It was about forty years ago that I read Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. The first essay, “The lives of a cell,” fascinated and inspired me. Unknown millennia in the past humans were colonized by microscopic organisms, which entered our cells and established themselves as symbiotic newcomers. They and we have evolved independently over the millennia into symbionts that cannot survive without the other.
Think of it—tiny micro-organisms with their own genetic make-up and evolutionary history dwelling in our cells are the energizing force that allows our bodies to function and remain alive. And not just these mitochondria, but various other lodgers in our cells provide crucial services to the lives of our cells.
This symbiotic interdependence in living beings is not unique to humans; it is basic to life on earth when we consider the chloroplasts that enable photosynthesis in green plants and release life-sustaining oxygen, the rhizobia on the roots of legumes, the aphids in the anthill, the gut protozoa that digest cellulose in termites to sustain both themselves and their host, and the list goes on.
Dr. Thomas’ essay illustrated that we humans are not separate entities but are interdependent organisms in a vast and complex web of life on Earth, concluding that we are embedded in Nature as vulnerable beings, not the masters over it. It is instructive that during the COVID-19 pandemic, as we have had to put life-as-usual on hold, we have gained insight into our interdependence and also the health of Earth has improved as pollution has declined.
The work of many different groups of people has taken on new significance as we realize how crucial their services are to us. There seems to be a greater sense of solidarity within society and an appreciation of the rightness of greater equity among people. As Nature has been structured all along, and as our Aboriginal neighbours have enshrined in their wisdom teachings and ways of being Earth’s caretakers, interdependence and symbiotic relationships, not independence and autonomy, are at the core of life on Earth.
?COVID-19 is a rogue example of non-reciprocity in this interdependent world—it invades us to allow itself to thrive and spread, but does not give a benefit in return, not unlike the way humans have exploited Creation for personal gain without giving proper care and restoration in return.
As we have opportunity to shape the “new normal” after this pandemic, will we embrace the reality and wisdom of interdependence to embark on a more sustainable social order? It will require that we be bold and wise, committed to our invitation to be co-creators with God of a more sustainable world for all, human and non-human, and willingness to forfeit our delusion of being Earth’s masters.