The Control of Nature

Photograph Source: arndw – CC BY 2.0

I started the day (Sunday, March 29, 2020) in relatively good spirits. The Sun was bathing nature in light and pleasant warmth. Spring and flowers were everywhere. My wife and I were walking in our beautiful neighborhood in Claremont, California.

Poisoning the Wind

But, suddenly, a man holding a sprayer was furiously drenching his front yard with  chemicals. I asked him what he was spraying and why and he angrily said miticides, and, besides, he said, it was none of my business what he was doing.

Mites are tiny insects related to spiders and ticks. And, like most pesticides, chemicals designed to kill mites, miticides, are toxic poisons that may harm the brain and the nervous system and probably cause cancer.

I continued my walk and  tried to forget my unpleasant confrontation with this illiterate and irresponsible person. However, he is not alone. In the last three years of the Trump administration, I have seen enough infractions of civilized life, that I am almost certain Trump’s influence has reached even in this small town in southern California. Several of the houses for sale are covered with a canvas for fumigation. More home owners or their “gardeners” attack the natural world with poisons.

The Tyranny of Trump 

The example of Trump is insidious, though compelling of a cultural and business tradition and pathology. He sought and succeeded in resurrecting Ronald Reagan’s hatred for environmental protection and contempt for public health. The first act of Ann Gorsuch, the first EPA administrator under Reagan and mother of Supreme Court Judge Gorsuch, was to fire the EPA attorneys enforcing the laws.

Trump left the powerless EPA lawyers alone, but, immediately, started diluting and weakening the country’s laws protecting public and environmental health. Electricity power plants could go back to increasing pollution. Owners of farms, coal mines, timber, and oil fracking and drilling would not have to worry about polluting creeks, rivers of groundwater or destroying wetlands or threatening and killing wildlife and endangered species. All 450 million acres of public lands would continue being haciendas of the timber, petroleum, cattle grazing cowboys and miners. And, thanks to Trump, hundreds of millions of cars would be designed to emit more poisons affecting human health and intensifying global warming. In other words, the United States would undermine its strongest policy of fighting climate change.

The Pandemic of Abusing Nature

In the midst of the Trump and industry onslaught on public and environmental health, this country and the world came under another attack – this time, in early 2020, by the corona virus. This pandemic was the product of human abuse, poisoning, and destruction of the natural world. But Trump did not see the corona virus’ connection to the business as usual annihilation of nature. His narrow mind and ecological illiteracy pushed him to another giveaway to polluters. He ordered EPA to stop its rare environmental enforcement. Now all bets are off. The chief beneficiaries of the tax cuts, and the two trillion dollars corona virus economic stimulus would have another environmental cut. Forget that there are people and the natural world beyond factory gates. And forget that people compromised by pollution, like those living in the neighborhood of the Cancer Valley in Louisiana, would die in droves from the raging pandemic.

In fact, all people, here and abroad, who have been victimized by the prevailing Wall Street billionaire economy, are likely to take their anger to the streets. Francesco Rocca, director of the International Federation of Red Cross, warned of a social bomb ready to go off.

Ignoring the social volcano is typical of oligarchic and plutocratic regimes. American billionaires think they can outsource this security threat to the feds.

However, things are complicated, especially now that an invisible enemy makes no distinction between rich and poor. Gregg Gonsalves, assistant professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases at the School of Public Health at Yale University, explains:

“The failure of care in the United States, which is not recapitulated anywhere else in the industrialized world, has led us to a point where — depends on who you are whether you’re going to get sick or whether you’re going to get well, whether you’re going to get infected with coronavirus or you’re not going to get infected with the coronavirus. So, unless we take care of each other from coast to coast, from north to south, east to west, we’re going to be vulnerable as the… most vulnerable person in our society. And so, unless undocumented immigrants, unless the incarcerated, unless the homeless are brought into the circle of care, with healthcare universally accessible across the United States, there will always be somebody who’s going to get sick who could be the spark that sets off the next epidemic.”

The Control of Nature

This logic of science and compassion does not have a chance to make a difference in the kingdom of Trump. The man is utterly corrupt. Like King Louis XVI facing the guillotine of the French Revolution, but unable to understand the gravity of the drama outside the walls of his palace, Trump keeps preaching lies to a fearful, exhausted, and ill country. And, of course, Trump is oblivious to another looming disaster.

This calamity is even more pernicious than the virus pandemic. I am referring to our attitude and policies towards nature. This is a metaphysical fault line facing all Americans: an obsession with what we usually call natural world (the environment): mountains, forests, uncultivated land, rivers, seas and wildlife. Most urban people don’t like these wild, untamed places. They wish the natural world was a bottomless sink, in which they dump their mountains of waste.

They also want to control the environment by killing nearly all non-human life: clearly a pathology of long standing. In his pathological greed, Trump has widen the gap between Americans and the environment.

Humans in towns and cities have been divorced from the natural world for so many generations, they feel uncomfortable with wildlife of any kind. Their “gardens” and parks are synthetic green places of trees and grass and, sometimes flowers and bushes, under constant chemical treatment and management, mowing, and “landscaping.”

Aside from squirrels and birds, which, conveniently enough, run and fly away the moment they see humans, parks much more than gardens, are inhospitable to wildlife. They are not urban forests.

The most persistent means of controlling nature has been the spraying of powerful synthetic chemicals, mostly byproducts of war. This barbarian habit takes a morbid form in industrial farms, country roads, and forests.

The entire operation of spraying the natural world is like a religion. It has its high priests, dogma, inquisition, and millions of faithful.

Chemical Madness: United Kingdom 

For about 20 years in late twentieth century, the UK government forced sheep farmers to dip their animals in cocktails of nerve poisons known as organophosphates. These chemicals came straight through the chemical warfare stockpiles of Nazi Germany. Thousands of farmers and their families suffered deadly diseases and wildlife was driven to extinction in the countryside, especially in the contaminated rivers and creeks.

In 2014, Dave Goulson, professor of biology at Sussex University, did a “pesticide audit” of a single field of oilseed rape and one of winter wheat. To his dismay, he discovered that any honeybee, bumblebee, butterfly or ladybug of worm feeding on oilseed rape would also be eating six insect poisons, three weed killers, nine fungicides, and insect growth regulators (deadly concoctions made up of crushed insects).

The terrifying reality of this audit is that it reflects the reality of the overwhelming number of farmers spraying their oilseed rape, and most other crops, with exactly the same variety of poisons. In the United Kingdom, the territory sprayed in this fashion includes more than 20,000,000 acres of land growing crops.

The American Poison Giant

In the United States, the ecological and human harm is much more severe. In 2012, about 915 million acres of land was agricultural land. Close to 450 million acres of that land produced crops. The average size of 2.1 million farms was 434 acres. Immense amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides go into the growing of those crops.

The result of so much land under the mechanized and chemical factory of food production is colossal pollution. Add to this the harmful genetic engineering of crops, and the overall effect could have serious consequences for life on Earth and the survival of civilization. In addition, the costs of this pollution to Americans and wildlife are so enormous that are inestimable. They are life bending and deleterious.

The problem is not limited to bad federal government decisions. States share the blame for these merciless and blind policies.

Why does the government of California, for example, allows the spraying of the neurotoxic neonicotinoids in the more than a million acres of wildlife refuges? What exactly is the purpose of poisoning of the natural world in such vast scale? Why allow farmers growing rice in lands reserved for the protection of birds, honeybees and countless other species?

Earthjustice, an environmental organization, is right that neonicotinoids “are sabotaging the very organisms on which we all depend.” In September 20, 2017, it petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to stop this obscene policy.

I asked Earthjustice and the Commission for clarification, but they refused to say anything about the outcome of the petition. I concluded that the Commission did nothing.

I could go on with other examples of savagery, but the lesson is clear. The United States and the world are suffering from a much deeper and longer pandemic: that of the hubris of thinking and acting as if humans are controlling nature.

Unless, we wake up to the terminal threat of this delusion, we are doomed. If anything, nature will keep sending invisible diseases to teach us what we refuse to learn from science and civilization.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.