The Elephant in the Climate Room

Elephants are being poached to the brink of extinction. That’s from a recent story on National Public Radio. In Central Africa, a main elephant habitat, almost two-thirds of the elephants there have died or been killed in just the past 10 years.

The root cause is an age-old lust for ivory, mostly in China. The scientists who surveyed the forests of Central Africa found many carcasses with missing tusks. According to the article, ivory traders tell customers that the tusks are surgically removed, aElephantnd the elephant grows a new set. This is apparently believed—largely, I imagine, because contemplating the real truth would be far too upsetting.

The story quotes Richard Ruggiero, a biologist who has worked with elephants for 30 years.  “[Elephants] understand the concept of mortality. They understand what tusks mean. They’ll pick them up from a carcass,” he says.

I’ve seen film of elephants nudging the lifeless bodies of their deceased fellows with their trunks as if to wake them and making small, mournful sounds when they don’t respond.

We who live in cultures that don’t have a tradition of ivory lust look on elephant poaching with disgust and outrage. (If you have the stomach for it, search for images of “elephant poaching.”) That a handful of people can brutally deprive the planet of an entire species only to enrich themselves seems the definition of injustice.

For the moment, set aside the stomach-turning cruelty of what the poachers do and put yourself in their shoes. They’re acting as hunters have since the Stone Age. I’m pretty confident that they don’t see themselves as bad, but as entrepreneurs trying to extract a living from an available resource. I suspect they’re oblivious to the possibility of extinction. They’re no different than Japanese or Norwegian whalers—inured to the horror they’re perpetrating.

They’re a bit like hardcore right-wing free-marketers, minus the butchery: nobody owns the elephants, so they should be “free” to hunt them. Their hunt creates value.  People buy the ivory, which shows that the market ratifies the acceptability of elephant slaughter. Who has the right to step in and deprive the hunters of their “liberty”?

But that argument has another, stronger side. Since nobody owns the elephants, nobody has the right to deprive the rest of the world of them forever. Their disappearance is a cost imposed on us against our will. Our “freedom” to preserve them is impinged by the hunting. We non-hunters have a right to protect our interest in the elephants’ survival. That’s true even if the extinction event won’t occur until after our own individual deaths. The generation now living doesn’t have the right to wantonly and deliberately deprive the next of something so irreplaceable as the elephant.

If climate change were being perpetrated by a small minority of selfish and unthinking killers, we’d take the strongest measures to stop it. But since it’s not so direct, and we benefit from the system, we’re circumspect.

We’re a bit like the Chinese ivory customers that way: we’d prefer not to think about what’s really going on. Still, most of us are ready to metaphorically stop buying ivory, to make some changes, to accept the sacrifices, to move our way of life from fossil fuels to more benign sources of energy. Most of us realize that in a slow, cumulative, and unintentional way, if we don’t make those changes, the end result will be the extinction of any number of species, from polar bears to sea coral, just as ivory poaching is driving the elephant to that same fate.

As for those who actively frustrate the change to a non-fossil economy, they may have more in common with the elephant poachers than they’d like to think.


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Filed under Climate Change, Culture, Democracy, Denialism, Psychology

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