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Humans don’t make the world go round

As long as we remain anthropocentric, we harm other animals.

I remember when I first encountered anthropocentrism. I was in primary school and, in preparation for our confirmation, the class was learning about the afterlife. Even after ten minutes, heaven was sounding pretty dull but in spite of the sheer tedium of an eternity spent floating about a vast, milky limbo adoring the deity, my seven-year-old mind did not entirely rebel until (in response to a question about dogs in the great beyond) the catechism teacher informed us that there were no animals in heaven, because animals did not have eternal souls and so could not be redeemed. Only humans could be redeemed and God had created the world for that very purpose: to give us the opportunity to achieve salvation.

I had heard such language before; but now, for the life of me, I could not understand why God, (whom I had previously rather admired) would take the trouble to create all the beauty I saw around me – pine woods, fallow deer, black-backed gulls –when all He cared about was us. Why had He expended such ingenuity on flamingos, when they were irrelevant to the overall narrative? What was the point of the armadillo? All of a sudden, black revolt began to simmer in my heart – and in those days I was one of the good children, a boy who had stood patiently, my hands folded neatly behind my back, while a gaggle of Catholic matrons gathered to wonder aloud whether I might have been blessed with “a vocation”.

The first glimmer of arrogance in any system (political, religious, moral) is the crack through which all authority gradually leaks away. Soon, I was appalled by everything in my Vincent de Paul world: Catholic matrons, the bizarre catechism that now seemed a veritable road map to a cold, bloodless existence and, most of all, the smug self-regard of God’s chosen species as it laid waste to whatever it chose to destroy, for the “benefit of humankind”. Being poor, I already knew that “the benefit of humankind” meant ‘the benefit of the rich”, (safely immured, as they were, in the biological equivalent of gated communities, among maple trees and herbaceous borders), so all the wide variety of injustices seemed not only linked but founded upon anthropocentrism.

Humans were higher and more deserving than animals and, by extension, rich humans were higher and more deserving than poor ones (this connection became painfully clear later on, when the American General Westmoreland remarked that “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient”).

This is not an arbitrary link: anthropocentrism underpins our most basic moral and political failures, because it sets aside the sanctity (or if that word bothers you, the role in the overall fabric of material existence) of every living thing, from the amoeba to the armadillo to the utilities company executive. As long as we forget that sanctity, as long as we are even the least bit anthropocentric, we do harm, not only to other creatures and their habitats but to the world we ourselves inhabit.

Ian McHarg, the landscape architect author of the pioneering Design with Nature puts it most succinctly: “Man,” he says, “is a blind, witless, low-brow, anthropocentric clod who inflicts lesions upon the earth.” It is a long time since confirmation class, but a Catholic education is nothing if not thorough and I still cling to a notion of redemption. That will seem naive; nevertheless, I would contend that if redemption is possible, the first sin we must repent is the most basic one: the arrogance of thinking that we, and we alone, are the crown of creation.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis