Bernie and the Elephants
This is Part I of a three-part post where I examine the relationship between human economic inequality and environmental issues.
Elephants are in trouble. No, not the Republicans. But Botswana, one of the last remaining refuges for the African Elephant, has reportedly seen an almost 600% increase in elephant deaths in the past 4 years, mostly due to poaching for ivory. Conservationists have been warning for years that poaching would eventually reach Botswana, according to Mary Rice of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit group that works to combat the illegal ivory trade, and it appears their fears are well founded. The government in Botswana has challenged this notion and even lifted a ban on commercial hunting of elephants. In certain parts of Botswana, villagers are involved in conservation efforts; in others they are not, particularly if it is more economically feasible to NOT help.
I came across this information in a New York Times article last year and took a keen interest in it. I cannot state an expert opinion on the details of this controversy, but the smart money is on the interpretation of conservationists. What struck me most about the article, was a quote buried at the end. Literally, the very end, the last paragraph. It was a quote from Neil Fitt, described as an “independent conservation consultant in Botswana”. Here is the quote in full: “I’m not saying that poaching is O.K., but whilst we have these problems, it is difficult to get the [local] communities on board to assist in protecting wildlife. Addressing poverty and unemployment in the rural areas would go a long way in protecting our wildlife.” I read this article at Bold Bean, a local coffee shop, and I literally shouted out, “duh!” when I read it; it just seemed so obvious, yet there it was, at the tail end of the article.
This got me to thinking on how the plight of animals specifically, and the environment generally, is so closely tied to the experience of humans. On one hand, extant data shows that wealthier countries use a disproportionate amount of the earth’s resources, since levels of consumption far outpace the rest of the world. On the other hand, we know that poorer nations are often forced to despoil the environment in order to survive. Not to have a bigger house or newer SUV, but to eat, to feed their kids. So, there are links, both direct and attenuated, between human inequality and our physical/natural environment.
My curiosity about this topic was originally piqued in 1991 as a student at Florida State University when I read a manuscript about a couple who tried to make a living as cattle ranchers in a small province in Africa. Most of their cattle were eventually killed by lions, and the couple tried to make sense of the balance between their own physical needs and the needs of the lions. I can’t recall the name of this book, and I’ve looked for it on and off over the years, but the take away was that the life chances of the lions were inexorably linked to the life chances of the humans.
Fast forward ten years and the next step was a chance encounter at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association with David Nibert of Whittenberg College, who had recently published a book titled Animal Rights/Human Rights: Entanglements of Oppression and Liberation. I was fortunate enough to spend some time listening to him answer my banal, uninformed but exploratory questions about the links between human inequality and animal rights/environmental issues and from those discussions arose a worldview of the interconnectedness between humans and other animals. Nibert states, “the mistreatment of devalued humans and other animals has been, and continues to be, driven largely (although not exclusively) by individual material interests and the broader economic systems that condition them…” [Italics mine.] Since, I have analyzed the plight of our environment as subsequent to the plight of humans. Not for moral or ethical reasons should the human condition be examined first, but simply because of power and motive.
So, when I came across the New York Times article about the elephants of Botswana, I reached out to Neil Fitt (after using all my “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” internet skills to find him, which took weeks due to my ‘non-skill’ set) and we commenced a discussion about these issues. Mr. Fitt, an environmental advisor, formerly the Chief Executive Officer of the Kalahari Conservation Society in Botswana, elaborated on his New York Times comments in our emails:
“Government approaches are usually ill-informed, and end up benefiting the wrong targets; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The sooner our governments accept this the sooner we can move forward in addressing the root causes and not just treat the symptoms. What is needed is for governments, the private sector and civil society, etc. to all work together to get the “win-win’s” and not to bury one’s head in the sand or to look at one’s own gain only.”
How does one change the mind set of people in government and industry to make fundamental economic changes that they (often erroneously) view as contrary to their own personal interests? This challenge is intensified by narratives that often pit workers against the environment; after all, who wants to appear “anti-job”? I believe this presents a false choice, and in Part II of this post I will offer a few examples before discussing the impediments to change. Stay tuned!
[Photo credit: Bernabe, N. (2015, October 14). Untitled photo of Bernie and elephant. Retrieved from https://theantimedia.com/bernie-sanders-elephant-in-the-room/]