Consumption Killed the Elephant

Ivory. Aside from diamond, there might not be another word in the English language that initiates a connotation as powerful as ivory. The word instantly implies histories of European imperialism and fledgling – or failing – conservation. Yet this imagery isn’t something that grew from the Western world’s first excursions into the Other: it’s older than human recorded history.

Author’s Note: Last month I published Pt. I of this three part series where I showed off my most commonly worn fall outfit. Then discovered that it’s actually an unethical outfit, and promised to discuss it further in a separate post. My plan was to compare the ethics of fashion to the ethics of ivory in a follow up post, but I ended up digging too far into the rabbit hole of illegal elephant poaching and its history. So in true Harry Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games fashion, I split the sequel into a Pt. II and III – the former of which is right here.

In Pt. II, I cover the history of the ivory trade and the growth of consumerism commercializing ivory is leading elephants towards their early extinction. In Pt. III, I finally tie the ethics of ivory into the ethics of modern fashion – with my 2020 New Year’s Resolution on how I plan to fight against the modern capitalist-consumption machine.

I. Background

Satellite view of the Nile River

Modern satellite images reveal that “Upper Egypt” (geographically the southern portion of the country) is an arid plane of desert cut by the Nile’s slit of fertility. Without this river, Ancient Egypt would have never united the hospitable Nile River Delta near the Mediterranean Sea and tropical East-Central Africa. Around 5,500 BCE, the first precursors to the “Ancient Egyptians” settled around this slit, now known as the Nile River Valley. Their stone tools, pottery, and occasionally fossilized bones preserved well in the arid and dry climate to provide modern archaeologists strong markers of their era and cultural development. Concurrently, there likely existed other, independent cultures growing in the Nile River Delta of “Lower Egypt” due to the regions more impressive fertility and resources, but the more humid and wet climate caused less of their remains and tools to survive until the present day. These cultures developed independently until about 2,000 years later when Narmer, the first pharaoh, united Upper and Lower Egypt into one civilization, “Ancient Egypt”.

As a result of Narmer’s military conquests, the cultural divides between the Upper and Lower Egyptians shrank. Wherever his armies went, the first Egyptian language followed. While the common language allowed the people of Egypt to integrate foreign  concepts and ideas, many of which were abstract, into their own substantial arsenal. After all, the logistics of travel remained constrained to river boats. However, there were certain words that linked abstract ideas to concrete manifestations that the people had interacted with before: words like âb âbu

âb âbu

This fledgling language, Archaic Egyptian, used the hieroglyph,  âb âbu, to connect the wild elephant to its relatively common product used as decoration: ivory. Thus, âb âbu allowed the Lower Egyptian merchants to associate their valuable product with its animal of origin. Even today, it’s nearly impossible to disassociate ivory from elephant despite our unique words for each, so what came next was inevitable. As Ancient Egypt grew into an empire, trade with neighboring regions flourished. Soon, Mediterranean cultures who traded through Egypt sought their ivory for their own artistic pursuits.

Through the growth of empires, first Egyptian, then Roman, and eventually modern royalties, âb âbu trade flourished. In contrast, âb âbu suffered.  

Elephants come in two flavors, African and Asian. Luckily for the latter, geographic distance and lack of intercontinental trade routes prevented high demand for ivory from developing. Make no mistake, ivory evoked a similar awe in Asia. Hunters had a decreased willingness to travel through the more difficult geography (relative to Sub-Saharan Africa) for a species in which only the males have tusks (in comparison male and female African elephants grow tusks). Conversely, the Nile provided a straight route into African elephant habitats and ever increasing demand from developing European nations rejuvenated hunters’ efforts to search for elephant herds.

Nevertheless, the risks of ivory-hunting, which took the lives of many in search for the biological diamond, helped maintain the delicate balance between predator and prey for millennia. However, as history trudged towards the modern era, key developments made travel into the heart of the African elephant’s habitat easier. First, the introduction of rifles on hunts made killing simpler and more efficient. Later, the growth of European colonies on the continent created permanent supply chains for moving ivory out of the forests. However, there was none other than the Industrial Revolution that spearheaded efforts which led to the current decimation of the elephant population.

II. The Rise of Consumerism and the Fall of the Elephant

1762: The British East India Co. acquires the East Indies

In the 1760s, a series of events set into motion an amalgamation of environmental and political exploitation that the modern fashion industry rests upon. 

  1. 1757: The British East India Co. begins a nearly 200-year rule of India. At the time, India produced nearly 25% of the world’s GDP, primarily through cotton weaving. 
  2. 1764: James Heargreaves invents the “Spinning Jenny,” which allows one worker to simultaneously produce 8 spools of cloth. 
  3. 1783: James Watt perfects the “modern” steam engine.
  4. 1792: The New York Stock Exchange forms. 
  5. 1799: The Combination Act makes workers’ unions in Great Britain illegal. Samuel Compton’s “Spinning Mule” allows one worker to simultaneously produce 1,320 spools of cloth.
  6. 1822: Boston Manufacturing Co. builds the first factory town in America.  
  7. 1884: The Berlin Conference increases European territory in Africa from 10 to 90% overnight. 
  8. 1901: J.P. Morgan forms the first corporation worth over one billion USD.
  9. 1938: Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the first law regulating child labor in the US. 
  10. 1972: The first law preventing waste dumping into American waterways is passed.

Prior to 1764, one cotton weaver could only spin one, thick wad of raw cotton into one fine string of yarn. At the time, cotton spinning could support an entire family due to the time and skill investments required. Yet within 35 years of the Spinning Jenny’s invention, the solitary worker’s efficiency had improved 1,000x, thus creating the need for the first textile factories. Once textile mills crossed the Atlantic in the 1790s, corporations needed capital and workers to compete with established foreigners. Through the first stock exchanges and the tripling of immigration into America in the 1840s, manufacturing boomed with access to seemingly unlimited money and workers. A resurgence of colonial expansion solidified raw material supply chains for factories, and created new markets for American goods.

With unrestrained exploitation of the American worker and the country’s resources, the precursors to today’s fashion mega-corps had the world at their feet.   

Swap these American children for South East Asians, modernize the scene, and this isn’t too different than today

In other words, the growth of American dominance in manufacturing required a constant supply of ivory to meet consumer demand. Americans consumed over 200 tones (400,000 lbs) of ivory every year through buttons, combs, chess pieces, fake teeth, pool balls, piano keys, and toilet seats. Almost every industry that required solid material of white color prior to the invention of plastics needed ivory as their raw material. Additionally, the desire for ivory as art survived the Egyptians. It’s high malleability and resistance to chipping kept it the preferred marble alternative for sculptures and decorative pieces. With one African elephant carrying up to 200 lbs of ivory between its twin tusks, European merchants quickly realized the wealth possible in reliably sourcing this white gold to American manufacturers. 

Thus, enter 1884. While controlling the ivory trade may not have been an explicit reason for the Berlin Conference, each country knew the economic new territory brought. (In)Famously, King Leopold II of Belgium and the French sent rival expeditions deeper into the Congo River Basin in order to broaden their territorial claims, the former of which inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and immortalized this period in literature. In order to prevent further competition among powers, the 1884 Berlin Conference sought to clearly demarcate each country’s claim on the continent. Only territories which a country “effectively controlled” could be claimed, which set off the race to establish trading posts and supply chains across the continent. 

At the turn of the 19th century, the African elephant proudly stood 26 million strong. By the turn of the 20th century, only 10 million survived the imperial machine’s search for wealth. European poachers, who until then relied on their own support and supply structures suddenly gained access to their country’s rapid development of trade infrastructure. Just as cotton weaving a century earlier, elephant hunting transformed from a risky endeavor, to a mechanized process. European poachers began providing a steady source of ivory onto transatlantic freighters. Finally, American manufacturers had the constant supply of ivory they needed to fuel consumer demand. 

50,000 elephants murdered every year to meet manufacturing demand.

III. The Elephant’s Continued Decline

In 1960, the first notable halt in African elephant population decline occurred following the introduction of the first affordable plastic alternatives to ivory. 15 years later, the UN adopted the first international agreement on animal and plant product trade, CITES. While the first edition of CITES passed in 1975 banned any trade involving the Asian elephant, the African elephant remained excluded. Plastics and a greater consumer awareness of elephant poaching decreased the demand for ivory, but it still wasn’t enough for the African elephant population. In 1979 their population dipped under 1 million for the first time in recorded history. 10 years later only 600,000 remained. 

So who was still using ivory when cheaper and higher quality alternatives remained? 

Nothing exudes class like a symphonic orchestra. Despite the dampening of the ivory craze post-WWII, all four major piano makers continued to use ivory for the keys of their grand piano models. To the American Steinway & Sons’ credit, they immediately switched production of their keys’ material to white plastic once materials science developed the first alternatives in the 1950s. However, the remaining manufacturers, C. Bechstein, Blüthner, and Bösendorfer, continued to use ivory for their models.

This is where the story gets really interesting. 

Quickly, the UN realized their mistake with the original CITES and passed a revision in 1979 that included the African elephant as an animal who could not be killed for derived products (re: ivory). Based on the revision’s wording, suppliers could claim their ivory came from “live-harvesting”, not illegal poaching. It also gave exemption to the sale of ivory that had been sourced prior to 1979 – another convenient loophole for companies and countries holding stockpiles that weighed in the thousands of tons. Thus, European piano manufacturers continued to use ivory keys despite the illegality of obtaining new ivory. Ethically, this remained a grey deal. Many countries sourcing the ivory had dubious (at best) records of their ivory reserves which allowed poachers to sell newly hunted, illegal ivory to bribable government officials to add to pre-existing, legal stores. Meanwhile the African elephant population continued to fall. 

75,000 continued to be slaughtered annually.

IV. Where We Stand Today

Under these circumstances, the Kenyan government elected to make a stand against poachers. In 1989, then president Daniel arap Moi ignited 12 tonnes (24,000 lbs) of the country’s accumulated elephant ivory. These images rapidly pushed the world into action, and another revision to CITES occurred within the year. All ivory was now a banned trade material regardless of origin. 

As a result, today the only pianos with authentic ivory keys are antiques, built pre-1989. Many such pianos exist, barely over 40 years old, as manufacturers continued to source ivory until the 1989 world ban. One can find such pianos with their appropriate documents at some auctions, but they pianos cannot be moved internationally as CITES forces customs agencies to have a zero tolerance policy for the movement of any ivory products. 

Job well done? 

Not quite.

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