The above quote is from a 13th C French poet named Conon de Béthune. The original runs like this: “Con est l’oiseau qui chie dans son propre nid.” For those of you who read some French, it will be obvious that I’ve lightened up the vocabulary a bit. My father, who spent a substantial portion of his career as a doctor in the US Army, shared a number of military expressions with his children, one of which spoke of somebody “crapping in his mess kit.” Definitely not a great business plan either.
Let it be clear from the outset that I’m no great fan of “_isms.” Lining up as many of them as I can think of in rows of adversarial pairs – i.e. across from each other – and then watching them shoot it out, is not my idea of a good time. Nonetheless, I use one here and there and indeed this post begins with one: anthropocentrism. Placing humankind at the center of the universe could be called an understandable tendency and pretty much every society in history, from indigenous to “civilized” cultures, have done precisely that, each in their own fashion. With a very important difference between those two types of cultures: one, the indigenous, have lived in and from their environment, thus, by and large, learning by necessity how to respect limits to its exploitation; while the other, the “civilized,” have, by and large, participated to some extent in overexploiting both renewable and non-renewable resources. Western civilization being the all-time champion in the overshoot sweepstakes. This is no doubt in large part due to the fact that we have come to consider ourselves as being somehow “outside nature.” So we have no qualms about attempting to ‘dominate’ it and exploit it to the hilt, even at the risk of sawing off the branch we’re sitting on.
We’ve come to see nature as our “lender of last resort” (with no interest payments necessary) but sooner or later nature comes looking for those payments. It would be bad enough if “exploitation” simply meant taking what’s there and putting it to some immediately use. That is not, however, the way it works since we also feel that we have to make money and the more the better. So we set up shop (on a vast, industrial scale) in order to transform in as many ways as possible whatever we find of interest to us so we can sell it all around the world. Here are some of the various more or less direct consequences in bullet form:
- Destruction of entire eco-systems and their accompanying biodiversity. It is very broadly estimated, by the way, that the present species extinction rate is anywhere from 100 to 1000 times the natural rate
- Landless, displaced peasants in their millions swell the ranks of the unemployed or subsistance-level employed in the big cities, adding to health issues, demand for transportation, etc.
- Rising air pollution in urban centers causing an explosion of allergy and respiratory ills
- Countless rivers and lakes so polluted no-one can even bathe in them, much less drink from them
- Galloping acidification of the oceans (a new study asserts it’s happening much more quickly than previously thought) as well as covering seas with “dead zones” and plastic-coated areas, some the size of countries
- Increasing frequency of extreme weather events with disastrous human and economic costs etc.
I’ve always liked the American Indian saying which states that: “The present is not bequeathed to us by our ancestors but lent to us by our children.” I think I know some children today who are going to look back in some years and ask: “WTF were those idiots thinking?” In order to just begin to stabilize the havoc associated with environmental and biodiversity issues, we should all be thinking very carefully about what we need and what we don’t; one thing we need for sure is to throw off our consumerist shackles and humbly recognize our place in the scheme of things. It really is high time – already, the mess kit runneth over.
(I trust readers will understand why I have elected not to illustrate this post).