06 April 2024

Man, beast, and clashing values

A peculiar news item has recently surfaced which illustrates how differently different cultural groups perceive the relationship between humanity and nature.  You can read the story in detail here.  In brief, the government of Botswana is threatening to send twenty thousand elephants to Germany, in a weird sort of African parallel to DeSantis's schemes to transport illegal aliens en masse to blue states.  The reason is that Germany is considering banning the import of hunting trophies from Africa, to discourage the hunting of wild animals in Africa by German tourists.  This offends Botswana, which makes money from the hunters who visit there.  Botswana claims to be suffering from elephant overpopulation (it has been trying to get other African countries to take some of the surplus pachyderms off its hands), and the huge animals are dangerous, sometimes attacking villages, crops, and people.  The message is, "If you're so keen on there being more and more elephants, let's see how you like it when they're rampaging around your country."

Animal conservation, and in general the preservation of nature for its own sake, is notoriously mostly a fixation of upper-middle-class people living in safe urban areas (mostly in the West) who have been so far removed from nature for so long that they've completely lost touch with how horrible it is and hold an irritatingly naïve, "picturesque" view of it.  Beautiful professional photographs of charismatic wild animals in exotic undeveloped landscapes do not convey the reality of predation, parasites, untreated injuries and disease, the struggle to get enough food to fend off starvation -- the natural life that our own ancestors escaped from, thousands of years ago.  Even less do they acknowledge that the local people in these places usually have a very different view of such things than the intended audience in Manhattan or Berlin.

Prosperous people care about nature for its own sake because, to be blunt, they can afford to.  Most people in tropical countries (where most of the "wild" is) are living a lot closer to the edge and have little choice but to assess everything around them based on whether and how it can be exploited to make their lives a little better.  Consider the West's own past.  Europeans during the industrial revolution accepted levels of pollution, deforestation, and other environmental damage we would never tolerate today, because that was the necessary price to be paid for escaping the grinding poverty of pre-industrial life.  After industrialization and advancing technology had made the West rich, one of the luxuries that it bought with its new wealth was a cleaner environment.  People in poorer countries today don't like pollution or environmental damage either, but achieving prosperity is simply a more important concern.  As for fetishizing useless and dangerous animals, that's another luxury which most people in Germany can afford (at a safe distance) and most people in Botswana can't.

The Botswana story reminded me of this item I posted a while back, apparently a letter published in a newspaper in India which I found on an Indian blog:
He speaks for billions, I suspect.

An interestingly parallel situation has been unfolding recently in Colorado.  A few years ago that state held a referendum on re-introducing wolves into the rural western area from which they had been exterminated generations ago.  The measure passed (barely), thanks to votes from the urban central part of the state.  The ranchers and townspeople of the region where the wolves were to be unleashed voted overwhelmingly against it, recognizing the obvious danger to their livestock and perhaps to themselves and their families too.  This week the first killing of a calf was confirmed.  I suspect that gun sales in the region have risen sharply -- although the people in that area are probably well-armed already.  They'll need to be.  It seems to me that a win-win solution could be achieved here by releasing the wolves, not in western Colorado which doesn't want them, but in the precincts in Denver which voted most enthusiastically to bring them in.  I suspect the Botswanans would concur, but oddly enough, nobody seems to be considering this.

As I discussed in this post, when stone-age humans spread into the Americas and Australia for the first time, they quickly wiped out all of the really large animal species which had formerly existed there.  To primitive hunter-gatherers, a woolly mammoth could be one of two things -- menace or feast.  It was not picturesque.

The people of the tropics will probably develop the same attitudes toward nature as the West has when they achieve the same level of prosperity as the West has.  Until then, efforts to impose the values of the Western upper-middle class in regions where those values have no roots or logical basis must expect to encounter a lot of push-back.


Blogger NickM said...

Utterly brilliant post. I have followed you for quite a while and that is good even by your standards. Yes, it is absoluttely true that some of the weirder Green fetishits* are utterly divorced from reality. Remember Sting making a tit of himself in the Amazon? Maybe not. Sting has an incredible capacity to self-titify and a very long track record of it.

One of the things that gets my goat is that so few people realise that the "green and pleasant land" that is England is largely a human creation. Our fens shaped by land reclamation, our uplands by sheep farming. The Lake District is no more natural than Manchester.

I can't help but feel that a lot of this sort of "do-gooding" from people who have never had to shovel shit from one place to another to scrape by is simply the whole "Noble Savage" or "White Man's Burden" rebranded.

It is utterly patronising. It is treating Africans like an amusement park feature. A musuem piece to be preserved regardless of the cost (to Africans of course) of some imagined Eden. Bugger that!

So, kudos to Botswana. Anyway, an elephant stampede down the Kurfürstendamm would be a thing to behold!

*an sp. but I'm leaving it.

06 April, 2024 11:19  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks! It was something that needed to be said. Some ecological issues are extremely important, like global warming or severe pollution, because they pose a threat to humans. Expecting some of the poorest people in the world to make sacrifices and take orders for the sake of concerns that won't even benefit them (or us, really) is in an entirely different category.

07 April, 2024 04:24  
Anonymous Annie said...

This post carried me well past my comfort zone, as it should. I recoil from trophy hunting and have always been impressed by the remarkable capabilities of elephants. But your essay rings true—and you’ve convinced me that we who are safe from these wild animals must reexamine the demands we are making on those whose daily reality involves dealing with them—up close and personal. Interesting that it is Botswana, a country that has been trying to modify exploitation, whose leaders are adopting PR techniques to awaken Western nations to their plight.

07 April, 2024 15:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

There's no higher compliment I as a writer can get than that I led someone to consider an idea outside their comfort zone. So thank you for that.

I don't dispute that trophy hunting is a disgusting practice. Killing an animal out of desperation for food or to eliminate a threat it poses is one thing, but killing for fun or as a display of machismo is in the same psychological territory as serial killers who kill other humans for what are basically the same reasons. I haven't heard of Africans themselves engaging in such behavior. But if some people in the West are willing to pay good money to indulge their perversions, I can't blame poorer countries for taking advantage of that, especially if the animals being targeted are also dangerous to local people.

The deeper point is that Western conservationists tend to be the same people who usually object to Western domination or unwanted influence over non-Western countries -- yet they don't see that they themselves are engaging in a form of the same thing.

08 April, 2024 01:47  
Blogger Darrell Michaels said...

I have never been one to support trophy hunting as it always seemed rather barbaric in practice. I don't have problems with people that hunt and eat what they shoot though. That said, I recall a big dust up probably ten years ago when some American trophy hunter shot "Cecil" the lion somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. I don't recall where.

Anyway, at first I was irritated with the guy like most urban-dwelling Americans. I then read an article from a reporter that interviewed some locals and they had a decidedly different take on lions. They said that they are a constant threat to their live stock and families and that more remote villages must encircle their camps with fences of brush etc. to keep the lions out at night. They stated that the killing of lions for them was a matter of survival and if some rich American happened to pay big bucks for his "trophy" then that was one less lion that he and his family had to worry about accordingly. It kind of changed my perspective.

Well done on your blog post here, Infidel!

08 April, 2024 15:48  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Darrell: Thanks! I really was not sure how people would react to this one.

People would understand these issues a lot better if they just considered the same issues arising in the area where they themselves live. A pride of lions roaming around and hunting in suburban Portland would be considered an emergency. Yet people expect villagers in Tanzania to accept it as a normal part of life.

09 April, 2024 00:41  

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