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Life: A natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth

By Richard Fortey

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Historically social movements have arisen primarily in response to injustice, inequalities and corruption. Those woes still remain in legion, joined by a new condition that has no precedent: the planet has a life-threatening disease, marked by massive ecological degradation and rapid climate change.

The movement has three basic roots: environmental activities, social justices, and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization, all of which have become intertwined. Collectively, it expresses the needs of the majority of people on earth to sustain the environment, wage peace, democratise decision making and policy and improve their lives – women, children, and the poor.  Throughout history, armies, corporations, religious rulers, and political zealots have overpowered the majority world, which in our upside-down world we consider to be minorities. 

Along with gross violations of human rights are other endless indignities that billions endure: loss of water for agriculture, theft of local resources by government and corporations, incursions of mining companies that pollute, political corruption and hijacking governance, lack of health care and education, big dams have displaced million of poor people, loss of land, trade policies that bankrupt small farmers, and more.  What people want in their place is universal: security, the ability to support their families, educational opportunities, nutritious and affordable food, clean water, sanitation, and access to health care.  According to more than 190 countries in the world, these are not entitlements; they are rights.

This is the first time in history that a large social movement is not bound together by an ‘ism.’  What unifies it is ideas not ideologies. There is a vast difference between the two; ideas question and liberate, while ideologies justify and dictate.

Big ideologies arose in the nineteenth century, and dominated our beliefs about what was true, false, and even possible into the twentieth century. Leaders have used ideologies as varied as communism, capitalism, populism, materialism, fundamentalism, imperialism, colonialism, and socialism, to prop up their regimes, recruit their armies, and defend their policies.  The big three – capitalism, socialism and communism – fought for control of our minds, territories, and resources throughout the twentieth century, and are now being replaced by terrorism, and economic and religious fundamentalism.  

Because we are educated to believe that salvation is found in the doctrines of a single system, we are naively susceptible to dissimulation and cant. Ideologies prey on these weaknesses and pervert them into blind loyalties, preventing diversity rather than nurturing natural evolution and the flourishing of ideas.  Ecologists and biologists know that systems achieve stability and health through diversity, not uniformity. Ideologues take the opposite view. 

Fixing the intractable problems besetting the world will require a convergence of social intelligence and natural science, two qualities traditional politics lack.

We face today a dilemma about what standard will constitute the most salient evidence of progress.  Will it be single measures of material accumulation, such as GDP, or will it be the health of the earth and its inhabitants?  Social justice and attending to the planet proceed in parallel; the abuse of one entails the exploitation of the other.  Slaves, surfs, and the poor are the forests, soils, and oceans of society; each constitutes surplus value that has been exploited repeatedly by those in power, whether governments or multinational corporations.  

In one day alone we pump 85 million barrels of petroleum out of the ground, and then burn it up. And on the same day we spew the waste of 27 million pounds of coal into the atmosphere. One hundred million displaced people wander the earth without a home. One company, Wal-Mart, employs 1.8 million people. Exxon-Mobile made nearly $40 billion in profits in 2006, enough money to permanently supply pure clean drinking water to the 1 billion people who lack it. We have consumed 90% of all the big fish in the oceans. Bill Gates’s home covers one and a half acres and cost nearly $100 million.

As smaller parts of the world are knitted into one globalised unit, the one thing that we can no longer afford is bigness. This means dismantling the big bombs, dams, ideologies, contradictions, wars, and mistakes.

All social justice organisations can trace their origins back some 220 years ago, when three-fourths of the world was enslaved in one form or another. In 1787 and dozen people began meeting in a small print shop in London to abolish the lucrative slave trade. They were reviled and dismissed by businessmen and politicians. It was argued that their crackpot ideas would bring down the English economy, eliminate growth and jobs, cost too much money and lower the standard of living.  Critics also pointed out that abolition was being promoted by a small group of self-appointed troublemakers and extremists who had no expertise in trade or commerce. 

Today the world faces a task that is exponentially more difficult than the abolition of slavery: the prevention of irreversible losses of planetary capacity to support life.  The arguments against the abolition of slavery that were proffered in the Houses of Parliament at the end of the eighteenth century are almost exactly the same as the arguments put forward today about why our economy can’t move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, provide living-wage jobs for all, or defend the skies, forests and water. If we are to survive, every citizen must be enlisted to accomplish this task and that will not be possible unless we cease the worldwide war on the poor and mark a road to recovery that brings respect, dignity and self-worth to all.

On February 15, 2003, between 6 million and 10 million people took to the streets in eight hundred cities around the world to protest against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was the largest coordinated public demonstration in history…Two days later in the New York Times, Patrick Tyler wrote that the demonstrations were “reminders that there still may be two superpowers on the planet:  United States and world public opinion.”

What would a democracy look like that wasn’t ruled by a dominant minority?  What would a world feel line that created solutions to our problems from the ground up…What if some very basic values are being reinstalled worldwide and are fostering complex social webs of meaning that represent the future of governance?

(The book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson) created an uproar that has never truly subsided. Carson’s argument stood firmly in the tradition of demands for social and environmental justice that extended back to concerns and environmental health during the Industrial Revolution…Her expose of industry-sponsored poisoning of the environment brought, for the first time, a broad cross-section of the population into the environmental dialogue…But as the environmental movement gradually became more diverse in its membership and broader in its scope, it incrementally lost the support of business and politicians and was abandoned to fend for itself.

Before Silent Spring, corporations were attacked by reformers and social critics primarily for their rapaciousness and inhuman working conditions. In Carson they were faced with softly spoken critic who alleged that their products shouldn’t be made at all… For the first time, modern industry had been outflanked by an environmentalist.  Shocked and infuriated it reacted with condemnation, assaults and mockery.  Food giants…the pest control industry, agribusiness, chemical companies and government agencies…worked separately and together to destroy Carson’s reputation and credibility. With this seminal confrontation, industry and the public relations industry cut its teeth, preparing them for the battles ahead.  They have never relented in their fight.

Silent Spring transformed a few hundred quiet conservation groups predominantly concerned about birds, national parks and hiking, into a much larger and more vocal movement…It was throught the lens of human health that the connection between agricultural practices, food chains, avian life and human cancer was finally made clear and laid at the feet of society to assume responsibility.

The environmental movement discovered that to protect the environment, it had to confront power, corruption and mendacity in he world of commerce, a struggle that extends back through history and across the world…The question that still continues to reverberate to this day is whether human rights trump the rights of business, or vice versa, a conflict that has been ongoing for more than three hundred years.

When President George H. W. Bush refused to sign the Convention of Biodiversity at the Earth Summit in 1992, explaining that is was his job to protect ‘business rights,’ he repeated the oft-heard complaint or corporations that liberals and do-gooders unjustifiably criticise commerce and stifle economic development. 

Business rights are illegitimate if they remover the rights of others, if they extirpate other forms of life.  From an economic viewpoint, what citizens have been trying to do for two hundred years is to force business to pay full freight, to internalise their costs to society instead of externalising them onto a river, a town, a single patient or a whole generation.

…have the courage to say that we have marched too long in lockstep with economic polices and assumptions that are harmful to the earth and the majority of people and that it is time we spoke truthfully about the consequences of our actions, about the enormous polarisation of wealth, about how we treat others, about how economic globalisation has become a race to the bottom enforced by rules that very few have agreed to. 

We have this extraordinary conceit in the West that while we have been hard at work in the creation of technological wizardry and innovation, somehow the other cultures of the world have been intellectually idle. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Nor is this difference due to some sort of inherent Western superiority. We now know to be true biologically what we have always dreamed to be true philosophically and that is that we are all brothers and sisters. We are all by definition cut from the same genetic cloth. That means every single human society and culture, by definition, shares the same raw mental activity, the same intellectual capacity. And whether that raw genius is placed in the services of technological wizardry or unravelling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth is simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation.  (Wade Davis, ‘The Ethnosphere and the Academy’)

Even for those interested in the truth, it has taken centuries to fully appreciate the depth and breadth of the New World cultures, because they imploded rapidly after the conquest. It is estimated that of the 90 million to 112 million people living on the American continents at the time of the conquest, 98 percent of the native populations, from Patagonia to the uppermost reaches of the Yukon, died of diseases, violence and heartbreak within two hundred years…Columbus and his countrymen engaged in what we now call crimes against humanity: genocide, rape, murder and pillage, not only because they despised the cultures they encountered, but because native people were irrelevant to European culture, except as slaves and as a means to the end of finding gold.

But how do you describe an American administration that will spend $1 trillion on winning a war for Iraq oil while refusing to allocate any funds to reduce dependency on oil? For $1 trillion, the United States could have catalyzed the replacement of its entire automobile fleet with plug-in hybrid-electrics getting 500 mpg (cars running on batteries 90% of the time), powered by renewable energy and biodiesel.

We have little understanding of where our water and food come from, the impact of our cars and homes, the activities undertaken by others around the globe to support our lifestyle and the effects we have on the environment and its people.  John Maynard Keynes cautioned that we live our lives under the illusion of freedom but we are likely to be “slaves to some defunct economist.”  Even that description understates the problem.  The world may be caged by a defect of the entire economic profession – namely the idea that we can assess value in banknotes, or that we can understand our relationship to the material world using an abstract metric rather than a biological one.

There is no reason why we cannot build an exquisitely designed economy that matches biology in its diversity and integrates complexity rather than extinguishing it. In accomplishing this there is much to be gained from those who have not forgotten the land.

Extinction of species and cultures is driven by globalisation, the pursuit of progress through resource extraction and economic expansion…Native people have remarked that, of the many promises made by white men, the only one they kept was the vow to take their land. But invaders haven’t succeeded in taking it all and today approximately five thousand indigenous cultures are seeking to protect their homelands, which constitute one-fifth of the land surfaces on earth.  In many cases these are the least corrupted forests, mountains and grasslands remaining on earth, holdouts to the ongoing fire sale of its resources.  The forces arrayed against them are political, economic and military, abetted by arguments about progress and modernity.

     

The modern conservative…is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy. That is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness (John Kenneth Galbraith).

The widely diverse network of organisations proliferating in the world today may be a better defence against injustice that F-16 fighter jets.

Incremental success is achieved by consensus operating within handmade democracies, where no one person has all or much power…Computers, cell-phones, broadband and the Internet have created perfect conditions for the margins to unify.

Large organisations don’t need networks; small ones thrive on them…At the heart of all this is not technology but relationships, tens of millions of people working towards restoration and social justice.

The exponential assault on resources and the production of waste, coupled with the expiration of cultures and the exploitation of workers, is a disease as surly as hepatitis or cancer. It is sponsored by a political-economic system of which we are all a part and any finger pointing is inevitably directed back at ourselves.

Because a lot of people know we are sick want to treat the cause, not just the symptoms, the environmental movement can be seen as humanity’s response to contagious policies killing the earth, while the social justice movement addresses economic and legislated pathogens that destroy families, bodies, cultures and communities.  They are the two sides of the same coin.

No culture ever honoured the environment but disgraced its people and conversely, not government can say it cares for its citizens while allowing the environment to be trashed. More guns and repression may well be the time-honoured prescription for policing poverty, but violence and chaos will not go away if the hunger, illness and racism that are the lot of so many are not addressed in a meaningful and durable fashion. (Dr Paul Farmer)

The story of fast food traces a path of wreckage that starts with the chemical factory shipments to the farm, proceeds through inhuman slaughterhouses to portion-control factories churning our uniform buns to numbed minimum-wage workers and ends up in the hospital in the forms of obesity, diabetes and heart attacks – an allegory of modernity.  

The term social entrepreneur is relatively new, dating back to the 1950s and the work of Michael Young of the UK, who created sixty different social benefit organisations in the world, including the School of Social Entrepreneurs in 1997. The person who deserves most credit for promoting the concept and practice tirelessly is Bill Drayton.  Beginning in 1980 in the United States, Drayton’s Ashoka organisation has funded over eighteen hundred fellows from around the world who create practical and replicable solutions to pressing issues. Stating with a meagre $50,000, Ashoka had a $30 million budget in 2006. Although the term is relatively new, the practice of social entrepreneurship extends back to the public health movement during the Industrial Revolution and would include such notables as Florence Nightingale, Susan B. Anthony and M.K. Ghandi.  The best-know practitioner of social entrepreneurship is Muhammad Yunus, the creator of the microfinance and microcredit, the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and the 2006 Nobel Prize winner


The earth is not dying - it is being killed. And the people who are killing it have names and addresses (U Utah Phillips).

What is abundantly clear is that all life-from bacterium to elephants-share common characteristics at the level of molecules. There is common thread that runs thought the whole of biological existence…That vital spark from inanimate matter to animate life happened once and once only, and all living existence depends on that moment. We are all the one tribe with bacteria that live in hot springs, parasitic barnacles, vampire bats and cauliflowers.  We all share a common ancestor.