History’s greatest mass murderer: YOU

N. J. BERRILL ACCUSES September 29 1956


History’s greatest mass murderer: YOU

N. J. BERRILL ACCUSES September 29 1956


History’s greatest mass murderer: YOU


In the centuries to come, as one human generation succeeds another, this age of ours will be scrutinized with the same objective judgment as we ourselves now look upon the past. The thought is uncomfortable.

At the best our time may be spoken of as the dawn of the atomic age of plenty, or perhaps no more than part of the continuing industrial revolution. It is more likely, considering the increasing rate at which we are mining and consuming the world’s resources, that we will be thought of as the age that plundered the planet, for with a little more time it will be all too true. Posterity — yours and mine — will have harsh words for those who squandered the family inheritance and I fear our ears may burn in more ways than one.

Yet all of this represents a purely materialistic outlook. It is human nature to be greedy and to resent the greed of others, and no doubt our descendants would act as thoughtlessly unless circumstances constrained them. Man, however, does not live by bread alone, nor by all the gadgets technology may devise. He belongs to a living world, is part of a community of life that extends far beyond the human, and has a heritage and relationships he is in danger of forgetting. We are selling our birthright for a mess of potage, almost unaware of what we are doing and only conscious that the mess is becoming increasingly unappetizing.

The dead we leave behind

Our towns and cities grow ever larger and more numerous and tend to link up with one another, so that nature becomes more and more something you read about or see on a screen. Going to the country means superhighways or heavy traffic, cottages all around you and the sound of outboard motors. You are more likely to see dogs and cats than wild life of any spectacular kind, and any fish you catch have probably been planted. And the chances are that the water will be polluted and unsafe to swim in, let alone to drink. The face of the earth is changing and by no means for the better.

Only a short century ago this continent was almost as full and rich with the wild beauty of its natural flora and fauna as it was when white men first arrived. The great buffalo herds still roamed at large, passenger pigeons flourished in unbelievable numbers, whooping cranes and trumpeter swans were commonplace. Now the last passenger pigeon is long since dead, the cranes and swans can be counted on our fingertips and are unlikely to survive, while the buffalo lives by our forbearance only upon reservations, though just so long as it is expedient. Recently, for instance, buffalo herds were slaughtered in Arizona at the whim of a commanding general because the buffalo range had been included within the scope of military operations and the great beasts were sometimes in the way. Their only official useful purpose, that of being studied by naturalists, no longer existed since naturalists were prohibited from entering the region.

This may seem to be a rather extreme example of man’s ruthlessness in putting his practical needs above all else, but it is typical of the man with a gun wherever he has been. Mountain lion, coyotes and birds of prey are shot on sight in the mistaken belief that in their search for food they do us more material harm than good. Harbor seals have a bounty on their heads because they may be a link in the life cycle of a parasitic worm that is found in inshore cod and reduces the market value of the fish. Rhesus monkeys, virtual parodies of ourselves, are dying by the thousands so that we can use their kidneys in the manufacture of polio virus. Granted that our need is great, yet there seems to be no thought or feeling for what we do. Man’s arrival on earth appears to be a fateful event for the rest of creation and we are now witnessing, as a result of our own actions, one of the great ages of extinction.

Contemporary civilized man is far more out of touch with the world that has given him birth than the so-called uncivilized or natural man of the more primitive peoples. As long as and wherever men have hunted animals for food they have killed only according to their actual needs, and have at all times felt themselves to be as truly a part of nature as the creatures they hunted. With the change to agriculture and industry we have become too conscious of our possessions, too antagonistic to any creatures who compete with us in any way for space or food, and in more recent times, too cut of! by bricks and stones and other things from any real contact with the nonhuman world. Most persons in our advanced and intermittently bloody civilization ask what good is it when shown any small but strange creature, on the assumption that the earth was created and planted and stocked solely for our exclusive benefit. although with many useless animals and plants included either through carelessness or as a deliberate irritation. Cows arc designed to give milk, chickens to lay eggs, the sea to grow fish, the forests to produce wood, and so on—all to feed and house mankind. By and large we are as self-centred as a baby who puts everything into its mouth or throws it away.

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For the sake of argument

We do recognize, however, that we need more than food and drink and clothes and various modern technical aids to living like automobiles and radios and washing machines—that being human we like to play, need space to play in. and need something or someone to play with. So we set up zoological gardens and national parks, playgrounds full of curious creatures that we can look at with interest, amusement or repulsion. Or we set aside conservation areas or seasons to ensure sufficient propagation of duck and deer for a million hunters to shoot at. Moving, unpredictable targets are a lot more fun to pit your skill against and give incentive and excitement to venturing out-of-doors. Beasts, birds and fish are brought under conservation, but for our benefit, not theirs. More of them survive in consequence, certainly, but for the most part to serve human lust, not human love.

Why not? Even if most persons nowadays are informed enough to know that man is a johnny-come-lately on a fairly old planet that was not actually prepared for his benefit, why shouldn’t we look on the earth as a well-stocked farm waiting for us to take over? We are treating it as such and obviously will do so even more intensively before we are through. In our hearts, however, I think we know the answer, or if not arc conscious of a vague disquiet concerning the way things are going and with the content of our lives. We are, somewhere deep down inside, beginning to feel lonely.

Why are we so eager concerning prospective trips to Mars and other planets? Many people are angered when someone suggests that journeys of this sort will not be worthwhile and that they will yield little better than the grim bleakness we see in the moon. More than anything else we want to find intelligent beings, sufficiently like ourselves to have constructed the Martian canals, if such there be. Science-fiction writers, particularly those dealing with interstellar travel, are fully aware of this chronic heartache for unearthly companionship, and visit only planets where the local inhabitants have but two eyes and two legs apiece and are fully instructed in the ways of sex. Judging from the welcome such inspirational writing receives in this world, in Russia just as much as in Europe and America, we are looking for beings with whom we can feel some kinship of spirit, that are vaguely like—but not too closely like— ourselves. We want company in a universe that seems to grow vaster and more empty of all that we hold most dear with every day that passes.

Rockets and artificial satellites may give us a much clearer picture of outer space and distant stars. They will also give us pictures that will drive home more sharply than ever tha>t we live on a little lost planet, drifting through a trackless void. Home will never have looked so sweet. And as evidence accumulates that the other planets of our own solar system have nothing to offer comparable to what has grown here upon the earth, we will begin to look about us with increasingly discerning eyes.

The only companions, human or otherwise, that we are likely to discover in this universe, no matter who or what may live on planets circling other stars than the sun, are those that are with us now. Life on this earth is a community and has always been one. We are but a part of it, however dominant we may seem to be. and this knowledge is built into our very sinews. When we deny it or fail to recognize it, we suffer in certain ways just as a child who is brought up in a loveless home suffers both from lack of being loved and from lack of someone to love.

The present need of man in this turbulent century is to feel at home on the planet that has produced him, rather than yearn for other worlds to conquer, which means accepting the earth in all its beauty and diversity of form and life rather than trying to transform it into something conceived or misconceived by industry and bureaucracy. Here is where conservation fails or at least falls short.

The setting aside of scenic regions as retreats for jaded urbanites barely recognizes the basic trouble and in any case is too readily circumvented when the more tangible values of power or mineral wealth are discovered within the area. Reservations or closed seasons preserve animal life to some extent, though less securely as civilization presses ever closer upon the wilderness. So long as we regard such things as luxuries to be dispensed with if necessity arises and so long as we regard everything not under human control as a challenge to our efficiency or interests, so long will the land continue to lose its loveliness. For this is less a matter of establishing limits to human depredations in this or that tract of territory than it is of human attitudes.

Possibly the most outstanding feature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is neither the technological revolution with its triumphs and exploitations, nor the explosive human population expansion that accompanies it, but the worldwide intellectual adventure into space and time. Not least in this enquiry is our attempt to discover the true nature of our own humanity and to reconstruct the human past as far back as we can push it, even to the beginning of the world. In so doing we find ourselves to be one

with the rest of the animal kingdom, no matter how much more mind and spirit we may relatively possess.

Room with many views

Our guest room is a sometimes thing: Sometimes it is for ironing;

Sometimes it is for hemming dresses: Sometimes, for sorting sundry messes— And once, by some wild urge possessed, We cleaned it up and had a guest.

I’hiknc Hammer

We cannot divorce our own species from the whole pageant of life that has been evolving for the last billion years on earth. We have ancestors in common with the most peculiar creatures, and all of us, present and past, have the same dependence upon vegetation, water, atmosphere and sun. Nowhere can one draw a line, and even between the living and the nonliving the line is blurred. When we recognize ourselves for what we are, as mammalian creatures with all the qualifications of the class; when we recognize our past for what it has been, as one that is inextricably interwoven with all that has lived—then our distinctive mind with its great capacity for sensitive appreciation makes us the guardians of the whole. As we have become the master of the house, so we acquire responsibility for the whole and all that is in it and that has gone into its making. We hold the earth in trust, not only for our own peculiar posterity but for all life. This is the lesson we are slowly learning, though so far only a few have learned it.

Albert Schweitzer is one, and his attitude or ethic called Reverence for Life is almost as well known as his African hospital venture. “Reverence” here is a somewhat inadequate translation of the original German word, which has no exact counterpart in English and denotes more a feeling of awe and respect. He feels, as all of us should feel, that life of any kind is wonderfully made and that all forms of life have a common lot in this struggle for existence; that whenever you destroy life, whether it is a fiower, a bird, a man, or any of the host that makes this a living planet, something has gone that leaves the whole a little bit poorer.

“If you can kill without thought or feeling then something in you has died that once was human”

We must kill to live, at least to some extent, for life grows at the expense of bfe. But to kill wantonly for the sake of the hunt or good marksmanship or just downright blood lust or boredom is an evil thing that refuses to see the living individuality of the victim; that will not contemplate or cannot comprehend what is killed, or what killing means to the killer. If you can kill without thought or feeling concerning what you actually are doing, whether with gun. poison or just neglect, something in you has already died that once was human, because as a child you could not have done it. You would have seen more clearly the personalities behind the objects, for the natural instinct of a young human being, before he is taught by custom to be otherwise, is to love the rest of creation in an admiring and sympathetic way.

All life is sacred to the Hindu, which is carrying matters to an extreme that at times is good for neither man nor beast, for we arc so made that we need the flesh of others for our well-being, while sacredness of life can be joined to callousness toward suffering. Yet at the heart of that eastern religion lies the recognition that the spark of creation lies within everything that lives, that God is everywhere, and it is sinful to destroy his handiwork. That goes too far when made into a practical policy, but it is much more in keeping with the natiue of things to acknowledge this fellowship we have with all that walks or flies or even crawls, than to look upon the wot Id as our private yard somewhat cluttered up with vermin.

For the sake of being human, for the sake of our souls perhaps, we need to see ourselves in our proper setting, to sec ourselves as the earthlings we ate, sharing but not owning the planet that has produced us together with the rest.

There is more than this, however, livery living creature, human and otherwise, is unique. Each is the product ot a process that has gone on since the beuinning of earthly time and can never be repeated. If we should press the button for atomic war and blow our species off the map, something intelligent and inventive might eventually take our place, but it wouldn't look like us or be like us. We. the human kind, would have had our time and have gone for good. Which would be a pity considering how much has gone into our making.

The same point holds for other creatures. The whole world would be thrilled if some of those amazing dinosaurs were to be discovered alive in some remote valley in the Andes, as in Conan Doyle's story The Lost World. We might not wish to play with them but obviously we realize that we and the earth would be richer for their presence. For the same reason we would give a hearty welcome to the dodo if somehow it could be brought back to life. And in some fervent way we watch the whooping crane's precarious fight tor survival with apprehension. We see the unique glory in each such creature and realize that they exist but once probably in all eternity.

By the same reckoning, all those now in our keeping, whether elephants or eagles, racoons or birds of paradise, or some poaching pest, are here now but once gone will be gone forever. And just as we now condemn vandals and slaughterers of earlier times who destroyed what we would have valued, so posterity will look back on this age of extinctions with sorrow, anger and condemnation, insofar as knowledge of it survives. In any case the earth will have lost and can never be quite the


So what can you do? Not very much 1 fear, for the day is already late and the greed of man is in full spate. It is more a matter of growing up and becoming more fully human and alive, and truly aware of life other than our own. Whatever happens, we are responsible, and the first sign of grace is a certain humility. What is called for is appreciation and compassion. The rest should follow. Otherwise the world will become full of cows. corn, cabbages and an unholy number of wistful human beings, longing for the variety that once was the spice of life, for as we make our bed so must we lie upon it.