Monday, February 25, 2013

Mass Extinction...a Burgeoning Meme

Death Comes to the Banquet Table ~ Giovanni Martinelli, 1635
Inspired by art, literature, music, drama and ancient legends in every culture going back as far as time takes us, humans have been admonished to remember the inevitability of our individual deaths.  Periodically there have even been cautionary figures who claimed to confront the foreknowledge of the total end of, if not our species, our civilization.  Lately it seems such a cacophony is swelling, and reaching a crescendo.  Those who, however inadvisedly, attempt to warn people of converging catastrophes, are compelled to wonder why bother?  It certainly doesn't make us popular dinner guests.  Besides, if extinction is inevitable, a legitimate question is, what good does it do to anticipate it?
Two Women Surprised by Death and the Devil ~ Daniel Hopfer, 1520
Since I saw an essay titled Memento Mori at Nature Bats Last, a rare haven where people actually have that conversation, I have collected a few images from that venerable artistic tradition.  How can I resist?  My heart is so heavy from grieving for our desperately dwindling world, which looks more egregiously depauperate by the day, I can hardly bear to go outside and witness the incontrovertible evidence.  It's like walking through Dante's inferno, an unspeakably oppressive purgatory from which there is no escape.
Jan Davidsz. De Heem, 1630
And so it is a relief to study the countless versions of memento mori in different guises.  To my mind the Dutch Masters were unrivaled in such depictions.  They often utilized symbols such as the hourglass or other timepieces, and juxtaposed decay with the temporary glory of flowers and fruits.
Vanitas ~ Herman Henstenburgh, 1700
In the Venetian painting below, death triumphs over all other players.
The Card Game of Death ~ Giuseppe Erts, 1663
A brilliant artist named Kevin Best is creating contemporary photographic versions of the classic Dutch still life by constructing complex sets incorporating authentic antique props, and then he adds whimsical twists, like irridescent bubbles.  His work is so lush, I could look at it all day - much nicer than the crashing ecosystem outside my window!
Still Life with Nautilus Cup ~ Kevin Best, 2012
In this piece, the orchids peek playfully out of the frame.
Still Life Chinese Jars and Dancing Lady Orchids ~ Kevin Best, 2011
Yet, he adheres to traditional elements to evoke the ephemerality of life, such as the wisps of smoke from an extinguished candle.
Still Life With Delft Jug ~ Kevin Best, 2010
Perhaps one of the most irascible of all doomsayers is Pentti Linkola, Finnish author of Can Life Prevail.  His unflinchingly draconian prescriptions are widely critiqued as immoral ecofascism, even though really, no less drastic polemic has sufficed to halt or even slow the destruction of Earth's bounty (and it's too late now, anyway).  Even as we reject his advocacy of eugenics, genocide, extreme authoritarianism and abortion to control overpopulation, it brings stark reality face to face with our squeamishness in confronting the questions that aren't even being broached by mainstream environmentalists.  Among many controversial quotes:
"What to do, when a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship's axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides."
Still Life Vanitas Framed ~ Kevin Best, 2011
 From the introduction to his book, by Brett Stevens, which lays out some of the main principles:

"Progress - consisting of technological, economic and moral/social growth - is an illusion.  'Its priests fervently cling to the idea that material prosperity brings enjoyment and happiness - eve though history has shown that only material want and a life of struggle lead to a meaningful existence.  In other words material prosperity doesn't bring about anything apart from misery.'"
Infinite Vanitas ~ Kevin Best, 2011
"Democracy empower selfishness.  'Any political system based on desire is fundamentally flawed.  Society and life have been organized upon the basis of individual desires, not on what is good for nature.'"
Still Life, Pride ~ Kevin Best, 2011
"An elite is needed to rule.  'Just as only one out of 100,000 has the talent to be an engineer or an acrobat, only a few are truly capable of managing the matters of a nation or mankind.'"

"We need strong leadership to keep individuals from being selfish.  'Our only hope lies in strong control of the individual citizen.'"
Still Life with Shells and Books ~ Kevin Best, 2011
"Population control can be done with passive means.  Births must be licensed, immigration and international trade must end, and growth must be reduced."

"We can find a more balanced life.  People can travel with bicycles, rowboats and horse carts.  Private cars are confiscated.  Long-distance travel is done with sparse mass transport.  Trees will be planted on most roads."
Vanitas ~ Herman Henstenburgh, 1700
The narration in the video below is delightfully droll and witty.  What's amazing is that, not only is the painter a phenomenally accomplished artist, he is subtly sly and deep - an astute social, political and philosophical commentator.  There is a terrific surprise at the end!  Perhaps what is most remarkable is that the painting, and all those exquisite objects depicted including the gorgeous damask backdrop, the hand-knotted Oriental carpet, and the sophisticated thinking that engineered all of it, were created without any use of petroleum.  All of this represents a level of skill and thought which far surpasses the average modern American's abilities to paint, craft, or ponder - and yet most cannot abide the thought of life without the amenities provided by copious inputs of oil, as though life has no meaning without Nascar and the Oscars on the tv.

When youngest daughter was home over the Christmas holiday she was idly inspecting a gold locket she recently inherited from her grandmother, and had been wearing daily.  She abruptly realized that one side was adorned with what looked suspiciously like a stylized, curly lock of human hair which mimicked a fern frond.  She was a bit horrified and I had to explain that it was common for Victorians to make all sorts of jewelry, ornaments and art using hair, especially of deceased relatives.  Not only that but, at a time when child mortality was excruciatingly high, many times parents took a last - and only - photograph of their child before internment.  Unless noted, these memento mori photos come from an online collection.
Sometimes the photographer colored the cheeks pink.  Often they would prop open their eyes.
Many times the surviving siblings were expected to pose with the deceased.
Faces were always expressionless because it took so long to expose the plate.  The unmoving dead were sometimes in much sharper focus than the living.
In this portrait, the dead sister is propped up with a book.

“Memento mori—remember death! These are important words. If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different. If a person knows that he will die in a half hour, he certainly will not bother doing trivial, stupid, or, especially, bad things during this half hour. Perhaps you have half a century before you die—what makes this any different from a half hour?”

Leo Tolstoy 
Unlike Victorians, Americans nowadays are insulated from both death, and nature.  We tend to think food originates, antisceptically, at the supermarket (see What Happens When the Food Runs Out), and botox will keep us young forever.  We certaintly don't want to hear that we risk extinction.  Like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, the vast bulk of people would rather sleep than keep watch.  Poor Jesus had to wake his disciples over and over, but they betrayed him, and fell back into their slumber.
The Garden of Gethsemane ~ Andrea Mantegna, 1470
This is a recent photograph taken in the Garden in Jeruselem.  It's not clear whether any of the olive trees were there at the time Jesus was praying the night before he died, but according to recent tests, some of them are impressively old.
"The results of tests on trees in the Garden of Gethsemane have not settled the question of whether the gnarled trees are the very same which sheltered Jesus because olive trees can grow back from roots after being cut down, researchers said."

"'We cannot rule out the possibility that there was an intervention to rejuvenate them when they stopped being productive or dried out,' chief researcher Professor Antonio Cimato said at a presentation of the results in Rome.  But let me say: plants of greater age than our olives are not cited in the scientific literature. Our olives are among the oldest broad-leaved trees in the world,' he added."

"Carbon dating showed that samples taken from the oldest part of the trunks of three of the eight trees came from the years 1092, 1166 and 1198, according to the study by the National Research Council of Italy Trees and Timber Institute, and academics from five Italian universities."

"The other five trees at Gethsemane - which means "oil press" in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus - could not be tested as they are so gnarled that their trunks have become hollowed out, with only newer growth remaining."

Following is a very short snip of Sir John Stainer's The Crucifixion with tenor James Gilchrist (...because it's exquisite...).

from the poem Memento Mori
~ Billy Collins

...the realization that no one
who ever breasted the waters of time
has figured out a way to avoid dying

always pulls me up by the reins and settles me down
by a roadside, grateful for the sweet weeds
and the mouthfuls of colorful wildflowers.

This is a recent photo of Jingshan Park in China, which accompanied a story about the government's acknowledgment of the proliferation of "cancer villages" due to pollution.  In the US, climate activists prefer to talk about how much China has invested in clean energy - ignoring the fact that more energy production leads to more energy use - of all sorts!
Did anyone besides me detect any irony in the fate of "America's Power - Clean Coal??"
Since Wit's End is supposed to be about trees dying from pollution, I'm reposting, for anyone who missed it, this horrific chronicle of tree death, which as usual is attributed to climate change - drought and higher temperatures.  It was produced a little under a year ago, yet as time passes the glaring dichotomy between that assessment, and the observable and measured fact that trees in areas of the world that have received increased precipitation are dying just as fast, is inescapable.  Personally, I dread the spring.

The rest of the pictures that follow were taken by a wonderful photographer named Peter Manship who works mostly in New England.  You can visit his facebook page and see many more.  He excels in images that I love - dilapidated, ramshackle barns...and seascapes and landscapes with trees that remind me of home, growing up before everything was dying...oh, and owls.
Given the grim evidence continually emerging that climate change is going to be catastrophic sooner rather than later, one has to wonder if it even matters that trees are dying off.  I've been waiting in vain for an answer to a letter I sent to Dr. Corinne Le Quéré which said, in part:
I am writing about your study reported in this article published in the UK Guardian from 2009, specifically related to this portion:

"Meanwhile, the scientists have for the first time detected a failure of the Earth's natural ability to absorb man-made carbon dioxide released into the air."
"They found significant evidence that more man-made CO2 is staying in the atmosphere to exacerbate the greenhouse effect because the natural 'carbon sinks' that have absorbed it over previous decades on land and sea are beginning to fail, possibly as a result of rising global temperatures."
Nicolas Stern was just quoted last month as making the same observation:

"In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: 'Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.'"

So, I asked Dr. Le Quéré whether the reason the planet is "absorbing less carbon" than expected might be because trees are dying from tropospheric ozone, and also:  "...since that article was from 2009 before Copenhagen, and Copenhagen obviously did fail, do you currently think this statement holds?"
"Professor Le Quéré said that Copenhagen was the last chance of coming to a global agreement that would curb carbon-dioxide emissions on a time-course that would hopefully stabilise temperature rises to within the danger threshold. 'The Copenhagen conference next month is in my opinion the last chance to stabilise climate at [2]C above pre-industrial levels in a smooth and organised way,' she said."
"'If the agreement is too weak, or the commitments not respected, it is not 2.5C or 3C we will get: it's 5C or 6C – that is the path we're on. The timescales here are extremely tight for what is needed to stabilise the climate at [2]C,' she said."
My question has been met by a thundering silence.  It's always five minutes to midnight.  The scientists will never admit it IS midnight, even if, in hindsight, they already projected it.

Here's a coy suggestion  from one of many articles about the latest Ehrlich collaboration, "Experts Fear Collapse of Global Civilization":

"Experts on the health of our planet are terrified of the future. They can clearly see the coming collapse of global civilisation from an array of interconnected environmental problems."

“'We’re all scared,” said Paul Ehrlich, president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.  'But we must tell the truth about what’s happening and challenge people to do something to prevent it,' Ehrlich told IPS."
"Global collapse of human civilisation seems likely, write Ehrlich and his partner Anne Ehrlich in the prestigious science journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society.  This collapse will take the form of a '…gradual breakdown because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scarce necessities', they write."

"Already two billion people are hungry today. Food production is humanity’s biggest industry and is already being affected by climate and other environmental problems. 'No civilisation can avoid collapse if it fails to feed its population,' the authors say."
"Escalating climate disruption, ocean acidification, oceanic dead zones, depletion of groundwater and extinctions of plants and animals are the main drivers of the coming collapse, they write in their peer-reviewed article “Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided?” published this week."

The article finishes:

"Solutions exist and are briefly outlined in the Ehrlich paper. However, these require sweeping changes. All nations need to do everything they can to reduce their emissions of fossil fuels regardless of actions or lack of them by any other country, he said."
"Protection of the Earth’s biodiversity must take centre stage in all policy and economic decisions. Water and energy systems must be re-engineered. Agriculture must shift from fossil-fuel intensive industrial monocultures to ecologically-based systems of food production. Resilience and flexibility will be essential for civilisation to survive."

"A key element in meeting this unprecedented challenge is '…to see ourselves as utterly embedded in Nature and not somehow separate from those precious systems that sustain all life', writes England’s Prince Charles commenting on the Ehrlich’s paper."
"'To continue with "business as usual" is an act of suicide on a gargantuan scale,' Prince Charles concluded."

So, solutions exist but...they require sweeping changes.  And therein lies the rub.  We aren't making sweeping changes, and we're not going to.  It's not in our nature!  ...but that's for another post.

One recent title in Slate magazine, asks, "Could Humans Go Extinct?" and warns, "There's a chance we're living in the end times."  Current conditions are compared with the geological record that reveals past events:
"What could have caused this crisis? It’s an open question.  Figuring out what happened 251 million years ago—at the end of the Permian Period, when reptiles had come into their own on the giant continent of Pangea—and in what sequence, and with what cause and effect, is exceedingly difficult. The fossil record paints with a thick brush. But it seems that volcanoes in what are now the Siberian steppes were spewing lava, which was in turn vaporizing vast deposits of coal. Carbon concentrations went through the roof—much as they are doing now from human industrial activity."
[Ozonistas might well wonder:  If coal was vaporizing, and carbon concentrations were rising, wouldn't there also have been ozone precursors released???]

"One of the interesting things about past mass extinctions is that they seem to happen over many millions of years. The exception, of course, is the one that doomed the dinosaurs, which basically occurred during one bad weekend with an asteroid. But some paleobiologists have recently whittled the Permian extinction down to a few tens of thousands of years, give or take. That puts it squarely on a human timescale. If we are indeed in the midst of a new mass extinction, one started by our own hand, when did the clock start ticking? Just under 200,000 years ago, when modern humans left Africa? Ten thousand years ago, when we started agriculture? And how much time do we have left?"
A headline at Climate Connections declared mournfully:  Obama administration finalizes polar bear extinction plan.   This is because they refused to use the Endangered Species Act to protect the bears, and instead finalized a new regulation which " modeled on a previous Bush-administration measure excluding activities occurring outside the polar bear’s habitat — such as carbon emissions from coal plants — from regulations that could slow Arctic warming to prevent the bear’s extinction."
Is this a harbinger of the Keystone XL ruling?  Aspirational climate activists, as usual, persist in grasping at straws hoping it won't be approved - oh...John Kerry! - as if it makes any difference either way.

Yet another article warns we are on a path towards evenutal human extinction and ends with the obligatory, ridiculous hope.  There is a quote from Paul Gilding and it probably helps to think of the climate challange as "exciting" when you have no children.  To be sure, the blog couldn't possibly be any more explicitly techno-magical - it's written by the "Science Pope" and the subheading reads:  Climate Change Threatens.  Science Saves.  Never mind of course that science is what got us into this inextricable, atrocious predicament in the first place!
It's an interesting and well-written blog, anyway.

"If you believe in climate change, then presumably you believe what scientists tell us about it. That means you believe the United Nations when they tell us the world will be 5°C hotter (~9°F) than pre-industrial levels by 2050. This temperature increase is more than enough for the oceans to swallow our cities, stop all food from growing, and doom to extinction every species short of the cockroach. For all intents and purposes, climate change is a meteor that lands in 2050…it’s the end of human civilization."

"And it’s 37 years away."
"I bet you didn’t know you believed that."

"Your first reaction will be to reject this information as false or exaggerated, but this forecast is roughly consistent with projections from the International Energy Agency and various departments of the US government. Your brain will fight it, even with the numbers on the page staring back at you, because the collapse of civilization is simply beyond human comprehension."
"To really internalize this information means you would need to accept things like:
  • You are among the last people that will ever walk the Earth
  • Your children won’t survive to middle age
  • All of the beauty, culture, and scientific discoveries we’ve unlocked will return to the ether from whence they came."
"Forgive my French, but that is some heavy shit. Yet our ability to understand and feel threatened by this information is hindered by the fact that things don’t seem that bad right now. Sure things feel a little “off”, but how can we be so close to oblivion when life is (generally speaking) so good, modern and happy?"
"The answer is exponentials. Climate change does not follow a linear path (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc…), it follow an exponential path (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc…). Global temperature is increasing exponentially, fueled by humanity’s exponential rise in energy use, population, and economic growth. As you can see from the chart, exponential functions look like a hockey stick: they stay low for a long time, and then rise very suddenly and rapidly once they turn the corner. Everyone has some experience with exponential growth in their daily lives…any bank account with compounded interest will follow this curve, and exponentials are the reason that sickness spreads so rapidly through your child’s school."
"Yet humans aren’t wired to understand exponential growth. We just aren’t. We’re wired to think linearly…we age one year at a time, we eat one meal at a time, and every day has precisely one sunrise and one sunset. We evolved this way because most of the time it serves us well to assume that tomorrow is going to be a lot like yesterday."
"We are 37 years away from the end. That means climate change isn’t a problem for our children or grandchildren, it’s a problem for us. It’s you and I that are going to have our natural lives cut short, you and I that will bear witness to the collapse of human civilization. Fighting climate change isn’t so the hippies can save the polar bears, or so the scientists can save the Arctic ice. It’s a battle for all of humanity to save itself."
"With this unthinkable scenario looming over us, we can view the future in a rather binary way. On one hand, if we do nothing on climate change (or even too little), humanity will be destroyed. We will be actors in final scene of the saddest story ever told: a species full of promise and beauty that destroys itself through its own hubris."
"On the other hand, if we decide to meet the challenges of climate change head on, we will rapidly transform the world with new systems for energy, economics, and governance. We are instead actors in the greatest story every told: a species on the brink that pulls together to save itself from oblivion, surviving to achieve its full potential out amongst the stars. The odds are long, but we all love an underdog…so I remain excited and optimistic about the future, and I hope you'll join me in writing this story."
I rather think these owls are all like...srsly???

The following lecture by Chris Martenson is embedded in that article, and has a compelling demonstration of exponential change, as well as a compassionate exploration of how humans deal with the mind-boggling dimensions of the threats we have constructed for ourselves - of course, as it must, it too ends with unjustifiable hope...but it's worth watching anyway.


  1. I'm in my 80th decade, and started thinking about all this 40 yrs ago. My conclusion, based on readings and my own experiences as a human and living a fairly simple lifestyle, is that we've passed the point of no return.

    "Progress" is currently defined as developing the "middle class" so that consumers can keep on consuming. The economy demands it, people demand it because they want "stuff", and the more the merrier. No one wants to give up anything.

    We're not going to change that mindset. The next 50 yrs may not be worth living through.

  2. Great images...

    Also, just saw this and thought of you. So much going on at once I can only sigh:

  3. PS-This AP article just showed up on my local paper's website.

  4. Also this, first thing - it's too early in the morning, aauugghhh!

    Another day, another blog never stops.

  5. Hi Gail:

    i've had a week of unbelievable exposure of the so-called "environmental" organizations - lead by short-sighted, clueless, bureaucrats who don't want to ruffle anyone's feathers LIKE THE FRACKING INDUSTRY! i was so pissed i let the first one know how i felt and was dismissed as "obnoxious". The second, larger, organization pulled the same crap - but i just ended the call with the statement that i was confused and disappointed and hung up.


  6. Tom, you have my deepest sympathies. It's bad enough to figure out that the system we live in is run by malignant monsters. But to go down the rabbit's hole and discover that the so-called good guys are basically a cruel joke, well, I know that really hurts!

  7. that video from austrialia with the shocking comparison of what one forest looked like four years ago vs. what it looks like today is heartbreaking. had just read the a couple of articles on how badly global warming is hitting australia. they're from rolling stone magazine, which along with gossip has some serious articles.;


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