Cecil the lion’s death highlights the fact that humanity is the scourge of a fragile Earth

The pointless slaughter of Cecil the lion saddens but doesn’t surprise me. Humanity is fast becoming the scourge of this planet.

A beautiful picture from the other week of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.
A beautiful picture from the other week of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.

I’m aware African farmers have issues with predation – and that the fees charged to allow ‘mighty hunters’ on to their lands are a much-needed boost to their incomes.

But the natural world is irreplaceable. When it’s gone – it’s gone. The end. So I stand by my point.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to see this happening. The notion that standing over a dead animal showed how ‘superior’ the hunter was had mainstream traction well into the twentieth century – an age when humanity was still struggling ‘against’ nature; when technology was only just beginning the widespread change that – now – is threatening our survival.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.
1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

Back then, to be able to burn down swathes of irreplaceable indigenous forest – as happened in New Zealand from the mid-1870s, and as is happening right now across Indonesia, in the Amazon basin, and in Malaysia – was viewed not as eco-vandalism but as a demonstration of the way humanity could ‘conquer’ nature and ‘convert’ the world to ‘useful’ purpose.

To go out and shoot helpless wildlife was viewed as another demonstration of human ‘superiority’ over nature. And sure, some of these animals were extremely fearsome to an unarmed human. But to one with a gun? Hardly.

Lions don’t have hunting bows. Or guns. They are absolutely defenceless against such weapons. To me that gives due moral dimension to the pictures we inevitably see of the ‘mighty hunter’ standing over their prey, gun or bow in hand.

This, incidentally, is why the Jurassic Park movie plots are so contrived. Blast a few deer-slugs into a T-Rex and it’ll turn into a T-Rug soon enough.

As far as I am concerned, all this has to stop – and more. ‘Mighty hunting’ is only one symptom of a much deeper problem with humanity – the fact that we unerringly manage to destroy every environment we go into. All, I suspect, downstream of a survival technique that worked quite well when there were only a few thousand of us and all we had were stone tools and sticks. Now, in our modern world of bulldozers and cars and aircraft and industry and atomic power and fossil fuels and seven billion of us? Not so much. As Sir David Attenborough pointed out, humanity is a plague on the Earth.

Right now, we’ve harnessed the bulk of the world’s life to our ends – as this rather scary chart by Randall Munroe (XKCD) shows.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s our moral duty to protect what’s left. And not just for the sake of the environment. It’s also essential for us to survive, because we need it too. Technology isn’t a magic bullet: and we don’t have to destroy the last tree, eat the last fish and pollute the last aquifer to reach the point where we join the animals we’re killing on the extinction list.

Just damaging the environment to the point where it won’t support us is enough. The problem is that this is exactly what’s going to happen if we keep going down the current path. I think it’s going to take some fundamental changes of mind-set to get off that path – a deliberate re-think of our basic nature, as a species. I think we are capable of it, if we allow ourselves. We pride ourselves on our superiority: well, let’s prove it, starting with ourselves.

I am not the only one to say this – and all I can see otherwise is a collapse. Not this generation or even this century, sure. Maybe not for a millenium or so. But it must happen if we continue down the current path – and the problem is, by the time it becomes obvious, it will likely be too late.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


26 thoughts on “Cecil the lion’s death highlights the fact that humanity is the scourge of a fragile Earth

  1. Am considering writing on this as well–Zen perspective, probably–and if it is appropriate, I would like to link to your excellent essay. You know I am in complete agreement with you as we have had this discussion before regarding the human impact on this planet. It is a remarkably destructive one in any and all time periods, even when the odds were a bit less lopsided. It’s the loss of reverence for all life, as if all of nature existed only for us. From a Buddhist perspective, we are attached to this “path of doom” as you so thoughtfully remind us. When we attach, we suffer, all of existence does, for in attachment we attempt to make the world the way we want it and not the way it is. Brilliant post, Matthew, and thank you.

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    1. Please do! I’ll look forward to your thoughts on this from the Zen perspective. I have to say that if all humanity took that perspective, I suspect our civilisation probably wouldn’t be in its current mess!

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    1. Yes, humanity is terribly destructive. But there are things we can do! If enough people genuinely care and show concern for each other, for the environment, for all that is around us – we’ll come right, I think. And I am sure we have those values – thoughtfulness, tolerance, reason and care – hard-wired into us as a species. They get swamped sometimes, I fear, so it’ll take a conscious effort, and I think we’ll have to reinvent part of our basic nature along the way. Yet – surely – if humanity prides itself on civilisation, on intelligence and so on, we can meet that challenge? I’d hope so.

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  2. Oh wow, there are few topics that touch off a grassfire beneath my skin faster than this one. I had to calm down before answering. We’re a scourge and I’m ashamed that my own country has played a big part in defiling this blue jewel. To my mind we’re not the masters of this planet, but it’s stewards, but instead of caring for a valuable treasure we’re trading it for free drinks in a bar where we’re on our hands and knees puking up our responsibilities. I’m thankful there isn’t a habitable planet within our reach because the way we’re raping this one we don’t deserve to spread. After all these years we haven’t evolved beyond our arrogance.

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    1. You’re right – we haven’t evolved beyond it at all. It’s incredible when you think about it; we regard our society – in its various forms – as ‘civilised’, but at the end of the day our species somehow can’t get away from what I can only call ‘ape’ behaviour. Sigh…

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  3. What I find disturbing is that we have never had so many pressure groups and activists trying to stop the planet’s destruction, and none of it seems to work. Progress is made on the environment, climate, human rights, and then there’s major poltical change – usually left to right – and everything goes back a step.

    I find it hard to source the root of this problem: Capitalism, neo-Liberalism, public apathy, I don’t know. I sometimes get the impression the majority of the world’s population is happy to stand back and watch it all happen thinking ‘it doesn’t affect me.’

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    1. I agree – it’s very disturbing that no matter how hard we try (and I think many of us know very well what has to be done), the problem just gets worse. And there is, as you say, an awful lot of apathy.

      I think the reason for this is that the root cause pre-dates the current socio-economic framework. We can look to proximate causes of the last few decades because the scale of human endeavour keeps growing exponentially, meaning that in a direct sense the immediate things we’ve blamed are, indeed, compounding the damage now – and on an unprecedented scale, historically. However, it’s not a western thing alone. Don’t forget that communism also had no ideology for anything other than exploiting the environment – look at the utter mess the Soviets made of Russia, especially Chernobyl but also the Siberian oil-fields. To me that underscores the fact that ALL modern humans have been doing this, betraying deeper drivers that run to the root of ALL human nature.

      To me, these things are not paradoxical if we go back far enough, because for hunter-gatherer societies of around 150 people the combination was a very successful strategy. Care for your extended kin-group, exploit the environment to support them (because there’s always somewhere to move to) – and destroy everything that threatens that small group. It worked a treat up until the end of the last Ice Age, basically, when humanity was usually on or near the ragged edge of extinction and when whichever group that applied these principles most ruthlessly got ahead. I fear that all this got hard-wired. And it’s not so good an idea now. Alas, our vast intelligence (which is undeniable) allows us to intellectualise the ‘second order’ behaviours that follow, obscuring the underlying problems. Again, not an issue when there weren’t that many of us, and all we had were rocks and sticks. Now? Ummmm…

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  4. While I generally enjoy this blog, and respect your opinions, the outcry here says a lot more about how we in the wealthy west are removed from the realities of life in the third world than anything else. For a Zimbabwean view, today’s NYT has an excellent article:


    We do need to be concerned about the planet, to be sure. But this story isn’t about this whatsoever. This is mostly about wealth and perceptions of it. Had a Zimbabwean villager killed the lion, the story wouldn’t have been noted, nor should it have been. So as an environmental focus, this story lacks one, at least in terms of how its being discussed. This wasn’t an environmental disaster and it has no environmental element, save for one that isn’t discussed which would be the allocation of resources in order to engage in the effort, in which case we should also look at the shocking allocation of resources we engage in just to go to the grocery store, or Starbucks.

    Additionally, in terms of environmental stories, the picture, while serious, is not as glum as it might be supposed. We live in the only era in human history where there was a whit of concern over the environment, and the concern has become global. There was no such concern when southern Europe was deforested in the Middle Ages, or New Zealand more recently. Yes, there’s a lot of work to do, but the fact that people even recognize that there’s any work to do, means more than we might suppose.


  5. When human’s decided that they were destined to “have dominion over all the Earth”, the writing has been on the wall. Man became at odds with nature instead of living with it. And, thus is doomed to destroy that which sustains us all. In addition, I am a conscientious traditional bow-hunter. I do not consider myself or anyone I know who hunts, to be anything like the dentist from Bloomington or the people who set up his hunt. May they get whatever is coming to them.


    1. I’m a hunter as well, and frankly on a subsistence level, which puts me pretty far out of the trophy class. I and my family, and many of the locals here, always have been, although we’re rifle hunters.

      That’s where the real story on the environment, if there is one, comes in. If there’s a story here, and its the if, it has to do with the resources expended, rather than the lion itself.


  6. Hear! Hear! I agree wholeheartedly and 1,000%. I don’t understand this big game hunting. Honestly, what’s to prove? There’s no doubt whatsoever that humanity holds all the trump cards in any competition with wild animals. Big game hunting is nothing more than the most destructive kind of “bullying.” The only thing it proves is a flawed character.

    Isn’t it enough to just go on safari and “see” the animal? Lions are only magnificent when alive, not dead.

    I think this is another case of humanity’s technology advancing far faster than its wisdom. At one time, humanity really lived on the ragged edge on extinction. We did some not nice things but we had to or perish as a species. Well, we aren’t in that situation any more and yet that fearsome drive to survive remains within us. It’s up to our astoundingly superior minds to recognize that in ourselves and control such knee-jerk reactions.

    We only need look at the environments we’ve wreaked havoc upon to understand our own power. I note that you point out in the comments that humanity has great capacity for good. I agree here as well. Like any great natural force, we can cause great “destruction,” but we have an equally great power for “construction.” If we as a species decide we want to set things to right, we can do it. We can do it in spades. It’s simply up to us to make a better decision.

    I would like to reblog this one. I don’t normally do that, but your message is so strong and so clear, I’d like to spread the word.


    1. “Trophy hunting”, and “big game hunting” are two different things. “Big”, only applies to the size of the animal, with there being no real distinction between big and small otherwise. In this story, “big game” is consistently misused, as it wasn’t big game hunting, but rather “dangerous game” or “trophy game” hunting. These are not small distinctions. Lots of people fill the pot at home with “big game”, deer, elk, red deer, etc. Presumably lions are not eaten. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t taken for legitimate reasons however.

      The concepts we have over “domination of the environment” and whatnot fade pretty quickly in most of the world, where resources are thinner, however. Righteous indignation is a luxury of the Western World, where the fast level of our daily consumption to even express our righteous indignation dwarfs the consumption of people live closer to nature and the edge than we do. Almost nobody in the Western World really has any room to complain about anyone else’s use of nature, as just being a westerner means more consumption pre month than most elsewhere do per year.


      1. Okay. Mr. Walker was “Trophy Hunting” when he killed a protected lion. Now that we’ve corrected the term, the act remains the same. It’s still pointless and wasteful.

        If a guy living in Alaska goes out and hunts a Deer with every intention of butchering it to feed himself and his family, there isn’t any problem with that. This is part of the natural order of things.

        If a guy native to Zimbabwe has his family threatened or his cattle (his livelihood) threatened by a lion then he has every right to kill the threatening lion. Perhaps he won’t eat the lion, but he has every natural right to defend himself.

        A Dentist who lives in Minnesota, who passed many McDonalds and many grocery stores on the way to the airport, did NOT need to fly all the way to Zimbabwe and pay $50,000 dollars to kill a lion…to survive. He expended quite an exorbitant amount of resources just to kill something he never intended to eat. The criticism of Mr. Walker is NOT a case of a rich Westerner criticizing a poor Zimbabwean for his consumption of resources. It IS a Westerner criticizing another Westerner.

        In criticizing “humanity” for its outrageous consumption of resources, the VAST bulk of that blame rests on the shoulders of Westerners and in particular, Americans. NOT poor tribesman in Zimbabwe. We Westerners do not need to consume a 5,000 calorie diet whilst sitting in a corporate office. We Westerners do not need to leave the lights on and the air conditioner running in an empty house all day. We Westerners do not need to throw away a 1yr old cell phone because a new model is now available with features we’ll never use. We Westerners especially do not need to kill lions in Zimbabwe when a McDonalds sits on the nearest street corner. If Mr. Walker was struggling to survive, his killing of a lion would be a different story. He wasn’t starving in Minnesota. He wasn’t threatened by a Zimbabwean Lion, in Minnesota.

        No one is criticizing a poor tribesman for hunting to feed his family. The criticism is for a rich white man destroying a rare and precious animal whose (living) presence constituted a substantial tourism income for the locals, in a poor African nation, strictly to inflate the rich man’s ego.

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        1. In the abstract, you might be correct, but the problem here is in the details. Zimbabwe is a corrupt regime in and of itself. The government protection of lions in parks is poor, and they’re most protected actually in hunting concessions. The problems villagers face from lions is real, but we disregard the nature of their government if we feel that a system that would allow the impoverished rural Zimbabwean to deal with the problems that it presents actually exists. There isn’t a local option in Zimbabwe, because Zimbabwe is a corrupt mess. That’s the reality of the situation that’s seemingly ignored. And that corrupt mess can’t really be blamed on westerners at this point, except to the extent that we’ve felt free to ignore the country for 40 years.

          The real criticism here should be levied at the Zimbabwean government, which has fostered a system in which what occurred here not only probably wasn’t actually illegal, but in which illegality and legality are a bit of a joke in the context of the nation. It’s absurd that a cry over Zimbabwe comes now, when it should have been coming for decades given the abuse the nation has had at the hands of its leaders since Mugabe came to power.

          On consumption of resources I largely agree with you, although I suspect we would differ significantly on details (i.e., I agree regarding the consumption of resources associated with our modern highly mobile urban lives). Its easy to blame this primarily on Americans but that’s a falsity which travel to any Western nation lays bare. Just the mere nature of our economic system means that even the most environmentally conscious westerner is consumes more in the way of resources, even if living on lettuce and free trade coffee, than those in the third world do, by a huge margin. At the same time, the fact that we’ve insulated ourselves from nature allows us to have the illusion that this is not the case, and to further have the illusion that any one of us can really levy much criticism in this area without having it apply fully equally to ourselves.


  7. Reblogged this on Momus News and commented:
    I don’t normally reblog anything, but Matthew Wright makes some excellent, salient points about the killing of Cecil the Lion and most notably, about the state of humanity. Be sure to read the comments from Matthew’s readers. They truly add something useful and intelligent to the discussion.


  8. Very thought provoking post with a very strong message. Strange thing is that people know, they suffer but refuse to take lessons from their misdeeds. But there is still hope till thoughtful, sensitive people like you raise their voice and spread the word.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Personally, I don’t really see anything wrong if a limited number of hunting permits is given out as long as the animal population is not threatened and growing, especially if the animal is taken for food. At least as long as we’re eating meat, there’s no radical difference between killing a deer and slaughtering a cow.


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