Mother Nature is in dire straits! Industrialization is poisoning our world, pulling the atmosphere out of balance and creating climate chaos. It’s polluting our air and probably every organ in our bodies, including our brains. It could be reducing fertility and increasing miscarriages, and so even stopping women from becoming mothers. The plastic we pour into the oceans has infiltrated every site so far examined. The degradation isn’t new, it started two or three centuries ago, but it’s now accelerating rapidly.
Industrialization, beginning in northern Europe in the 18th century, needed armies of workers living near factories, so people were pushed off their land and whatever self-sufficiency they had was stripped from them. Life before was rarely a rural idyll – slavery, feudalism and war wrecked countless lives – but in the new era the poor in the industrializing countries had little option but to migrate to cities seeking work for derisory pay which barely kept their families in poverty. Overcrowding and bad sewerage formed a hothouse for lethal epidemics, though these were nothing new either. They had plagued humanity since the growth of cities thousands of years ago.
To avoid the nasty, brutish and short life in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, some people escaped to the colonies where many of its raw materials originated. They oversaw resource theft which imposed a similar pattern to Europe’s: The indigenous people were forced from their land into laboring for their new colonial masters as servants or for a pittance. Those who resisted faced death in colonial wars and massacres.
It brought immense wealth to very few. They justified their great fortune with a heartless ideology, bolstered by “scientific” racism, in which they believed they had attained a higher level of evolution and intelligence than those they ruled. Some also grasped to a theology which conveniently taught that they were closer to God than their slaves and workers. They had both a scientific and religious right to wealth and power.
Everything was given a price tag. It still is. Governments, their corporate backers and the media – all controlled by people from similar backgrounds – wage war against self-sufficiency. Their view of development is the prevailing global ideology. A family that’s reduced to laboring for starvation wages is supposedly richer than when it was living sustainably and comfortably from its own food, but without the pay. Taxable income is everything, the money is sucked upwards while those at the top find ways to pay little or nothing.
Although most people have been shown the same dream of eternal growth, only a few ever enjoy it and many are stuck in grinding poverty. The dime-store explanations proffered for this are ahistorical and facile, the inequality is supposedly the result of quirks of geography, the spirit of discovery, democracy or the rule of law. We’re told that poverty in the Global South is the fault of corrupt officials, but actually these are small fry, accounting for a tiny three per cent of the wealth siphoned off. The rest is stolen through legal corporate deals which funnel trillions of dollars into shareholders’ pockets and tax havens, established by and for the rich. Africa remains as drained of wealth as under the old colonies.
Fewer than thirty individuals own the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity; a fashion CEO is paid more in a week than a Bangladeshi garment worker earns in her lifetime. After centuries of industrialized growth, with its spectacular and undoubtedly helpful inventions, eight hundred million people will go to bed hungry tonight and the nights after, and not just in “poor” countries. Degrading poverty is also acute in North America and Europe.
None can escape pollution, but the heaviest burden falls on the poor. Highly-processed and cheap foods, with lots of sugar and salt, poison their children into obesity and diabetes. Manufacturers know this, just as they once knew that other products, like asbestos, weed killer and cigarettes, were lethal years before they were forced to admit it. Risks are buried for profit. No one knows if the things we’re sold today will be shown to be toxic tomorrow. More high-frequency radio waves are proposed from more masts to flood our mothers and babies, born and unborn, with ever more electromagnetism. No one knows about any long-term effects, but the wavebands now proposed are the same as those used to disable people in “active denial” weapons.
Most of us now live in cities, chasing paid work and competing for expensive housing. A self-sufficient family in the rural Global South might build a house in a few days, but a working family in Europe can take a lifetime to pay for theirs. Expert medical care works miracles, but is priced beyond the reach of many, even in the richest nation. Diseases once thought eradicated have returned. Allergies, eating disorders and self-harm are skyrocketing. Fifty million Americans suffer mental health problems every year. The principal cause of death of young people in Britain is suicide, and the real numbers are probably higher still as compassionate coroners might rule for “accidental death” when they hope to spare a bereaved mother yet more pain.
Few can doubt our society is broken, but if you’re in a refugee camp, a slum, an Aboriginal township, a Native American reservation, or a prison in Tennessee, it’s been broken for decades.
Many blame capitalism, but things can be even worse when industry is owned by the state in Russia or China, where the same individualistic acquisitiveness holds sway. Everywhere in the world, political and social agendas are determined by big business because corporate and political power overlap. Laws, policies and controls are routinely ignored. Certifications which exist to reassure us about the products they endorse turn out to be marketing tools meaning little or nothing.
Environmentalists argue convincingly that fossil fuels are harmful. Paying for “carbon offsets” was contrived as a way out, but it turns out to be another scam for polluters to keep polluting. Energy from the wind or sun is an answer, but the batteries used to store it are made from toxic minerals, mined at terrible cost to workers and the surroundings.
The environmental movement hardly ever complains that the TV films which shape its vision of Mother Nature, and the increasingly powerful internet it relies on to communicate, have massive carbon footprints, or that the biggest polluter of all is the manufacture, trade and constant firing of armaments, which kill and maim all over the world, including inside primary schools, hospitals and places of worship.
We’re told that by joining this movement or that strike, or signing yet another petition we’re saving the planet, but we’re not told that many of these are also marketing gimmicks, using the overweening power of social media to capture the data on potential customers. We are pressed into buying more and more unnecessary stuff, “brands” worth little, or new models which do the same as old ones. To compound the waste, planned obsolescence is increasingly designed into consumer products. Things were once made to last, now they wear out quickly, forcing us to buy again and again.
We’re told that the solution to this predicament is to put a third, even half, the globe off limits to people, but not that this would entail a massive land grab leading inevitably to more famine, misery and war, and so bring yet more environmental destruction. We’re told to blame everything on migrants, on previous generations, on the rich, or perhaps worst of all given our new mental frailty, on humanity as a whole. This is the same misanthropic theology which teaches that human beings are basically evil; the fundamentalist conservationists who preach it are the new missionary zealots.
Civilization, even humankind and the entire ecosystem, is now given only a few years to survive. The cries are millenarian and unlikely to be true. They certainly slide over the fact that much of the world’s population, the slaves, the dispossessed, the cripplingly poor and disadvantaged, have been living and dying their own apocalypse for generations.
We’re fed a succession of easy ways out: Eat this but not that, favor diesel one year, shun it the next, don’t use plastic bags, but whatever you do, give someone somewhere more money or votes and they’ll make things better. None seem to offer much of a real solution, they largely tinker at the edges.
There is no doubt that we must act with urgent conviction and strength against the poisons which are killing us and our fellow travellers on planet Earth. But how? Is there any hope at all?
There are unlikely to be any guaranteed, quick fix solutions, but that needn’t stop action. The first and most obvious step towards improving things is that big consumers must simply consume less – somehow without it being allowed to threaten those who now depend on their profligacy! The second is through the protection and promotion of human diversity. Both would bring rapid change, both are cheap, but they are rarely advanced as solutions: The first because of industry’s stranglehold and the second because of deeply engrained prejudice.
All human beings are descended from the same African woman, through our mother’s mother’s line. We are all relatives, but humanity has survived by growing into many different peoples and our diversity threatens centralized power and wealth. Imperial demands for everyone to follow a single religion are thousands of years old, and restricting an area to one “race” or forcing everyone to speak a single language were and are key weapons in colonialism. The Nazi slogan, “One people, one country, one leader,” points at the nub of the problem. The government-corporate axis, which subsumes academia, big foundations and NGOs, wants us to become evermore similar, to covet the same things, to be more predictable and easier to govern. Education and the media persuade us that this is all for our benefit. There is no option. They conjure the dream of a comfortable lifestyle built around the nuclear family buying more consumer stuff, welcoming being closely monitored, and not rocking the boat, at least never meaningfully enough to matter.
This can work well for a while, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. We may be herd animals, conditioned to follow the mob, but we are also individuals, with our own dreams of fulfilment. Even brutally imposed regimentation, as in China or North Korea, cannot endure indefinitely: Dissent roots and grows with time.
In reality, there are many ways to live including within the most highly “developed” and apparently uniform countries. Some hopefuls with a patch of land strive to live off their own produce as much as possible, even in big cities; it’s not just hippies who reject personal possessions in favor of communal ownership; a few robust people seek to live off grid or refuse a fixed address; and religious orders dwell and meditate silently in the heart of urban mayhem. The number of individuals involved in alternative lifestyles may be relatively small, and we don’t hear much about them, but they are there.
The furthest removed from the consumerist dream – and nightmare – are those who are most self-sufficient. With little carbon footprint, they are least responsible for poisoning the world. Those who are farthest of all, whether by choice or not, dwell mostly in the Global South, and the biggest experts in living the most differently are the world’s uncontacted tribes, well over a hundred of them, comprising a few thousand individuals. We now seem hell bent on bringing them to an end.
They live without industrialization’s benefits, and without its ills which are destroying us. Together with other tribal and indigenous peoples, totalling around 370 million individuals, they teach their children in thousands of complex languages which express a profound observation and understanding of their surroundings. They live where there is most of the planet’s biodiversity, an estimated eighty per cent of the total. That’s not by chance, they have long shaped their environment to that end because prolific biodiversity is the only way to ensure the long-term survival of life itself. When one place or species is weakened by disease or climate, others can be turned to. Throughout human evolution, our survival has hinged on our adaptability and our ability to embrace and shape faunal and floral diversity – we simply wouldn’t exist as a species if we hadn’t. Yet this has been massively eroded in a few generations: Most of humanity now depends on just three food plants – rice, maize and wheat – though we used to eat hundreds and tribal and indigenous people still do. With the world’s biodiversity largely under their care, they need no lesson from the rest of us about how to manage. We may not be able to live like them, but we can and should become their students.
It’s now widely accepted that biodiversity is vital, but we rarely acknowledge the importance of the human diversity which cares for it. We don’t see that welcoming diversity at home is crucial for encouraging it everywhere. Celebrating and caring for people in all their multiplicity – “race,” gender and preference, ability, belief and so on – improves life for all. There is an exception: It cannot include tolerating the intolerant, for intolerance hurts everyone. Intolerance damages nature.
If we care about the planet, environmental action must urgently embrace human diversity as a core, the core of biodiversity. Conservationists with old colonial ideas must stop pushing indigenous and other people off their land, stripping them of their self-sufficiency and plunging them into poverty and destitution where, if they survive at all, they can lose the ability or inclination to care for their surroundings. We must fight against the increasing destruction of the very people who hold at least some of the keys to our planetary survival.
The real fight for biodiversity is also a fight against prejudice and patriarchy, against inequality and cruelty. It’s a fight against the corrosive and self-defeating pretence that nature is separate from humanity. That’s simply not true: Both nature and humanity are our mother and each is part of the other, as everyone once knew and we must now learn afresh. Our fight must yoke human rights to environmental concerns and so point the way to the survival of a better and kinder world.
1. Carrington, Daniel. “Revealed: air pollution may be damaging ‘every organ in the body’.” The Guardian, May 17, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2019/may/17/air-pollution-may-be-damaging-every-organ-and-cell-in-the-body-finds-global-review ↑
2. Davis, Nicola. Air pollution ‘may affect number of eggs ovaries can produce’. The Guardian, June 25, 2019.
3. Jamieson, Alan J., L. S. R. Brooks, W. D. K. Reid, S. B. Piertney, B. E. Narayanaswamy, and T. D. Linley. “Microplastics and synthetic particles ingested by deep-sea amphipods in six of the deepest marine ecosystems on Earth.” Royal Society open science 6, no. 2 (2019): 1806-67. ↑
4. Smog killed about ten thousand Londoners in 1952, that’s more than the total number of British service personnel deaths in all wars since 1945. See:
Potenza, Alessandra. “In 1952 London, 12,000 people died from smog — here’s why that matters now.” The Verge, December 16, 2017. https://www.theverge.com/2017/12/16/16778604/london-great-smog-1952-death-in-the-air-pollution-book-review-john-reginald-christie
The Economist. “British military deaths”. July 16th 2016. https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2016/07/06/british-military-deaths ↑
5. Hickel, Jason. “Flipping the corruption myth.” Al Jazeera, February 1, 2014. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/01/flipping-corruption-myth-201412094213280135.html ↑
6. Alvaredo, Facundo, Lucas Chancel, Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, eds. World inequality report 2018. Belknap Press, 2018. ↑
7. Kelley, Elizabeth Martin Blank, Henry Lai, Joel Moskowitz, & Magda Havas “International Appeal: Scientists call for protection from non-ionizing electromagnetic field exposure.” European Journal of Oncology. 20, no. 3/4 (2015): 180-182. ↑
8. Reardon, Marguerite. “5G phones and your health: What you need to know”. Cnet, June 20, 2019. https://www.cnet.com/news/5g-phones-and-your-health-what-you-need-to-know/ and
Federal Communications Commission. “GN Docket No. 14-177”. July 14, 2016. pp145-157 http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2016/db0728/FCC-16-89A1.pdf (Accessed on 15 July 2018) ↑
9. For critique of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme please see:
Conniff, Richard. “Greenwashed Timber: How Sustainable Forest Certification Has Failed”. Yale Environment 360, February 20, 2018. https://e360.yale.edu/features/greenwashed-timber-how-sustainable-forest-certification-has-failed (Accessed on July 15, 2019).
For critiques of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification scheme see:
Christian, Claire, David Ainley, Megan Bailey, Paul Dayton, John Hocevar, Michael LeVine, Jordan Nikoloyuk et al. “A review of formal objections to Marine Stewardship Council fisheries certifications.” Biological Conservation 161 (2013): 10-17. ↑
10. Tsurukawa, Nicolas, Siddharth Prakash, and Andreas Manhart. “Social impacts of artisanal cobalt mining in Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo.” Öko-Institut eV, Freiburg, 2011: 27-39. ↑
11. Belcher, Oliver, Patrick Bigger, Ben Neimark, and Cara Kennelly. “Hidden carbon costs of the “everywhere war”: Logistics, geopolitical ecology, and the carbon boot‐print of the US military.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 2019. ↑
12. The existence of this “mitochondrial eve,” the matrilineal most recent common ancestor of all people now living, is a very strong genealogical theory. It’s not an origin story, and that individual, who lived some 150,000 years ago (or 50,000 years earlier or later), was not the “first woman,” nor the only one we are descended from matrilineally, but the most recent. We are all descended from her through our mother’s mother’s mother’s line. We are also all similarly descended from one man, “Y-chromosomal Adam” through our father’s father’s father’s line. He also lived in Africa, but not necessarily at the same time. ↑