Many of us wake up in the morning and start our days with prayer. A practice held in common across cultures and societies around the world, regardless of religion or faith. A prayer for well-being, for the safety of our children, and for guidance through trials and tribulations, or simply a long-held daily ritual that is part of a routine that comforts us.
I’m not a religious, and have not prayed in a very long time. Lately, I’ve taken to a form of morning ritualism that involves reading the news, which also isn’t uncommon. What is different for me is that I’ve taken to reading very particular type of news that is becoming increasingly common now – news about climate change, environmental devastation and crisis. News about the rapid devastation that human activity has wrought upon life on our planet. News about sea and ocean life disappearing, land erosion, animal life driven to extinction, natural resources being depleted, ice caps melting almost entirely, rising temperatures and the very real prospect that our species has indeed become the cause of the next great extinction.
Not a very nice way to start the day.
Over the past year I’ve had to come to terms with a frustrating contradiction in my work as an ethnographer, as someone whose primary ‘calling’ has been the study of people, communities and their daily ways of life under very precarious and challenging conditions. The contradiction stems from the fact that I’ve also recently had my faith in humanity – my own species – tested really badly, and perhaps even driven to the point of breaking. I imagine I may not be the only one these days feeling a deep sense of hatred and self-loathing directed at modern human beings for our role in essentially destroying the web of life on our planet. During this time, I’ve had to deal with the realization that our species, in its obsession with modernity, has effectively taken on the logic of cancer – multiplying uncontrollably and destroying every other forms of life in its path for its own greedy, insatiable hunger. Our species – and each and every one of us who have bought into the belief that modern capitalist life is the one we should all aspire to – has proven to be nothing more than a tumor that has spread to the point of becoming terminal. Our species has wiped out more than half of all diversity of wildlife on the planet – we are responsible for the genocide of entire species of our fellow living creatures, simply by living as modern consumers.
The contradiction and dilemma that has wracked me is this – how do I continue to study and advocate as a humanist for fellow human beings when the very essential component of loving humanity has been replaced by hate for our own species? How do I advocate for social justice and equality when I also simultaneously believe that we are all nothing but cancer cells that are responsible for killing, slaughtering and destroying life on earth? As someone who seeks to continuously find and bring to light the voices and experiences of the marginalized and hidden ‘subalterns’ of this world, I cannot deny or dismiss the painful reality that the true subaltern in this world is the non-human, alongside those pockets of people who have been dehumanized to the point of being regarded as irrelevant or backwards. How do I deal with this powerful feeling that if I were to be a true advocate for the subaltern, then ultimately I have to be an advocate for the non-human, which at this point in time, seems hopeless because ultimately nothing is going to hold our species accountable for the devastation we have brought on.
There is still much talk of hope, that there is still time for change, that we can still save the earth and therefore life on the planet. We have climate activism, driven and energized by the young, pushing the fossils who cling to power to direct our energy and resources towards making substantial changes towards sustainability and green solutions. It feels easy and comforting to be inspired by these movements, to feel a slight sense of hope that we might make a difference. But then one gets hit by constant reminders that these are largely isolated and small pockets of people, ultimately irrelevant against the concentrated centers of power in the world that are driving the World-eater – that of oil and gas, of mining and deforestation, of real estate development, of mass production, industrial agriculture, aviation, textile, and rapid urbanization – all of which continue to intoxicate and poison life and land wherever they go. Against the modern capitalist hunger of billions of people on earth who will ultimately always choose the comforts of modern human life over the difficult realities of protecting life on the planet, there will only ever be one outcome, and that is mass extinction. Many of us may engage in protest and activism to ‘save the planet’, but very few of us will ever give up on things such as eating meat, flying, driving, and buying stuff we don’t need. Ultimately, these conveniences will always overwhelm our sense of remorse and accountability to our fellow living things on this planet. This is frighteningly easy to do.
Take for example the most sacred and precious of human experiences – having a baby. This one experience is so powerful so as to make us completely ignore and forget all other realities. As modern human beings who are obsessed with the idea of nuclear families and the preciousness of human children, we very easily forget that childbirth and child-raising can and is one of the most destructive and polluting forms of practice today, especially for the affluent and the privileged. From the increased amount of consumerism, the amount of waste that gets produced on a daily basis, the ‘need’ for larger gas-guzzling vehicles, the ‘need’ for more space and living arrangements, the ‘need’ for more travelling and flying for family, to the very simple fact that another human being is ultimately another cancer cell upon the earth – but we never allow ourselves to think along these lines, because childbirth and children are ultimately too sacred and untouchable.
I am not saying this as someone who hates people who have children, or as someone who is envious of the privilege of those who can afford such luxuries for their families. I’m speaking as someone who does have that privilege and is currently expecting a first born daughter with my beloved partner, a child who will be coming into a world that is dying and has to face the fact very early on that her species and the society she comes into is the very reason for that reality. An innocent child born into a world where her kind are the toxic poison that has likely destroyed her future before it even starts.
Living with the reality of the cancer of humanity is painful and intellectually crippling. I’ve been struggling with feeling any motivation to continue my work – even the work of teaching, which I’ve always considered my strongest calling – feels bitter and pointless at times. I struggle to push myself to write about research and communities because all I feel these days is this profound despise and hate for my fellow human beings. We care for two cats in our home, and every day I feel a deep remorse and sense of profound sorrow and guilt towards them – when they look at me I cannot help but judge myself as the reason for their world being taken away from them. They are conduits to other non-human life that are ever-present in my otherwise modern, urban bubble. They remind me every day that ultimately humanity is not a superior life form, but just a cancerous one that knows not how to stop it’s greed, hunger and lust for accumulation.
The most bitter and sad part of all this is knowing that we do actually have very clear solutions to stopping the crisis of bios. We are just never going to take any of them because it entails sacrificing conveniences that we simply cannot imagine living without. Here is just a shortlist of very simple things that we can do that will make a significant difference, which I offer here as my way of presenting ‘hope for change’. I hold none of this hope.
- Stop eating meat.
- Stop flying.
- Stop buying things we don’t need (clothes when we already have plenty, smartphones, computers, make-up, plastics, etc.)
The main push of climate activism and climate justice movements today is directed towards getting political leaders and heads-of-states to act quickly, to target the corporations and multinational actors who are responsible for ecocidal industries, but there is another direction we can also still follow that can be just as powerful in bringing about the change we need, and that is at the individual level. I do not think recycling or switching to hybrid vehicles are in any way solutions – they are merely ways to outsource the pollution and exploitation to poorer countries and societies. However, there is a deeper way in which we can, as individuals, make something of a difference, and that is by utterly removing the demand for products and things that involve destructive and wasteful mass production. Instead of recycling and continuing to buy and consume unnecessarily, why not just stop buying? Why not just stop eating meat? Why not just stop flying? These steps, if we are serious enough about saving planetary life, WILL very likely kill off these industries and sectors responsible for more than half of all carbon emissions and environmental degradation (not to mention exploitation of vulnerable, displaced communities of people)… but do we actually have the will to do so?
We cannot always keep blaming the corporations and the politicians. To a certain extent, doing so becomes simply a way to abdicate our own responsibility and capacities for making real change. Yes, corporations and nation-states are the main sources for pollution and environmental devastation, but let’s not for a moment forget that it is our modern aspirational lifestyles and consumerist patterns that also allow these actors to pursue their cancerous growth and accumulation. We, as individuals working collectively without even needing to mobilize for protests or irrelevant rallies that achieve nothing, do have the ability to wreak havoc upon many of these terrible industries and the corporations that profit from them. We can, for instance, put corporations like Cargill, JBS and Tyson, out of business simply by not eating beef or pork! They might be our of business within a year or even months, if we so decide to have a global Meat-Strike. Similarly, we can force Apple and Samsung’s hands to reverse this ridiculous hyper-acceleration of planned obsolescence and exploited labor that their production relies upon, simply if we all stop replacing our phones and laptops every year. We can bring about the collapse of hyper-destructive fast-fashion textile firms such as H&M – along with big Pharma and cosmetic companies – if we just decide to stop buying clothes for an entire year, and make do with what we have while at the same time learning to mend our existing clothes and prolonging their life as much as possible.
But this individual-level acts are meaningless and won’t have any impact unless it’s collectively adopted by all of us. Which… well, maybe, who knows… I still have a tiny sliver of hope, that we could find it in our hearts. We owe it our non-human neighbors and co-residents of this earth.
I hope, beyond anything else, that my child will somehow be able to emerge into a world that is able to heal. I highly doubt it. I don’t really hold much belief in our human race anymore as being anything other than the cancer that it is.