THERE have been two events this week so disturbing that if our minds were medieval we might consider them portents of the end of days. Or at least there were just two that I know of.
In Chile, in the central Concepcion province, beaches have been turned a lurid reddish pink by thousands of prawns that have apparently abandoned the seas. The video footage is not just a little upsetting, and it is unclear what has driven them there. Researchers are merely speculating whether it is pollution, disease or a poisoned food source which has caused the multitude of langoustines to beach themselves to die while waving their little claws in the air.
But in China it is, perhaps, even scarier. In a story that has been getting worse over the last week, residents have been shocked to find dead pigs floating in the Huangpu River, the main source of drinking water for Shanghai. At the last count, the number of carcases removed from the river has reached 14,000. And that’s just the ones they have managed to pull out with a crook.
Residents have accused the government of trying to cover up a major scandal. Where the pigs have even come from is unclear, although fingers are pointing to farmers upriver in Zhejiang province. There has been a recent crackdown on trading in diseased pigs, according to reports. Whereas it used to be that not-fit-for-consumption animals were often sold to gangs that embraced a “don’t ask, won’t tell” food safety policy, rules have been enforced against the practice. So instead farmers have been dumping their poorly pigs in the river, rather than burning or burying them. That’s the going theory at any rate.
Numbers that sometimes emerge from the country of 1.3 billion souls tend to overwhelm us low-population-density westerners. So where 14,000 pigs floating down the Firth of Forth would be a massive drama, overall, the Chinese seem pretty phlegmatic about the porcine crisis. It has even given lease to examples of deadpan Chinese gallows humour, as Shanghai bloggers joke about how their taps can produce pork soup.
It helps that Chinese authorities tend to clamp down on the population and any civil unrest in which they might indulge. In the case of the flotilla of dead porkers, intelligent Chinese commentators have pointed out that while the government is not so hot at managing or investigating social health disasters, it does know how to use control to keep millions from rioting in the streets.
This is not, I don’t think, because Chinese authorities don’t care. They too have families and friends who risk being affected by contaminated water, or poisonous baby food. In fact they seem to try very hard indeed to root out criminals that represent a danger to the public.
I recall a recent trip to Hong Kong where I took to reading the wonderful South China Morning Post over breakfast. Its business section ran typical stories about successful companies in mainland China, until you read to the bottom to find a jolting report on how the company’s previous management teams had been put to death for fraud. Imagine if we did that to our failed captains of industry, rather than just forcing them to retire or, in the most egregious examples, stripping them of their gongs.
The trouble is, there seems very little we can do to prevent disaster – wether it is a beach blanketed with dying prawns, or a massive viral outbreak killing thousands of animals which in turn end up polluting the water supply.
It makes me feel the same as I did when I was eight years old. That was about the age I was when I first read about the extinction of species, which was the first thing I learned in a classroom that caused me abject despair. I don’t recall exactly what triggered the sorrow. Perhaps it was the story of Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise, a species thought to have been long gone except for just the one discovered in 1971. Sadly he passed away last year.
It seemed to me that humans were making a terrible hash of their management of the earth. In fact, I still think that way.