We Should All Be Nelson Mandelas

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One of the greatest political leaders that the world has ever known, Nelson “Rolihlahla” Mandela, has finally passed from this realm of mortal existence. He was a man of immense courage and absolute moral integrity, and, perhaps most importantly, he possessed the will and determination to live his beliefs in a manner that accepted no compromise to the integrity of his principles – and of course the most well-known instance of this was his 27 years spent in prison on Robben Island. I am sure that, like the recent Melissa Bachman lion hunting incident which provoked so much online debate, there will be a flurry of internet activity regarding his passing, but in this piece I want to focus on the life he lived, and how his example is so extremely relevant to each and every one of us and the way we live our own lives.

I want to mainly talk about the years he spent in jail, for this is perhaps one of the most famous aspects of his life, along with his major role in the negotiations to bring about an peaceful end to apartheid and a transition to democracy for all racial groups in South Africa. Many people are aware that he was a political prisoner, yet not many know a lot of details regarding his imprisonment. I read his autobiography, A Long Walk To Freedom, a few years ago and it was a fantastic and inspirational read. Mandela’s life was coloured by a history of struggles against injustice, immense self-development and learning, putting thoughts and words into action, and most importantly, sacrifice.

Sacrifice is a word that has many connotations – many of them negative. We think of human sacrifice in the darker periods of human history, done to appease angry gods of fire, water and storm. We think of the very definition of the word; giving up something that we hold dear, of forgoing pleasures, of loss. Yet it is for exactly this that we admire Mandela – he made possibly the greatest sacrifice, aside from giving his life (which perhaps would have been easier, in fact) – he sacrificed his freedom for the sake of justice, for the sake of what was right. It is easy to say “he spent 27 years in prison”. It is far harder to visualise what that entails. Although I have not visited Robben Island myself, in his autobiography Mandela describes the state of the cells in vivid detail, and the nature of the endless, soul-destroying routine and drudgery of prison life is brought home in an expert manner in his book. Most people would find it hard to survive a few days in such conditions, let alone 27 years. This is almost as long as I’ve been alive.

Did you know that he had many opportunities to leave prison and regain his freedom? I’m not talking about daring escape plans – no, I am talking about offers from the apartheid government to walk out of prison, officially. Now let us remember that not only was it merely his individual freedom that was so severely restricted by those cruel steel bars that kept him in that cage – it was his access to a wife he loved dearly, to his children who were growing up without a father in their lives. Think about that for a second. You are imprisoned. Your days consist of breaking rocks in a quarry from sunrise to sunset. You are prohibited from talking with your friends. You are prevented from seeing the woman you love, and your own children, who are growing up without you.

Now, you are offered an end to all of this. You can walk out of the doors, your crimes pardoned, back into the arms of your wife, back to the smiles and laughter of your sons and daughters. All you have to do is relinquish your principles. What would you do?

Mandela said no. He would suffer in solidarity with the oppressed, who suffered in silence, and he would continue to suffer with them until such time that his sacrifice would free them. A lesser man would have walked out of that prison cell many decades before 27 years was up. A lesser man would have walked away from his principles, would have given up his beliefs in exchange for the sweet, sweet fruit of freedom. And sure enough, his sacrifice did finally result in the realisation of his goals. And this is why he was a hero, in the truest sense of the word. In all of the epics, in all of humanity’s tales of strength, courage and valour, in all cultures across the expanse of the earth, the great hero must make a sacrifice in order to save the world. Mandela was such a man. He sacrificed the best years of his life, almost three decades at that, to free the oppressed masses from the apartheid tyrants who curtailed their freedom. And thus he is rightly revered, admired and honoured as a hero of our age.

However, what I want to ask is this: how many of us are prepared to follow in his footsteps with deeds rather than just mere words? For we all have the potential to be Nelson Mandelas – all it takes is courage, integrity and willpower – three qualities that unfortunately are tremendously lacking in today’s society. Everyone knows that it is far easier to talk about things than to do them. But as Yoda says in Star Wars – “Do not try. Do, or do not. There is no try.” Mandela did. He did not try, he did not think about it or argue or make excuses, he just did what needed to be done – and that was to make an immense personal sacrifice.

It is very easy to praise his life, to say how much of a role model he was, to talk about the heroic things he did and how they inspire us. Incredibly, wonderfully easy to talk about these things, isn’t it? It’s also easy to think that Mandela did what he did, and that now all is well, and that singing songs and holding hands and being smiley happy people is all that is needed to right the wrongs in this world, and maybe in addition we can go and do a good deed for someone less fortunate once a year on Mandela day.

I’m sorry, but that is exactly what Nelson Mandela would NOT have wanted. He would have wanted us, I believe, to follow in his footsteps in our daily lives. To do, not just to talk and make token gestures once in a while. Mandela may have played a massive role in bringing about the end of apartheid and ushering in democracy to South Africa, but that does not mean injustice has been vanquished from the world. Exploitation and slavery are thriving. Injustice is rampant. Destruction and greed abound and are annihilating everything that was once good and green in this world. And why is this the current state of affairs – because of a collective state of complete apathy, willful ignorance and addiction to sensory pleasures and convenience on the part of almost the entire first world.

Another great, but perhaps not so well-known man is Philip Wollen, an Australian philanthropist who has done much for the cause of non-violence, and has helped countless beings (both impoverished humans and mistreated animals) all over the world. One of my favourite quotes of his is this: “I’ve spoken to good, decent people all over the world, who have a genuine desire to change the world… As long as they don’t have to change themselves”. Now what am I getting at with this? You see, Nelson Mandela had a clearly defined enemy to fight against. His enemy was the National Party, the system of Apartheid, and entrenched ideas of racial superiority and white dominance in South Africa. We know that he won a great victory in achieving his goals, and we know that he did it by immense self-sacrifice, courage and perseverance.

While the National Party is dead and buried, and the system of Apartheid lies rotting in an unmarked grave, other enemies still thrive. Enemies that grow stronger and stronger every year, every week, every day, every hour. These enemies are more ruthless and rapacious than the National Party ever was. There is no low to which they will not stoop in the name of profits. They have not an ounce of integrity, nor an iota of compassion or empathy in how they operate. They are legion, and are too many to mention, for they form a great and complex web into which the entire global economy is interwoven. Their limbs are the factory farms that enslave and torture billions (literally) of sentient beings, the trawlers who dredge the oceans and deplete them of all life for the sake of one catch, the ranchers who are hacking down the Amazon Rainforest to make way for grazing land to supply cheap burger beef, the loggers in South East Asia who are slashing and burning jungle and rainforest that had stood unmolested for millions of years to make way for palm oil plantations, oil companies who are denuding and polluting millions of acres in their quest for black gold and fracking for gases, sweatshops in the third world who force the impoverished into labour reminiscent of the worst days of 18th century slavery, factories who destroy entire rivers and ecosystems with their toxic run-off… I could go on, but you’re getting the picture, I imagine.

A popular bracelet worn by Christians features the slogan WWJD, an acronym for “What Would Jesus Do?”. On this eve of his passing, I suggest we start asking the question “What Would Nelson Do?”, and looking inward and bringing our own lives and habits under scrutiny. These enemies who are exploiting, destroying and threatening the very survival of our species and many others are not as mighty and unassailable as you might think. Theirs is a heavy, heavy weight, and it must be supported by millions of pillars or it will collapse utterly. Each pillar is one of us. YOU. ME. In this article, I talk about how a wallet is one of the most powerful weapons one can wield, and I’d like to reiterate that point here. WWND? He would fight against this massive and unspeakable evil. And how would he do it? In the words of Philip Wollen – he would change himself. Indeed, the great Mandela did – and, as Yoda would put it, he did. He did not try, he did. WWND? He would not support these tyrannical industries. He would make sacrifices, (as he did for 27 years of his life) in order to do the right thing and bring about change.

The enemies we are dealing with in this day and age are those I mentioned above, but there is another terrible and powerful enemy, a dark lord who gives strength and unlimited power to all of those evil industries I mentioned above, and more. He lives in us, in all of our hearts. He is Apathy. He is Selfishness. He is Willful Ignorance. He is Addiction. He is Spite. He is a Slave to Sensory Pleasures. He is Endless Distractions.

Nelson Mandela was a man who was extremely fond of reading. He had to be, to get where he was in life. We are living in the Age of Information – more information is at our fingertips than has ever been available in any great library or university. Everything you could possibly want to learn about is a mouse click away. And the exposés are everywhere. Twenty years ago, even a highly educated individual in a first world country could be justifiably ignorant about the devastation caused by their lifestyle of convenience and carefree addictions. Now, this is no longer the case. We are all plugged into this matrix 24/7 with our notebooks, smartphones and social media networks. It is now the case that it is rather difficult to remain ignorant about the horrors our lifestyle of careless consumption enables. The information is there, and is often in our faces, but we refuse to look. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, we don’t want to feel that we are part of the problem, that our habits and wants are the driving force behind this rampage of violence, exploitation and destruction. “Don’t tell me about that, it’ll put me off my dinner.” “You know what, I really don’t want to know about that.” “I don’t like thinking about that, okay?” These are about the worst things you can say, because loosely translated, they state: “I’m comfortable doing what I’m doing, so I’m going to keep on supporting these awful systems, because I don’t want to change myself.” But is that what Nelson would have said? He had plenty of opportunities to turn a blind eye to injustice, as we all do every day. But he did not. And neither did other great leaders who changed the course of history; Mahatma Ghandi, Dr Martin Luther King, Aung Suu Kyi and others. They saw injustice, and they did not look away. They made personal sacrifices to fight against the injustice they perceived.

For many years, I didn’t want to look either. I enjoyed my coca cola, my burgers, my cheese, my products of convenience. But always, at the back of my mind a voice was telling me that when I was consuming these things, I was supporting something awful, something that I’d be ashamed to tell my grandkids about one day, when they asked me “grandpa, why did you stand by and allow these things to happen?”, as surely the grandchildren of many Germans must have asked of the generation who ushered in the Nazis and allowed them to remain in power. It was all too easy to silence that little voice; convenience and apathy are powerful devils on one’s shoulder. Peer pressure bends us all too easily. Societal conventions and the mocking opinions shouted from The Great Crowd strike fear into every chamber of our little conformist hearts. Being different makes for a lonely existence. Sacrifice is hard – extremely hard. Laziness is easy. Willful ignorance is even easier. Constant distraction, consumerism and losing oneself in fleeting sensory pleasures are the absolute easiest.

WWND?

I did what Nelson did. I stopped burying my head in the sand. I chose the hard road, and with every new discovery I make, with every new bit of information I learn about how the lifestyles we lead and the products we are addicted to consuming are destroying the earth and causing untold suffering and misery for billions of other earthlings, the road becomes narrower, steeper, and darker. But my soul feels right now, and the more personal sacrifices I make, the more comforts I give up, the more conscientiously I try to live my life, the more I inconvenience myself, the more addictions I have to defeat, the more at odds I become with what everyone else thinks are the good things in life, the better I feel.

Many have quoted the lines of William Ernest Henly’s Invictus on this sad day of Madiba’s passing, yet few actually grasp the true impact of these lines. They are not about being a smiley happy blissfully ignorant person. They are about facing adversity, about traveling a long, dark and lonely road, but maintaining your absolute integrity through whatever hells you may have to endure and coming out at the end as Captain of your Soul:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Take a look at the world around you. Open your eyes. Educate, educate, EDUCATE yourself. And finally, if you really want to commemorate one of the greatest leaders mankind has known: WWND?

Hunting Lions – Benevolent Conservation or Perpetuation of Destructive Ideologies?

It’s been about two weeks since the opinion war on Melissa Bach’s lion hunt broke out all over the internet. Now that tempers on both sides of the debate have cooled down somewhat, I thought I’d throw in my two cents on the whole thing.

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The pic that caused all the controversy.

Firstly, anyone who knows me personally will know that I have a huge soft spot for animals. I always have, since I was a little child – so obviously this will colour my argument a tad. I will, however, attempt to maintain objectivity throughout this piece. I grew up in a house full of cats and dogs, had rats and hamsters as pets, and also spent a lot of time around a flock of semi-tame chickens (one or two of which were hand-reared and fully tame and, I might add, quite delightful and intelligent little creatures with unique personalities) at my grandmother’s house.

It may surprise some of you to learn that I have killed animals with a gun as well. You see, having a number of free-roaming cats in a garden full of bird life, lizards and rodents meant that there was a lot of hunting going on on the part of my feline friends. Now, cats are affectionate creatures (despite what ignorant people believe about them) and in return for you feeding them, they will also bring food to share with you. This meant that a lot of dead lizards, birds and rats and shrews were brought into our house by our cats. Well, some were dead, and some were badly wounded. A lesson I learned early on from my father was that sometimes killing is a necessary evil. I remember one of our cats bringing in a mouse from the garden one afternoon. I was perhaps six or seven years old. I still remember how the little creature lay on the cold linoleum of the kitchen floor, spattered with blood, with patches of its fur matted and thick with the cat’s saliva. It was panting in great, heaving gasps. Flecks of blood clung to its tiny, yellowed rodent incisors. Its beady black eyes were bulging with raw terror.
“It’ll be okay, won’t it dad?” I asked my father.

He looked down at the little creature and shook his head sadly.

“It won’t, Jonny.”

“But… can’t we just put it back in the garden? It’ll get better, right?”

“I’m sorry my boy. It’s dying. It’ll be kinder to put it out of its misery. Take it out to the garden while I get the pellet gun.”

Using a paper towel, I gingerly scooped up the tiny creature. It did not struggle, nor did it try to escape. I could feel its heartbeat through the paper, and the warmth of its body melded with the heat of my cupped hands around it. I understood then that this thing was like me, in a way – in that it was not just a thing. It was an entity with its own will, with its own consciousness, with its own desire to live, to exist in peace. Nonetheless, I was powerless to help it. I did as I was told and took it out to the back garden and lay it down near the drain from the kitchen.

My father came out a few moments later with his pellet gun. He loaded the weapon with a lead pellet, placed the muzzle of the gun against the mouse’s skull, and pulled the trigger.

Blood, shattered bits of skull and globs of brain sprayed out in all directions, scattered by the pellet’s violent velocity. The mouse’s legs curled up into its body and it released a final breath of air from its lungs.

Death, I suppose, came as a release and a final comfort to the creature. But it was ugly. It was tragic. I cried my eyes out and was inconsolable for quite some time after that. Most children have a naïve wonder and fascination for animals, from great to small, and seeing violence wrought upon an animal causes immense distress to the young mind. Unless, of course, that young mind is hardened to it and taught that violence is right, necessary and indeed desirable and worthy of praise.

When I became an adult, the responsibility to put the occasional animal out of its misery (at the hands of our cats) would sometimes be mine. I put pellets through the skulls of a handful of dying birds and rodents that had been mangled at the hands (paws and jaws) of our cats, to give them the mercy of a quick death rather than a slow, lingering and painful one. It never became any easier over the years – death by violence remained an ugly and traumatic experience. The point of mentioning this is to emphasise that along with my love for animals, I also have firsthand experience of killing them with guns. Now let’s get on to the subject of the internet opinion war started by Melissa Bach’s lion hunting pictures.

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Another post-hunt pic that stirred up some debate on the internet.

First there were the knee-jerk, reactionary cries of outrage and disgust at Bach’s picture – her gloating smile as she stood over the corpse of the once-majestic beast. The cries of rage and hate and revulsion spread with the fury of a winter bushfire across all manner of social networks came from the Knee-jerk Reactionaries. In spite of what critics who came to the debate later would say, such reactions are understandable – despite the bubbles of willful ignorance that most of us surround ourselves with, it is hard not to be aware of the fact that most species of wildlife on the planet are endangered, and to see someone with a gloating smile posing next to a majestic beast that she killed for nothing but the pure pleasure of the act of violence, especially when we know of the declining numbers of these wild animals, will stir up a negative reaction in anyone who possesses even the slightest bit of empathy for other living creatures.

After a few days of outrage, the counter-attacks began to arrive – posts from The Smug. We see The Smug in all manner of internet debates and social media phenomena. The Knee-jerk Reactionaries and The Smug are mortal enemies in the realm of the ‘web; the KR post immediate gut reactions, which are usually of an extreme variety, leading to TS getting annoyed with the volume of posting, and thus posting their own “carefully-thought-out” case which (supposedly) completely refutes and nullifies the position of the KR. I put “carefully-thought-out” in inverted commas because it is seldom actually the case that their arguments are carefully-though-out. Often they contain massive holes and are just as incomplete and unconvincing as the KR’s positions, yet they are posited in a manner that can only be described as smug (hence the moniker I have assigned them).

In this particular case, The Smug reaction has been something along the lines of “listen, you bleedin’ heart ignoramuses, you know absolutely nothing about the reality of hunting and conservation, so here are a number of figures and statistics that show that without trophy hunting, most wild animals would quickly become extinct, there would be widespread habitat destruction, millions of rural Africans would starve to death in abject poverty and entire countries’ economies would collapse. Oh, and you buy meat from the supermarket so you’re just as guilty as Bach of cruelty to animals. So leave these noble hunters and these pious and humble game ranchers alone – you may not like what they do but they are the actual knights-in-shining-armour of wildlife conservation.”

Needless to say this position is just as shaky as that of the Knee-jerkers. About the only thing I can agree with in that statement is the notion regarding buying meat from supermarkets, but that is a topic for another debate.

Now how can you call this position “shaky”, I hear you ask. “These guys have got the facts and figures to back them up! It’s clear, from statistics (and the unshakeable faith in which we have in these numbers), that the wild would destroy itself if it weren’t for the benevolent care of hunting ranches and the gargantuan wallets of the foreign hunters who patronise them. Here are the figures detailing elephant and lion populations in South Africa from the 1960s, when hunting had been severely restricted, compared to now, when X population is thriving and this much land is in perfect balance solely because of legalised hunting and population control, etc etc.”

Fine. We can agree that in a way, trophy hunting has contributed enormously to conservation in the past few decades. But before that – why were populations of most major wild mammals in South Africa nearing the brink of extinction by 1960? Because they had been hunted to damn near extinction by sport and trophy hunters. Have we so quickly forgotten the quagga? The Cape Lion? The Blue Buck? These were all hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is a pattern that we have seen repeated throughout history, all over the world. What happened to the United Kingdom’s wolves and bears? They were hunted to extinction on that grey isle. What of the once-vast herds of bison that once roamed the plains of North America, that were almost utterly wiped out by sport hunters? Now, don’t think that I am laying the blame for this squarely at the feet of trophy hunters – farming, deforestation and general destruction of wild habitat for the purpose of expanding human settlements, agriculture and industry has probably been the major cause of the extinction of megafauna over the past few centuries and has pushed certain species into critically endangered status – tigers, clouded leopards, orangutans and rhinoceroses in East and Southeast Asia are some examples that spring immediately to mind. However, let us not forget that in terms of wildlife in South Africa, the very people who The Smug currently wishes to portray as the benevolent saviours of wildlife were the ones who almost brought about the complete annihilation of many species that are currently endangered – for the mere pleasure of using firearms to kill things.

While I never hunted anything myself, I do know of the savage thrill of seeing a bullet you fired wreaking destruction upon a target; I participated in rifle shooting at school for a few years, and at home there was always a pellet gun or two lying around. My brother, my neighbourhood friends and myself used to take violent delight in shooting out streetlights or damaging various items of the neighbours’ property with these air rifles. In our back yard workshops we also constructed muskets powered by firecrackers, which shot marbles at a potentially lethal velocity, and for a time we used a cannon we had made that fired golf balls at enough of a velocity to punch through a few millimetres of steel. Having, at the mere squeeze of one’s finger, the power to cause the same damage as that done by a Viking warrior swinging a battleaxe at full force is a dangerously addictive sensation. Yet for me, for all of us in our group of friends in fact, using these weapons on a living being was a line that was not to be crossed, indeed, it was one that none of us could fathom crossing. However, I knew boys at school who did take a delight in killing an maiming creatures with their pellet guns. I still remember a boy telling a group of us, and laughing about the whole act, of how he had shot a tree agama (a type of large, tree-dwelling lizard) to death in as slow and a cruel a manner as he could (shooting off the limbs one by one, etc). Just hearing him gloat with pride about such vile cruelty made me very sad, and disgusted, even at that young age (I think we were around 9 years old). Another boy I knew was taken on hunts with real firearms from an early age by his father, and he used to proudly boast of the cruelty he inflicted on animals with his father’s guns (like the other boy I mentioned, this one also seemed to take vicious delight in maiming the animals and blowing their body parts off and seeing them suffer a long and painful death). In light of these tales, I never forgot the killing of that mouse – how a being that was once alive, a being that once experienced consciousness via the same conduits that I did (the five senses), and which possessed that same mammalian brain that I possessed with which to interpret the data fed to it via those senses – how that being’s existence and consciousness was ended with the ugliness and brutality of violence.

For another extremely important lesson was taught to me, by my grandmothers and my parents – “do unto others as you would have done unto you”. For us, in our family, the definition of others did not exclude the citizens of the animal kingdom, and this was something that stuck with me from the time I was very young, and something which I have never forgotten. Thus, I could not (and still cannot) fathom wherein lies the pleasure in wreaking violence upon another living being – I see too much of myself, my friends, and my family in the eyes of another living entity to do it unnecessary harm. And I think that killing a creature purely for the sake of sport and entertainment certainly constitutes “unnecessary harm”. However, I don’t want to get into the moral debate about killing for sport, pleasure, convenience or food right now – I’m already going off on a tangent here.

To return to the hunting-as-conservation argument,one only has to look at the pages of any history book about pre-20th century South Africa to find endless accounts of a vast country, teeming with lifeboth flora and fauna – life that existed in a perfect ecological balance, as it had for millennia. All of the megafauna that once thrived in this country, indeed, on this continent and others, had existed there in a yin-yang harmony for far longer than our species has existed upon this earth. With all these statistics being bandied about regarding the devastation of landscapes by the “uncontrollable excesses” of elephant herds or lions “overhunting” certain species of antelope and putting their population numbers at risk, one has to wonder how these creatures managed to, you know, not cause each other (and the plants and trees too) to go extinct in the millions of years that they roamed free on this continent (and other continents), while we were still in the half-monkey stage of evolution (and thus couldn’t manage the wilds)… How did they get by without destroying everything?! Now, when he/she realises the direction I’m taking with this line of thought, I’m sure some smart-arse is going to point out the mass extinctions that have occurred without the hand of humanity being involved, long before we were walking upright. “Can you say d-i-n-o-s-a-u-r-s, Jon?” Yes I can, and I hope, for your sake, that that’s not your trump card – because a mass extinction is occurring in our epoch – the epoch of civilisation – at a rate that is between ten and one hundred times faster than has ever before happened in our planet’s history, according to some theorists. The dinosaurs were wiped out in a once-off cataclysmic event – an enormous meteor strike, the most popular theory states. Yet here we are – doing just as lethal a job (perhaps at not quite as fast a rate, but close) as the enormous meteorite that erased the existence of those reptilian behemoths from this planet.

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The now-extinct quagga.

This period of greatly accelerated extinction which we are part of, The Holocene, started roughly 10 or 11 000 years ago (and coincided with the proliferation of humans and the beginnings of human civilisation) and is the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s known history. A number of theories abound regarding the cause of the first wave of extinctions (at the start of the Holocene) and many are to do with the role played by climate change – but others also posit that the arrival of humans, with their settlements, spears and arrows, coincides quite clearly with the disappearance of megafauna such as the woolly mammoth, cave lions, cave bears and other megafauna. The second wave of mass extinctions in the Holocene has occurred in the past few centuries and is absolutely and undeniably anthropogenic.

The point I’m trying to make here is that the argument that commercial trophy hunting is what is keeping conservation in South Africa (and on other places) afloat and that without it, we’d lose countless species and usher in mass unemployment and colossal ecological damage, is sympotamic of a greater problem – our attitude towards nature. As can clearly be seen when we look at the greater context of the Holocene Extinction and the last 10 000 years of human impact upon the natural world, we have been, on the whole, takers and not givers. Our attitude is wherein the core of the problem lies; the whole hunting-as-conservation thing is working because of the money involved – because the bottom line, as it has been for a long time, is profit, profit, profit. We see the wilds as a resource, as something that is there with the sole purpose of benefiting us in some way. There is no notion of “perhaps we’ve taken enough from the wilds… Perhaps we should let them return to the state of harmony they had existed in for the millions of years before our intervention in their functioning”. The prevalent thought is this: “here is some land. It must be used to generate profit in some manner. Agriculture? This land is not suitable… But we must have economic growth! Wild animals? How can we most profitably use them – through charging tourists a handful of change to take photographs of them, or by charging tourists suitcases full of hundred dollar bills to kill them and then take photographs of them?” It is easy to see which is the more profitable venture. But even if it is working in the short term (and the short term can be anything from a few decades to a century), it is merely putting a band-aid on a great festering wound that lies beneath. And like an infected wound, if you merely mask it and do not treat the underlying infection, the infection will continue to spread and increase in severity until it kills the organism – even if you cannot see this corruption happening beneath the screen of the band-aid.

We are very quick to point out that overseas tourists who arrive in South Africa with suitcases full of money with which to pay to kill a wild animal for fun in an enterprise that employs hundreds of impoverished individuals, and that it works very favorably in an economic sense. Yet we are reluctant to ask why this should be the case, why this paradigm is dominant. Why is it that we live in a world where a tiny minority of people are so overflowing with material wealth that they can travel to distant lands on a whim and pay huge sums of money to kill something for the mere pleasure of inflicting violence (to kill one lion apparently costs in the region of US$30, 000 – which is way more money than any of those working class individuals who do the tracking and chasing of the animals would ever see or accumulate in their entire lives) yet a majority struggle to simply put food on the table for their families from day to day? Why is it such a given that absolutely every square inch of land has to be seen in terms of what we can take from it, how it can generate profit? It should be obvious to any student of history and ecology, indeed, to any reasonably minded and compassionate individual, that the infinite growth economic paradigm which rules the global economy is utterly unsustainable on a planet of finite resources, and that promoting such wasteful activities as killing for pleasure, regardless of how economically successful they are is bringing the wilds and indeed the entire planet, whether we are talking of inhabited and developed spaces or not, to the brink of destruction.

I realise that I’ve probably raised more questions than provided solutions here, but I don’t believe that people often look at the whole debate in this light. We need to look beyond the simplest parameters and parties involved and try to assess such activity in the light of developing attitudes of compassion, empathy and long-term sustainability. Promoting activities that are inherently violent and destructive for reasons of economic success is, as I mentioned before, merely putting a band-aid over a festering infected wound that will kill its host off completely if left untreated. We need an entirely new system, a completely fresh paradigm – one that is no longer constructed on elevating base sensory pleasures and consumption and taking, taking, taking from the natural world. Without such a vision, there will be nothing but more mass extinctions, enormous habitat destruction and ultimate destruction of most megafauna (our own species included) upon this planet..

On The Devaluation of The Photograph

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one of my favorite childhood photos – little me with my father on his bike.

The camera is one of the most remarkable innovations of the last few centuries; perhaps not in its technical complexity (or lack thereof), compared to other inventions, or in its impact on matters we consider of primary importance (industrialised crop production to feed the urbanised masses, the discoveries of various vaccines and medicines against the microbes and viruses that used to decimate our species, etc etc). However, in its absolutely unique ability to capture and store, fairly indefinitely, a moment of the fleeting present in a physically accessible, tangible medium, it is unparalleled in history.

Before the photograph came along, the present remained a realm of complete inattainability; we lived through it, experiencing it constantly, but the precise details of it could never be recalled; they were coloured, shaded and contorted by the unreliable puppet-master, Memory, with his arthritic fingers and shaky hands. It was also a realm of utter loneliness; of course, it still is, and always will be, for our own experiences of interacting with the world and each other remain indescribable in their entirety to anyone but ourselves. However, with the photograph, we are able to preserve, exactly as it would have appeared to multiple, objective observers, a singular moment of space and time. Through the medium of the photograph, we can see, in almost identical detail, how the reflections of light that make up our visual experience of this world look through the eyes of another human being.

hamlet

The consequences of this are profound – mostly, for me anyway, in that we can see the faces of the dead, as they were decades (or even centuries ago), as their friends and loved ones, as well as rivals and enemies, would have seen them. Somehow, through the miracle of a chemical reaction to the mystically transcendent medium of light, we can capture how the human eye perceives reality and transfer it onto a two-dimensional surface. Hamlet needed a skull to enhance his childhood recollections of the long-dead Yorick, and even with the physical remains of what used to be the man held in his fingers, how accurate would his mental image have been? How could he possibly have communicated this image to his peers in any manner as physically accurate as a photograph would have conveyed it? As a writer, and an avid reader, I am acutely aware of the power of words, sentences and descriptions to evoke a place, a person, a scene, a mood – yet at the same time, there is little that can rival the photograph in its ability to capture a single slice of physical time.

This musing on the evocative and sometimes almost sacred nature of photographs leads me to the point I wish to discuss, as evinced in the title of this post: the devaluation of the photograph. Photography had always been a fairly expensive pastime; one needed both a camera and film, which was costly in itself and required the services of a specialist to develop. Now, before any of you digital guys get riled up and offended, please don’t think that this post is intended to be an attack on digital photography – it’s not. Digital photography is a realm of infinite possibility, and for those who have an artistic eye, the medium is incredible in its potential for diversity. My father, one of whose lifelong passions has been photography (particularly wildlife photography, in which his skills are incredible) has embraced digital photography with wholehearted enthusiasm, despite his advanced years.

Yet, simultaneously, the spread of camera technology to the general masses, most specifically by the proliferation of cellphone cameras, has lead to a cheapening of the art form, both in a literal and figurative sense. We no longer need to buy film to take pictures – we can store thousands on the memory cards of our digital cameras and print any number of them from our home printers. We no longer need a darkroom to manipulate photographic images – anyone with even the most moderate computer skills can do this digitally. And in this mass democratisation of photography, something of the value once inherent in its processes has become lost.

rockicons1
images like these iconic rock photographs needed impeccable timing, dedication to the craft and more than a little luck to attain.

Because of the cost of film in a now-lost era, care had to be taken in image selection. You couldn’t just point your lens at any old thing and snap away with abandon – you only had 24, or sometimes 12, if I remember correctly, shots in your reel. You had to choose what you were going to shoot very carefully, because that film wasn’t cheap and neither were the fees to develop it. Now, you want to take fifty pictures of that convenience store salad you’re about to eat on a plastic table – sure, why not? After all, who wouldn’t want to see an image of such magnificent profundity? You and your friends go out and get smashed in the local pub – get those cellphone cameras snapping away! Everyone is very interested in the sixty-eight shaky, half-blurred shots of you guys smiling and laughing drunkenly that will be uploaded to your favorite social network the next day!

I think that in the last two years, more pictures have been taken of me than those that exist of me throughout the entire span of my life since birth. In one particular instance, a rather snap-happy gentleman took and uploaded perhaps forty or fifty shots of me drumming (and at least half of these were random shots of me staring into space between songs, drinking water, and other such inconsequential minutae). What, precisely, is the point of such an exercise? Have we collectively begun to assume such a sense of narcissistic self-importance (and the topic of everyday narcissism that is disseminated, enabled and reinforced through visual-heavy social media will be the topic of another blog post entirely) that we feel that it is utterly necessary to photographically document and share every arbitrary and banal detail of our existences with even the most casual of acquaintances?

According to this blog post approximately 85 billion photographs were taken from the time of the invention of the photograph up until the year 2000. Now, 3.5 trillion photos exist – and 10% of those were taken just last year! Now how many out of these pictures do you suppose were carefully thought out and profound images? Don’t get me wrong now; I’m not suggesting that every picture taken needs to be a work of art that touches on the sublime in some manner – there is a place for frivolousness, for light-heartedness, for whimsical images and candid snaps of friends at social gatherings. Indeed, I wish that digital cameras had been around when I was a child and teenager, so that I’d have more pictures of those long past years (all I have now, of my teenage years especially, are memories – I can count on one hand the number of photos of me as a teen that exist today). I have to rely on my memory to conjure up images of how my friends looked in the 80s and 90s, but I suppose there is something of value in that as well – for one thing, it keeps the old cognitive gears oiled and allows me to wallow in the golden half-light of nostalgic recollection every once in a while.

bwoyz
I’d be stoked if a photo existed of all of us together instead of just this cartoon…

I do also wish that I’d had the foresight to take some actual film photographs of my friends back then. We were a tight-knit crew, my teenage buddies and I, and I often sit and think of the times we shared and the mischief we got up to. I feel that this experience would be greatly enhanced if I could hold a photograph in my hands and see how the light danced on our youthful features, once upon in a time, in a present that has long since faded from this plane of reality. Alas, the magnificence of youth was wasted on me, who had not the foresight to photographically document the multitude of shenanigans in which my friends and I engaged. Or – was it really wasted, just because there is no photographic evidence to document those days? Certainly, they have evaporated into the aether of the past now, and there is nothing but the intangible and malleable notion of a set of memories floating around in our heads, but does that necessarily change the inherent value of those past experiences?

I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t take for granted the fact that we have the technological means to capture a single moment, in all its fleeting glory, and transfer it to a medium in which it will be effectively frozen and stored indefinitely, BUT, don’t abuse it either. There is no need to overload an already massively-saturated virtual arena with images of banality and tedium. Try to recall the sacredness of the ritual of pulling out an old photo album, dusting it off and paging through it, feeling the slickness of the protective film on your fingertips and the overly sharp corners of the hard pages as you lean back in your easy chair and lose yourself in the memories that the images bring flooding through your mind. Appreciate the fact that you can capture a slice of the fleeting present, and freeze-protect it forever against the ravages of time. Capture moments of love and joy and friendship, and treasure them. Maybe save the 7-11 meals and half-blurred nightclub shots for your memory…