Surviving the Great Dying
As the Earth's sixth spasm of extinctions continues, human health has not been spared.
In the future, the Legend of the Great Dying will be recited to the children of the Third Planet:
It happened thusly. First, there was the Great Explosion in human numbers and in technological prowess. In 200 Earth years, all the wild places were degraded or destroyed. Next, the chemicals and gases released by agriculture and industry impaired the health of the surviving species and changed the climate. The Great Heat then occurred, as did the Second Great Flood. Simultaneously, thousands of species of plants and animals were transported across natural barriers and became invasive species in their new surroundings; this was known as the Great Mixing. Near the end of that era, there were many new plagues—the Great Sickness—that ravaged the weakened, unprepared human beings and other species.
Our ancestors learned too late the simple, karmic law of ecology: all is interdependent and all is interconnected. As bad philosophers continued to debate whether human beings were part of nature or its butcher, a spiral of dreadful causation erased this illusory dualism, and it became evident that the destiny of humanity on Earth was to be both victim and executioner of creation. At the end, all earthly beings became joined in an intimate, slow dance of death. — From Michael Soule’s introduction to Conservation Medicine: Ecological Health in Practice
Scientists know with clarity this, our deepest truth. We live in an Age of Extinctions. This is the sixth great spasm of extinctions in the history of our planet. We are driving biodiversity back 65 million years, to its lowest level of vitality since the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. Climate change, ozone depletion, toxic chemicals, habitat destruction, and invasive or infectious species are five of the principal drivers of this Age of Extinctions.
None of this is controversial in conservation biology, the parent discipline of conservation medicine. Less well known are the future possible drivers of extinction. Bill Joy, chief scientist for Sun Microsystems, proposed in his historic Wired magazine article, “The Future Does Not Need Us,” that biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics hold the tragic promise of creating unnatural entities that can self-replicate out of control. Nature is already being flooded with genetically modified organisms from agricultural biotechnology. The comparable modification of humanity’s germline draws ever closer. It is conceptually possible that nano-technology and robotics will lead to the creation of unnatural entities capable of self-replication as well. How can we save as much life as possible in this Age of Extinctions? Some so-called conservative commentators scoff at the question. They believe that there is no real threat to life from any technologies other than nuclear, chemical or biological warfare. The enthusiasts of a post-human future, by contrast, quite happily accept the possibility that the future has little need for carbon-based life forms, and actively look forward to the convergence of the computer, the robot, and genetically modified post-humans.
The question of how much of life we can save in this Age of Extinctions has real meaning only for those of us who neither celebrate nor embrace the end of nature. We are, we should recognize, the true conservatives of our time. We are conservative in the root sense that we are dedicated to the conservation of the tried and true ecosystems and life forms of the Earth. We are conservative in that we want our children and their children to be genetically unmodified, to live surrounded by nature in all its glory, and to live lightly and justly on Earth. We, believers in natural law in the deepest sense, regard the question of who and what can be saved in this Age of Extinctions as the greatest religious, philosophical, and practical question of our time.
I believe that the path to saving all that we can of life on Earth—the path to what David Orr calls the Ecological Renaissance—lies with the emerging environmental health movement. I believe, for example, that the right of women to gestate and breast feed their babies toxic free will be one of the great human rights issues of the new millennium. I believe that as the science linking human health to environmental health grows stronger, our experience that our personal health is being affected by the environment will drive the scientific lessons deep into our consciousness. This potent combination of scientific evidence and direct personal experience of wounds inflicted upon us and those we love by a degraded environment will, I believe, energize the emerging environmental health movement making it into a global force.
Take chemicals and health as an example. There is growing evidence that there are over 100 diseases and conditions of our time in which chemical exposures either do or may well play a contributing role. The list includes asthma, allergies, autism, many cancers, learning disabilities, endometriosis, infertility, Parkinson’s disease, and much more. Scientists are beginning to understand that all human beings on Earth carry hundreds of persistent bioaccumulative toxins in their bodies (chemicals that stay in our bodies over time), some at levels that are associated in animal studies with diseases similar to those that are endemic in the human population. Similarly, scientists have begun to establish that low levels of these chemicals in our bodies, once thought to be safe, can have significant health effects.
Let me speak of my own family’s experience. In my family, learning disabilities are common, both of my parents have had cancer, one of my half-sisters died in her 20s of cancer, there are four family members on the autistic spectrum, and none of the children born to me and my brothers would be alive today without intensive medical intervention at conception or birth. While we cannot know the causation of any of these conditions with certainty, all of them may plausibly be linked to exposure to environmental chemicals. One thing I know for certain is that my mother was given DES when she was pregnant with me to prevent miscarriage. If I had been a girl, I would have had a high risk of reproductive tract cancer. DES is a potent endocrine-disrupting chemical.
Likewise, climate change is ever more powerfully and rapidly entering collective consciousness, not as an abstraction but as a direct threat to our health, our welfare, and the economies that sustain us. Changing vectors of infectious disease like West Nile Virus, droughts that are killing crops, glacial melts that are destroying drinking water sources—these are no longer distant abstractions but increasingly direct realities.
The impact of poverty on health is an over-whelming reality, especially in developing countries. But even in the United States the power of this issue is rapidly increasing. Again, scientific data on “disparities in health outcomes” increasingly demonstrates that income disparities are one of the most powerful of all predictors of public health, with countries that promote greater equity enjoying better health and countries with a growing divide between rich and poor—such as the United States—suffering from worse public health. As a practical matter, greater equity promotes better health everywhere in the world, and the consciousness that promotes equity also tends to preserve the environment. It is the consciousness of the interdependence of all life.
The environmental health movement both differs from and shares much with the environmental movement. Many analysts of the environmental movement now recognize that this great shift in global consciousness, for all its accomplishments, has largely failed to connect its passionate advocacy for nature with the immediate concern of most people living in an increasingly urban world: the preservation of their own health. Yet the truth is that human health, animal health, and ecosystem health are inextricably connected.
Millions of people around the world intuitively share this apprehension of the essential unity of life. The great Buddhist poet Thich Nhat Hanh calls this the consciousness of InterBeing. It is a venerable consciousness shared by many indigenous peoples, an ancient knowing that has been driven to the periphery of modern consciousness by industrial interests, the specialization and fragmentation of the scientific enterprise, corporate control of the global media, and other forces. But InterBeing is a way of knowing the world that is ineluctably returning to the center of post-post modern discourse. The Law of InterBeing is, as Michael Soule says so beautifully, “the simple, karmic law of ecology: all is interdependent and all is interconnected.”
The emerging environmental health movement is the prose that is putting the poetry of InterBeing into practice. When breast cancer patients, women with endometriosis, mothers of children with asthma and birth defects, and representatives of dozens of other disease tribes begin to recognize their shared interest in reducing chemical contaminants in the environment, they form a potent new social force. When they are joined by the physicians, nurses, and other health professionals who care about them, their power is further amplified.
Like the civil rights movement, the emerging environmental health movement is a complex social phenomenon. It brings together, in often uneasy alliance, many groups with different primary concerns. Patient groups, for example, are first concerned with service delivery and the search for a cure. But as they begin to recognize that environmental factors are either a known or highly suspected contributor to the disease they share, their concern with prevention begins to rise.
Since patient groups are at the heart of the emerging environmental health movement, women are destined to play a central role in its leadership. Public opinion research confirms that women are much more likely to care about threats to the health of their families than men.
Environmental justice advocates have long under-stood that the incinerators, toxic waste dumps, and chemical plants across the street are making them sick. So do occupational health scientists who work with trade unions. Environmental groups, by contrast, may have as a primary concern what is happening to wildlife and ecosystems. But they are beginning to recognize the power of joining forces with patient groups, health professionals, scientists, environmental justice groups, occupational health advocates, religious groups and others with a shared concern for environmental health.
This is not the place to discuss at length the organizing principles of the emerging environmental health movement. It would take too long to describe how grass-roots based, market-focused campaigns with the real power to change corporate behavior in the market place have become the new tool of many groups working for environmental health goals. People have discovered their power in the marketplace, even when legislatures, the courts, and executive branch have become dominated by special interests. Corporate brands contain much of the value of global corporations, hence they remain fundamentally vulnerable to grassroots-based, market-focused protest campaigns. These market campaigns cannot resolve the fundamental question of how an ecological society should be organized. But they do represent one of the instruments for peaceful change of our time.
Human health is the common language of those who would disagree on everything else. We may or may not care about spotted owls, or about the struggles of low-income Americans, or about famines in Africa. But we all—progressives, libertarians, and conservatives—care about whether we and those we love are healthy or sick.
A teachable moment
For those who think the dream of a just and sustainable future is a utopian fantasy, it is worth remembering the history of the last 250 years in its positive as well as its many negative aspects. In this extraordinarily brief period of time, countries around the world established democracies as their dominant form of government, brought to an end slavery as a norm that had been accepted for millennia, recognized the rights of women and organized labor, and extended legal rights to prisoners, to the mentally ill, and to children. Many of us have seen in our own lifetimes the power of the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, and many other movements of consciousness. What all these movements have in common is the gradual extension of respectful awareness of what we share with other people and with other life forms.
How do we summon the collective will to make this great transition in consciousness and technology when the forces opposed to it dominate every sector of the global system? Twenty years of work with people with cancer have taught me that when we face our mortality, we enter one of the great teachable moments of our lives. It is in the contemplation of our mortality that we often begin truly to live from our deepest consciousness.
I believe that as recognition of the reality of this Age of Extinctions enters human consciousness, we may collectively enter into a teachable moment in the evolution of human consciousness. As our collective consciousness deepens, we may begin to discover the collective will to bring the global system back to the principles of living in harmony with nature.
We know the hour is late. Much of our inheritance of life has already been destroyed. Far more will be heedlessly squandered before we have any hope of consolidating an ecological renaissance. We also know that we may not succeed. The forces of destruction may overwhelm our bravest efforts. But the question of whether we will succeed is not the deepest question for us. The question we must ask ourselves is how we choose to live during this Age of Extinctions. What do we tell our children? What do we tell ourselves?
My friend Rachel Remen once asked the great philosopher Gregory Bateson who he was. “I am,” Bateson said, “a friend of evolution.” Bateson was a friend not only of genetic evolution but equally of the evolution of consciousness. I believe that the way to live in this Age of Extinctions is to find for ourselves that core of meaning that has always been essential for people living in dark and difficult times. For some that core of meaning is religious or spiritual, for others it centers on family and friends, while for others it is found in nature or music or art or service to others.
My most fundamental hope is that as we come to recognize the reality that we are living in an Age of Extinctions, we as a species will find the core of meaning that helps each of us move through this dark collective night of the soul. My hope is that the individual and collective searches for meaning will begin to form a larger pattern. I believe that the emerging environmental health movement symbolizes this movement toward shared meaning. A line in a James Taylor song says:
“Let us recognize that we are bound together / All men and women / Living on this Earth / By our desire to see the world become a place where our children can grow free and strong.”
I believe it is the recognition of the truth of those words that may bring us through.
Michael Lerner is president and founder of Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, California, co-founder of Smith Farm Center for the Healing Arts in Washington, DC.