Note: This article is based on a lecture delivered at a conference of the People’s Health Movement in Cochabamba, Bolivia on 24 September 2016.
I am privileged to be here to talk to all of you from the health and environmental movements from all over Latin America.
First of all, as someone coming from India I would like to profoundly apologise to you for something that happened to your continent over 500 years ago – the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The legend is he was searching for my country India, lost his way and landed up here! I am truly sorry India was involved in a very tangential way in this sordid story as the result of his coming was of course a genocide of the indigenous populations of South and North America and the colonial plundering of its resources, that continues in many ways even today.
I sometimes wish Columbus had really found his way to India as he would have realized he was too late and the subcontinent had already been ‘discovered’ by one of his great grandfathers much earlier. This is because in India the wiping out of indigenous populations, their demonising and relegation to the margins started around 3500 years ago- through a process very similar to what has happened in the Americas in more recent history.
The story of India’s own Columbus experience is well recorded in the openly racist epics of India that have acquired the status of ‘religious texts’ for the migrant or invading populations that took over both resources and power from the indigenous populations. Indian society is today a complex social ecosystem resulting from the conquest, compromise and cooption carried out by the migrating/invading human sub-species that entered the subcontinent several millennia ago. In both India and Latin America the indigenous people have been made invisible through violence, intrigue and marginalised as ‘inconsequential’ people.
However, the tale of Columbus is in some ways the story of the human race’s interaction with Mother Earth itself. The exploitation of humans by other human beings was after all preceded by the human domination of other living species – which like the indigenous people – were domesticated or rendered ‘invisible’ over the millennia.
Today as conflict over resources and ecological disasters looms over us it is worth reflecting on the costs of the historical Columbusiation of our planet. This is because, making Nature– or even those financially poor and technologically weak – invisible is really a two-way process. It also turns the ‘victors’ blind, to not just everything around but to their own selves and what is inside them, with literally ‘grave implications’ for their own health and that of the world.
One of the characteristics of modern times is the pervasive phenomenon of not knowing what is closest to you and all around you. We can spend a lifetime without knowing anything about the air, water, plants, animals, insects, birds, colours and seasons that surround us all the time.
There are essentially several reasons for anything to become invisible. For example, when objects are very small the eye cannot see them, like the world of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms. Their invisibility however has nothing to do with the inability of our eyes as they are there in their billions of numbers all over us, inside us and around us and manifest themselves to us in many obvious ways. The truth is that we deliberately ignore them, as we think they are ‘inconsequential’, except of course when they bite us once in a while.
Again, when objects or phenomenon are very big we fail to see them – like the miracle of sunlight, the darkness of the night, the vast soil surface of Mother Earth we live on and live off. We pay little attention to the ocean of life itself we are part of and are surrounded by, this time because we take them for granted, treating them like mere background noise.
When things are too faraway also they become invisible – like galaxies many light years away at the edge of the Universe – so distant that they are banished from our thoughts forever. What is truly remarkable to me however is that when things are too close to us also we fail to see them – like for instance our own bodies and what happens inside them.
Let me give you a very simple example of this deep seated blindness about the human body that affects much of what passes itself off as ‘modern civilization’. There is a very common expression in the English language,‘To know something like the back of your hand’. I have no idea when in human history this expression emerged but it must have been at a time when people did reallly know the back of their hands quite well. In our own times I suspect there is nobody who does and the expression should perhaps be changed to ‘knowing something like the mobile phone in your palm’!
In the modern world, we indeed have a very strange relation with our own bodies. All of us possess a body our entire lives and have no choice except to live with it till we die (except for some Indian gurus who may have out-of-body experiences now and then!). And yet, from a casual survey of asking people what they know about it, the body is clearly the biggest blind spot in our entire existence.
It is not a coincidence of course that one of the oldest taboos in the history of medicine was that forbidding autopsies of the human body. It is the repository of the human soul and should not be disturbed claimed the theologians and those who do will be punished by God and His representatives on Earth. There was historically much fear and mystery surrounding the body and its contents.
Today the world of science has explored every nook and corner of the human body, down to its genetic and molecular levels. There are still many mysteries to be solved of course but none is taboo nor considered beyond the reach of human beings.And yet when we come to many citizens around the globe the taboo and fear continue, propelled by a mix of factors, which includes sheer laziness. Let the scientists or doctors do the hard work, we can pay them to repair our bodies if something goes wrong!
More seriously, there is still a reluctance among many, many people to consider exploring the human body because they are genuinely afraid of what they may discover. It is not a journey for the weak-hearted surely. The intricate pathways, the secret chambers and crevices, the undulating pipes opening and contracting like a python about to swallow its prey. The bacteria, the mucus, the blood, pus and other bodily fluids we are culturally trained to dislike so much are all around. Just the sight of the hot fuming acids that digest everything we eat could be enough to make your stomach churn! Who in his right mind would want to enter the human body to find out what it is all about?
It turns out though, there are even deeper reasons for human reluctance to show more curiosity about the human body. That has to do with the hierarchy between the mind and body, a master-slave relation that has historically emerged in the course of human evolution itself. When we went from being primates on all fours to bipeds, our hands invented tools and our brains got sharper giving us the ability to manipulate the world around us –it seems the very idea of what constitutes ‘intelligence’ changed.
The mind proclaimed itself the monarch and our consciousness became a substitute for everything the body represented and of bodily action itself. ‘I think, therefore I am’ as René Descartes famously declared using the ability to think as proof of one’s physical existence, inverting the reality that it is the body that makes the mind possible.
One consequence of this twisted logic is the way in so-called ‘civilized societies’ –the thinker or intellectual is always valued more than the one who does, who works, who invests his/her body in production. In India this approach gave rise to the caste system with the ‘genius’ priest at the top of the hierarchy and globally today it has put the movers of finance, media and other ‘software’ in absolute power.
It is also not an accident that in modern times the discipline of mathematics – the most abstract of all human endeavours- is held in so much awe and respect by both those who don’t understand it and particularly by those who pretend to know it well. The latter of course rule over the former using their ‘expert’ knowledge to claim superiority and legitimize their strategies of exploitation. After all did not Plato proclaim ‘let no one ignorant of geometry enter’?
At the heart of modern violence in fact lies the mindless application of the binary logic of ‘true’ or ‘false’ used by mathematics to life forms, living systems and processes, which defy such simple predictability. Very often the price for such defiance is death as the dictum of our age seems to be if something is uncertain, kill it before it subverts all our sytems carefully crafted on the edifice of mathematical models.
Much of financial capitalism too rests on the mathematization of everything, particularly the concept of money that bears little relation to the real world of physical things today. This together with the worship of numbers and the preference of quantity over quality are trends unfortunately imitated by all other sectors, including medicine.
Coming back to the domination of the mind over the body, many of the key problems of health in our times arise from the fact that the mind considers the body to be controlled and commanded at will or forgotten to its routine functions. That is of course till one day the slave can’t take it any more and revolts by falling sick or even packing up. It is this deep-rooted psychology that makes many of us blind to what we eat, drink, inhale, see, hear, where we stay or popping endless number of pills for every ill. When it is only a slave – the human body- that is being abused why should the mind care?
But for those who have overcome their fears, prejudices and other obstacles to exploring the human body and seeing it for what it really is there is simply no end to the amount of joy they can derive. Apart from its amazing functions, most of which we are barely able to replicate or fathom, the terrain inside the human body is one of immense beauty.
Any of you who has seen scanned electron microscope images of what is inside our bodies will accept that – bizarre as it may sound – there are rivers, mountains, forests, marshlands, rolling meadows and deserts inside us just as they are outside us on the planet. And why not indeed, for after all the human body is a product, in all its fine and intricate details, of Mother Earth itself along with other species and elements of Nature.
What exactly is this thing called the ‘human being’ anyway? I mean, if one cuts out fancy and vain terms like ‘human’ and ‘being’ what exactly is left of this creature at its basics other than a strange cross between a plant and an animal, with more bacterial cells inside than there are human cells?
In fact, contrary to popular fiction– that we are perhaps made of steel, concrete or teflon – what all evidence points to is that we are yet another biological organism – made of the same materials as every other living organism on the planet. 99% of the human body is made up of oxygen, carbon,hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. Though much smaller in proportion our bodies also need iron, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium to survive. These are all elements we share with other living creatures, and indeed the Mother Earth herself.
To anyone who is familiar with evolutionary science the reasons for this deep connection between the composition of the body with both the living and non-living forms outside, is very obvious. Given the fact all life evolved from single cell organisms over the last 3.5 billion years, we contain within ourselves the imprints of countless species that shaped us into what we are today.
The bacteria, the fish, amphibians, plants, the early primates and who knows what other species all have contributed to the making of the human body. Every genetic mutation, every little shift in behaviour that helped survival has been passed along over millions of years to us. And all this along with the so-called ‘inanimate’ elements like fire, soil, water and sky as also the iron content in our haemoglobin, the zinc and magnesium in our diet, the oxygen we breathe and the carbon dioxide that sunlight turns into food.
What I want to point out is very straightforward. There is no difference really, in modern scientific terms, between what we as human beings are made of and the world outside us. In fact even the terms inside and outside themselves would not make sense given the enormously porous nature of the body for both the elements of nature as well as microbial living organisms.
For example, looking from the scale of the bacteria inside us there is no such thing as the ‘human body’ at all and for them the experience of inhabiting our bodies is probably not very different from that of space travel. At the same time if we see the world outside us through a decent telescope we realize that we too are indeed microbes in the larger context of the universe, given the enormous difference in scale involved. In other words we are both microbes and planets, depending on whether we are looking inside us or outside.
What all this points to is the deep connection between the human species, the planet and other species – we are manifestations of each other and our origins and destinies are identical. That is why when we wound the planet grievously by excavating its treasures –the gold, mineral and oil, destroy its ability to breathe by converting forests into urban wastelands, poison its waters with toxic wastes and exterminate other living organisms – we are in fact doing all this to our own bodies.
As a species, we seem to believe we are the only one entitled to live – all other species are to be enslaved or driven to extinction if need be in the interests of human ‘progress’. The exclusive focus of human beings on their own welfare is not just deep ingratitude to the contributions other species have made to our existence and contempt for their right to live but also foolishness on an apocalyptical scale. If they don’t live, neither will we as a species – for we are part of the same web of life –where every difference we construct artificially between ‘them’ and ‘us’,adds only one more brick to the tombstone of humankind itself.
It is this attitude of arrogance that has also resulted in the failure of every attempt at revolutionary change in the past – the inability to see beyond the human being. If Karl Marx had imbibed a little more alcohol or chewed on coca leaves I am very sure he would have acknowledged that the idea of ‘working class’ should include not just humans but also other species on our planet and Mother Earth itself!
That realization, ironically flowing from our planet’s evolution, may indeed hold the key to any revolution of the future.
Satya Sagar is both a Microbe and Planet who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org