The Evolution of Governance

The environmental crises brought on by our microscopic ancestors nearly destroyed them - but they found a way out, and we can, too

One of the articles in Toward A Sustainable World Order (IC#36)
Originally published in Fall 1993 on page 40
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

What sort of governance makes sense in a complex global society? To consider that, we go back into deep time, before humans, before dinosaurs or insects, to a time when our microbial ancestors faced a global environmental crises of their own making.

Telling the story is Elisabet Sahtouris, Ph.D, an American/Greek evolutionary biologist, ecologist, futurist, consultant, and author of GAIA: The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos. She is a founding member of WISNet, the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network, a member of the Earth Parliament and of the Women’s International Policy Action Committee on Environment and Development, among others.

In studying the Earth’s evolution, the most fascinating story I know is that of ancient beings who created an incredibly complex lifestyle, rife with technological successes such as electric motors, nuclear energy, DNA recombination and worldwide information systems. They also produced – and solved – devastating environmental and social crises and provided a wealth of lessons we would do well to consider.

This was not a Von Daniken scenario; the beings were not from outer space. They were our own minute but prolific forebears: ancient bacteria. In one of his popular science essays, Lewis Thomas, observing that the myriad of mitochondria in each of our own cells are descendants of these bacteria, suggested that we may be huge taxis they invented to get around in safely.

From whatever perspective we choose to define our relationship with them, it is clear we have now created the same crises they did some two billion years ago. Further, we are struggling to find the very solutions they arrived at – solutions that made our own evolution possible and that could now improve the prospects of our own far distant progeny, not to mention our more immediate future.

I owe my understanding of this remarkable tale to microbiologist Lynn Margulis, whose painstaking scientific sleuthing traced real events of a few billion years ago (see IC #34, page 18). The bacteria’s remarkable technologies (all of which still exist among today’s free-living bacteria) include the electric motor drive, which functioned by the attachment of a flagellum to a disk rotating in a magnetic field; the stockpiling of uranium in their colonies, perhaps to keep warm; and their worldwide communications and information system, based on the ability to exchange (recombine) DNA with each other.

Yet, like ourselves, with our own versions of such wondrous technologies, the ancient bacteria got themselves deeper and deeper into crisis by pursuing win/lose economics based on the reckless exploitation of nature and each other.

The amazing and inspirational part of the story is that entirely without benefit of brains, these nigh invisible yet highly inventive little creatures reorganized their destructively competitive lifestyle into one of creative cooperation.

Their crisis came about when food supplies were exhausted and relatively hi-tech respiring bacteria ("breathers" with electric motor drives) invaded larger more passive fermenting bacteria ("bubblers") to eat their insides out – a process I have called bacterial colonialism or imperialism. The invaders multiplied within these colonies until their resources were exhausted and all parties died. No doubt this happened countless times before they learned cooperation.

Somewhere along the line, the bloated bags of bacteria also included photosynthesizers, "bluegreens," which could replenish food supplies if the motoring breathers would push the enterprise up toward a lighter part of the primeval sea. Perhaps it was this lifesaving use of solar energy that initiated the shift to cooperation.

In any case, bubblers, bluegreens, and breathers eventually contributed their unique capabilities to the common task of building a workable society. In time, each donated some of their "personal" DNA to the central resource library and information hub that became the nucleus of their collective enterprise: the huge (by bacterial standards) nucleated cells of which our own bodies and those of all Earth beings other than bacteria are composed.

This process of uniting disparate and competitive entities into a cooperative whole was repeated when nucleated cells aggregated into multi-celled creatures. Once these biological "governments" evolved, they continued to function beautifully. What nature’s healthy bodies and ecosystems exemplify are beautifully unified democracies of diversity, organized by locally productive and mutually cooperative "bioregions," and coordinated by a centralized service government. The underlying and overriding motive is toward healthy production and consumption for all.

We humans, like the bacteria of old, have produced a major crisis. But humanity, like other living systems, is resilient and creative under stress. And we have the further advantage that we can see how other living systems have evolved and survived, and gain clues as to what we are doing dysfunctionally and what could set us on a path of viability.

To watch the world through the broad lens of an evolutionary biologist is to see signs of hope in many directions. Everywhere I look, people are "getting" the principles of living systems – they are recognizing that we cannot separate science, politics, economics, religion, art and education any longer.

At the Earth Summit in Rio last year, I told the tale of the ancient bacteria to my fellow "Wisdom Keepers," a group organized by Hanne Strong. I added that I’d long wondered exactly how the ancient bacteria did it, and that I was now extremely privileged to see the same process first hand, as witness and as participant.

However poorly reported in our media, most participants I spoke with felt the gathering was a critical event in the reorganization of humanity from a competitive, win/lose lifestyle to a worldwide, cooperative venture. Clearly, those involved in the people’s summits, not the official proceedings, were leading the way.

The image of humanity reorganizing itself from a chaotic mass to a new order was especially vivid from the sound stage of the huge concert held on Flamengo Beach under a brilliant eclipsing moon on our final night in Rio.

Looking out over the vast crowd on the beach, I watched circles form spontaneously in dance, then dissolve as others formed. Lines of people appeared and wove their way through the mass; great roars of approval greeted every proposal for a better world that was broadcast from the nuclear sound stage.

A giant cell was forming itself symbolically on that sandy beach, human protoplasm in motion, making order out of chaos beneath the ever-changing watchful eye of the eclipsing full moon. Beams of laser light patterned their way from nucleus to the boundaries of the great cell lying between the glittering sea and the dark trees of Flamengo Park, lighting the participants in rich patterns of color and sound.

Families in the audience trustingly gave us their children to take up on the stage, where they sang songs quickly learned. As they sang back to their people, I thought of the sharing of DNA by the ancient bacteria – each giving a little of theirs to form the new nucleus. It was a crucible of joyous sharing, a celebration heralding the formation of a network spawned and realized during the preceding two weeks and continuing around the world even now.

By sharing our grassroots experience, by establishing every possible means of communications around the planet, and by making plans to link and expand Earth restoration projects and alternative economies, we took matters into our own hands.