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Killing us not-so-softly

Has technocratic civilization become cancer in itself?

Copyright 1995 by Lynna Landstreet. This column originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.

fter leaving the Survivors exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, I had intended to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the museum, reacquainting myself with favourite places like the bat cave, and checking out new additions. But I was much too shaken by the time I left to want to do anything but sit quietly somewhere with a cup of tea.

As I made my way to the cafeteria, everything seemed much too loud and bright, like a fever dream. But I persevered and soon found myself standing in a too-long line, clutching my exhibition catalogue and plastic travel cup. I tried closing my eyes to keep out the crowds and the bright fluorescents, but the residual images from Donna Kriekle's mastectomy video that appeared in the darkness behind my eyelids were worse.

I opened my eyes to find myself standing opposite a huge meat-slicing machine that was busily cutting up a sodden lump of something blood-red and previously alive. As the woman behind the counter picked up the limp pile of flesh with a fork and carving knife, my stomach flipped over and I bolted from the lineup, hoping I could make it outside before I threw up.

The cold air outside settled my stomach just enough that I didn't puke after all, but the similarity of the meat being processed and prodded with steel tools and the surgery footage in the video still left me queasy, and on the edge of tears. I wondered who the hell could eat something that looked like that -- and hoped they hadn't seen the video.

As I wandered through the concrete-and-glass rabbit warren of Bloor Street in search of someplace quiet that didn't have an open kitchen, the city air seemed even more poisonous than usual. I half expected that if I looked up quickly enough, I'd catch a glimpse of a giant can of Raid aimed at the city. But of course, if I did, it would be our own collective finger on the trigger.

Did you ever have one of those days when our entire civilization feels like one big nightmare you can't wake up from? Sometimes, it seems like I've had one of those lives. But that day, it was especially acute. The endless expanse of concrete, broken only by half-dead trees in square cement pots and gray-faced people staring dully into store windows in search of some way of buying meaning for their lives made the city feel even more like a festering lesion on the face of the earth than usual.

Some of the artists in the show -- notably Barbara Klunder and Nancy Edell -- referred explicitly to environmental factors in breast cancer. But most dealt with the human anguish it causes in isolation, with no attempt to contextualize it within the general state of the world. Klunder's piece, which described women as canaries in a coal mine, seemed especially apt. The plain truth is that we don't have a fucking clue what half the chemicals we're pumping into the environment to support our overconsumptive lifestyles do, and despite skyrocketing cancer rates, and the increasing appearance of new diseases from AIDS to toxic shock to chronic fatigue syndrome to necrotizing fascitis, we don't seem interested in finding out.

There's strong evidence that chlorine is linked to breast cancer, and a host of other problems, but will the government commit to phasing it out? Will the pulp and paper industry switch to safer bleaching methods? Will women stop committing slow suicide by sticking chlorine-bleached paper products up our cunts every month? Hell, no. What are a few thousand deaths a year compared to economic growth, or convenience?

We are all -- women with breast cancer, people with AIDS, children with leukemia from living near power lines, and all the rest -- canaries in the coal mine of industrial civilization. And as we sicken and die, even we ourselves, let alone the people in power, won't admit the truth: that our technocratic, life-denying, endlessly expanding death culture is a cancer in itself. And like any cancer, it continues to replicate blindly despite the fact that the destruction of its host ensures its own eventual demise as well.

If there's any hope for a cure for cancer, AIDS or anything else, it lies in questioning the values that make up the very basis of our culture, and in changing -- drastically -- the way that we live. Whether or not we have the courage to do that remains to be seen.

See also my interview with Barbra Amesbury, one of the show's organizers


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