When Elephants Fight

One of a small herd grazing near Keekorok, Kenya (July 2014)

One of a small herd grazing near Keekorok, Kenya (July 2014)

There is a Kenyan proverb that when the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

Or the acacia trees. You can tell on the Maasai Mara when the elephants have been through an area. The bushes are uprooted, tree branches broken, dirt churned, all the inevitable consequences of elephants just being elephants as they pass through.

They don’t even have to fight to tear up the landscape.

You could say there is nothing personal. The elephants are just doing what they do. But the acacia trees, like the grass, would have another opinion if they could speak.

Around the world, democracy is a frail flower these days. While the theory about government of the people, by the people, for the people was crystal clear when it was declaimed 150 years ago, how it has been translated into practice since has varied widely.

Sometimes I wonder if the term “democracy” is worth using at all – certainly the old definitions seem to apply less every day.

The word itself has become a smokescreen for the politics of power, whether it comes out of the muzzle of a gun or (more deniably) out of the mouth of a bank account. The elephants tear up the landscape with impunity and it is the grass that suffers.


Watching events unfold in Egypt the past couple of years – or in Ukraine the last six months – fragile new democratic institutions seem no match for the momentum of ambition or the flourishes of raw power.

The development of democracy takes time that circumstances don’t always allow – though if you look at the circumstances in “democratic” countries over the past two hundred years, you could argue things are no different today than they were before. The effects and consequences of the fragility of new democracy in our generation are just played out around the world in real time — and in colour.

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Here in Canada, I was reminded about that fragility a couple of months ago as I walked into the Manitoba provincial legislature, exchanged a brief greeting with the (unarmed) lone security guard and delivered an (uninspected) package to the office of a government minister.

Once inside the building, I wandered around unchallenged, thinking of the scenes in the Ukrainian parliament and the bloodshed – provoked and deliberate, by whatever side – in that was unfolding in the streets outside.

Banal, even boring, our democracy is threatened not by angry crowds – or angry elephants – but by apathy.

Even an apathetic elephant can do a lot of damage to the grass and trees.

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A hundred years ago, feuding elephants took the world into the greatest war ever fought. The grass suffered the most, but it was also the last fight for most of the elephants.

No one thought four years of war would put an end to the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires, would shatter Britain and France beyond repair, and push the United States and Japan to the front.

But it did.

In an inter-connected world, elephants need to learn to walk with care, whatever their natural disposition to tear up the grass and trample the trees.

The grass may suffer and the trees be torn apart, but in the world as in Africa, a changing climate threatens the elephants, too.

Leaders who do not understand this picture are neither smart nor long-lived. No government, however tyrannical, survives for long without the consent of the people.

In a climate-changed world, when ordinary people are confronted with the catastrophic consequences of their leaders’ greed, indecision and incompetence, I fear there will be a very swift and brutal response.

That, unfortunately, is also what democracy can mean.

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There was a powerful symbolism in watching the end of Solomon Northrop’s story, Twelve Years a Slave, as I flew over Khartoum, Sudan.

At the juncture of the White and Blue Niles, it was at the heart of the trade routes of a continent, including the slave trade.

Looking at the ethnicities of the people around me on the plane, 35,000 feet above the confluence of the Niles, it would be understandable to say that times certainly have changed. I was one of the few whites in sight, apart from the KLM flight crew.

But in too many ways, they have not. Slavery was an attitude first, an economic system second, and a culture third.

When people of whatever origin are treated as though class or status trumps our basic shared humanity, then slavery is alive and well.

Change the guise, dress it up as migrant labour, yoke people with the harness of international trade agreements over which they have no option or control, and the chains are merely less visible.

The plantation slaves from Africa in the Caribbean were exchanged for indentured labourers from India when Britain banned slavery…but the workers in the field had pretty much the same existence.

I will always be a white man in Africa, inheritor of cultural crimes I hope my ancestors did not commit, but suspect – to some extent – they did.

I am no imperialist, but those invisible chains of Empire still remain. While it is possible to excuse slave owners by saying they also were shackled by the system they inherited, the brute reality was – and is – quite different. White people were not slaves then and – in most places – they still aren’t. The privileges of being a Master are now just extended to all the people who have the money, not merely the accident of certain genetics.

As a Canadian of whatever colour, however, the burden I carry is simply not the same as the one carried by those people 35,000 feet below.

In fact, that distance neatly summarizes the differences between the opportunities in life for a child in Winnipeg and one below me in a camp in Darfur.

For a sustainable future, we simply cannot stay so far off the ground in terms of the necessities of life. The ingenuity that is demonstrated at every turn in the techniques of the developed world must be turned to accomplish simple, practical tasks in new ways in the developing world.

On a warming planet there is no room, any more, for error.

What response can we make, from so high in the sky, to those people on the ground who demand better and more?

And if we don’t listen to their voices, in what other ways will they be forced to communicate – and at what cost to themselves, to us, and to the planet?

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As the world moves into the week that, one hundred years ago, marked the outbreak of war in 1914, there are ominous signs that the elephants have not learned their lesson.

Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian government, elected by its people, and the “rebels” backed by Russia – against which the EU, the USA, Canada and others have announced more sanctions.

At the start of the Great War, countries excused sinking passenger ships with torpedoes; today, civilian airliners are blown out of the sky with missiles.

It is the grass, once again, that suffers.

In Palestine, especially Gaza, the Israeli military continues to bombard Hamas targets in a densely populated area where – even if Hamas was not using civilian installations as a shield for their activities – civilian casualties are inevitable.

It is the dilemma of the fight between elephants, even if one is much bigger and stronger than the other.

Border tunnels to allow infiltration into Israel are an act of war; so, too, are rockets. (I wonder how many rockets would need to be fired into Detroit from Windsor, Ontario, before the American military simply moved in and eliminated the threat – and any Canadians who were in the way?)

Economic restrictions, security walls, illegal settlements – all the things that constrain the lives of the people who live in Gaza – do not seem as bad as rockets to those of us who live far away. But the damage that is done to their futures is daily evidence of a conflict to which the people did not contribute and that they wish would end. By comparison, the rockets are merely a nuisance.

Whether it is the grass or the acacia trees – or the olive trees – they all suffer when elephants simply behave as elephants.

Now, as the bodies accumulate, so, too does the anger. Perhaps if those responsible for the fight, on both sides, were the first ones to suffer the consequences of not finding some other way, more effort would be spent on coming to a peaceful resolution.

In the mean time, civilian casualties increase, cease fires are broken, and Israel is right back where it was five years ago, invading Gaza.

This is a response, however misjudged or badly it has been mishandled.  Responsible leadership on both sides would look for answers, instead of reacting to the latest assault or placing impossible demands on their opponents.

Will those answers be costly?  Absolutely.  But what about the cost of doing this?

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There would have been a huge cost, in 1914, to settle the grievances peacefully that led to the outbreak of war.

But by 1918, the world would have agreed to pay that cost without hesitation, given what happened next. But it was too late.

In 2014, there also would be a huge cost to settle the grievances that underlie the simmering conflicts of our time – and an even greater one to address the sources of climate change and ecological destruction.

Why is it that our governments object to spending money on peace with justice, when there seems to be little hesitation to spending so much more on war and injustice?

And what profit is there in continuing to conduct business as usual, when that means the certain death of so many people and so much of the biosphere on which we and other living things depend?

Looking at the money spent on the means and the waging of war, at all levels, around the world, we have the financial resources to build the sustainable future we need. We also could rethink our economies in ways that create the means and opportunities to do it.

This is what most people want – their hope for a future in which there is enough for all, forever. It is what the grass prefers, what makes the trees grow.

What we lack is the political will – in all countries, not just the ones in which democratic institutions are still fragile.

If democracy is really about “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” then perhaps we simply need fewer elephants – whether they are aggressive or just apathetic.

Or, at least, fewer leaders that act like them.