Spontaneous Remission?

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”

— Bill Mollison

As anyone familiar with it knows, cancer is lethal: once a tumor spreads beyond its origin, whether on the skin, in the internal organs, or elsewhere, and gets into the bloodstream and lymph nodes, it quickly metastasizes throughout the body, and we die. But in rare cases, for reasons yet unknown, terminal cancer will go into spontaneous remission — a phenomenon widely attested in the medical literature, but very poorly understood. Current estimates suggest that fewer than 25 out of 1.5 million cancer patients have spontaneous remission. So it is possible, but highly unlikely.

One possible explanation for spontaneous remission could be some version of the “butterfly effect,” a familiar phenomenon in complex systems where small changes in initial conditions can lead, through escalating feedback effects, to unpredictable large-scale global changes in the system as a whole. The name was coined in the 1960s by meteorologist and complexity theorist Edward Lorenz, who showed how tiny “butterfly-scale” changes in his computer models for weather systems could tilt the whole system unpredictably, through interrelated runaway feedback loops, leading from tiny perturbations (like a butterfly flapping its wings) to large scale weather phase shifts, such as thunderstorms, tornadoes, or hurricanes. This effect can likewise be found in all other complex adaptive systems besides our weather — including our politics (e.g. how two geriatric fascists — Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump — have poisoned the well of public discourse in our country, undermining the social consensus that is, in turn, a prerequisite to a healthy democracy).

What happens if we apply this understanding as a metaphor for our global crisis today? The metaphor fits, as it turns out, very precisely. Our global market economy today (“Glomart”) has clearly become a cancer on our biological support system (Gaia), and this cancer — a self-accelerating feedback loop resulting from the vast surge of cheap energy made possible by fossil fuels, leading to the infinite growth of production, consumption, pollution, and population on a finite, living system — has recently become terminal. Like our bodies, our biological support system itself — Gaia — is breaking down altogether, and with it the (cancerous) industrial, social, and political infrastructures that support us all.

So is spontaneous remission of the terminal Cancer of the Earth on a global scale even possible? I have no idea; the odds are heavily stacked against it. But I don’t count it out. It is still possible — however improbable — that some new initiative on an individual scale could “go viral,” leading to entirely unpredictable, mutually reinforcing feedback loops, resulting in a phase shift of the entire system — toward the rapid proliferation of Gaian consciousness, by which I mean nothing more than a shared sense of ecological awareness, understanding, and responsibility, and of our global interconnectedness, not only with each other, but with Gaia herself — our unique and irreplaceable biological support system.

How might such a “butterfly effect” happen? I have been mulling over this question for many years — most of my life, in fact. And of course, I still don’t know, nor does anyone else. But I have recently hit on my best candidate yet for an initiative that could trigger such a “butterfly effect.”

I call it the “Garden Guild” initiative — which has quickly become my all-consuming obsession. Imagine a group of neighbors within a small radius — about a square mile or so — forming a Garden Guild, where they meet once a month for convivial potluck dinners, to share dishes and recipes grown from their backyard vegetable gardens, as well as gardening tips and suggestions. Then imagine that they work with local neighborhood organizations and city council to disseminate their model to other neighborhoods, and they use the tools of the Internet — databases, communications, social media — to disseminate their model further afield…soon the idea goes viral, and everyone, everywhere, is forming Garden Guilds — growing their own food, meeting and collaborating with their neighbors, solving problems and managing emergencies collectively.

The basic structure of Garden Guilds — all homes within walking distance of each other — is the key to their potential success. For this renders them largely immune to catastrophic disruptions in the global infrastructures we all depend on for our basic needs (food, water, shelter); our lifelihoods (globalized commerce and the money system); the electrical grid (which enables heating and cooling, long-distance communication, and news); and our circles of friends (whom we mostly need telephones or the Internet to reach, and cars and gasoline to visit at all). If any or all of these vital infrastructures were disrupted by a catastrophe, whether natural or socioeconomic, Garden Guilds would still be able to keep in touch, and help one another adapt and survive.

But even if nothing awful happens, Garden Guilds would make neighborhood life much more healthy and enjoyable, with friends all around — in contrast to the mutual isolation and paranoia most of us live with today. And equally important, they would cultivate an ethos of caring, compassion, tolerance, and ecological stewardship, and render our communities far more resilient in an increasingly chaotic world.

Again, I have no idea if my Garden Guild initiative has all the necessary conditions to trigger a self-accelerating feedback loop and go viral. But it is the best idea I have had yet, so I plan to pursue this idea until I am pushing up the daisies! So I hope you will join me in growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness!

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.