The sugar cubes floated in my thickly creamed coffee before slowly dropping out of sight. This was a sequel to views of Klimt at the Upper Belvedere in Vienna, itself a sequel to a memorable week exploring inner landscapes of the soul.
There were two of them. They led happy lives, replete with feline fulfilment. They loved to purr and cuddle in bed with their humans in the night. They ate well. Always had food and drink served to them. They never went hungry. They seemed at peace with themselves and their world. There were vestiges of wildness in them still to remind you that, despite centuries of domestication, they were their own creatures, creatures of the wild; individuals. And yet, there was an edge missing. You could see it in their eyes. It was a mixture of sadness and resignation. I came to recognize this glance in the cats and my heart went out for what I had done to them. Years later, I saw a video of a woman who could communicate with animals including big cats, the world’s apex predators, and interpret them in anthropomorphic terms. This video changed my thinking about domestic pets. Having been sensitized by this new thinking, I began to see all the subtle forms of exclusion that are practised in societies around the world.
Most ancient cultures respected the natural world, seeing humans as an intrinsic part of it. At sometime in our collective past, we began to call ourselves civilized and parted ways intellectually with nature. This paid off for a few centuries, roughly until the end of the twentieth century. René Descartes famously declared humans to be the thinking species in the sixteenth century. We think, therefore we are (…superior to all other forms of life?). Science and technology have tamed the earth, have subdued nature to such an extent that, like in the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons, we are in danger of cutting off the branch on which we perch. Of course we don’t think of ourselves as prejudiced, but every time we turn away from a conversation with an unfamiliar “other” we practise a form of discrimination just the same. I noticed with a shock of recognition, the ‘sadness of cats’ on the faces of people in the news; in the gaze of a young woman going through the shipwreck of her marriage; in the face of a man devastated by war and conflict; in the catatonic resignation of a child dragged from the rubble of a bombed home. Where does all this violence begin?
It begins with the way we treat all sentient beings, not just our own kind. Gandhi allegedly said, more than a half century ago, the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Anthropologist Michael Thompson, in his 1979 book Rubbish Theory, explores the rise and fall in value of objects, depending on scarcity or abundance. He uses bakelite ashtrays as an example in the book. This early synthetic product of the 1930s was sold cheap, and now have become collectors items. Following from Rubbish Theory we should infer that, since animals in the wild have become a scarce commodity, we should value them highly. Conversely, with world population close to seven and a half billion, human life is cheap. Perhaps this is what we are seeing in international politics these days. But here is the paradox of human existence. If we subscribe solely to economic logic, we deny our humanity and diminish ourselves, sowing the seeds for our own ultimate destruction.
Rulers, kings and presidents come and go, but the earth will survive. However, humankind will not survive, if we continue to pursue only economic growth and ignore the unmistakeable signals that the planet continually sends us. Many of our leaders ignore it. It’s time to change those leaders. And here is another paradox of politics. We can change these leaders only if we change ourselves first.