Every time there is a war, or, to use the palatable neoliberal term, a “humanitarian intervention,” or a midwifing of a new “liberal democracy,” the media are sure to run a story about the innocent zoo animals caught in the crossfire. This concern with the innocent animals victimized by human conflicts was used effectively in Emir Kusturica’s film Underground, set in late 20th century Yugoslavia, and it is interesting to examine this fascination with zoo animals in wartime. Perhaps there is more to it than a mass media trope.

The film Underground was a sensation in 1995 for having won the Palme d’Or while having also committed the sin of creating a sympathetic portrayal of Serbs and Montenegrins during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The film also reminded world audiences about the Nazi-Croatian collaboration that perpetrated a genocide in the Balkan peninsula—one that shocked even the Nazi officers managing the occupation. In the 1990s, as now, the public was largely oblivious to the disturbing link between this history and the role that Germany and other NATO powers had played in enabling Croatia to break from Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Even the sympathetic film review by Giorgio Bertellini—used as promotional material in the Blu-ray disc edition of the film—contained no challenge to the Western demonization of Serbs and the blaming of them for all the atrocities that occurred in the Balkan wars. The review merely describes the ways in which the film’s producers and financers skirted around the controversy and managed to distribute the film.

Air raid on a zoo, from Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995)

While some Serbs and Montenegrins were moved by the story that lamented the loss of Yugoslavia, others protested the crude depiction of the Serbian and Montenegrin resistance leaders as reckless and brawling drunks, arms merchants, and misogynists. The tale begins during WWII, then continues in Yugoslavia under Tito’s rule. One of the resistance leaders, Marko (a Serb), becomes an official in the party while growing rich in arms manufacturing. He keeps his best friend and rival in love, Blacky (a Montenegrin), now disabled from battle injuries, in the basement of a farm house. Marko keeps him there, along with a small community of veteran resistance fighters, manufacturing weapons for what he makes them believe is an endless resistance against fascist occupation. Meanwhile, he lives above ground with Natalija, the woman Marko and Blacky had both wanted and “liberated” from her Nazi officer boyfriend during the occupation. The people in the basement don’t know the war is over until they escape in the 1990s and find their country overrun with UN peacekeepers, refugees and nationalist fighters of various kinds. Blacky emerges from underground and stumbles across the set of a movie in which an actor is playing him as the national hero who died in the great war against fascism.

One could dwell on the controversies that the film generated during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, but one could also say it is about Yugoslavia to the same extent that Hamlet is about Denmark. The reckless passions of the two partisan heroes made them look hypocritical and turned them into objects of satire. However, this exaggerated contrast highlighted the contradiction found in all revolutions. The world that revolutionaries try to change is also the world that traumatized them as children and turned them into damaged adults. But you wage revolution with the partisans you have, not ones you wish you had.

This broader message about the human condition was portrayed by the images of a zoo being bombed in a Nazi air raid, and in the chimpanzee who remained as a loyal companion of one of the characters who lived underground for forty-five years. In one haunting shot, a goose and a tiger lie dying side by side, injured and bloodied. The goose pecks at the tiger’s head until the tiger gets annoyed and goes for its jugular. I have no idea how such a scene was captured on film, but it works as a fleeting metaphor for what the entire story is about. The oppressor and the oppressed lie together, mortally wounded, and the oppressed takes advantage of the moment to take a swipe at the oppressor, who then uses his last burst of energy to crush his natural prey.

From Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995)
From Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995)

Dr. Gabor Maté, a man of medicine who has also become a revered “medicine man” for spiritual seekers in recent years, explained the zoo succinctly in one of his interviews:

Until about 9,000 years ago, virtually all human beings lived in small hunter-gatherer bands… You might liken modern society to a zoo where you take animals from a natural habitat and you put them in a completely artificial, restricted situation, and you expect them to stay as normal as they were out there in the wild. Essentially, that’s what has happened to human beings. In a very short space of time, in the blink of an eye, from the perspective of evolution, we’ve gone from the hunter-gatherer small band, communal, attachment-based group to a society which is alienated, disconnected, and that disconnection is accelerating at a tremendous rate throughout the world. Urbanization is taking people out of their villages to the big cities where they are alone. Here in Britain there was quite a deliberate assault on community under the Thatcher regime, with the destruction of neighborhoods and communities and so on, and that trend has continued. So what we are having is societies that are less and less natural to the actual make-up of human beings from the evolutionary perspective, which means that children are being brought up under increasingly artificial and disconnected circumstances. These lost connections characterize the modern world and as they do, you’re getting the spread of auto-immune disease into countries that never used to have it before, or addictions for that matter. So if you look at the rate of addiction now in countries like China and India, it’s going up exponentially. It’s not a question of idealizing the old way of life. We can’t go back, and of course there are all kinds of benefits to progress and industrialization. The trouble is that as we progress, we forget what we’ve lost. So instead of trying to hold onto what was best about some of the old ways, we just throw everything out, and we think we can re-invent ourselves, and as we do, we are making ourselves sick.[1]

Elsewhere, in books and dozens of lectures and interviews that can be found on the Internet, Dr. Maté has elaborated on these connections between the polluted environment, toxic society, and mental and physical illness. In an interview with Russell Brand he stated:

… physical ailments like rheumatoid arthritis or cancer are not abstract or isolated biological incidents. They actually have something to do with people’s emotional and spiritual lives, and that could be affected positively by taking a broader view. There’s all kinds of science for that. The science is not even controversial, but it’s not taught in the medical schools. … fundamentally, for this society to function, it has to separate the soul from the body because we wouldn’t treat people the way we do if we thought they had souls… Rationalism means cutting off from the heart, and so, basically, Western science very much starts from the neck up, and you can do a lot of great things with the intellect, and the hyper-rationality, and the research, and so on, but it also leaves us short of our humanity, and that integration is not taking place because it threatens the social structure.[2]

Dr. Maté’s approach to disease is not beyond questioning. There are a lot of uncertainties involved in determining the causes of disease, and it may not be useful for some people to dwell on the unanswerable question of whether they were held enough in the first year of life. Dr. Maté has often mentioned that children in polluted environments who develop asthma are the ones who have the most stressful family situations. This may be true, and he certainly has good intentions in focusing on this cause, but it provides the chemical and nuclear industries with just the sort of support they always want. The nuclear industry’s supporters, for example, have always been eager to tell people living in the radioactive aftermath of Chernobyl and Fukushima that they are merely making themselves sick with “radiophobia.”[3] Dr. Maté often mentions the toxic culture as the root cause of disease, but I haven’t heard him state a position on the role of chemical and radiological toxins in the diseases he talks about. I suspect he would agree that toxins are obviously a cause of disease and victims shouldn’t be told they have radiophobia, but it is odd that he doesn’t clarify this point more often. Obviously, stress is a contributing factor for people living in polluted environments, but there is a vicious circle of both the pre-existing stress from the family and social environment and the stress of knowing that one has been exposed to toxins—toxins that cause damage by themselves, with or without psychological stress (see the chart below).

health breakdown vicious circle


This attention to the technological environment we live in is, of course, nothing new. American rock legend Jim Morrison spoke about it 1970 in an interview with a CBC journalist. Throughout the interview he sounded alarmingly sober, old and resigned—more Apollonian than Dionysian, which makes it hard to believe he died within a year from alcoholism:

The repression of sexual energy has always been the grandest tool of a totalitarian system. If everyone was free in their sexual activity, how many people would show up for work? That is the basic problem: whether progress, the progress of civilization, the evolution of a civilized culture, is really worth it. And there have been some amazing accomplishments, beautiful accomplishments, but the question is: Is it worth it? Is it worth the repression? And that’s something everyone has to answer, every second of their life.

From the late 1980s until the early years of the 21st century, film director Godfrey Reggio produced the Qatsi film trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi—all titles derived from the Hopi language) which dealt with the same theme. About this trilogy he said:

The greatest event, or the most important event of, perhaps, our entire history—nothing comparable in the past to this event—has fundamentally gone unnoticed, and the event is the following: the transiting from all-nature, or the natural environment as our host of life for human habitation, into a technological milieu, into mass technology as the environment of life. So these films have never been about… the effect of technology… Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, so we are no longer conscious of its presence. (source here)

Powaqqa is a black magician, an entity that eats the life of another person, that consumes the life of another, in order to advance her own or his own life. Powaqqa operates through seduction, through allurement, not through the obviousness of “I’m coming to get your heart!” or something like that. In other words, not like a horror show, and powaqqa, when it’s joined with the word qatsi, means a way of life that consumes another way in order to advance itself. So, the film Powaqqatsi is about the southern hemisphere; Koyaanisqatsi, the northern hemisphere—hyperkinetic, industrial, technological grid. Powaqqatsi, the southern hemisphere, cultures of orality, people who have a hand-made living of tradition.

So the present puts us in this conundrum of no exit out from this new universe that we’ve been put in—the technological order—that really we know nothing about. Nothing… Naqoy means war, to kill another, to take the life of another. When you put it together it means a life-way of war, a life-way of killing. That’s its etymology… the war that this word describes is a war beyond the battlefield, a total war. War as ordinary daily living… I would summarize the whole meaning of the word to be encapsulated in the shibboleth “civilized violence.” (source here)

These contemplations of the technological milieu pose the question of whether humans could ever adapt to it, or adapt it to their natural requirements. The energy sources and the machines were supposed to be our new slaves, but slavery always erodes the soul of the master. One could look back at the 20th century and say that Soviet and Chinese socialism also produced an oppressive technological tyranny, but who knows what they might have achieved if they had not been opposed by an archaic form of oligarchic capitalism draped in the structures of liberal democracy—a structure that was invented as a cure for feudalism and hasn’t been updated in the last two centuries.

Peter Joseph, author of The New Human Rights Movement, has been writing about the need for a radical reformation and rethinking of how we conceive the links between politics and economics and the potential for technology to finally be used to support human needs. In a critique of Bernie Sanders and the American left he said:

Governments are fundamentally premised economically… if you examine the nature of governments since the Neolithic Revolution, you will see that they are first and foremost concerned with economic behavior. Feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism and even socialism and communism, as they have existed, have had institutions of governance that organize around those economic foundations, explaining their differences. This only makes sense since the economy is what produces survival… Libertarians see a false duality between markets and government, and as the argument goes, government is a problem, as it restricts the so-called free market… The truth is government and business are inseparable because you have to have regulation of the individualistic and self-interest-driven anarchy that defines market behavior… Markets simply are not a viable system when it comes to accounting for human sustainability or social stabilization… If government did magically vanish, the negative externalities produced by market behavior would pretty much destroy the planet overnight.

Once we understand that every economic system is planned and therefore “socialist,” it is a matter of deciding only for whom it is planned. If we want to preserve the ecosystem, we need to sustain life rather than capitalist development, and that will require a massive transformation in the way we live within the technological milieu. It is not the technology that has to change but rather the way we use it to reduce its toxic effects and distribute its surplus value equitably.

For Lenin the solution was relatively easy. The Bolsheviks’ goal was to have state ownership of the means of production and divert the surplus value toward public benefit instead of to private interests. They would do exactly what the capitalist nations were doing to apply technology in pursuit of their goals: strengthen military defense, create a national electrical grid, build transportation networks, dams and factories, and use fertilizers and mechanization to increase agricultural output. Under both capitalism and Soviet socialism the endeavor created toxic wastelands, filled the atmosphere with high levels of CO2 and radioactive fallout, and led to increasing numbers of people who are traumatized and ill due to the environment they inhabit, even though many of them evaluate each other as “well-adjusted” and choose leaders who are sicker than themselves.

The next revolution won’t be able to resort to technology as a way to advance living standards. Been there. Done that. The toxic impacts of technology are the enemy now. We have contradictory goals that necessitate a radical re-imagining of the way we live. Stop using fossil fuels, stop producing nuclear waste, clean up our garbage and become responsible stewards of permanent toxic legacies like Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi (and all nuclear waste), and the Alberta Tar Sands—and do all this while forcing some to accept having much less while we ensure that everyone else gets what is minimally required for a decent life. The ecological economist Clive Spash makes the point that this can’t happen within the existing economic order:

The climate movement runs along a knife edge between re-establishing another phase of competitive economic growth, and making radical economic and political reform a reality through social ecological transformation. The current thrust is to the former and will remain so as long as the potential forces for change operate via corporations and remain committed to productivism, equitable materialism and nationalism. The climate movement is a real threat to powerful elites and that is exactly why it is being infiltrated and invited to have ‘a seat at the table.’ Climate change has been and is being used to wipe off the agenda all other environmental issues and to impose singular ‘solutions’ to systemic problems.[4]

It is not like this is a new thing that just became apparent during the new panic about mass extinction and runaway feedback loops. The futurist R. Buckminster Fuller wrote back in 1975:

Quite clearly, our task is predominantly metaphysical, for it is how to get all of humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous social behaviors that will avoid extinction.[5]

Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome “Biosphere” on the St. Lawrence River, Montreal, Canada


References to previous posts on this blog are hyperlinked in the text above. Other sources are listed in the notes below.

[1] Rangan Chatterjee, “How Our Childhood Shapes Every Aspect of Our Health with Dr. Gabor Maté,” Feel Better, Live More Podcast, Episode 37, November 21, 2018, 40:54~.

[2] Russell Brand, “Damaged Leaders Rule an Addicted World,” Under the Skin Podcast, Episode 53, November 10, 2018, 41:50~.

[3] Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019), 256. In this comprehensive study of the nuclear age and the Chernobyl aftermath, the author identified highly contaminated villages, distant from Chernobyl, where villagers lived for years without knowing that their land was saturated with high levels of Chernobyl fallout. They complained of a sudden rise in numerous health problems, but because they were unaware of the hazard, their illnesses could not be explained away as stress-induced “radiophobia.” Kate Brown formulated a ten-point list of methods used by the global nuclear establishment to make sure no widespread health crisis would ever be recognized: (1) classify data, (2) limit questions, (3) stonewall investigations, (4) block funding for research, (5) sponsor rival studies, (6) relate dangers to “natural” risks, (7) draw up study protocols designed to find nothing but catastrophic effects, (8) extrapolate and estimate to produce numbers that hide uncertainties and guesswork, (9) privately slander and threaten dissenting scientists, (10) and cast doubt on known facts so that scientists must pursue expensive and duplicative investigations to prove what is clearly evident.

[4] Clive L. Spash, “The Climate Movement: What Next?Wrong Kind of Green, May 6, 2019.

[5] R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (Macmillan Publishing, 1975), xxviii.