Tuesday, June 12, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/06/12/DD217505.DTL

I enjoy being a virus
Jon Carroll  


THERE IS A THEORY, half jocular and half not, that human beings are, functionally speaking, viruses preying on their host, Mother Earth.

I thought of that last week when I read a report that human beings, not disease or climate changes, are probably responsible for the disappearance of many large mammalian species from the globe.

We are a meat-eating virus, and anything meat-like better watch out -- even those Volkswagen-sized armadillos that used to roam Nebraska like armor-plated bison. We allow some meatlike things to live -- indeed, we encourage them to breed even when they don't want to, which is not as much fun as it should be. But we do them no favors; being a pre-steak cow is not exactly a life of ease and pleasure.

But we destroy more than meat creatures. We tear up the ground looking for items of utility and beauty. We foul the air we breathe and the water we drink because we don't consider the consequences.

That is the nature of viruses, though -- they don't reason well. They do not appreciate the idea of cause and effect. Imagine how surprised and irritated a virus is when its host dies. "Ooops, gotta go to Plan B. Ooops, I have no Plan B."

Because a successful virus can be transmitted from host to host, the species lives on. However, our host is Earth itself, and there just is no viable metaphorical equivalent of Earth sneezing or having sex and transferring its little people-shaped viruses to another host.

I know: colonies on the moon. Cities on Mars. Yeah, well, good luck. As a Plan B, it doesn't have a lot to recommend it. It might be nicer to tweak Plan A.

I DON'T MIND being a virus. Sure, they get a bad press from the human- centric press, but viruses are just trying to get along like everything else. They do not kill for sport. They don't waste any natural resources on dopey status-linked devices.

They've been around a lot longer than Homo sapiens. If we are viruses, we should begin to take lessons from our betters. We should be viruses with a sense of dignity and purpose. We should be viruses in the game for the long haul.

Any stupid virus can kill its first host and perish itself. Maybe we could use our great big brains to be better viruses. Not more moral and more beautiful; just better at staying alive. When the host thrives, we thrive. That's the first page of "Miss Manners' Guide for Perfectly Behaved Viral Entities."

THERE IS A general cultural portrait of environmentalists as impractical dreamers, tree-hugging poetry-drunk dunderheads who don't understand that Darwinian necessity of humans to conquer, control, manipulate and destroy. That is how we win the battle, after all. Look at history!

Well, no. That is how we win the battle against other humans. That is how the French humans beat the English humans. But the looming challenge is something different. The looming challenge is how to maximize our potential as viruses.

Forget the wonderful posters of dolphins and the spotted goshdarned owl; let's think selfishly. Let's think like PG&E executives. We want to be around for the long haul. How do we do that? By going down that old consequences checklist every morning. By not taking unnecessary chances. By not acting as though we believed we are immortal.

Lesson of the universe: Nothing is immortal. The only choices are long life or short life. We select the former. As viruses, we know that our long life depends on the long life of our host. We work like demons to keep Mother Earth happy; we stay happy too. It's symbiosis! It's dancing in the streets! It's maple syrup on flapjacks!

Viruses, unite!

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