Dr. Paul Brand was the son of British missionary parents in South India where he grew up. He returned to England to study medicine, then went back to take care of people with leprosy in India, mainly doing reconstructive hand and foot surgery — some 3,000 operations over many years. He also spent some time in Ethiopia doing similar things, and finally ended up as director of the only leprosy hospital in the U.S., located in Carville, Louisiana. I believe that hospital closed about ten years ago, after Dr. Brand retired. He died in 2003. His son happened to be a student of mine at Louisiana State University (LSU), so that is how I met him. Medically he is credited with having established that leprosy is not the direct cause of decay or necrosis of the hands and feet universally observed in people with leprosy. Rather the damage to extremities is self-inflicted, resulting from the loss of sensation and inability to feel pain. Without pain there is no feedback to tell you that you are damaging yourself. Brand developed routines and practices to help avoid self-inflicted injuries, and wrote a book entitled Pain: the Gift that Nobody Wants. He also wrote the standard medical textbook on hand and foot surgery.
LSU is a big football school, and an assistant coach invented a super-cushioned helmet that much reduced head pain on impact. This was thought a great thing until Dr. Brand pointed out that head pain was what kept football players from breaking their necks. Would you rather have a headache or a broken neck?
So much for background. I want to focus on a paragraph that Dr. Brand wrote in 1985:
I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge. But what can be done if the destroyers of our earth know what they are doing and do it still? What can be done if people really believe that free enterprise has to mean absolute lack of restraint on those who have no care for the future?
What led him to such a statement? Living in India, Ethiopia, and Louisiana — and witnessing the same thing in each place.
In India he received his first lesson in soils management at age six, from an old Indian farmer who reprimanded him and some other boys who carelessly broke the little turf dams on the terraced rice paddies along the mountain side while chasing frogs in the wet level terraces. The old man scooped up a handful of mud and said, this soil will feed my family year after year. But the soil has to stay up here. The water wants to carry the soil down the mountain to the river, and then to the sea. Do you think the water will bring it back up? No, they answered. Will you be able to bring it back up? No, grandfather. Will rocky hillsides without soil feed my family? No. Well, that is why the dams must be cared for. Do you understand? Yes, grandfather, we’re sorry. Returning to this area many years later Brand observed barren rocky hillsides — the result of government programs to use ex-prisoners to grow potatoes, but without first teaching them the wisdom of the old farmer.
Dr. Brand prescribed practices to help his patients avoid self-inflicted injuries. He realized that similar principles apply to managing our ecosystems (photo by Alain).
In Ethiopia most of his leprosy patients were farmers, and that brought him again to the farms where he witnessed terrible erosion where there had once been trees and grasses. The Nile carried Ethiopian soil to Egypt. Farms grew poor crops, and the fields were full of large stones. But the stones were not so large that they could not be levered up and rolled to the edge of the field where they could have made useful walls instead of obstacles to tilling and harvesting. Why were such simple improvements not made, Brand asked. The peasants explained that if they made their fields look good and productive they would lose them to the ruling class. Someone from the city would claim that his ancestors had owned it, and the peasants had no chance in court. So injustice, as well as water and wind, contributed to erosion of the soil. People with leprosy who returned to the eroded farms did not have a good prognosis even if their leprosy was now under control.
The leprosarium at Carville, Louisiana, was just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi river. It dated from before levies had been built to contain the river. Therefore all the buildings and houses were built on stilts — maybe four to eight feet high. For a week or so each year water swirled under your house, but you got around in a skiff or pirogue. (Nowadays a fiberglass bass boat with a 200 horsepower Mercury outboard engine is the standard mode of transportation in Louisiana bayous.) Meanwhile the water deposited its silt before returning to its banks, transferring Midwestern topsoil to the Louisiana delta or rebuilding the eroding marshlands or barrier islands. Now the river is contained between levies to eliminate annual floods, so the silt is deposited in the river bottom rather than on the land, necessitating higher levies. Or the silt flows all the way out into the Gulf of Mexico and over the continental shelf, no longer rebuilding coastal marshlands that are now disappearing — and would have served New Orleans as a buffer against Hurricane Katrina. In addition to silt, the Mississippi carries fertilizer and pesticide runoff from Midwestern farms into the Gulf, creating a dead zone the size of New Jersey. “Cheap” corn and soybeans do not include the costs of lost seafood in the Gulf.
So in light of these experiences in Dr. Brand’s life, let us reread the first part of his statement:
I would gladly give up medicine tomorrow if by so doing I could have some influence on policy with regard to mud and soil. The world will die from lack of pure water and soil long before it will die from a lack of antibiotics or surgical skill and knowledge.
A physician treats our internal organs — heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, etc. in order that we may live longer and better. But our lives depend on external organs as well, environmental life support systems. What good are our lungs if there are no trees and grasses capable of photosynthesis? What good is our digestive tract if the land won’t grow food? What good are our kidneys if the rivers run dry, or are toxic? I think it is not much of a stretch for a good physician to realize that health and wellness now depend as much on care of our collective external organs as on our individual internal organs. Reconstructing a patient’s hands and feet, and then sending him to slowly starve on eroded farmland is at best a partial cure.
The other part of Dr. Brand’s statement, his questions, is also important:
But what can be done if the destroyers of our earth know what they are doing and do it still? What can be done if people really believe that free enterprise has to mean absolute lack of restraint on those who have no care for the future?
Environmental destruction, like other sins, is not just the result of ignorance. There is ignorance to be sure, but mostly we know what we are doing. We are caught up in structures that demand fast growth, rapid turnover, and quick profits. And that is facilitated both by ignorance of environmental costs, and by willingness to shift those costs on to others. Simple denial also plays a role — pie-in-the-sky savior fantasies of space colonization and belief in perpetual motion schemes — technological Gnosticism, I call it.
We all seem to suffer from a symptom of leprosy, we do not feel pain in our external organs and structures (our environmental extremities), and therefore do not stop the behavior that is damaging them. In part this is because often the benefits of the damaging behavior go to the people responsible for the behavior while the costs fall on others — the painful feedback is diverted to people who did not cause the damage. The fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico pay the cost of pesticide and fertilizer runoff caused by careless farming. Environmental costs have been shifted from those who caused them to those who did not.
It would be easy to say, “Well this is nothing new, just the same old prophets of doom in modern dress — there is nothing new under the sun.” But there is something new — the earth is now relatively full of us and all our stuff. In my lifetime world population has tripled, and the populations of livestock, automobiles, and refrigerators have vastly more than tripled. Meanwhile the size of the earth has stayed the same — so it is a lot more full. And the growing scale of the economy means that environmental and social cost-shifting is ever larger and more dangerous.
Consequently there are many more environmental problems than soil erosion. I focused on that because it was what led Dr. Brand to his realization. Other, newer environmental problems, many of them interrelated, include climate change, biodiversity loss, ozone layer depletion, overpopulation, oil depletion, etc. Not to mention modern warfare. I’ll spare you a complete litany.
Many environmentalists look at this list and despair. Humans, after all, they say, are just one more animal species and will over-consume and over-reproduce until they provoke a collapse — just like deer on an island or bacteria in a flask. But Christians like Dr. Brand, and other thoughtful people as well, cannot take that attitude. Yes, we are a part of the Creation, and share many commonalities with our fellow creatures, and we are kin to them by evolution. But we are inescapably the creature in charge — the one that bears the capability and responsibility of the imago Dei. Dr. Brand was an example and witness to that truth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Herman Daly is a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, School of Public Policy. From 1988 to 1994 he was a senior economist at the World Bank. Prior to that he was a professor of economics at Louisiana State University. He holds a B.A. from Rice University and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He co-founded the journal Ecological Economics. He has written many articles and books, including Steady-State Economics, For the Common Good (with John Cobb),Valuing the Earth, Beyond Growth, Ecological Economics (with Josh Farley), and Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development. Herman is a recipient of Sweden’s Honorary Right Livelihood Award, the Heineken Prize for Environmental Science, the Leontief Prize, the Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Republic, and the NCSE Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hedonism, Survivalism, and the Burden of Knowledge
This article was originally published in
The Daly News, 27 November 2014
under a Creative Commons License
In my last post, I asked whether human beings are naturally predisposed to deny the precarious reality of our planet’s health, which would help explain the undeserved endurance of the growth narrative. Self-imposed ignorance, in other words, is bliss. It absolves us from the responsibility of action.
What about the rest of us? For those of us that have ‘quit denial,’ so to speak, can conscious awareness be channeled to motivate positive action? Or is hope futile in the face of an enormous task?
A recent article by Madeline Thomas in Grist featured the headline, “Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist.” Scientists’ intimate understanding of climate change has led to depression, substance abuse, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Camillie Parmesan, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a lead author of the Third IPCC Assessment Report, became “profoundly depressed” at the seeming futility of her work. She had been screaming from the scientific rooftops, yet the best we could offer in response was little more than a call for more carbon-intensive growth.
Evolutionary psychologists Ajit Varki and Danny Brower believe that some of the earliest humans fell into depression due to their awareness of mortality, while others were able to carry on without becoming crippled by this realization. Mind-over-reality became humanity’s defining characteristic, enabling us to maintain sanity in the face of danger. On a society-wide basis, anxiety and depression could cause an avoidance of procreation, which would be an evolutionary dead-end.
We’re now confronting not only our individual mortality, but perhaps even the mortality of our species, according to a few controversial voices. Ecologist Guy McPherson is among those who have suggested that near-term human extinction is inevitable. James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis, believes that climate catastrophe is inevitable within 20 years. With an awareness of the rate of species loss and climate change, among other symptoms of breakdown, it isn’t hard to fall into paralysis and despair.
But others seem able to carry on without being crippled by this realization. Proponents of the steady state economy are among those who remain optimistic in the face of long odds, and generally, I think we fall into one of three camps: survivalists, hedonists, and denialists.
We all know the survivalists among us. They’re the lot that want to voluntarily extricate themselves from known civilization before the imagined $h!t hits the fan in some kind of imagined catastrophic event. They dream of a semi-pastoral existence in the agrarian hinterlands, far from the commercialized zombies who wouldn’t know how to take care of themselves without the convenience of a department store. They’re hard workers who romantically hope to re-kindle the low-carbon self-sufficiency of generations past.
The survivalists among us are easiest to spot.
Photo Credit: hardworkinghippy
Then there are the hedonists, and I’d be willing to wager that a great many well-educated millennials fall into this category, sometimes by accident. Hedonists might accept the ecological challenges we face and withdraw from the growth-obsessed formal economy. But rather heading for the hills, they do what they love. I think these are many of the artists, dumpster-divers, and coffee-enthusiasts among us. You can’t measure their contribution to change in terms of GDP. Both McPherson and Lovelock seem to prescribe hedonism, with Lovelock calling for us to “enjoy life while we can” because “in 20 years, global warming will hit the fan.” McPherson, for his part, calls upon us to “passionately pursue a life of excellence,” and practice the radical generosity associated with hospice care. For the hedonist, “carpe diem” is the modus operandi. They’re always asking themselves: what must we do, knowing that we only have a little bit of time left?
And finally, the denialist. A little bit of overconfidence and denial can come in pretty handy from an evolutionary perspective, because it keeps us from obsessing about the abysmal end. In this case, I’m not referring to outright denial of climate change–the “climate deniers.” I’m referring to those of us who accept planetary life support breakdown, but hope that maybe–just maybe–human civilization has enough wiggle room to squeak by. Just enough methodological uncertainty to restore this blue dot to health. After all, careful skepticism is the essence of good science. Hydrogeologist Scott Johnson, for instance, has written a long rebuttal to the claims of Guy McPherson. Denialists would be more inclined to lean on the kind of methodological uncertainty emphasized by Mr. Johnson, and reject the kind of claims offered by McPherson and Lovelock.
I fall into each of these camps from time to time. As a survivalist, I hope to learn how to garden a little bit every summer and support the DIY economy. As a hedonist, I will do what I love and passionately engage in conversations about catalyzing the steady state economy, because I believe it sets a new standard of excellence for the 21st century. In fact, all things considered, I believe the steady state economy represents a balanced “middle way” between the ignorance and paralysis. And with a healthy dose of denial, I will continue to hope that somehow, the margin of error is just wide enough to turn spaceship earth around.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Magnus-Johnston has worked in the financial industry, in policy positions with lawmakers, and in the communications industry as an editor. He has an MPhil in Economics from Cambridge University, where he completed a thesis on the growth dynamics imposed by the global banking system. He is presently a professor of Political Studies and Economics with Canadian Mennonite University, the social enterprise development liaison with Manitoba’s Green Action Centre, and a member of Transition Winnipeg’s Initiating Committee. In his work, James promotes the transition to a steady state economy through financial reform, low-impact living, and the use of entrepreneurship to ignite change.
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