By Nick Werren
On August 23rd 2017, the branch manager of the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto sent out the following message to customers:
As you may be aware, we had to temporarily close our store at St Clair and Oakwood due to some unexpected repairs that arose from a family of raccoons making our ceiling their new home.
We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.”
The ongoing conflict between the authorities in Toronto and the raccoons that live there is well-documented and worth reading. It’s a hilarious and surprisingly inspiring underdog story (or perhaps an underraccoon story). But why are trash pandas creating such havoc in this Canadian city? The answer is that nature hates capitalism; these raccoons aren’t pests, they’re revolutionaries.
Yes, this is a meme but it’s also politics, this is how the world works now.
Native American folklore often describes the raccoon as a benevolent trickster, confounding fools and agitating villains. The current conflict is one such tale, dragged into the modern age. Let’s set the stage… Raccoons play the role of our wily heroes, intent on reclaiming their homes, meanwhile humanity has taken it upon itself to act out the role of a painfully obvious moustache-twiddling villain intent on stopping the recalcitrant raccoons at all costs.
The performance begins hundreds of years ago as a handful of ships set sail from the Spanish port of Palos. Intent on finding a western route to China, the sailors instead stumbled upon the continent of North America. When Europeans crossed the Atlantic, they brought their culture with them. They brought a culture of exploitation that views the natural environment surrounding it as resource to be exploited, one that is inferior and superfluous when held against humanity’s wants and needs. In the modern age, that culture has now blossomed into capitalism, and it’s devouring our planet. Driven by greed, the unspoken intention of building cities is to displace nature’s ecosystems, and replace them with our own – an ecosystem where everything is made by capital, for capital. Before animals can live alongside us they must go through domestication, a process that requires generations of natural selection until a creature is warped into a state of subservience. Animals that have not been domesticated are marked as pests and must be removed from our spaces.
Enter raccoons, stage left.
Before the arrival of Europe, Native Americans hunted raccoons for their pelts, their fat, and their meat. Despite still being considered as mischievous, stories show that they were understood and appreciated throughout the continent – the confederation of Native American tribes in Wichita even call themselves Kitikiti’sh, meaning the raccoon-eyed people. With the systematic erasure of Native cultures, the established relationship between humans and the surrounding ecosystem in North America was irrevocably changed. Instead, European colonists demanded that the flora and fauna of the new continent conform or burn.
In Toronto, our raccoon heroes are challenging authority by resisting displacement and adapting; in doing so they turn our cities into their homes. Every mouldy sandwich taken from a bin is an an act of defiance, an uncomfortable reminder that we were not given this world, we took it. The persistence of life depends on its ability to adapt and evolve, this is the dynamo at the heart of all ecosystems which drives the conflict between humanity and nature. Pests live at the interface of this conflict and therefore receive a lot of hostility, but they aren’t the only city dwellers who find themselves at the sharp end of a exploitative capitalist society…
A popular myth of the 21st century is that of the “young professional” who likes to travel for work and experience. In reality, the private rented sector has flooded the housing market – the wealthy own the homes, and you’ll pay them for the privilege of living in one of them. By the way, you better not put Blu Tack on the walls because this home isn’t yours, and it never will be. The disconnect from the local community is deepened when jobs are precarious and underpaid. This is what happens when a government props up employment figures in a broken economy by encouraging zero hour contracts without adequate workers’ rights. Nobody should be surprised that radical left wing policies are back on the menu when millions of people are being ripped off at work and at home, treated like an urban fox, moving from house to house searching for food and getting shouted at by pensioners to keep out of their garden.
If you look for progressive left wing politics on the internet it won’t take you long to stumble upon a twitter page posting radical politics and photos of vermin (@BinAnimals) or a video game about raccoons and possums fighting against gentrification (Donut County). Trash animals have entered the zeitgeist, demonstrating an increasing affinity with creatures at the bottom of society. The creatures once seen as wretched and filthy are now allied in a virtuous struggle against crooked economic forces. Trash animals for a trash generation.
This affinity with nature goes beyond solidarity: we should be inspired by it and use the lessons it teaches us to change the world. Trash animals are active and wild – activism does not happen in a vacuum, it requires you to fight against domestication and engage with it through empowerment and autonomy. Critters are persistent in the face of cruel authority, and likewise we cannot give in when faced with the obstacles thrown at us by those with capital. Nature adapts by converting contemporary society into something that is useful, we can see this reflected in the development of cooperative housing projects – the adaptation of a building into something that offers its tenants democratic control over the property alongside lower rents. And finally, don’t be afraid of hostility. By squatting in ceilings, eating from bins, and closing down banks, the critters are winning their battle to turn Toronto into a raccoon utopia. If those in the wrong call you a pest, then you’re doing something right.
Nick Werren is a Physics PHD student at the University of Surrey.