COLUMN: Happy Cannibals

A number of cannibal jokes used to make the rounds, some funny, some obscene, and some simply amusingly ironic. One of the last was the rhetorical question, “Is a cannibal civilized if he uses a knife and fork?”

We’re generally repelled by a species eating its own members. Some snakes, for example, eat their own young as they hatch. (Try to imagine your cat eating its own kittens!)

Human cannibalism is well known throughout history, and even prehistory. Neanderthals did it, and also may have been eaten by early humans. Fiji was once known as “the cannibal islands.” A Spanish Catholic monk who accompanied Pizarro on his conquest of Peru ended his days eaten by cannibals on the Puna Islands.

More recently, mass murderers such as Jeffrey Dahmer dismembered their victims, froze the meat, and over time devoured it.

In the 1970s, survivors of an airplane crash in the Andes were reduced to eating the bodies of their dead co-passengers to survive (recounted in a fine book by Piers Paul Reid and later made into a thrilling movie called Alive!).

Even science fiction addressed the shocking possibility of future cannibalism in the film Soylent Green, which featured a global famine alleviated by a food product engineered from dead humans.

Many cultures worldwide have characterized the Earth as the mother of all life. Given our reliance on the web of planetary ecology for our survival, there is a reality to this characterization that is disquieting. One wonders just how civilized we are, the cheer of our economic growth offset by a demonstrably dying world, metaphorically eating our “mother” and, in time, ourselves.

‘Ecological overshoot’ means the rate at which we are using up the web of life on earth, destroying it faster than it can regenerate. According to a recent report called Avoiding a Ghastly Future (see https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419/full), humanity’s population growth (doubling to 7.8 billion since 1970) has caused human consumption of the Earth’s regenerative capacity to rise from about 73% in 1960 to 170% in 2018, this overshoot possible only because of our devouring and degrading non-renewable resources.

Numerous measures confirm this catastrophic trend. Rising global temperatures are turning formerly arable land to desert, the CO2 load from the atmosphere is acidifying the ocean (threatening many aquatic species), and habitat destruction is causing mass extinction of both flora and fauna ranging from pollinating insects to large predators.

Those with power (politicians, corporations) recite sanctimonious talking points and greenwash their activities with soothing public statements while monitoring polls and financial statements.

Youthful anxiety over climate deterioration isn’t some fad like go-go boots or collecting Pokemons. When a spokesperson like Greta Thunberg chastises the privileged class at Davos, it’s not to be an egocentric, smartass prodigy. It’s to express a legitimate grievance, and fear of a catastrophic future.

There are efforts to reverse our culture’s destructive momentum. Numerous marine protected areas have been established in various oceans. And efforts to create wildlife corridors in Canada’s parks are a positive step. Will they be enough?

As trainloads of goods bump and rumble through Terrace, destined for the maw of North American consumer culture, we would do well to hear the racket as a cry of anguish by the planet. Our commercial successes may seem a rich gravy, but if we look closely, there’s blood in it.