A road disappears into the ocean

The Quadra Project: Dysbiosis

Dysbiosis is a new word for our vocabulary. It has been used before to describe a health condition created by an imbalance in the gut bacteria, which causes a wide range of gastrointestinal problems. Now dysbiosis is being used to describe a variety of our environmental problems.

It’s a timely word formed from two Greek roots. The prefix “dys” denotes difficulties, abnormalities, or anything that is uneasy, unfavourable or unfortunate. The suffix, “biosis”, denotes a state of living or a mode of life. Put the two together and we have a word that describes the malfunctioning of a biological system caused by some profound imbalance.

George Monbiot, writing as an environmental columnist in The Guardian Weekly (5 May 2023) was an early user of dysbiosis in this environmental context. He was describing the range of severe problems caused by our abuse of nature: “soil degradation, freshwater depletion, ocean dysbiosis, habitat destruction and synthetic chemicals might each be comparable in scale and impact to climate breakdown.”

In the case of the oceans, this dysbiosis might be any one or a combination of many factors: over fishing, acidification, heating, habitat loss, noise pollution, so-called “forever chemicals” or plasticization. All these are contributing to an ocean that is no longer functioning with the easy generosity that once provided us with oxygen, normal weather and boundless food.

Dysbiosis is a useful noun. It would describe a densely packed monoculture of reforested trees that are no longer able to provide the biodiversity necessary for a living and vital ecology. Forest dysbiosis is an apt description of the industrial farming of trees. Many of these stands have become so dysfunctional and sterile that they are no more like forests than massive wheat fields are like natural prairie grasslands.

Soil dysbiosis would apply to industrial agriculture that has reduced the complex vitality of soil to chemically enhanced dirt that is no longer organically alive.

River dysbiosis would apply to the ecological effects of dams, pollution or the heating and flow irregularities from climate change. The loss or diminishment of salmon runs would have a wide-ranging negative effect on insect life, nutrient-rich water, soil fertility, and animal and bird life, all of which could be described by the term dysbiosis.

We, too, are ecologies that are subject to dysbiosis. Our functioning bodies are actually composed of more non-human organisms than human cells. Indeed, we are so merged with the outside world that we would die if a separation occurred. Many of our health problems are the result of dysbiosis, an interruption in the smooth functioning of these complex and interrelated biological systems.

The same analogy can be made with respect to our civilization and nature. We cannot function physically, economically, politically, socially or individually without nature. The entire stability of our human societies is based on our ability to mesh harmoniously with the predictability and the generosity of the natural resources surroundings us. Our relationship with the biosphere of Earth determines the survivability of our entire global civilization. Every river, field, forest and ocean is an integral part of that relationship. As we now know from our bodies, the inside and the outside are each other. The separate self is an illusion. A civilization that fails to respect nature exists under the same illusion.

This, of course, raises the issue of social dysbiosis, and how many of the problems plaguing human societies are the result of the breakdown in the harmonious relationship between ourselves and nature. Pandemics of novel diseases can be linked directly to the intensifying and abnormal interface between ourselves and nature. Weather anomalies are dislocating people, turning them into refugees who cause political, economic and cultural turmoil. Floods and fires are raising anxiety levels and creating a general angst that makes people’s behaviour edgy and unpredictable. A hotter planet is threatening food supplies and stressing tolerance and patience. Threatened people are drawn to more extreme political positions, a divisiveness that undermines social dialogue, harmony and accord. Dysbiosis, therefore, can be understood in a large enough sense that it reaches to the very core of who we are and how we behave, both individually and collectively.

We may not be able to solve all the problems that lie at the root of dysbiosis, but we can be aware of the process, be mindful of how it works, and thereby alleviate and even avoid some of the reflexive and unconscious responses that could make our situation even more challenging than it already is.

Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra 

Top photo credit: Storm Surge – Photo by NPS Climate Change Response via Flickr (Public Domain)