When cow love meets car love

By Tom Abel

For an anthropologist like myself raised on stories of the Nuer and Dinka (and the other tribes in the region), the latest news from the Sudan is jarring.  These men fighting each other are not ‘soldiers’, they are warriors.  They live in ‘tribes’ or ‘local groups’ ruled by kinship.  And they fight each other in terms of historical animosities.  But they are now armed (who armed them?), and the big players (the US, China, others) have oil ‘interests’ in the region.  So the language has changed, this is a ‘state’, it should follow the ‘rules’ of international law, people can be charged with ‘war crimes’, etc.  The US has soldiers stationed nearby to protect ‘facilities’.  Thousands of UN ‘peacekeeprs’ as well as ‘attack helicopters’ are coming.  All of this, clearly, is not for the building of ‘democracy’ or for some other higher moral purpose, but to create ‘stability’.

A Nuer ox, with tassels hanging from its horns, from Evans-Pritchard’s famous ethnography, The Nuer (1940)

 Stability is the overarching goal of our time, perhaps the only widely-agreed-upon social goal any more, with the ultimate purpose in this case of allowing the oil to flow.  This is what we foist on the rest of the world, this is what the US and the UN and the Chinese and the Russians, and especially their corporations do when they set their sights on resource extraction from a region clearly not ready or even desiring of such economic ‘development’.  All in the name of our addiction to oil, to automobiles, to plastics, to pharmaceuticals, to pesticides, etc.  Just watch, we will end up blaming one tribe or another for the violence, or some ‘warlord’, or some ‘faction’, or the ‘uncivilized’ behavior generally of Nilotic peoples.  But are they to blame?  For having their world turned completely upside down?  By peoples with weapons, technologies, and goals they barely understand?

Nuerland in the rainy season with sorghum plots (Evans-Pritchard 1940).
Nuerland in the rainy season with sorghum plots (Evans-Pritchard 1940).

I don’t mean to romanticize the Nuer or the Dinka.  They are thoroughly modern peoples, capable of coming to comprehension of what now assaults them.  But this was not their choice, and they are certainly not in control of what is happening.  A few will be made superrich.  The rest, you can imagine.  And in a decade or two, when the oil’s gone, should we picture a peaceful democracy with schools and hospitals and cafes?  Look at Nuerland.  In the rainy season it is one great swamp.  Where do you put the 7-11s?

I find it very hard to watch this.  I want to look away.  But then I realize that this is the same story that we read if we dare to read the colonial histories of Europeans throughout the world.  Time and again the killing and the ‘civilizing’ and in the end some foreigners or their companies are left holding the prize, and the locals are reduced or tamed and left with little.  South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, we can trace this back a long way, the Americas.  We think this is history.  This can’t happen today.  But there it is.  Right there, once again in my news feed.  The Nuer, the Dinka, famous breeders of cows, worshipers of cows, are being set up to go the way of all those others before them.

Time to think again? 

We in the developed countries should consider the impacts of our lifestyles.  We did this.  We are doing this, as I write.  Isn’t it time for a reboot, a fresh look at the world, time to think smaller, to live more locally, to pedal instead of drive?  A better world won’t come to us.  Our government sure won’t hand it to us.  We have to make it ourselves, from the bottom up, from the choices we make every day in what we do and buy.  It’s starting.  Many people and communities are beginning to choose more renewable lifestyles, more local, more self-sufficient.  Transition Towns are an example, but there are many possibilities.  There are guidelines here (on the Prosperous Way Down website) for how we can reorganize communities during transition to fit with the natural processes of land and water that sustain us (summarized here).  Growing some of your own food is a good beginning.  People are starting down that road.  But don’t wait for politicians to lead us.  We’ll have to show them, and show ourselves too (and that’s a big sell), that there is another way to live in the 21st Century.  Start small.  Show your neighbors.  It’s worth a try.  For the Nuer and Dinka, and all the rest.


  • Thanks, Tom, I can almost hear you sputtering over there in Taiwan. What I get out of this, and what I see increasingly, is that efforts at the ecological engineering and permaculture levels of scale have to be protected against the industrial society that operates one scale up. When the two scales clash, the human scale (cow love) loses to the car love. What a great title!

  • Texan4Peace

    And of course the “stability” that you identify as the overarching goal refers to the stability of corporate power, not of the millions of human lives that are drastically DEstabilized in the process.
    Been thinking a lot lately about how to transition to more sustainable living — I’m very interested to take a look at the links you included. Look forward to hearing more from you here!

    • tom

      Thanks Aurolyn, I mean Texan4Peace, this site do rock the peak! Yes, that’s what I meant, I can picture a big hand pressing down with people squirming underneath and every now and then some squirm out wrecking all kinds of heck. As for sustainable living, I too am in that thinking stage. One class I teach is environmental education and I ‘know’ all these things but it’s another thing to do them. Writing this blog is in part an effort to convince myself, to persuade myself, to go in these directions. Bike riding (some), check. We grew some tomatoes and we’ve got a couple fruit trees in the back yard now (check), but I really need to dig it up and grow a bunch of veggies, and in the permaculture style. But I would rather do it with help than read it in my books. There’s a small permaculture community in Taiwan that I should get in contact with. And of course I have to convince my wife that tearing up our little back yard is a good thing. 🙂

      • Texan4Peace

        Sounds like we are on the same page… I turned some of my front lawn into veg garden a few years back but still feel like I am just barely learning (though I did have good luck with tomatoes this year — just two plants and six weeks after first snow I still have some in the fridge, that’s after giving a bunch away and freezing some. My main step toward sustainability was putting solar panels on my roof and getting an electric car (my tenure present to myself) which runs off the solar-powered house current.
        I followed your link to the Transition Network and have been delving into that the last couple of days — made a great online contact in New Mexico who is way ahead of anyone I know as far as “walking the walk.” Hoping to get out there for a visit sometime soon, to see his setup and learn more. Thanks for the lead!