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Meat, messiness and management: our planet is a disaster waiting to happen

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James Blignaut is Professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.

Today, all over South Africa, in every township and village around us, sewage runs down the street. The system is broken. Do we or do we not consider the system to be broken? Have we become numb to this brokenness, masked to reality?

Grumpily I stare into an unhappy egg at the airport lounge. In all fairness, it is early, too early for happiness, as the egg truthfully testifies. As a result, I, together with an entire cohort of exasperated and tired-looking people, stare into a cup of coffee for help.

This is the BCE time zone – Before Coffee Effectiveness. Having been systematically and in a well-choreographed way funnelled through security and on to our respective gates, we wait and contemplate; the plight of the modern migrant labourer. Monday morning migrants are the worst; the plane is a morbid graveyard. Friday flyers fill the plane with stories and energy, till the next Monday that is…

It was a plane that took me to Corona Island. China. After drifting down the Yangtze River on a riverboat we ended at the spectacular Three Gorges Dam, and then travelled by bus to Wuhan – yes, the very city from where the big C virus comes. Relax, it was 2010, I’m out of quarantine now. I was part of a World Health Organisation delegation which held its three-day meeting on the riverboat. Weird, but wonderful. Yet, irony of ironies! Of the about 30 delegates from all over the world attending this meeting, I was the only one not falling sick – sick like you need to be near a bathroom the whole time, that type of deep sick.

Why, was I just lucky? No, as a perennial traveller I have a simple policy when it comes to food: when I travel, I’m a vegetarian, irrespective of the destination. Being prudent to the point of pedantically excessive regarding food has safeguarded me from many ills – even in India and all over Africa.

As the only healthy and fit member of the delegation, I ventured into the streets of Wuhan, exploring China. Exciting! I stumbled across a food market. I wished I had not. I wished I had stayed in the hotel. Reprehensible and utterly disgusting – enough to make a perfectly healthy person sick to the bone; turning a carnivore into a vegan in an instant.

The real remarkable story of the big C is not the fact that China is building hospitals in record time, albeit very impressive, but the fact that the virus had not decimated China, and many other places, a long time ago. It was a tragedy waiting to happen, and there for all to see. There was thus time to repair the broken systems, yet, alas, it was not done, and now a tragedy of human suffering is unfolding, potentially on a global scale, as the masked masses at the airports testify. Why? Because the system was not considered broken.

Today, all over South Africa, in every township and village around us, sewage runs down the street. The system is broken. Do we or do we not consider the system to be broken? Have we become numb to this brokenness, masked to reality? Another virus, another travesty, is awaiting us. Even on this very day, I had to criss-cross numerous sewage streams in the capital city of a large country and fight my way through pavements cluttered with people and stray animals who bathe, bath, and live in whatever nature has to offer the homeless city dweller. (Yes, another plane had taken this migrant labourer to another “exotic” location.)

Brokenness, however, does not just jump on us. Brokenness is made, constructed over time – even diligently so – through negligence and ignorance on the one hand and perpetual self-enrichment and the abuse of power on the other; we’re caught in an envelope of extremes. Going to the bathroom or eating meat is not the problem – the real issue is whether the underlying system, on which the sanitation network and our grub depend, is healthy and dignified or not.

In the end, the issue is simple: through a lack of proper management we are creating Herculean challenges for ourselves as well as for the next generations. The climate is changing and with it the variability in and intensity of weather events – a Herculean problem indeed, as are the open sewers in so many places.

Does a city, a town, a village have a functioning water and sanitation system? It is such a simple, yet powerful, indicator of welfare and dignity combined. If yes, then that implies there had to be people appointed to construct and then to manage an entire water reticulation and discharge system. They are also capacitated and authorised to do so. Those in authority value the dignity of the members of its society, even the poor ones. If no, then the system is broken – and broken systems bring about different kinds of viruses, those affecting our health, or those impacting the social order, and human dignity. A broken water and sanitation system bellows to all who have an ear to hear that its citizenry is not valued.

For millennia, animals, by their millions, roamed the African savannah and grasslands. In the process, together with sporadic and random lightning-induced fires, they managed the savannah and the grassland systems. This management process is now our responsibility. Lightning has been replaced by fences and matches, and hordes of wildebeest have been replaced by herds of cattle doing the same – or at least supposedly so. When and where the negative impacts of animals exceed the positive, the system is broken. It is a management problem, not an animal problem.

It is almost Friday when I will board a home-bound plane alongside the Martian-like masked who remind me of Wuhan, its food market and a failed system for those with eyes to see. Meat, well-prepared, awaits. Meat that was well-prepared long before it would arrive on my plate. Meat that grazed freely on a farm in Limpopo – respectfully reared with love in a well-managed, grass-fed, regenerative and life-giving sustainable system.

Thus, what we can say: the meat of it all is that the messiness among us, the broken systems – which are the biggest and scariest of all viruses – are created by us as human beings, but so can we create the solutions through proper management. DM

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