Much Ado About Cecil

My good friend Karen and her partner Jamie just returned from three weeks in Africa where they went to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, whose mission is to rescue elephants. Mostly they rescue babies who are orphaned because their parents are hunted for their ivory and then left to die with the babies also left there, witnessing the whole thing. And, if you know anything about the recent research regarding elephant intelligence and social bonding, you know what this means for these babies. Upon her return, she shared the details about the situation regarding elephants throughout Africa and beyond – one is killed every 15 minutes somewhere in the world (see www.iworry.org for more information).

Shortly after her return Cecil the Lion was killed by Dr. Walter Palmer, a Twin Cities dentist and big game hunter. Two days after the news broke Karen joined 250 other people protesting at his office, effectively shutting it down for two weeks. As the furor over Cecil was shared globally and nationally some interesting dynamics arose, the most common of which was a critique that went something like this: “With all of the incredibly important and substantial issues both globally and locally, isn’t it odd that we are caring this much for one lion? How many people starve every day on this planet? Or, how many men of color are killed by the police every year in the U.S.? Aren’t those more important issues?” Another friend’s priest offered up this exact critique from the pulpit just a few Sundays ago.

To be sure the range of pressing needs domestically and globally are substantial. And, in comparison to the horrors many folks trying to migrate to Europe face, the ongoing systematic murder of Black and Brown folks by structures of power in the U.S., the concerns regarding climate change, and the economic reality that by 2016 1% of the world’s population will hold more wealth than the rest of the entire world (see Oxfam International’s report “Wealth: Having it All and Wanting More“), Cecil’s death as an isolated incident can seem almost trivial. And yet, while we hold in balance the magnitude of need for our human community, it seems problematic to dismiss out of hand the concern regarding Cecil. I say this because for me the issues surrounding Cecil connect to so many of these other issues demanding our attention, and thus his death (as well as the inevitable death of his six pups that the new alpha male will kill to establish his dominance, meaning that Dr. Palmer actually killed seven lions that day) can serve as a vehicle for a more deeply and broadly interconnected conversation and analysis of our global reality. After all, this is fundamental to our work as social justice educators – unpacking siloed content to make connections to the many intersections and interdependencies found with systems of oppression. And in that spirit I’d like to share a few thoughts about Cecil.

First, let’s interrogate the thinking behind the death of Cecil. It should not be lost on anyone that Walter Palmer is a White, U.S. male with substantial economic access. Thus the meaning of a man with these social identities and resources, heading to Africa and knowingly poaching in order to obtain his sporting desire is one of countless examples of the hubris and disregard fostered by White, Western, imperialist hegemonic ideologies. I say Walter Palmer knowingly poached, because he cannot simultaneously assert that he is “an expert big game hunter and always hunts within the bounds of the law” and suggest that he did not know they were poaching or breaking the law. And so, in reality this is one small example of the broader scope of 500 years of Western countries running roughshod over the lives, laws and lands of Africa and people of African descent. I’m not saying Dr. Palmer was intentionally coming from this space. What I am saying is that the arrogance that made him think he could do it and get away with it, and the very notion that the laws of Zimbabwe or of nature do not apply to him, make him one of endless manifestations of the ethos of Western colonialism and imperialism. This is the conversation I would like to be having with respect to Cecil the Lion’s murder. Why not talk about the fact that Western, market-driven, neo-liberal and neo-colonial forces are in play with the extermination of Cecil and countless species on this planet and that human actions are fundamentally threatening this planet’s ecological balance? Why are we not talking about the ideologies of dominance that support Dr. Palmer’s actions and make his worldview normative to so many in the West? This, I think, would make the death of Cecil and his cubs at least not be in vain.

Second, to suggest that the conversation about Cecil is somehow separate from other social issues belies the deep and complicated interconnectivity of so many of today’s major social concerns. For example, part of the reason those two guides were knowingly breaking the law was that they were facing difficult economic times and needed Dr. Palmer’s money – money they would get if he in turn got what he wanted. You just have to take one step back to then connect issues of poverty and the way the wealthy West (and increasingly in recent pan-African history, China) has used its economic, political and social resources to maintain an economic hold on so many parts of the continent and thereby brazenly absconded with so many of its resources. It takes only one more step back to see how this poverty has arisen in part from the IMF and World Bank, and the neo-liberal economic systems they represent, which have forced countless nations in Africa, Central America (and more recently in Europe) to cleave to consumptive, “developed”, and tiered economic policies and programs which inevitably lead to systems of “have’s” and “have not’s”. One more step back will then locate how these long-standing economic realities impact women and children, inform the AIDS epidemic throughout the continent, shaped the world’s lethargic response to the Ebola crisis, informed Europe’s reaction to the massive waves of migrants attempting to enter, and shaped an overall paternalistic and dehumanizing approach by the West to Africa for the last 500 years. In this way, the death of Cecil could have helped us all go more deeply into a conversation about the profound interconnectivity of various issues as opposed to placing them in competition with each other. Pope Francis demonstrated the former disposition in his recent encyclical when he made direct connections between climate change and poverty, the trafficking of women and children, and mass migration (thereby demanding a deep reevaluation of immigration law). All social justice issues are related and we would do well as educators and activists to remember that and work harder to make those connections. There is room for everyone and every movement, and we will be most effective when we stay connected.

Third, Cecil’s death can help us all consider our relationship to the natural world. His being hunted as trophy and “sport” is emblematic of Westerners’ view of the natural world as a whole – that nature is meant to be dominated, controlled, and is there simply for the use of humanity. This idea is not new, but Dr. Palmer’s approach to big game hunting as a whole echoes this brazen arrogance toward the natural world. Shortly after the story broke he mentioned that he does not talk about his big game hunting with his dental patients because it is often a controversial and emotionally charged issue. Unfortunately, that realization did not give Dr. Palmer reason to consider whether what he was doing was right, it just made him do it less overtly. Similarly, the carbon industry has known for decades that the climate scientists are completely correct in their assessment of what increased CO2 will do to this planet, and yet instead of ceasing or reworking their industry, they simply become less and less public about the destruction they are wreaking. Short-term financial gains (and the subsequent destruction of the planet) strongly outweigh the long-term consequences. Similarly, the short-term desires of Dr. Palmer hugely outweighed any chance at conscience, humility or accountability that might have helped him see the absurdity of what he was doing.

There are still other points to be gleaned from this case but I do not want to belabor the point. Simply put, Cecil the Lion’s death could have served as a touch-point not only for animal conservation but an incredible range of other topics and issues, all of which demand our attention and resources. Unfortunately, mainstream corporate media chose not to address these connections and instead kept his death as a siloed issue, replete with drama and sensationalism, but devoid of depth and complexity. The onus, therefore, is on all of us to not let any incident such as this be reduced to its barest of meaning and instead seek out complexity and connections so that we can strengthen all of our social justice work.

A People’s Climate March

I was at the People’s Climate March this past weekend in NYC and it was an amazing experience. I have had the privilege of attending many marches over the years but this one was different in some very important ways and for those reasons, in addition to the fact that there were 400,000 people there, it felt historic.

The foremost reason it stood out to me was that it was the first march I have ever been to where there were no “allies” to the issue or group being focused on (e.g. heterosexual allies working for marriage equality without a clear sense of how they will benefit from it as heterosexuals). Instead, it was crystal clear that everyone there felt deep ownership regarding climate justice and could see the connections of our current climate crisis to their own work. Labor unions were clearly articulating the relationship between classism, exploitation, and economic inequality and the conditions that have led to climate change. Students and youth were clearly making the connections between the situation we are in and the reality of their future. Various Communities of Color and Native Communities (along with Whites committed to racial justice) were identifying the explicit ties of racial oppression, colonization and endless exploitation to what got us into this dire planetary situation. Feminist groups were connecting the dots between gender oppression, misogyny and the violent assault on the earth. In every way, deep and complex links were being made between health and climate disruption, education and climate change, food justice and climate justice, and so on. And I think this is what gave me a sense of hope I did not expect – 400,000 people all understood (granted to varying degrees) that we truly are all in this together, that standing on the sidelines is nowhere near an option, and that the stakes have never been higher for our species. Moreover, there was substantial consensus on what the solutions are: the need for a zero-carbon economy and an immediate switch to renewables, a restructuring of our economic systems such that human needs trump corporate, neo-liberal capitalist needs, and that we must think as a whole planet and not national fiefdoms some of which are privileged while others suffer.

The second aspect of the march that was noticeably different than any environmental work I had seen before was that it was led (both physically the day of as well as in the months of planning) but Native Peoples and People of Color. One of the most pernicious problems with mainstream environmental groups over the last five decades (I’m marking this from the time of publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to today) is the predictable whiteness, middle-classness, and all-too-often maleness of “the movement”. To directly challenge this history, and to give prominence to the voices that have been ringing so loudly and clearly for so long, the first major contingent of the march included Native Peoples, People of Color, Island State (OASIS in the COP configuration) representatives, and migrants from all over the globe. This contingent stretched from 59th to 65th streets and its centrality to the overall message of the march signaled a sea change in the leadership and organizing around climate justice nationally and internationally. My hope is that the largest climate justice march ever being led by Native Communities and Communities of Color will mark a permanent shift in future organizing and activism from U.S. and international environmental justice organizations. Specifically I am hoping that historically white-led EJ groups will deeply and consistently rethink tired “business as usual” ideas such as political expediency and move to a racial justice, class justice, and gender justice lens for their work.

The third and final aspect of the march that stood out for me was that this gathering and how we all engaged with each other felt like not only the blueprint for how we are going to organize for climate justice, but also a hint at how we could all live on this small, blue dot together. There is no question that the clock is ticking and this can have the tendency to exacerbate fears that lead to separation. On this day, however, the sheer gravitational force of our commitment to push back on the carbon lobby and to jar the political leaders from their torpor was so substantial that it held us all together despite the wide variation in who we were, where we came from and what our stories were. At the end of the day (and throughout the day) we were just this one family, fighting like hell to end this utter madness. And that is exactly what it is – to destroy one’s source of life in the name of short term profit is such a profound departure from reality that it cannot be described as anything else. And there we all were – shoulder to shoulder as far as the eye could see demanding with our bodies that we be heard.

Given the anti-corporate, anti-war, critical race/class/gender analysis of the event, I am not at all surprised by the paltry coverage in mainstream media. I often hope that slightly left-leaning folks like Rachel Maddow will give at least a cursory nod to climate change issues but she spent her entire Monday show covering the bombing of Syria with not even a minute of coverage of the march. The other networks were not much better. NPR did an abysmal job covering the march and spent much more time this week on what they must think is “legitimate” climate content – the U.N. conference. Democracy Now, however, did pre-march stories and interviews, ran 3 hours of live coverage on Sunday, and then followed up with numerous additional interviews and coverage Monday and Tuesday. For this reason I want to thank Amy Goodman and the folks at DN and ask that readers who care about climate justice make a small donation to DN via their web site.

There is a reason that a massive number of U.S.-ers don’t “believe in” climate change (as was the case with a flight attendant on a recent flight) and much of it has to do with the cowardice of mainstream media. In lieu of media doing its job, we must take it upon ourselves to fill in the information gaps and educate our peers. For my part, over the next two months I am hosting two workshops at my house to help educate friends and colleagues and I invite others to do the same. Just start with those you know, begin wherever each person is at, and work to deepen the discussion around climate change and climate justice. If we make it part of our everyday conversations then it will move from margin to center in our political landscape and we stand a chance of making larger, structural changes that will match the scale of the problem. I know it seems overwhelming and “what can one person possibly do” with respect to a problem that is planetary in size, and yet what else is there for us to do but try? I hold no delusions that if we all just come together we can “save the planet”. I know too much of the climate science data to hold out for that. But, I also know that morally, spiritually, ethically, and professionally there is no other option for me but to turn toward the fear and pain and grief, be with it, and do everything I can (as one among many) to address this crisis. This weekend I was reminded what large groups of people can do when we come together. The energy from the march is still with me, a low-grade hum whose power is palpable and whose signature is pushing me onward. I know you all have busy lives, but in a time such as this please make space to lean in and take up this shared charge with your words, with your actions, with your donations, with your vote and with all your heart. As cliché as it sounds, all of our futures depend on it like never before.

* Note: To watch the pre-march video (52 minutes) go to www.watchdisruption.com.