A personal anecdote

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A personal anecdote

I’d like to start this with a very personal anecdote, one which I hope you will appreciate isn’t easy for me to write publicly about, but one I feel is important enough to justify the loss of my privacy regarding it. At the beginning of 2011, just over two and a half years into living moneylessly, I realised that I didn’t want children and took the decision to have a vasectomy. This, unless I was prepared to do a DIY job (which, my dear reader, I wasn’t), would involve going to the tax-funded National Health Service (NHS) to get it done. It was a difficult decision for me – I’d been living in the UK for ten years (the first eight as a taxpayer) and hadn’t been to a doctor or hospital in the UK before.

I had a few reasons for choosing not to have kids. First, I decided a while ago to dedicate my brief time on Earth to doing the little I could to try and help change the cultural stories that guide our lives, and to help co-create more sustainable ones. If I was going to be a father, I wanted to be a good one, and to be a good one I feel you need to spend lots of time with your child. But I knew that I didn’t have that time spare, and I realised it was going to be like this for a long while. Aside from that, I also didn’t feel an overpopulated island and over-stressed planet needed another mouth to feed and body to clothe. This latter point is a very personal opinion, and I say it merely to be honest and transparent about my reasons. I am in no way saying that having babies in an overpopulated world is wrong or right, to do so would be absurd, and the issue is much too complex for such simplified perspectives.

On the basis of that logic, I took a big decision and went for a very simple fifteen minute procedure that would mean that, from that point onwards, my sperm would no longer be able to enter my seminal plasma whenever I had an orgasm. Sperm are like the rich, they only make up 1% of the total, while the other 99% – the plasma – carries them along. This I had researched and knew. What I didn’t know was that in some small percentage of cases things can get complicated afterwards.

A few days after the operation I started feeling a strong but dull pain in the lower sides of my back, the place where men’s testicles originally descend from. After reading many horror stories on the internet, that hub of fear-mongering, I started to panic, worried I’d have to live a life of testicular pain and with the libido of a captive panda.

After days of it getting worse, I gave in and went to the doctor. He said I had an infection, and that a prescription would clear it up. This posed any number of dilemmas for me. I am completely opposed to animal testing, and these antibiotics would undoubtedly have been tested on animals. I was also moneyless, with no back up funds or bank account. But I was scared – really scared – that I was going to allow an infection to spread and all that would come with that. So I took the weak, easy option and went for the prescription.

Whilst prescriptions are free for anyone on jobseekers allowance, they aren’t free for moneyless people who don’t claim benefits. So I asked a friend if she would help, and to cut a long story short she refused, along with correctly accusing me of being a fraud, which I was. A very scared, vulnerable-feeling fraud, but a fraud nonetheless. I asked another friend, an animal rights activist who was even more opposed to animal testing than me, and she said she would help me unconditionally in whatever way I needed it. Looking back, this unconditionality was more medicine for my soul than anything a doctor could give me.

As it turned out, the antibiotics didn’t work, and the infection came back. My doctor advised me that another round would do it, and my activist friend offered to pay for it again. I accepted. That was up until the last minute. I was cycling the eighteen miles from my caravan into the city (which wasn’t ideal for the testes at the time, I can assure you) when I had a voice inside of me telling me to trust in my beliefs, to trust the Earth to cure me, and to show just a liitle glimpse of some balls, pardon the pun. So I thanked my friend but told her that I was going to do this the way I should have in the first place. I got some sage and drank gallons of sage tea. I got some fresh comfrey, ground it up, made a poultice out of it and sat with it on my testicles for hours on end. And as the infection started to dramatically reduce, I made love to a friend who I had been intimately connected to. And with the blissful explosion that came at the end of what was an uniquely beautiful experience, all pain left and never came back.

When I look back I deeply regret not having stood up for what I believed in when it really came to the crunch – that time when it’s not easy to stand up for what you believe in – and for asking someone to use money to buy me something during a period of my life when I was claiming to be completely free from money. I feel a slight sense of redemption for having eventually come round to what my holistic self knew, and I thank the universe for giving me a second test, another chance to show if I really believed in what I was talking about or not. What would I do if I was faced with the same situation again? I would hope something similar to the second choice, but again I don’t know. The egocentric self has such a hold on us that it acts in fear whenever faced with its own mortality, and within such a story it is completely natural to want to survive.

What I am trying to say by telling this story is that these issues are certainly not black and white. I want to illustrate how I’ve also made hypocritical choices I don’t agree with, which put my narrow egocentric self above that of the whole. Through it I also want to express my feeling that we need to love each other unconditionally, even when we see each other making decisions we feel are hypocritical, because in the end we’re all hypocrites. Loving unconditionally, however, doesn’t mean that we need to stop challenging each other, and my friend who said no was right to challenge me, no matter how hard it felt at the time. That said, my other friend who decided to help me unconditionally was also right to do so, as by that point such unconditional love was what my fragile soul needed. Both helped me in different ways.

That is not to say that challenging each other and acting unconditionally towards each other are always mutually exclusive. They are not. I believe that we can do both simultaneously, if we understand both balance and compassion. If we have differences of opinions we can say, “I don’t agree with your choice, and this is why, but if it’s your ultimate choice I will respect that, and if you need my help I will give it in any way that also allows me to stay true to my own beliefs.” Unconditionality creates powerful bonds between people, and it is these bonds that will be at the heart of a localised gift economy.

I also feel that this story highlights how pervasive the “industrial medicines are the only option for many illnesses” story is. I, someone who had been looking into alternative practices for years and who was utterly opposed to modern medicine, defaulted into choosing that option when the heat was turned up, not trusting Nature who, in the end, was the one who provided me with everything I needed.

At what point do we stop?

We’re all aware of the idea that industrialised healthcare, dependent on the marriage of money to the ideas of high economies of scale and fine division of labour, has extended the average human life considerably over the last few hundred years (though given the amounts of energy we still continue to pump into it, the benefits have become increasingly marginal and are approaching zero). There almost isn’t a person I know who doesn’t think extending human lifespan is a good thing. How could it not be, as long as those extra years are healthy ones, not miserable ones strapped to life-support machines? Whenever I question it, I am asked if I would rather see people die of preventable diseases and illness; you can see how this debate gets emotive from the beginning. But whilst I can truly understand anyone’s desire to use money-dependent healthcare in order to stay healthy and alive, it does originate from the delusional story that our health is independent from the whole, and vice versa.

To illustrate this, I want to ask you a series of questions. Through industrialised processes we’ve found medicines that can keep our bodies functioning in this world for an average of eighty years,(259) up from thirty three years in the Upper Palaeolithic age (though during this time if you did make it past fifteen you would, on average, make it to fifty four, a fact that is also regularly and conveniently left out). I can see why everyone would view this as a positive – who wants to die, after all, when you live under the tyranny of a story that leads you to believe you are not part of the whole?

So my first question is this: what if science found a medicine tomorrow that would enable us to live, with a healthy body, to one hundred years on average? Or one hundred and fifty years, or three hundred? Would we accept it? Many would of course say yes!, why not? But when one considers the implications of this on the Earth’s ability to sustain us, and its astronomical effects on population, the answer is not so clear-cut. Even with current healthcare systems as they are, population is skyrocketing, as this graph so dramatically illustrates:

Growth of human population since AD 0

When I was born, in May 1979, the world population was 4.2 billion.(260) By the time I started writing this book, a mere thirty two years later, the seven billionth child was born, a 67% rise in an already large population in less than half a generation. Though not all of this increase is due to people living longer, take a moment to consider what the great global push towards longer life expectancy is going to achieve. Through both our numbers and, especially, our consumption rates, we are already pushing the planet’s ecosystems over the edge – can you even imagine what would happen if we all started doubling or trebling our life expectancy again?

Considering this objectively, it becomes clear that when it comes to life expectancy, more is not always best. As always, there’s a fine line between maximum and optimum, and the difference is key to our future. So this raises a crucial question – what is the optimal life expectancy of a human on Earth? In fact, the question is more precise than that – what is the optimal average life expectancy of a human in each geographical region and locality on Earth? If it’s not three hundred years, is it actually eighty years either? Or was it fifty four?

I’ve no precise answer for this, and I don’t expect you to have either. What I would suggest is that our optimal lifespan, and system of health-care, is one which allows the whole to flourish, that respects the rivers, the mountains, the biosphere, the trees and all other forms of life – from honey bees to meerkats – that we share it with. A system of healthcare where the human is of no greater or less importance than other life, one which recognises natural limits to growth and respects them, and one that balances the health needs of the whole with the egocentric health needs of those who make it up.

The question then becomes – as intelligent, self aware, life-loving creatures – why aren’t we recognising this? Why are we prioritising our own individual lives over the life of everything else on the planet? Why, in other words, can’t we see and understand natural limits?

The answer to this can only be understood in terms of the separate self – if we do not sense ourselves as being part of Nature, then we cannot understand the limits it places on us. We see limits as bad – capitalist culture has made unlimited growth the be all and end all, and that is reflected in our understanding of our selves as well. We are economic people, after all. But limits, in fact, are absolutely integral to healthy systems. A child without limits runs out of control and is not happy. Pathogenic bacteria, left unchecked, destroy their host. So ourselves, and so our ecosystems. Without limits we are a disease on the Earth, mindlessly consuming our host, with thought only for our own survival. But after the host dies, what next?

Death is our biggest limit, and one we have come to fear the most. A fear of death, and of loss, is healthy and understandable, but the lengths to which we as a culture have taken this is not. Around the world, and even in our own pagan ancestry, death and regeneration were, and are, celebrated as vital elements of the natural cycle. Out of death comes life.

Yet, as always, we are trapped in linearity. Not part of any bigger system, we must always go forward, and at the end point there is nothing. We can never come back in, and so the finishing line terrifies us. We are so removed from understanding ourselves as rotable, decayable, decomposable beings that the thought of becoming one repulses us. We deny death, deny ageing, deny degeneration. We must be young and beautiful forever. And modern medicine, of course, is the epitome of this. Life must be prolonged at all costs – and at the cost of all life.

A bizarre attitude towards death is not the only unhealthy aspect of our healthcare system. Consider also our War on Germs. I do not have the space here to examine Western humanity’s obsession with germs. It is everywhere and all pervasive – in our relationship with our food, with our children, and, most fundamentally, with our selves. In our thinking, a ‘healthy system’ is one in which there are no germs – ‘invaders’, from the ‘outside’, hostile to our body. There is no appreciation of the integral interplay of all life; simply protect your skin-bag from everything that is ‘else’ and you will be fine. As Eisenstein points out, this attitude extends also to our understanding of healthy ecosystems – widespread tree death has been attributed to fungi, but why, he asks, “are the trees susceptible as never before?”

The War on Germs assumes and reinforces the fundamental premise of industrialised medicine – the idea of the separate self – which in turn leaves unquestioned the methods we use to both heal it, and, crucially, keep it healthy. If disease is caused by germs, and germs are controlled by technology, how much importance is going to be placed on eating well, on having enjoyable, relaxing lifestyles, or on maintaining healthy relationships, and how much is going to be placed on ensuring that more and better technology is available? It is also important to recognise that many of the illnesses and diseases we’re faced with today – such as cancer, obesity, diabetes, autism, ADHD and the plethora of conditions related to stress – are created by the same industrialised economic model that produces the medicines we use to treat them. As Thomas Berry points out, “you cannot have well humans on a sick planet”. Eliminate the source of the disease and you eliminate the need for an unhealthy cure.

This is not a treatise on ‘alternative’ medicine. Modern medicine has much to teach us – I simply want us to question some of its basic assumptions. Is it healthy to fear, and avoid, death? Is it accurate to see and treat disease simply as the result of an invasion of ‘foreign’ bacteria? Are we right to value technological fixes over maintaining much more natural lifestyles? Are we really understanding ‘health’ in the right way? If not, then we need a different system of healthcare, one which reflects and reinforces an understanding of ourselves as inseparable from the ecology around us. This is the essence of the solutions I am proposing in this chapter. The medicines and sex products listed below can be produced in a localised, moneyless manner, using methods which embrace both our old traditional methods but also integrate all the information we’ve learned through this monetised period of human history we’ve been through.

If you just want free healthcare (free, that is, in its delivery as opposed to its construction), then all I need to say is use the NHS (if you live in the UK). It goes without saying that I am no healthcare specialist, so take nothing I say as expert medical advice. Anything I do say will be based on my own personal experience and sources of knowledge which I personally trust. Please do not mindlessly follow any of them without speaking to someone trained in that particular field first, as your body and medical history is uniquely yours.