05 February 2009

The totem animals of the United Nations Bureaucrat

Many years ago, I used to work for the United Nations. While bored at the office one day, I composed the following essay (1996)...

It was a quiet night in November. I was working late in the United Nations building, finishing off a document for a forthcoming conference, when I decided to take a break for a cup of machine coffee. Heading back to my cubicle, I nearly bumped into an elderly man shuffling around the corner. His UN Retiree’s pass fell off, and I automatically reached down to pick it up. He must have been more agile than he looked, because our heads bumped as he ducked too. Laughing, we agreed to head back to the coffee area, where we sat on some low chairs, and he started talking.

He told me this story, which he said was told to him by a friend of a friend. His eyes twinkled, as he asked me whether I knew about the three totem animals of the U.N. Pleading ignorance, I smiled, and he continued.

The first totem animal of the UN bureaucrat is the
three-toed sloth (Bradypus Tridactylus). A native of South America, this animal has long puzzled Biblical scholars, due to its amazing abilities. How could a pair of these intrepid animals have made the incredible journey from their home in the wilds of the Amazon basin, all the way to Mount Ararat in time for Noah to take them on board the ark? Clearly, they must have a prodigious capability for anticipation of important events. Calculating a daily distance travelled of around 3 km, the pair must have known about the forthcoming inundation over 30 years before the first drops fell. Imagine the sneers of the other sloths as these two visionaries departed on their epic adventure.

The hardships of the journey are almost beyond belief, with intervening stretches of desert, ocean, ice-floes and predators all too capable of running down an animal whose best defence consists in hanging upside down in a tree, nearly motionless. It is this motionlessness which fits the sloth for its place at the bottom of the UN totem pole, as staff members have sometimes been known to avoid the predatory glance of internal auditors through remaining absolutely still at their desks.

Our second totem animal also spends considerable time in trees. Evolving in the great southern land of Australia, the koala bear (Phascolarctos cinereus), is blessed with the ability to sit motionless on a branch for dozens of hours at a stretch, occasionally reaching for a new handful of gum leaves to chew. This unique talent is so well-developed that the koala has actually evolved a hard bony plate in its rear, which it uses to sit on the durable wood of the gum trees. Any UN bureaucrat worth his or her salt would immediately recognise the advantages of such an adaptation, given the long meetings, conferences, sessions and plenaries that fill our days, not to mention long hours in front of a desk.

For the third and final totem animal, we turn to that great reservoir of mysterious life, the ocean. The humble sea squirt, (Cnemidocarpa finmarkiensis), in its juvenile form frolics in the clear warm waters of the Mediterranean, crawling around the bottom of the sea, called by an unknown impulse to find a suitable rock on which to perch. When the rock is found, a subtle alchemy occurs within the metabolism of the sea-squirt, as it undergoes a sea-change, from animal to a kind of sea vegetable. To facilitate the process, the sea-squirt glues itself to the rock in much the same way as oysters do, its permanent post now assured. It immediately begins the next stage of its transformation. The rudimentary brain it used to find the rock is now superfluous, so the sea-squirt starts to absorb it, effectively digesting its own brain. Sadly, the parallel is in some cases all too clear, as the staff member with the permanent post is no longer obliged to engage in creative thought.

My new friend got up to leave, his eyes still twinkling. “Don’t worry too much about the Bureaucratic totem animals. They’re only as true as you want them to be. Perhaps we’ll meet again someday, and I can tell you of the feeding frenzies that follow the release of the hy… --I mean delegates—as they leave their great meetings. But that’s another story.”

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