The Rats of Shangri-La
Stuck in a flying coffin at 30,000 feet, I read an article about Shangri-La in
the May 2009 edition of the National Geographic . While Shangri-La is
completely fictitious (invented by James Hilton's 1933 novel, Lost Horizon ), a
sleepy little farming community on the Chinese border renamed their city to this
Here the modern world, as interpreted through Chinese tourists, contrast with
local minorities whose elderly cling to traditions, and whose youth search for a
better life in an urban culture… Repeating the history of commercializing the
cultures of Native Americans, Australian aborigines and other indigenous people
who embody the noble savage.
In the article, the author, Mark Jenkins, quoted an Austrailian who opened up a
school for rural Tibetans wanting to learn English and computer skills:
"Culture is something that constantly evolving," says [Ben] Hillman, who warns
me not to apply a Western sense of authenticity to the modern Shangri-La. We're
sitting at the Raven cafe in the old town, listening to Dylan and drinking Dali
beer. The Raven, a rebuilt cobbler's shop, is the kind of funky coffee bar you
find in Kathmandu-- carrot cake on the menu, a poster of John Coltrane on the
wall. Owned by a Seattleite and a Londoner, it's operated by two independent
"Economic development can rekindle interest in cultural heritage, which is
invariably reinterpreted," Hillman says. "I don't think we can judge that
without reverting to some kind of elitism, where wealthy and fortunate people
who can travel to remote parts of this planet want to keep things locked in
a cultural zoo."
For some reason, this reminds me of another article I read recently about the
Nature Conservancy's effort to re-claim Rat Island . A couple hundred
years ago, a ship wrecked on this island in the Aleutian chain in Alaska. And
while the men were rescued, a family of Norwegian rats escaped the ship, but
were left behind on the island, claiming it for themselves. They not only do
they eat the eggs of migratory birds, they also eat the chicks and their
parents, creating a silent island except for the gnawing of little teeth on the
grasses that grow there.
The goal is to bombard the island with poison until all the rats are
killed. Of course, they must get all of them, otherwise, the rats will quickly
return. This seems especially difficult, for if we've learned anything from
Darwin and a century of pesticides, a few survive to pass on their immunity to
their offspring. But we are dealing with fewer rats than locust, and…
But who's to say that Rat Island shouldn't be granted a World Hertiage Site from
the U.N. with its soon-to-be-new rodent species? Where are the rat-lovers yelling
for their protection from the impending catastrophe?
Seriously, aren't we just trying to make the world according to our liking?
Absolutely. Of course, we do this whether we intend to or not. Whether it is
rats on a sinking ship or quagga mussels in an ocean liner's balast, we are
moving around species here and there where creatures struggling in one habitat
thrive and spread in another.
I know, I know, the rats are an invasive species which choke out
native bird species already threatened by human expansion, which
potentially may drive them to extinction. Its been said by
misanthropists more eloquent than I that perhaps we should just limit
our human activities and lifestyle in order to allow other animals a
chance to live. But that ain't happenin'. I mean, we want
biodiversity, but only if it doesn't limit economic development or
cause any higher-order species (read human) any sort of discomfort.
I suppose since we are already limiting biodiversity the world over, we should
lend a hand and help the little guys out. Or should we? I mean,
Is getting rid of the rats in their island refuge "good" or "bad"?
I hate ethics. I was recently labeled "weird" by an online philosophical game
because I recycle, practice vegetarianism, lower my carbon footprint, and whatall,
but don't necessarily feel it is a moral imperitive that others must follow
my aesthetic and high-maintenance lifestyle.
On one hand, it is pretty easy to state that we should maintain our
environment in an effort to make life hospitable (or even possible) to
us. However, it is difficult to judge the morality of conservation
of other species, especially when we are favoring one species over another.
We obviously think that humans are more important than everything else, so
I can think of two reasons why conservation can be justified:
Preservation of species can be a form of utilitarianism, for we don't
know if the protection of certain species may yield medicinal or other
information that may be helpful to us humans.
Perservation of some species can be an indicator of the health of a
particular environment, and may be warning signs of contamination
that may affect humans.
Personally, I like a little less civilization and a bit more wildness.
I enjoy watching hawks circling around my backyard, and frogs in my shed,
and coyotes running around the streets of my suburban paradise.
So for me, conservation is purely aesthetic. I just like having more
animals and plants around.
But we might as well forget naustalea, for we can't go back to any
fictitious Shangri-La of our collective imagination. We've already
made the world according to our liking, so what-the-hell, we might as
well as carpet Machu-Pichu.
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