The Earth in a Parisian hospital: is there an anthropologist at its bedside?

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My story begins one evening in a Parisian hospital: there are two beds. Each bed is occupied by a sick person, in a very bad state. In the first bed is the Economy: the poor one is moribund, it suffers from insufficient growth, and its decaying industries are a sight to behold. In the other bed is the Earth: it does not have this pretty blue color that we know from space, but the waxy complexion and the pallid skin of someone who will perhaps not spend the night. Between the two beds is a doctor on call. He is alone and wonders: the two dying women are unconscious, one of them has activated the call signal, who should he look after?

He quickly consulted the medical records left by his colleagues. Miss Economy’s diagnosis is clear: it suffers from a vital lack of growth. Fortunately, a shock treatment has been undertaken: by making jobs more precarious, the cost of labor is reduced, which makes investors want to put their hands in the wallet to launch new economic activities. They should also gain vitality from the most fashionable political drug of the moment — « free trade » — which aims to create larger markets where goods can flow faster, thus releasing positive energy to reinvigorate the economy. And it’s signed: Doctor Liberalismus.

- Well, at least this file is in progress, says our brave night doctor.

The other medical form, that of Mrs. Earth, indicates deep cuts all over the body (razed forests, increased concreting, disappearance of living species…) and serious intoxications: chemical pollution, endocrine disruptors, nuclear accidents, greenhouse gases… A big drop of sweat beads on the doctor’s forehead: obviously, Mrs. Earth was the victim of a murder attempt! But even more frighteningly, right after the diagnosis, the treating physician added the words « medical treatment pending approval ». Signed: Doctor COP21.

- Since when do we have to wait for an authorization to treat a patient now? our night doctor is indignant. He takes the patient’s pulse. He is weak, but his heart beats. He decides to take charge of her.

In order not to do anything stupid, he goes to a computer and consults the complete file of Mrs. Earth. The emergency room nurse who received the patient, a Mr. GIEC, noted the followingince the industrial revolution, the massive use of coal, oil, gas and more recently shale gas has caused a major change in the atmosphere: carbon dioxide (CO2) is becoming more and more concentrated. For example, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 275 parts per million (ppm) at the dawn of the industrial revolution to climbed to 316 ppm (around 1960) and is now flirting with 400 ppm(1). As a reminder, the last time carbon dioxide exceeded the 300 ppm threshold was more than 800,000 years ago! That is to say, a time when modern man (homo sapiens) did not yet exist.

Strange, the doctor on duty thought, really strange… Seen from this angle, Modern Progress is a tremendous leap backwards… He continued reading: This observation would be an amusing anecdote if the Earth were a stable, unchanging planet, offering us an unchanging living environment, as the popular saying goes: « after the rain, the good weather ». But this is not the case, because Mrs. Earth changes its face over time. During its long life (4.6 billion years), it has notably experienced periods of warming and glaciation that have profoundly modified the oceans and terrestrial landscapes. Where we see the desert spreading, there may have once been a lush rainforest; similarly, for thousands of years, the ground where we put our feet was occupied by huge glaciers; as for the level of the oceans, it has varied by several hundred meters in the course of history

What could be more normal than the Earth evolving over time? says our night doctor. After all, it is a living being… But the IPCC nurse specifies: Although there are many factors influencing the climate, greenhouse gases (such as methane and carbon dioxide) play a major role in the current global warming. Today, Mrs. Earth is suffering from a moderate fever (+ 0.85°C compared to the pre-industrial era). If this fever intensifies, extreme climatic events (torrential rains, more intense hurricanes, scorching droughts…) will be more and more frequent in the future.

A chill runs down the doctor’s spine: in the spring of 2015, just a few months ago, he was in India for a vacation in the sun. In fact, he endured a terrible heat wave (temperatures were well over 47°C) and helped the local doctors, overwhelmed by a wave of sunstroke and dehydration that killed more than 1,400 people. The scenario was repeated a month later in Pakistan: more than 450 deaths due to an exceptional heat wave. Out of curiosity, the doctor types « recent climate tragedies » on his search engine, headlines appear:  » California ravaged by uncontrollable fires  » (Le Figaro, September 2015);  » Historic rainfall in South Carolina: 11 dead  » (CBC, October 2015), » Floods: deadly deluge in the Alpes-Maritimes  » (France Info, October 2015).

The Earth has a fever, a fever that is still moderate, but that is already killing people. And even if not all extreme weather events are attributable to global warming alone, the prognosis for the future is not very promising:  » Climate: half of plants and a third of animals affected by 2080  » (AFP, May 2013);  » Warming could wipe out health progress  » (Agence Belga, June 2015); » Nasa estimates that the oceans will rise by at least one meter in the next century  » (Le Monde, August 2015);  » At 3°C of global warming, a country like Botswana could be swallowed by the Kalahari Desert, turning its 1,800,000 inhabitants into climate refugees  » (inspired by Six degrees, a book by Mark Lynas)…

Feverish, our doctor returns to the medical file of Mrs. Earth: if the fever of the Earth increases, we can fear unprecedented planetary catastrophes. Today, much of the global warming is being held back by the Earth, which is capturing the incredible masses of CO2 released by humans by accumulating it in its forests and oceans. But as the oceans accumulate carbon, they become more acidic, which threatens some aquatic life. Furthermore, if global warming becomes too great, dry forests will start to burn, releasing a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead of slowing down global warming, the Earth will start accelerating it. And the IPCC nurse writes: to avoid positive feedback thresholds where the Earth would start accelerating man-made global warming, the Earth’s fever must be kept below +2°C. And he underlined in bold: So there is an emergency to treat the patient!!!

But this one is not treated. Toxicological analyses are formal: each year, CO2 emissions reach a new record. Far from calming the earth’s fever, human actions are pushing it ever higher, ever further, while climate summits have been held for years, concluding at best with non-binding promises. How is such a situation possible? What does the doctor COP21, in charge of this patient, do?

To find out for sure, the night doctor consults the hospital’s « Personnel » register, finds Dr. COP21’s phone number and calls him: Hello, you have reached Dr. COP21. I am unfortunately not available at the moment. In case of emergency, please contact my friend Dr. Liberalismus who will be happy to take care of you.

Another call. The bell rings twice, then it picks up.

- Doctor Liberalismus here, what can I do for you?

- Good morning, dear colleague. I am in charge of the on-call service, tonight, at the Paris hospital. And to tell you the truth, I am worried about one of Doctor COP21’s patients: the Earth. She suffers from various cuts, deep wounds and countless intoxications. But what worries me more is that no treatment has been undertaken to cure her…

- Take care of this crazy old woman! But you want to laugh: ah ah ah, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.

- I beg your pardon?

- You heard me right: there is no question of treating this crazy old woman. The Earth is not the hospital for this.

- But why else?

- It is part of the treatment of my patient, Miss Economy. You see, restarting growth is not easy. It takes effort, energy, raw materials, oil, gas, chemicals… The processing of Miss Economy produces a lot of waste, and since the hospital is not a garbage can, we use this old Earth to throw away everything we don’t know what to do with.

- But are you crazy!?

- Not at all. Treating my patient: Miss Economics. It is young, and what do I care if an old, obsolete planet of 4.6 billion years has to suffer some meaningless damage? After all, the Earth has had a good life. It can make some sacrifices to save a young economy that still has its whole life ahead of it. When you think about it, it’s only fair…

- But the Earth will die!

- You think. Its inhabitants, perhaps. Thousands, millions or billions, who knows? But not this crazy old Earth: it has a tough skin, it is tough, it will outlive us all… Anyway, one thing is sure: I forbid you to stop the treatment of my patient, Miss Economy, in the hope of alleviating the pains and sorrows of your damn planet. »

With that, the man hangs up. At the same time, the hospital’s intercom rings. The night doctor answers. Overwhelmed, his colleagues call him for help: there is a queue in the emergency room. The doctor on duty goes to give them a hand, not without thinking about the impossible equation that drives all the governments on the planet: boosting the economy to create jobs means not slowing down global warming. Especially when we promote a transnational economy, where products circulate ever faster, ever further, consuming many energy resources in the process. On the other hand, not curbing global warming means killing people, many people, as a result of extreme weather events that could get out of hand if we don’t do anything to stop poisoning the Earth with carbon dioxide.

He is still mumbling between his lips when his first patient arrives. That’s me. A man in his forties, sitting on a wheelchair. I dislocated or fractured my ankle. He takes me to the X‑ray room to find out for sure. Along the way, he tells me about what he has just endured and the dilemma he faces: saving the Earth would kill the economy, jobs, growth… But saving the economy means sacrificing thousands, millions, maybe even billions of lives… What to do? What to choose?

I retort: read anthropology books!

- I’m sorry, » he said.

- The solution to your problem is there, in the anthropology books.

- I’m sorry, but what you’re saying doesn’t make sense. How can the study of lost civilizations, forgotten by all, help us?

- Because the societies of yesteryear, not modern, had understood something that escapes us today: a power is only legitimate on the condition that it takes care of the collective well-being of men, but also of plants and animals.

- Easier said than done!

- Not at all. Take Central Africa: it was once home to many kingdoms. Prosperous and powerful. But where the legitimacy of power was based on a mixture of animism and magic. The king was considered a link between men and the spirits, owners and legitimate masters of nature (from the growth of plants to the fertility of women). Let the king be sick, and nature suffered. Let the king be well, and nature was fertile…

- Pure manipulative nonsense, invented by monarchs imbued with their power.

- Not at all! You’ve got it all wrong, Doctor. Being a king in Central Africa was anything but fun. As much as the king’s power to control nature was recognized by all, the life of a monarch was (in our individualistic eyes) a hell populated with prohibitions. From one culture to another, these prohibitions varied: not being able to eat or drink in public, not being able to speak during the whole day, never being able to look up at an ocean or a river… So many constraints intended to control a too powerful magic, and to avoid « natural » tragedies (for example, a drought at the time of sowing) which would not fail to occur if one let the kings do what they wanted. In some cases, kings were even castrated to better control their power…

- Oh, I had heard that they had dozens of wives?

- Not all companies operated in the same way. Some chased their kings while others offered them, indeed, dozens of wives. But if a polygamous king could no longer satisfy his dozens of wives, he could be judged as tired, his body no longer strong enough, his magic eroded. In many cases, a sick or unhealthy king was considered dangerous to the collective interest: what would happen if the crops failed? This is why many sacred kings ended their reign in a tragic way: they were ritually put to death.

- What a cruelty!

- Cruelty far below our own, Doctor. For centuries, the West has wiped out all societies that had the misfortune of not being similar enough to it. And today, we are happily exterminating, with impunity, the very basis of life on this planet. Thus opening the way to how many thousands, millions, even billions of tragic destinies? All because we worship the Economy…

The doctor on duty remained silent. He just said, « Here we are in the X‑ray room. I’m going to examine your foot. But afterwards, if you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about Africa a little bit… »

Bruno Poncelet

Notes et références
  1. En septembre 2015, le taux de CO2 relevé à Hawaï était précisément de 397,84 ppm comme l’indique le site de l’Earth System Research Laboratory (http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/).
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