Monday, December 24, 2012

Xhosa Cattle Killers

When the Dutch Afrikaners (Boers) invaded the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, the Xhosa tribe fought them long and hard.  Beginning in 1779, eight bloody frontier wars were fought.  In 1806, the British replaced the Afrikaners and continued the struggle to conquer Xhosa land.  In 1853, a lung disease began killing off the Xhosa’s cattle herds.  Problems worsened when a severe drought hit.  Things started looking grim.
Then, in 1856, after decades of terrible struggles and misfortunes, an 11-year old Xhosa girl named Nongqawuse had a vision.  She communicated with spirits of the dead and they informed her that the colonist invasion was being caused by the fact that their cattle had been cursed by witchcraft.  The spirits then gave her some important instructions in order to remedy this situation.
To lift this curse and return to days of peace and plenty, the living Xhosa had to do three things:  stop cultivating their fields, destroy their grain reserves, and kill all of their cattle.  If they did this, the whites would be driven into the sea, the dead would return, and they would refill the granaries, restore the crops in the fields, and bring herds of immortal cattle.
At this point, the Xhosa split into two groups, the believers and the non-believers.  In 1856 and 1857, the believers did as the ancestors instructed them.  They dumped their grain and slaughtered 400,000 cattle.  Having destroyed their food supply, tens of thousands then proceeded to die of starvation.  Tens of thousands were forced to go to towns and take oppressive low-paying jobs.  Only 37,000 remained on their lands, out of 105,000.  By the 1870s, white settlers occupied most of the Xhosa’s lands.  The surviving Xhosa were rounded up and moved to reserves in British Kaffraria.
Many might consider the attempt to crush the British army via spiritual warfare to be a bit crazy.  But the Europeans, travelling thousands of miles to enslave Africans and seize control of their lands, seem rather normal.  They were, after all, civilized people, and they were simply behaving like well-educated predators, bringing progress to people who were doing just fine without it.
The cattle killers remind me of today’s climate killers.  The polar bears are crying, the arctic ice cap is rapidly melting, 2012 is the warmest year in recorded history, and the scientists of the world are virtually unanimous in placing the blame on human activity. 
The climate killers understand that the weather has been bewitched.  To lift this curse, we must borrow like there’s no tomorrow, pray every hour for the recovery of double-digit economic growth, drive everywhere everyday, and fill our garages to the ceiling with consumer products via rituals of recreational shopping.  It’s sure to work!  Our elders would never deceive us.  Ack!
Today’s word is foresight.  Mother Nature was a brilliant designer.  She created life systems so well balanced that foresight was not built into the instincts of any animal — beyond the avoidance of immediate risks (don’t pet the pretty rattlesnake).  The deer did not worry about the health of their ecosystem, or the wellbeing of generations yet-to-be-born.  They didn’t have to.  Wolves would never eat all of the deer.  Beavers would never create vast clear-cuts.  Packrats would never remove the tops of mountains in order to hoard black stones.  Humans would never exterminate the billions of passenger pigeons — before they got into the tool making business.
The tool making business started out slowly, with sticks and stones.  But cleverness and tool making went hand in hand, each stimulating the other.  When we invented cool stone-tipped lances, large slow animals began to disappear forever.  We couldn’t foresee the consequences.  The domestication of plants and animals opened the floodgates to 8,000 years of catastrophes that continue to worsen.  We failed to foresee.  The geniuses of Uruk never imagined that farming would inevitably transform their lush green breadbasket into a barren wasteland.
Ferocious wild aurochs were reduced to dim-witted milk machines, which were imported to Africa.  The Xhosa learned the hard way that confined herds of animals were prone to disease and vulnerable to droughts.  They learned the hard way that creating a way of life that was dependent on milk machines was far less secure than the nomadic foraging of their ancestors.
With the Industrial Revolution, we began mass-producing tools that had nothing whatsoever to do with providing the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter — stuff like automobiles, airplanes, televisions, computers, nuclear reactors, and ships.  One very sad day, ships loaded with insane European murderers washed ashore in Xhosa country.
Like all other animals, humans live in the here and now.  Right now, that shiny Prius in the driveway is an awesome status symbol.  It shouts out to the world that we are big, important people, not bicycle-riding lowlifes, and substance abusers.  The melting icecaps and crying polar bears are pure abstractions, as are the weird predictions of climate experts staring at colorful graphs on their computer screens. 
A way of life that reliably provides a jumbo burger and fries for dinner is good enough.  Regular meals are not symptoms of a problem that requires our attention.  We’ll wash down the burger with fizzy sugar water, and trust that the toolmakers will take care of the future.  They always do.
I don’t believe that it’s impossible to learn foresight.  Imagine a world where seven-point-something billion people felt compelled to carefully contemplate the consequences of their choices.  Our population would deliberately go into free-fall.  Farm country would heal, returning to forest and grassland.  The lights would go out, and our machines would rust in peace.  Civilization’s roar would be silenced, replaced by the sweet music of a recovering ecosystem.
Would foresight drive tool making into extinction?  Would we abandon our tools, migrate to warmer regions, rip off our clothes, and dine on nuts and fruits, lizards and insects?  Could we permanently forget the idiotic notion that humans are the supreme species?  Could we return to the family of life and live happily ever after? 


Ted Howard said...

Many indigenous cultures embraced their version of 'foresight', such as the North American Indian tradition of The Speakers For The Seventh Generation...most of the lack of foresight in the current dominant culture will end up...ending it.

What Is Sustainable said...

I agree. The Indians harmed their land far less than the whites, who went berserk on the ecosystem. But most Natives were farmers, and corn was a fairly new crop in the eastern regions of the future US. They had no livestock, so no manure, so soils were depleted quickly. It was not an enterprise that had a long future.