The Quandary of Medical Technology
This summer my father nearly died, and was saved by high-tech heart surgery. In the immediate period of recovery following this event, during which I was busily employed at my parents shop to help pull up some of the slack (while working another job at that), I was a bit to preoccupied by everyday activities to give much thought to the ramifications of the event (aside from pointing out to my dad that he’s a cyborg now). But in the months since, I’ve realized that this is a worthwhile topic for discussion given my understandings and beliefs concerning civilization, medicine, human health, and my rejection of the systems and infrastructure necessary to maintain the complex high tech world we live in. So let’s explore it.
On the surface, many people see anti-civilization stances as being “anti-technological”, a term laden with so many assumptions that it is nearly useless. So, do rewilders hate technology? Do we who agree, even in part, with anarcho-primitivist ideas hold a grudge against people for using that technology?
One of the fallacious arguments often levelled against the anti-civilization crowd is one of wanting people to die en masse of easily preventable diseases. Forgetting just how much ignorance that argument shows both in terms of the health standards of hunter-gatherer-gardeners and what natural medicine is capable of (many people on my holiday gift list will be receiving herbal antibiotics this year), it shows a confusion of grievances. In rejecting the industrial system, we do not level our complaints against the users (and used) of the industrial system, but rather the system of empire that is used to maintain exploitative and oppressive systems based on the widespread application of systemic violence and ever-increasing destruction of natural landbases for profit.
In a sense, much of “modern” allopathic medicine is an attempt to make up for the damages civilization inflicts on a daily basis. Allopathic surgical techniques have increased to such a high degree because the civilized are so damn good and hurting each other. Even the lifesaving treatment of blood transfusions, we see, are the result of wartime experimentation. War is where we see progress and innovation pushed in numerous fields, but none so much as in medicine.
Even something so simple as eyeglasses is often used as a straw man against anti-civilization ideas. We are, it is presumed, in favor of letting die/euthanizing people with bad vision who require glasses or contacts. But why do people need these things in the first place? We can see from the sum total of ethnographic data on hunter-gatherer-gardener cultures that eye problems are rare outside of old age, and even then not that common. We know that almost all of these cultures care for their ill and disabled, rather than “throw them out to the wolves”. The Weston Price Foundation's studies in traditional diets show that such eye problems are even relatively rare within non-industrial civilizations, thus putting the blame solely on the very industrialism that allows common people to get prescription eye-wear. The primary theory is basic lack of nutrition and the anti-nutritive effects of so many lectin-heavy grains so central to civilized diets.
This is true of infectious diseases as well. Civilization is known historically and recently to be the cause of many infectious diseases; we know that the flu, in all its forms from merely annoying to pandemic virus, is the result of animal husbandry and domestication. Smallpox is the same in that regard, and the black plague we now know was able to develop due to the very thing that makes civilizations what they are: cities. Cities as a way of organizing people allow the flourishing of rodents and filth, and the disease carrying fleas that we now know are the real carriers of the plague.
Antibiotics, one of the shining paragons of the effectiveness of modern allopathic medicine, have also caused a number of problems of their own. Granted, some of these are rooted in the misuse of them, particularly the proliferation of new “super bugs” and antibiotic resistant viruses. But even normal use will lead to the creation of these things, on top of digestive problems often caused by the fact that the antibiotics being used are “full-spectrum”, meaning they kill anything, including the beneficial micro-flora and micro-fauna that are present in our digestive tracts and maintain proper function in it. In fact, the use of antibiotics, and in particular the presence of them in so many foods, is likely the cause of Crohn's disease, which is an autoimmune disease of the intestines which causes numerous problems manifesting in myriad unpleasant ways, which can indeed be life-threatening.
Further, recent treatment methods appear to be so toxic and disease-causing as to make the whole process ludicrous. Industrial cancer treatments of many types are now known to produce large amounts of waste that contain a heavy concentration of dioxins. For those not in the know, dioxins are basically the most carcinogenic substances on the planet, right up there with plutonium and the other usual offenders. So what we have is cases in which more affluent, mostly white customers get a chance to kick their cancer (and generally being poisoned along the way, but that’s another issue), while dioxins are released to go cause cancer in some children. I’m sure by now most of my readers are familiar with the fact that toxic waste is inordinately found in poor neighborhoods, particularly poor neighborhoods of mostly people of color, showing once again the hierarchy of violence that this culture is founded upon.
In 2007 Cornell University put a bit of news that 40% of all deaths worldwide are caused by industrial pollution. I don't even think I need to comment about that, do I? Add that to the number killed through imperialism and corporate hegemony, and we see that this civilized machine is incontrovertibly murderous.
“Technology” is not the problem. Technology is not even a symptom. Technology, in the most accurate sense, is something humans have had the whole time we’ve existed. And many “primitive” technologies are plenty complex, much to the protestations of some hardcore primitivists. The real issues around technology, and any decisions and actions, are things like whether or not the landbase can maintain that activity indefinitely, and whether or not the previous requirements (like infrastructure and social structure) are sustainable and non-exploitative. Just today I read that a group has started releasing a metric to understand just how much slave labor, explicit or implicit, is required to maintain one’s lifestyle, which seems to be a human-rights take on the whole “carbon footprint” idea that’s become a popular way to trivialize and make abstract our complex relationships with the earth. The industrial infrastructure, and basically any infrastructure, requires some form of slavery and resource drawdown of the environment. Civilized economies are and always have been imperial in nature.
So what are we to do, just give it all up? Won't our lives be 'nasty, brutish, and short', as Thomas Hobbes said? Well, Mr. Hobbes wasn't exactly an expert on history and anthropology, because if he was he'd realize that non-civilized people had it pretty damn good. But if we, as people living within civilization, find ourselves suddenly without the infrastructure we've grown dependent on without some alternative ways to take care of ourselves, we would be pretty shit-up-a-creek, as they say. Luckily, it's not actually that hard, even in the realm of medicine.
For example, I recently spent a couple of hours digging up the medicinal roots of the bush Barberry (berberis vulgaris). Barberry contains an alkaloid compound called berberine in it's roots and bark, and to a lesser extent in other parts. Berberine has been used traditionally for thousands of years as a medicine, and has recently been recognized as a natural antibiotic, in addition to its myriad other uses. Garlic, a standard for cooking, has long been recognized as a powerful medicine and broad-spectrum antibiotic, now being looked at as a possible treatment for many of those superbugs I mentioned. Either of these plants can be entirely usable and store-able long term, simply by soaking making a tincture by steeping their parts in a hard liquor like vodka(crushed in the case of garlic, finely chopped for the barberry root).
Cancer treatments are likewise popping up from plant based sources. Autumn-olive (eleagnus umbellata), my favorite invasive species, has 16-18 times the lycopene concentration that a tomato does, and lycopene is an antioxidant compound being recognized as not only slowing cancer growth, but in many cases reversing or killing it when taken in large amounts. The aforementioned berberine, from barberry, may similarly be highly effective against cancer, reportedly inhibiting and sometimes reversing tumor growth. What we tend to see a lot of in studying indigenous health when compared to civilized health is that traditional diets are so nutrient dense that disease occurs far less, particularly what are called the “endemic diseases of civilization”, mostly cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. In many peoples, these are just simply unheard of, at least until civilized diets high in grain carbohydrates are forced on them.
Plenty of allopathic techniques are also perfectly able to be performed without the infrastructure, and we should definitely learn from them. I'm fond of the germ theory of medicine, even if I think a lot of professionals use it as an excuse to overlook the overall situation in a reductionist sense (a trend which, luckily, seems to be ebbing). Blood transfusions, likewise, are pretty neat and can save a lot of lives, though I wonder at the ability to get and store blood without the infrastructure; how long would blood last in a root cellar? Even if we don't have that, intravenous solutions can be administered. Surgery is already being performed with obsidian blades in some cases, showing that such blades are fine enough to do the detailed work of surgery, and in fact are better than most steel scalpels for fine cutting.
In short, it's fairly obvious that the assertion that anti-civilization theory is essentially misanthropic and dooms people to poor lives is a straw man, whether intentional or not. In opposing civilization, it is not the absolutist's stance that we take, rejecting outright any association with civilized ways of doing things like a prohibitionist running away from a bottle of beer, but rather that of the critical eye, like a diagnostician evaluating the cause of an ailment. The fact that so many do make these assertions even after hearing or reading the best of our discourse, thus theoretically knowing full well the damages, disease, and ill health caused by civilization itself, is ironic to say that least, and calls into question the motives of such dishonest debaters.
The only real issue, then, becomes whether or not the alternatives are viable as a transition, to which case we need to stop arguing and get on with it! Civilization is collapsing whether or not we bring it down, and the more we arrange these alternatives, the softer that crash will be. Civilization kills every day, and any collapse would mark a reduction in violence and privation.