Comparing the ways of seizing and extracting energy with that of a sea slug called elysia chlorotica reveals the magnitude of the modern logic of extraction and the distance technocapitalism has achieved from a larger understanding of the cosmic functioning of energy. Can elysia chlorotica provide us with an alternative framework to help restore a planetary state of climate balance and justice?
In one second the sun churns out more energy than has been used during the entire course of human history. Only an infinitesimal fraction of the sun’s radiated energy reaches our planet, and just a small part of this fraction is seized and used by living matter. Most of the sun’s energy radiates into the void. Energy is a cosmic affair.
However, Western epistemologies have typically defined energy as the “ability to perform work,” in a semiotic twist that has left no trace of the cosmic notion but has instead removed energy from a systemic functioning to relocate it to a particular situation of productivity. The “advancement of civilization” has been considered strictly connected to the ability to store more energy, thus to perform more work (Leslie A. White, “Energy and the Evolution of Culture,” 1943) and even the future of interstellar human life has been imagined as depending on the ability to store more galactic stellar energy. With the Kardashev Scale (1964), Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev imagined three types of civilization, whose advancement would progress from being able to partially store the energy of the sun, then the totality of it, until finally capturing the whole energy radiated by all stars in the entire galaxy. Speculation arose and science fictional narratives fueled these thoughts, visualizing hypothetical xeno-architectures that would envelop the sun and other stars. In some cases, the hypothetical realization of these energy-seizing megastructures (such as the Dyson Sphere or Swarm) even had envisaged to demolish our planet and use it as a raw material for construction—epitomizing an extreme case scenario resulting from contemporary industrial practices based on a logic of advancement at all costs. These visions shared with Russian Cosmism a strong belief in technology, and they visualized a future of extraterrestrial human life supported by such devices: energy would fuel cosmic space travel, maybe propel immortal humans to the stars, in continuous expansion and extraterrestrial growth—although it may just be the few privileged who depart from an overpopulated and overly polluted planet, a former system in balance now transformed into the biohazardous leftover of technocapitalism.
Departing from the visions of Russian Cosmism, but with a radically redimensioned optimism in human-made technology alone, we can now outline “human autotrophy” as a speculative future metabolic shift of our bodies, inspired, among others, by the green marine slug elysia chlorotica and its ability to seize and transform solar energy into nutrition. Observing the example of elysia, we can now attempt to disentangle subsistence—seizing or extracting energy—from annihilation.
The functional approach to energy as the “ability to perform work” has informed the modern logic of extraction from a capitalist perspective—with the imperative to extract more, more efficiently, for more profit, with no limit—and this logic has far broader implications than the material act of ungrounding oil and other resources: it is an all-embracing approach of capitalism in that it extracts matter (either living or not) or information from its realm (physical or epistemological) to transform it into a future asset. At the crossroad of the fourth industrial revolution and the sixth extinction of species, with a planet threatened by climate collapse, recurrent global pandemics, and overpopulation, any dream of “advancement” or “progress” must be urgently disentangled from visions of perpetual growth and acceleration—both of which rely on an equally increasing amount of energy harnessed and “put to work” as fast as possible.
Reconsidering the logic of extractive capitalism entirely is crucial for a viable planetary future amidst this spreading unlivability. How could energy then be seized alternatively for nutrition and subsistence purposes? How is it currently captured by living, electric bodies alone with no mediation of other living beings or devices, for nutrition and subsistence purposes? And do these material practices, through an enhanced sensing of the surroundings, contribute to restoring a cosmic notion of energy on top of its undeniable ability to “perform work?”
To face the problem of subsistence, for instance, most critters—as Donna Haraway describes microbes, plants, animals, humans, and nonhumans—have developed complex solutions and strategies to seize and use energy in conditions of scarcity, without damaging their ecosystem’s balance. Animals, unlike plants, are not able to directly transform solar energy and chemical elements available in their surroundings into nutrition and thus depend on other living beings for nourishment. However, some of them, referred to as “green animals,” have progressively solved the problem of food scarcity in environments where at least the sunlight is abundant. Through symbiotic relationships with plants, they have evolved into plant-animal hybrids that are able to seize and transform solar energy without the perpetual mediation of other living beings: green animals have “learned” to photosynthesize.
The most remarkable example of this plant-animal fusion is the species elysia chlorotica, green sea-slugs that have become photosynthetic thanks to a long-term symbiotic relationship with their favorite source of nourishment, the intertidal algae vaucheria litorea. This elysia digests the algae only partially, retaining the photosynthetic chloroplasts intact and storing them in cells along the digestive tract. Stimulated by the sun, the chloroplasts continue to photosynthesize, transforming light into usable energy for these slugs that, when hungry, can crawl to the shores and sunbathe for the rest of their life cycle. This emerald green elysia has evolved to mimic the function, shape and color of a leaf—the efficient vegetal technology to seize and metabolize sunlight. Thanks to this symbiogenetic relationship with the algae, elysia has increased the chances of survival by becoming solar-powered—basically, eating sunlight. This naturally occurring, symbiogenetic multiple gene transfer between two multicellular organisms such as elysia chlorotica and vaucheria litorea (Sidney K. Pierce, 2009) can be compared to a naturally occurring “gene therapy”—a process that sparks some curiosity on the potential of human photosynthesis as a nutrition supplement for the future. Elysia embodies our dream of becoming solar, of making direct use of the immense energy of the sun to supply the scarcity we face by relying on the extraction of limited resources.
The relationship these slugs and algae establish is all but an exception in the biosphere. In fact, as argued by biologist Lynn Margulis since the end of the 1960s, endosymbiotic relationships between organisms are the driving force of evolution, its “engine” (“Acquiring Genomes. A Theory of the Origin of Species”, Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, 2002). In her view, evolution does not result from the accumulation of random mutations in individuals among whom only the fittest would be subsequently selected amidst harsh competition. Instead, evolution is the outcome of multiple endosymbiotic relationships between different species that evolve into enhanced organisms, with more chances of survival when facing drastic environmental changes. Even the word “individual,” with its connotations of isolation and independence, is a large matter of discussion, given the fact that all organisms on Earth directly depend on other organisms to survive. A human body is never one and alone either. Instead, it is inhabited by millions of bacteria, fungi, even viruses, a microbial “consortium” whose subsistence we support and whom our existence directly depends on: a holobiont. Such scientific research has had a profound transformative effect on our ways of thinking about the planet: the biosphere, a “huge metabolic device for the capture, storage and transfer of energy” in Preston Cloud’s definition, must finally be considered and treated as a complex functional system operating in an irreplaceable equilibrium, rather than something in the way of human expansion and extraction. Against the established neo-Darwinian interpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which reflects some dreary traits of corporate patriarchy (fierce competition, survival of the fittest), Lynn Margulis has thus proposed an approach based on material interdependence among species, departing from microbiological evidence to build a systemic view into the planet’s fundamental organization of life. She contributed a comprehensive insight into the incredibly creative ways in which organisms have progressively found solutions to the problem of energy scarcity, seizure, and harnessing, through endosymbiotic evolution.
Elysia chlorotica’s solar-based subsistence strongly challenges the man-made division between animals and plants, whose main distinction describes plants as able to produce the nutrition they need with the substances available in their surroundings (a property that defines them as autotrophs) and animals as unable to synthesize their own food, thus depending on other vegetal or animal organisms for nourishment (heterotrophs). Animal life—unlike plants—must thus either kill other living beings or exploit their work in order to survive. Human beings brought this structural, biochemical aspect of all heterotrophic life-forms to another level with the invention of the meat industry: a massively destructive affair for the planet, whose strategies cannot be justified by nutrition purposes but are, instead, fueled by greed and validated by human exceptionalism. The meat industry is an extreme form of extractive predation, in that it plans the birth and the immediate removal of living beings from life itself, on a vast scale, to transform them into future assets. Their “reproduction” (or, better said, their artificial replication) is completely mediated by the technopharmacological industry and driven by the mission of increasing production while diminishing costs—to the point that the meat industry can, in fact, be seen as a subsection of the technopharmacological industry. The same can be said for the agricultural business today, which has mostly transformed into a monopoly of genetically modified seeds whose natural replication is hindered to renew their purchase endlessly. Comparing these ways of seizing and extracting energy for nutrition purposes with that of elysia chlorotica reveals the magnitude of the modern logic of extraction and the distance that technocapitalism has achieved from a larger understanding of the cosmic functioning of energy.
But could we ever eat without killing? Could we ever provide nourishment—energy—to our bodies without damaging other forms of life? In 1925, the idea of human autotrophy was already present in the mind of Vladimir Vernadsky. The Russian biogeologist had observed how, despite human societies growing “powerfully with great acceleration,” still no human-made technology was able to transform the terrestrial chemical compounds into nutrition and hence humankind relies entirely on “annihilating other living beings or exploiting their biochemical work.” Vernadsky, in tune with the vision and cheerful faith in technology typical of Russian Cosmism, believed that humankind would become more and more independent from other forms of life through scientific advances, until evolving into “a third branch independent of living matter,” along with chemoautotrophs and photoautotrophs.
A somewhat extreme practice that has indirectly attempted to reach biochemistric independence for the human body without the mediation of technology is “solar gazing” or “sungazing”: the scientifically controversial spiritual act of looking directly into the sun, seizing solar radiation for nourishment. “Sungazers'' practice every day, increasing the exposure by 10 seconds per session, looking into the sun at dawn or dusk (when the intensity of the light is lower). Some of them claim to reach 45 minutes of daily exposure. Just as leaves are used by plants during photosynthesis, the human eye is used by sungazers as a device to seize and transform solar light into nourishment, and regular practitioners claim increased levels of energy and decreased appetite, together with a restored spiritual connection with cosmic forces. Not surprisingly, medical science has severely criticized this practice due to the lack of scientific evidence or confirmation, stressing the fact that the only long-term proven consequence of sungazing is temporary or permanent damage to the eye’s retina due to solar radiation (solar retinopathy) or variable degrees of blindness. Nevertheless, when looked at from the perspective of human autotrophy, sungazing is an enticing and speculatively rich attempt to force the human body to a radical metabolic shift, one that skips thousands of years of potential evolutionary processes to become solar and photosynthetic now—an impatient attempt to drive our evolution seizing the abundant, immediately available raw material of light.
Despite the visions and speculations on human autotrophy, at present, nutrition is going in the opposite direction, depending on an increasing amount of production rather than freeing itself from the need to exploit other being’s biochemical work. Regrettably, modern technological developments in the meat and agricultural industry and the resulting toxic handling of ecologies, the massive extraction of limited resources and the reckless expansion of zones of biohazardous segregation, currently bring the “human” (with considerably different liabilities on a planetary scale) to behave more similarly to a necrotrophic organism, rather than an autotrophic one. Green animals, instead, have solved the conundrum of disentangling subsistence from annihilation without damaging their ecosystems—they are not “non-humans” but “more-than-humans.” Can elysia chlorotica provide then a “tentacular” (as alternative to binary—Donna Haraway, 2016) framework to imagine an autotrophic, solar-powered human body, one that softly breaks the velocity of extractive technocapitalism to help restore a planetary state of climate balance and justice?
Disentangling subsistence from annihilation and looking at the relationships among species as all characterized by an irreplaceable material interdependence can fuel the reimagination of notions of “energy,” “extraction,” and “community.” These notions strongly need to be reconsidered for a future of viable planetarity that is not based on a logic of extraction (or on its green patch of “sustainability”), but on climate justice for all critters, in equal ways, with no planetary differentialities and zones of biohazardous segregation. If the “human” has to be reimagined, as it seems, the example of elysia chlorotica enables us to outline autotrophy as a speculative, metabolic enhancement of our bodies in a future where our energy needs will have grown exponentially, and (hopefully) so will have our understanding of the ecologies and their irreplaceable relations. In this thought experiment, we can also picture the human body traveling through outer space as an electric entity whose subsistence does not depend on extraction, predation, or mass production, but rather on an ever-evolving relationship of symbiosis with other critters to seize and metabolize stellar light.
Cover image: Elysia Chlorotica. Image courtesy of Patrick J. Krug (Creative Commons CC BY-NC 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons)