by Ian Angus
This week I’ve been re-reading Richard Lewontin’s excellent book The Triple Helix. It’s a concise and compelling critique, from the perspective of one of the world’s most respected evolutionary biologists, of the simplistic genetic determinism that often passes for biological science or evolutionary thought these days. I recommend it highly.
I had forgotten, and was pleased to rediscover, that in passing Lewontin offers a valuable insight into the drivers of environmental destruction. His starting point might seem strange: it’s the history of measles.
In Europe in the 1800s, when my great-grandparents were young, more children died from measles than any other disease. Today, thanks to a vaccine that was introduced in 1963, almost no one in the advanced countries gets the disease at all. That’s a major victory for public health.
But Lewontin points out a surprising fact: the number of children who died from measles had fallen dramatically, long before the vaccine was introduced. A quick check on the web reveals that the measles mortality rate dropped more than 98% in the United States between 1912 and 1963. Similar declines occurred in other developed countries — people stopped dying from measles long before we figured out how to stop the disease itself.
That wasn’t because fewer children got the disease. When I was in elementary school in Canada, it was expected that every kid would get the measles sooner or later, and that is just what happened. In my great-grandparent’s time, that would have meant many funerals. In the 1950s, we were all sent home for two weeks to recover, but none of us died.
Lewontin writes that the decline in measles-caused deaths wasn’t the result of modern drugs, because it started well before antibiotics were introduced. And it wasn’t caused by improved sanitation, because measles is airborne, not waterborne. The causes of the reduced death rate were social, not technical:
“The most plausible explanation we have is that during the nineteenth century there was a general trend of increase in the real wage, an increase in the state of nutrition of European populations) and a decrease in the number of hours worked. As people were better nourished and better clothed and had more rest time to recover from taxing labor, their bodies, being in a less stressed physiological state, were better able to recover from the further severe stress of infection. So, although they may still have fallen sick, they survived.”
In short, Lewontin writes: “Infectious diseases were not the causes of death, but only the agencies. The causes of death in Europe in earlier times were what they still are in the Third World: overwork and undernourishment.” [emphasis added]
That same distinction, between causes and agencies, throws light on environmental issues. Lewontin writes:
“When popular and legal action is successful in preventing a particular industrial process that poisons workers or destroys resources or accumulates non-degradable wastes, industry switches to a different process in which other poisons or wastes are produced and other resources consumed. Paper consumes trees and puts sulfites into the water and air. Its replacement by plastic consumes petroleum and creates a non-degradable end product. Miners no longer die of black lung from coal mines as coal is replaced by petroleum. Instead they die of cancer induced by the products of refineries. Sulfites, deforested mountainsides, non-degradable waste dumps are not the causes of the degradation of the conditions for human life, they are only its agencies. The cause is the narrow rationality of an anarchic scheme of production that was developed by industrial capitalism and adopted by industrial socialism.”
That does not mean that we don’t need to campaign against particular sources of pollution and ecological destruction. As Lewontin says, the fact that only social change can eliminate high mortality in Africa doesn’t mean medical care is irrelevant. To be blunt, an army that won’t fight battles for immediate objectives will never win the war.
But it does mean that focusing on agencies can only buy us time. To actually win the war for our vulnerable planet, we need to understand and confront the underlying cause that creates those agencies and gives them their destructive power.
In the words of Bolivian president Evo Morales:
“What we are seeing is not just a climate crisis, an energy crisis, a food crisis, a financial crisis… but also the systemic crisis of capitalism itself, which is bringing about the destruction of humanity and nature. If the cause is systemic, then the solution must be systemic as well.”