In The End of Nature, written 21 years ago, the recently married Bill McKibben, a half hour’s hike from his home, at the “top of the hill behind his house,” stops and looks at his “house down below … I can see my whole material life,” he says, “the car, the bedroom, the chimney above the stove. I like that life,” he tells us, “I like it enormously. But a choice seems unavoidable. Either that life down there changes, perhaps dramatically, or this life all around me up here changes — passes away” (159).
McKibben clearly articulates the challenge we face today: either we change our habits — and perspective — or nature will forever exist with our fingerprints all over it. McKibben asks, in 1989, some vital questions: “Would I love the woods enough to leave them behind? I stand up there and look out over the mountain to the east and the lake to the south and the rippling wilderness knolls stretching off to the west — and to the house below with the line of blue smoke trailing out of the chimney. One world or the other will have to change … And if it is the human world that changes — if this humbler idea begins to win out — what will the planet look like? Will it appeal only to screwballs, people who thrive on a monthly shower and no steady income?” (160).
Of course, the world has changed. The “humbler idea” did not win out and McKibben’s predictions in The End of Nature are upon us. We, instead, went ahead with the more is better, bigger is wiser approach and landed on The New Normal, where inequality has helped drag the middle class into a great recession: “More and more of the income that was generated by the economy went to the people at the top,” says Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in a new book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, pointing out another ominous parallel between the Great Depression and the Great Recession: its cause. “More and more of the income that was generated by the economy went to the people at the top,” Reich said. In the last century, as reported on CBS Sunday Morning, there were only two years – in 1928, just before the great crash, and then again in 2007 – during which the richest 1% were taking home nearly a quarter of the entire income of the nation. Today, says Reich, “The typical CEO is up to 350 times the salary and benefits of the typical worker. Last year, when most Americans were suffering, the top 25 hedge fund managers each earned one billion dollars. A billion dollars would pay the salaries of something like 20,000 teachers.”
This reality affects our way of living in every way. “The world hasn’t ended,” writes McKibben in his latest book, Eaarth, Making a Life in a Tough New Planet, “but the world as we know it has — even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on the old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name. Eaarth. Or Monde, or T ierre, Errde … It still looks familiar enough — we’re still the third rock out from the sun, still three-quarters water. Gravity still pertains; we’re still earthlike. But it’s odd enough to constantly remind us how profoundly we’ve altered the only place we’ve ever known” (2-3). Every rainstorm, snowstorm, sunny day, dry day, flooding, drought, hunger, poverty, great wealth, health care problems, infrastructure problems, hope and despair are made by humans, civilization, what we’ve called progress. We now live in a world, says McKibben, where every environmental occurrence is Nature + Humanity.
Nature is looking much like our material world — and it’s behaving in the same way. How we’ve treated each other — war, a vertical economy, depravation and disenfranchisement, marginalization — is now visible in Nature. Nature is homeless, a refugee condemned by our hubris. In his classic essay, “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that, “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit. To a man laboring under calamity, the heat of his own fire had sadness in it.” We labor “under calamity” and, though we’re passing through anger right now, we are heading to great sadness because, philosophically speaking, as Emerson also tells us, “the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul.” And our souls are lost; we’ve become wanderers looking for life preservers, answers to our inhospitable world — and our inhospitable human nature. “The planet we inhabit,” says McKibben, reminding us of a fundamental truth, “has a finite number of huge physical features. Virtually all of them seem to be changing rapidly”(45).
What’s rapidly changing is most evident in Global Health. In The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, Laurie Garrett, writing in 1994, tells us that our species has never been so vulnerable to disease. In the preface to the book, Jonathan M. Mann, M.D., M.P.H., the François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of Health and Human Rights, and Professor of Epidemiology and International Health at Harvard’s School of Public Health, tells us that, “The history of our time will be marked by recurrent eruptions of newly discovered diseases (most recently, hantavirus in the American West); epidemics of diseases migrating to new areas (for example, cholera in Latin America); diseases which become important through human technologies (as certain menstrual tampons favored toxic shock syndrome and water cooling towers provided opportunity for Legionnaires’s Disease); and diseases which spring from insects and animals to humans, through man-made disruptions in local habitats”(xv). In Garrett’s introduction to The Coming Plague, she tells us that, “Humanity’s ancient enemies are, after all, microbes. They didn’t go away just because science invented drugs, antibiotics, and vaccines (with the notable exception of smallpox). They didn’t disappear from the planet when Americans and Europeans cleaned up their towns and cities in the post-industrial era. And they certainly won’t become extinct simply because human beings choose to ignore their existence” (10). We’ve never been so vulnerable. Case in point are the bed bugs.
In his most recent New Yorker cartoon, Barry Blitt shows a pair of bed bugs, in an urban apartment or hotel room, enjoying the life of humans. They’ve assumed our lives. They’re even replicating our vices, smoking in bed — presumably after sex, the cliché our imaginations go to. The female is asleep, satisfied, exhausted; the male is proud, full of himself, and his exploits. We live in this traditional society — literally. It captures how in the most intimate of places, the bedroom, our culturally constructed roles are worked out; however, from the bedroom we go to the material world and impose this fictitious construction. On the one hand we see that Dr. Mann and Laurie Garrett are right in their concern over our vulnerability — microbes don’t know national boundaries — and on the other, they are somehow inhabiting our worst behavior, smoking. These bugs are us — and they’re not; they are a product of how we live — our interconnectedness — and they’re also superseding us, living beyond us, though awkwardly, perhaps. In the end, these Blitt bed bugs carry the DNA of our human interactions with our natural world; they’re looking for places to reproduce — suit cases on airplanes that are then opened in hotel rooms, producing a new strain of bugs that average repellants can’t destroy. Drones over Pakistan, repellants in hotels, stimulus package — nothing is working. In The Coming Plague, this is the problem with disease — the synthesis of modern life with nature; the human hand manipulating nature, only at the microbe level, these little devils adjust, reshape themselves, and come at us with a vengeance. Once, in the early 1950’s, every health problem seemed conquerable; however, nothing is now further from the truth. “By the time the smallpox campaign was approaching victory in 1975, parasite resistance to choloroquine and mosquito resistance to DDT and other pesticides were both so widespread that nobody spoke of eliminating malaria,” Garrett tells us. “Increasingly, experts saw the grand smallpox success as an aberration, rather than a goal that could easily be replicated with other diseases”(52). What will these bed bugs bring? What can they transmit? Right now, we don’t know. What we do know is some people are adversely affected. We have no solutions. This is how the world has changed, how far we’ve gone from Emerson’s sense of Nature.
We would think, then, that a collective, creative approach to the challenges we face in global health would in fact begin to simultaneously address our encroachment on nature and the reality that those least affecting climate change (and global diseases) are the most affected — that is, the problems of the poor, the affliction modern socioeconomic policy places on the most vulnerable. This is the work of public health, a field of expertise that is complex and multifaceted, requiring economists, sociologists, medical practitioners, educators and politicians.
In her latest book, Betrayal of Trust, The Collapse of Global Public Health, Laurie Garrett says that, “For most of the world’s population in 2000, the public health essentials mapped out in New York before World War I have never existed: progress, in the form of safe water, food, housing, sewage, and hospitals, has never come. An essential trust, between government and its people, in pursuit of health for all has never been established. In other parts of the world — notably the former Soviet Union — the trust was long ago betrayed”(13). In other words, the institutional arm that’s suppose to be working to understand our vulnerability to microbes and develop working solutions has fallen apart. “Public health needs to be — must be — global prevention,” says Garrett. This requires collaboration, cooperation and collective intelligence — none of which are present today.
“Now the community is the entire world,” says Garrett. “It watches, and squirms, as plague strikes Surat, Ebola hits Kitwit, tuberculosis overwhelms Siberian prisons, and HIV vanquishes a generation in Africa. The community grows anxious. Though it emphasizes, it fears that what is over ‘there’ could come ‘here.’ Worse, as it bites into bananas grown ‘over there,’ the community collectively worries: what microbes or pesticides am I consuming?”(13).
Solutions to environmental challenges have been along the lines of the FEMA trailer — temporary, though quasi-permanent, government’s half-hearted help, filled with toxics, that exacerbates our mistrust, and our dissolution; and these come along after the disaster strikes people that are not prepared to handle the natural disaster. Only now, none of us are prepared to handle the unknowns we’re facing. Each of us, in our respective communities, has been handed a questionable FEMA trailer — and no one is in agreement on what to do. But the natural world keeps moving, evolving, looking to survive.
It’s not just the poor in New Orleans that still remain in FEMA trailers; metaphorically speaking, the FEMA trailer extends to the upper echelons of our society. These folks also feel trapped. They see themselves strapped inside the FEMA trailer of discontent. Their lives are about to change, as once did the lives of the poorest of the poor in New Orleans. What people feel on the bottom rung of our socioeconomic system, others feel at the top, too, and everywhere in-between. The age of the FEMA trailer is upon us. In “The Angry Rich,” Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize laureate, economist and editorial writer for The New York Times, tells us that, “Anger is sweeping America.” We’re all feeling trapped inside the FEMA trailer — and there’s no exit in site.
Poverty, especially acute poverty, has soared in the economic slump; millions of people have lost their homes. Young people can’t find jobs; laid-off 50-somethings fear that they’ll never work again.
Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes.
Everyone, regardless of where in the socioeconomic ladder we exist, is anxious and angry. But, “The spectacle of high-income Americans, the world’s luckiest people, wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way. Never mind the $700 billion price tag for extending the high-end tax breaks: virtually all Republicans and some Democrats are rushing to the aid of the oppressed affluent.You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence.”
McKibben’s “humbler solution” — that the human world changes — has not one out. This notion is at the forefront of our debate about climate change, global poverty and global health, and education. We exist in a selfish, egotistical world. We have grown, in our manufactured reality, into beings that don’t want to give anything up. But there is still a part of nature that exists outside our hubris. It is this part, the microbial world, the world of viruses and diseases that are first found in the most challenged places in the world, socioeconomically, and that then find their way to our penthouse suites, that will destroy us. If we examine our vulnerabilities, we’ll see that these come from our neglect of others — those in need because we place them there. In return, what they suffer is now what we will suffer. In some parts of the world, interconnected as we are, this is called Karma, the moral law of causation.
Ignorance (avijja), or not knowing things as they truly are, is the chief cause of Karma. Dependent on ignorance arise activities (avijja paccaya samkhara) states the Buddha in the Paticca Samuppada (Dependent Origination). Associated with ignorance is the ally craving (tanha), the other root of Karma. Evil actions are conditioned by these two causes.
We have conditioned ourselves into Evil actions — and the Eaarth and its inhabitants now suffer, while the powerful scream that it’s unfair. Where are we?