13. Health and Sex

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First, there’s the question of resource consumption … Second is the failure to accept limits, of which overpopulation and over­consumption are merely two linked systems. Beneath that is our belief we’re not animals, that we’re separate from the rest of the world, that we’re exempt from the negative consequences of our actions, and that we’re exempt from death. Beneath these beliefs is a fear and loathing of the body, of the wild and uncontrollable nature of existence itself, and ultimately of death.

— Derrick Jensen, Endgame Volume I(257)

Debates on all aspects of moneyless living can get lively, with opinions as strong as they are divided. No aspect of the subject gets more heated, however, than the interconnected topics of money-free health and sex. Which will hardly come as a shock to you, as both are extremely emotive issues. However, as Wendell Berry poignantly points out, “if you are going to deal with the issue of health in the modern world, you are going to have to deal with much absurdity. It is not clear, for example, why death should be increasingly looked upon as a curable disease, an abnormality by a society that increasingly looks upon life as insupportably painful and/or meaningless.”

Because of their emotive nature, it is very difficult to get any serious, objective debate on the subjects of sustainable health and sex which examines them at a level they deserve and require. I fully appreciate the sensitivity of the issue and the fact that we all have loved ones who have, on the face of it, only survived because of industrial-scale medicines. But I feel that taking the utmost care not to offend anyone has to be weighed up with a bit of a reality check, given that the health and procreational abilities of our entire species hangs in the balance. After a few hundred years of the story of industrialisation, the direction we now take will decide the fate of ourselves and many other species. I feel that each of us has a duty to ask each other tough questions, instead of burying our heads in the sand hoping that the problems will magically disappear. If we don’t create healthcare systems which also care for the health of our host organism, then such pontificating won’t matter much anyway, as we’ll all have lost the ultimate debate. Nature will always have the final word.

Some of what I speak about in this chapter will be hard to contemplate – I say this on the basis that I find it somewhat difficult myself. There are no nice, easy ways out of the pickle we have gotten ourselves into, but we must at least be honest with each other. Our entire civilisation is unsustainable, and that includes our methods of producing healthcare and contraception. Take one dialysis machine, syringe or catheter, examine the raw materials and production processes involved, and you suddenly see a global industrial system unfold. People often ask me “but can we not just have industrialised healthcare and abandon other, more superfluous industrialised products?” No. Such an understanding is fantastical, ludicrous. If you want high tech healthcare, you have to accept the spectrum of industrialised goods. To make just one syringe you need someone working on an oil rig. But an oil rig would be unfeasible if society was only demanding syringes and a few other healthcare products; it only becomes feasible when we want billions of litres of oil and tonnes of plastic, used for all sorts of journeys and useless (often harmful) stuff, every day. Not only that. Specialised workers have to have some way to get to their place of work (cars, trains, buses), and the software and hardware to make them, which require yet more factories. These factories need quarries and parts that are produced in yet more factories requiring even more parts which need further factories and quarries. You can easily see where this leads.

It is important to remember that the very industrialised system that we cling to for our medicines is also the source of many of today’s biggest killers. And that beneath all of these arguments for modern industrialised healthcare, lies the unquestioned premise that this is in fact the best, or only, option available to us. As with everything else, we need to fundamentally question the stories that lie behind our approach to medicine. Take just one example: the myth that antibiotics and vaccines saved us all from succumbing to such miserable diseases such as measles. This simple tale, designed to celebrate and exemplify the birth of modern medicine, digested and accepted by even the most ‘radical’ of us – is simply untrue. According to Ivan Illich, “the combined death rate from scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles among children up to fifteen shows that nearly 90 percent of the total decline in mortality between 1860 and 1965 had occurred before the introduction of antibiotics and widespread immunisation.”(258) So how have we all come to believe the opposite?

On a superficial level, it is not in the interests of big pharmaceutical companies, or the governments they lobby, to have facts such as this widely known; moreover, it suits them down to the ground for us all to believe that our health is dependant on the highly scientific (i.e. inaccessible) knowledge of outside authorities. The version of history we are told is often distorted to whatever story will make the most profit and bring in the most taxes. But in itself, however problematic, the behaviour of these institutions is simply a symptom, a reflexive action against a much deeper root cause. For on a fundamental level, the story of Western medicine chimes so strongly with – and indeed is utterly dependent on – the idea of the self separate from Nature that to question it requires a complete shift in our conception of humanity. This is perhaps why this subject is the most sensitive and controversial of all, because how we deal with the health of our selves is a huge reflection on how we understand them – and mirrors can be immensely uncomfortable.

Some points I make in this chapter will bring up strong feelings in you. If they do, try to view these arguments from the point of view of the whole, or a species on the brink of extinction, instead of the anthropocentric and egocentric view we normally default to, and see if that changes your perspective. The issues involved aren’t just emotive, they are also intricate and complex. I will leave the over-simplification of them to others. I want to know what a sustainable way to live – and die – is. If you’re easily offended or believe that as many humans as possible should live at all costs, then I’d recommend skipping this chapter and move onto whatever chapter will be of more use to you.

Philosophical discussions aside, I will be outlining all the options that I believe will enable us to make love and have full and healthy lives in a way that also acknowledges the needs of the whole. There won’t, unfortunately, be any tips on how to give your partner multiple orgasms. I, being moneyless, prospectless and aesthetically unpleasant, need to keep a little ammunition to myself, otherwise I’ll be restricted to the two most sustainable forms of sex there are: chastity and masturbation.