In this article I reflect upon my personal experience with life threatening illness and how this came to shape my experience of engaging with an exploration environmental issues, values and ideologies.
Sickness Without And Within.
Between 2010 – 2011 I developed symptoms, was diagnosed with and underwent treatment for Synovial Sarcoma, a rare cancer of the connective tissues which spread to my thyroid and parathyroid glands. Diagnosis was complex and my path from initial presentation to treatment was filled with complications, a frightening experience that left me grateful to survive. I was 26 by the time I had completed treatment and despite an uncertain initial prognosis, was given the all clear by the end of 2011. I have now survived a further six years and am quietly optimistic that life will continue for a good while yet.
I often feel like a broken record, repeating the same diatribe about this section of my life. I am trying to move beyond the sense of being defined by these experiences, however the power of the message I feel I received still rings out; a severe wake up call to recognise the value of my own life.
Much of this could be explored, but for the purpose of this piece, I want to focus on what my experience sparked for me in terms of my perception of ecological issues and how this came to affect my life and wellbeing.
The prospect of losing my own life lead me to alter my attitude to that of the loss of lives in the name of human industry and consumer culture. My action was to choose to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle.
The prospect of losing my own life lead me to alter my attitude to that of the loss of lives in the name of human industry and consumer culture
My reasons could be said to be honourable, but perhaps naive. I had always admired the virtue of Ahimsa – to do no harm and felt it unjust to prolong my own existence at the cost of the lives of other sentient beings. This lead me to look deeper into my place within humanity as a species and the impact upon the Earth and my lifestyle choices adjusted accordingly.
I had often heard the term ‘Carbon Footprint’ but until that point not given it a great deal of focus. Information that I consumed came from various sources, many of which could be considered as somewhat biased. I came to learn a little more about environmental and ecological concerns and what I could do to begin to reduce my own carbon contributions.
In addition to my growing interest in environmental concerns, one thing truly hooked me into exploring an ecological line of enquiry above all else; music.
I have played in punk bands for the best part of two thirds of my life. Punk Rock has huge amounts of energy which creates a space for people who need a forum to express their anger and dissatisfaction. The collective scene has generated its own value system and boundaries over the last forty or so years, splitting into a multitude of sub-factions. In the extreme end of the spectrum, punk’s anti-establishment D.I.Y. roots were followed by the Anarcho Punk of the early 80’s and then heavier Crust Punk and Grindcore movements from the mid 80’s onwards. These distillations of the genre tackled ideas and subjects ranging from the threat of nuclear war, animal rights, societal injustice and political unrest. (Mudrian, 2004)
This melting pot of ideas creates a powerful platform for championing moral causes and voicing opinions about what is considered unjust
This melting pot of ideas creates a powerful platform for championing moral causes and voicing opinions about what is considered unjust. A space to refocus or express dangerous emotions in a way that could be seen as positive.
Within the more politicised subgenres, a vegan lifestyle has become part of the standard set of values. I was introduced to the terms ‘anthropocentrism’ and ‘speciesism’ via the lyrics of bands proselytizing the Vegan Ideology.
Anthropocentrism can be defined as a human-centered outlook. In Ecological philosophy, this points to how human culture has developed largely in the western industrialised world with the attitude that the earth and all of creation are solely at its disposal and subordinate to humanity. (Fox , 1995.)
Speciesism – From an animal rights perspective, an attitude that non-human animals are treated in subordination to human needs according to a moral hierarchy. For example in Western Culture, chimpanzees are not fit to eat, due to their genetic similarities to humans, however, they make suitable scientific research subjects, whereas cows a suitable food source, but not often subject of scientific research as a substitute for humans. The moral stance being, no sentient animal should suffer unnecessarily. (Singer, 1975)
These are heavily debated and defined philosophical terms seem to have been readily adopted as heavy hammers to fling by punk ideologists, at those who were viewed as contributing to the targeted problem. Perhaps delivered in a rhetorical manner that leads others from the group that potentially formed from those who felt originally alienated from other areas of society.
The punk and metal subcultures are full of kind, friendly and driven people who want to give back to society in some way, however there is a certain gravitational pull for dark and bleak imagery. A lot of the otherwise positive messages that offer a solid introduction to questioning the status quo, are blended with a self perpetuating nihilistic and misanthropic outlook, justified by sub cultural credibility.
An example of lyrical themes that exemplify this attitude are below.
“…Malignant cancer of the ecosystem
Gnawing at a mother
Children she loves
Cankered womb and body
Nurture’s a pathogen
That feeds too much
No respect for life
Of the whole environment
Adaption comes so easily
Feeding on all that lives
There’s no end to what it eats
Withstands nature’s forces…”
Dystopia exhume a horror filled vision of modern existence from the shadowy side of human creativity, which many of us manage to switch of from. They are unapologetic and vengeful in their delivery and it’s not surprising their music is confined to the relative anonymity of an underground sub genre blending Metal’s weight with Punk’s political outlook.
Despite the importance of bringing the struggles of humanity to light, as I stated above, I found this outlook lead to a self-perpetuating downward spiral of nihilism and misanthropy, further aligning one’s identity with the scene and it’s aesthetic. Catharsis gives way to an unhealthy obsession. Problems are sought out with relish to be used as creative weapons, but never really are any real solutions or ideation of growth beyond that state offered. At least, this was my perception.
“…Total annihilation of human parasites…”
I came to a point of buying into my extreme assumption that humanity’s behaviour in relation to the earth was as a parasite, an organism that infests and destroys a host. Humanity was, in my eyes a cancer within the delicate balances of the ecosystems of Earth, growing uncontrollably, destabilizing, consuming and destroying its environment.
At the height of my obsession with this outlook, I followed a strict vegan diet, did not drink or use any drugs beyond my thyroxine prescription. I regretted that I used the car for transport and made my best efforts to buy ethically sourced and sustainable food and consumable products.
In short, I was aiming to follow the ideology in a fairly serious manner. I had taken on a sense of responsibility for something that relatively had fairly little direct impact upon me, beyond the fact that I was part of the human species and a consumer with elective choice in western society.
my cancer experience sharpened a view that caused me to consider myself an unnatural being
My relationship to my humanity, in light of my cancer experience sharpened a view that caused me to consider myself an unnatural being, my life being wholly dependant on human medical intervention. My attraction to the extremity of the ideology in itself was intoxicating and the heights of the moral high ground were dizzying, but my self hatred and hatred of the internal phantasy object of ‘Humanity.’
Coming from a position of such gratitude for my continued existence, I had come back full circle to a place of feeling guilty for my role within a species whose existence I viewed as abhorrent on many levels.
I had sunk back very deeply into a bleak nigredo alchemical stage. I held much anxiety, apathy and depression in the face of my assumption of being unworthy of existence and I was lumping the rest of humanity along with me. My view of life and it’s meaning were bleak, when left to my own thoughts. Externally I continued to engage with life and found happiness and enjoyment.
Despite what I felt were my best efforts to remain healthy and respect my body, I had further a cancer scare. My survival instincts kicked in and made me question what I was doing from a physical point of view. Was a vegan diet the right thing for me? Perhaps it was overly taxing on my body, or I had not found the correct combination of foods to supply my body’s needs, despite the high quality supplements I was taking observantly?
the pressure of forcing myself to try and follow such a bleak ideology was making me ill
I now feel the truth is, the pressure of forcing myself to try and follow such a bleak ideology was making me ill. I was being desperately unkind to myself and steadily thinking myself into greater depths of nihilistic fantasy. Life and enjoyable activities continued, but below the surface the core of my spiritual values had become rotten. My adopted concept of hatred of humanity was vastly incongruent to my emotional relationship with other people.
Some existential reading helped me, I altered my perspective a little and understood that life was full of inevitable anxieties and each of these came to be played out in different ways. To remain fixated on all the terrible things in the world, yet be powerless to control them would evidently consume me. Adopting a sense of acceptance of these things and choosing to live and try to make the best of life despite the injustice, apparent meaninglessness and absurdity. (Yalom, 1980.)
I became romanced by the ideology that there was an absolutely moral way of living my life
Ultimately my own Death anxiety pushed me into a defensive position, I found this mirrored in the destruction of the environment and the deaths of other humans and animals oppressed by capitalist industrialization. I became romanced by the ideology that there was an absolutely moral way of living my life cogent with my current values, reinforcing the good parts of my being, but casting a long shadow of my alliance with my perceived enemy, upon whom I wished death; feelings of envious destruction sparked by having to confront my own mortality.
There is an interesting parallel of my projected view of the splitting of humanity – that which destroys its own mother, Gaia, experiences the persecutory anxiety reflected through environmental extremes, to my own hatred and persecutory fantasies towards humanity, the sole reason for my continued existence. This reflected back to me in a self hatred and later became a greatly entangled feelings of guilt for the misappropriated sense of crimes against earth and guilt for my own hate filled crimes in phantasy against humanity.
I made reparation towards my own species, forgave myself and my phantasised collective other. I learned some degree of gratitude and rebalanced from the extreme ends of ideology, opening up to expand my values system to be less judgmental and more realistic. (Segal, 1979.)
My Perception of Climate Change
I am still vegetarian, healthy and listen to and play in punk bands. I would advocate a well conceived and balanced vegan diet to most, but I’ve found in terms of practicality and my own quality of life, related to how my anxiety fluctuates, being vegetarian (including dairy and egg products in my diet) is a more manageable way for me for at this point in my life. I have accepted that things could change either way in the future.
I am still mindful that issues such as climate change, pollution, human and animal suffering are very real.
In terms of climate change, I developed an interest in the ideas of James Lovelock, who initially fed my dystopian views of humanity’s future, but now I listen more closely to his words, I find there is an optimism to them.
James Lovelock, is a scientist known for The Gaia Hypothesis and his series of books upon the interactive nature of the living and inorganic structures, alluding to the analogy of the Earth: Gaia functioning as an organism in its own right. (Lovelock, 1995.)
Lovelock’s own expectations for humanity in the face of the increasing extremes in climate change, arguably brought about by industrialization and pollution, are quite bleak. He predicts violent climate events, which over time will result in substantial reduction in human population as the climate system becomes more unstable and renders much of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable due to advances stages of global warming – global heating. Entire swaths of population will become refugees and flock to temperate zones, which may not have the infrastructure to sustain such numbers. Pestilence, famine , war, death – the four horsemen figure into Lovelock’s vision. (Nature Video, 2009)
Lovelock does profess to agree with a Malthusian standpoint, however, surmises with a more positive outlook, focusing on the tenacity and adaptability of Humanity, encouraging us not to consider ourselves as something destructive and separate from the Earth, but a wonderful part of it that was able to develop consciousness to a point of intelligence. (Naked Science, 2014)
This leads me to make connections with Wilbur’s (1996) view that the Kosmos, that which encompasses all existence is driven to know itself and achieve growing consciousness, through humanity. This includes every facet of human nature, deemed by us to be both good and evil, ultimately an expression of spirit unfolding.
Some questions about humanity’s role in the Kosmos.
Are we as a race unique in this universe? Arguably we may never find out. Is humanity doomed? Eventually and inevitably, yes. Human extinction in theory will potentially come long before the complete death of the planet, but that will not be for a considerable amount of time, 500 million years or so. (Naked Science, 2014)
Big changes may be on the horizon in terms of the density of population and habitable areas of the Earth, not necessarily for us within our lifetime, but the generations that come after will live in as much of a different way as we have done from our ancestors.
We are on course for a controlled crash, in terms of our current way of civilised life. Can we turn the energy employed to try to control the environment and turn it to what humanity does best – adapt and survive. And to what ends? Perhaps our descendants will be able to have some positive environmental bioengineering effect upon the planet that will spell the dawn of new ecosystems.
There is guilt to be managed over the inheritance we hand our descendents, but perhaps we have borne the effects of the generations before us and this is simply part of the continuing evolutionary path of the earth.
Maybe this is all conjecture and fatalistic science fiction on my part. Things may possibly change in ways that human technology can compensate for.
Nonetheless, this is an era of growing concern. I feel a way to manage to live under the shadow of the impending threat to our way of life on earth, is to accept that individually, there is not much that we can do but follow the advice coming from the scientific and governing bodies, to as greater degree as we can reasonably manage. Make peace with the reminder that we, as all of physical creation are bound by mortality and get on with our lives and engage with the wonder of or continued existence.
Ultimately, all I take as certain from this, is that I love to distract myself with big ideas.
Dystopia. (1999.) Population Birth Control [Liner Notes] from The Aftermath Oakland California: Life Is Abuse.
Fox, W. (1995.) Towards A Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism. Totnes, Devon: Green Books
Lovelock, J (1995.) Gaia: A New Look at Life on earth. Oxford and New york: Oxford University Press.
Mudrian, A. (2004.) Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore. Washington: Feral House
Naked Science. (2014, 21st May.) Gaia Hypothesis – James Lovelock [Video file] Retrieved From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIFRg2skuDI
Nature Video. (2009, 22nd April.) James Lovelock – A Final Warning: by Nature Video [Video file] Retrieved From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29Vip-PbuZQ
Segal, H. (1979). Introduction to the work of Melanie Klein. London: Hogarth Press.
Singer, P. (1975.) Animal Liberation: London: Random House.
Wilber, K. (1996). A Brief History Of Everything. Dublin: Newleaf.
Yalom, I. (1980.) Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books