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The captive self

By John Töns - posted Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Zoologists have observed that, generally speaking, animals live longer in captivity than they do in the wild. Unlike wild animals, domesticated and captive animals no longer have to struggle for food, their ailments are treated and on the whole they are protected from the worst ravages of the weather.

However, all is not what it seems. Captive animals have surrendered their freedom for a life of dependency; they are unable to survive without human intervention. Thus if for some reason there are no humans to take care of them they will slowly starve to death.

The human animal is really no different from those captive and domesticated animals. We too live much longer now than we ever did in our natural state - instead of a life expectancy of some 30 years we can now expect to live well into our 70s. And like the other animals we are totally dependent on others to stay alive.


In our case our needs are supplied by a system of our own creation - we have created a technological system to produce our food. We admire our ingenuity at having thwarted nature to the point that we can now produce more food per hectare than we ever could without technological intervention.

We have designed cities that protect us from the ravages of the climate - we have the capacity to create habitats in the most inhospitable places - just look at Dubai. But our cities give us more than a carefully controlled climate; a transportation network ensures that even in these deserts we can get food and drink.

Our technology means that we have abolished many diseases - our obsession with hygiene means that our environments are virtually sterile ensuring that we have lost our immunity to many diseases. Modern humanity is as dependent on its technology for its survival as a polio sufferer was dependent on the iron lung.

All this has ensured that we can live a long time. One would have thought that living longer might mean that we have the time to avoid repeating the same mistakes but it seems as if all it means is that we become the helpless spectators as the same mistakes are repeated albeit sometimes in far more imaginative ways.

Anyone who has lived with people who have not become captive to the 21st century will tell you that despite this dependency, this golden straitjacket of civilisation, few would choose to “go back to nature”; we may have turned the planet into a giant prosthesis but at least we have banished many of the things that give us pain, that make our lives short and brutish.

Yet for all that we have to remind ourselves that we are just as much captives as the animals in the zoo or on the farm are. Should our systems fail us then we are headed for an uncertain future.


My argument here is that in understanding how we should organise our societies it would be wise to take more heed of the way a zoo is managed. Zoo managers are well aware of the need to ensure that their animals are not overcrowded - put too many animals in a confined space and they fight with one another. We on the other hand have no such qualms our politicians encourage us to heed the biblical injunction to go forth and multiply.

The number of animals that can be held in a zoo is a vexed question. In part it is a question of space but it is also about the capacity to feed the animals. Again we ignore this problem; our assumption is that technology will somehow save us - never mind that we are turning our oceans into marine deserts, never mind that every city on the planet reduces the amount of arable land, never mind that we are consuming more clean water than is replaced naturally. If we run out of fish we will create fish farms, if we run out of food we will synthesise nutrients, and if we run out of water we will build more and more desalination plants.

There are those among us who point out that this prosthetic envelope that enables us to live depends on finite resources like oil. But we would rather not think about that; it is too frightening to contemplate what would happen if there was no longer the oil to fuel our transport system to bring in food. Places like Singapore and Hong Kong will become charnel houses if there was not the transport to keep them supplied with food. However, it is a sad reality for most cities that at the most they can survive for about a week without importing food from the countryside.

Yet we do not want to know these things. Our politicians will not speak of the limitations to growth. We are like children hiding from reality under the bedclothes of our omniscient science.

Thankfully not all are tucked way under their blankets. There are those who are shaping their own transition towards an independent life. They are growing their own food, they are rediscovering herbal medicines, and they are rediscovering the joy of living simply. They live in this world but are not of this world. They still get the benefits of longer life, they have learnt that by working co-operatively they can achieve more. Most importantly they are weaning themselves of this dependency of the prosthesis that much of 21st civilisation has become.

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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