Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Case for Microbial Coexistence

This is the follow-up post to our quick look at the benefits of fermentation as presented by self-proclaimed "fermentation fetishist" Sandor Katz in his book Wild Fermentation.  To my mind this is the more important of the two arguments.  I would, however, recommend reading the previous post, as a primer, before reading this one, although it's certainly not necessary...

Our culture is terrified of germs and obsessed with hygiene.  The more we glean about disease-causing viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms, the more we fear exposure to all forms of microscopic life.  Every new sensationalized killer microbe  gives us more reason to defend ourselves with vigilance.  Nothing illustrates this more vividly than the sudden appearance, everywhere in the United States, of antibacterial soap.  Twenty years ago, mass marketing of antibacterial soap was but a glimmer in some pharmaceutical executive's eye.  It has quickly become the standard hand-washing hygiene product.  Are fewer people getting sick as a result?  "There's no evidence that they do any good and there's reason to suspect that they could contribute to a problem by helping to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria," says Dr. Myron Genel, chair of the American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs.  Antibacterial soap is just another exploitative and potentially dangerous product being sold by preying on people's fears.

The antibacterial compounds in these soaps, most commonly triclosan, kill the more susceptible bacteria but not the heartier ones.  "These resistant microbes may include bacteria...that were unable to gain a foothold previously and are now able to thrive thanks to the destruction of competing microbes," says Dr. Stuart Levy, director of the Tufts University Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance.  Your skin, your orifices, and the surfaces of your home are all covered with microorganisms that help protect you (and themselves) from potentially harmful organisms that you both encounter.  Constantly assaulting the bacteria on, in, and around you with antibacterial compounds weakens one line of defense your body uses against disease organisms.

Microorganisms not only protect us by competing with potentially dangerous organisms, they teach the immune system how to function.  "The immune system organizes itself through experience, just like the brain," says Dr. Irun R. Cohen of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.  A growing number of researchers are finding evidence to support what is known as "the hygiene hypothesis," which attributes the dramatic rise in prevalence of asthma and other allergies to lack of exposure to diverse microorganisms found in soil and untreated water.  "The cleaner we live...the more likely we'll get asthma and allergies," states Dr. David Rosenstreich, director of Allergy and Immunology at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York.

Paranoia about germs has been magnified by the recent anthrax terror and fears of biological warfare.  According to the December 2001 newsletter of Household and Personal Products on the Internet, "A widespread fear of disease - specifically anthrax bacteria - has caused consumers to take a more serious look at cleansing...Antibacterial cleansers are expected to spike in sales."

Well-informed hygiene is very important, but it is impossible to avoid exposure to microbes.  They are everywhere.  A 1970s made-for-TV movie called The Boy in the Plastic Bubble dramatized the tragic saga of a young man born with an immune disorder who could only survive in a germ-free environment.  The boy, portrayed by John Travolta en route to superstardom, lived in a hermetically sealed, sterilized room and could only interact with other people through protective barriers.  He periodically ventured out of his room in a spacesuit-like outfit.  He grew so lonely and sad in his sterile cage that he chose to leave it and live normally for the brief time before the inevitable pathogenic organism killed him.  This is a pop culture parable of the impossibility and undesirability of sequestering oneself from the biological risks of being alive.

Much of Western chemical medicine aims to eradicate pathogenic organisms.  In the case of my (Sandor's!) AIDS drugs, the treatment strategy is called "highly active anti-retroviral therapy."  Having benefitted from the miracles of high-tech pharmaceuticals, I'm in no position to argue against the value of this approach.  I firmly believe, however, that microbial warfare is not a sustainable practice.  "Bacteria are not germs but the germinators - and fabric - of all life on Earth," writes Stephen Harrod Buhner in The Lost Language of Plants.  "In declaring war on them we declared war on the underlying living structure of the planet - on all life-forms we can see - on ourselves."

Health and homeostasis require that humans coexist with microorganisms.  Bacteria-counting scientists (which this blog's author used to be!) have quantified this simple fact, estimating that each person's body is host to a bacterial population in excess of 100 trillion, and noting that "the interactions of these colonizing microbes with the host are nothing if not complex."  Humans and all other forms of life evolved from and with these organisms, and we cannot live without them.  "Nature appears to maximize mutual cooperation and mutual coordination of goals," wrote ethnobotanist Terence McKenna.  "To be indispensable to the organisms with which one shares an environment - that is the strategy that ensures successful breeding and continued survival."

The study of symbiogenesis views evolutionary innovation as a consequence of symbiosis, tracing the source of all life to prokaryotes, which are cells distinguished by the absence of nuclear membranes.  Bacteria are prokaryotes.  Their genetic material is free-floating in the cell.  "Genes from the fluid medium, from other bacteria, from viruses, or from elsewhere enter bacterial cells on their own," write biologists Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz.  By incorporating DNA from their environment into themselves, prokaryotes assimilate genetic traits.  They evolved first into eukaryotes (cells with nuclear membranes) and eventually into complex organisms such as ourselves.  But they never left their progeny.  They are with us always.

"Prokaryotes are the master engineers of our complexity," explains my excited scientist friend Joel Kimmons, recent recipient of a PhD in nutrition from the University of California.  Inside our bodies, most dramatically in the gut, prokaryotes absorb genetic information that informs our function as organisms; they are an integral part of our sentient experience.  "We eat and thus we know," says Joel.  Humans are in mutually beneficial and mutually dependent relationships with these and many different microbes.  We are symbiotic, inextricably woven together, in a complex pattern far beyond our capacity to comprehend completely.

And far beyond our ability to manage with any approach outside of cooperation and participatory immunity.

"In declaring war on them we declared war on the underlying living structure of the planet - on all life-forms we can see - on ourselves." 

So many people think I'm a tree-hugger.  I just want to live, man!  We live at the pleasure of those trees, and bacteria, and fungi, and all the myriad living biodiversity around us, both seen and unseen.  People who don't hug trees don't understand what a tree does: don't understand that the rain depends on trees, don't understand the climate moderation trees make possible, both macro and micro; how the water cycle itself depends on robust forests; how our annual crops depend on the trees we cut down to make way for them.  [Tree crops suddenly seem to make a lot more sense, don't they!]  They don't understand what they see right in front of them, much less the countless activities going on in the shade, in the nooks and crannies of the tree's body, and underground, coordinated and orchestrated by that tree.  And if they do understand all that and still don't hug trees, at least metaphorically, then they probably assign the tree's magnificence to someone or something else, robbing the tree of its dignity and proper place in the whole scheme of things.

Treated in this way often enough it's easy to understand why species are going extinct around us at such an alarming rate, and how that loss of biodiversity might not matter within that worldview.  I.E. Disrespect for other life forms is built in to all monotheistic religions, so those approaches should be viewed as suicidal tendencies in the long run.  Unrecognized though they may be.  If the species is just reflective of the brilliance of its designer then the species is dispensable, where the designer is not.  Just once I wish we could run this train of thought to its inevitable destination, (with a return fare of course), so that the people who believe that they are bigger than Nature could get a taste of the crow they are serving up for themselves...you know, if there are any crows around still to eat...

"To be indispensable to the organisms with which one shares an environment - that is the strategy that ensures successful breeding and continued survival." 

Energy descent has thrown the industrial world into a tailspin - if you're not constantly imbibing the smooth and pleasant draught that the powers-that-be are serving up you might have noticed - and on the internet you can find thousands of varying opinions about how to "prep" for the inevitabilities of our new future: anything from end times doomsteads, heavily-armed bunkers, turnip bandits, and Mad Max scenarios, to prayer, theocracy, feudal fascism, and the universal enlightenment of the populace, if only we could just all get our minds on the same page. 

Putting aside the fact that I've never come in contact with a worldview that could even pretend to work for everyone on Earth, (or even for the person espousing it usually), would a universal approach even be desirable?  Not if Nature's methods matter, and I haven't seen a shred of evidence to the contrary.  Consensus is for times of stability, times when the environment and energy supplies are in a steady state, for when the empire is waxing.  We can think of a sanitized, antiseptic personal environment in the same way - as a consensus based on control and the conventional paradigm.  A paradigm that is just flat out wrong about microbial coexistence.

I've been a fan of the band Wilco for quite a while now.   Never really heard it before - I'm notoriously ignorant of the actual words of the songs I "sing" - but there are lyrics in one of their songs that proclaim: "Till I suppose 10 million years from now, we'll all be just alike - same color, same size, and we'll work things out together.  And maybe we'll have all of the fascists out of the way by then...maybe so."  Really?  When we're all the same color, the same size, working things out together because, ostensibly, we all think in the same way, that will be the end of fascism?  No thanks, Wilco.  I think I'll stick with the red pill.  Nonetheless, groovy tunes, and if I'm not mistaken the album in question, Mermaid Avenue, is made up entirely of unreleased Woody Guthrie songs, written late in his life when Huntington's disease was keeping him off of the stage, and collaborated on with Billy Bragg, so I'll try not to be too hard on the boys from Chicago.  But that is one scenario that I'd wager body parts against ever happening...favorite ones.

Control, consensus, conversion, manifest destiny, one world order - whatever you want to call it it's a one-way ticket to the dustbin of history for ol' Homo sapiens, just as a continuation of the war on microbes is.  Dissensus is the order of the day, the raw material from which natural selection chooses its route forward.  The industrial world, sitting at the end of its energy growth curve and therefore heading into unknown and likely chaotic waters, will benefit more from dissensus than from any other "strategy" currently on offer.  There are tons of bad ideas out there, and some pretty good ones, too - I would consider permaculture to be one of the best - but what we need most right now is a ton of different ideas from which to choose.  Our future survival actually depends on it.  How exactly to be "indispensable to the organisms with which one shares an environment" is up for debate of course, but I doubt that turnip bandits or universal enlightenment have much to do with it...

Kill your television; strangely, all of that variety isn't helping.
Tripp out.


  1. Tripp; I never did like kraut, or pickles,other sour stuff. Even sourdough bread was just ok, but as I have been educating myself for the upcoming changes, I realized I had to face the obvious, and learn to like them. Low energy food preservation is a must learn skill for starters. The nutrition and health boost finish the justification. So far, I am starting to like kraut from a can, but know that once I start fermenting and eating live fermented foods, the tastes will be much different. By coincidence, I am half way through "Wild Fermentation" right now, and am sold. (Though I may not get quite as adventuresome as Sandor) I ordered my first crock last week, and we planted a good bit of cabbage this spring. So, we are taking one more step towards a sustainable, self sufficient life.

  2. Steve, I didn't grow up eating those sorts of foods either (cheese being the nearly universal American exception), although I developed a liking for ferments like beer and wine in a hurry! And sourdough, too! I have to agree that developing our skills in low-energy food preservation techniques - fermentation being arguably the biggest one - is paramount for the decades ahead. And growing the fermentation produce yourself is just that much better. You're doing good things, man. Thanks for the comment.