
imports and sells monkeys for use in research laboratories. When an
unusual number of deaths were recorded among a shipment of monkeys that
had recently arrived from the Philippines, tissue samples were sent to a
U.S. Army research center.
"There a technician identified the strands as either Ebola
Zaire or something very close to it. Even more alarming, an incident at
the Reston building seemed to confirm that this virus, unlike the
African one, could be transmitted through the air. Frantic phone calls
were made to Virginia health authorities and to the Centers for Disease
Control in Atlanta. The Reston building was, in Army parlance, a 'hot
zone,' an area that contained lethal, infectious organisms. An Army
team, wearing space suits, killed the 450 surviving monkeys by lethal
injection, and the cadavers were placed in plastic bags for safe
disposal. Before the building was boarded up, the Army sterilized every
square inch of the interior...Eventually it became apparent that the
Ebola Zaire strain at Reston was harmless to humans. Yet the virus is
considered to be a continuing menace. 'A tiny change in its genetic
code,' Preston writes, 'and it might zoom through the human
"In his [Preston's] view the worst is yet to come. As the
world's population continues to grow, he writes, and human settlements
and activies intrude farther into the rain forests, previously unknown
viruses like HIV, Lassa, the filovirus and others are emerging to wreak
their toll. In a rather mystical but ominous conclusion, Preston warns
that 'the rain forest has its own defenses...The earths's immune system,
so to speak, is starting to kick in...The earth is attempting to rid
itself of an infection by the human parasite. Perhaps AIDS is the first
step in a natural process of clearance.'"
Wouldn't it be ironic if, 500 years after Columbus et al had delivered
biological chaos to this end of the world, that the rain forest took the
First Nations Cumulative Index