Not so sacred attitude

If you listen at all to the noise these days, you have heard that nature – and the preservation thereof – is important. It is not only crucial for our little, old world itself, but also for humans; we live in it, with it, and by its harsh laws whether we like it or not. TED speakers, generally, like stressing this point. Why is it an idea worth spreading?

The TEDxAmsterdam talk discussed in this blog highlights the fact that we can learn a lot about nature’s complex system. Believe me, I know this is not a revelation and surely it’s something all you nature buffs advocate. But taking recent events and publications into consideration, TED speakers who stress the importance of awareness might really be onto an idea worth spreading.

How complex is the system? Why should we revere it? In what way can we learn from nature? And why is this all so important now? These are not questions I profess to be able to answer right here, right now, but you would be impressed if I did, right?

It’s all about attitude

Alan McSmith

Alan McSmith, the founder of Wilderness Vision, spoke at last year’s TEDxAmsterdam event. Wilderness Vision is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the wild. McSmith serves as a professional guide by pioneering walking trails and low-impact tented camps in the South African Lowveld.

And – surprise, surprise – McSmith thinks that nature is important in our lives and in modern society. This is a vague statement by any standards. Of course it’s important. We would not be here if were not for nature. But if you listen closely to McSmith’s talk, you will realize he’s implying that wilderness conservation should not only be considered the conservation of elephants, water, and plants, but also of a sacred attitude toward this very world.

Wilderness is not a specific place, but instead a way of life, according to McSmith.  Considering the social and environmental issues of our age, this is more relevant than ever. ‘When considering the social issues of our age’ are peculiar words. How is nature related to pressing social issues of 2012? What does it have to with marriage, freedom of religion, violence in your neighborhood?

McSmith states simply, “There is a balance in nature that inspires grounding, humility and tolerance which can even inspire European societies far from the African bush. After all, are these not the sacred core values that should bind us together as human beings?”

Boys and cheetahs

As I re-watched McSmith’s talk and heard him guide the audience through an imaginative safari, I couldn’t help but think about the little boy who was mauled by a cheetah in a Dutch zoo a couple of weeks ago.  I just this image of the boy, who was on ‘safari’ with his mom, carefully following McSmith into the imaginary world about which he cautions. And then I was confronted with the stark image of him stepping out with his mother.  Completely oblivious.

The nine year old was visiting the Beekse Bergen Safari Park when he was bitten in the arm after getting out of their car during a drive through the park (even though signs specifically warn not to do this). Veterinarian Sjaak Kaandorp said that the boy saw the cheetah, freaked out, and ran away – a perfectly normal reaction. According to Kaandorp, the cheetah then thought, “Ah, prey!” and went after him. Apparently, the boy’s mother and his friend tried to pry the boy out of the cheetah’s dental clutches but were not successful. Instead, they dragged both boy and beast into the car with them. Only when they started driving did the cheetah let go. The boy’s mom says that she’s terribly embarrassed about the incident.

Beekse Bergen Safari park
Beekse Bergen Safari park

The boy was brought to the hospital and is fine now. But he got out of the car. What does this say about how grounded and humble he is around and in nature? Or his mother? She admitted to it being a dumb idea. Had she forgotten that animals are real things? That they are living, breathing, toothy beings with territory to defend and young to feed (much like herself). They are not just pretty things you look at in a picture or at a zoo. And both she and her son were sourly reminded about that when they came across one of those pretty things we share this planet with.

It’s not fair to compare McSmith to the boy in Beekse Bergen, but I would like to argue that the difference is that McSmith respects animal instinct. He takes cheetahs seriously. Granted, he’s been exposed to them from a young age. Everyone needs to learn one way or another. It only took one kick from a donkey for me to realize that I should not stand behind hoofed animals. So, this is by no means a ‘blame the boy’ blog; rather, read it as a rehashing of McSmith’s theory in light of a new example.

Men and meat

In another example of the distance between man and animal, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman niftily links the consumption of meat to all the world’s ills. His piece, titled “The Human Cost of Animal Suffering,” might be a bit grim, but he is trying to argue the same point as McSmith.

“If we want a not-too-damaged planet to live on, and we want to live here in a way that’s also not too damaged, we’re better off eating less meat. But if we also want a not-too-damaged psyche, we have to look at how we treat animals and begin to change it.” Bittman basically says we don’t revere these animals.

Mark Bittman. Photo by Andrew Brusso, Reader's Digest
Mark Bittman. Photo by Andrew Brusso, Reader’s Digest

What was once called animal husbandry is now more accurately described as ‘industrialization,’ however ugly the word, says Bittman. He proceeds to explain how bad this ‘industrialization’ is by citing Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, which was recently published by Timothy Pachirat.

Every Twelve Seconds by Timothy Pachirat

“You might think that “every twelve seconds” refers to the frequency with which we kill animals, but in a moment you’ll realize that would be impossible; we process more than nine billion animals each year — hundreds per second. ‘Every twelve seconds’ is the frequency with which an Omaha slaughterhouse kills cattle, at total of around 2,500 per day.

It’s this normalization of violence that Bittman is worried about, and he refers to Pachirat to explain it. “Our isolation from killing allows us to tolerate unimaginably cruel practices simply because we don’t see them…’Every Twelve Seconds’ shatters any belief you might have about the system treating animals with a shred of decency…The sheer volume, scale and rate of killing, the way the animals form a continuous stream rather than individual creatures, makes it clear the animals are seen as raw material. The cattle are called ‘beef’ even while they’re alive — and that not only protects people from acknowledging what they’re doing and that they’re doing it to sentient beings, it’s also accurate, a reflection of the process itself.” Note: yours truly is not a vegetarian. By any means.

That we feel we have a right to treat animals as we do widgets is hardly in keeping with the sacred attitude McSmith talks about. It is yet another example of someone basically getting out of their car to look at something they have never been exposed to before and, therefore, not understanding it. In the case of meat consumption, they receive ‘it’ on their plate in the form of a juicy burger and don’t think twice about from where their food came.

Even though Bittman is realistic in seeing that his argument won’t magically change meat lovers into vegetarians, he advocates changing our system to one “that allows our children to make more humane decisions…Because once we accept that farm animals are capable of suffering (80 percent of Americans believe this to be true), we might well wonder what they’ve done to deserve such punishment.”

All because it’s too big. Too far removed from what is natural. In another piece Bittman quotes Dean Ornish; “What is personally sustainable is globally sustainable. What is good for you is good for our planet.” This just about sums it up.

Bittman is an opinion columnist and the NYTimes Magazine’s food columnist. He is also the author of Food Matters, The Food Matters Cookbook,  How to Cook Everything, and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

Monkeys are us

And so, because of the distance between us and animals and the normalization of violence our connectedness to nature seems all the more irrelevant these days. The thing is; it is actually closer than we originally thought. This fact was recently underscored by the news that we even look more like gorillas than previously expected. Earlier this month British scientists from the Sanger Institute published in the prestigious journal Nature that they had documented and mapped a gorilla’s genetic material for the first time. And it looks more like that of humans then ever expected. I seriously thought they had the gorilla genes down cold already. Maybe that is why I was so surprised by this news. The gorilla was nearly the last big ape to have his DNA analyzed for comparative purposes. The chimpanzee, orangutan, and human were the first. The bonobo, considered to be our closest relative, is still waiting his turn.

I am not sure how you measure genetic difference in percentages, but apparently a human’s DNA differs 1.37 percent from a chimpanzee’s, 1.75 percent from a gorilla’s, and 3.4 percent from an orangutan’s. That puts the chimpanzee closest to humans. But, say the researchers, fifteen percent of our DNA is closer to a gorilla then to a chimpanzee. Researchers say that they are surprised. Based on the DNA results, the Brits seem to think chimps, orangutans, and humans parted ways genetically between six and ten million years ago. If you think about it, we are only 1.37 percent ahead of chimps. We are only 1.37 percent farther removed from nature than they are, yet we act as if we are not a part of the same kingdom.

Planet of all apes

Basically, McSmith is onto something here. He knows the system is complex, yet simple. He says we should revere it because we are part of it and it is bigger than we are. We can learn from nature by actually acting like we are made up by it. I think the idea worth spreading here is that we have reached a breaking point and all the trending eco friendliness, pure markets and back to basics is a reaction to environmental destruction, widespread industrialization, and a human nature that normalizes violence.