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Dead rhinos and a store card

Sarah Bracking
By Sarah Bracking

Professor Sarah Bracking is the current holder of the South African Research Chair in Applied Poverty Reduction Assessment at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Research Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, University of Manchester. She is editor of Corruption and Development (Palgrave, 2007), author of Money and Power (Pluto, 2009) and The Financialisation of Power in Africa (Routledge, 2012).

Posted on Tuesday, 28 May 2013 14:03

My son is so upset about the rhinos. He is five. 

“They kill them mummy, they really do and they cut off their horns, and then they leave them just lying there dead and bleeding into the sand”. 

He is incredibly exercised by this, “why do they do that Mummy? Why? Who are these people?”
My daughter joins in “Yes Mummy, what do they possibly want with those horns?”

This I could not explain given a certain dearth of worldly coordinates.
I began to reflect on the choices of a five year-old’s school curriculum, when the revelation came, 
”But Mummy, we can save the rhinos, there is a piece of paper in my school bag, and teacher says if you sign it we get a plastic card from [a well known high street retailer] …Woolworth’s, and half of all the money we spend goes to save the rhino”.
I think they didn’t explain the maths of this too well.
“Really?” I say, thinking, my goodness the financialisation of conservation has hit the primary school – and stalling for time.
My daughter has the first reflection, 
”But Mummy, we never shop in Woolworths, does that mean we would have to go and spend money there in order to save the rhino? – Oh good, can I have some takkies”.

I can see that the conservation lobby will have no trouble recruiting her, as the ever pink, floor to ceiling aisles of toys and clothes subtly grow her love of consumerism. 
I am intrigued by how far the school has gone with this one, so I ask my son, “What do they do with the money we spend in Woolworth’s that is going to save the rhino?” I instantly wish I hadn’t used my son as a field interviewee, as he is starting to look even more upset.

As if the news of hoards of dead corpses strewn across the savannah were not enough – he has a teacher who doesn’t spare on gruesome details, like the thorns, nails, and whips of the Easter crucifixion, which cost me sleepless nights comforting him after nightmares – now he is worried that his Mum is going to say the solution doesn’t work. Dang that Mother!
He falters, then “Do they give the money to the rhino so he can go and buy another horn?”
His sister is giggling, he fears teasing, “Or can the rhino go and buy more rhinos?”
His sister has collapsed into mirth (she is older).
He is upset – he thumps her. “No silly, how can a rhino go shopping?” Yes indeed.

So to rescue his pride, I ask her – she is eight – “So what do you think Woolworths do with the money that saves the rhinos”. 

“Well”, her forehead has rippled with concentration. 
”Maybe, they pay the bad men to stop killing them”, 

“Maybe”, I say.

She thinks more, “But that wouldn’t be fair would it? They have chopped off horns”. 

We will need a future conversation on criminal rehabilitation. 

“Maybe, they pay someone to watch the rhinos, and they stop the bad men”. 

“What do they do with the money Mummy?”

Faltering Logic

The kids always turn the tables eventually, because in the big world of adults, I suddenly realised that I didn’t exactly know how they would spend the money to save the rhinos. I wonder what conservation charity the retail store chain would use when they passed it on – minus costs. How much do those people get paid? What four-wheel drives do they prefer? A more hopeless truth emerged; maybe one cannot save rhinos by acquiring a store card. I changed the subject.

But there is an important thing about children, which is that they often have a higher ability to question logic than adults do, because as we grow up, and as we consume the advertising, the performance and the ‘spectacle’ of knowledge that markets produce directly, in advertising and public relations, and indirectly, embedded in our consumer goods, we lose common sense, or have it replaced, by capitalism’s sense and nonsense. This happens in the messages around us.

The ‘money is God’ of a children’s Princess Channel, the ‘hair should be straight’ of the doll empire, the ‘skin should be even coloured and pale’, and ‘women should not get old’ of the cosmetics industry. Thus our intrinsic logic is eventually eroded. This is to make way for the idiotic, in material reality, if not in advertising messaging. The ‘because one is worth it’ wouldn’t sound the same if it were said in a more direct truth, like ‘we are hoping that by putting animal fats and whale blubber on your skin you will feel like you look less old, even though this is scientifically impossible’.

And to men, a barrage of ‘status + money = more women’, through constant associations between being clean shaven, having designer clothes, expensive watches, and having more access to women. Here it might more accurately read, “even though you have a middle-aged paunch, greying hair and are wont to actually love your wife, this aftershave will help you attract nubile young things to boost your faltering ego and growing fear of old age”. In fact, the sentence of material truth would not make many of us buy much, thus the myth and spectacle. But, fundamentally, what we are buying is a palliative to our own insecurities, where these latter are carefully nurtured, stoked and encouraged from childhood to make the perfect adult consumer-machine.

“Mummy, do you think I’m fat, can I have straight hair like Barbie?”, No, dear, but be careful, you may grow up to be an anorexic, commoditised body that men your father’s age think they can inhabit because they have bought cheap aftershave.

Every day, inexorably, members of our species sit in air-conditioned offices working out how to exploit our insecurities, our paranoia and lack of confidence as women, in order to get our money. And obviously this applies increasingly to men too. This barrage of ‘money solves all’, or at least makes it better, prepares us for the extreme (non) logics in the same general pattern when it comes to wider domains, such as environmental conservation.

Click a button, save a panda

“Get a store card – save a rhino”, or “Keep flying, but buy an offset”, or “An oil company has a green logo, invests in clean energy futures, and cares about the environment honest”. Forget about the oil flaring and the fracking. None of this makes sense, but we are taught from childhood, that owning, controlling, spending and distributing our money (for those who do) is the sin qua non of our power and agency as adults.

Now I have colleagues who study conservation, Profs. Brockington, Sian Sullivan and Jim Igoe, among others, who have written a lot about why the financialisation of conservation doesn’t work to conserve anything, or at least very much, (except maybe the profit margins of corporates). Jim has written about how the act of consuming has been linked in a spectacle to the notion of conserving and repairing the environment despite the material nonsense of this association. Click a button, donate 10 dollars, sponsor (and save) a panda! But what we are buying is a change to our own emotional state. We are spending money often in order to buy a brief moment of comfort, a respite from guilt, and above all, the hope, the deep-felt desire that it could actually be true, that buying takkies could save a rhino from the slaughter.

Just as shopaholics everywhere know, if you are feeling a bit down, those taught, near unconscious associations, of sugar and chocolate, new shoes, new lipstick, etc, are felt as powerful motivations.

I know my son, very much wants it all to be true – that I sign the form, spend money, and a rhino is saved – his lip was quivering. And I too wish something could be done. Of course, another aspect of adulthood is that we are also conditioned to think that nothing can be done (also to make us feel better) by those in power, to be cynical, to give up, to say that ‘sorry, I like the rhinos, but I have other things to think about, other priorities’. This helps us avoid the quivering lips. Perhaps the very marginal wins that are possible by such a ‘shopping-as-conservation’ strategy – I think they do indeed manage to save one or two, in the midst of the semi-legalised Rhino genocide all around – makes the best of us liberals think ‘at least I did my bit’ and avoid all encompassing cynicism.

What better solution?

But is there a better solution to saving Rhinos? And what would be a solution to this systemic problem that we are so easily conned by fiction in the employ of getting us to open our wallets and purses? A solution to this collective storytelling, and worship of money, despite its powers being much overblown, has to reside in two propositions.

First, that there is indeed a solution to conservation challenges, but it is not this financialised one, and things like carbon trading, biodiversity trading and other contemporary schemas are of this financialised type as well. Second, that if there is a solution it will involve people, active citizens in democracies where government hasn’t given up.

Call me old fashioned, but I would say that we need to take the money out of any trade in rhinos – rhino killers shouldn’t be helped to keep their identity a secret, allowed to be invisible at the auctions, because real conservationists have to keep their identity a secret in order to stop the poachers following them home. Financialisation doesn’t work! It can’t work.

Once there is a commodity, there is a market, and with markets comes the chance of distal trade, opacity and anonymity. And with these latter, corruption, money laundering and scores of dead Rhinos. More fundamentally, markets encourage the same old myth that money can do things, acting to strengthen our underlying, but inherently troublesome, faith in calculative logics. In other words, ideology wins, and we keep experimenting with the same financial tools, despite clear evidence that they don’t work to do stuff, like solve global warming, help threatened habitats, feed hungry babies, save Rhinos, or even make humans happy. The list is long.

Instead we need to remember that government was invented by our ancestors for a reason: to solve intractable, public problems that we as individuals do not have the power to solve. There are many things that we need government for, and these correlate to the things that money simply can’t do. Ban any movement of rhino without a government permit! Employ thousands of new rangers and then a special unit to stop them falling foul of the temptations of corruption! If a society wants something enough, it has to put in the human energy, not the pin in the machine.

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