A Scourge on the Earth

On my way back from my daily exercise routine, I pass the local junk/antiques emporium and notice that beneath the official Covid- 19 flyer some wag has put up a hand-written sign that reads, “Closed due to the end of the World.” Two doors further down, an independent bookseller has picked up the same theme, albeit in a more subtle way, and filled the shop window with copies of “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells. Like most of us, when I think of Wells’ dystopian fiction, I consider the possibilities of time travel and inter-planetary wars. I imagine monsters like the Morlocks, invasions from aliens and the world being devastated by plague, but foremost in my mind is the fact that he was born in Bromley – a modest and rather dull town about 10 miles from London. This is no mere biographical detail, but holds the clue as to why so much of Wells’ story-telling was concerned with the eradication of human life. Living in that suburban enclave might not strike fear into today’s stout hearted Bromelyans. But for Wells, growing up there at the end of the 19th century, as the town more than doubled in size over a 20 year period, was a hugely formative experience, as John Carey describes in ‘The Intellectuals and the Masses.’ What Wells experienced dramatically impacted his life and birthed not just his fantastical imagination but his loathing of mass culture and mass consumption. Visiting death and destruction on English towns in his works of fiction, many of which he gleefully names, was his way of wreaking revenge on the ‘development’ which destroyed the woods and poisoned the river where he used to go for walks as a child.

The destruction of the natural world is happening all around us all of the time, at least for those of us still fortunate enough not to live in cities. Here, on the south coast of England, in a county blessed with both coastline and forest, a valley recognised by the local council as ‘an area of tranquillity and extreme remoteness’, as well as being a haven for wildlife, was recently decimated by the building of 4-lane link road, providing a shortcut so that traffic could avoid the busy coastal road. What follows is the usual development: housing estates and shopping centres and more traffic, thus perpetuating the problem that the first road was supposed to resolve. Sadly, many badgers, whose setts were destroyed in the construction, were left confused and homeless and ended up on those roads. The desecration of nature, the decimation of wildlife habitats and the mass extinction of species have all been normalised, as worldwide ‘development’ continues unabated; this is the Anthropocene age after all. What seems to have come as a bit of a shock in recent days, however, is the realisation that remote areas are repositories of life-forms inimical to the health of human populations, (certainly as we now live, in conglomerations of millions.) Yellow Fever, SARS, H1N1, MERS, HIV, and most recently, Covid 19 – the latest of a number of known corona viruses – have all made the zoonotic leap from animal to human, just as smallpox, diphtheria, measles and influenza did before them. In fact 60% of emerging diseases are of this zoonotic kind.

What has been most surprising about the emergence of this new corona virus has been the lack of political preparedness and the ensuing widespread panic, particularly in Europe, as populations have fallen into hysteria. This is all the more surprising given the earlier SARS outbreak of 2003, which affected 26 countries, and the fact that governments such as these are presumed to regularly run this sort of ‘war-game’ scenario. In fact, I believe the UK government did just that in 2016, but you wouldn’t have guessed. The response here has been a mixture of Dunkirk and Hollywood: we’ve got a former vacuum cleaner manufacturer teaming up with a racing car designer to make ventilators, and in the early days the prime minister gave a speech straight out of Gladiator, when he promised that the UK government was going to hug everybody, which isn’t always what you want with an infectious disease.

Apparently, when the Queen of England visited the London School of Economics a few months after the 2008 crash, she asked what everyone was thinking, “Why did no one see it coming?” The response was largely bluster and embarrassment – all that education for what purpose? But what later emerged was that there had been a consensus on the unsustainability of the system and the risk of collapse. Just nobody could foresee exactly when and where it would happen, and so it was business as usual, which doesn’t bode well. In fact, it is difficult not to agree with Lukacs here that the very nature of academic specialisation operates as a defence mechanism protecting the capitalist status quo by making the bigger picture invisible – particularly dangerous in our era of global capitalism. “It destroys every image of the whole and the ability to perceive the interconnections between the market and cultural discontents, [we might add in here the dangers of a collapsing ecosystem] making a radical change of perspective impossible within bourgeois society based on the knowledge it provides.” With its inability to see and comprehend the world as a unique whole, rather than as a series of markets, it seems that capitalism is ideologically predisposed to self-destruct. Not only is it incapable of seeing totalities, neither can it limit itself, with its ever-expanding imperative: the very notion of a boundary is anathema. But further, and of greater concern, is the fact that in order to secure its position, it has actively disabled exogenous limiting mechanisms, perceiving them as illiberal ‘obstructions to progress’, whether they be innate, cultural or civic. Thus, we have all been delivered over to global citizenship: the ultimate oxymoron in a world of unaccountability, liberated hyper-individuals indoctrinated into believing that the planet is ours to consume.

Whilst it seems most likely that the Covid-19 virus emerged from a zoonotic leap at a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan – a place where wild animals, often sick and injured, are handled, butchered, cooked and eaten all in the same place – the exotic nature of the locale and the extreme cruelty inflicted on these creatures should not distract us from the fact that our grotesque utilisation of animals has become completely normalised. We may be appalled at the idea of thousands of wildlife farms, rearing animals such as civet cats, peacocks and bamboo rats for human consumption, all the while encouraged by the Chinese government. But we shouldn’t pretend that the CAFOS [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] gifted to the world by global capitalism as efficient, i.e., industrialised, units of animal agriculture, where animals – basically, burgers in waiting – are contained, are anything but torture chambers and repositories of disease. The high level of antibiotics doled out to many of these animals is leading to widespread levels of human antibiotic resistance, as the WHO warned just a couple of years ago.

If China is in breach of hygiene regulations enshrined in international treaties put in place following the last SARS epidemic, legal action may be appropriate. However China is not the only country consuming wild animals. Bushmeat – a collective term for many species of wild animal, including snakes, crocodiles, antelopes, monkeys, rats, bats and even elephants – in fact, anything hunters can get their hands on, is popular in many African countries. As it has been for centuries in harsh environments unsuitable for animal husbandry. With growing populations, (the population of Nigeria alone is set to double in the next 50 years, hitting over 700 million by the end of the century), and developing road networks, making it easier to access formerly remote areas, it seems unlikely that the market for this relatively cheap source of protein is going to end.

Back in the 1980s we were told that globalisation was going to bring us cheap goods. Apparently, we couldn’t have decent wages but we could have cut-price tatt instead. So corporations, with their governments’ blessings, turned their backs on national wage demands and relocated where labour was cheap and prices could be kept low. Trade unions lost their leverage, real wages flat-lined, and wherever you were, citizenship became a thing of the past, as the consumerist explosion swallowed up all those ‘old-fashioned’ political values like fair pay and solidarity. Former political groupings were sloughed off and identity became something you expressed through your shopping, increasingly on credit card. With this development came a new wave of exploration, as corporations competed for national resources all over the globe, but particularly in developing countries. Logging and mining operations necessitated expansive road systems and railways. Just as land clearance schemes for industrial agriculture forced millions off their land and into the slums, which began encircling the newly emerging mega cities like Lagos and Kinshasa. By buying allegiances and promising investment and development projects, transnational corporations gained access to valuable minerals and metals, and, just as importantly, domestic markets, filled with ever more consumers. Our global consumerist paradigm was thus perfected, cleansed of political scrutiny and critique through its emancipation from nation states and the eradication of civic society and communal allegiances. Just one enormous expanse of humanity united in 24/7 consumption.

Wells, like many intellectuals in his era, was impressed by Spanish philosopher Ortega Y Gasset’s ‘The Revolt of the Masses’ (1932), which blamed the working class for the emergence of mass consumption and low-brow culture. Gasset knew he was speaking for many of his fellow intellectuals, or ‘visionaries’ as he liked to call them, when he protested that the inferior classes, ‘men of minus quality’ had become ‘indocile’, and forgotten their place in the world. He complained that their, entirely inappropriate, demand for political power would result in a destructive ‘hyperdemocracy’ and ugly consumerism. Writing at the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, was the more politically astute Walter Lippman. In ‘The Phantom Public’ of 1925, Lippman explained why politics is far too complicated to be shared with the lower orders, asserting of the working man that “he knows his sovereignty is a fiction.” By the following year, the English working class certainly did, because in the general strike that was called in that year, to protest at the slashing of miners’ wages, the working class were effectively abandoned by their representatives – in both the trades unions and in parliament, (the then Labour party leadership described the call to strike ‘an act of revolution’.) So, Ortega Y Gasset et al needn’t have worried, it didn’t matter that universal suffrage had been achieved, or that the Trade Union movement had led to the creation of a political party supposedly representing the interests of Labour, because the fundamental aim of those representatives, as Ralph Miliband elucidates in his polemic ‘Parliamentary Socialism’, was to preserve the capitalist status quo. And what has been an essential element in maintaining that status quo ever since has been a constant ramping up of consumption. Not only has it produced unimaginable profits but, just as importantly, the quiescent allegiance of generations enthralled to consumerism.

So Wells was wrong, the drive towards mass consumption did not come from the working class. It was not an expression of their new found political power, just the opposite. As in reality, they didn’t have any political power, and still don’t. Mass consumption was and is a sop to allay the demands for democracy – i.e., a genuine participatory democracy. Wells might have feared the working class and preferred them to stay under ground like his dreaded Morlocks, but he shouldn’t have blamed them for destroying the natural world. Nor should he have blamed the newly emerging lower middle class who swamped his suburban idyll to take up white-collar jobs in London – responding to the growing demand for clerks to administer the empire. The lives of all of these workers had been more historically shaped by the ties of custom, community and solidarity than those of airy aesthetes like Wells and Ortega Y Gasset. The masses were a creation of capitalism not of representative democracy: they were its first workers, its fodder for the industrial revolution. In one of nascent capitalism’s earliest habitat destructions, small-scale producers, peasant farmers and local artisans of all kinds were thrown off their land and dispossessed of their traditional rights of land use. Having enjoyed centuries of rural self-subsistence, engaged in co-operative practices with their neighbours, these formerly independent, self-employed workers were turned into wage slaves and their land stolen. Through the usual couplet of law and commercial interest, capitalism was able to justify i.e., legalise, the theft. What was also severely damaged in that brutal expulsion was the innate sense of place or belonging: of being embedded in nature and having a locale. Peasant poet John Clare’s simple lines extolling his bounded life in rural Northamptonshire at the time of the enclosures, which are infused with a profound love of nature – many of the trees he passed every day are singled out and named – are a million miles from Ortega Y Gasset’s artistic recommendation of the ‘purely aesthetic’. According to Ortega Y Gasset, human notions of joy and pain are inferior and to be rejected, since art’s purpose is not to share or convey beauty, but to exclude the masses.

In his identification of the working class as the “inert matter of the historical process’, however, Ortega Y Gasset was right, but not in the way he meant. It was his view that such workers are inherently inert – just matter to be moulded by history, “[the mass] has come into the world in order to be directed, influenced, represented, organised. It needs to submit its life to superior minorities.” But that inertia has been brought about by political processes that have uprooted us from our relationship with nature and robbed us of our former independence and sense of purpose. It has also deprived us of all notion of individual responsibility and personal power and burdened us with a leeching consumerism it is difficult to shake off, because there doesn’t seem to be anything else.

But do we have to keep expanding? Can’t we leave remote areas remote, and allow other species and peoples to just be? It is interesting to note that the word ‘remote’ entered the English language around 1375. It was first used by Chaucer, who grew up in the shadow of the Black Death which coursed through Europe in his childhood, decimating the population by one third. The word means ‘distant’ or ‘far apart’, which is how we currently use it. However, it is derived from the Latin ‘remotus’ meaning ‘removed’ and is in fact the past participle of the Latin verb ‘removere’ meaning ‘to move back or away’. Perhaps there is a moral imperative here. Perhaps not. But surely not everything needs to be uncovered and utilised? Can’t some places be left remote? Not out of concern for our health, but simply out of respect for difference.

As we look fearfully at what the ‘remote’ may have in store for us, maybe we should consider what we have inflicted on those nether regions ourselves; at how little respect we have shown. As Western civilisation is on the brink of conquering the entire world, it seems extraordinary to think that there are still people out there who have declined our invitation to history and wish to be left alone. But a few of the remaining uncontacted tribes in the Amazon rainforest have made this quite clear. Unfortunately for them, the land they occupy has economic value and there are missionaries – so often the vanguard of commerce – eager to, presumably ‘save’ them, so their future looks doubtful. Given our viral overload, how long could they survive our embrace?

Susan Roberts is a lecturer in moral philosophy and animal rights.