Saturday, May 18, 2013



By P. Anyang' Nyong'o

May 16 2013

Are we under the threat of a Third World War or of something else we have always taken as our ultimate salvation, and that is the advancements in science and technology? Redd Foxx, acting as Fred Sanford in the American soap opera "Good Times", once remarked that the Third World War will be very different from the Second One because "there won't be any veterans when it is over". I feel the same with any blind faith in science and technology: there might not be any veterans of our human cultures as we know them today once we give in to science and technology lock, stock and a barrel full of technocracy and scientific experiments.

Why do I say so?

Advancements in science and technology have, indeed, brought tremendous good to the human race in the areas of health, communications, information, food production and so on. In fact it is difficult to imagine how we used to do certain things before without the technological trappings we have today, like the mobile phone, airplanes and cars. But think about it: does nature not have some internal logic to how it works and how human beings adapted their existence to this internal logic for many more centuries before advancements in science ad technology? To what extent have we gained from science and technology while preserving, and even improving, on this nature's internal logic?

One area where we realized we were failing and we are beginning to do something regards the environment. We cannot, for example, live without animals, plants and insects; so we must control the extent to which we convert them to food or use them in other ways. So it makes a lot of sense to have sound environmental control programs, wild life conservation, forest reserves and botanical gardens. The amount of heat we create from our industrial and other activities must not upset the happy balance that has existed between human society and nature's other kingdoms from time immemorial.

Precisely because advancements in science and technology have made it easier for human beings to access food, medicine and drinks from sources other than "naked nature" itself-- what we call artificial or synthetic substances-- our own bodies have become strangers to the world of nature. What nature could do for us which we have now decided we can do for ourselves have fast become a threat to our own existence.

For many centuries down the lane of history, human communities all over the world depended on natural water to cook and quench their thirst. Not too long ago human beings discovered the science of making soft drinks, beverages and other quenchers, using preservatives and  sweeteners. The end result is that, in a good number of advanced societies, urban folks drink soft drinks, coffee and other beverages more than water. The water that is taken is a thousand generations removed from the spring water our ancestors were used to. And yet we are told the human body is seventy five percent water? So what water do we actually have in our bodies: the one in sync with nature or the one alienated from it? Will there be any veterans left when we all perish from drinking the water several generations removed from the one nature bequeathed to us?

Advancements in science and technology recently drove us into producing tremendous amounts of food because of the modification of plant genes; hence the never ending debate on genetically modified organisms. We are supposed to plant a seed which does not replicate itself in the next life. It is like a male chameleon, once it mates its life is over. The GMO maize seed, for example, is not recruited from the cob you harvest from your garden: you have to buy it every time you plant. The benefit is that you are sure of the harvest, it comes in plenty and you gain more than you lose by buying new seeds-- at least that is the story line.

My mother has refused to swallow this narrative love, stock and a barrel full of science and technology. She still preserves the seeds for the next season on a cob which she hangs in the kitchen above the fire place as she has done ever since I attended Ndiru primary school in the fifties. She says her  "nyamula" ( yellow maize) harvested from planting these seeds tastes much better than the "soft butter" from our GMO seeds.

My mother is probably right. The people from whom we got the GMO narrative--the Americans--now venerate health and organic food stores. These are the stores where one can buy natural foods, free from any contamination from artificial additives, scientific manipulations  and so on. In other words, they are going back to basics: back to be in sync with nature.

I think Bishop Augustine of Hippo was right: whenever we embrace sow advances in science and technology, let us at least take a pause, and think for a moment that we may be wrong. The same is so true in modern pharmaceutical advances: so many drugs are embraced only to be proven dangerous to the human body once they take care of the diseases they are meant to cure. No wonder the oriental world has stuck to herbal medicine and sought to use science and technology to improve in this area rather than swallow modern medicine lock, stock and barrel. We must pursue advancements in our African herbal medicine in the same manner.

But the monster called money or business always interferes. The men who trade on merchandise harmful to the human existence will always resist any policy that go against their interest. Look at the tobacco industry and its denial that smoking does not cause cancer. Or that even if it does the individual must be given the freedom to choose whether to smoke or not. The matter can be taken further to the world of soft drinks. Harmful as they are to human beings it is difficult to envisage how we can stop them being sold to the public. The same public will not accept that the drinks are harmful to them in the first place. Hence my fear of the coming deluge: human beings destroying themselves due to adopting cultures of drinks and foods destructive to the human race.