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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 heaven-on-earth symbol.

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 Tibetan women.

"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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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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