Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Killing Us Slowly

I had decided this morning to use the title Killing Us Softly for tonight’s blog, but it seems that R. J. Eskow already has a piece by that name, so Killing Us Slowly will have to do. It’s probably more descriptive in any case. What, you might ask, is killing us slowly (or softly), our own behavior, that’s what. We are the only species on earth that is totally out of sync with the environment and the ecosystem. This is far more apparent in our contemporary urbanized, industrialized, and technological society but I suspect it has always been true. Some like to romanticize about the “noble savage” living in tune with nature, communing with the animals and worshipping the earth mother, which is perhaps at least partly true, but I suspect they did so well mainly because they lacked the means or necessity to do worse. After all there is only so much damage a small group armed with bows and arrows can do, and when they exhausted the game or the land in one area they could simply move on. The idea that American Indians could have exhausted the estimated 50 million buffalo, before the advent of firearms (or even with them) is absurd, and they certainly could not have killed the billion or so Passenger Pigeons. But they were not always in sync with their environment, slash and burn agriculture was not necessarily such a good thing, and there is evidence that some societies like the Inca and others perished because they exhausted their resources.

R. J. Eskow’s contribution has to do with politics and those calling for smaller government and such. I have in mind a much more basic problem, how our behavior is slowly leading us to extinction. You may recall Garret Hardin’s famous article on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he illustrated what happens when individuals, acting perfectly rationally on their own behalf, would eventually destroy a common territory. This has been used by some as an argument for private property, an idea that could make sense in a carefully bounded area. In a broader context, however, private property could actually make things worse.

For the sake of the argument, think of the United States as a “Commons,” or even the earth for that matter, as a single universe where the behavior of individuals is basically unregulated. In such a universe the behavior of any individual seems perfectly innocuous. Surely, for example, the fact that I use a plastic water bottle every day, or two or three plastic bags, is pretty inconsequential. But when you multiply my individual usage by millions and over time it can be seen quite differently. You have probably seen the commercial about water filters that points out that in the U.S. alone we use enough plastic bottles to go around the earth something like 194 times. I don’t personally use many plastic water bottles (in fact I personally don’t use them at all) but obviously many do, just as they also use a great many plastic bags. No individual usage amounts to much of a problem but collectively they add up to disaster. We already know there are huge dead spots in both of our major oceans caused by huge islands of waste plastic, but for the most part this does not change the behavior of individual usage. Thus it is that our individual behavior has potentially disastrous consequences for the environment. The same thing is true of many of the things we do every day as individuals, such as driving a car, throwing away dated drugs, batteries, computers, and what have you, all of which when viewed collectively are terrible for the environment. But of course we can’t all stop living, can we? Of course we can’t even though our very living is leading us on the road to potential oblivion.

In the case of humans, when you think of our collective activities, the situation is even worse. As collectivities we have damned the rivers with little concern for the fish, established industries that have eliminated mountaintops and bulldozed them into our rivers, mined minerals and thrown the waste into the rivers, polluted the oceans with oil, raped the fisheries, fouled the air with our factories, robbed various species of their critical habitats, and so on. Until recently most of this has been done thoughtlessly and we are just now (when in some cases it is too late) beginning to understand our past environmental sins. The fact is our everyday activities, mostly done innocently enough, are slowly leading to our extinction.

It is true that our “primitive” forebears and/or neighbors did and or do live in better harmony with nature, even if by necessity rather than choice. In New Guinea, for example, if one needs a basket or a container he/she simply fashions one out of a bit of grass or twigs and no lasting harm is done. If the pigs become too numerous and threaten to destroy the gardens, they are slaughtered and given as gifts of pork to others, if the gardens become too unproductive they move and start new ones on virgin land, if game becomes scarce they hunt in other areas until it recovers, and so on. For the most part most such small-scale cultures were aware of their activities as they related to their resources, and husbanded them for the common good. Of course most people no longer live in small scale societies where they live so close to nature. Indeed, for many nowadays nature is almost a foreign concept where milk no longer comes from cows, steaks from animals, fish from the ocean, or vegetables from gardens, such things come in packages from the supermarket. Obviously we cannot live like our ancestors, nor do we practice anything even resembling self-sufficiency or sustainability. We are, in short, through our ordinary every day behavior, bringing about our own extinction through global warming, environmental degradation, corporate agriculture, careless mining, overconsumption, greed, and lack of enforceable regulations.

In morning’s half-light
my darling sits quietly
writing a sonnet


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