While we ended up in Southern and East Africa, this journey was primarily about West Africa, so I feel I ought to come up with a blog looking back on how that went. Rather than focus on the great experience, or the scenery and the heat and the fantastic (or less fantastic) people – I will just sign off with some thoughts on what making vegan choices in the UK has to do with West Africa.
Driving through West Africa left on balance a highly depressing imprint on the memory. Passing before your eyes you see the before, during and after of human economic development in progress – and it is not a pretty sight. Human activity invariably diminishes the biodiversity of our world, but it is the impact of the current global systems of trade and consumption which have accelerated this on a frankly terrifying scale. It is also clearly driven by the continuing impact of ‘developed’ countries – which started in the colonial era when we first set out to plunder the rest of the world for resources and impose our ‘culture’ and systems. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the same cultures and systems which led to the depletion of our own local environment should lead to the depletion of the environment where those cultures are spread. Traditional colonialism is now replaced by abuse of capitalist economics, right down to keeping a few locals wealthy through corruption and property ownership to maintain power; keeping the people poor enough that their labour produces cheap produce for export to developed countries. From minerals to food, natural resources are being stripped from West Africa for our consumption – making a few people and some big multinationals lots of wealth in the process.
Then there’s the global population problem we hear about so often – and something which I touched on after the first trip. In West Africa, however, the issues are even more apparent. It is something we like to think we have got under control back in Europe? But the problem of the world’s human population is twofold – the accelerated consumption of the natural world by a growing number of people, and the increased per-person consumption which is driven by development. It seems to me that this is at very least as much our problem in the developed world as anywhere else – especially our personal consumption. Both of these elements are enabled and driven by the global economic system to feed the system’s need for growth – and well beyond any natural balance of need or sustainability. And even when we do talk about sustainability it is from a narrow, human-centric viewpoint which assumes that we own the world and all its inhabitants. Apart from being jaw-droppingly arrogant, this view fails to recognise that the long-term survival of life depends on the diversity of its species.
What has this got to do with making vegan choices back in the UK? More than ever! At home we do not produce enough food for our local population – even though we have stripped the fertile land of its biodiversity to grow a few species for our personal use. So we import food from Africa using the inherent unfairness of the global economic system to buy on the cheap from poor people. In doing so we are driving the destruction of the African environment, directly as well as by driving up the local populations to serve our needs – making sure we keep them poor of course, otherwise we couldn’t afford their produce. But a lot of this produce is fruit and vegetables so it doesn’t seem buying vegan helps that? Well it does – and beyond the basic fact that animal production anywhere uses more resources than plant-based food production – if we stopped wasting our own natural resources on producing vast numbers of animals, and instead produced more and greater variety of plant-based food for humans, we could feed ourselves. Maybe then we could even produce real things that people in Africa need and engage in genuine Fair Trade: Exchanging things at equal value rather than abusing twisted economics to swindle them out of their natural wealth. This is something we can all help with – our buying patterns will drive changes in production. It is the most effective and direct action an individual can take – if you care about the world, don’t consume things that damage it the most.
OK, making vegan choices won’t save the world by itself – but it is a necessary, big and easy first step in the right direction. Then we can think about where things come from and whether we should buy locally produced food, and whether the places we import from are getting anything fair in return for the trade. But if we don’t change our local production to be truly sustainable and feed ourselves, we don’t have anything of real value to trade with.
And if we don’t, what will we do when the economic tides are turned on this little island we call home?
What depresses me most about human psychology is our ability to compartmentalise our knowledge so that 3 meals a day we can make choices that are worse for the things we profess to care about than the equally tasty and nutritious alternatives. Evolution is to blame, I guess – after all this capacity to focus is part of what makes us such a ‘successful’ species…so far. But evolution is hit and miss – there have after all been more dead-ends in evolution than successes. We have the opportunity to make sure we’re not just another fossil record of failure, to avoid leaving the legacy of another geological footprint of mass extinction. But so long as we have an excuse that lets us sleep at night and feel happy, maybe it doesn’t matter?