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Is modern life making us all sick?

From microplastics in our blood to plummeting sperm counts, the threats facing humanity seem innumerable. So, how do we get ourselves out of this mess – and more importantly, what’s next?

Generally speaking, the world is a scary place right now. If it’s not the ongoing pandemic, then it’s the existential threat of nuclear war; mass surveillance, data harvesting, and the looming fear of technocracy. Online, big-picture warnings of imminent climate catastrophe are juxtaposed with headlines that penis sizes are shrinking and sperm counts are plummeting. Mercury is in anti-ageing creams, toxic chemicals lurk in our food, and microplastics are in our blood. Although this century has brought on plenty of invaluable scientific breakthroughs, recent news headlines can‘t help but make me question: is modernity making us sick?

Out of all the threats facing humanity right now, perhaps the most insidious is microplastics. PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), or “forever chemicals”, are toxins that don’t break down in the environment or the human body. They accumulate everywhere, even in the placentas of unborn babies – and while the impact on our health is yet unknown, the facts aren’t promising. 

Last month, news broke that microplastics were being found in human blood for the first time. The study, which took place at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, discovered the toxins in 80 per cent of people it tested. “The findings are shocking, but perhaps not surprising, given the prevalence of plastics in our daily lives and,” explains Dr David Santillo, senior scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories. “The simple fact that residues of some of the most commonly used plastics can be detected in our bloodstream is evidence that there is no part of us that is not exposed to plastic pollution, nor therefore to the chemical additives and contaminants that plastics can carry.”

In her 2021 book Countdown, environmental and reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan tackles the declining sperm count, rising infertility and the possible extinction of the human species. Sperm counts, Swan writes, have dropped almost 60 per cent since 1973, a statistic that she attributes to PFAS. Following this trajectory, she suggests that they could reach zero by 2045. Then there’s shrinking penis size and volume of the testes – not a problem per se, but a weird phenomenon nonetheless. In her book, Santillo warns,Humanity faces many problems, most of its own making, but if the ongoing decline in human fertility is not one that gets far more attention, then the consequences for our species could be truly existential and catastrophic.”

These threats are no doubt anxiety-inducing, so it’s unsurprising that we’re seeing our malaise boil over onto social media. A popular TikTok account @oneminmicro that dissects everyday food items like fish fingers and rice for microplastics has millions of views, while countless videos of teens reacting to the news that microplastics have been found in our blood highlight the extent of the emergency (the hashtag #microplastic has 78.5 million views). In the meme-scape, image formats that reference humans consuming microplastics range from Spyro to anime girls to Family Guy. Emerging in late 2021, following news outlining the extent of the crisis, their popularity only reflects our collective anxiety.

Given this wealth of (frankly) depressing information, it’s hard to resist the urge to go full Doomer mode and crawl into a self-imposed pit of isolation. Perhaps you consider exiting society to go live in a cabin in the woods, or go full-on dinocore and dream of returning to the primordial soup. Maybe, in an attempt to resist societal control, you gorge yourself on a carnivorous diet of bison heart and Raw Milk – that is, until you realise that these, too, contain the same toxins you tried ever so vehemently to avoid. Maybe humans are the virus, you think to yourself. But that fails to account for the power imbalances that allowed these injustices to happen in the first place. You pause. Maybe the problem isn’t humanity, but capitalism. 

“People can identify a crisis, but they don’t have the tools to identify a collective response,” explains Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything (2014) and The Shock Doctrine (2007). “There is no individual solution to this, because it has to do with the fact that we’re all enmeshed and entangled in the idea that you can make a lifestyle change and get healthy, which is a myth. It’s a desperate attempt to have control, which is understandable, because we are in an out of control moment in human history.”

“People can identify a crisis, but they don't have the tools to identify a collective response” – Naomi Klein

An interesting yet worrying byproduct of these manmade disasters is the rising popularity of anarcho-primitivism among young people on social media. The once-fringe ideology, which rejects modernity and advocates for returning to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, began gaining traction online via memes such as Return to Monkee, Reject Modernity, and Ideal Anprim GF. Memes depicting Theodore Kaczynski – AKA the Unabomber, an American terrorist who lived in a cabin in the woods – also began appearing across Reddit and Instagram, with users referencing his Unabomber manifesto, outlining the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution on humanity’s progression.

“Where we go wrong is when we try to find those individual solutions to microplastics when we lack a systemic analysis,” Klein continues. “We lack basic literacy on how capitalism works, so people are hiving off into various ways of understanding it. One of them may be an anarcho-primitivism, another one might be a Qanon conspiracy. But these are products of not understanding how a system is built to produce these outcomes and an understandable sense of helplessness about what a collective response might be.”

Benjamin Bratton, American sociologist and author of The Terraforming (2019) and The Revenge of the Real (2021), agrees. “As I see it there are two types of AnPrims: there are those who believe that radical and immediate degrowth of the human impact on the planet is the only realistic path to prevent the collapse of civilisations and the apocalyptic misery that would bring, the collapse preventers. There are also those who are less interested in preventing such collapse than in riding its wave toward what they see as a preferable low-tech or no-tech world, the collapse fetishists,” he explains. “The collapse fetishists either dismiss the misery that would entail as either exaggerated or a well-deserved final judgement for a wicked modernity. I don’t see this latter group – the real nihilists – as political activists so much as fanatical ascetics renouncing the world on behalf of an eschatological vision of final justice.”

@oneminmicro Reply to @kepler61b Three ways to reduce microplastics ❤👁👄👁 #sausage #microscope #microplastic #ohno #meat #plastic #ohno ♬ Sneaky Snitch - Kevin MacLeod

One possible solution to these problems is what Bratton refers to as anthropoforming: the process by which humans remake themselves and are continuously remade by their environments. Because let’s face it: there is no way around our current dilemma other than to stop ignoring it, and terraform our own ecosystem so that it remains a viable host for its own life. We need to embrace the artificial and maximise ourselves within a space, instead of pretending we have complete sovereignty over our environments. We can’t reverse industrialisation – as much as the anarcho-primitivists would like – so instead, we need to use the technology we have to hand to try and engineer ourselves out of this mess.

Seeing as we can’t go backwards, slipping into a pre-industrial state of bucolic bliss is out of the question. So is living off the land hunter-gatherer style, lest we remind you that everything is filled with microplastics – even the air we breathe. Going off the grid, while certainly a Romantic proposal, is no different to an ostrich putting its head in the sand. The only solution? Working with the resources we have.