I suppose many here have already read what follows. Nevertheless, each article in its own way merits, and more than merely merits, what my merest sketches might hopefully supply: a meager few new readers.
First is last month’s Atlantic with a lengthy treatment by Charles C. Mann of the astounding transformations in the world of fossil fuel extraction, refinement, distribution, and perpetuity. One might according to several precepts read, in bald summary, the meaning and importance of this article: the precept that moderate liberals have at last awakened to what’s going on and no longer stand athwart science and engineering and economic development; the precept that human projections and predictions are, in the industrial enterprise of the cleverest animal on this planet, the creature called man, an amusing but usually idle pastime; or merely the precept that, by golly, man is a clever creature.
Speaking of earthly creatures, who can match on the level of majesty and mystery, on the level of defiance and generosity, the elephant? It appears to me, having taken my time (read: lollygagged) through this small book of an essay by The New Atlantis Managing Editor Caitrin Nicol, that the answer to that question is None. The elephant is a source of unending fascination, ably adumbrated here. If you thought this subject could not support sixty pages of careful elaboration, you thought wrong.
But the genius of Nicol's extraordinary work of synthesis is, by accent of the grandeur of the elephant, far from pulling down man to the level of reductionist brutes, rather to elevate man. If even the elephant, by dint of independence and incommensurable uniqueness, rises above that dingy level which our truculent reductionists present of the world of living creatures, then surely the only other creature who has mastered this trunked titan, can likewise claim that ineffable quality to which materialism must yield. If the question Ms. Nicol asks in the title to her essay is indeed a very much open one, in the sense that the possibility of having a soul (the presupposition), is not open but rather quite closed; why, then materialism is false. The alternative is to say of the elephant that what science in its ever-limited fashion tells us cannot be true. Since no creature can have that quality which elevates it above the material, the evidence of the elephant’s possession of it is falsehood, delusion, or folly. What narrowness materialism throws men into!
These two monster articles, each in its own way, give evidence that prodigy in research, synthesis, and clear writing has not yet departed the world of man. Nor has prodigy in most any endeavor. In both journalism and technological extraction of methane hydrates from beneath the seafloor, for instance, we can now say with confidence that man is indeed a clever and ineffable animal.
Which points to a third fact. This fact can be drawn out only by an enormous implication, which I have scarcely the time to sketch out. Fortunately, in this context Jonathan Last has already done the hard work of data collection, collation, and analysis, by which the enormous implication may be seen clearly. This, among ample additional reasons, is why everyone must read Mr. Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: in order to understand that precisely because every new human being brought into this world is not only a new mouth to feed but also a new incommensurable and creative soul, the worldwide trend (now evidencing only a few isolated pockets of countertrend) of human sexual sterility is a staggering problem. It is moreover a problem which, for reasons related to their peculiar obsessions, our liberals will be very late in coming around to discover. Indeed, most of them are busy still telling the reactionary tale of overpopulation; in other words they are at least an entire generation behind the times.
Liberals have constructed their political dreams upon the foundation of moderate but steady growth in (a) human population and, more precisely, (b) productive human population; this means that their whole political project presupposes a picture of human sexuality that their own theories reject with the utmost vehemence. In brief, the early postwar sexual mores which liberals have ever since been at pains to repudiate, supplied the vital biological undergirding for what we call Social Democracy — which was, across the Western world, though in varying degrees, the political outworking of postwar liberalism. The technological innovations that have suddenly, and against all predictions, made the abundance of fossil fuel resources, even North American fossil fuel resources, more striking than their scarcity, demonstrate that productive heavy industry is hardly a thing of the past. But even the most productive industry needs human beings to work it. And, liberal backwardness notwithstanding, it is the future scarcity of these most mysterious and astonishing creatures, human beings, that really should worry us.
Late in her essay, Ms. Nicol spares a moment to reflect on the efforts by elephant caretakers to maintain a controlled population of these wonderful giants, in zoos and parks.
Even as poaching is reducing some elephant populations to perilous levels, others are being killed en masse supposedly for their own good. Elephant feeding exacts a heavy burden from their habitat — fifty pounds of vegetation munched by each elephant every day adds up to a lot. When elephants moved freely across the African continent, this denuding fit naturally into regrowth patterns and the impact was dispersed. Confined to parks, even very large ones, they can’t migrate in the same way and the trees and ground cover get stripped down dramatically. Thus, to protect biodiversity and avoid the sad spectacle of elephant starvation, many park managers cull populations to what they deem sustainable levels.
As [elephant scholars] have eloquently argued, these grisly interventions take a very short view of ecological cycles and elephant populations’ ability to self-regulate and adapt to their environment. Births go down in the years following a major drought, for instance; since elephants’ reproduction cycles are so long, manually adjusting the population year to year means intervening in a process that has not played itself out yet. [. . .] As in so many other ways, however, stepping in to control a specific aspect of a complex situation has yielded enormous unintended consequences. Although culling experts once believed that they could take out precisely the desired number of elephant families while leaving the rest of the population alone, more recent data show that survivors are definitely affected, even if they were far away at the time of the cull. Elephants have relationships within their herds that extend well beyond the small group of immediate family they travel and spend each day with, and their long-distance communication capabilities make them aware of events happening miles away. As [other scholars] have documented, disturbed behavior has often been observed among these survivors, and autopsies of those who die later for other reasons show signs of sustained high stress consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the past several years, there have been increasing reports of elephants rampaging around out of control — destroying property, attacking people, raping and killing rhinos, and other chaotic behavior. Traditional explanations for rogue elephants such as musth or competition for habitat do not fit with the sudden change, as some behaviors (such as lethal fights between bulls) are surging out of proportion to their normal incidence and some (such as assaulting rhinos) are otherwise nearly unheard of. Instead, Bradshaw points to the collapse of elephant society brought on by culling and poaching, the licit and illicit forms of mass annihilation. In addition to the psychological trauma these engender in survivors, they have also disrupted the transmission of elephant culture from one generation to the next.
It seems that Birth and Population Control cannot really be achieved, even in elephants fully subject to human will, by any art we mortal men possess. When technological Birth Control in humans infiltrated Christianity (excepting always the lonely and luminous witness of the Catholic Church) our patron here at What’s Wrong with the World synopsized its absurdity in a sharp phrase, calling it “a scheme for preventing birth in order to escape control.” Since hardly a man has lived who possessed a more fertile imagination than Chesterton, it is no reckless conjecture to say that he would have recognized instantly the futility of supposing we can precisely control the birth of elephant populations, any more than we can control the birth of human populations; and the peril of proceeding as if we can is disclosed in the awful ruin we have wrought.
Liberals and progressives have a lot to wrestle with in these three pieces of writing. One hopes they have sufficient independence of mind left to set aside their prejudices and confront the empirical facts before them.