Monday, October 27, 2014

I See Witches

I have been reminded again of how different my world is from the one most people inhabit.  Months after listing a spare bedroom on airbnb, I finally had my first guests stay over on Saturday, a delightful young couple from Ukraine with one enormous German Shephard, a tiny Pomeranian, and an even tinier infant in tow.  I didn't get much sleep with various forms of commotion, but it was fun anyway.
Over breakfast our talk turned to the life of an expat, and the husband mentioned he loves California and might one day like to move there.  So being the doomer I am, I laughed and said a far more likely scenario is that everyone will move out because of the drought.  He was genuinely curious because he had absolutely no idea how serious the lack of rainfall is, and clearly knew even less about glacial melt from climate change.  He was under the impression that there is abundant reserves of water in Lake Tahoe!  I feel so alone with the witches that I see, traversing a dying landscape...even they look despondent and resigned to the destruction.
From a different perspective, another reminder of how isolated I am in my apocalyptic abyss occurred this morning when I glanced at the Huffington Post and saw that Jim Carrey did a spoof of some sort of music video that I had never heard of, by a singer I never heard I looked it up and found to my astonishment that it has had over 265 MILLION views!  I bet my young Ukranian friends are familiar with it.  Some of the nicely nihilistic lyrics:

I'm gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I'm gonna live like tomorrow doesn't exist
Like it doesn't exist
I'm gonna fly like a bird through the night, feel my tears as they dry
I'm gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier

Meanwhile I wonder how many people will read Stolen Future, Broken Present: The Human Significance of Climate Change by David Collings.  Here is a little excerpt from Section 8.  ~ A Slow and Endless Horror:

"Climate change ushers us into a truly new era. Living with climate change throws us out of our familiar narratives: it tells us that we have not surpassed the violence of the past and that the apparent guarantees under which we live may be illusions. As we live in the shadow of future devastation, the bitter taste of what may eventually transpire invades our daily lives, giving us the uncanny sense that our ordinary actions are accompanied by the trauma to come."

And I wonder how many will watch this video, which would be chilling except it's about warming...what David Spratt in Climate Code Red describes as:  "Climate change with its non-linear events, tipping points and irreversible events –  such as mass extinctions, destruction of ecosystems, the loss of large ice sheets and the triggering of large-scale releases of greenhouse gases from carbon stores such as permafrost and methane clathrates – contains many possibilities for catastrophic failure."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

My Fifteen Seconds in Twisted Times

Alex Smith, the host of Radio Ecoshock, is an amazingly skillful and genial interviewer who asks the most penetrating questions.  He always manages to elicit lively conversations with the scientists who appear on his show, all of whom are far more distinguished than I could ever dream of I am truly honored and humbled to have been a guest this week, in the second half of the episode.  Go to his page for a listen!  (where you can also subscribe and donate to keep his excellent, unique program on the air.)

Photo of Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger in a Palm Beach art gallery, with street image reflected on the window glass

And as long as I'm claiming my 15 seconds of fame, I make a brief cameo at around 16:40 in Pauline's video of Guy McPherson (whoot!)...but that's not why you should watch it.  I think you will find that is a touchingly personal, even intimate testimony of her journey, that speaks of universal themes with guileless honesty.  There is some beautiful scenery too.

The password is Going Dark (with the capitals, and the space).

Going Dark Documentary from Pauline Schneider on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Something Where God Used To Be

It is through myth, story-telling, art, metaphor and play that we make overall sense of our place in the world. Given that language and imagination are what define our species, it is through these that we make our most truly human, and therefore most authentically ecological engagements with the world.

      ~ Richard Mabey

Richard Mabey, who lives in a 16th Century English cottage, has published many books extolling nature.  At 73, he expresses concern about extinction, but believes that trees are resilient and will survive modern threats, such as epidemic invasive insect attacks.  He probably doesn't know anything about the toxicity of tropospheric ozone, which has claimed yet another human victim, a woman in London who was killed yesterday because of a fallen tree.

The BBC stated that this occurred in a storm with winds "gusting up to 70 mph", which is nowhere near the force a healthy tree can't easily withstand (see Leonardo da Vinci's calculations).  I could not find a close up of that tree, but the photo below, from another deadly storm in the UK almost exactly a year ago, reveals why so many trees are falling on people, houses and that were once almost unheard of.  They are rotting from absorbing air pollution.
Richard Mabey has been critiqued for pandering to "bourgeois escapism", so perhaps he is the rural  eccentric British equivalent of Verlyn Klinkenborg, who was mercilessly savaged more than once by Hamilton Nolan in Gawker as being the New York Times' "leaf-and-cow" columnist, a "menace", a "literary hustler" guilty of some of the "world's most artisanal writing...none of which has anything to do with anything".   Hamilton's jabs are all exceedingly hilarious, and probably well-deserved, as are the comments he inspired, replete with satirical quotes from Mark Twain.  Go have a laugh.

YET, following his sudden resignation from that comfortably plush NYT perch, Verlyn appears to have abandoned his "over-wrought prose", relinquished his "male Martha Stewart" persona, and become something of a doomer, the very antithesis of his former treacly jovial self - assuming his recent article in e360Yale is taken as written.  Doomer porn doesn't get much more salacious than his mournful assessment of human nature and our prospects, so I'm going to post it right here at Wit's End...but first I want to explain the woodcuts that will accompany it by way of illustration.

In the recent post Endocene I included a painting by Hieronymous Bosch based on the ancient fable of the Ship of Fools, which so well describes the human folly of obliviousness - a perception that has only intensified as our population grows and we squander all the wonderfully potent reserves of fossilized energy we can extract.  Since then I have been fascinated with art that depicts warnings to humanity of the ephemerality of life, and the price to be paid for avarice (I found the images in this post at a curious Russian forum).  There seems to be a deeply intuitive unease that stretches back in time.  Even dilapidated architecture as a symbol of moral decay and corruption, which is all the rage among photographers currently chronicling the decline of civilization today, was well established in artwork by Bruegel and many others, as was the motif of dying tree.

A version of the etching above, attributed to a drawing by Jacques de Gheyn II in 1603, is found in a scholarly paper that delves into the Zeitgeist of the time, Hieronymus Bosch: Homo viator at a Crossroads: A New Reading of the Rotterdam tondo by Yona Pinson, which is riveting, for people like me who go for that sort of thing, because it is remarkably like our own.  Homo viator refers to the prevalent idea in mediaeval Europe that man is a way-farer, a vagrant exile on a pilgrimage.  This swelling "contempt for life", envisioned as a perpetual journey for itinerants swept into the Renaissance, where the gulf between rising standards conflicted with an ever more macabre obsession with the transience of life and spiritual alienation.  Warnings such as that depicted below, to memento mori, abounded and carried even into Victorian times (a charming collection is here with a fantastic video analyzing a Holbein).
Three living and three dead kings
To the left are three kings on horseback, starting back from the three crowned skeletons to the right; in the foreground are three dogs, bones are alloted on the ground.
Engraving made by Master of the Housebook, Germany, 1470-1500.
A poem from a manuscript at Cambridge University Library published on page 54 in The Darker Vision of the Renaissance: Beyond the Fields of Reason by Robert S. Kinsman is, trust me (or read more at the source), one of the milder examples of the literary reflection of the morbid gestalt that permeated art and literature:

Cur in hac miseria miserius moramini?
Hac mundana gloria quare dilectamini -
Vos qui moriemini, relinquentes omnia?
Mors que parcit nemini vestra tollet gaudia.

Why in this wretchedness do you linger on more wretchedly?
Why do you take pleasure in this worldly glory
you who are going to die, leaving everything behind?
Death, who spares no one, will take away your joys.

So, without further ado, following is the afore-mentioned article from Verlyn Klinkenborg.  It's not very long, and then we'll come back round to additional moribund topics.
A Young child and a skeleton in a coffin holding notices on poles
Allegory of the transitoriness of life; a memento mori scene with a view through two arched windows (at left is a tree with leaves and at right a dead, leafless tree) with a vase of flowers on a ledge between them; flanking the vase is a young child and a skeleton in a coffin holding notices on poles.
Engraving made by Jacob Matham, After Karel van Mander I, Netherland, 1599.

True Altruism: Can Humans Change To Save Other Species?
A grim new census of the world’s dwindling wildlife populations should force us to confront a troubling question: Are humans capable of acting in ways that help other species at a cost to themselves?

    ~   Verlyn Klinkenborg

Ever since Darwin, biologists have been arguing about altruism — the concept that an individual may behave in a way that benefits its species, at a cost to itself. After all, the self-sacrifice implicit in altruistic behavior seems to run against the grain of evolutionary theory, which proposes that the well-being of a species depends on robust, individual self-interest. Many biologists argue that in the non-human world what looks like altruism — benefiting another at a cost to oneself — may be merely the final refinement of self-interest, self-interest operating not at the level of the organism or the species but at the level of the gene.
A Wild man walks on all fours toward the right with a dead baby in his mouth
Several bodyparts of other victims are scattered on the ground; a cottage with woman and children in the left background; the Saxon shields are at the upper centre-r; with vertical fold.
Woodcut made by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Germany, 1510-1515 (c.).
This is all very interesting. But the discussion nearly always concerns the behavior of individuals within a single species — the warning cries of vervet monkeys, which alert their fellow monkeys to predators while calling attention to themselves; the self-abnegation of a stinging bee. What I wonder is this: Is altruism possible across species boundaries? Can an individual from one species, at cost to itself, act in a way that benefits individuals from another species? And — the crucial question — can an entire species learn to shape its behavior, to its own cost, for the good of other species? 

I ask because we need to know now. According to a new study from the World Wildlife Fund, the population of aquatic and terrestrial animals on this planet has dropped by half since 1970. Let me choose a better verb. Half the animals on this planet have been destroyed in the past 44 years. Let me put it another way. We’ve destroyed half the animals on this planet since 1970, even while our own numbers have doubled. 
Allegory of The Transience of Life
A vaulted tomb with a decomposing skeleton wearing a tattered shroud and a snake in its moth and eye socket; above within a Gothic arch is Moses holding the Tablets of the Law with the ten commandments; with three skulls in frontal and sideways positions.

This is a little like biological altruism — intention isn’t important. In order to be altruistic, a creature doesn’t have to intend to be altruistic. To cull half the animals on this planet, we didn’t have to intend to. We did it with our eyes closed and our fingers crossed and our minds elsewhere.

Nor did we — whoever we are — choose to swell our own numbers from some 3.7 billion to roughly 7.2 billion. They’re both effects of a cause we don’t understand, which is our nature as a species. Here we all are — whoever we are — and nowhere to be found are all those vanished animals and their doubly vanished, unbred, unborn descendants. 
Vanitas with Death and a maiden
A richly attired woman at her toilet-table; behind her stands Death as a female bride, holding an hour-glass; on the table is a jewellery box and a bag of coins.
Engraving made by Andries Jacobsz. Stock after Jacob de Gheyn II and published by Hendrik Hondius I, Dutch, 1610-1620 (circa).
You could argue, I suppose, that doubling the number of humans didn’t require halving the number of animals. Yet think of it this way: Could you cause the human population to double by halving the number of animals on earth? Of course not. But could doubling the number of humans have somehow done away with all those animals? The answer is obviously yes. Point to more immediate causes, like habitat destruction, if you like, but they are merely the effect of our numbers. What makes us so good at destroying such vast quantities of other creatures is simply the vast quantity of us — and who we happen to be. 

Here’s who I think we are. We resemble every other species on this planet. None of them seems to be able to favor the well-being of any species but its own. If a species escapes its natural bounds — think Japanese knotweed or lionfish or even whitetail deer — it spreads until it reaches its natural or unnatural limit. 
Teares of the Indians, or inquisition for Bloud
Frontispiece to Bartolome de las Casas, 'The Tears of the Indians: Being a True Account of the Cruel Massacres and Slaughters... Committed by the Spaniards...', translated by J.P. (London, J.C. for Nath. Brook, 1656).
Etching made by Richard Gaywood, London, England, 1656.
It’s easy to think, “Well, of course. No other species could conceive of being altruistic to the creatures it shares the earth with. No other species has a conscience or the intelligence to act upon it.” But I see no signs that we do either. No matter how hard you work, personally, for the conservation of other species, no matter how many groups we form or how much we protest or how much money we raise, I see no sign that humans, as a species, are able to act differently than any other species would act if it got the chance. Our vast cultural intelligence has freed us, so far, from the strict boundaries of habitat, freed us to behave, in other words, with absolutely unregulated, unconstrained self-interest — just like any other species on this planet. 

Humans have always had a hard time thinking of themselves as creatures, strictly akin in nearly every way to all the other creatures on this planet.  We’ve always insisted on our specialness. But we’re special in ways that have freed us — so far — only to behave as if we’re utterly ordinary. We turn out to be creatures who can be restrained, collectively, only in the ways that every other creature is restrained, by scarcity and death. As a species, we appear to be utterly incapable of self-restraint. This is something we share with every other organism on this planet.
A Nude woman holding a sundial, standing on a skull
Engraving made by Master MZ, Germany, 1500-1503 (c.).
I felt a sharp stab of pain and anger when I read the World Wildlife Fund report detailing the demise of so much earthly life. And I began to wonder: In what index of human motives or emotions — the forces that shape our behavior — will we find the one that truly binds us to the other species on this planet? Is there anything inside us that might allow us to behave altruistically — and consciously so — toward the rest of life on earth?

The answer seems very grim to me. Whoever we are as persons, as nations, even as civilizations, what really matters, when it comes to protecting other life-forms, is who we are as a species. Yet it appears to me that nothing in our makeup allows us to respond effectively to this terrible census of the animal dead. Logic doesn’t deter us. Neither does emotion. Self-interest is an abstraction — it barely crosses social or racial boundaries, never mind the boundary of species. Economic motives are far too easily perverted. They’re how we got here in the first place. So far, it looks as though the only real restraint will turn out to be scarcity and death — two things we’ve committed ourselves to defeating. 
Owl sitting on a skull in a ruined cemetery
a sun rising or setting over a hill in right
German woodcut attributed to Hans Wechtlin, 1500-1525.
Inscription Content: Lettered at centre: 'Ich fyrcht Den Tag'.

Why bother to say these things? What good does it do to sound so grim? For one thing, I know almost nothing grimmer than the fact — not the thought or the idea — that so much life and diversity has simply vanished. For another, we need to know just how hard the job really is if we’re going to do anything about preserving the life and diversity that remains. For this is the background condition of the human condition: Solve global warming, eliminate the nuclear threat, and we will still have to confront the vastness of our species and the way it diminishes, without thinking, all the other species around it.

   ~ END ~

Two mercenaries and a woman with Death in a tree
The skeletal figure of death above the soldiers pointing at an hourglass, landscape background.
Woodcut made by Urs Graf, Block cut by Hans Lützelburger, Swiss, 1524.

Because I have been living for years with the foreboding knowledge that trees are dying at a rapidly accelerating rate - ALL of them...all ages, all species, all habitats - the subject of death in general has come seems like a normal preoccupation.   Indeed, lately when I go outside I get the creepy impression that nature is stagnant.  Usually, it's bad enough to consider death as an individual fate, which is a far cry from the emotional challenge of contemplating extinction.  Only a few oddballs really look into the abyss - consider what Richard Burton wrote in his diary (excessive familiarity with Shakespeare might do that to you):

There are few pleasures to match tipsiness in this murderous world. Especially if, like me, you believe in your bones that it - the world as we know it - is not going to last much longer.
Death as a nobleman leading away a woman
Death wearing a tall hat with feathers at left; showing an hourglass to the woman whose hand he has taken; a male figure holding her other hand
Engraving made by Allaert Claesz., Germany, 1562.

Though it should be obvious it is part of the human condition to wrestle with our foreknowledge of mortality, the reason even the most pessimistic resist the notion that we are predisposed to overshoot - and ultimately ecocide and extinction - is they desperately want to believe that the outcome could have been, at least theoretically, averted.  Some also retain the hope that maybe a few humans will get another chance after the bottleneck to “evolve” and do it right.  This set of hopeful beliefs requires a conviction that there is something other than *us* to maybe culture, or capitalism, the 1%, or white European privilege (that’s leaving out the crazy conspiracies like HAARP and Planet Nibiru). After all, it’s much more pleasant to blame something one has no control over for being evil, than to look in the mirror (another potent symbol in memento mori art) and admit complicity in the over-arching problems humanity has engineered.
Landscape with a child seated on a skull at centre, holding a mirror and a rose
Engraving made by Augustin Jorisz. Verburcht, and published by Hendrik Hondius I, Netherland, 1548-1560.

To maintain this fiction however demands a refusal to acknowledge the injustices and periodic, frequent episodes of overshoot of the past, which is either willfully ignorant or just plain ignorant, because there are legions of examples from everywhere on earth.  Besides, if the only "proof" of purportedly sustainable societies are those that are pre-literate, does anyone seriously propose we go back to that? And how could we? And why would we want to live in a world where witchcraft was blamed for bad luck and disease?

The thinking class has realized that not every omniscient, onmipresent and omnipotent deity worshipped throughout history can possibly exist - especially in direct contradiction with each other. Iris Murdoch asked, "But is there something where God used to be?" and the answer is, absolutely. Most people successfully replace worship of a divinity with something more vague but just as fervent, an amorphous "consciousness" that is deemed consecrated, meaningful and of course the bottom line, eternal. The alternative is that great mawing emptiness of an indifferent universe which is anathema to a human psyche that yearns for the sacred. The inherent tension between anticipating death is resolved with the conviction that there is purpose, that there is hope, that there is justice...and it's all based on nothing but powerful feelings and conjecture.  And a lot of psychobabble.

This precarious balance between fear and knowledge is the essence of humanity's discombobulation, what motivates our conceits and vanities, and causes us to shun the truth in favor of delusion.
Parable of the rich fool
Old couple sitting at a table and counting money, with, behind them, Death personified, armed with scythe, and raising a sandglass to signify that their time has come.
Mezzotint made by Jacques Meheux, and Published by Girard Audran, Paris, France, 1660-1703.

Ernest Becker in his profoundly excellent 1974 book, The Denial of Death, makes a persuasive case that dread of mortality is a primary motivator for all human behavior, including the need to posit a spiritual component to life. However, I wonder if it doesn't also stem from an overwhelming need to resolve guilt over our barbaric tendencies, starting with the killing of animals and eating of meat, and extending directly to killing other people (and sometimes eating them too!).  I don't see faith as benign because it inevitably enables people to rob the future for their own present.  For an explanation of the evolutionary process that resulted in hard-wired metaphysical thought processes, you can't do much better than Reg Morrison's book, Plague Species, The Spirit in the Gene (although Schmookler's The parable of the tribes is pretty good too, with some limitations).

Since it's the 100th extinction anniversary of the year the last passenger pigeon died, I think it is worthwhile to visit this commemorative page and watch the video that reproduces Audubon's account of their magnificent, astonishing numbers - and their slaughter - even though it is discordant and strange.
DÜRER, Albrecht
Young Woman Attacked by Death; or, The Ravisher
c. 1494
Engraving, 114 x 102 mm
Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe

I need to learn there is no point in debating people who simply choose to not believe the evidence that humans extirpated the megafauna (and Neanderthals!) - because that stance is about as learned and rational as refusing to accept that the earth is round, or that plate tectonics push mountains around. Such people refuse to admit there is now a scientific consensus based on several irrefutable lines of evidence - because they don't like the implications, which are ominously that humans have ALWAYS been self-centered and taken what they want with no regard for the rest of nature or even the future of their own children. Humans never would have migrated out of Africa in the first place if there hadn't been resource conflicts - certainly they never would have colonized the most brutal, inhospitable climates on earth, or set sail for unknown places on a treacherous ocean for the hell of it. Human populations - like ALL others, which biologists know quite well - wax and wane. When food is plentiful, the population grows and when the supply becomes short, famine is the result. The other limit on population is warfare, and plenty of it. Tribal warfare had far higher casualty rates per capita than modern warfare. Two comprehensive books make the case, Constant Battles: Why We Fight by Steven Le Blanc, Katherine E. Register and War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence H. Keeley.
Memento mori: a corpse, all skin and bones, lying in a landscape, a scythe in his hand; around him, putti playing music and singing, and monkeys chained up to a ball.
This Beautiful Anonymous French woodcut dated c.1580.

It is doubtful that people who prefer to continue to believe that humans once lived sustainably in harmony, or even were of a net benefit to nature (yes, I’ve seen that!), will ever read these books. They will dredge up some obscure defeated tribe to bolster their need to believe humanity is a benign constituent of the biosphere. There is no convincing such folks with facts, anymore than you could once point out the silliness of the risible conviction that, say, there is a fellow in a golden chariot towing the sun across the sky. People used to have faith in the most ludicrous entities (or else they built a whole lot of statues and temples for nothing). And yet now everyone recognizes that science does a perfectly splendid job of explaining the rising and setting of the sun.

It's a grim approach but possibly the most conclusive way to gain a realistic assessment of human capabilities and limitations is to delve into the history of famines.  We in the developed world are so far removed and insulated, intellectually and emotionally, from famine that it is amazing to find how common it has been (oh, and will be again).  Just the wiki account should suffice.  This illustration from a newspaper from the late 1800's of famine in Finland and Sweden depicts a father scraping bark from a tree with an axe to feed his starving family…not that long ago, and not in an exploited third world country, either!  Pine bark was served as food there again after 1914.

I do not understand why hunter-gatherer groups are portrayed as being egalitarian. I should have thought Jim Crow would have demonstrated beyond further doubt that separate does not translate into equal, and hunter gatherer groups of all cultures have the most strictly delineated roles for men and women. I don't mean this in a pejorative way, it derives from basic different physical attributes between males and females, as well as on status based on prowess, and applies also to most of the animal kingdom. For humans this means that women have been frequent captives and slaves, deep into our past, and it was only with the advent of surpluses found after agriculture and the much-maligned civilization where they were able to demand any semblance of equality and freedom. Of course the most privileged societies are still far from perfect, but at least there are rights and protections enshrined in laws, even if they are not always enforced.  It is one of the paradoxes of the doomer world that feminists can be anti-civ, lost in the fantasy that they would be allowed into the sweat lodge to indulge in hallucinogens and dance with the guys; similar to vegans who block out the cruel hunting practices of the hallowed prehistorical tribes.

Since Ebola is causing mass hysteria, an unexpected result serendipitously arose, which was a reference to an old controversy.  The issue revolved around the acceptance speech given by Professor Eric Pianka in 2006 as that year's Distinguished Texas Scientist.  He was accused of endorsing the idea of an Ebola epidemic to reduce human population, in a scurrilous distortion that had no merit.  So I was very glad to learn about his extensive work, and what he actually said in The Vanishing Book of Life, because he is a very wise fellow.

In Can Human Instincts Be Controlled? he wrote:

"Human instincts evolved long ago when we lived off the land as hunter-gatherers and took refuge in simple shelters like caves. Although our instinctive behaviors were adaptive then (that is, they enhanced our ability to survive and reproduce), many do not work so well in modern man-made environments. Our brains appear to be organized in ways that promote such duality (download Morrison’s “Evolution's Problem Gamblers”). In fact, some of our instinctive emotions have become extremely serious impediments now threatening our very survival. Let us focus on denial, tribal loyalty, revenge, greed, and procreation."
The Power of Death/ Allegory of Original Sin and Death
Print made by Heinrich Aldegrever 
After Hans Holbein the Younger 

He even quotes Reg Morrison:

Natural selection has organized our brains in ways that promote such duality (Morrison 1999; Trivers 2011). Natural selection molded our emotions and instincts, including setting aside the right half of our brain for storage of subconscious irrational information. Rational logic and common sense reside in the left half of our brain along with speech. Morrison (1999) argues that this duality effectively gave the irrational right side of our brains invisible control over the rational left side:

"To properly accommodate this vital streak of insanity in an increasingly rational brain it was first necessary for people to perceive, quite accurately, that their genetic imperatives -- instincts, feelings and desires -- represented a source of considerable wisdom and 'super-natural' power; and second, to believe, less accurately, that this inner source had its roots in an invisible world of super-intelligence, a mystical world that lay beyond rational comprehension." 

"Under the spell of our carefully programmed 'spirituality', we cannot help falling in love, yearning for idealised sexual gratification, nurturing our children, forging tribal bonds, suspecting strangers, uniting against common enemies, and on occasions, laying down our lives for family, friends or tribe." [Morrison 1999]
Dance of Death
Various collections

Dr. Peter Ward, paleontologist and author of The Medea Hypothesis puts it bluntly in a 2011 interview:

"My view of life on Earth is that it's a huge board game, and every species has but one goal: To take over the planet. And every species that could, would, if it got the chance. So we're just doing what evolution has pounded into us: Produce as many of yourselves as you can. Make sure that, as you produce, you aren't threatened in your production, and co-opt all the planet's resources. Kill any competitors and spread to every place that you possibly can. We're doing all of that. We get the prize, ironically, because of the brains that we have."

Since we are supposed to wind things up on a happy, hopeful note, I will drop in a little bit about Camus, because that's as close as I get to happy and hopeful.  NO not my new puppy aka MuMu (even though he is indubitably and adorably absurd!).  The philosopher.

"The Myth of Sisyphus (1943) – If there is a single non-fiction work that can be considered an essential or fundamental statement of Camus’ philosophy, it is this extended essay on the ethics of suicide (eventually translated and repackaged for American publication in 1955). For it is here that Camus formally introduces and fully articulates his most famous idea, the concept of the Absurd, and his equally famous image of life as a Sisyphean struggle. From its provocative opening sentence (“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”) to its stirring, paradoxical conclusion (“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”), the book has something interesting and challenging on nearly every page and is shot through with brilliant aphorisms and insights. In the end, Camus rejects suicide: the Absurd must not be evaded either by religion (“philosophical suicide”) or by annihilation (“physical suicide”); the task of living should not merely be accepted, it must be embraced."

The wiki entry on absurdism says:

Camus states in The Myth of Sisyphus: "Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide." "Revolt" here refers to the refusal of suicide and search for meaning despite the revelation of the Absurd; "Freedom" refers to the lack of imprisonment by religious devotion or others' moral codes; "Passion" refers to the most wholehearted experiencing of life, since hope has been rejected, and so he concludes that every moment must be lived fully....Camus perceives filling the void with some invented belief or meaning as a mere "act of eluding"—that is, avoiding or escaping rather than acknowledging and embracing the Absurd. To Camus, elusion is a fundamental flaw in religion, existentialism, and various other schools of thought. If the individual eludes the Absurd, then he or she can never confront it...For Camus, the beauty people encounter in life makes it worth living. People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life (if there is one), but can still provide something to strive for. However, he insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between this invented meaning and the knowledge of the absurd, lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd....The rejection of hope, in absurdism, denotes the refusal to believe in anything more than what this absurd life provides. Hope, Camus emphasizes, however, has nothing to do with despair (meaning that the two terms are not opposites). One can still live fully while rejecting hope, and, in fact, can only do so without hope. Hope is perceived by the absurdist as another fraudulent method of evading the Absurd, and by not having hope, one is motivated to live every fleeting moment to the fullest. In the words of Nikos Kazantzakis' epitaph: "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

On Saturday I drove [!  yes I actually did!  What with the world is coming to an end why should I have a phobia about having a car accident?  See...I AM free!] into Manhattan for the matinée at the Metropolitan Opera of Le Nozze di Figaro with Doc and adopted 4th daughter, the lovely Laura.

This is a marvelous opera that should be watched by all the armchair anti-civ anarchists who think they are making uniquely original critiques of modern society, because the overarching themes are of sexual and class tension, the urges for freedom rebelling against power that were stirring in Europe in the 18th Century.  Susanna's aria in the night of the moonlit Pine Forest is a miraculous mix of beauty and malice.  She is taking her revenge on Figaro for mistrusting her, knowing he hides in the shadows, by expressing her ardent yearning for another lover with sweetly agonized anticipation.  Her song is simultaneously ecstatic and cruel, sensuous and rapturous and playfully mischievous, if not vindictive.  I looked for quite a while for a version online that is comparably evocative to Marlis Petersen's stunning performance at the Met.  This one I think is nothing shy of gorgeous.


An annotated, critical version of W.H. Auden's famous poem starts with this observation:

“The Age of Anxiety begins in fear and doubt, but the four protagonists find some comfort in sharing their distress. In even this accidental and temporary community there arises the possibility of what Auden once called 'local understanding.' Certain anxieties may be overcome not by the altering of geopolitical conditions but by the cultivation of mutual sympathy - perhaps mutual love, even among those who hours before had been strangers.”

And so, another rambling post began with art and nature...sailed through anxiety, alienation and death...and it ends with love.  How fitting that it turns out the current trend for doomers to look to hospice for comfort was foreseen long ago, as well:

The Art of Dying/ Ars Moriendi
The Ars Moriendi, or "art of dying," is a body of Christian literature that provided practical guidance for the dying and those attending them. These manuals informed the dying about what to expect, and prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a "good death" and salvation. The first such works appeared in Europe during the early fifteenth century, and they initiated a remarkably flexible genre of Christian writing that lasted well into the eighteenth century.
Latin artes moriendi had been printed in Germany since 1475. Subsequent translations into German, French, Dutch, Castilian, and Catalan testify to their broad acceptance in Europe in the late fifteenth century

Friday, October 17, 2014

Celestial Symphonies

I hear the wind among the trees  
Playing the celestial symphonies; 
I see the branches downward bent, 
Like keys of some great instrument. 
  ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
~ William Cowper, The Yardley oak, 1791
 click here for more images from Thomas Pakenham's book, Meetings with Remarkable Trees

Three centuries he grows, and three he stays, 
Supreme in state, and in three more decays. 
   ~ Dryden 

Three hundred years growing 
Three hundred years living 
Three hundred years dying. 
   ~ the life of an oak, according to an old saying

Similar harrowing scenes have been played out too many times, in too many places. This haunting version portrays the folly of man with heartbreaking poignance.  Thanks to facebook friend Got Grange for sending the link to this video of clearing for road construction, original shot in 1996, my way.

**this post is updated below the video


When I decided to post the video above I looked on the internet for a photograph of an oak and found this one, from the Ide Adobe State Historic Park in the Sacramento Valley of California.  I decided not to use it, since the video is about England, even though it is a magnificent specimen.  It's spectacular, actually, I love the way it looms over the building.  Of course generally I write about trees dying from absorbing air pollution - not logging - and since that picture was taken in 1996, I very much doubted that tree could still be in good health.  So I looked it up.

Surprise, surprise.  The entire crown simply collapsed this year - talk about a bizarre and sudden tipping point! Following are the excerpts from a local newspaper story dated July 13.  Notice how obviously rotted the wood has become.
At approximately 9:15 a.m., Sunday, July 13, the oak tree that shaded the adobe structure in the center of the historic area of the park lost a majority of its limbs, causing significant damage to the adobe and several of the other buildings in the park. 

It was fortunate that no one was injured during the incident. 

The 350 year-old oak tree has provided shade to visitors of the park for many generations and was around long before the adobe building was first built in the 1850's. 

The state made several efforts throughout the years in an attempt to keep the tree as part of the park's history. It included regular inspections, cabling of the limbs, and trimming as needed.  This morning, the tree faced catastrophic failure when it suddenly lost almost all of its branches

The first branch to fall landed on the roof of the adobe causing a portion of the structure to collapse. When other branches fell, they caused damage to the smokehouse, workshop and the pump house. 

Currently, park's staff are working on securing the site and removing the debris. 
Additional resources will need to be utilized to remove the branch still resting on top of the adobe building in order to minimize damage. 

It is unclear as to what caused the tree failure and what it will take to repair the damaged buildings. 

Park staff will reevaluate the situations and determine what it will take to make the buildings serviceable again. 

The historic section of the park will remain closed until further notice. 

[One of two comments on the story reads:]

Me think the Daily News Staff should run a series of articles about "never trust a Oak Tree". Had several that size in Fall River Mills that were rotten from the roots up into the branches...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Endocene

Time there was and plenty, but from that cup no more

  ~ Robert Hunter

The Anthropocene Era isn't going to last much longer - geologically speaking, barely past its recent coinage!  Instead, the Endocene is upon us.  There are many intellectual ways of approaching ecopocalypse and collapse and incipient extinction - and I don't pretend that one is a better explanation than another, because I don't really understand entropy all that well.  Some believe financial collapse will lead to social instability and nuclear war, others see resource constraints coupled with overpopulation, while many expect climate change, particularly methane outgassing from permafrost and clathrates, to finish us off.  Meanwhile I tend to think pollution is enough to do it, and soon.

Consider new research from Hawaii that has conclusively linked pollution to lethal tumors in turtles. and more generally to coral reef decline, in a situation analogous to the death of forests from ozone.

Humans have always had some dim inkling that we aren't behaving particularly well.  Cautionary myths and legends along those lines permeate virtually every culture.   Because there is such a plethora of doomsday scenarios doesn't mean they are wrong, to the contrary, there are so many because it is inescapably logical (although it runs counter to human inclination) that we can't continue to exploit a finite planet indefinitely.  The clever tricks we devise to push back the day of reckoning are ever more amazing, but still, there's no question there will be a massive debt to pay sometime, and nothing left to pay it with.  Like the souls adrift in the fabled Ship of Fools - in the satirical allegory Das Narrenschiff, just one of many in that motif - we are obliviously lurching our way to Narragonia - the fool's paradise.

Ship of Fools
~ Hieronymus Bosch 1490-1500

It's eternally fashionable among many phony activist cohorts to place the blame for all these converging catastrophes on white European capitalism - which requires ignoring millennia of other rapacious societies untainted by any contact with the Judeo-Christian culture located in, say, ancient Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas.  The comforting conviction that humans in far away times and places lived peacefully and sustainably is enhanced by judging behavior on stated norms rather than history - romanticized ideals instead of archeological evidence.  If that was the standard to judge European history, we would be able to imagine that the tales of warnings from the three dead to the three living held sway.  And of course we know they did not.

In which three corpses admonish the three horrified young men to
consider the transience of life and to improve their behavior before it is too late.

Oh but I digress! my mind, there is a much simpler and equally persuasive explanation for the looming crash, and it is biological.  Humans are doing what humans do, have always done, and cannot (despite our fervent fantasies) do otherwise.  By way of explication, Monday saw the premiere of a classic example of the fundamental delusion and egotism that operates the human animal willy-nilly, which we will shortly examine.

The claim of human exceptionalism is familiar - the notion that our species is special, the crown of creation, subject to different rules and even unique evolutionary influences, than other more lowly animals - or plants for that matter.  This idiotic conceit underlies everything from fanatic veganism (if only we didn't eat meat we could save the world and feed 10 billion people!) to techno-worship (we can have infinite growth on a finite planet!).

But there is deeper variant of human exceptionalism that presents a final irrevocable obstacle to any prospect (long since obsolete anyway) that we might mend our ways.

We EACH think our own individual selves are exceptional, even within the already exceptional human race.  Which of course is why it is so perennially droll when Garrison Keillor introduces his Lake Wobegon  radio show with "...all the women are good looking, and the children are above average".  Or think about the environmental icon who inspired Earth First!, Edward Abbey, who loved the wilderness so much he was against immigration, calling for "...a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-generically impoverished people", but had five children himself - and loved the desert so much he liked nothing better than to tear around off road in his pickup truck.

This brings us to the absurdly ignorant, painfully ironic campaign to save nature AND humanity, concocted by the group known as Conservation International which debuted at the beginning of the week.  M. Sanjayan, an executive vice president and senior scientist at CI, describes the project as an attempt to "rebrand" environmentalism to be less about preserving wildlife and more about preserving humans, by emphasizing that people are dependent upon nature.  Like the World Wildlife Fund, also founded by royalty and other elites, the leadership is so steeped in privilege that they have no clue at all what a bitter taste emanates from their efforts.

There is a straight line between the oblivious, deliriously happy greedy hunter gatherers who casually and thoughtlessly extirpated the megafauna to this insanely, self-besotted organization, as we shall see.  

George Monbiot earlier laid out the case for human-caused megafauna extinction as presented by numerous scientists at a conference earlier this year.  It wasn't just a few species destroyed, there were dozens and dozens - it would be as if, today, all the lions, tigers, bears, leopards, elephants, whales, dolphins, wolves and cheetahs - and more - all disappeared (there are pictures of some of the vanished at the end of this post).

Now Monbiot believes it is time for us to reflect on the ongoing mass extinction, and in a recent essay wonders WHY humans are so ecocidal.

"In fairness to the modern era, this is an extension of a trend that has lasted some two million years. The loss of much of the African megafauna – sabretooths and false sabretooths, giant hyaenas and amphicyonids (bear dogs), several species of elephant – coincided with the switch towards meat eating by hominims (ancestral humans). It’s hard to see what else could have been responsible for the peculiar pattern of extinction then."
"As we spread into other continents, their megafaunas almost immediately collapsed. Perhaps the most reliable way of dating the first arrival of people anywhere is the sudden loss of large animals. The habitats we see as pristine – the Amazon rainforest or coral reefs for example – are in fact almost empty: they have lost most of the great beasts that used to inhabit them, which drove crucial natural processes."
"Since then we have worked our way down the foodchain, rubbing out smaller predators, medium-sized herbivores, and now, through both habitat destruction and hunting, wildlife across all classes and positions in the foodweb. There seems to be some kink in the human brain that prevents us from stopping, that drives us to carry on taking and competing and destroying, even when there is no need to do so."

So he attributes our compulsion to grow to what he calls a "kink in the human brain" - which is silly, since it isn't a kink at all, it simply IS the human brain.  After he writes cogently of the compelling evidence for an ongoing trend of over-consumption he then proceeds to spoil it by blaming modern culture as somehow unique (when you can see that exhibiting status through personal possessions is something people always do).
Getting back to Conservation International's vanity campaign, it's worth watching at least the first in their series of very short films with fabulously scenic backdrops and celebrity narrators, titled collectively "Nature is Speaking" (the others are linked at the youtube page and also here.)


Julia Roberts as Mother Nature sternly warns us naughty children that she doesn’t need us - oh no, we need her - and she is going to take away our toys if we don’t take better care of the gifts she has given us.  That's alright as far as it goes but then she declares:  “One way or the other, your actions will determine your fate, not mine. I am Nature. I will go on. I am prepared to evolve. Are you?”

This is ignorant on at least two levels.  First, humans cannot willfully evolve.  Evolution has no purpose, and it doesn't happen because we decide we want it to, and certainly not any any timescale that could matter.  Conflating natural selection with a wish that humans had a different brain wired for more altruistic behavior should not have made it through an organization that employs scientists.  Second, it isn't at all clear that Nature will go on, once we are no longer capable of trashing her.  A runaway Venus effect will do her in other than the laws of physics.

But to the more interesting question (at least, as long as humans are alive and capable of curiosity) which goes to the heart of the problem of consciousness, it seems fair, even requisite, to inquire - how are Julia and the other movie stars in these videos doing at reducing their impact on Planet Earth?  Well, let's see…Julia has three children and at least four houses - Hawaii, New Mexico, Malibu and New York, which she shuttles between via private jet.

Hey though, she makes up for it, as described in TreeHugger:

"The pretty woman will be helping biodiesel producer Earth Biofuels promote a program to encourage the use of biodiesel in more than 500,000 diesel school buses nationwide. A recent addition to the Earth Biofuels board of directors, Ms. Roberts will serve as a spokesperson for the eco-fuel. ''It's very important that we expand our use of clean energy and make a long-term commitment to it. Biodiesel and ethanol are better for the environment and for the air we breathe,'' Roberts said in an announcement about her new role. She will be joining current Earth Biofuels celeb board members Willie Nelson and Morgan Freeman."  [a couple of notes:  1.  Do I have to point out that biodiesel makes WORSE toxic pollution than regular fossil fuels? and 2. if you want to choke on vomit, watch this film narrated by Morgan Freeman promoting clean energy to solve the climate crisis.]

Speaking as the Ocean in another of the series, Harrison Ford recites:  "It’s not their planet, anyway.  Never was. Never will be. But humans, they take more than their share. They poison me and then expect me to feed them. Well, it doesn’t work that way."

"I’m only going to say this once, 'If nature isn’t kept healthy, humans won’t survive. Simple as that. I mean, I could give a damn. With or without humans, I’m The Ocean. I covered this entire planet once and I can always cover it again.'"

Let’s just check how Harrison is doing in terms of responsible stewardship, by reading his own words in an interview

1.  There's nothing better than seeing a herd of elk right outside the window of my house in Wyoming.   My land gives me an opportunity to be close to nature, and I find spiritual solace in nature, contemplating our species in the context of the natural world.

2.  All of my planes are great to fly, and that's why I've got so many of them.  I have a Citation Sovereign, a long-range jet; a Grand Caravan, a turboprop aircraft capable of operating on unimproved strips; and a De Havilland, a bush plane. I have a 1929 Waco Taperwing open-top biplane; a 1942 PT-22 open-top monoplane trainer; an Aviat Husky, a two-seat fabric-covered bush plane; and a Bell 407 helicopter. I also have more than my fair share of motorbikes - eight or nine. I have four or five BMWs, a couple of Harleys, a couple of Hondas and a Triumph; plus I have sports touring bikes.
3.  I'm a big fan of Prince Charles.  I met him because I worked on a little film project for The Prince's Trust last year, and he's a charming man, very nice and a very smart guy. We may be working together on an environmental project this year for Conservation International. I'm on the board, and we're very happy because Prince Charles asked to join us. A few weeks ago we voted to place him on our board of directors. We'll probably do something together soon connected with the protection of the environment.

Kevin Spacey is the voice of the rainforest.  I can't find much about him although I will say, staying on the 37-meter superyacht The Tango while in Sydney for performances of Richard III might have been less than ecologically prudent.
4.  Edward Norton, who is honest as dirt and humble too in the “Soil” segment, inherited millions from his grandfather, inventor of the modern American mall (thanks, Grandpop!).  In addition to the houses around the world he was left, he has since acquired more of his own - a pad in NY, a few houses in Malibu and a mansion in the Hollywood Hills.  He has a  Mercedes and a couple of Range Rovers - but they don’t count because he also, being a passionate environmentalist, has a hydrogen-fueled BMW.  See how that works?
5.  Penélope Cruz, who represents “Water” travels by private jet between her houses in LA, Madrid and NY - and various vacations spots like the Bahamas.  She takes helicopters for shorter jaunts - she doesn’t drive, ya know.
6.  Perhaps avid skier Robert Redford's claim to environmentalism is the most egregiously, outrageously hypocritical of all when he speaks to us as “The Redwood”.   Men's Journal recounts the adorable story about how he fell in love with Utah and single-handedly turned it into the luxury resort, Sundance, which is somehow presented as modest because it doesn't serve the numbers of Vail.

“…His master plan for the resort – which he insists is named for the way sunlight dances off the peaks and not his mustachioed character in 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' – tops out at 106 artist studios and homes, none marring the open areas above the tree line. The ski resort is small – four lifts, 450 skiable acres, and a top elevation of 8,200 feet – and that suits him just fine.”

Especially because people ride horses to get there.  Oh wait no they take private jets?

Redford considers Sundance home.  “…a great, great part of it is still untouched, still pure. I came because I like being around hardworking agricultural people. I like the contrast of moving from an urban, edgy place like New York to this place with people working the land for generations."

"Utah is not the only landscape that has a hold on Redford - he's building a house in Napa and owns another in Santa Fe".  

It's not exactly the "landscape" that has a hold on him - it's the HOUSE he puts in the landscape.  It's like when people say, "That's such a pretty road, when it isn't the road that is pretty at all, it's the land it is slicing through.  What kind of pristine wilderness is this?  Redford is to Utah what Flagler is to Florida.  Thanks a lot for carving up the mountain slopes for your entertainment, from the bears and bobcats.

Yet to be announced are the narrators for the upcoming segments, “Coral Reef” and “Flower”.  Care to hazard a guess?  I’m nominating Donald Trump and Oprah.  (But first they should watch the fate of the movie actress in this public service announcement.)

Monbiot winds up his plaintive post with the rhetorical question:  "Is this not the point at which we challenge the inevitability of endless growth on a finite planet? If not now, when?"

Well, the answer obviously is, NEVER.**

Time for a poetry break (shared by Mike Kaulbars)

A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky
  ~ Lewis Carroll

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July —

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear —

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream —
Lingering in the golden gleam —
Life, what is it but a dream?

Oh by the way, the videos - which are going to be featured on Virgin Air flights (!) - were the brainchild of Lee Clow, a collaborator on this piece of Apple propaganda from 1984...which in hindsight, isn't very funny either:

*because I just can’t laugh.

**oh, and if you really think it's time for a change, George, you would publish a story about the trees dying from air pollution instead of pretending it's not happening.

Blog Archive

My Blog List

Search This Blog