What do Environmentalists, JRR Tolkein, Luddites, and Progressives all have in common?
The answer is both easy and complicated all at once. The core of it is fear, but the roots lie deeply embedded in the human psyche, all the way back to a time when something out of the ordinary in the environment surrounding a lone hunter/gatherer human had to be read as a danger sign – a red flag, a siren screaming danger, danger! things have changed and that means you could be at risk.
We see this in our own lives and in modern self-awareness: humans hate change. If the office changes how the cubicles are laid out, even if there were complaints before about the layout, now there are a torrent of laments about how horrible the new set-up is. If the 911 emergency system says that your town can’t have 4 ‘Post Roads’ in varied locations and they must rename three of them, petitions circulate and the next Town Hall is packed. Now, let’s expand that to the last few hundred years. Any historian will show you that the arc of progress, of changing and improving technology, has been accelerating upward in a nearly breakneck curve of such steepness it’s difficult to predict what comes next. Which means that humans are still suffering from a collective breakdown over the Industrial Revolution.
Yesterday I wrote about the myths surrounding chemicals, cancer, and foods, and how it has come to a crescendo in the recent decades. A near hysteria surrounds the idea that synthetic, or man-made, substances are somehow responsible for the rise in cancers in the modern era. Firstly, as the paper by Dr. Bruce Ames I was drawing inspiration from points out, cancer is not actually on the rise. What is on the rise is the human lifespan, and cancer is, in some ways, the result of living long enough. I won’t delve into that, other than to say – the fear is based on a misconception, and the specificity of the fear is based on human nature: a fear of change.
Paradoxically, humans individually seek change. Exploration, modern medicine, science itself, our yearning for the stars and the mystery of the Final Frontier… we are constantly looking for ways to change, to become better, bigger, and healthier. The two halves come into conflict in many ways, but the rubbing point here is: fear of technology leads to a determination of correlation that it causes disease. Nevermind that correlation does not equal causation. The narrative is firm and clear: modern technology, and especially industry, is bad, unhealthy, and will lead to our collective doom.
JRR Tolkein wrote a compelling, epic metaphor for the development of the modern world in his saga of The Lord of the Rings. The Shire is a paragon of bucolic country life, an idyllic existence threatened by the looming towers and black sooty smoke of Mordor – which is, of course, the factories that were springing up all over his beloved England. He was neither the first, nor the last, to lament the rise of industry and the fall of the lifestyle that came before it. Even at the end of his tale, the Shire is rebuilt, but it is changed, and those who sought to destroy Mordor are forever changed and cannot return to the former bliss.
The reality of the life before the Industrial Revolution was not all peaches and cream, but the narrative spun in fiction, song, and heavily biased histories is of a simpler, quieter time. One that we should strive to return to. Oh, I’m not glorifying the early days of industry. There were many dangers inherent in the change. Birth is a messy, dangerous business. But with the discovery of pathogens as causative of disease, the development in those factories of sterilizing agents which were then produced cheaply and plentifully, birth was suddenly a joyful bringing forth of a new life, and infant mortality – along with maternal mortality – plunged back into the darkness that came before.
The irony is that the very revolution which was so hated and feared by groups by the Luddites, and is so worked on to destroy by present-day Progressives (can we call them Anti-Progressives? Their moniker is terribly misleading) makes the current concern over what might possibly cause cancer possible. Longer lives, safer lives, healthier lives, are the result of the technological advancements we’ve seen in the last two hundred years. That leaves us able to drill down and focus on the tiny problems, the parts-per-billion doses of toxins, rather than the dull heavy resignation to the coming plague that would sweep over Europe and decimate the population… again. We have progressed to a point where we can cry out and reject a single death. I look back and see mothers who bore nineteen children… and three lived to adulthood.
Perhaps it is cold to look at the statistics and say ‘one death is less than a thousand deaths.’ That’s what I’m always tempted to do when the anti-vaccination movement comes up. I refrain, because I know that all I’ll do is make them bristle and reflexively angry. That, and it’s not true. The evidence for vaccinations causing deaths and disabilities is… well, it’s not. Frankly, coldly, vaccination is a product of the revolution, and without it we would see the specter of Pestilence riding over the land once again.
The fear turns on itself like a small rabid animal, gnawing and attacking the hands that want only to help. Humans have come to fear themselves and to want to destroy their own species. We talk about preventing extinction, while advocating for the extinction of the human race. The feeling is so pervasive that I once had a conversation with an otherwise lovely, normal, caring woman, who happened to be my epidemiology professor, in which she advocated for the death and retardation of development in millions of people. Because if they lived, and were able to achieve their full, healthy potential, she truly believed that they would eat enough to lead to the fall of the Earth via resource depletion. The insidious evil behind this sort of belief is that the people advocating blindly for the mass deaths of humans they have never met is that they believe they personally should live. But not those other people – they should die, because we humans are killing the earth.
But don’t take my word for it. After all, I could be making this up, or indulging in hyperbole.
“…which means the only realistic solution is to reduce the number of humans on the planet.” (Jody McCutcheon, Eluxe Magazine)
“We are a plague on the Earth […] Either we limit our population growth, of the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.” (David Attenborough, 2013)
“The human race is in a suicidal run to self-destruction.” (Paul Farrell, MarketWatch 2014)
“The truth is that the contribution of the individual cannot be reduced to zero. Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.” (Chris Rapley, 2006)
“There are already too many people on the planet…” (Holly Moeller, 2014)
The fear of change, of progress, of the human race itself, mingles into a toxic mess that advocates for the suppression of the poor who, the elites fear, will overpopulate the earth and destroy it. From a position of great privilege, advocates lobby for the suppression of vaccines which spare millions from the threat of pestilence. They lobby for the elimination of pesticides that eliminate vermin destroying food crops, or parasites that directly affect humans. They decry the technology-driven development of genetically enhanced foods like golden rice, or Bt eggplant that can feed and nourish the poor in undeveloped countries. They spread the fear in mass media and suppress the development of industries that could alleviate some of the very problems they most fear.
So I find myself standing in the shadow of Mordor, wondering when this will change, when science can be free to question ‘settled’ doctrine, and when we can work on practical solutions that do not involve having the blood of innocents on our hands. Blind eyes do not want to see what technology has done for them, and what more it can do in the future. Blind eyes turn to the past and mourn something that never existed. Agricultural life, pastoral vistas, the Shire… it was no lost paradise. It was a short, hard life full of disease and ended sooner than it needed to. Human nature might be immutable, but the future is infinitely mutable if we set our minds to it.