The basic truism is that our needs turn into wants,
which is fair enough within limits. But the tipping point comes when need becomes greed, and that’s when we really become slaves
Under the title ‘This Prehistoric Human Ancestor Was All Mouth’ (italics added), an article in the New York Times of Monday last reports that ‘About 540 million years ago, our ancestors were insignificant creatures no more than a millimeter in size. They wriggled around in the sediments of shallow seas, gulped prey into their minuscule, baglike bodies and expelled the water through cone-shaped spouts around their mouths’ – see an artist’s impression of the creature in the accompanying picture on page 8. The report is based on an article in the issue of the journal Nature, after the discovery by a team led by Jian Han of Northwest University in Xi’an, China, of a cache of 45 individuals unearthed in Shaanxi Province, in central China. This link to our evolutionary ancestor is considered a breakthrough finding that establishes our position on the ‘Tree of Life’.
In a sense, we become enslaved to the material world as soon as life emerges and begins to evolve. For, as we all know and however sophisticated be the human apparatus that we possess, the first and most basic requirement of any living creature is energy to sustain itself, and this energy comes from food that has to be sourced from the environment. Those who have studied biology will recall that the first single-celled animal that we are made to study is the free swimming, microscopic amoeba. It sends out tiny projections from its covering cell membrane known as pseudopodia, to catch particles outside it that it then brings inside the cell and digests them. From such a primitive structure does the mouth evolve!
The next thing that we need after our food requirement is met is shelter, or to put it another way, the paraphernalia to preserve ourselves from external, potentially damaging or destructive influences or forces. For humans this means protection from excessive heat or cold, which implies clothing and housing – and how far we have come in our inventiveness not only in terms of gastronomy but also of sartorial style and architecture to fulfil our ever-increasing urge to be still better and, in our modern world, at least to keep up with the Joneses! And preferably to surpass them – to show off, in other words. We have come to believe that more and bigger is better, and in this fiercely competitive environment that we have created we are even prepared to go way beyond our means to achieve this.
Food, clothing, housing: once these basics were satisfied, then we set out on ego trips: conquest of territory and wars in search of exotica – spices, sugar, silk, oil, minerals, and so on — , and more resources, as well as domination and religious conversion. In the process, and starting from antiquity – as in Rome and Egypt – slavery was introduced. Nowadays we have become more familiar with the colonial variety practised in the colonies, which initially concerned slaves from the African continent transported to the US (cotton plantations) and sugar-producing islands, including ours, and after the abolition of the system, it was Indians who were inducted into a ‘new system of slavery’ (Hugh Tinker). Noteworthy is that the country which today credits itself as being the fer de lance in matters of human rights still had slaves long after official abolition was proclaimed in the 1830s. And some of the greatest votaries of such freedom included the first President of the US, George Washington, and later President Abraham Lincoln.
Formally we may not have such ‘systems’ any more, but across the world, in all countries, circumstances amounting to slavery continue to exist, the form of the latter varying from place to place. The more well-known varieties are sex slaves with trafficking of women and children, domestic workers from e.g. Philippines and Bangladesh, etc., to be found mainly in the Gulf countries, construction industry workers and labourers who are held in bondage what with their passports being confiscated from them, children forced into labour.
While the practices mentioned in the preceding paragraph can be considered to be in some way, either directly or indirectly concerned with the survival needs — that is earning for the provision of food, clothing and housing for the men, women and children being exploited and those of their families – there are vices to which we have enslaved ourselves, and which provide opportunities for abuse and exploitation by others. Think of hard drugs for example, and the merchants of death with their high-level connections who defy the polity and are relentless in their pursuit of the illicit trade. In Mexico alone, it is estimated that the bloody drug wars involving notorious gangs have cost the lives of almost 80,000 innocent victims in the past ten years. Even in our country there have been deaths on this front, and currently another commission of enquiry is sitting to shed light on the traffic and hopefully will come up with recommendations that will inform policy decisions in the matter.
Alcohol and tobacco are the two other addictions that have enslaved us. Recommendations for alcohol consumption in reasonable amounts fall on deaf ears, and millions of people still drink themselves to death literally. And yet, if we were to use our uncommon commonsense and be reasonable, it could be a source of legitimate pleasure at the same time as of gainful employment for large swathes of the human population.
As regards tobacco, a latest report has estimated that its cost to the healthcare system worldwide is about USD 1.6 trillion! This refers to the treatment of the diseases linked to it, which include hypertension, heart and blood vessel disease, strokes, lung disease, and cancer among others. The tragedy is that to a large extent they are all preventable – were it not for our addiction: read enslavement, to the habit.
On the other hand, seemingly innocuous habits both overtly and covertly ingrained into us by the consumerist culture have turned us into both physical and mental slaves: fast food, latest fashions and styles, technological gadgetry with shorter and shorter turnaround times that eggs us on to even beg, borrow or steal so as to obtain the latest or more fanciest even if the advantage to be gained is marginal, items of luxury which are advertised profusely right in our living rooms on the TV and which whet our appetites – the list keeps growing. Not to mention shopping sprees at the mall and supermarkets where, as many have experienced, even if you go without the intention of buying, or have already decided on what you will get, you invariably end up overspending!
I am sure that each one of us can add to this list. The basic truism is that our needs turn into wants, which is fair enough within limits. But the tipping point comes when need becomes greed, and that’s when we really become slaves. It was always thus, only the form has changed. And we get tied down to this worldly bondage. Can we escape? Can we conquer ourselves? That is the question.