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There wouldn’t be much originality in blogging about the health issues connected to cigarette and drug abuse: these are well known despite the idiocy of millions consumers and the repulsive petulance of the Big Tobacco corporations.

As is often the case, the environmental impact of these practices is often ignored; cigarettes and drugs are a million light years away from being sustainable.

As an environmental activist who has often participated in park and beach clean-ups in more than one country, I can attest that a vast majority of the trash collected in these natural settings corresponds to those hideous cigarettes butts, tossed to the ground with a careless gesture of disrespect for the planet.

According to the Toxic Butts campaign, 5.6 trillion (YES, that’s correct, 5.6 TRILLION) cigarette butts are dispersed in the environment every year, indefinitely releasing toxins, with the 4000 chemicals being released in the environment when exhaling the junk, which add to the endless stream of chemical and toxic waste we pollute with the natural world with.

Moreover, cigarette butts are often confused with tasty tidbits by unsuspecting animals, especially among marine birds, sea turtles and fish, where the cigarette butts ultimately end after a slow murderous pilgrimage in the seasonal rainwater streams. Some of these lead to suffocation and eating disorders, often ultimately leading to death.

Cigarettes that are still lit are among the most common causes of wildfire which ravage forests and human settlements, generating more CO2 to be released in an already contaminated atmosphere.

And at the very beginning of the lifecycle of cigarette, reckless deforestation is required to grow the tobacco plants and is believed to account for the disappearance of 200,000 ha of woodlands each year. Tobacco plants require a constant spraying of pesticides in order to endure and the individual packaging also takes a toll on the world’s forests.

If the Big Tobacco multinationals do not care about our health, selling us a product which alone is responsible for the staggering 167 billion dollars per year cost in health care in the US in the 1990s, do they care about the environment? Probably not!

Drugs, like cigarettes, are also responsible for extensive deforestation (and consequently soil nutrient depletion and erosion) and social injustice.

In Colombia, the notorious FARC (the revolutionary army), holding sway over large expanses of rainforest, control the illegal cocaine market and are believed to have destroyed more than two million hectares of pristine, primeval rainforest (and consequently, all of the biodiversity it protects) in order for stupid Westerners to party hard.

Heroin and cocaine also require an extensive use of chemicals in the production and refinement phases, exposing underpaid workers and the environment to pollution.

In Europe, the illegal production of ecstasy is performed often in hazardous conditions, with one kilo of the drug resulting in 13 litres of toxic waste being released in sewers or rivers.

Marijuana cultivation in the US National Forests is also responsible for deforestation, soil and watershed pollution, through the illegal dumping of toxic materials used in the production of the drug.

There are just some examples of the ultimate environmental cost of addiction. Smoking up and showing off your cigarette: NOT COOL. Not only for your own health, the health of non-smokers like myself and your contribution to a global criminal network owned by mafias in countless countries: NOT COOL for the planet either.

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Sometimes it feels that the universe conspires to deliver a message, like an omen disclosed by a flight of birds, a tintinnabulation resonating in conspiratory ripples, with lingering doubt and cogitation in its wake.

During this past week three different sources, two books and a song, within their labyrinth of ink and notes, revealed, with unsuspected insistence, a simple thought which had the obstinacy of a savoury aftertaste.

How did we sever our primeval bond with Nature? How and when was our perception altered? When did we accommodate our senses for a world of machines, of predictable artificiality and cold, lifeless stimuli?

Daniel Everett, in his remarkable anthropological and linguistic tour-de-force Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, explored the culture of the Pirahas, an indigenous tribe who call the Amazon rainforest their home.

Without discussing the remarkable linguistic characteristics of the Piraha language, which I urge you to explore in the aforementioned book, I was impressed by Everett’s statements on the emotional and psychological well-being of this remote and dwindling tribe:

The Pirahas show no evidence of depression, chronic fatigue, extreme anxiety, panic attacks, or other psychological ailments common in many industrialized societies. But the psychological well-being is not due, as some might think, to a lack of pressure. It is ethnocentric to suppose that only industrialized societies can produce psychological pressure, or that psychological difficulties are found only in such societies.

I would go as far as to suggest that the Pirahas are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.

Pp.278-279 (2008 Vintage Paperback)

Now, it would be absurd to state that their lives are easy. The death rate is almost certainly high, the dangers that lurk in the rainforest counterbalance the richness of its resources and food availability at times can potentially be a matter of concern.

Yet the Pirahas face all of their troubles and tragedies with a smile on their face and this is no dolphin smile, neither are they putting a brave face on their problems; quite simply, they live in harmony with their surroundings, they know what to expect and know their ways around difficulties. Also, among the Pirahas, children aren’t raised with the zealous protectiveness that we witness in our own societies, but with a Rousseau-like “you’ve got to learn your lessons” pedagogic approach.

In another remarkable book, The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram, the author introduces our detachment from Nature, prior to his own thoughts on linguistics and our connection to the Planet, and our current state:

Sadly, our culture’s relation to the earthly biosphere can in no way be considered a reciprocal or balanced one: with thousands of acres of nonregenerating forest disappearing every hour, and hundreds of our fellow species becoming extinct each month as a result of our civilization’s excesses, we can hardly be surprised by the amount of epidemic illness in our culture, from increasingly severe immune dysfunctions and cancers, to widespread psychological distress, depression, and even more frequent suicides, to the accelerating number of household killings and mass murders committed for no apparent reason by otherwise coherent individuals.

From an animistic perspective, the clearest source of all this distress, both physical and psychological, lies in the aforementioned violence needlessly perpetrated by our civilization on the ecology of the planet; only by alleviating the latter will we be able to heal the former.

p.22 (Vintage Paperback 1996)

Yet who is the culprit? What has drawn our perception into such an unnatural state of things?

To be sure, our obliviousness to nonhuman nature is today held in place by ways of speaking that simply deny intelligence to other species and to nature in general, as well as by the very structures of our civilized existence – by the incessant drone of motors that shut out the voices of birds and of the winds; by electric lights that eclipse not only the stars but the night itself; by air “conditioners” that hide the seasons; by offices, automobiles, and shopping malls that finally obviate any need to step outside the purely human world at all. We consciously encounter nonhuman nature only as it has been circumscribed by our civilization and its technologies: through our domesticated pets, on the television, or at the zoo (or, at best, in carefully managed “nature preserves”).

p. 28

Abram pinpoints the source of our distress and I cannot disagree with him. It would suffice to mention how our perception and senses are brutally raped and drawn, like light-hungry moths on a lamp-post, to the violent and hysterical visual and acoustic advertisements that stalk us hundreds of times everyday. How can our comatose senses distinguish the changing winds, the chittering of birds and all the signs that our ancestors revered and deemed to be Nature’s wisdom? How can we, connected to devices which are becoming extensions of ourselves, ironically like this platform I am employing while I communicate with virtual readers, free ourselves from the tangled mesh of technology’s tentacles?

At this point you may think that I am either going delusional or joining Anarcho-primivists but technology is certainly a driving force in our society, yet how are we to keep it at bay before it ultimately takes over all of our senses? Will we be writing odes to the grinding and clattering of machines? To the smell of tarpaulin and the air currents unleashed by the subway train? Will we forsake the sounds, the smells and sights that have accompanied our story on this planet, moulded our language, our thoughts and allowed us to become members of a universal commonwealth of sentient beings?

The third time this thought penetrated my brain, it occurred in the rather more accessible form of song lyrics from the new Nightwish album, Imaginaerum.

Now, as some of you may know, metal is among the few musical genres that attempts to go beyond the simple tune, catchiness and marketability of a track.

Here are the utterly splendid lyrics, drawing the album to a close, that stand out from the track, Song of Myself:

I want to travel where life travels,
Following its permanent lead
Where the air tastes like snow music
Where grass smells like fresh-born Eden
I would pass no man, no stranger, no tragedy or rapture
I would bathe in a world of sensation
Love, goodness and simplicity
(While violated and imprisoned by technology)

“I would bathe in a world of sensation”. It seems to me that one can truly bathe in unbounded sensation in a world where Nature and Man are not so violently dissected from each other.

Unless we initiate a major change, we will simply, as a civilisation, endure the imprisonment and violence of reckless technology, as well as the apathy of the senses and brutal, gratuitous violence.

While I complete this post, a television in the distance dryly reports a bloody shooting in the streets of Liège, Belgium.

Are we genuinely content with our lifestyles? Do the Ipods, cars and dancing clubs provide us with genuine happiness? Or do a campfire under a starry sky, the ocean breezes dancing on silver cliffs and a wolf pack running freely on a landscape of wonder offer us with the blueprints of pristine well-being?

The hypocrisy of Concealment

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I am currently reading Jim Mason’s truly groundbreaking study, An Unnatural Order – The roots of our destruction of nature, and I found myself drawn to Mason’s analysis of this term, “the conspiracy to hide slaughterhouses, dog pounds, and the other places where its (society’s) uses of animals turn ugly”.

Laboratories where animals are forced to endure the agony of vivisection (an obsolete practice, animal testing is basically the tool by which the pharmaceutical lobbies can protect themselves legally and pursue the extremely lucrative fundraising initiatives that allow them to support their “scientific research”), kennels where dogs are kept as if they were prisoners of a concentration camp (in Italy, a recent study demonstrated that the funds that are set aside for maintaining these same stray dogs, are actually kept by the loathsome managers) and slaughterhouses where meat processing is an industrial business caring little for a minimal decency in the way the animals are treated (it would be sufficient to shudder at the images and videos presented on the McCruelty campaign website, targeting McDonald’s for its barbarous slaughtering methods – yup, I know, I’m HATIN’ IT!).

Image

These executioners enact these horrors far away from our eyes, in inconspicuous buildings that reveal little of their function.

“People drive by them on super-highways and mistake these “confinement” buildings for machine sheds.”

In a similar way, the human mind hides its own shameful memories in the deepest recesses of its labyrinthine system; as a matter of fact, we seem to be quite content to live with these skeletons in our closet, as long as we don’t see them.

The few times that we are reminded of their existence, and our de facto complicity, as customers who, with every purchase, are making a conscious choice in favour of the ethical standards of the multinational or company we purchase from, we seem to fall from the clouds and release our anger and injustice. I am referring to, in this case, to the media coverage of the discovery of the Beagle Lager in Montichiari, Northern Italy, which goes by the unfortunate and rather ironic name of Green Hill.

Providing comely and AWWW-inspiring Beagles for the major Pharmaceutical companies in this country and beyond, Green Hill has been literally placed under siege by 5000 animalists who have chosen to put an end to this horror.

Yet once more, the combined walls of private security, legal bullshit and human ignoramus allow for such places to exist and to torment innocent creatures for the sake of our dominionist folly!

Concealment is the key: ignore the truth and you will be content. Let others take care of horrors for you. This is starkly reminiscent of the role of executioners in Medieval societies ..

Murder in the name of science?

Nature is neither benevolent nor unforgiving; her ways are sometimes mysterious to us, perhaps less mysterious to geologists whose warnings and suggestions are easily forgotten and cast aside, but reminders of the ineptness of our puny hybris are frequently presented in the media.

The recent tragedy that has struck Liguria, despite the dramatisation and personal tragedies within the havoc it has wreaked in this unique and picturesque region of north-western Italy, was no genuine surprise.

Driving through Liguria is a simple lesson for all, on how NOT to build and develop the landscape. The cities expand from the narrow coastline like probing fingers invading the valleys, the rivers and streams are channeled and drowned in concrete in a brutal and unnatural way, stifling their instinctive freedom to rise and fall in harmony with the seasons.

Liguria’s cloud-capped mountains are intensely forested and the humidity released by these sylvan environments, along with the heavy autumnal downpours and the spring snowmelt, forms thousands of lesser-known streams and rivulets echoing with laughter into a labyrinth of narrow valleys.

However, the natural course of the latter is often hindered by the absence of floodways and bypass channels, the foolish juxtaposition of private and commercial buildings in the proximity of the waterways and when they finally reach the cities, rivers are channeled underground, as if to forget about their existence, often, as was the case of Genua, without enough flexibility to match the recent increase of rainwater, one among the countless offspring of climate change.

In recent decades, the patterns of settlement, which consisted largely of major coastal settlements, like Genua, La Spezia or even Ventimiglia, and timeless villages in craggy and mountainous contexts, have come to include the urban sprawl that gnaws at the forested slopes of the inner valleys.

The answer to a budding population isn’t simply building anywhere and in any fashion. There are natural laws and the laws of the Earth aren’t the delusion of spiritual tree-huggers but plain common-sense revealed to us by both science and history.

According to Legambiente, Italy forfeits 500 squared kilometres of natural and agricultural land every year (it’s like losing the size Andorra every year!) to the surge and ripples of concrete and man-made urban and sub-urban structures suffocating the scenic and celebrated Italic landscape.

If one adds to this the enigmatic mechanisms of Italian politics and the incapacity of the local bureaucracy to make long-lasting and final decisions concerning patterns of human development and land management, one gets the feeling that this was not the last “natural disaster” in a long list of acts of political irresponsibility and negligence.

Consequently, in our attempt to tame and civilise the natural world, we forget that our laws are only inherent to our own society and that the enduring cycles that govern the nature of waterways, orography and the climactic patterns will always supersede our own whims and collective hybris.

If, like the Indonesian hotels flushed away by the monstrous tsunami of 2004, we will choose to reconstruct our invasive buildings in the same places, whether these be mangrove forests that act as shields against tsunamis or riversides in mountainous Liguria, our lessons will never be learned and all that will be remembered will be the flotsam and jetsam of human lives shattered by Nature’s rage.

Stray bullets strike hard

 

It is often said that contemporary warfare progresses along a path of technological advancement that removes the human element and turns the act of war into a flag-conquering mechanism by which resources or strategic sites are either destroyed with surgical precision or witness a rapid change of ownership.

However, this is a delusional statement in that, despite the media overkill at crowding our already stressed minds with heart-rending footage from the war zones around the planet, blood is shed profusely and perhaps those who decide the fates of us all are too far from the action to appreciate how brutal the state of war truly is.

As an archaeologist taking a course in Heritage Management I researched the impact of warfare on cultural heritage in the Balkans and discovered much to my dismay that cultural heritage sites are often targeted since these are seen as banners of the “enemy” embodying the cultural and religious essence of a nation.

The conflict in Kosovo is merely one example and the victims were not only human; century-old Albanian mosques and Serbian monasteries were bombarded, leveled and devastated beyond all reckoning, almost a cathartic act of cultural raping leaving a deafening void in its wake.

The mutilations that such conflicts leave behind have scarred generations beyond reckoning; the land so closely connected to a sense of people or nation endures in a comatose state with little chance of awakening.

However, I’ve often wondered whether “our overlords”, who so lightly choose to unleash their brand new sparkling military toys (along with the birthday cards from us taxpayers) in the name of a very blurry concept of democracy or national security, take into account the extent of environmental destruction wreaked upon the ecosystems of the unfortunate land to be targeted.

The first things that come to my mind are water contamination (rivers, wells and other drinking sources), toxic substances released by bombs and rocket propellants or even the simple destruction of forests and natural sites (often used as shelters by defending forces). You start wondering why this is even allowed.

And then you read a 20-year old statement like the following:

Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary.” – 1992 Rio Declaration

 

Ecological degradation is a side-effect of war which is not sufficiently taken into consideration.

This rather painful and self-destructive thinking (since I am indeed one of those idealists who still gets very upset at hearing about the usual absurdities that prove humanity’s inherent stupidity) led me to purchasing a book that had recently caught my attention; this is Lawrence Anthony’s “Babylon’s Ark – The incredible wartime rescue of the Baghdad Zoo”.

 

As any predictable animalist out there I have mixed feelings about zoos. The emphasis has very often been on turning the poor creatures into some sort of 19th century freak show rather than the actual study and preservation of species. Perhaps this has slightly changed (though I think it’s mostly due to the pressure that animalist organisations have placed on zoo owners) but regardless of this all, we are, whether we like it or not, responsible for the animals held captive therein.

 

As soon as the Iraq War broke out in 2003, and once more, in a Sid Meier-like inspired scenario where the securing of precious oil wells was paramount among the objectives of the coalition, no one had even considered what was to be done with the city zoo in Baghdad.

 

On the other side of the planet, Lawrence Anthony, the renowned conservationist who whispers to elephants and runs the Thula Thula Game reserve in Zululand, South Africa, was staring in utter disbelief at the reports leaking out of the war zone.

As a friend of all animals, regardless of their place in the food chain, he felt compelled to make a difference and rescue the few survivors of the tumultuous days that had turned Baghdad into a ghost city where genuine ghosts dwelled, attempting to survive among the wreckage of their previous existence.

 

Some dominionist with anthropocentric whims may blurt out the rather annoying cliché: “Why help animals when humans are dying?” Well, why should a conservationist with veterinarian skills sit on his couch and not do anything at all when he has the skills to at least attempt to salvage something from the floundering ship?

 

That was precisely what came to Lawrence’s mind when the tear-jerking footage of starving and traumatised animals invaded his everyday life and haunted his thoughts.

 

In a rather adventurous fashion, through some lying skills (always convenient!) and some connections, Lawrence made it, suitcase and all, to reach the quasi-biblical Ark to which he would have devoted the coming months in complete uncertainty.

 

The book in itself is riveting and despite the criticisms for the rather colloquial South African prose (in all honesty the story feels even more genuine and vivid in this fashion) it is definitely a read that one would recommend to all, regardless of one’s feelings about animal rights.

 

It is a war-time story and the setting is far from being pretty; human dignity only glimmers in isolated surges in unexpected places, brutality, murder and hatred permeate the very air and jeopardise human relationships at the most vital moments.

 

Lawrence finds incredible allies among the American soldiers, the Iraqis who flock to the Zoo realizing that it had become the only place that was functioning while the last embers of war were burning passionately, and conservations and animalists like him who rally under the banner of an iconic setting that can represent the birthplace of a new Iraq.

 

The story is rich of incredible anecdotes which become more and more astounding as one flips the pages: from the rescue of Saddam’s purebred Arabian horses in the terrifying Abu Ghraib district, to the shutting down of an illegal zoo, to the disturbing descriptions of the state of some of the animals (such as a bear described with the following words: “The poor creature’s frenzied scrambling resulted in ripping the savage wounds on her paws even deeper. She also started defecating all over the cage, due to both terror and rage. That this proud and beautiful animal had been degraded and reduced to such pitiful circumstances was absolutely criminal”) to the exhilarating descriptions of the search for necessary goods and items to keep the zoo running.

 

However, the purpose of the story goes beyond the individual case itself; there are hundreds of zoos, aquaria, dolphinaria, circuses and scientific labs where animals are suddenly forgotten when the threat of war looms at the horizon.

 

To leave them in a state of helplessness and hopelessness is a criminal act:

“The most crucial lesson I learned in Baghdad was this: If ‘civilized’ man is capable of routinely justifying such blatant abuse of trapped wildlife, what of the other unseen atrocities being inflicted on our planet?”

 

Our attitude towards the other living creatures that share the planet with us is a mirror in which are reflected all of the crimes that we commit on a daily basis against our own species. There is no distinction; cruelty and indifference are of one and the same kind.

The recent footage and news coming from the Tripoli Zoo in the wake of the Libyan War were disturbingly familiar. No lessons had been learnt, no experience had been treasured in at least trying to prevent another disgraceful memento of man’s incapability of respecting the right to life and dignity that other species are entitled to.

 

http://articles.cnn.com/2011-09-11/world/libya.tripoli.zoo_1_siberian-tiger-mammal-house-animals?_s=PM:WORLD

 

A month later, the zoo is still waiting for the funds which are so desperately needed to allow these poor creatures to leave behind the stress, the terror and the simple madness that has haunted them ever since.

 

http://www.globalanimal.org/2011/10/25/update-tripoli-zoo-donations-put-to-use/56313/

 

All in all, if conventions for the protection of cultural heritage exist (though are seldom respected), perhaps it is time that natural sites, animal sanctuaries and reserves should be protected and kept out of internecine and shameful human conflicts. After all, it shouldn’t be their business.

 

“I, for one, have never felt a need to accept the status quo, or pay homage to the authorities. We are laying waste to the natural world and, in the main, the authorities, secular and nonsecular, are conspicuous by their absence of imperative, rational initiative to correct this.” L .Anthony