Sugar in the 18th century, Pesticides in the 21st

Sugar in the 18th century, pesticides in the 21st.


We marvel now that people in the eighteenth century could have sat in their coffee houses imbibing sugar in the coffee, complacently unconcerned about the slaves who grew it.  It wasn’t that most of them were bad people.  They just didn’t want to know and took few pains to find out.  Wilful blindness is humanity’s default condition.  Remarkably, growth of concern about the slaves coincided with it’s becoming more profitable to invest in the factories of the nascent Industrial Revolution, also manned by slaves in all but name (see Engel’s harrowing account of conditions in Manchester in 1844) than in the sugar plantations.  Huge government compensations were paid out when the slave trade and then slavery itself were  abolished, not to the slaves who didn’t get a penny and were left to fend for themselves as  best they could,  but to their former owners.  The sums varied from huge fortunes for the owners of large plantations to small amounts paid out to virtuously genteel maiden ladies living in Winchester or York, who part-owned a few slaves of whom they knew nothing except that they paid the bills. Most of the money was invested in the Industrial Revolution, which put Britain at the head of the world race for fame and fortune, and became the foundation of the British Empire.  More remarkably still, people in the nineteenth century couldn’t see the gross unfairness and hypocrisy of all this either, just as the coffee-drinkers of the eighteenth century had not, but went on congratulating themselves for their praiseworthy moral behaviour in abolishing slavery.   Only small iniquities are recognized as bad.  Great ones come dressed as virtues.


We have our own equivalent of unrecognized criminal monstrosity.  We too are all involved in a largely unattended world crime, except that ours is even worse.  The world is well on the way to its sixth major extinction of life, the only difference to the previous five that this one is caused by human beings. Could you imagine any crime worse than destroying in a few decades so many beautiful creatures that took millions of years to evolve?  In the UK alone butterflies and bees and many other insects are declining fast, mainly because of pesticide use in agriculture. Soon there will be none.  Kids will look at pictures of butterflies in books just as they now look at dinosaurs. We are all involved in ‘tearing apart the tapestry of life’ as a recent Report on the State of Nature put it.  We are part of that tapestry.  All life is inter-connected and inter-dependent, and whereas the slave owners were rewarded with huge fortunes, our reward will be our own extinction, the seventh.  Do we want to know this, despite the despairing warnings of the scientists?  Not really, any more than the genteel maiden ladies in Winchester and York did.


Yet the problem will not be solved by good wishes, donations to Save the Orang Utang and handwringing alone. The reality is too many people are too poor to buy organic food.  Where are the demos, the twitter storms, the letters to MPs demanding that the Government put taxes on cheap meat from the Amazon – we are destroying the planet with economic efficiency just as the slave owners ran the plantations with economic efficiency – and the money used to subsidize organic food?


Get up and smell the coffee.


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  1. ‘Only small iniquities are recognized as bad. Great ones come dressed as virtues.’ Yes indeed, unless they can dress up as a clown! Now we have come to the point of having a clownish British Prime Minister breaking his word without compunction, treating lying as a game to see what he can get away with and asserting in effect that greed itself is a saving grace, while a majority appear happy to cheer him on! Must we really conclude after all that the price of having any effective moral values at all comes with a degree of hypocrisy? Where do we go from here?

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