Eco-Ethics: how far is too far?
The 1973 film “Soylent Green” entered popular culture after weaving a dystopian plot which regarded the effects of human overpopulation and pollution ultimately leading to huge breaches of the moral values we currently hold as a species.
The greatest example of this in the plot was in the titular food issued to the masses, known only as “Soylent Green”. The protagonist undergoes a horrific revelation at the end of the film, learning that this food is actually produced by reprocessing the bodies of dead humans into protein wafers which are then fed to the living.
Such an issue may very well seem far-fetched in real life, but with building concern for the environment do we one day risk reaching a similar level of desperation, exchanging our present values for the security of the future? A recent example has surfaced in the way we dispose of the dead.
Cremation is often regarded as more ecologically friendly than the traditional means of burial after death since contaminants cannot be released into the soil. Yet methods are still being explored to further modernise and update the process.
One way of doing this is use of a resomation chamber. These large metal machines work much like traditional cremation units, but use a highly basic combination of Potassium Hydroxide and water to reduce a body to ash over a period of several hours.
In addition to reduced energy expenditure, this method also allows any waste solution to be re-released into the general water supply after it has been sanitised and processed. The basic solution used for this chemical form of “cremation” reportedly renders all by-products of the reaction sterile and only the bone ash of the body is kept by relatives.
Despite the claim of sterility, this form of waste recycling has provoked discussion on whether such measures could be considered excessive and even morally wrong, or are in fact ingenious and simply offer us more choice when it comes to our final fate.
Is it simply a natural extension of the reprocessing we already use when dealing with our drinking and utility water? As is well known, we already use water left over from sewage treatment as drinking water when it is sufficiently purified. The purification and reuse of resomation liquid could be regarded as very similar. Regardless, some onlookers would suggest is it a fundamental violation of our principles to recycle water used in such a deeply macabre and personal way.
Even closer to the core of our morality, should we accept that our values must change as technology adapts to become more efficient and offer new solutions, or should our sense of right and wrong be the driving force for new developments?
While resomation is not currently legislated in the United Kingdom, the process is already in use in some US states. Proposals have been submitted to the government to allow it to be fully introduced.