A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 5 No. 6, June 1975. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).
See ordering information for the Funbook.
Dr. John Howell, Director of the Institute of Family Psychiatry, has stated quite seriously that the mother is not necessarily the best person to look after her child. This seemingly lunatic statement is prompted by an equally lunatic situation. Every day, it appears, in the UK, two children are killed by their parents, and many more are maimed in body and mind.
Do we allow this situation to continue or do we put the children in institutions? This is a very unpleasant choice, for both courses of action will lead to disastrous results. Indeed contrary to what Dr. Howell says, to raise children in institutions is very unsatisfactory, and considerably increases their chances of becoming emotionally unstable in many ways.
Government experts, who specialise in underplaying ecological problems, have vigorously recommended the continuance of present-day agricultural practices involving the increasing use of heavy machines, artificial fertilisers, pesticides and the grubbing up of hedgerows. They see no other way of producing enough food for our massive population from our shrinking agricultural base.
Although these experts argue that these policies are harmless, the truth of the matter is that modern agricultural methods are hideously destructive. In the past 50 years there has probably been more soil deterioration than during the whole of man’s previous history. Here again, we are faced with an unpleasant choice; either we accept the systematic degradation of our agricultural land and also, by the way, an increasing cancer rate caused by exposure to all the chemicals used in modern agriculture – or we all starve.
After some serious thought on the global shortage of food, Drs. Reed and Tolley have come up with an undeniably original suggestion, that we put human faeces on the menu. Faeces are, apparently, “not unpalatable after homogenisation followed by steam sterilisation, oven drying and finally, cooking.”
Are they taking the mickey out of us? Apparently not. World food prospects are so bad that coprophagy may be our only alternative to starvation. Once more, we have a potentially unpleasant choice – eat excrement, or starve. Indeed, as the world food situation deteriorates, we may even find ourselves, as in Soylent Green, eating recycled human bodies to stay alive. Why, we might ask, could we be confronted with such very unpleasant choices? To find the answer we must look back into our past.
Man once lived in small tribal groups, subsisting either by hunting and gathering, or later by ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. We have come to believe, contrary to all the evidence, that such people were poor, miserable and barbarous creatures. We have also been taught to believe that as a result of the developments of the last 10,000 years, in particular the last 150 (since the industrial revolution), we have become happy, affluent and civilised.
It is salutary to note, however, that these small tribal groups were spared the unpleasant choices that we face today. There was no need for child-care institutions, because parents did not batter their children. Such aberrant behaviour is still largely absent from those traditional societies that survive today.
Also, because they kept their population under control and preserved the fertility of their soil through ecologically sound practices, they could afford to eat greater delicacies than human excrement, let alone corpses.
Their way of life was in many ways the optimum for humankind. That we have ‘progressed’ so far from this optimum is the reason why we find ourselves in so many ‘heads you win, tails I lose’ situations.
As the conditions in which we live diverge yet further from the optima, the problems we face become increasingly insoluble. What our experts would have us regard as a solution to a problem is usually nothing of the kind, but simply a means of exchanging one problem for another, and usually a more serious one at that. However the experts are just as wrong in representing the situation as a choice between two alternatives, for there is always a third course open to us.
If we set out systematically to modify the socioeconomic conditions in which we live, so as to produce eventually something resembling the physical and social environment of our distant ancestors, the choices facing us would become progressively less disagreeable. Clearly we can never reconstitute the initial conditions, but we can try to reproduce their more salient features.
Here is the ultimate challenge to human ingenuity. Here too lies the only course open to us which does not involve an all-out war against human nature and the living world in general.
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