New Internationalist

Predators and scavengers

Issue 434

The shifting weight and value we place on words underscores our possible futures, argues Richard Swift.

The predator evokes ambivalent feelings in Western culture. We admire the lion, tiger, eagle, cougar and wolf for their strength and beauty, yet at the same time we fear them. Such big game predators are among the first to be targeted for extinction – we are also predators so it’s a matter of ‘us or them’.

We feel much less ambivalent about the scavenger – hyenas, vultures, crows, rats, coyotes and pigeons. These are creatures that feed off the remains of corpses or pick through the waste and leavings of both nature and humanity. Until recently, the valuable ecological niche filled by such scavengers was only recognized by a small group of biologists and naturalists. For most of us these are the lowest of the low. Bottom feeders. While we recognize (even glorify) the predator in ourselves, we are reluctant to acknowledge the scavenger side to our natures.

The predator ethos

It would not be too much of a stretch to say we live in a predator economy. US economist James Galbraith made this case recently. His theory of ‘economic predation’ holds that ‘in a predatory regime, nothing is done for public reasons. Indeed, the men in charge do not recognize that “public purposes” exist. They have friends and enemies, and as for the rest – we’re the prey.’ In the latest unstable wave of predatory capitalism our savings and livelihoods did indeed prove to be prey to the manipulations of those who control capital. Yet there is still a sneaking admiration for the swashbuckling corporate shark (a Rupert Murdoch or a Conrad Black) that somehow escapes the way we think of the sexual predator. But these economic predators have a much bigger impact in destroying hopes and lives than the occasional criminal deviant. It is they who set the tone for the predator ethos: eat as much as you can and don’t worry about anyone else.

We Homo sapiens have proved ourselves predators par excellence. Like volcanoes and earthquakes human beings have become a kind of uncontrollable force of nature

Hollywood and the computer game industry are the great glorifiers of militarized predatory behaviour – the Predator vs Alien series was a box-office smash for both. But this isn’t just fantasy. The CIA’s ‘predator drone’ has perfected targeted killing from afar. Operatives in Langley, Virginia scour the hills of Northwest Pakistan or the tribal areas of Yemen looking for ‘high-value’ targets. Peering through the drone’s infrared camera they can then ‘neutralize’ some tribal fundamentalist leader (and any family members who happen to be standing nearby). The CIA currently has some 200 predator drones, so many that there are sometimes turf fights between operators over who gets to vaporize a particular target. The estimated death count from these weapons hovers between 326 and 528 people.

Hollywood has little cultural ambivalence when it comes to scavengers. Take the spotted hyena portrayed in Disney’s The Lion King – a wasteful coward on the fringes of decent animal society. Yet the hyena, with its close matrilineal family bonds, should be as worthy of human regard as any roaring tiger or soaring eagle.

Scavenger, when applied to humans, is either a form of metaphorical insult or a term of pity reserved for people forced to scavenge because of their hopeless situation. Those who rush to the sites of remote plane crashes to see what the pockets of the dead will yield are considered beneath contempt. Those who scavenge garbage dumps such as Manila’s famous Payatas or Guatemala City’s Basurero are thought of as the ‘lowest of the low’. In Hindu and Japanese cultures ‘untouchables’ who collect garbage, human waste or dead bodies are held in low regard for what are considered scavenger occupations.

When we were scavengers

In his work on human origins the eco-anarchist writer Kirkpatrick Sale, in After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination, combines a close analysis of the fossil record with a sharp sense of the ecological implications of our notion of progress and evolution. Sale holds that a kind of fall from grace occurred some 70,000 years ago with the rise of Homo sapiens and the eclipse of Homo erectus, one of our ancestors who had been around for about 1.8 million years. Homo erectus had a way of living very much based on a scavenger model and not that different from the few remaining hunter-gatherer peoples that exist today: the Penan of Borneo, for example, or various Amazonian tribal groups. Homo erectus was not entirely vegetarian – they scavenged meat and hunted small mammals and birds. But about 75 per cent of their diet came from gathering wild plants, nuts and berries. Sale believes that under pressure of climate change Homo sapiens eclipsed erectus and started to hunt in an organized way for big mammals, using metal spears and arrows. The alienation from (and the domination of) nature has not missed a beat since. Organized irrigation systems and surplus-based agriculture – examples of the first large-scale engineering of nature – were soon to follow. It wasn’t long before slavery, warfare and empires grew out of these predator practices.

We Homo sapiens have proved ourselves predators par excellence. Like volcanoes and earthquakes human beings have become a kind of uncontrollable force of nature. The costs of our predatory relationship with the environment continue to mount: climate degradation, rapidly depleting non-renewable resources, extinction of numerous other species, chemical poisoning of land, water and ourselves. Our alienation from nature now threatens the ecological basis of our own existence as a species. Thus the predator eclipsed the scavenger, setting humankind on the fateful course of ecocide.

Sale wants us to rethink our modern conceit about progress. Homo sapiens has been on the planet for nearly 70,000 years while our scavenger predecessors, Homo erectus, lasted 1.8 million. Given the current fruits of our progress one would be foolhardy indeed to think we could break their record. So, Sale asks, who is the evolutionary success story?

A scavenger revival

Sale hopes that there will be a revival of erectus sensibility and a more respectful way of living, in accord with a finite natural world. There are stirrings of at least a modest revival in the positive reputation of scavengers. The writer Carl Hiaasen has done his part by creating the character Skink, who appears in several of his best-selling detective series. Skink used to be the environmentalist governor of Florida until he was forced out of office by developers set on turning the state into one big theme park. Skink retreated into the depths of the Everglades, where he carries on a humorous guerrilla campaign against all environmental despoilers while surviving on a diet of road kill. On the other end of the spectrum is the more gentle approach to scavenging in Anneli Rufus’s Scavengers’ Manifesto, which has given birth to a quite circumspect code of scavenger ethics – ‘don’t be a mooch’ and ‘don’t eat gross things’. So modern scavenging covers a wide range of territory from dumpster diving to cruising second- hand and charity shops.

But maybe there is a wider interpretation of scavenging. The microcredit movement so beloved by development economics is frequently based on support for scavenger businesses. Find something, be it metal, wood, plastic, old electrical appliance, shell or stone. Reshape it. Remake it. Redesign it. And then sell it on as a product of utility or a thing of beauty.

As large portions of the world population become ‘surplus to requirement’ for the dominant corporate economy, scavenging at least part-time is simply a matter of survival. The dumps of Majority World megacities are a source of livelihood for thousands. Manila’s Payatas dump alone is said to provide income for 150,000 people. At least some are proud of their occupation, according to Teresa Jonoras, who works the dump. ‘Think about it. We don’t have bosses. We live a free life. If I don’t feel like going to work, I don’t go to work. Here, your only concern is survival, your daily sustenance, and the dump can take care of that.’ Still it would be a mistake to lionize such employment, as it is often dangerous and poorly paid. Jonaros says on a good day she can make $3.

But it’s not just in the Global South where this is happening. In almost every North American city, the night before garbage pickup is filled with the clatter of shopping trolleys as income-deprived scavengers systematically pick through the refuse looking for anything that might be sold. In Toronto, Ontario, a quick canvas of recycling scavengers indicates that a good night’s take can yield about $50. One person’s waste is another person’s livelihood.

Perhaps our ambivalence about predators reflects our ambivalence about power – we admire the strong until we recognize ourselves as their prey. But if the world is to be saved by ‘reduce, recycle, reuse’ it is the buried scavenger side of our natures that may just help us pull through.

Richard Swift is a former New Internationalist co-editor. He lives in Toronto.

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