All human culture has poisonous side effects. Some are physical, as more than two millennia of urban living and two hundred years of industrial activity have proved. But some are purely mental.
Capitalism, the dominant force on the planet, has led us out of a slow-paced, self-cleansing balance with nature and into a competitive race for resources and production that is polluting our habitat at a worrying rate. At the same time the human propensity for the construction of abstract systems of thought has bathed us all in a sea of possible reasons to dominate, separate, hate, fear and oppress one another.
Recognition of the harm that physical effluvia can bring enabled humans to make the transition from a nomadic lifestyle, where the waste material from us and our animals is fairly evenly spread across the land we inhabit, to living in cities. The technical ability to deliver clean water and remove sewage has been a major component in the construction of civilisations all over the world, from ancient Rome to Victorian Britain. The results of not dealing with human and animal refuse were so gross and obvious that they demanded a solution, and received it, often at great expense to the public. A global version of that issue is now before a wider public, some of whom refuse to contemplate any expense, or to recognise the necessity of taking any action at all.
On an individual level we all generate toxic chemicals as part of the processes that give us life. These by-products are quite natural and are not a problem in the concentrations we generate within our biochemical systems. However, small failures in those systems can and do kill us as individual organisms; liver and kidney failure are fatal if not treated. Understanding this has enabled us all to live longer on average. Hysterical versions of the toxic side effects of living processes have produced a whole industry dedicated to ‘detoxing’ us with elaborate purging techniques, when all that is actually required are small reforms in our dietary intake. We will continue to produce toxic chemicals within our own bodies even when subsisting on the purest, healthiest, most biologically innocuous diet that human ingenuity can contrive.
As humans we make our own poisons – individually, socially and industrially – and we would do well to recognise the full implications of that reality. We are a self-poisoning species in everything we do.
Sociology has amply demonstrated how every ‘in group’ we create culturally or politically has a corresponding ‘out group’. The implications of this are very far reaching, because every great human social achievement – such as the invention of language, writing, money, cities or states – creates, deliberately or accidentally, an excluded group. Every language defines people who do and do not speak it. Money creates an immediate distinction between those who have it and those who don’t. Land ownership does much the same thing by recognising and enforcing an exclusive right over a particular location on the planet, where the will of one person or group holds sway. Every city wall places people definitively on one side of it or the other, as does every national boundary. It is the permanent location of any one of us in a group or locality, an economic class or an exclusive abstract subdivision of humanity, that sows the seeds of hostility and conflict.
Human beings have been exceptionally fertile in making such abstract subdivisions. While biologists classify all of us as one species – homo sapiens – religious and political thinkers have endlessly subdivided us by nationality, skin colour, language. locality, height, literacy, possession of weapons, professional skill, belief about the exact nature of an afterlife, compliance with some greater ideal, loyalty to a particular leader, and so forth. These divisions are frequently taken to be real and significant, and are regularly organised into elaborate hierarchies of significance. The two obvious things to say about these divisions are, firstly, that they are all arbitrary, and secondly, that they form the basis of the bouts of slaughter that humans regularly inflict on each other. These distinctions are the permanent ground rules for the taking of sides in the self-perpetuating processes of religious and political strife that are such a constant feature of our history as a species.
Victorian Londoners finally accepted that cholera was caused by the presence of human effluent in the water supply and not by something floating around in the air. In much the same way, we as a species must fully recognise what is killing us in large numbers all over the planet. We need to collect and drain away the fetid material generated so easily, and so repeatedly, by the abstract subdivisions that we create for our own self-serving purposes. We need to accept this, and act upon it at a micro level. The future of humanity will only be decided at a planetary level when we have done enough work on ourselves as individuals.
A good first step, I suggest, is to sort out our attitudes to the past and the categories we use to understand it.