October 23, 2017

Hell on Earth: mankind and the environment

Humanity has transformed the planet almost unrecognisably. Now we talk of re-engineering ourselves to fit. Edward Goldsmith wonders how we can miss the point so dramatically.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 30 No. 7, October 2000. An extended, unpublished version if this article is also available, entitled “Can humanity adapt to the world that science is creating?”.

To most people it should be obvious that the environment most friendly to the needs of living things is that to which they have been adapted by their evolution and upbringing. Common sense tells us that this must be so. So a tiger is adapted by its evolution and upbringing to living in the jungle, and it is that jungle which provides its optimum environment. It is in the jungle that it can best satisfy its physical and psychological requirements; it is the food it finds there that it has best been adapted to eating, and it is the smells encountered there that it has best been adapted to detecting, interpreting, reacting and enjoying.

What are we?

There is no reason to suppose that Man is in any way exempt from this fundamental principle. We, too, survive and flourish best in the environment in which we evolved. But what is Man’s natural environment? To answer this, we must consider that Man is by nature a hunter-gatherer. As S. Washburn and C. Lancaster write,

“The common factors that dominate human evolution and produced homo sapiens were pre-agricultural. Agricultural ways of life have dominated less than 1 percent of human history and there is no evidence of major biological changes during that period of time… the origin of all common characteristics must be sought in pre-agricultural times.” [1]

It makes sense, if this is the case, that the optimum environment for Man is likely to be that in which his hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved. And as modern humanity transforms the environment of our entire planet to satisfy the requirements of industrial economic development, so our surroundings satisfy our basic needs ever less satisfactorily. This principle was formulated very eloquently by the Australian biologist Stephen Boyden.

“If the conditions of life of an animal deviate from those which prevailed in the environment in which the species evolved, the likelihood is that the animal will be less well suited to the new conditions than to those to which it has become genetically adapted through natural selection and consequently some signs of maladjustment may be anticipated.” [2]

If many of us refuse to face this principle, it is probably because its implications are so far-reaching. But that refusal can reach absurd and dangerous levels when it is taken up by ‘experts’. The molecular biologist and Nobel Laureate James Watson has recently suggested, in apparent seriousness, that if Man cannot adapt to the world that science and industrial development are bringing into being, then it is Man who must be changed. New, genetically engineered people could adapt to and perhaps even thrive in the polluted and ecologically degraded world that modern Man is substituting for the world to which we have been adapted by our evolution. Such a suggestion can only demonstrate to what extent mainstream science has lost touch with the real world in which we live ever more precariously.

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Diseases of civilisation

It is increasingly clear, in fact, that modern economic development is giving rise to conditions which lie outside what ecologists call our ‘tolerance range’. Examples are legion. We now eat food grown by unnatural processes which make use of a host of chemical substances: hormones, antibiotics, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides – of which residues are to be found in nearly all the food commercially available today.

Our food is then processed in vast factories with the result that its molecular structure is often totally different from that of the food we have been adapted to eat during the course of our evolution. It is further contaminated with chemicals such as emulsifiers, preservatives and antioxidants designed to increase its shelf life and improve its commercial viability.

We drink water contaminated with nitrates, heavy metals and synthetic organic chemicals, including pesticides, which no commercial sewage works or water purification plants can entirely remove. We breathe air polluted with lead, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides from car exhausts, sulphur dioxide from chimney flues, radioactive iodine, caesium and a host of other radionuclides from the flues of nuclear installations.

It is hardly surprising, then, that we now suffer from a whole range of new diseases, often referred to as ‘diseases of civilisation’. Professor Samuel Epstein of the University of Illinois [3] and other scholars attribute a very high proportion of cancers, for example, to exposure to chemicals in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe – a thesis that is, needless to say, fervently contested by the chemical industry and the experts they sponsor. Ischaemic heart disease, diabetes, peptic ulcers, diverticulitis, appendicitis, varicose veins and tooth caries are also ‘diseases of civilisation’.

The incidence of these diseases, by contrast, is generally extremely low among vernacular people living in their natural habitats. But as such people become exposed to the Western way of life, and in particular as they adopt the modern Western diet, the incidence of the same diseases increases dramatically. Infectious diseases, too, become much more common. As Mark Cohn, who has made a detailed study of the origins of infectious diseases, concludes:

“Almost all studies that attempt to reconstruct the history of infectious diseases indicate that the burden of infection has tended to increase, rather than decrease, as human beings adopted civilised lifestyles.”

To these problems, there is no effective technological solution. Modern medicine can do little to help, since it is largely concerned with treating the symptoms of diseases, while to control their incidence would mean taking measures that lie outside the brief of the medical profession, often reversing many of the essential processes of economic development itself.

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Social breakdown

Man evolved in a rich and largely natural environment, but he also evolved as an integral part of the extended family, the lineage group and the small community. In other words, he evolved within a highly structured social environment. As economic development speeds up, however, the community and its intermediary associations disintegrate.

Edward Banfield [4], who made a seminal sociological study of a south Italian village, was particularly struck by the alienation and demoralisation of its inhabitants, a phenomenon known locally as la miseria. This, he found, was not basically attributable to the lack of money or material goods – what is normally regarded as poverty – but to the isolation of the families from each other due to the absence of any wider social groupings. This he attributed to the usurpation by the state of the basic functions which the village should normally assume.

With the development of modem industry, the extended family itself disintegrates until we get an atomised society, of which all that is left of the original social structure is a truncated nuclear family. Even that is eventually subject to further degradation and we end up with the one-parent family which, in the worst case, can disintegrate still further into its individual members.

Not surprisingly, people in such conditions become increasingly unhappy and depressed. A study undertaken in the United States documented how people born after 1950 were 20 times more likely to suffer depression than those born before 1910. [5] And such depressions are afflicting much younger people than before.

The great French sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to the alienation suffered by people deprived of a satisfactory social environment as ‘anomie’. And there is increasing evidence that deprivation of a satisfactory family environment will affect children profoundly, and colour every aspect of their later lives.

Such children are often referred to as emotionally disturbed. However bright they may be, they will tend to – find it very difficult to fit into their society, the reason being that the early and most important stages of their socialisation were badly impaired. Predisposed to pathological forms of behaviour such as delinquency, drug addiction, alcoholism and schizophrenia, their lot can often become hopeless.

Such hopelessness has been a feature of the welfare-maintained ghettos of the larger American cities for decades. Oscar Lewis describes the inhabitants of such areas as having a

“strong feeling of fatalism, helplessness, dependence and inferiority. Other traits include a high incidence of weak ego-structure, morality and confusion of sexual identification, or reflecting internal deprivation, a strong present time orientation, with relatively little disposition to defer gratification and plan for the future, and high tolerance of psychological pathology of all kinds. There is widespread belief in male superiority, and among men, a strong preoccupation with machismo . . .” [6]

Lewis refers to this as “the culture of poverty”, and sees it as a feature of the slums of the industrial world. Today, however, it is spreading to other sectors of society and, at the current rate, it could even soon be the culture of industrial society as a whole.

Meanwhile, crime, which is increasing at a record rate just about everywhere, is closely connected with social alienation, the victims of which react in a number of different ways to their plight. One reaction among young slum dwellers is to organise themselves into street gangs – a rudimentary community that provides them at once with an identity, a goal structure, an embryonic cultural pattern and a means of achieving recognition and success, at least within their particular group.

Another reaction to social alienation, more common among middle-class youth, is to indulge in some form of retreatism, isolating themselves from a way of life and an environment that increasingly fails to satisfy basic psychological needs. For American sociologist Robert Merton,

“defeatism, quietism and resignation are manifested in escape mechanisms, which ultimately lead him to ‘escape’ from the requirements of the society.” [7]

One obvious form of retreatism is alcoholism. Another is drug addiction, and the incidence of both increases dramatically with social disintegration. These, along with many forms of mental disease tend to increase with social disintegration, as does the ultimate escape – suicide.

Durkheim regarded suicide as the ultimate manifestation of anomie. In one study, he found that the suicide rate was particularly low in poor rural communities where social structures were intact and high in disintegrated affluent society, especially among the working classes. He goes so far as to say that “suicide varies in inverse proportion to the degree of integration of the social groups to which the individual belongs”. [8]

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Blaming the victims

The reaction of the political establishment to the increased incidence of these social aberrations is usually to blame the victims, who are seen to be deficient in one way or another. More and more often this is seen as an inherited problem and attributed to a faulty gene. Thus, a recent US government study on depression cited above attributed its growing incidence to a genetic cause. Criminals are often made out to be men with an X and two Y chromosomes, rather than the usual single X and Y chromosomes.

Another ploy is to attribute these social aberrations to purely economic factors. They are often seen to be caused by poverty, interpreted in purely economic and material terms – conveniently ignoring that the incidence of these social problems is extremely low in the ‘poorest’ Third World countries, where social structures have not yet disintegrated. One can wander, for instance, in total security through the worst slums of Calcutta where hundreds of thousands of people are condemned to sleeping rough on the pavements, for there the extended family is still largely intact.

Today, in the West, such aberrations are also often attributed to unemployment and the present running-down of the Welfare State. These are undoubtedly important factors, but they do not provide a sufficient explanation, since such social problems were also increasing in the 1960s and early 70s, when unemployment levels were low and the social services still highly funded.

In fact, what is really going on here is a lot more sinister; for such interpretations of our increasing social malaise serve to conveniently rationalise further economic development – which is presented as the only means of combating any social or economic problem. That economic development has itself brought these problems into being is never countenanced in political nor academic circles, for it remains the overriding goal of government policies throughout the world – a goal which continues to serve the interests of those who promote it.

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Can we adapt?

Not only are we becoming increasingly biologically and socially maladjusted to the environment that modern development is creating for us, but our thinking processes are maladjusted too. Man’s instinctive cognitive, or mental, adjustment to the natural environment was always clear to tribal and traditional societies. It was the first article of faith in Goethe’s philosophy of nature that there is

“a perfect correspondence between the inner nature of Man and the structure of external reality, between the soul and the world’. [9]

Henry David Thoreau referred to it as “nature looking into nature”. [10] As our environment is forcibly changed beyond the limits to which we have been adapted to it by evolution, however, our perceptions become ever less useful for understanding it and for helping us to adapt to it. We cease to be what we might call cognitively adjusted to it. As E. M. Forster asked,

“How can Man get into harmony with his surroundings when he is constantly altering them?'”

The Canadian biochemist, Professor Ross Hume Hall, for example, has suggested that we are cognitively maladjusted to eating modern processed foods and, as a result, are incapable of behaving adaptively towards them. To quote him:

“Nature endowed us with the capacity to determine nutritional quality and safety so long as it was natural. For example, we can distinguish between corn fresh from the stalk and corn a day old. Colour, smell and texture are all sensations we use in assessing the nutritive value of food. But all this changes in the modern era of fabricated food. Bakery products and candy appear yellow because they have been treated with a coal tar derivative. Bread, soups and pickles seem tastier because they contain sugar. Meat appears fresher because it contains sodium nitrates to inhibit bacterial growth. Net result: the taste of fabricated food is no reliable guide to freshness, nutritional quality, or whether the food will eventually kill you.” [11]

It is not only our senses, but our very intuitive faculties that cease to provide us with the necessary adaptive knowledge. Thus, whereas our ancestors had no difficulty in understanding their relationship with the living world, we have no means of understanding our relationship with the surrogate world we have created. We depend for counsel on experts who are rarely objective and, even if they were, are unlikely, because of the reductionist nature of their training, to be capable of taking into account all the relevant factors involved.

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When instincts fail us

It is not only our senses and our intuitive faculties that fail us in the Brave New World to which economic development is giving rise; our very instincts cease to serve as a guide to behaviour.

A typical example is our instinctive aggressivity. In a vernacular society, aggressive behaviour is highly ritualised and serves social ends. Its destructiveness tends to be limited because vernacular technology is under social control, which means that wars are fought with traditional, and hence not particularly lethal, weapons. All this changes dramatically with economic development, when the associated social and cultural destruction deprives us of the means of controlling our aggression and of preventing the development of the most lethal and instruments of mass destruction.

Under such conditions, we bring into being a world that has diverged so drastically from that to which we have been adapted by our evolution that the very mechanisms with which evolution has endowed us for maintaining the stability of our societies now serve to achieve the opposite end. Professor E. O. Wilson, and other proponents of perpetual progress, consider for that reason that “we must suppress our instinctive drives and our emotions”. [12]

But if we are to adapt to the increasingly disjointed and unnatural world that modern development is creating for us, it is not apparently just our aggressivity that must be suppressed – it is also those instinctive drives and emotions that make of us religious as well as social beings – for only in this way can we adapt to living in today’s atomised, competitive, secular world.

Undoubtedly the most alarming instance of cognitive maladjustment must be our failure to grasp the critical nature of the global environmental problems that confront us – such as deforestation, soil erosion, salinisation and desertification, the depletion of the ozone layer and global warming.

Only a tiny minority of our academics – not to mention our industrialists or politicians – show any concern at all for these daunting problems, and no measures of any consequence have been undertaken to solve them. At conference after conference, politicians from the main political parties discuss the usual short-term populist issues, obstinately refusing even to mention (save perhaps in a most cursory manner) the real issues that must determine our future and that of our children.

It may not be irrelevant to note that even very modest forms of life, like earthworms, dung beetles and fiddler crabs, while living in their natural environment, have no trouble identifying the real problems they must deal with if they are to maximise their welfare and indeed survive.

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The existential vacuum

In addition to all this, we are increasingly suffering from another critical form of maladjustment; psychical maladjustment. As modern science progresses, it depicts our world and our relationship to it in terms that have ever less meaning to the human psyche. As Alexander Koyré, perhaps the foremost Newtonian scholar of his day, puts it,

“it has substituted for our world of quality and sense perception, the world in which we live and love and die, another world – the world of quantity, of rectified geometry; a world in which, though there is a place for everything, there is no place for Man.”

The Austrian psychologist Victor Frankl believes that one in four neuroses can be traced to our “existential vacuum” – the meaninglessness of life. [13] This vacuum is deepened by the scientific view of Man as no more than a machine, responding robot-like to environmental stimuli. Our innermost feelings, values and beliefs are little more than illusions; our family, community, society, the natural world itself, are no more than a mass of atoms and molecules – random, purposeless and uncaring.

In fact, in terms of our evolution and our social development, Man is mentally adjusted to entertaining a ‘traditional’ world view, in terms of which all the constituents of the natural world – whether they be animal, plant or mineral – radiate meanings, are intelligible beings, integral parts of a cosmic whole.

The French biologist and Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod admits that vernacular Man, or “animistic Man” as he refers to him, could see himself as an integral part of the natural world:

“Animism established a covenant between Man and nature, a profound alliance outside of which seems to stretch only terrifying solitude.” [14]

But today, science has revealed to us the truth:

The ancient covenant has been broken, Man knows at last that he is alone in the immensity of the universe – a universe in which he has no function, to which he has no duties and in which he emerged by pure chance.”

Yet this is not the view of the German philosopher of science, Gunther Stent:

“The dissolution of the covenant presages the end of science, since there is little use in continuing to push the limits of our knowledge further and further if the results have less and less meaning to Man’s psyche.” [15]

Nor, either, is there much use in obstinately continuing along our present paths and thereby systematically creating a world to which we are ever less adapted in every way, and in which human life may even eventually cease to be possible.

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1. Washburn S. and Lancaster C., “The evolution of hunting”. In Lee and Devore, eds., 1968, Man the Hunter, p.293.
2. Boyden, Stephen, “Evolution and health”. The Ecologist Vol. 3 No. 8, 1973, pp.304-309.
3. Epstein S. S., The Politics of Cancer. Sierra Club, San Francisco 1978.
4. Banfield, Edward C., The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, pp.65-66. The Free Press, New York 1958.
5. Lux, Kenneth, , Adam Smith’s Mistake: how a moral philosopher invented economics and ended morality, p.195 (quoting Seligman, 1988). Shambhala, Boston 1990.
6. Lewis, Oscar, “The culture of poverty”. Scientific American October 1966, pp.19-25.
7. Merton, Robert, Social Theory and Social Structure: toward the clarification of theory and research, pp.142-144. The Free Press of Glencoe, New York 1951.
8. Durkheim, Emile, Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1966 (original edition 1897).
9. Worster, Donald, Nature’s Economy. Sierra Club, San Francisco 1977.
10. Thoreau, Henry David, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (20 vols). Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1906.
11. Hall, Ross Hume, in “Beware of those fabricated foods”. Executive Health Vol. XII No 7, April 1976, p.5.
12. Edward O. Wilson, “Sociobiology: A new approach to understanding the basis of human nature”. New Scientist, 13 May 1976, pp.342-345.
13. Victor E. Frankl, “Reductionism and nihilism”. In Koestler and Smythies eds., Beyond Reductionism. 1972, p.400.
14. Monod, Jacques, Chance and Necessity. London, pp 224-225, 1970.
15. Stent, Gunther, , Paradoxes of Progress, p.127. W. H. Freeman, San Francisco 1978.
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