Fireworks symbolise selfishness

2008-01-07 00:00

At the changing of the year, Pietermaritzburg residents had to endure what seemed to me to be the mother of all firework excesses. It is not clear why this occurred when the RAS, in a commendable reaction to public opinion, decided two years ago to cancel the Royal Show fireworks display, and Guy Fawkes and Diwali celebrations this year seemed to be more restrained. Clearly, however, the behaviour of these revellers showed no regard for the wellbeing of animals and small children who were terrified by the explosions.

What might a new-age paradigm comprise? Firstly, it would be ethical and holistic. It would recognise that the only ethically relevant difference between human and other animal species lies in exactly the human ability to form the concepts of morality and compassion and to act in accordance with these concepts. The moral and compassionate human understands that s/he does not acquire a superior status to other species by virtue of this ability, but rather shoulders a responsibility to take into account the wellbeing of all other sentient beings in planning her or his life.

For example, there is ample evidence of how the meat industry, particularly through feedlot practices in the U.S. and Europe, significantly contributes to environmental degradation through the overuse of water and grain resources. The Worldwatch Institute believes that it takes “550 litres of water to produce enough flour for one loaf of bread in developing countries, but up to 7 000 litres to produce 100 grams of beef”. Similarly, “recent world harvests, if equitably distributed with no diversion of grain to feeding livestock, could provide a vegetarian diet to six billion people, whereas a meat-rich diet like that of people in the wealthier nations could support only 2,6 billion”.

And yet, the moral and compassionate human will also recognise that it is not the environmental implications that should form the starting point for new behaviours towards animals, but rather that it is fundamentally wrong to inflict pain and suffering on them — an inevitable consequence of treating animals as commercial resources destined for human consumption. With a respect for other forms of life comes an increased respect and concern for other human beings. We cannot fully have the latter without the former.

The second characteristic of the new paradigm would be self-restraint. We will need to be less self-centred and to take into account the reasonable interests of others, rather than insisting on a right to self-gratification. We must learn not to place our own trivial self-interests above the more urgent interests of others. We must understand that to consume more than a fair and sustainable share of the planet’s resources is simple theft from others and future generations. We must come to admire fellow citizens for their degree of mastery over the impulse to acquire for the sake of acquisition rather than their need to acquire. We must truly become human-beings rather than human-gettings.

We must use technology wisely, with restraint and on the basis that the true costs of producing goods are internalised. We must no longer expect others — often, quite obscenely, the least privileged — to subsidise our over-consumption through low wages, unhealthy working conditions and environmental degradation. We must confront the political hot-potato of over-population and understand that we must limit our growth to match a safe planetary carrying capacity. We must understand that poverty and insecurity are no friends of population limitation and we must seriously undertake to meet our responsibilities to the poor. We must also come to understand that national borders are arbitrary and often illogical and cannot form the basis of our actions.

These changes will entail drastic and difficult departures from what we might call the Western lifestyle, and while all change creates discomfort, we must undertake them. We must choose our leaders based on their ability to envision and lead us in these changes.

And the place of fireworks in this new society? Not much. They are extravagant, wasteful, a nuisance at best and harmful at worst. Perhaps the most appropriate way to celebrate next New Year will be to spend it in quiet contemplation of what it means to be human and the responsibilities that entails.

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