THE DAILY BARBARIAN supplement
FIFTH ESTATE, #298, June 19, 1979
The “accident” at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania has opened up a whole new series of anti-nuclear demonstrations all over the world, and has added new life to nuclear resistance in the U.S. But as we bring more attention to bear on the proliferation of anything that utilizes nuclear technology, it can only open our eyes to other equally ominous problems, problems that will be, and have been left untouched if all we demand is to “stop nuclear power now!”
No one in their right mind could say that a deadly technology like nuclear power should not be stopped, but the “one demand” tactic of most anti-nuke groups and their alternatives of using coal and solar energy (along with mouthing the orders of the federal government, urging people to “dial down”) will do little to significantly change our lives—especially where our health and future are concerned.
More than any generation that has lived on Earth, we know of the incredible destructive force of nuclear energy/ weapons, whether it be the disaster of a Three Mile Island or Hiroshima, or the sheer mental anguish of knowing that at any time, and without warning, our lives could be extinguished by nuclear war. Perhaps that is why these demonstrations of life over death have fixated on only one aspect of a world system that runs counter to humanity: industrial technology.
It has been estimated that the effects of the radiation poisoning on the inhabitants of the region of Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island will not show up for twenty years or more, adding, for Pennsylvanians, more mental (and physical) anguish to that already created by the “nuclear society.” But while we feel anger for what has happened, and take action to try to insure that a similar situation won’t happen here, we are already living a situation dangerously like it and have been for most of our lives.
The chemicals of an industrialized society, whether capitalist or socialist, are spewed over this planet 24 hours a day and, one way or another, they find their resting places within our bodies, counteracting and destroying everything which gives us life. Many of these chemicals are as harmful as radiation poisoning and, in some cases, even worse (the chemical dioxin is the deadliest substance made, with a “kill potential” greater than that of radioactivity; it is also one of the widest-used herbicides in the U.S. and the cause of the devastation of the Italian city of Seveso in 1976).
Like radiation contamination, many of these chemicals will not show their effects on us for at least another ten to fifteen years, but conservative estimates show that by the turn of the century millions of people will die from poisoning by these man-made substances. (Five million people are expected to die from cancer induced by inhalation of industrial asbestos alone by this time. One of the widest-used plastics in the world today is polyvinyl chloride; it is used to make furniture, the interiors of automobiles, plastic plates and cups, records, containers and plastic wrap for packaged foods, and numberless other “convenience” items of the sort which have come to symbolize “modern” society. But PVC, in the gaseous state, is also a powerful long-term carcinogen which, once having entered the body, never leaves; an average of seventeen years after initial exposure to the gas, workers in the PVC industry are now developing angiosarcoma in alarming numbers. And, since the PVC solid begins to emit small amounts of gas when heated to only 78 degrees—considerably cooler than your closed-up car might get on a hot summer day—its long-term effects on all of us are totally unpredictable).
Here in Michigan, the recent (and ongoing) PBB scandal is only the most immediately obvious of an endless series of travesties which have seen such things as Dow Chemical’s despoliation of the Midland area, the mercury contamination of the Great Lakes to such a degree that it was declared harmful to eat the fish that swam in them, and continued attempts by the military to transform a major portion of the state into an enormous low-frequency transmitter, the long-term effects of which nobody can predict. (Though we are told that the Lakes have now been sufficiently cleaned-up to allow the limited consumption of fish from them, their very capacity to sustain life now appears threatened by a new danger: acid rains, of the sort which have already rendered literally lifeless certain lakes in New York state. The source of these acid rains is airborne industrial pollutants and they are a global problem: as early as 1976 Sweden was charging that 30% of the sulfates which were descending upon it in acid rains had their origins in the U.S.)
But let’s face it, even without the nuclear madness, even—if it were possible— without the astounding array of chemical poisons, industrial society would continue to mutilate us every day as It has done every day since its inception. The specific demand for the elimination of nuclear power and its replacement by coal and solar energy says nothing to the fact that the major utilities have already begun to co-opt solar technology, that miners continue to work and die in conditions which have changed little since the advent of coal power, that coal mining itself loots and ravages the earth (as coal burning further poisons the air and destroys delicate CO2 balances), or, finally, that industrial society, as the ultimate expression of “man’s dominion over nature” debases and destroys human life even as it denudes every other form of life around it.
For vast numbers of us (and it is only a matter of time for the “backward” and “underdeveloped” regions of the world), daily life is lived out increasingly in a world of complete isolation from the natural environment and the symbiotic relationship with it which, in the course of millions of years of “fine tuning”, has made us what we are. In the space of only 200 years, human beings have transformed their surroundings to the point where many have not known a night without artificial light, or a day not spent surrounded by concrete, or what it means to travel where there are no roads or to be so intimately a part of their surroundings that the question “what is it all about?” is literally inconceivable.
During this time, of course, human physiological mechanisms which took millennia to evolve remain intact; thus, for instance, the involuntary “fight or flight” response to stressful situations which sends blood pressure skyrocketing and pours fatty substances and adrenal hormones into the bloodstream continues to operate whether you are confronted by an enemy in the woods or have just been told you’re working overtime whether you like it or not. In the former case all that surging bodily activity will provide you the burst of energy needed to fight or flee; in the latter, since neither option is open to you, the fatty substances will simply accumulate in your veins and arteries and, given sufficient time, give you arteriosclerosis.
But whatever else it may have deprived us of, it has always been industrial society’s boast, in fact, its self-professed raison d’etre, that it is the most efficient means yet to assure the species of its basic material needs. One glance at the world today and at its last 200 years of history will be sufficient to destroy such claims utterly: as Ivan Illich points out, a greater portion of the human population is permanently malnourished today than at any other time in recorded history. While plagues, pestilence and natural disasters may have decimated whole regions before, it has taken industrial society to institutionalize starvation—and it is no closer to “eradicating” such problems after two centuries of promises than it was at its “golden dawn.”
But even in those nations, like the U.S., where industrialization has brought about unprecedented affluence, the paradoxical impoverishment of such affluence is evident everywhere for all to see, from escalating suicide rates among children in the U.S. and Japan to pandemic alcoholism in the U.S.S.R. Far from meeting humanity’s basic material needs, it’s clear now that industrial society, in demolishing humanity’s grounding in the real world, distorts and eventually destroys any true conception of what “basic material needs” are and creates instead a world of unlimited wants; (1) wants which ultimately become needs and which, forever expanding, remain forever unmeetable.
In a world where a unified knowledge of one’s self and one’s environment are impossible, where human beings can’t know what their real basic material needs are (or their basic emotional or spiritual needs for that matter—as if they were ever separable in the first place), those human beings must inevitably become ever more dependent on the representatives of the unreal world to tell them. If those human beings are relatively affluent the representatives will be psychiatrists, sociologists, sexologists, industrial psychologists, pop psychologists, learning disability therapists, experts in childhood hyperkinesis, the whole pantheon of modern social engineers whose job it is to define for those who can no longer do it for themselves what life is all about (you wondered why the U.S.’s was the first industrial economy to become dominated by a majority of service workers?).
If they are poorer, advertising and media, most especially television, take on this function, or, in nations where such advanced forms of (anti-) communication have yet to take hold, it is ideology which comes to the rescue. (In China today it is no coincidence that the end of the usefulness of hard-line Maoist ideology is ushered in by the attainment of a basic level of material wealth and the emergence of commodity consciousness—Coke Adds Life!) (2)
But it is not as if we have been the completely innocent victims of this process, because it is our daily complicity which in the last analysis has made all this possible. For nuclear power, like all of industrial society itself, is not created just by mad scientists and power-hungry corporate heads, as politicians (both left and right) and liberal anti-nuke groups would have us believe; it is also created by you and me.
Whether we participate directly in the construction of nuclear weapons and plants, or just take part in some mundane job which has little or nothing to do with our desires, the fact that we willingly surrender, day after day, complete control over both our creative activities and the fruits of our activities (and all we get back is money!) makes us the creators of the only society that could invent nuclear madness. Only with the enormous concentrations of capital made possible by the mass sale of labor could any of the modern world’s death-dealing technologies be realized. Only when human beings are robbed of the ability to directly meet their own needs (or even to define them) can they internalize the absolute separation between meeting those needs and their daily activity; and only when they come to accept wages as the universal mediation between those two separated spheres do they become willing to perform whatever task the market demands (who in their right mind would ever work in a Velsicol factory handling toxic chemicals all day if their daily activities were really the result of meeting their own needs? Who would build nuclear weapons?) (3)
We are the creators of our own destruction, but being the creators, those with the real power to make or break it, we can also be the destroyer; of this society which posits death over life. And when we do, it will be at that point that the urge to destroy will become a truly creative urge: the urge to live.
But if we are to create a world which is for the living and not for the dead representations of things which once lived, we must do it in free and creative ways, in ways that give fulfillment to the individual and free us forever from the manipulations of experts, leaders, politicians (left and right), political parties, corporate chiefs, and a system that puts the needs of capital (or “socialist”) accumulation before human needs (even while defending accumulation in the name of humanity!)
The destruction of such a society as this may be one of the most creative acts in human history.
1. In fact, with the aid of science, modern society has practically abolished any conception of natural limits; the very idea that there are certain activities which go too far, embodied in primitive societies in sets of taboos, is greeted with almost universal derision by a world-view which canonizes growth and progress, and which asserts that if, say, nuclear power is possible, only those who favor a return to the caves would refuse to develop it.
2. Which is not to overlook the seemingly deathless power of religion: God may be dead, but as Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones and the Ayatolla Khomeini will readily attest, His representatives on earth seem to be having no problems with their credibility; nor for that matter do other cult leaders like Lynn Marcus (a.k.a. Lyndon LaRouche) and L. Ron Hubbard, who seem to combine with extraordinary success all the best elements of religion, politics and psychotherapy.
3. All of which is not to say that human beings have lined up eagerly to leave the land and enter factories, in fact the first generations which were dispossessed of their lands and forced into wage-labor knew too well they were getting the short end of a bad deal and fought bloodily to resist it. But for those of us born without even the memory of our freedom from wage slavery, nothing seems more “natural” now than that we should grow up and get a job; we forget that for what we give up so easily, others once gave their lives rather than surrender.