Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Economy of luxury: We’re like rabbits caught in the headlights

Many readers will be familiar with Watership Down, Richard Adams’ wonderful, albeit sometimes terrifying, allegorical tale of a band of rabbits fleeing from a doomed warren (at the instigation of Fiver, a clairvoyant rabbit, who “saw” the imminent destruction of the warren by humans to make way for a building construction development). In the novel there is a telling episode (on which I have written here before in the context of living in South Africa), which serves as a kind of allegorical model of the present planetary situation of humanity, as well as a premonition of things to come.

In the course of their journey, in search of a suitable place to start a new warren, they encounter a rabbit who invites them to visit his warren. To their surprise the rabbits at this warren are all bigger and sleeker than the rabbits they are used to, as if they are exceptionally well-fed. And to be sure, another surprise awaits them when it turns out that their hosts have a whole supply of “flayrah” (king’s food), such as carrots and lettuce, at their disposal — something that Hazel (the fugitive band’s leader) and his companions only rarely tasted, when they raided a farm at the risk of their lives. These rabbits evidently find the “flayrah” scattered about in the vicinity of their warren at regular intervals, and merely collect it.

Their hosts are also more sophisticated than any rabbits that Hazel, Fiver and the others have ever known. Large underground spaces in their warren, including a kind of “hall”, are supported by tree roots in an advanced architectural fashion unknown to the visitors. Moreover, they sing to their little ones, laugh (a mode of behaviour our “wild” friends find disconcerting) and — in response to a story about the daring escapades of the rabbit Robin Hood, El-Ahrairah, told by Dandelion, one of the group of wanderers — a young “poet”, Silverweed, narrates a beautiful, but chilling poem. It speaks of the mortality of all living things and exhorts the listeners to resign themselves to their inescapable fate, death. Here is the last stanza of Silverweed’s poem:

“Frith [the sun] lies in the evening sky. The clouds are red about him. I am here, Lord Frith, I am running through the long grass. O take me with you, dropping behind the woods, far away, to the heart of light, the silence. For I am ready to give you my breath, my life, the shining circle of the sun, the sun and the rabbit.”

Fiver, who listened intently to Silverweed, is beside himself with horror and dread when the poet falls silent, and claws his way roughly past other rabbits to one of the exits, with Hazel and Bigwig (the strongest in the band) behind him. They rebuke him for upsetting their hosts by his rude exit, and find his response, that the whole warren reeks of death, somewhat incomprehensible, because they regard it as a stroke of singular good luck that they have been invited to join an apparently prosperous warren.

The next morning Hazel discovers that Fiver has gone, and rushes outside with Bigwig to look for him. They find him “silflaying” (feeding) on grass, ignoring the tempting “flayrah”. He tells them that he is leaving them, and Bigwig, exasperated, castigates him for his waywardness, before dashing through a gap in the hedge to inform the other rabbits of Fiver’s departure. Instantly there is a terrible commotion, which leaves Hazel and Fiver flabbergasted and scared. The tumult continues, and when they eventually gather courage together to investigate, they find Bigwig lying on the ground, frothing at the mouth and kicking weakly, with blood trickling down his neck, where a copper wire is cutting into his skin and choking him.

To cut a long story short, Bigwig was caught in one of the farmer’s snares, and with the help of Blackberry, the cleverest among the little group, the rest of them finally managed to free Bigwig by biting through the peg that anchored the wire in the ground. Tellingly, when Fiver told their hosts about it, they scoffed at him and chased him away. With Bigwig still exhausted from the struggle, Fiver explained the “real” situation to his companions — that the farmer fed the rabbits “flayrah”, scattering it just far enough from the warren to ensure that the rabbits would stray sufficiently to be caught in the snares he set for them. Hence Silverweed’s chillingly beautiful, but ultimately nihilistic poetry about facing the inevitable: death.

Hence, too, clairvoyant Fiver’s instinctive recoil in the face of such uncharacteristic resignation on the part of rabbits — after all, as their admiration for the mythical rabbit El-Ahrairah’s ability, to outwit the “thousand enemies” of rabbits testifies, rabbits NEVER simply accept untimely death; they always try their utmost to avoid it, to outwit its emissaries in the shape of foxes, stoats and dogs. The warren of sophisticated, but nihilistic rabbits had given up on their rabbit nature for the sake of an “economy” of luxury and indolence, suppressing the terrible knowledge that some among them would continue disappearing because of the farmer’s snares.

This episode in Watership Down has remarkable significance for human beings at this precise point in their history on planet Earth. Among many other rabbit-traits, one of those that Adams refers to in the novel is rabbits’ tendency, when suddenly confronted by potentially life-threatening dangers, to freeze, as if hypnotised, unable to move, until the “flight”-response finally kicks in. This is a frighteningly accurate image of the ostensibly paralysed state in which the vast majority of human beings find themselves today, in the face of — need I spell it out — the GRAVEST DANGER to our continued existence on the planet: extreme climate change. Not only human existence is thus threatened; all life is.

To be sure, the planet will be fine; even if all present life-forms are extinguished, new ones will eventually be generated after a couple of million years. But the point is: at this moment we are like rabbits caught in the glare of a car’s headlights, unable to move, just waiting for the inevitable, pretending that nothing has changed. We are like the sophisticated, nihilistic rabbits that enjoy their “economy of luxury”, conveniently ignoring the price they will all, sooner or later, pay for this economy of “flayrah”, or king’s food. In other words, they have been alienated from their true rabbit nature, which is to recognise a threat to life and act accordingly by taking evasive action.

In similar fashion human beings today have, by and large, been alienated from their vital instincts, which are attuned to the preservation of life, and are simply waiting for the inevitable to happen, while they enjoy their “economy of luxury”. Sooner than one may think, there will be no economy left. Unless people find ways of overcoming their paralysis, like Jake in James Cameron’s Avatar, and DO SOMETHING to rescue life, we will be snared by our own incapacity to act in the face of a catastrophe that, by all accounts, will have such an impact on social life as we know it that we will hardly recognise it.

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