Thursday 10 June 2010

At War with Nature

I've been reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which is described as a "thought experiment" imagining a world where humans have simply vanished. Despite this potentially rather bleak premise (depending on your point of view!) the book is actually a fascinating exploration of the lasting impact we have on our planet, for good and ill.

So there I was, sitting out on the decking in the glorious late evening sunshine, reading this book, with a cup of tea next to me, enjoying the breeze and the sight of the swallows swirling overhead. A blackbird sang from the top of a nearby tree.

Then I became aware of the sound of the washing machine in the background. And the dishwasher, both of them busily slooshing water down the drain. Water loaded with detergents, enzymes, inorganic surfactants, optical brighteners. The chapter I was reading was about how some common man-made chemicals are impossible to break down and will just last forever, unless some future microbe evolves to break them down into harmless substances. It made me realise that, intentionally or not, we are all, through hundreds of small daily actions, permanently at war with nature.

Another example. I've had eczema since I was a small child. It went for a few years in my late teens and then came back with a vengeance just after A was born. Over recent years I've used a variety of things to try and control it (see a small selection to the left). Nearly all of them have a petroleum base with a host of unpronounceable chemicals making up the rest, and (I'm guessing here) most of them probably don't biodegrade that easily... I've also tried the other stuff too - diet, allergy tests, appallingly smelly Chinese herbal stuff, accupuncture - the lot. None of them worked. But eczema is a funny thing that we still don't understand properly. A number of studies point to environmental factors. It's made me think how about how the things we put into our environment maybe have a habit of coming back to us, how maybe some of the things we do for the good of our health could actually be the things that in the longer term come back and damage our health in ways that we don't yet understand.

Reading "The World Without Us" makes me wonder about the kind of chemical legacy I'm leaving the future because of the things I do, almost unconsciously, right now, every day.

If we're all at war with nature, now is the time to start thinking about a lasting peace. Before it's too late.

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