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How not to control nature

Written by: Niki Rust and Nik Taylor

Every time we turn on the TV nowadays we seem to be confronted with bad news about the environment, but is there anything that history can teach us about how to solve today’s problems? In light of the current carnivore conflict crisis in Namibia, we wanted to understand the history of Namibia’s predator management to find out how we ended up with such an intolerance of nature.

dead-caracal-niki-rust

A caracal that was killed in a gin trap ©Niki Rust

What we found baffled us and is explored in the journal, Carnivores, Colonisation and Conflict.

After scouring through documents detailing the country’s historical management of wildlife, complemented by interviews with farmers, we identified that the control of Namibia’s predators has followed a set pathway that culminated in the near annihilation of a guild of species.

How did this happen?

We based our analysis on philosopher and activist Val Plumwood’s understanding of how the world came to accept the oppression of women and nature. Plumwood identified seven steps in this oppression pathway and we found that the same seven steps have also been used to allow for the widespread lethal control of predators.

Here’s how the steps progressed:

1. Differentiate

To begin, one group (let’s call them “The One”) appear to believe that they are somehow different to another group (“The Other”), or The One seems to assume it is somehow more worthy than The Other.  In the case of nature, people often assumed that humans were better than wildlife because we are apparently more intelligent and civilised.

2. Exaggerate differences, deny commonality

Next, The One removes empathy for The Other by exaggerating any differences and denying common traits.  Predators were historically classed as bloodthirsty brutes by many humans, without noting that we share some similar social behaviour as, say, lions.

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A family of lions ©Niki Rust

3.  Stereotype and scapegoat

An oversimplified idea of The Other as being the cause of The One’s woes further removes any compassion. As a result, predators, for example, were blamed for livestock losses when human negligence was the main culprit.

4. Homogenise

The Other are thought of as one indiscriminate mass – for instance, aardwolves are often lumped under the label of “stock-killing hyenas” despite their insectivorous diet.

5. Exclude

To further distance The One from The Other, The Other is excluded – normally by physical means. With regards to wildlife, predators were removed from farms and historically survived in fenced, protected areas.

6. Oppressed become inferior

As power has been taken away from The Other using the above steps, it starts to represent the image that The One conjured, which adds more weight to The One’s assumption that The Other really is inferior and, therefore, worthless.

7.  Polarisation is complete

The above steps prevent any form of tolerance towards The Other, thereby allowing inhumane treatment that would otherwise not be accepted, such as widespread poisoning of predators.

dead-jackal-niki-rust

A jackal that was killed in a gin trap ©Niki Rust

What can we learn from this?  Firstly, thinking that you’re better than someone or something is a dangerous step down a dark path. But secondly, this teaches us the importance of compassion – of putting yourself in the shoes of The Other to understand our shared perspectives.  By understanding our similarities and focusing on how we are all one big part of nature, we can begin to solve problems compassionately.

Given the amount of sunshine Namibia receives, it certainly has its fair share of shadows. But it’s up to us to decide whether we turn around to confront these shadows or not.

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