Expired · 28th August 2010
Every civilization has its own kind of folly, a seemingly innocent behaviour that eventually brings it monumental grief. This obliviousness is common enough that history is littered with example after example. Some civilizations survived the trauma; others did not. China, India and Egypt have had their catastrophes but they have somehow stayed intact.
The other notable exception was pre-civilization humanity, a Golden Age as some anthropologists now call it, when we lived for thousands of years as hunter gatherers, perfectly in harmony with our surroundings. Studies suggest that about 15 hours per week was all the time people needed for gathering and hunting. The rest of their time was spent visiting, playing, telling stories, crafting tools and perhaps making art. The problems began with sophistication.
In the West, pre-Roman history is a litany of collapsed civilizations. And the Romans themselves were not an exception. The causes of their demise were probably many. But a significant one was lead, the material they used for their plumbing – we get our modern word "plumbing" from their word for "lead". In Rome and regional capitals, where plumbing was common and where the ruling elite would have lived, their health and sanity were poisoned with the leaching from their pipes. They also used lead salts to stop fermentation in wine and other alcoholic beverages. Such innocent uses of lead proved to be a disaster.
Modern Europe, the eventual successor to the Roman Empire, had to survive its own failings. As the so-called Dark Ages evolved into the Middle Ages, and populations increased to fill the availability of food and resources, people's hygienic habits remained "primitive", if our neolithic ancestors will forgive the term. This was the result of philosophical and religious beliefs coupled with a profound lack of empirical information. The filth brought diseases, infections, skin disorders, childbirth fatalities, and eventually the Plague of 1348, a filth-related disaster that killed nearly one-third of Europe's entire population. The massive loss of life also brought huge social and political disruption, experiences that helped to usher in the sophistication of a much more worldly Renaissance and the scientific insights of the 17th century.
But sophistication and empiricism brought their own kinds of failings. Victorian England, an era of smug confidence and the apex of the British Empire, was haunted by arsenic. Indeed, arsenic trioxide, a tasteless white powder, was so ubiquitous in the 19th century that it recently inspired James Whorton to document it in a book, The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play.
Used overtly as a rat poison, arsenic trioxide was found in most homes, where it was often mistaken for flour or sugar. Accidental poisonings were common. So were deliberate poisonings. But arsenic trioxide was also used in the manufacture of toys, clothing and luxurious wallpaper, so the toxic residues reached both commoners and aristocrats alike. It was even used to treat certain diseases, such as syphilis, adding misery to the widespread suffering. Eventually it was controlled by regulations and laws.
But Whorton has a secondary motive for writing The Arsenic Century. This darker side of Victorian life is a cautionary tale for today. We live in a civilization abounding with miscellaneous chemicals – about 100,000 of them. Many, commonly used in the manufacture of our modern miracle products, are untested for toxicity. And we rarely consider what happens when the released chemicals combine in the environment. In many cases, we don't know what toxicity means – whether we need large doses to poison ourselves or whether, as with hormone mimickers, a mere molecule in the wrong place at the wrong time can do irreparable damage to our genetic processes. Cancers, early-onset puberty, attention deficit disorders, autism, and auto-immune diseases may all be our equivalent of the arsenic problem of the 19th century, or the filth of the Middle Ages, or the lead of the Roman Empire.
Now we can add plastics to our list of concerns. They are far more prevalent for us than arsenic was for the Victorian or lead for the Romans. We wear the stuff, eat and drink out of it, and discard it by the millions of tonnes onto our lands and into our rivers and oceans. It gets ground into minute particles and then enters the food chain for us to consume. And we are just beginning to glimpse the disruptive effects on our development and health.
But biochemistry and molecular biology are offering insights into the previously hidden effects of all these plastics and chemicals. And the initial evidence is sobering. Our bodies, our minds, our oceans, our air, our soils – the entire biosphere occupied by ourselves and the other plants and creatures of the planet – are being poisoned by the ingenuity we have been applauding as a hallmark of our civilization.
As history attests, progress is tricky. We should have learned from the past that even our best ideas need careful scrutiny, cautious use and stringent supervision. But our negligence has created a discernible doubt that is now beginning to shake the smug confidence we have in our achievements. We can no longer accept on faith that every idea is a good one or a safe one. Our incredible scientific and technological accomplishments need to be celebrated. But they should also be examined with a realistic skepticism, lest we discover too late that our trusting innocence is leading us to monumental grief.
pickled, not tickled
Comment by Editor on 29th August 2010
debbie: thanks for your great suggestion about a global pickle page. it's definitely got a ring to it....
in our defense of frontpage material choices, may we humbly suggest that an interesting thing about the global pickle situation is that we're all in it together - hence the decision for frontpage placement. but hey, we read you loud and clear that you're not tickled by our choice this time!
Time for a new inside page
Comment by Debbie on 29th August 2010
Maybe you need to create a "global pickle" inside page. Some place for the people who spend Sunday philosophizing.
I guess some would be interested in learning how "empiricism" and "obliviousness" lead to "catastrophes" like treating "syphilis"
with "arsenic trioxide" (rat poison).
Seriously - front page information?!?
Comment by Editor on 29th August 2010
Yes, islander Ray Grigg covers some pretty interesting topics in his articles on the Gumboot. Mostly we put them in Ray's 'Shades of Green' section, but every so often we post them on the Frontpage too. Looks like we puzzled a reader or two this time! Ray is one of many modern writers tackling the global pickle our civilization is in these days, so we like to profile his work.
Comment by Debbie on 28th August 2010
And this is Quadra news/Information??? What a strange article to post here.