Wit's End

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Homo eradicatus

Season's Greetings - Merry Christmas, Super Solstice, Happy New Year etc - all fellow ruthless, insatiable members of our species Homo eradicatus who are watching the approach of the gathering storm!  As usual I have been collecting links to emerging science about ozone poisoning forests, but that topic will have to wait until after the family festivities.
After I hit "publish" it will be full-out baking and decorating. This post will just note that massive tree declines have been detected by NASA in the Amazon, and scientists are pointing to deforestation as a primary reason that debilitating droughts ensue.  Yes - science now affirms that this is how we have created deserts throughout history.
If you are looking for a movie to watch over the holidays, I highly recommend Belle (assuming you haven't seen it already).  I initially rented it because I love the escapism of a good historical costume drama, but it turned out to be much more than that - the tale delineates the distinctions of class, sex, race and marital politics of the day.  Based on a true story, it follows the struggles of the child of a slave who is raised by her wealthy relations in England.  Her impish intelligence shines through in this astonishingly lovely contemporary portrait with her more privileged white cousin who, in no small irony, winds up as much a prisoner of her gender as Belle is of her race.
It also, primarily, involves the passionate debate over slavery that dominated the times, revolving around the complex court case, presided over by Belle's conflicted guardian, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield.  The insurance company has refused to pay damages following the infamous massacre of the ship Zong about which, I am ashamed to say, I had never heard of before - even though The Slave Ship, a painting which immortalizes the event by J.M.W. Turner, hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts - so I know I must have seen it.  A high resolution view can be found here and packs a astonishingly powerful, visceral punch with incredible delicacy and subtlety.

There is romance in the movie too but, above all, it resonates with a complexity that is lost in the vacuous anti-civilization posturing that passes for historical analysis in too many corners of the internet and alternative media today.

Along these lines, I watched the following quick excerpt from a talk by Derrick Jensen, which is compelling and heartfelt, but (in my opinion) fundamentally flawed:

My comment was - He's right - it is a failure of imagination. The problem that he is missing is that most people can't help it - they LITERALLY can't imagine a world without a living biosphere, because (with the exception of the clinically depressed aka mutants) the human brain neurologically just doesn't work that way.  So unless there is some way to magically evolve the human brain to be different than it is - maybe another 500,000 years or so - Homo eradicatus is trapped in an unsolvable, intractable dilemma.  The research discussed in an article winningly titled Your Brain Won't Allow You To Believe the Apocalypse Could Actually Happen -  is only one of many neurological studies that demonstrate the rigidity of human behavioral attributes, and observes the results of both experiments and MRI studies:

"...this human propensity toward optimism is facilitated by the brain's failure to code errors in estimation when those call for pessimistic updates. This failure results in selective updating, which supports unrealistic optimism that is resistant to change."

Humans seem to have a propensity towards one sort of imagination - that which is optimistic and hopeful. This has some felicitous results - who would try to invent something new if they didn't think they would succeed? But it also is the power that has enabled our species to colonize the earth - who would pick up their wife and kids and put them on a covered wagon or a canoe and set off into the complete unknown if they didn't have a near fanatical belief that they would find better circumstances over the horizon? Perhaps this has over time selected the optimism/hopeful trait, as those are the explorers - and survivors.

"The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory", a book by Cynthia Eller skewers the WooWoo proponents of that particular fairytale on much the same grounds.  She explains "...why an invented past won't give women a future" which, like the equally popular myth of the noble, sustainable hunter-gatherer tribe, is an insidious hope that interferes with a rational assessment of our predicament.

She writes of how, starting in the 1970’s, the myth began to dominate the cultural mainstream in the following decades, and of how these fictional societies were proposed to be “…not crude reversals of patriarchal power, but models of ease, leniency, harmony with nature, and significantly, sex egalitarianism”.

How well I can relate to her confession!

“…I had no trouble appreciating the myth’s appeal.  Except for one small problem - and one much larger problem - I might now be writing a book titled Matriarchal Prehistory:  Our Glorious Past and Our Hope for the Future.  But if I was intrigued with the newness and power of the myth, and with its bold gender reversals, I was at least as impressed by the fact that anyone took it seriously as history.  Poking holes in the ‘evidence’ for this myth was, to rely on cliché, like shooting fish in a barrel.  After a long day of research in the library, I could go out with friends and entertain them with the latest argument I’d read for matriarchal prehistory, made up entirely - I pointed out - of a highly ideological reading of a couple of prehistoric artifacts accompanied by some dubious anthropology, perhaps a little astrology, and a fatuous premise…or two or three”.

I find myself in a position similar to what she describes as to why she bothers to dispel the fantasies:  “For certainly there are other myths that I have never felt driven to dispute:  White lotus flowers blossomed in the footsteps of the newly born Hakyamuni? …Truth claims seem beside the point to me: what matters is why the story is told, the uses to which it is put and by whom.”

Just as I would never bother to argue with a devout Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist over their faith (I long ago gave up arguing with climate deniers, and nowadays don't often bother with chemtrailers even though they, at least, are cognizant that trees are dying), still, I too frequently feel compelled to dispel the myth of sustainable hunter gathers - because perpetuating that fantasy ensures we will never accurately examine and assess our behavior, our prospects, our alternatives - honestly.  See what Jensen says in another short clip about our species:

An impassioned spokesman for the theory of a peaceful, sustainable culture of hunter-gathers, he asserts - against vast evidence of perpetual warfare and slavery; and ubiquitous habitat and species destruction chronically followed by sequential collapse - that humans lived in harmony with nature for many thousands of years.  He assigns blame for the current pattern exclusively to recent industrialization and a culture of materialism, despite a plethora of relics of the importance of status as displayed by personal possessions - whether shells or feathers or gold trinkets.  Aside from the utterly relentless colonizing of even the most marginal habitat of the entire earth going back to the exact timeframe he cites - in itself enough evidence that humans are not and never have been "sustainable" as we eradicated habitat, burning and slashing ruthlessly through verdant, pristine paradises in merciless pursuit of meat - the extirpation of the megafauna by the first arrivals in every new location is now only disputed by true believers...the evidence has become so overwhelming.

One of the best discussions I have found on this topic is available to read for free on-line at Megafauna.com - Speak Out About Endangered Species, by Baz Edmeades.  I won't post any excerpts, because it's brilliant, and anybody who cares about this topic should read it.  Or, if it is too long (although it is tremendously well-written) you could instead cut to the chase with a very amusing short column in, of all places, the Havana Times, titled The Myth of a "Sustainable Primitive Community" in Cuba (even still the locus of farming sustainability myths) which chronicles the demise of indigenous creatures that went into the cooking pot of the first immigrants to arrive on the island 6,000 years ago...like the Ornimegalonyx, at one meter in height believed to be the largest species of owl that ever existed (among many others forever lost).

This first film, a visually stunning time-lapse sequence, is a splendid example of our optimistic, powerful imagination at work...a city - sanitized, glorious, almost a sacred monument to man's ingenuity.  It is followed by a far more depressing, and I would say realistic, version of our contribution to earth today that left me in tears, even though I should know better by now.

Cityscape Chicago II from Eric Hines on Vimeo.

Many thanks to David Lange, Jenelle Green, David Veith and other friends both facebook and otherwise, who enrich my life by diligently sharing many of these wonderful links to videos, articles, and research.

My Blog List

Search This Blog