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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Zero, the lowest common denominator

All PostsOpinionZero, the lowest common denominator

Opinion by Scott CurrieStaff Writer | Illustration by Dave Chappell

Editor’s Note: Once monthly Scott will be waxing poetic about issues relating to Yale-NUS. This may not be evident at first glance, but dig deeper and you will find meaning…  we hope.

As Shakespeare wrote, “so foul a sky clears not without a storm.”


Like a legless man and a unicycle trick, I have tried to avoid this moment. Having my opinions chiseled into the Internet, lest they later be resurrected and my own words morph into a knife in my back. Palinodes aren’t as well received as they once were, and it’s oddly seen as audacious to change one’s opinions. Unless you inherited the name Wittgenstein. Yet here my words come, like a reclusive tiger. Slinking out of some darkened, subterranean cavern, their etiolated form emaciated. The faded coat regains some of its luster as the papillae hook and pull out the viscera from the matted fur.

The unfortunate prey today is a ceratorhine one, specifically the Western Black Rhinoceros. Hopefully the name rings a bell. Thanks to guns and greed, it was expelled from existence in 2011. For some reason it was resurrected recently online, with the bon mot “Good job humanity!” plastered on the picture. The decline of the rhinos wasn’t a surprise; their numbers had been dwindling for decades.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) introduced a raft of measures, from fenced sanctuaries and intensive protection areas to international trade bans. The numbers dwindled, indifferent to these actions. And the IUCN promptly began to… well… not a whole lot, actually. Methods were maintained. The years rolled by, rhinos continued to disappear and nothing happened. It wasn’t idleness or stupidity, it was self-righteousness.

The mistake that was made by the conservation agencies is that they saw themselves as right—inviolably right. Having launched these defensive measures, they washed their hands in that crystal clear brook that sprung up from Olympus itself. The halcyon waters that shimmered with such transparent appeal were those of “doing the right thing.”

They were right; their principles were clearer and personal experience more powerful. Hands clean, the stream forthcoming and success assured, the agencies stood firmly. If only they’d pivoted a little, and seen who was standing next to them along the creek’s banks. As any child discovers in navigating the early Byzantine years of education, shortly after their failure to produce completed homework, inaction has consequences.

For the poachers had families to feed, money to make. And the consumers who believed in the curative effects, another of Mao’s poisonous legacies, shouldn’t they have access to this essential medicine?

But the conservationists, indoctrinated by the multiplex, didn’t remove their cufflinks and roll-up their sleeves. Remember, they were right and that’s all that matters.

An aggregate of agencies moved to block synthetic, but chemically identical, rhino horns from being introduced and bottoming out prices, because of the risk that it could expand the market. They wouldn’t get their hands dirty, because they forgot one thing: reality doesn’t yield, no matter how right or righteous you are.

There was the opportunity to truly effect change, guarantee the sight of the vast grey behemoth for generations to come but it comes at the cost of bespeckled hands, smeared by the grit of real decisions. Flecked by compromise, conversation, and perhaps, tacit endorsement. Of course, poachers and those who rashly defend traditional cures, refuse to question the basis of their beliefs or try alternatives, also shoulder the blame.

All had options, from inflating rhinoceros horn availability, to supplementing poaching income and limiting number of animals killed, to creating alternative treatment plans. It’s pathetically easy to blame, but in the end, the Western Black Rhinoceros species is extinct. Gone, and everyone has lost out.

No matter how dusty the cover or cracked the spine, no book can tell you how to live your life right., even if it’s self-published. Life is filled with individuals trying to achieve some measure of happiness before plunging into the abyss, and from that differences naturally arise. This isn’t earth-shattering or news to anyone, but like Atlantis, it’s easy to neglect, because it’s not easily seen.

It’s a dull, plodding sentiment that reeks of hemp and campfire recitals of Kumbaya but one worth reflecting on before once more sallying forth unto the breach. Ideological debate is well within Yale-NUS College’s bailiwick and thankfully so, the idea that mentioning religion or politics at “dinner parties” (read: most social settings) is as prevalent as it is puerile. But there’s a reason that Adler’s words ring out beyond the grave rather than being sepulchered there with the rest of him. “It is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them.” Reality is a cruel mistress.

In the end, we cannot afford to delude ourselves. There are just some things that we don’t or can’t know, but that shouldn’t stop the attempt. In many ways it is nobler or perhaps just admirably foolhardy to think success impossible but persevere nonetheless. It cannot divide us from the world around us, we cannot afford to wash our hands and be done. There aren’t enough rhinoceros left.

And if you still think I’m talking only about rhinos, you’ve missed the point.

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