The Ecologist editorial, November 1971
We have been taught since childhood to fear anything connected with death and decay. A corpse fills us with horror, while the scavengers that eat it and the bugs and bacteria that decompose it are among
the most despised of creatures. Yet death and decay are as essential as life and growth – they are but part of the same process; one would not be possible without the other.
Men and other animals die so that the carbon compounds in their bodies may break down into carbon dioxide that green plants build up into carbohydrates and other organic compounds.
They die so that there should be nitrates in the soil, which the plants take up and combine with carbohydrates and build up into essential proteins.
They die to make way for subsequent generations, which would not otherwise come into being without causing a serious ecological imbalance.
They die, if weak and unadaptive, to prevent their species from becoming weak and unadaptive, too, and it is the grossest possible illusion to suppose that we have obtained divine dispensation from this
They die, too, so that their own species can adapt to rapid environmental changes. Insects, that die on average 1,750 times more rapidly than we do – with new generations every two weeks – are correspondingly more adaptive.
If, then, death is so essential, how can we explain our attitude towards it?
Before we can answer this, we must realise that it is not characteristic of all societies. On the contrary, it appears to be peculiar to atomised societies such as ours, in which we are not only isolated from our neighbours but from our ancestors and our descendants too.
In a normal – by which I mean traditional – society, made up of families
and communities imbued with the culture of reciprocity, people regarded life as a long-term process in which the lives of the ancestors were the previous stages and those of their descendants will be the future ones. When people die they remain members of their families and
communities. They have merely graduated to a higher and more prestigious age grade and, in addition, people are seen as living on through their children and through their children’s children.
Thus, on the whole, primitive man does not fear death. He regards his life as but a stage in a process in which the lives of his ancestors were previous stages and those of his children and their children will be future ones.
But in the social chaos of our industrial conurbations people are isolated not only in space but also in time.
As temporal and spatial isolates, we regard our ancestors with pity. Old
fashioned and barbaric, they lived in an age before the coming of the jet plane and before the electric toothbrush had made life worth living. As for our descendants, let them fend for themselves. If we leave them a moon-like desert for a planet, it is up to them to make it bloom. After all, ‘What has posterity done for me?’ In such conditions our life is not a sub-process but a complete process in itself. For many of us, when it
is over, all is over. Hence its sanctity. It is worth dwelling on the
consequences to man and to our biosphere of belief in this pernicious
state of affairs.
Among them is the population explosion that must inevitably lead to
the death by famine or pestilence of hundreds, if not thousands of millions of people.
When there are no longer sufficient mineral and fuel resources to allow us to spray the world with poisons, eroding, desertifying, salinising, compacting and paving over our precious arable lands, when the natural world has become so impoverished that it can no longer support complex forms of life – then nature will show what little regard it has
for the sanctity of human life.
Persuading our government to outlaw the cigarette could save the lives of millions of people who die of diseases of the respiratory tract, including lung cancer. By outlawing the car we could also save the lives of countless people who die every year in road accidents. However, in spite of their pious sentiments, I cannot see our political and industrial leaders reducing the sales and profit of the multinational corporations concerned in order to achieve these ends. The sanctity of human life, let us admit it, is a myth only indulged in when it is
convenient for us to do so.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2007