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[compost_tea] Interview with a Fungus
"Since it began in 2000, The Economist and Shell Writing Prize has
sought to encourage future thinking.
The 2003 essay competition posed the question "Do we need nature?"
Nearly 6,000 people, from all over the world, offered answers.
The first prize of $20,000 was won by Diane Brooks Pleninger from
Anchorage, Alaska, whose essay below, inverted the question neatly
INTERVIEW WITH A FUNGUS
By Diane Brooks Pleninger
D.P. Good evening, viewers. Our guest this evening is Pilobolus
crystallinus, author of the award winning best seller, "Do We
Need Mankind? A Fungal Perspective'. Mr. Pilobolus is a member of the
kingdom Fungi, class Zygomycetes. He is a scholar, lecturer,
dung-dweller and author of numerous scientific articles and papers
as well as several books for popular audiences. Welcome, Mr.
P.c. Thank you, Diane. Good to be here.
D.P. Mr. Pilobolus, your most recent work raises tantalizing questions
about the future of the biosphere and the role that you and other
inhabitants of this planet will play in it. Tell us how you came to
write this book.
P.c. The book resulted from a series of symposia I attended over the
past two centuries under the sponsorship of the World Federation of
Fungi, on the topic, "What Does Nature Need?' The Academy
of the WFF is constituted of one delegate from each family of fungi.
I was fortunate to represent the Pilobolaceae. Conferences were held
decadally in many different parts of the world. Matters particular to
the host locale were given close consideration, but the global
perspective of the Academy was never eclipsed.
D.P. The 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have been a revolutionary
period in the biosphere. How have fungi been affected by the events of
P.c. The modern history of the fungi, which I date from about 400m
years ago, has been a remarkable success story. The fungi occupy two
vital niches in nature whose importance has never been challenged. In
one niche, we are drivers of the carbon cycle, elite teams of
detritivores whose mission is to digest organic matter and return the
component parts to the ecological system. Without our work, life on
earth would long since have ground to a halt for lack of raw
materials. In another niche, we act in partnership with the roots of
plants to extend their reach into the soil environment and enhance
their uptake of water and nutrients. These partnerships are called
mycorrhizas -- myco for the fungus, rhiza for the root. Animals in
turn feed on plants and benefit from this arrangement. So the fungi
play two very distinct roles worldwide, and both roles are critical to
maintaining the biosphere in good working order.
D.P. Where does mankind come into your history?
P.c. Mankind comes into our history about 20,000 years ago, at the
time they discovered the uses of alcoholic fermentation. We credit the
genus Saccharomyces with this development. Ancestral spores of that
yeast settled in a pot of gruel prepared by a group of hominids whose
existence up to that point was best described as nasty, brutish
and short. This began what we call the honeymoon period in the
relationship of man and fungus. Unfortunately, the honeymoon
didn't last very long.
D.P. What happened to end it?
P.c. Two things happened. Agriculture was one. Mono-cropping and
animal husbandry led to concentrations of plant and animal
populations that were vulnerable to certain of our members,
particularly the smuts, rusts, mildews and blights. Some crops and
herds proved to be sensitive to basic fungal metabolites. For
instance, my colleague Claviceps purpurea produces the biochemical
ergot. Ergot causes gangrene, madness and death in certain animals,
among them humans. However, there is no credible scientific evidence
that ergot evolved in C. purpurea with harm to megafauna in mind. The
same may be said of Aspergillus flavus, which occurs on nuts and
grains in the field and in storage. The aflatoxins produced by A.
flavus are among the most powerful poisons and carcinogens on earth.
Introduced into human environments, they are nothing less than weapons
of mass destruction. To A. flavus, they are merely metabolic
byproducts, with perhaps a touch of self-defence function as well.
The other change for the worse resulted from transportation. The rapid
movement of species around the globe allowed no time for immunities to
develop in local populations. Many fungal species have been vilified
for causing mass exterminations of elms, chestnuts, potatoes and other
plants. This mirrors the unhappy experience of animal and viral
microorganisms implicated in plagues and epidemics. The real culprits,
of course, are the humans who transport exotics from continent to
continent without considering the consequences.
D.P. As you see it, what has been the human purpose during recent
P.c. With the advantage of hindsight, I think we can summarize it as a
failed experiment in individualism. The idea of the individual
-- and there is no fungal equivalent -- arose during a period of rapid
change in human society. In the abstract, individualism looked
defensible, even appealing. The ideal individual was to be educated
and enlightened, someone we'd all like to know. However, as a
practical matter, the culture of enlightened individualism reformed
itself after a brief period into a cult of personal freedom. Over the
next several centuries, unbridled personal freedom and chance
distributions of natural resources led to the creation of certain
wealthy and isolated colonies of humans. Their prosperity excited envy
and the rest of the world did what they could to emulate them. Large
populations of humans moved from a very simple experience of the
natural world to the expectation of a lifestyle similar to what the
exploiters were enjoying. This clamour for plenitude -- for meat in
daily diets, for manufactured goods, for personal comfort, for leisure
activities -- put enormous stress on the biosphere.
D.P. As we know, humans failed to reverse this trend. Can you explain
their failure to act?
P.c It certainly wasn't for want of trying. If you visit the
media archives of mankind -- and we fungi are able to do so freely in
spite of their effor ts to exclude us -- you will see that
environmental issues were at the forefront of concern in all the
wealthier nations for the past century and a half. Treaties,
regulations, protocols and public opinion were all used to stem the
tide of harmful practices. But events outstripped them. Chief among
these events was population growth. Population growth outpaced the
effectiveness of trade boycotts. The offenders were able to simply
form trade blocks of their own. Population growth outran the ability
of the media to cultivate public awareness of environmental issues.
And of course, population growth added to the pressure on the
biosphere as more and more people demanded higher standards of
A couple of analogies can help us visualize what was happening. One is
the problem of the universal solvent. If there were such a substance,
what would you keep it in? The phenomenon of affluence turned out to
be a sort of universal solvent. Nothing could contain it. Affluence
was a marker of evolutionary s uccess. Eventually, the cultural and
political meanings intersected and in many parts of the world, it
became seditious to propose programmes regulating or moderating
More insight is provided by the old canard about bread and circuses,
which refers to the stultifying effects of amusement. Poor quality
information tends to ferment into low-grade entertainment. Under the
sulphurous glare of continuous, worldwide news broadcasts, human
institutions -- government, military, religious, the culture itself --
became subjects of human amusement. This unrelenting, self-referential
entertainment left a large part of mankind chronically inebriated and
fundamentally uneducable. The ideal of public education was a notable
casualty. I discuss this phenomenon fully in my chapter, "The Second
D.P. Many times in your book, you mention what in earlier centuries
would have been called "values" -- altruism, moderation, that sort of
thing. How do the fungi define ethical values? Or perhaps you call
them spiritual values?
P.c. (Laughs) Much of what others consider spiritual, we call secular.
This does not mean we are without a theology. In fact, I have devoted
an entire chapter to formal fungal theology.
D.P. Can you tell us briefly about fungal theology?
P.c. There are two major systems of mycotheism in the fungal world.
The more recent religion is only about 50m years old, but it has a
strong representation among the younger orders. The older religion is
more widespread, although it is also more rationalized from the
original texts. Overall, 99.4% of fungi are adherents of one or the
other faith. But the important thing to note is that there are no
tensions, no doctrinal disputes between the two theisms. The core
principle of both religions is identical.
D.P. And that principle is.....?
P.c. Whereas the root principle of virtually all the religions of
mankind is behaviour modification, our core religious value is species
recognition. The fungi comprise nearly a million and a half species
and uncounted millions of mating types. The pressures that result from
diversity of this magnitude cannot be overstated. We have long
recognized that the best way to maintain order in the system is to
encourage institutionalized mycotheism. As a result, we are widely
considered to be the polity most capable of reaching consensus amongst
ourselves and acting in concert upon that consensus.
D.P. How do you describe the present relationship between nature and
mankind? Conflict? Detente? Symbiosis?
P.c. I can only speak for the fungi, who characterize mankind as
expendable. My chapter, "Many Keystones, One Arch," explores the uses
that mankind has made of the fungi, which range from antibiotics and
immunosuppressants to papermaking to bread, beer, cheeses and wines
and the familiar delights of mycophagy. Our members observed and
recorded millions of human-fungus interactions over a period of two
Again, humans cannot escape our observation. We are everywhere: on
their skins, in their homes, underground, in the stratosphere. After
intensive analysis of these data, the Academy was not able to identify
even one indispensable human-fungus transaction. No obligate
parasitism, no essential relationships, no sine qua non. I ask readers
to remember this important fact as they learn the startling outcome of
D.P. Without revealing the ending to your book, can you speak briefly
about the last chapter?
P.c. Recently, the Academy convened a plenary forum to review our
findings concerning the place of mankind in the world ecosystem. We
evaluated the state of the biosphere, giving due weight to
mankind's most recent energy policies, bioengineering innovations,
developments in agriculture, industry and transportation, the efforts
made toward environmental remediation and detoxification of hazardous
and radioactive wastes. We considered the question of just how much
perturbation of the natural order we should tolerate from human
activities. We agreed that the biosphere presently stands
at 9.6 on a scale of disturbance ranging from zero to ten. Based upon
these findings, the Academy adopted a position statement which we
presented to the WFF. I have taken the title of that statement for my
last chapter, "The Knot of a Thousand Tyings."
D.P. Can you summarize this position statement for us?
P.c. I'd like to read from it, if I may.
D.P. Please do.
P.c. "Our members do not recoil from the future. We believe that life
on earth is embarked on a unique trajectory, one that will not be
repeated. We believe that the outward journey has entailed a long and
intricate interweaving of the interests of all living things. We
believe that the homeward path will entail the systematic unweaving of
those threads. We believe we are eminently suited for a role in this
D.P. And here, we must encourage our listeners to read your book.
"Do We Need Mankind? A Fungal Perspective." Pilobolus crystallinus,
thank you so much for joining us today.
P.c. Thank you for having me, Diane.
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