October 1, 2002
JUMBO JUSTICE:Don't Resume the Elephant Harvest (MATTHEW SCULLY, October 1, 2002, NY Times)
Of all creatures on Earth, elephants surely rate the sympathy of Republicans, and in many ways we have stood by our party's symbol through their many troubles. After a decade in which ivory poachers had taken their AK-47's to 700,000 elephants - compared to the 500,000 or so still with us - a Republican president signed the African Elephant Conservation Act of 1988. A Republican president boldly applied that law in 1989, barring ivory imports and initiating a worldwide ban, and in January of this year a Republican president reauthorized the law.
Yet now there is talk in Washington of reversing this policy, and leaving elephants again at the mercy of the ivory trade. [...]
Republicans of a more libertarian stripe do not like the idea of granting legal protections to any creature as such. They argue that elephants are a resource and ivory a commodity like any other. What matters is not this particular creature's fate, but whether ivory "stocks" are being properly managed.
What comes next is one of those libertarian environmental arguments that's supposed to sound brilliantly counterintuitive, while actually displaying an appalling moral blindness to the problem at issue: We can keep the elephants alive only by keeping alive the demand for ivory, since that alone is what gives elephants their value. [...]
The ivory ban has not been perfect but it has been merciful, reflecting humanity's ability to appreciate the goodness of these creatures, to see the wrong done to them and to search for ways to right it. If anything, enforcement of the ban must be redoubled in years to come by destroying the market for ivory through sanctions against offending nations, as Kenya's Daily Nation has urged.
When this proposal to turn the creatures back over to the ivory trade comes passing through the White House, meanwhile, let it be dispatched with the contempt it deserves. In the carnage and terror they have endured, elephants have already "paid their own way" - with a security deposit for decades to come. And the ones left have plenty of value just as they are, without need of men with guns and machetes to give it to them.
Brother Murtaugh points out this story, and, quite accurately suggests that this is the kind of environmentalism that conservatives should embrace if we're to be taken seriously on such issues. Let us be clear here, if slaughtering the elephants would produce a cure for human disease, we'd be willing to sacrifice them. But to kill them for their ivory alone, which is merely decorative, is utterly barbaric and grotesquely unjust.
We are put in mind of one of the great forgotten novels, Romain Gary's The Roots of Heaven, which if you've not read you must. The book is about a former POW who takes up arms to defend Africa's dwindling elephant herds. He explains himself as follows:
I first began thinking about the elephants during the war, when I was a prisoner in Germany, probably because they were the most different thing I could imagine from what surrounded me: they were the very image of immense liberty. Every time we looked at the barbed wire or were almost dying of misery and claustrophobia in solitary confinement, we tried to think of those big animals marching irresistibly through the open spaces of Africa, and it made us feel better. Barely alive, starved, exhausted, we would clench our teeth and follow our great free herds obstinately with our eyes, and see them march across the savanna and over the hills, and we could almost hear the earth tremble under that living mass of freedom. We tried not to speak of it, for fear the guards would notice, and sometimes we would just look at each other and wink, and then we knew that it was all right, that we could still see it, that it was still alive in us. We held on to the image of that gigantic liberty, and somehow it helped us to survive.
And one of the characters explains the title thus:
Our needs--for justice, for freedom and dignity--are roots of heaven that are deeply imbedded in our hearts, but of heaven itself men know nothing but the gripping roots...
It seems not too much to say that when we commit such indignities as the murder of elephants for their ivory we do truly tear at the roots of heaven, which are all we know of the place. If there's anything conservatives must conserve it is these endangered roots. Posted by Orrin Judd at October 1, 2002 8:14 PM