Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chinese Materialism and Wildlife Poaching

Over the past decade, tens of thousands of elephants have been killed in central Africa for their ivory, making for a loss of 62% of the forest elephants in that part of the world. Here’s an example of what’s been happening: “About a year ago, poachers attacked a family of forest elephants in central Africa. The biologist who witnessed the attack told us that wildlife guards were completely outgunned. In the end, an elephant mother, riddled with bullets and trumpeting with pain and fear, was left to use her enormous body to shield her baby. Her sacrifice was for naught; the baby was also killed.” The authors of this NY Times article goes on to describe an elephant corpse he saw in Africa: “The elephant’s face was a bloody mess, its tusks hacked out with an ax--an atrocity that is often committed while the animal is alive.” What happens to the baby elephants when their mothers are killed? The young don’t “develop secure social relationships when living in a state of terror, or mourning slain family members--and elephants do mourn. When mothers are killed, babies still dependent on their milk die slowly from starvation, heartbroken and alone.”

The reason the wildlife guards in Africa are outgunned by the poachers is that the demand for ivory has skyrocketed over the last decade, and so the suppliers are highly incentivized to do whatever they can to obtain the ivory to sell. Most of this demand for ivory is in China. In the past, only the super-rich Chinese or Europeans could have afforded ivory, but with the recent rise of China’s middle class, thanks to its booming manufacturing industries, many more Chinese can now afford ivory, including many young people (see here). Ivory is used as a status symbol for the newly rich (see here). According to a 2007 International Fund for Animal Welfare study, 70% of Chinese people don’t understand how ivory is taken from elephants: they assume that the ivory grows back so that the animal doesn’t have to be killed. Thus, there are campaigns, such as one featuring the basketball player Yao Ping, to educate the Chinese. Ping participated in a similar campaign against shark fin soup in China, which likewise was highly sought by the Chinese middle class as a way to show off their new found wealth. The insatiable demand for ivory or shark fins drives up their prices, so that owning or consuming these commodities indicates the owner’s high social status. According to Ping, the campaign against shark fin soup has worked, so he’s optimistic that within 10 years, owning ivory will be as shameful as eating the soup in China (see here). By that time, most of the elephants will have been killed, though, and irreversible damage to the elephant population may already have been done.

In any case, according to the evidence cited by the Wikipedia article on shark fin soup, the demand for the soup has been lowered mainly in Hong Kong, but is rising from the middle class in mainland China. Indeed, I’d expect that an education campaign alone will not curb China’s demand for products made from endangered species. After all, if the demand is from the newly-rich middle class, including many young people, it’s unlikely that most of these consumers are ignorant about how ivory is taken from elephants. If they’re rich, they have access to the internet where the facts are just clicks away. According to the 2011 IFAW study on ivory poaching, ‘Despite the price increase, demand continues to rise as ivory is promoted as having “inflation-proof investment value” and that possessing and gifting ivory demonstrates status’ (sic). Ivory is thus bought as “white gold.” The 2012 NPR article, cited above, corroborates this point: “China's housing and stock markets have both taken hits, and the nation's super rich are looking for other places to invest their cash.” Wealthy Chinese investors who are looking to park their money in highly valuable commodities aren’t likely uninformed about endangered species, because they’re educated and sophisticated enough to have made that money in the first place and they’re making a strategic business decision about where to invest it.

Chinese Materialism

The missing piece of the puzzle here is Chinese materialism. I’m not talking about Marx’s dialectical materialism, but egoistic consumerism, meaning the selfish drive for worldly pleasures taken mainly in the consumption of top-quality material products.

Here’s an example of this materialism in action, as reported in a National Geographic article:
At a gallery in Guangzhou, Gary Zeng shows me a photo of a 26-layer “devil’s work” ball on his iPhone. The 42-year-old Zeng has just bought two of these ivory balls from the Daxin Ivory Carving Factory, one for himself and one on behalf of an entrepreneur friend. He’s come to this retail store to see whether he got his money’s worth. I climb into his new Mercedes, drive to his double-gated community, and watch as he hands the less expensive ball to his three-year-old for National Geographic’s Brent Stirton to photograph. It will become a centerpiece in a new home Zeng is building, to “hold the house against devils,” but for a moment the $50,000 ball is simply a very precious toy. I ask Zeng why young entrepreneurs like him are buying ivory.

“Value,” he replies. “And art.”

“Do you think about the elephant?” I ask.

“Not at all,” he says.
Even in an article arguing against Chinese materialism, the author is forced to admit,
as I began researching for this article I was pretty stumped with the endless flurry of news reports pointing in favor of China’s über materialism. I discovered that China has more Gucci stores than any country in the world (59). I read that wealthy Chinese frequently take trips to Taiwan to fork out 25,000 USD on designer watches and that fancy shops in London’s Oxford Street have recently began employing Mandarin-speaking staff for the rapid influx of mainland shoppers. China currently accounts for 27% of the world’s luxury goods sales, and Chinese spend 9.4 billion USD on designer goods each year. All in all, it seems the stakes are piled highly in favor of China being the current king of consumerism.
Moreover, this author concludes only that not absolutely everyone in Chinese is materialistic, and that there’s a resurgence of Confucianism in some parts of China.

According to this article, though, China has always been materialistic; its so-called spiritual traditions were actually pragmatic and lent themselves to the pursuit of wealth and material prosperity through industry. Indeed, Confucianism is similar to Judaism in this respect:
The core of Confucianism is humanism, or what the philosopher Herbert Fingarette calls "the secular as sacred." The focus of spiritual concern is this world and the family, not the gods and not the afterlife. Confucianism broadly speaking does not exalt faithfulness to divine will or higher law. This stance rests on the belief that human beings are teachable, improvable and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation.
As in Judaism, the moral side of Confucianism is about following social rules that apply only within a particular community (see here). So respect for elephants, for example, would be a bridge too far.

Finally, here’s a study comparing young adult consumers in China and the US. Apparently, there are significant differences “in both materialism and conspicuous consumption, with Chinese young adults scoring higher in both variables. The findings show, that compared with past comparative studies, it appears both materialism and conspicuous consumption are on the rise among urban Chinese consumers.”

Atheism and the Evil of Conspicuous Consumption

So I’m led to believe that much of the rising demand for ivory and shark fins isn’t due to ignorance but to China’s version of secular humanism. The atheist and agnostic population in China is 42%, but then again 18% of Chinese are Buddhists, and this religion is often functionally atheistic, as is Taoism (30%) (see here). And the fact is that many Chinese care more about their narrow, materialistically-defined self-interest than about materialism’s harm to the ecosystem. Here we see a dramatic confirmation of John Gray’s thesis in Black Mass, that European secular humanism such as the sort advocated by new atheists like Richard Dawkins borrows its altruistic values and environmentalist outlook from the Jewish and Christian traditions in the West. The new atheist can talk about rationality all she likes, but reason alone doesn’t dictate whether you should (a) be awed by the beauty of nature and thus should respect wildlife or (b) get all the pleasure you can out of life no matter what, because this is the only life you’ve got. European and North American humanists are usually liberal environmentalists, but they’re kidding themselves if they think there’s no alternative form of atheism. Contrary to Atheism Plussers, one way to be a consistent atheist is to be a materialistic asshole who drops thousands of dollars on a ball of ivory without sparing a thought to the elephant’s plight.

There’s nothing especially fallacious or illogical about Chinese atheistic materialism. One crucial flaw, though, is the aesthetic one that materialism betrays a clichéd choice of values. The impulse to show off your wealth with status symbols is primitively tribal rather than sophisticated. The sophisticated choice is to buck natural impulses and create something new, such as anything besides yet another case of nature’s inhumanity. Chinese consumers of ivory and shark fins perpetuate the inhumanity of mindless natural forces by acting as slaves to their selfish genes. For millions of years, physical and biological processes on earth have created life but also caused unimaginable suffering, compelling species to compete for domination in more and more gruesome ways. This has happened because the effects of the biochemical processes that govern most animal behaviour are often at cross-purposes with the animals’ interests. Of course, the genes don’t whisper to the Chinese to crave art objects carved out of ivory, but the heartless, pragmatic egoism at the core of China’s secular culture is perfectly predictable from a biological standpoint. While altruism, too, can be biologically explained, the aesthetic point here is that the more some behaviour is biologically determined, the more prevalent some form of that behaviour will be across species, and thus the more primitive and clichéd (unoriginal) the aesthetic quality of that behaviour. Altruism is relatively rare because taken to the ascetic extreme, it endangers the immortality of genes and so isn’t likely to be naturally selected.

So here we have a fine example of how evil can derive from atheism, contrary to the politically-motivated happy-talk of new atheist leaders like Dawkins. Lend me your hand so that I may walk you through the inferences leading from Point A (atheism) to Point B (grubby consumerism, including the killing of elephants just for their useless ivory). Atheism is the belief that there are no gods. If there are no gods, there’s probably no afterlife or guarantee of perfect justice and so we’re on our own to make the best of life in the midst of mindless, inhumane natural processes. Therefore, it’s prudent to exploit any chance for tangible success in life, to compete ruthlessly rather than sacrifice your potential for pleasure by cooperating more than necessary, and to enjoy the fruits of that success while you can. Competitions entail winners and losers, but as long as you’re not the loser you needn’t worry.

I take it this is how millions of Chinese actually think, so this isn’t just a hypothetical application of atheism. The upshot is that one way of being an atheist is to give up on spirituality altogether, to opt for Randian egoism or social Darwinism. Should atheism be blamed for its negative potential? Well, as Dawkins is correct to point out, just because a statement has unpleasant consequences doesn’t mean the statement is false. This should go without saying. But moreover, I don’t think atheism itself is blameworthy, because evil is hardly the only consequence of atheism. For example, another way of applying atheism is with existential cosmicism, which prescribes a more spiritual, altruistic and ascetic way of life. In fact, the question of whether atheism itself should be blamed for the damage atheism can cause isn’t an interesting question, since only people should be praised or blamed and atheism is just an idea. Those who should be blamed for the killing of elephants and sharks are the spoiled, obnoxious, materialistic Chinese consumers. And I’m now talking not about legal responsibility or even moral blame, but an aesthetic condemnation. In a nutshell, the vices of those consumers are boring.

To forestall the kneejerk, politically correct response that I’m being racist, I’ll point out that this condemnation has nothing to do with race, even if Chinese culture has always been pretty materialistic. The natural processes involved here are much broader than race, assuming for the sake of argument that race is even a legitimate biological category. No, the Western middle classes are also chockfull of consumers who signal their wealth in amoral ways, by wearing fur coats, blood diamonds, and clothes made by children in sweatshops, and by driving Hummers which are egregious polluters. In the 1950s, Americans excessively hunted crocodiles for their skins, endangering the species. In the 19th C., bison were likewise hunted nearly to extinction by North Americans, just for their skins.

The dynamic here is largely another case of the abuse of power by social mammals caught up by the game of competing for advancement in a dominance hierarchy. Conspicuous consumption is a matter of signaling where you stand in the pecking order; instead of literally pecking those lower in the hierarchy, like chickens, beta and alpha humans remind the losers of where they stand by displaying unambiguous signs of their wealth and status, from iPads to ivory balls to alligator belts. This signaling is mindless and therefore bound to be inhumane in the long run, like most of what happens in nature. Mindless processes are almost everywhere you look and so when a creature who has some measure of self-control and thus the potential for creative rebellion opts instead to mimic nature’s mindlessness and inhumanity, to blend into the cosmos like a chameleon, to dehumanize herself, what we’re left with is a grotesque waste, a repellent ugliness regardless of whether the self-dehumanizing folks hail from China, the US, or anywhere else.

But there’s another dynamic at play: the curse of reason. Atheism is a rational conclusion, but if you make reason sacred and fancy yourself an ultrarationalist, as being opposed to all manner of irrationality, you’ll lack the self-awareness needed to appreciate the religious side of every worldview and so your spirituality will likely be uninspiring, to say the least. Consumerism, whether it’s in the West or the East, is a low-brow religion in which modern people who have been prepared to dehumanize themselves by the history of industrialization put their faith in the promises of cynical advertisements as though these were worthy of such devotion. But part of reason’s curse is that no loftier myth seems capable of withstanding rational scrutiny, and so consumers take pragmatic comfort in knowing that at least the pleasure of consuming material goods is tangible and can be enjoyed here and now. Again, I assume this is roughly how Chinese consumers think, but it has nothing to do with race. The curse of reason goes back to the Garden of Eden myth, to the noble lies in Plato’s Republic, and more recently in the West to the self-destructive postmodern opposition to all metanarratives. 

You might be wondering how Chinese consumerism can be blamed for recent elephant and shark poaching if there are these broader forces at work (conspicuous consumption in dominance hierarchies and the curse of objectivity). In my view, many Chinese consumers are at fault for choosing an atheistic worldview that gives in to those natural forces. By contrast, Western consumers were at fault for their support of wildlife poaching (and other practices that greatly harm the environment), because they chose a compromised form of Christianity that likewise gives in at least to the first of those forces.
What, then, is the point of this article? It’s not to save the elephants or the sharks, although I’m appalled by stories of cruelty to animals. I try to share Kazantzakis’s pity for all living things, and so I hope elephants won’t be hunted to extinction. For the above reasons, I’m not optimistic. The alligators and bison were saved by the Endangered Species Act and by the work of a handful of altruistic individuals, respectively, but underlying those recoveries were the untenable Jewish and Christian moral principles. That is, offsetting modern Western atheism--with its nihilistic potential, as Nietzsche saw--is an absurd theistic outlook that happens to favour some notion of human stewardship of the planet. There are no good theistic reasons to care for nonhuman species, because theism is preposterous. And anyway, China lacks even those egregiously irrational theistic traditions. There’s surely a Buddhist basis for pity for any creature that suffers, but this mystical tradition will have to compete with Chinese pragmatism and materialism.

No, my point is to hold up the recent surge in wildlife poaching as a reason why atheists should be interested in developing their irrational, spiritual side, so that they avoid degenerating into evildoers. This is just what I’m trying to do with Rants Within the Undead God, to explore existential cosmicism as a way of salvaging some admirable values from the ideological wreckage left behind by modern objectivity.


  1. Interesting article. When third world cultures suddenly adopt first world economies they give in to mindless consumerism with a vengeance. The signs of status that have become cliché on developed nations take a new life in developing ones. This is even true in music and film. When a culture becomes comfortable with economic prosperity mindless consumerism is (somewhat) replaced with something a bit more sophisticated, until then it is catering to the lowest common denominator. Even in America shows such as the Kardashians might not see the light of day if it wasn’t for the uneducated masses (why anyone who could think or read would watch such a show is beyond understanding)
    The problem with China (I could be wrong with this) is that questioning the status quo is simply not tolerated. I learnt this the hard way while living in South America. Popularity there is not gained by individuality. Uniqueness in taste is frowned upon. One must do what everyone else does, that is to show dominance by the collectively agreed forms. Do what everyone else is doing, just more of it.
    I would not be surprised if most popular music in China is nothing more than a crude imitation of western music. The coolness of rock and roll but without its rebelliousness, just the motions without the context. In America a particular form of music was “cool” only if nobody else was doing it, in China and in South America music is “Cool” only if everyone else is doing it. Finding other forms of expression besides mindless consumerism proves just as difficult.

    1. You make a very good point about the difference between individualistic and collectivistic consumerism. That's worthy of an article in itself. I think you're right that a society that's recently been communist and that's now become rich might be expected to give in to the underlying causes of conspicuous consumption. An individualistic, anarchical (social Darwinian) society like the US might be expected to be more original. The stereotype is certainly that the US is more creative than China, but competition with dominance hierarchies and corruption by power are universal. How these universals play out in different economies and cultures is an interesting question.