In the Body of the World: Cancer as Catalyst for Revolution

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

I have been reading Eve Ensler’s incredibly powerful cancer memoir, In the Body of the World, with my students this week.  We watched Ensler’s 2010 TED Talk, “Suddenly My Body,” given while she was still practically bald from the chemo treatments; and you could have heard a pin drop in the room, everyone was so swept away by Ensler’s passionately delivered paean to the intricate interconnections between the individual body and what she later came to call “the body of the world.”

This is a concept I have most often heard expressed in Buddhist circles.  Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama talk about “inter-being,” and how it is egotistical, arrogant, androcentric and just plain wrong for human beings to imagine that we are somehow separate, over and above other livings beings on the planet.

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy, extending Arne Naess’ concept of the “ecological self,” uses the body as a metaphor to describe the futility of imagining ourselves as immune from the destruction we are wreaking on our planet.

The concept of the “ecological self,” Macy says, is important now because “moral exhortation does not work.  Sermons seldom hinder us from following our self-interest as we conceive it.

“The obvious choice, then, is to extend our notions of self-interest.  For example, it would not occur to me to plead with you, ‘Don’t saw off your leg.  That would be an act of violence.’ It wouldn’t occur to me (or to you) because your leg is part of your body.  Well, so are the trees in the Amazon rain basin.  They are our external lungs.  We are beginning to realize that the world is our body” (World as Lover, World as Self, 157).

Eve Ensler has spent much of her life recovering from violence (she was a sexually assaulted and battered by her father as a child), bearing witness to violence against other women and girls, and creating powerful creative works, organizations and movements to end violence against women and girls.

And yet, she says, it was not until the jolt of realizing that her body had been invaded by cancer that she was able to overcome her ingrained alienation from her own body, born of the dissociation that was a survival tactic in her childhood.

Once she allowed herself to become fully connected with her body, it was but a short step to see the cancer in her uterus as symbolic of the much greater cancers of over-consumption and unsustainable growth afflicting the body of the world.

“Cancer is essentially built in our DNA, our self-destruction programmed into our original design—biologically, psychologically.  We spend our days, most of us consciously or unconsciously doing ourselves in.  Think building a nuclear power plant on a fault line, close to the water.  Think poisoning the Earth that feeds us, the air that lets us breathe….We are a suicidal lot, propelled toward self-eradication” (194).

But as Ensler discovers how fiercely she wants to live, to survive the cancer, she realizes that human beings are propelled as much toward life as toward death.  In a further twist of Freud’s insight into the immortal battle between Eros and Thanatos, she realizes that love is the answer—a fierce, unstoppable love for the battered, assaulted but still beautiful Earth, our mother, our home, our self.

Like Eve Ensler, I have spent much of my life focusing on the stories of women, and working to empower women to speak our truths and change the world for the better.

As I ponder the way forward now, in these end times of environmental tragedy, I am wondering whether women have a special role to play in bringing about the kind of radical social change that we need to survive into the future.

City of Joy openingEnsler uses the City of Joy, which she worked so hard to build in Bukavu, DRC (with the help of women all over the world contributing through the V-Day infrastructure), as a model for the kind of new life-giving, life-enhancing community that the world needs now.

It’s a City of Women, founded on the following ten principles:

1. TELL THE TRUTH

2. STOP WAITING TO BE RESCUED; TAKE INITIATIVE

3. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

4. RAISE YOUR VOICE

5. SHARE WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED

6. GIVE WHAT YOU WANT THE MOST

7.  FEEL AND TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH

8. USE IT TO FUEL A REVOLUTION

9. PRACTICE KINDNESS

10. TREAT YOUR SISTER’S LIFE AS IF IT WERE YOUR OWN

These seem like sound principles on which to base any human community, and particularly one founded on ashes, corpses and pain, as is the case in the Congo (but isn’t almost every human society founded, as Marx said, on blood?).

Women stay for six months at the City of Joy, during which they recover their physical and mental health with all kinds of therapies, participate in skills training, and get ready to return to their homes as leaders who can become change agents for peace and sanity in one of the most brutal and brutalized regions of the planet.

I know that there can be no lasting change that doesn’t also include men.  There can be no “City of Women” that survives past a single generation.

Eve Ensler, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Christine Deschryver, co-founders of the City of Joy.  Dr. Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who has operated on hundreds of women and girls left incontinent by tears in their vaginas due to violent rape.

Eve Ensler, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Christine Deschryver, co-founders of the City of Joy. Dr. Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who has operated on hundreds of women and girls left incontinent by tears in their vaginas (fistulas) due to violent rape.

I also know that it is important to recognize and acknowledge righteous anger at those responsible for all the destruction and violence.

We have to speak the truth that in the Congo, as on Earth overall, it has been men, acting with the blessing of our patriarchal religious, political, legal and social structures, who have been responsible for the machines, technologies and brutalities that have been so destructive to individual women and men, as well as to the environment without which we cannot live.

Women have often been complicit and have enjoyed the fruits of industrialization.  Women, especially privileged women, have gone along for the ride.

But it was never the vision of women that created the weapons and bulldozers, the chain saws and cars, the nuclear power plants and oil rigs.  All of those implements were envisioned, created and deployed by the men in charge of human society—especially the Europeans and their colonized offshoots—these last few centuries.

We can’t know now whether it would have been different if women had been allowed education and access to the board rooms and laboratories and congressional chambers where society-changing decisions got made, particularly during the crucial two centuries of industrialization.

We can’t change the past.  We can only look forward and, as mandated in the City of Joy’s Guiding Principles, “stop waiting to be rescued, tell the truth, and use it to fuel a revolution.”

eve-ensler-approved-photo_193x290[1]At death’s door, Eve Ensler realized that human beings and the world we have so profoundly altered are now at the threshold of a new era.

“What is coming is not like anything we have known before,” she says. “Your dying, my dying, is necessary and irrelevant and inevitable.  Do not be afraid, no, death will not be our end.  Indifference will be, disassociation will be, collateral damage, polar caps melting, endless hunger, mass rapes, grotesque wealth.

“The change will come from those who know they do not exist separately but as part of the river….You worry about germs and stockpile your herbs, but they will not save you, nor will your fancy house or gated villages.  The only salvation is kindness.  The only way out is care” (214).

I would like to quote the entire last chapter of Ensler’s remarkable memoir, but I won’t—just go buy the book and read it for yourself.  And then, as she says, “let us turn our pain to power, our victimhood to fire, our self-hatred to action, our self-obsession to service” (216).

Unknown-1Women, it’s time for us to rise and give birth to a new human relationship with the planet and with each other.  It’s past time.

Men are most welcome to join us in this life-saving mission, as long as they are men in touch with their feminine side, their life-giving, nurturing, relational side.

All of us humans possess both masculine and feminine energies and traits.  What we need now is balance.  Balance within each one of us that can become a catalyst for the balance our planet so desperately needs.

1billion-home-india

PS: Check out this TED Talk by Eve from just before she succumbed to cancer, talking, miraculously, about the importance of the “girl cell” in both men and women.

We are the Albatross

Lately I have been wondering how on earth it was possible to live without plastic.

I’m not even talking about marvelous inventions like disposable contact lenses, PVC piping, or neoprene wetsuits.

I’m just thinking about my kitchen routine, and how much I rely on—and take for granted—a never-ending stream of plastic wrap, plastic bags, and plastic containers as I go about my daily business.

I am so habituated to using plastic that I really had to ponder a while on the question of alternatives, until finally I remembered glass.  Of course, my grandmothers must have had a big shelf full of glass jars that they washed and re-used to store food in.

I also remembered that back in the 1980s, when I visited my in-laws in Mexico, I was surprised to see that they did not have any plastic wrap or boxed plastic bags in their kitchen.  They put things like cold cuts on plates, covered with another plate.  They left their leftover soups, stews and rice in the cooking pots, and placed them in the refrigerator with the lids on.

It also astounded me to see that in that household of seven, with numerous friends and relatives always dropping in for a meal, there was no trash container in the kitchen.  My mother-in-law saved plastic bags that she got when she went, once every couple of weeks, to the supermarket, and used these to collect the small amount of garbage that accumulated day to day.  Their little dog ate most of the food scraps, and they just didn’t generate that much of any other kind of garbage.

Why?

Because they bought their meat and produce from the little market down the street, carrying it home in their heavy-duty mesh bags (once made of straw, by the 1980s these were made of plastic threads).  My mother-in-law had a round wire egg basket that she’d bring to the market to refill.  The poultry would come from the butcher stand wrapped in paper, and rice or beans would come in brown paper bags.

There was just hardly any packaging.  And packaging, I’ve come to realize, is what generates most of the kitchen garbage in an ordinary American household like mine.

Here in Canada, we are mandated to separate our garbage carefully.  The bottles, cans and plasticized paper containers go in one bin, the paper and cardboard in another, and the compostable items in a small bin under the sink.  Then there’s the “trash.”  That’s the one where all the miscellaneous plastic packaging and used plastic bags go, and it tends to be the most bulky.

Since I watched the marvelously poignant and persuasive film BAG IT a few weeks ago (shout out to my friend and neighbor Anni Crofut for making us dinner and sitting us down to watch the film!), I have not been able to look at plastic trash in the same way.

The film starts from a simple question: why on earth would we use as our primary disposable material an indestructible synthetic chemical known to be an endrocrine disrupter and carcinogen?

And yet we do, over and over, in vast quantities.  We buy our drinks in plastic bottles and toss the empties in the trash.  We walk out of the superstore with carts piled high with groceries packed into small plastic bags.  We bring home our carrots in one plastic bag, our potatoes in another, and if they don’t come pre-bagged, we pull off a plastic bag from the conveniently placed roll and fill it ourselves.

Most of these bags will be dumped into the trash bin by the next day, and we’ll put them out of our houses in bigger plastic trash bags, and not give another thought to what may become of them next.

Some of our plasticized culture is being used to build huge land-fill mountains visible from space.  But a lot more of it is ending up in the oceans, where it becomes an indigestible, non-degradable part of the food chain.

These photographs by artist Chris Jordan, of dead albatross on Midway Atoll, near Hawaii, tell a tragic story.

 chrisjordan7

chrisjordan2

chrisjordan1

Look a little deeper into what’s happening to our thoughtless use and disposal of plastic, and you’ll learn about the vast gyres of rotating plastic trash out in the oceans, some as big as the state of Texas.

You’ll discover that the chemicals that compose plastic are gyrating around in human blood streams and fat as well, causing cancer and hormonal malfunction. 

American plastics are exported all over the world.  My Mexican mother-in-law now has plastic wrap and plastic bags in her kitchen, and if the plastics industry had its way, so would households from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and beyond.

Plastic is a fabulous, miraculous material and of course it’s not something we can imagine of doing without.  But there is such a thing as compostable plastic, made of  plant-derived chemicals that do break down again.

IMG_2956IMG_2954Once the Canadian government mandated that compost had to be disposed of in compostable bags, manufacturers like Glad stepped right up and began producing the necessary product.

It’s not even much more expensive than petroleum-based plastic bags—this box of 20 bags sells for $2.99 here in Nova Scotia, and I bet if I shopped around I could find them for less.

This is an issue where ordinary consumers can have a big impact.

We can remember to bring our reusable bags to the grocery store, including the small bags or containers for produce and bulk foods.

We can wean ourselves off plastic bottles for drinks, except on those unavoidable occasions, like in airports where we’re not allowed to bring in our own bottles of water or other liquids.

We can be much more thoughtful about our use of plastic wrap and other disposable plastics in the kitchen.

We can talk with our friends and families like my friend Anni did with me, trying to gently raise awareness.  We can even bring it up with our local government officials and see if we can get local ordinances passed banning plastic bags in supermarkets.

I am proud to say that the little town of Great Barrington, MA, where I live, is one of the first towns in the country to do just that.

The plastics industry would like nothing better than for everyone to use as much plastic as we possibly can, and throw it away just as fast.  What happens to the trash is not their concern.

But if we care about the health of our oceans, airs and land, as well as the very chemistry of our bodies, it is our concern.

And we have more power than we realize.  The fossil fuel industry depends on the docile cooperation of all of us fossil fuel addicts.  Sometimes I really think that there’s some kind of conspiracy going on between the fossil fuel, agri-chemical, pharmaceutical and insurance industries, who act as a giant many-tentacled cabal that sucks us in, addicts us to their products, and then watches complacently as we become sick and dependent on expensive tests and treatments.

We do not have to fall for this any longer!  It’s not hard to eat healthy, it’s not hard to bring your own bags to the supermarket, it’s not hard to ride your bike or at least decide to purchase a hybrid car next time around.

IMG_3145 copyWhat is hard is to isolate yourself from a contaminated natural world.  It simply can’t be done.  Our land, oceans and air are an extension of us.  We are the world, the world is us, as Joanna Macy recognized long ago.  That’s why we have to be concerned about what’s happening with the plastic trash in the oceans, or the greenhouse gases in the air, or the toxic chemicals in the soil.

The bottle caps and syringes that the poor albatross is carrying around may be bigger and easier to see, but the truth is that each of us carries an unbearable burden of toxins in our own bodies every day.

And we’re doing it to ourselves, by our own unconscious collaboration with the industries that are sickening us and our world.

It’s time to say ENOUGH, disengage ourselves from the herd, and stand up for what we know is right.  Be the change.  Be the change.

Playing hardball with the fossil fuel industry: if not now, when? if not us, who?

Bittersweet sadness fills me this morning as I read an excerpt at Women’s E-News from Eve Ensler’s new memoir, In the Body of the World, about her long, determined, agonizing battle with uterine cancer.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

Her TED talk, “Suddenly, My Body” is one that I have returned to watch several times over, and have recommended to many friends as a pulsating, powerful performance that makes perfectly clear what many of us are coming to realize: that there is no separation between our bodies and the world around us.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

Not only is it true, as Joanna Macy and Brian Swimme tell us, that we are the most recent emanations of the stardust that created the life on our planet eons ago, it is also true that our fragile bodies are porous and open, made of the air, earth and water that we move through each day.

If we poison our environment, we poison ourselves.

So many of us are learning that the hard way.

Warrior lionesses like Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Wangari Maathai and Eve Ensler—each one snared by her own body’s encounter with the internal malignancy of cancer.

How many powerful, active, full-of-life people do you know who are no longer with us, felled by cancer?

A quick look at the cancer statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control shows cancer rates soaring, especially for Americans 50 and older, and especially in the South, Midwest and Northeast of the country.

In the South and Midwest, they make and use those toxic chemicals—the ones that lace our food supply and flow into our waters, creating a dead zone the size of the state of New Jersey at the mouth of the Mississippi River; the ones that ride the prevailing winds east to fill the skies of the eastern United States and Canada with sooty particulates and airborne toxins.

None of us is immune from this.  No matter how careful we are to buy organic produce or grow our own, to keep BPA plastics out of our kitchens, even to pull up stakes and move to an area of the country that appears to be cleaner—we cannot hide from the reality that we live in a contaminated country, on a planet that is crazily out of balance and on the verge of a major correction.

When the colonizers came to the Americas, they were careful to try to pick off the leaders among the native peoples they encountered, knowing that if you deprive people of their most charismatic, powerful leaders, you will demoralize them and leave them open to takeover.

Although there is no devilish intelligence at work in the cancer epidemic, this dynamic still applies: when cancer takes from us leaders like Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Eve Ensler or Wangari Maathai, it leaves the rest of us stricken and reeling, spinning like a rudderless boat.

Sandra Steingraber

Sandra Steingraber

There are those, like Sandra Steingraber, who have been fighting cancer for a long, long time, and using it as a spur to work harder to save our planet/ourselves.

Steingraber was recently put behind bars for two weeks as punishment for her protest of the fossil fuel companies’ plan to hydrofrack for gas in her home territory of upstate New York.

She wrote from prison that it was her love, for her children and for all livings beings on the planet, that drove her to civil disobedience:

“It was love that brought me to this jail cell.

“My children need a world with pollinators and plankton stocks and a stable climate. “They need lake shores that do not have explosive hydrocarbon gases buried underneath.

“The fossil fuel party must come to an end. I am shouting at an iron door. Can you hear me now?”

Yes, we hear you Sandra, and we’re with you!

And yet, so many of us do not act on what we hear and know.

A low-level depression seems to afflict a great swath of the American public, and I would wager that the feelings of powerlessness that come with being unable to control the health of our environment or our selves may have something to do with it.

No matter how many times we go down to Washington D.C. to protest, it seems that the fossil fuel and chemical industries have the U.S. Congress sewn up tight.

Even someone like me, living in what appears to be a clean, leafy rural place, has to contend with farmers who still spray Roundup on their cornfields every spring, or rivers, including the Housatonic, just blocks from my home, heavily contaminated with PCBs from the upstream General Electric plant.

Since there is no way to play it safe, what we need to do is forget about safety now, in these end times, and play hard.

It’s time to give everything we’ve got to the fight to preserve the capacity of our planet to support life on down the generations into the future.

If humans are to be part of that future, we have to rise to the challenges we face now.

Like Eve Ensler, wracked with cancer and yet still leading the charge of One Billion Rising to fight violence against women this spring, we cannot afford to take time out.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai

Like Kenyan Wangari Maathai, felled so quickly by cancer even as she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in preventing the desertification of her country by teaching ordinary women to raise and plant trees, we have to be creative in our approaches, working at the grassroots when those at the top won’t listen.

Like Sandra Steingraber and so many other activists, we have to be willing to face the consequences of our disobedience to those in power.

Playing nice, following the rules, being polite—where has that gotten us?  When the polluters of the planet are playing hardball, we have to respond in kind—although our life-affirming version of hardball might involve planting trees, or raising flash mobs of dancers, or forming human chains of resistance at the boundaries of old-growth forests.

Rachel, Audre, Wangari, Eve, Sandra…we’re right behind you.  Fighting all the way.

From Big Tobacco to Big Corn: the time to stand up for the right to health is NOW

Two years ago, I was taking multiple steroid inhalers every day for asthma, which began in the aftermath of a couple of bouts of pneumonia, and was always accompanied by typical seasonable allergy issues—coughing, sneezing, runny nose.

In the summer of 2010, in addition to the usual asthma and allergy symptoms, I also came down with a severe intestinal infection, requiring antibiotics to overcome.

When, in the wake of the course of antibiotics, my digestion was still troubled, I decided to experiment and see if removing gluten from my diet made any difference.

Lo and behold!  After just a month without gluten, my intestinal issues made huge progress.  And even more impressively–and completely unexpectedly–my asthma and allergies also disappeared.

When, after a while, I also decided to give up meat, except for the occasional small portion of chicken, the results were nothing short of miraculous.

Longstanding feelings of intestinal bloating disappeared overnight.  Bleeding hemorrhoids totally cleared up.  And the asthma and allergies, which had sometimes been so severe that I ended up in the ER begging for more drugs, were gone for good.

This remarkable shift in my own personal health, as a result of giving up meat and gluten, really makes me wonder.

Why is it that the gluten-free market is one of the fastest growing packaged food sectors right now?

Why are so many of us getting sick from our food supply?

Could it have something to do with the fact that most of our nation’s food supply is produced by industrial agriculture, relying on GMO seeds, as well as herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides in the growing process, not to mention all kinds of preservatives once the corn and wheat is on its way to the table?

I am heartened by the news that hundreds of thousands of farmers and consumers are pressuring the USDA to reject Dow AgroScience’s 2,4,D-resistant corn.

It is high time that all of us stood up to Big Ag and said enough is enough!  Why should we have to spend top dollar to buy organic, when the truth is that all food should be produced in an organic and sustainable manner?

Big Ag will reply that it would be too expensive to produce tons of corn, wheat and soybeans–not to mention beef and pork– organically.

But you know what?  Being sick is very expensive.  Health care is a huge drain on our national economy, as anyone who has been paying attention knows.

Could it be that the industrial agriculture/pharmaceutical/insurance conglomerates actually want a sick populace?

Imagine the outrage if that story were to break.

Imagine if it were proven that the incredible spike in autistic children is due to pesticide poisoning.

Imagine if we could prove that the asthma epidemic in this country is due to auto-immune problems generated by toxic food.

Imagine if we could nail the chemical companies for the explosive growth in cancers, diabetes and heart disease!

I don’t think this is far-fetched at all.

In fact, it’s low-hanging fruit for a cadre of well-trained lawyers with the guts to go up against the big bad guys.

In our parents’ generation, it happened with Big Tobacco.

The evidence is staring us in the face.

What are we waiting for?

Cancer blues

This is a post about cancer.

This is a post in honor of all the men, women and children who have died from cancer in the post-industrial age.

This is a post that acknowledges, fully, the extent to which American society has led the way in the extermination of these people–these cancer victims.

How many cancer victims do you know?  According to the World Health Organization, cancer accounts for millions of deaths worldwide each year (7.6 million deaths in 2008, more than died from the Nazi Holocaust).

Cancer is a Holocaust.  It is a disease, or disorder, that cuts across every economic boundary.  It is just as prevalent among the 1% as among the 99%.  It is just as prevalent among the highly educated as among the working class, although of course certain professions are more risky: industrial agriculture, factory work, anything involving radiation.

The truth is that most of the technologies we Americans love the most–cell phones, smart phones, wireless, for starters–are hazardous to our health.  Just like junk food, which we also love.  Or the wanton burning of fossil fuels in our beloved SUVs.

When climate change activists tell us we have to give up our fossil fuels to save the planet, we act like spoiled toddlers.  NO! We will NOT give up our toys!  NO!  We will NOT turn down our themostats, or buy smaller cars, or make a concerted effort to switch to solar.

As parents, we Americans are generally pretty permissive.  We let our kids have what they want, unless it is dangerous for them, or detrimental to their health.

I never let my kids drink Kool-Aid or eat Cheetos, because I knew very well that the junky chemicals in those products were harmful.

But I have let them have cell phones. We have wireless throughout our house.  From what I understand, smart meters, which communicate wirelessly, via electro-magnetic radio frequencies, are in the process of being installed on every home in America.

We can’t afford to eat exclusively organic in my home.  We live near a river polluted with PCBs by GE.  We breathe air labeled “hazardous” on many summer days.

And as a result, we are at risk for cancer, just like everyone else in the developed world.  Everywhere that chemicals are dumped into the environment, everywhere that the ozone layer is thinning, everywhere that the winds blow radiation around, living organisms, including human beings, are dying of cancer at elevated rates.

Last week my Human Rights, Activism and the Arts class at Bard College at Simon’s Rock watched a TED Talk by Eve Ensler, who has (so far) survived a run-in with cancer.  Eve brilliantly makes the point that the inner landscape of cancer mirrors the outer landscape.  What we do to the environment comes back to haunt us in our own bodies.

If we humans, of every class background, are now falling sick in record numbers, it’s a reflection of our sick our environment is.  How sick we have made our environment.

Heal our world, heal ourselves.

Eve Ensler has spent years fighting against the violence that men perpetrate on women’s bodies.  A survivor of an abusive father herself, she has waged a heroic battle against her own demons, and the demons that beset patriarchal cultures worldwide.

She is gearing up now for her biggest effort ever, One Billion Rising, a campaign by V-Day to galvanize men and women to stand up against violence, especially violence against women.

I salute Eve Ensler’s ground-breaking efforts to put her art in the service of social justice, and to link the quest for social justice to environmental health.

If we can’t heal our planet, we will not be able to heal ourselves.

We are the cancer on our planet.

Our own treatment approaches would dictate our eradication.  Radiation therapy: burn it out.  Chemotherapy: poison it to death.

But there is another way.

Look upstream, as Sandra Steingraber has been telling us for the past 20 years.

Find out what is causing the cancer, and CHANGE IT.

Find out why so many women are suffering from violence, and CHANGE IT.

CHANGE.

Where there is a will there is a way.  How sick do we have to become, how sick does our world have to become, before we find the will to change our ways?

Turn those pink ribbons green

I’m going to make a confession.  I never could stand those pink ribbons.  I’ve never done a “Walk for the Cure” or bought daffodils for cancer victims or even picked a cancer-cure-themed postage stamp.

I’m glad to hear that the Komen Foundation has bowed to pressure and is restoring funding to Planned Parenthood, a worthwhile organization if there ever was one.

But in general, the idea of putting the energy and effort of well-meaning citizens behind “the search for a cure for cancer” just irritates me, because let’s face it, we know what causes cancer, and therefore we can do better than cure it, we can prevent it!  Maybe not 100%, but we can take it back to the modest rates that previous generations of human beings enjoyed.

For my grandparents’ generation, a diagnosis of cancer was frightening because it was so often a death sentence, but it was rare. Not one of my four grandparents came down with cancer, and I don’t believe their parents did either.  This isn’t due to some genetic serendipity, it’s just a fact that cancer rates in the first half of the 20th century (and every century before that) were way lower than they are now.

Cancer rates are skyrocketing now thanks to the environmental toxins that humans have introduced into our air, soil and water, and thus our agricultural crops, drinking water and the very air we breathe.  Rachel Carson saw the effects of DDT on birds, and gave the warning just before she succumbed to cancer.  

We may have removed DDT from the US market, but it’s still being used in other countries, and here it has been replaced by a whole host of alphabet-soup chemicals, each one more potent and carcinogenic than the last.

If you really want to make a difference in the war against cancer, forget about those ridiculous pink ribbons.  Use the power of your wallet and your ballot to insist that the government step up and do its job in regulating the industrial agriculture sector.

Or better yet, let’s allow the specter of industrial agriculture to fade away into the dustbin of the 20th century, and start a real “green revolution,” dedicated to the health and well-being of our planet and all her denizens.

What color is your ribbon?  Mine is green.

Hope, Struggle, Dream, Persist: A Mantra for Dark Times

It is the day after Halloween, the Day of the Dead, and the day before my birthday.  It is one of the darkest days of the year, and a week from now, when American standard time “falls back,” it will seem darker still.

I was born in 1962, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War began to pick up steam.  Each decade of my life has been marked by war and conflict, by a struggle between the forces of ruthless global capital, and the push-back from those who valued peace and a more equitable sharing of resources.

In my nearly half a century of life, I have witnessed a sharp decline in the ecological health of this planet.  Great flocks of many different types of birds have dwindled to a few sad outliers.  Clouds of multi-colored butterflies and swarms of busily working bees have vanished.  Delicate native wildflowers in the woods have been overrun by voracious invasive weeds, and the woods themselves have been overrun by a stampede of cookie-cutter tract housing in suburb after ugly suburb.

In my time, cancer has become a terrible epidemic, followed closely by diabetes and heart disease.  We humans have been sickened, just like the wild creatures, by the heedless spread of chemical treatments, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, preservatives, additives and so many other toxins in our diet, soil, air and water.

What is there to celebrate on this birthday, the last in my fifth decade?

I look to my ancestors for hope and guidance, as is traditional on the Day of the Dead.

I see my Grandma Fannie, who believed in the power of the word, and practiced it by writing poems and stories that kept the wisdom of her Yiddish forebears alive.

I see my Grandma Mildred, who raised three kids, hosted and entertained her extended family frequently, and worked fulltime for a salary as well, year after year.  In her retirement she began the work she loved most of all, volunteering in her local public elementary school helping kids learn to read.

I see the ancestors I claim as kindred spirits, even though we do not share a blood relation: Gloria Anzaldua, who stands there arms akimbo telling me to “put my shit on paper,” no matter what the obstacles; and Audre Lorde, who reminds me constantly that “none of us is free as long as one of us is still shackled.”

As the Scorpio moon wheels overhead and I make my way to bed on my birthday eve, I can celebrate my own place as a link in this chain of strong women who spent their time on Earth trying to make it a better place for those who come after.

This has been a tough half-century, a period of decline and crisis in many ways.  It is a dark time.  But still the lights continue to shine defiantly: young people gather to Occupy the common ground and revive the dream of social equality; a Monarch butterfly sips a last meal at my butterfly bush before spiraling up to find the trade winds down to Mexico; the sun rises once again.

On this Day of the Dead, life goes on.  And while life goes on, we must hope and struggle for our children and their children, and the young creatures all over this planet that are being born today.  For their sakes, we must continue to work for a better future, and insist on our right to dream, and to make our dreams manifest.

This is my birthday mantra: hope, struggle, dream, persist, hope, struggle, dream, persist, endure.  And again.

Resisting the Vampires

This morning in class we were talking about the third essay in Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals, in which one of the dominant metaphors is that of sickness and health.

Nietzsche argues that an “ascetic priest”, who tends the masses through religion, science, politics or any kind of dogmatism, acts as physician to the sufferer, but “he first has to wound; when he then stills the pain of the wound he at the same time infects the wound–for that is what he knows to do best of all, this sorcerer and animal-tamer, in whose presence everything healthy necessarily grows sick, and everything sick tame” (Kaufman, 1989, 126).

In other words, those who try to manipulate the masses (or the herd, in Nietzsche’s terminology), do so by wounding, and then claiming to have the cure–but the cure perpetuates the wound.

As with so much of Nietzsche, this seems remarkably prescient to me.  Take cancer, for example.  I have received many requests from people who are “walking for the cure” or “running for the cure.”  I never support these efforts, because I don’t believe we should be looking to cure to cancer through technological research.  The cure for most cancers lies upstream, as Sandra Steingraber pointed out more than a decade ago in her book Living Downstream.  In other words, we should be looking for ways to prevent cancer, not to cure it.

Preventing cancer doesn’t require a sorcerer or a physician.  It requires resisting the agro-industrial complex, which has saturated our food supply with synthetic chemicals.

The makers of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and GMO seeds, all of which make us sick, are in cahoots with the medical industrial complex that now seeks our help in funding “the cure.”  Not to mention the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance companies, which have also been making out like bandits on the sickness of the masses.

Nietzsche wasn’t necessarily talking about literal sickness, but his model can be applied to our contemporary situation, in which social leaders, be they in advertising or the food industry, first lead us into sickness, and then claim (through pharmaceuticals and technology) to have the cure–but the cure is only a further sickness (radiation or chemotherapy, anyone?) that continues to make us dependent on the master, the physician/scientist, for life itself.

There is a way out of this.  Call it biodynamic farming, or permaculture, or localized organic farming, or what have you…the idea is to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of industrial agriculture, and go back to a simpler time, not very long ago, when the journey from farm to table did not involve chemical additives, feedlots or genetic modification.

Standing up for the cure may seem like a noble endeavor, but I’d like to propose something even better: standing up for health.  If we look further upstream and get at the root problems of the sickness, we won’t need to be looking for a cure.

Sad news for the pharmaceutical industry, but too bad!  Those vampires have fed on our blood long enough.

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