From The Invisibility of Success:
Humanity: "toxic to the face of the earth”
In a recent semi-documentary film called Garbage, a toxic waste
disposal engineer was asked how we can stop engulfing the world
in our poisons. His answer was, “We’d have to remove everybody
from the face of the earth, because humans generate toxic waste,
whether it be pathogenic organisms that we excrete from our
bodies or whatever. We are toxic to the face of the earth.”
I’d like to take a few minutes explore this strange mythology,
so central to our culture, and its impact on our children and their
vision of the future.
To begin with, is it mythology? Oh, most certainly. Humans no more
“generate toxic waste” than elephants or grasshoppers do. And the
organisms we excrete from our bodies are no more pathogenic than
those excreted from the bodies of sparrows or salmon.
It has been the work of my life to pin down and demolish the lie
that is at the root of this mythology in our culture. It’s to be found
in the way we tell the human story itself in our culture. You can see
it perpetuated in textbook after textbook, and if you keep your eyes
open, you’ll see it repeated weekly somewhere—in a newspaper or
magazine article, in a television documentary.
Here it is, the human story as it’s told in our culture, day in and
day out, stripped to its essentials. “Humans appeared in the living
community about three million years ago. When they appeared,
they were foragers, just like their primate ancestors. Over the
millennia, these foragers added hunting to their repertoire and so
became hunter-gatherers. Humans lived as hunter-gatherers until
about ten thousand years ago, when they abandoned this life for
the agricultural life, settling down into villages and beginning to
build the civilization that encircles the world today.”
That’s the story as our children learn it, and it has just this one
little problem, that it didn’t happen that way at all. Ten thousand
years ago, it was not humanity that traded in the foraging life for
the agricultural life and began to build civilization, it was a single
culture. One culture out of ten thousand cultures did this, and the
other nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine went on exactly
as before. Over the millennia that followed, this one culture, born
in the Middle East, overran neighboring cultures in all directions,
finally arriving in the New World about five hundred years ago.
At which point it began to overrun the native cultures of this part
of the world as well.
It is a truism that the conqueror gets to write the history books,
and the history our children learn is history as WE tell it. And the
central lie of this history is that humanity itself did what WE did.
Well, even if this is so, why does it matter? It matters because
everything the waste disposal engineer said was false about
humanity, but absolutely true of this one conquering culture.
Humans don’t generate toxic wastes—but our culture certainly
does. Humans aren’t toxic to the face of the earth—but our culture
It’s vitally important for our children to know that the curse that
needs to be lifted from the earth is not humanity. It’s important
for them to know that we may be a doomed culture, but we are not
a doomed species. It’s important for them to understand that it’s
not being HUMAN that is destroying the world. It’s living this way
that is destroying the world. It’s important for them to know that
humans have lived other ways, because it’s important for them to
know that it’s possible to live other ways. Otherwise they can only
repeat the falsehood spoken by that waste disposal engineer, that
the only way to stop poisoning the world is to get rid of humanity.
from The Invisibility of Success