Looking back at the route we travelled, it seems as if the waters closed behind us and it is no longer safe to travel that way. Maybe it isn’t really much worse than at the time – our encounter with the Egyptian army was perhaps a sign that things were tense there even then. But the expansion of violence across the region is more than worrying so I’m glad we did this journey just in time.
Having passed through the region did start me on a chain of thought – thinking about some of the horrific things people have done – for example videoing themselves cutting other people’s heads off. It makes us all wonder how someone can do that…they must have something wrong with them? It is obviously inhuman? To be honest I have avoided seeing any of those videos – knowing they exist is bad enough. But I have also seen other things lately that I find disturbing for other reasons. I watched Earthlings for the first time, or rather I watched part of it. The abattoir sequence was too much for me as an engineer – the effort and ingenuity that must have gone in to creating a machine to manipulate a living sentient animal was really disturbing. All to make the process more efficient and make a few more dollars profit. Then there was an article on the BBC, looking into the brutal gang rape of a woman in India, and the attitudes of the perpetrators. This was in some ways more disturbing than anything – though I think people should read it, you have to admire Leslee Udwin who had the bravery to listen to those people, to expose and document the underlying issues. I was left speechless, I’m glad she wasn’t.
It seemed to me though that all of these things, though very different and some far more horrific than others, had something in common – the objectisation and devaluation of the victim by the social or cultural group around those perpetrating the act, and the rationalisation of individual actions on that basis. This is not inhuman – it is a very human trait. People can do almost anything if it is normalised by their peers. We find excuses for everything. I think we need to recognise that and deal with it – WE are those peers. It never starts out as these extreme examples, but the more we accept prejudice and the devaluing of others – even if it does make ourselves feel better – the more likely these attitudes form the foundations which develop into extremes?
From a vegan perspective, once we open our eyes it seems obvious that what we were led to believe was normal and necessary, was not. In most cases vegans have had to go through the process of accepting that we are wrong – since we have mostly been brought up as part of the animal-consuming society – accepting guilt for our time as non-vegans and doing something about it. I think it is important however not to stop there and keep our eyes open – being vegan is not the answer to everything, and having made that step once we should not close our minds to seeking out other opportunities to improve our interactions with the world, human and non-human. Its not easy – we natuarally fall back into habit and can’t think through every ramification of all our actions each day – even vegans mostly just go shopping like everyone else and pick the things they do every week without thinking. Its not difficult being vegan, its difficult questioning our own beliefs and assumptions then changing our habits where necessary – but perhaps we should all try that a bit more often rather than simply defending our current selves without thinking?
This trip has been a great adventure, but it is not in all ways a great example in this overcrowded world.
Our travels through Ethiopia made me wonder quite how many humans this planet can support – and not just in terms of how much food we can produce, but how many other species are forced into smaller and smaller spaces and then into extinction by our very existence.
Most Ethiopians consume very little compared to more ‘developed’ nations, but still we saw a country of visibly eroding landscapes where biodiversity was being ever reduced under pressure from the human population and their domesticated animals, amid a thriving international Aid industry.
We can give ourselves some time by moving to a vegan way of life, as well as becoming healthier and avoiding the unnecessary cruelty of animal production – which in themselves are reason enough. But in my own lifetime the human population of the planet has more than doubled – if we don’t do something serious about that soon, that time might not be enough. We all know the feeling of awe and beauty we get from the sight of a wild, natural landscape? We know it is good. Maybe we should start taking that particular natural instinct to heart and ask whether its acceptable to claim the majority of this land for ourselves at the expense of other earthlings? In Africa, there are estimated to be 30,000 lions left alive. In the same continent there are in excess of 1,100,000,000 humans. Since we have assumed the mantle of ‘top predator’, perhaps we should adjust our numbers and land claim to a more appropriate level for that position in the food chain?
Instead, we are on course to accelerate our uncontrolled growth – the UN’s population projections are really quite alarming, especially in some of the resource-limited regions. I’ll leave you to go check those details – Wikipedia is actually a fairly good starting point. But even here, we are inclined to look at it as a regional problem – we’re OK because we are developed countries and our population isn’t increasing so fast. We’re doing OK then and its not our problem? And anyway when we talk about resources and population, the definitions are all about how much food for humans the world can support – being vegan will solve that too…
But human population is not a geographically localised problem. Our actions back in Europe have direct consequences all over the world. Botswana has a very low population density – but vast areas of the country are given over to beef production for export, and they built huge fences to prevent the wildlife migrating (partly to meet European disease control standards). This not only cuts down the range of wild animals, but has led for example to large scale deaths of zebra when they couldn’t migrate from dry areas to areas with water. It IS free-range cattle, probably cheap for Europe – but at what cost to wildlife? But moving on into South Africa it was obvious that these current pressures on wildlife and biodiversity are just the latest in a long succession, and not by any means all are related to animal farming. We can be just as speciesist, albeit indirectly, while being vegan – when we buy fruits, vegetables and drink wine from Africa (or anywhere else for that matter) we are using the best land, long claimed for ourselves and fenced off to exclude other species. That has the same effect – reducing biodiversity and the capacity of wildlife to survive by migrating. Is it enough that vegans use less of this exclusive best land?
Even the game reserves and national parks often have the appearance of little more than a grand scale zoo for human entertainment – often fenced, nearly always featuring artificial waterholes to concentate the wildlife at suitable viewing spots. And then we create more problems – fencing the wildlife in, taking away their ability to migrate and concentatrating them in specific locations. The local environment can’t support this concentration and there are said, for example, to be too many elephants.
People lobby to have them culled to control the numbers. Is this always our solution? There are not too many elephants – there may be in certain areas that we have concentrated them in – but the real problem is too many people. And unlike elephants, the human population is a global problem – our global markets mean we have an impact wherever we are. Yes, being vegan reduces that impact considerably and we could sustainably feed everyone if we were vegan – but we continue to treat the entire planet as our personal food factory. For me, that is not acceptable. When will we start to do something about our own population rather than resorting to culling and ‘managing’ other species to treat the symptoms? We can be a very self-deluding species at times – always defending whatever it is we want or makes us feel better about ourselves with excuses in the guise of reason, rather than being open to self-criticism and change. That much is clear from our treatment of each other.
I do feel guilty about the amount of resources we have used in our Western lives and travels – especially in this last round trip to Europe to finish the trip to Cape Town. I have some making up to do. If we are to survive, we can’t go on with this number of humans using more and more resources. It is too easy to make a small step and then settle down into thinking we’ve done enough since we have done more than most. Its not enough. Go vegan, stay vegan – it is easy and takes nothing away from our enjoyment and quality of life – there is no sacrifice in doing that much, so no excuse not to. And don’t increase the population. Doing these things would be a start. But only a start.
I’m glad to have seen so much of this world, but despair at our apparent inability to control our own destruction of it. Isn’t it time we stopped looking at each other and finding excuses not to take responsibility for our own actions or inactions…all of them and not just our own pet issues?
“Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess” Martin Luther King, May 5th 1966. The year England won the football World Cup. Now there are more than twice as many of us. Those 3 lions on an England shirt may soon be all the lions there are to watch outside a zoo.