Extracted from John Jacobi’s essay “The Question of Revolution“, section 6.3.
Medicine is the end-all, be-all argument of industrial society. I deal with this extensively in “The Foundations of Wildist Ethics,” where I argue that while the normative science of wildists is conservation, the normative science of humanists is clearly the modern field of medicine. Whereas conservation concerns itself with nature and wildness, medicine concerns itself with health and well-being. In certain formulations these medical concerns are an ineradicable and necessary part of the human condition: we humans are concerned with those we love and are of course concerned with our survival, so we hope to mitigate the troubles inflaming those concerns or even to annihilate the obstacles inherent in our existence by healing our sick. The problem, then, isn’t medicine per se.
But modern medicine and civilized medicine more broadly has gone beyond this base concern, and pervasive in its ethics journals and its practice is the idea of progress—of improving human well-being by modifying nature accordingly. For instance, the editor for the Journal of Medical Ethics, when asked about designer babies, has said he supports it because we have a moral obligation to create “ethically better children” (Alleyne, 2012).
Indeed, in the realm of ideas, the great test of the conservationist challenge is whether or not it can successfully pave the way for its challenge to modern industrial medicine. Biotechnology is argued for on the basis that it improves human well-being, and for the great advances it will offer to medicine and agriculture. In fact, with the deterioration of soil caused by industrial agriculture, biotechnology is about the only viable civilized solution; and with the advent of anti-microbial resistance, biotechnology will be the only thing to save practical medicine. Industry as a whole has greatly improved human ability to fight disease (DeBold & Friedman, 2015) and undoubtedly the collapse of industry will return to many people’s daily life the constant fight with disease that pre-industrial peoples, though to a lesser extent primitive peoples, faced.
But more than any other argument employed by polemicists for industry, industrial medicine embodies the core reasons for conservationist revolt. One reason is obviously its progressivism. But its internal logic is also the same.
Consider, for instance, the fact that most diseases are exacerbated by civilization. As one article put it, “…a developing model of infectious diseases—AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease—[reveals that they] don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.” It goes on to explain, “Sixty percent of emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic—they originate in animals. And more than two-thirds of those originate in wildlife” (Robbins, 2012). The famed science and nature writer David Quammen (2014; 2012) released a book about the very issue not too long ago entitled Spillover, a follow up of some of the same issues brought up in his book on Ebola. In fact, the ideas are gaining so much steam that a revisionist faction of the movement has formed called conservation medicine, which is, as is to be expected, more medicine than conservation.
And this is not just relevant to industrial civilization. The onset of agriculture, for instance, brought massive waves of disease that only later began to be quelled through management, cities, states, and so forth—quelled, that is, by civilization (Diamond, 1999). This isn’t to say that primitive peoples did not suffer from diseases, but civilization did make things worse, and doesn’t suffer from the consequences of its actions only because of a constant fight against the microbial barbarian hordes smashing against its walls. Quammen (1981), again, explains the consequences of civilized practices without these walls:
Clear the vegetation from the brink of a jungle waterhole, move in with tents and cattle and Jeeps, and the Anopheles gambiae, not normally native there, will arrive within a month, bringing malaria. Cut the tall timber from five acres of rainforest, and species of infectious Aedes—which would otherwise live out their lives in the high forest canopy, passing yellow fever between monkeys—will literally fall on you, and begin biting before your chainsaw has cooled. Nurturing not only more species of snake and bird than anywhere on earth, but also more forms of disease-causing microbe, and more mosquitoes to carry them, tropical forests are elaborately booby-trapped against disruption.
The native forests peoples gradually acquired some immunity to these diseases, and their nondisruptive hunting-and-gathering economies minimized their exposure to mosquitoes that favored the canopy or disturbed ground. Meanwhile the occasional white interlopers, the agents of empire, remained vulnerable. West Africa in high colonial days became known as “the white man’s grave.”
In fact, most hunter/gatherers are neither struck by degenerative disorders or diseases to the degree industrial humans are, nor are they struck by many now-prominent mental health issues. One article explains, “There is increasing evidence that the resulting mismatch fosters ‘diseases of civilization’ that together cause 75 percent of all deaths in Western nations, but that are rare among persons whose lifeways reflect those of our preagricultural ancestors” (Eaton, Konner, & Shostak, 1988).
But of course this is not sufficient as a challenge to industry. As the field of conservation medicine has shown, merely pointing out that civilization exacerbates the problem of disease will only motivate progressivists to improve civilization. Instead, the process of progress itself has to be delegitimized.
I explain, for instance, in “The Foundations of Wildist Ethics” that because artificial intervention of natural processes through civilized technics is so greatly misaligned with those natural processes, civilized institutions and management schemes must then “fill in the gaps” to preserve its edifices. This is why, left to its own devices, artifice crumbles, and why civilized institutions like the police, surveillance systems, and industrial medicine are necessary to preserve the civilized way of life. I give the humorous example of pooping: a hunter/gatherer poops and it is dealt with naturally; a toilet, however, requires division of labor, infrastructure, police forces to protect that infrastructure at a certain level of complexity, etc. A civilization is this process magnified a thousandfold.
The most potent challenge to this is the value of wildness. For instance, in the case of human health, civilized institutions cause problems that through progress can only be quelled through artificial means: further modification of human bodies, the creation of artificial desires, etc. Of course, “artifice” does not make one impure, and no person would suggest the ridiculous idea that things need be totally natural. But if the domination of artifice is called into question and value is placed on less human and technical control, or more wildness, then no civilized solution can be proposed and maintain itself as legitimate.
Note the distinction between this approach and the one of many other anti-industrialists. The latter group sometimes explains that the same process of progress is what has historically lead to collapse, since, as Tainter points out, at some point the artificial energy required to maintain civilized institutions reaches the point of diminishing returns. Because civilization is nothing but a big bubble of artifice, when it pops all the consequences from which it is able to shield its constituents when it is strong come flooding in. Thus, in the case of disease we may be solving some problems now, but we court larger disaster later, as many have pointed out may be the case with anti-microbial resistance (World Health Organization, 2014).
Of course this is true, and it should be pointed out. But because it doesn’t get to the actual root of the problem (i.e., progress) it is susceptible to being derailed by discussions like whether or not collapse is inevitable, for if it is not then we need not worry about the bubble popping. Instead, in discussions about medical technology, we should challenge the most precious values used to justify it, and we should not argue that medicine will or may, in the long run, betray its own values. Those aren’t our values anyway.