When we think of pollution, we think of our planet: stripped forests paved asphalt black, sterile red rivers, brown-gray skies and creeping slums over once virgin land. We imagine massive dumps of civilized waste, the extermination of species and temperatures which bake the earth like a neglected oven. We mourn the global home in which we live, neglected, abused, in ruin. Do we ever think about ourselves?
That is one of the problems about perceiving the terrible destruction caused by human action. We think of it as a planetary problem. It’s not even someone else, it is something else — the earth. It is something gigantic which we have no control over and barely even understand. It is not about us. It is bigger than we comprehend, let alone affect. It is not personal.
But it is. It is very personal. We are drowning in oil. The black, foul grease flows into our mouths, floods nose, eyes and ears. It stains every inch of our skin. We soak in it, and glutinous we swallow choking it down. It penetrates every inch of our bodies until it saturates our brain. Then in hunger and in desperation, we dive deeper into the massive tank and consume ever more.
The ridiculous ramblings of an environmental kook who’s frustrated by the failure of mankind to slow its planetary digestion? No. The diagnosis of a doctor who has spent a career watching thousands of lives destroyed by the overwhelming and deadly choice, variety and abundance which oil, natural gas and coal kill us each day.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 50 percent of cancers, and most cardiovascular disease, are caused by lifestyle decisions. Much of it is not smoking. Most heart disease is caused by diet and lack of exercise. Countless new and increasing cancers and rheumatologic illness are caused by chemicals and additives, either obvious in the foods we eat, or subtle in the water we consume. We only have to open the back door and inhale to get lung disease. The morbid epidemic of obesity leads to diabetes and cancer at accelerating proportions, so much so that endocrinologists are swamped and oncologists are paid extra to take care of obese patients.
Once we survived by consuming foods which were the current and direct products of sunlight. A plant grew, building itself from soil, water and solar radiation. We ate that plant or the animal which it fed. We used our bodies to survive, to hunt, gather and farm. This was a short, clean, empowering, healthy, rejuvenating, non-polluting cycle. It was how life evolved and society came to be. It is how we were designed through millions of years of genetic experimentation. It is what our bodies expect. But driven to consume and conquer, we found a “better” way.
Fossil fuels are the detritus left by trillions of plants and animals which lived millions of years ago. Through time and pressure, their bodies produced a high caloric soup. Oil is the ultimate civilization-feeding, mountain-moving, empire-building, energy drink. It is global cocaine. Its massive, easy power fuels a lazy, hypersonic society where men and women do not need to use their bodies, are wilted by intense societal stress and live separated, fragmented, overwhelmed, sleepless existence and consume more food than is needed by an Olympic marathon runner.
Fossil fuel’s victims will do anything, go anywhere, sacrifice anything for its high. More perfect than any narcotic, whose addicts might try to fight their disease, even as lumps of coal shatter teeth, gas displaces oxygen and cholesterol blocks arteries, humanity revels in that glory to the grave. My patients are drowning in oil.
Fat, weak and out of control, pickling our brains with alcohol, smoking tobacco and abusing each other, we slave for petrodollars. Then, in a terminal irony that would astonish Kafka, as blood vessels clog, bones decay, hearts falter and cancers spread, we turn to organic chemistry derived science to heal our contaminated bodies.
Personalized medicine’s bizarre promise is to fix genes built with elegant evolutionary care, which have been mutated by oil fed lives. We are killing ourselves by feeding off the planet’s past, even as we destroy the planet’s future, and we have the hubris to beg biochemical innovation to save us.
We live in a world of choice and creation which is trying to kill us. Even if we ignore what we are doing to the planet, we cannot ignore what the products of fossil fuel are doing to each of us. We cannot say that what happens to our bodies is someone else’s problem. How we live each day, the foods we eat, the activities we do, how we handle stress, how we treat each other, how much we sleep and what poisons we consume — it is all personal. It’s all about us. We may not feel that we own the world. That is “someone else’s problem.” We certainly can feel and act as if we own ourselves. As if in a horror film, we are drowning in the addictive, rotten carbon debris of lives ended long ago. It is time we take responsibility for ourselves.
James C. Salwitz is an oncologist who blogs at Sunrise Rounds.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com