April 2014: President’s Message

Greetings from ever greener Camden!

Yesterday was tax day! (I can hear the roars of applause over the internet.) It is amazing, though, that yesterday marked the end (with some exceptions) of a process through which some 340 million people make themselves accountable to their community. It is a remarkable thing that a collection of individual people is able to pool individual resources through the tax system in order to make possible any number of activities that are necessary for our communal living. It is remarkable, indeed, but it is merely another example of the amazing complexity and interdependence of nature! It strikes me that the tax system is like the human microbiome, that collection of microbial life that literally shares space with our bodies, and is so important to our body’s healthy functioning.

The other day I listened to a radio program about the microbiome. Each of us has 10x the number of microbes on and in our body than we do cells. That is a huge number! The microbiome is the “first line of defense” that each of us has against pathogens that seek to invade our space. Scientists are beginning to realize that what happens on this microbial level is a critical component of what happens to our bodies throughout life. There is growing evidence that our overuse of antibiotics for everything has seriously depleted our microbiome, leading to increasing incidences of obesity, diabetes, asthma, food allergies (like peanuts), and various intestinal complications like Crohn’s Disease. The antibiotics are wonderfully effective, and have been a blessing in many, many ways, but they are also rather indiscriminate. They go after the offensive microbe but they also go after elements of the microbiome that are part of a collection that has built up over millions of years, all in response to the evolutionary principle of species survival. For more information on this topic, listen here.

Upon reflection, on this April day, surrounded by an earth that is once again resplendent with the colors of the rainbow, it strikes me that all of creation, from the microbiome to the tax system of the USA and everything in between, manifests a complex interdependency that invites our wonder and our thanksgiving. Just think about it! For millions of years the human species has been the space in which a complex web of microbial life has evolved in order to serve the possibilities of human life. We exist in this biosphere, with all of our hopes and dreams, in part because of the evolved microbiome that serves to protect and enhance our existence. Is the same true of our taxes? We’ve evolved a system of governance that is dependent on individuals using their talents to create value, and a portion of that value is transferred to the collective so that it can do for us what we cannot do on our own, like defend our homeland, care for the sick, educate the young, etc. Perhaps the parallel is not accurate all the way down, but it strikes me as a very profound exercise in interdependence that has had amazing results, results we could not accomplish on our own. The same is true of the microbiome. The collection of microbial life that shares space with me, on my skin, and throughout my body, enables me to sit here, to think, to form sentences, and to be in awe of the creativity of the universe.

While wonder is the appropriate response to the amazing complexity and interdependence of all creation, it is also appropriate for us to be attentive to our striking ability to step right through awe to practicality, to productivity. We want to accomplish things; we want to advance; we want to improve ourselves. The invention of the antibiotic was motivated by the deepest of human desires, to be of service to others. This is a wonderful desire, and not one to be set aside. The challenge, though, is that in our race to be of service to others, we need to remember that the interlocking systems of living things that comprise our universe depend on each other. We do not want, in seeking to help others, to create a deeper more intractable challenge down the road.

I invite you to read more about the microbiome. Perhaps as you are planting your gardens this spring, you’ll notice the myriad forms of life that are active in the soil you work. Those life forms make your daffodils and forsythia possible. We need to attend to them, to make sure we don’t harm them in our search for the weed free lawn or garden. Remember, antiobiotics do kill the “bad guys,” but they are also quite indiscriminate. Let’s be a bit more discriminate in our engagement with nature. Let’s engage nature as our companions on the journey a bit more. Why not? It’s been that way since the initial flaring forth of energy 13.82 billion years ago. I imagine we have a lot more time together.

A Happy Earth Day to everyone!


Mark Doorley, Ph.D.
President, Board of Trustees
The Center for Environmental Transformation