Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
If any of us went to see our doctor for a health check and the results revealed that all was not well we would immediately address the problem which might include eating less processed food, committing to a regime of daily exercise, getting sufficient sleep and if we drink alcohol reducing the amount we consume. For, unless we are in a state of despondency, we want to be as healthy as we can for as long as we can. Not only because we want to live an enjoyable life and there are things we want to accomplish but also because we don’t want to leave our loved ones bereft through our premature death. Yet, when it comes to the ill-health of our extended selves, the biosphere, without which we would not exist, we respond to the evidence of its critical condition with a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders.
There are studies galore that describe the poor health of the planet. A recent report published by the non-profit organization Climate Central, based in Princeton, New Jersey, found that the past 12 months were the hottest since records began with one quarter of humanity experiencing dangerous levels of extreme temperature. In September, Science Advances, informed us that 6 of the 9 planetary boundaries have been breached. These boundaries they say “are critical for maintaining the stability and resilience of the Earth’s system as a whole.” Studies published in advance of COP28 show that rather than reducing our consumption of fossil fuels, as we should be doing, consumption is rising in spite of the investment in renewable forms of energy.
Scientific research tells us that we are living in a new human created geophysical epoch called the Anthropocene which is significantly less benign than the Holocene epoch of the past 11,700 years. It was the Holocene period that provided the conditions that allowed civilizations to flourish. Life in the Anthropocene epoch will be exceedingly difficult for human and nonhuman beings alike rendering the Enlightenment idea of progress redundant and much of our sophisticated technology unusable.
A paradox of this tableau is that while we our concerned with our own wellbeing and that of family, friends and acquaintances we are not concerned enough about our extended selves to do something meaningful about it. I am inclined to think that Hannah Arendt, author of the best-selling book ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil’ (1963), shines light on this paradox.
Arendt is of the view that horrendous deeds, such as the industrial-scale mass murder of Jews and other peoples by the Nazis during the Second World War can, aside from hate and furry, stem from automated instruction-obeying behaviour rooted in a lack of critical thinking. In other words, people will do terrible things because they are told to by someone in authority or because they regard what they are doing as normative and therefore don’t think about its meaning and consequences.
This lack of critical reflection, or one might say complacency, can largely be attributed to the strong desire humans have to belong to a group, a tribe and in recent centuries a nation. The wish to adhere to prevailing norms is a part of our social-navigation software with our antenna alerting us to align with the prevailing views and behaviour of the group / tribe we feel we belong to or risk being scorned as deviant or out-of-touch. The commercial world is well aware of this and uses the persuasive power of advertising to reinforce or change what is considered normative and desirable. This November and December £9.5 billion will be spent in the UK doing precisely this.
The answer to the riddle of why we don’t extend our strong desire to care about our personal wellbeing to the biosphere is because our society does not value it. The biosphere is perceived as external to us rather than part of us. It is the ‘other’.
Viewing living entities as ‘other’ enables both ecocide and genocide.
The Hutu militias who massacred an estimated 800,000 Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994 called the Tutsi “inyenzi” – cockroach, and “inzoka” – snake. In Hitler’s Germany, Jews were called “Untermensch”, subhuman. Many Turkish people referred to Armenians as “dangerous microbes”. When Europeans colonised the Americas, Australia and other parts of the world they called the Indigenous people brutes and savages on the basis that they were thought not to have a soul as they supposed themselves to have.
Committing ecocide without the enormity of what we are doing dawning on us is what makes it banal. We have wiped whole habitats from the face of the earth along with thousands of species. We are in fact living through the sixth mass extinction and are on course to extinguish a million species in the next few decades.
The worldwide annual consumption of 8,127,632,113 chickens and 3,331,950,000 cattle together with a plethora of other farm raised animals can justifiably be called ecocide especially when the horrendous ecological consequences of rearing and transporting the animals to the point of sale is taken into account. The banality of the infliction of so much suffering is underscored by the fact that it draws so little comment.
Is ecocide a sin?
Do religious people hold that poisoning soils and rivers, felling primary forest, polluting the atmosphere with emissions, noise and light amount to turning one’s back on God? Is striving for infinite economic growth, with the annihilation of life this causes, to disown God? Further, is the method of keeping billions of sentient, intelligent, imaginative, problem-solving, familial-bonding creatures in sensually deprived conditions an affront to God? These are pertinent questions as religious beliefs are an integral part of the dominant paradigm which, if we wish to be considered good ancestors, we should examine with the thoroughness of a forensic scientist.
Whatever the outcome of COP28, and other ongoing negotiations to regulate our relationship with the biosphere, we are unlikely to follow through on any positive agreements without embracing the idea that our extended self, the biosphere, has moral value and an intrinsic right to exist. As the Brazilian Indigenous academic and activist Ailton Krenak says in his book ‘Life is not Useful’ (2020): “Either you hear the voices of all the other beings that inhabit the planet alongside you, or you wage war against life on Earth.” Waging war against life on Earth is what we are doing and unless we cease our defeat is assured as is the elimination of most life-forms we share with this small spherical rock.