What the fight against measles can teach environmentalists

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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.”


  • Personally, the only way I can see getting inner peace for myself is through action on climate change.

  • Rory, I’ve always had a great deal of respect for the Quakers philosophy, and though I consider myself a Buddhist myself, I see a lot in common. Both of course take the view that action is the enemy of inner peace, and action is what the west and capitalism is all about, sadly. I agree too with Morales! Which other national leader would have what it takes to mouth these words???

  • I like the quote from Evo Morales. In my view it captures the problem and identifies the trajectory that needs to be followed if we are ever going to be part of the solution rather than the ongoing cause of endless problems.

    The biosphere is a living system and we humans are just one of the many components that go to make it up. Our problem is that we have been, and continue to behave as, the Over Lords of Creation and we simply are not.

    I am a Quaker and I know from my own experience, experience which is borne out by the collective experience of ‘The Religious Society of Friends [Quakers]’ over the last 350 years that there is a benign intelligence, we call it the Spirit’ that permeates this material realm and that it is possible for us as individuals and as collectives to tap into the wisdom that inheres in this intelligence.

    Humankind with its consciousness is a product of the Spirit and my sense is that the Spirit wants nothing more from us, its children, than to use our consciousnesses to work on the material world in cooperation with the Spirit rather than in ignorance and opposition to it, which has certainly been humankind’s collective practice up until now.

    The reality is that we are only a part of the Whole and thus we can only work in ways which are beneficial to the Whole if we seek guidance from the Whole, i.e. the Spirit. Such guidance is not an airy-fairy wish, it is quite possible and practical, Quakers have been seeking this guidance both individually and collectively for the past 350 years. Up until now, although there has been growing concern amongst Quakers about ecological damage we have not yet seen, addressing the ecological crisis, as an over-arching collective mission but I think that is coming.

    Be that as it may the ecological problems that humankind is generating are so widespread and so all pervasive that Quakers alone could never fix them. All we can offer is our experience of collectively working with the Spirit and invite as many as want to learn about how we do it to come and learn with us.