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Money and mitochondria: Capitalism messes with our mental health

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It is a widely accepted hypothesis that mitochondria, the energy centres of human cells, were once bacteria that were external to us. This means that through a fateful endosymbiosis more than 1.45 billion years ago, the once symbiotic relationship between two independent organisms, resulted in a merger for the greater efficiency of the now mammalian cell.

For those not familiar with the idea of symbiosis in nature, let’s expand with an example.

Enter the bobtail squid.

This remarkable squid resides off of the coast of Hawaii. By day he rests his sandy coloured body against the camouflage of the ocean bed and by night, he hunts. His Achilles’ heel is on a moony star-lit night, his shadow startles his prey into seeking refuge. He combats this occupational hazard by bioluminescence. The light that switches on in his mantle, cancels out his shadow on the ocean floor.

How? By symbiosis.

A bacterium called Vibrio fischeri is particularly drawn to the inside of the squid’s mantle, which is a sort of pouch on the squid’s belly. Only this bacterium lives and breeds in the pouch. As the day wears on, it divides in the safety of the mantle, until it reaches a critical number. Once this number is reached, they are able to  communicate with each other. It’s conveniently timed; when the moon rises, a signal is sent to the community to bioluminesce. This communication between microorganisms is called quorum sensing and is another miraculous feat of the natural world. It’s no accident of language to say, there is power in numbers.

With this backdrop of cooperation between naturally occurring entities, let’s explore how some of our human constructs are impinging on our own internal homeostasis. I am so often struck by how inextricably linked financial success is to inner peace. Historically much of the investigation into suicidal behaviour has been attributed to psychiatric disorders, but newer research, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, is clearly drawing a strong association between financial strain, debt and unemployment with suicidal ideation and suicidality. Some studies have intimated that you are more than 20 times more likely to attempt suicide in the context of financial strain.

Closer to the beginning of humans’ time on Earth, the energy of symbiosis was inherent in the bartering of goods, the sharing of kraal. It’s an irony that the etymology of the words economy and ecology are of the same origin. The Latin origin is the word that defines a person’s habitat or house. In spite of their humble origins, our economies have grown to destroy our ecology, inviting a new counter economy to save the planet.

A lack of financial security is strongly associated with a diagnosis of depression. We have cumulatively tied autonomy, opportunity, independence and education to financial abundance. Don’t get me wrong, we all know money doesn’t buy happiness, but you can’t argue that it doesn’t open doors in the mainstream world. You almost can’t exist without it; it has become so essential for survival. It’s ironic that money, much like our mitochondria, the organelles essential for our vitality, energy productions and survival, has been enveloped into our cytoplasmic psyche. In urban settings, where there are great discrepancies between the haves and the have nots, the psychological burden of poverty weighs heavily on everyone.

If we understand ourselves as an extension of the natural world, then we should draw on the wisdom of that ecosystem. Every organism in nature has a counter organism. Flemming discovered penicillin when he returned to a petri dish after he had been on holiday. In his absence, the petri dish of bacterium had continued to divide and nature’s response to quell the rapid growth of the Staphylococcus aureus in the dish was to produce a mould that kept the Staph in check. The mould grew to counter the overpopulation of the bacterium. In a biodiverse homeostatic universe, every force has a counterforce. So what force can modern life generate to level the disproportionately skewed capitalist world?

Capitalist metrics have lost the ability to create a safe home for all people. The system continues to promote the more powerful entity over and over without a counter entity to keep it in check. Shouldn’t metrics such as integrity, kindness and sharing be the entities that push back against the money construct? How do we turn these into commodities so that we can restore a more ecological balance where all humans can thrive alongside one another and keep their inherent individualism while co-existing in community?

Capitalism is also not surprisingly the greatest driver of a homogenous world. Through globalisation and travel, we are diluting our biodiversity and potential for better symbiosis. Children watch the same movies on every continent of the world. Teenagers aspire to wear the same clothing. Everyone has narrowed their horizon down to the smartphone in their palm.

The evolution of the endosymbiont mitochondria took more than a billion years to come to full fruition. It might be that we just haven’t evolved the right response to our current currency yet. Perhaps some of us are already brewing that thing that will push back and be the great equaliser providing for all people.

The world is on the precipice of a critical mental health moment. More than 10% of Americans are on a psychiatric drug. There is enough anti-depressant in the water system to change the mating habits of fish. Our collective psyche, the abyss between the haves and the have nots, cannot continue.

Let us draw on the wisdom of bacteria, mould, bobtail squid, Vibrio fischeri. Let us create new ideals and responses to our current values. It might be time to externalise the money creature again, put it outside, further away from the protective walls of our inner worlds. Let us revere the qualities in people that foster — creativity, synergy, collaboration and community — so that we may cooperate with one another and turn the lights on in a darkening world.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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