Saturday, August 20, 2016

Deeply Dystopian

Based on a free excerpt captioned "A quick rundown of the ecocidal empires that came before us", I purchased the electronic version of "Extinction: A Radical History" by Ashley Dawson.  Upon reading the entire book I was not surprised, having been forewarned, to see the typical finger pointing at capitalism - but it was more disappointing than usual since the author, who is a superb writer, did an excellent job delineating just how destructive humans have been ever since we emerged from Africa and learned to use fire and weapons to extirpate dozens upon dozens of animals we preyed upon or whose habitat we burned.  It's worth reading if only to follow up on his bibliography and find works such as "Ecocide" published in 2004 and "The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture" from 1979.

He started off on sound footing based on archaeological facts but then veered into the usual illusions about human behavior to be found in the writings of just about every apocaloptimist offering stealth hope to the steadily increasing numbers of petrified witnesses to the Great Convulsion of our deteriorating environment.

Overshoot, hand in hand with destruction of the natural world, culminating in societal collapse, war, and migration, is essentially what our species does perpetually and recurringly, with monotonous repetition, over and over.  To frame the global precipice we now teeter upon as a recent, especially gluttonous aberration based on the modern financial system and consumer culture is to willfully ignore the pattern that Prof. Dawson himself elucidates so comprehensively.  It also exposes a sad lack of understanding of the exponential function that is almost universally ignored, one prominent feature of which is to look FLAT for far, far longer than a sudden acceleration revealed in various hockey stick graphs - whether population, global temps, fresh water depletion or species extinction.

The contortions he employs to make his thesis work are unconvincing, citing for example the Egyptians as having been "sustainable" for thousands of years while ignoring their use of slaves to fuel their economy (unless perhaps he considers slavery some sort of balance).  Humans have been driven by greed, a desire for status, and have exhibited a thorough lack of concern for preserving natural resources throughout our existence - a heedless exploitation that was limited only by technology and energy, despite what the tenets of almost all religions like to proclaim is our genesis from a sacred mother Earth.

He reveals the reason for his bias quite clearly in this statement:  "An anti-capitalist perspective also prevents us from attributing ecocide to humanity as a whole."   Like others who blame capitalism and ignore the brutality and devastation perpetuated by societies around the world including primitive, indigenous tribes, from ancient Asia to the Maya and Inca and Mound people of North America - he is willing to believe in fantasies rather than admit the rather obvious fact - ecocide IS being wrought by humanity as a whole.  His further statements make this agenda even more clear:  "Such a perspective is truly hopeless," and "Understanding that capitalism is responsible for the lion’s share of the sixth extinction helps us avoid the deeply dystopian idea that human beings are innately destructive of the natural world."

Yes, yes indeed it is hopeless.  That's because there IS no hope.  Yes, it is deeply dystopian, but preposterous to suggest otherwise since these statements followed one of the most compelling reconstructions of human-caused mass extinctions going back over 15,000 years I have yet to see.  The leopard can't change its spots, and humans can't avoid the Tragedy of the Commons, because we are hard-wired for short term self-interest and optimism bias...and it is that desperate desire for hope that insulates us from an ability to take the necessary steps to save ourselves and most of the rest of the living things on this planet.  Take away the top 1% and there will be a good 75% and probably far more who will happily replicate their level of consumption.

He is correct in this pronunciation however:  "We face a clear choice: radical political transformation or deepening mass extinction."

However, there is absolutely no objective evidence there will be any sort of radical political transformation, or even if there were, that it would be sufficient to stave off mass extinction (which is already well under way) including ourselves.  This is because politics is not the fundamental problem.  The problem is the genetic imperative to grow, a trait we share with every other living thing.  The problem is there's not much external holding us in check, and believing we should be able to rationally do things differently is just another form of anthropocentrism.  We're not much better than yeast, or at least, not better enough.

According to Werner Herzog interviewed in the Daily Beast, humans might quite likely go extinct, but there's no need to panic - it won't be for a thousand years!  Infatuation with technology is the reverse side of the coin of demonizing modern industrial society and romanticizing wilderness, and equally limited.  I just watched X Machina, a creepy fictionalized account of a robot takeover that delves uncomfortably close to the misogynist tendencies of AI enthusiasts, and there's also a more decorous (but equally fantastical) documentary in Herzog's latest film, "Lo and Behold, Reveries of a Connected Age".  

Dread of nature perhaps underlies a powerful desire in human consciousness to control, even destroy it, and is a strong theme Herzog described about making his 1982 film, "Fitzcarraldo," mirroring Conrad. The clip he narrated is below this transcript, mesmerizing (in a deeply dystopian way).

Werner Herzog ~ "...Kinski always says it's full of erotic elements. I don't see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It's just - Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and... growing and... just rotting away. Of course, there's a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they - they sing. They just screech in pain. It's an unfinished country. It's still prehistorical. The only thing that is lacking is - is the dinosaurs here. It's like a curse weighing on an entire landscape. And whoever... goes too deep into this has his share of this curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here. It's a land that God, if he exists has - has created in anger. It's the only land where - where creation is unfinished yet. Taking a close look at - at what's around us there - there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of... overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle - Uh, we in comparison to that enormous articulation - we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban... novel... a cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication... overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the - the stars up here in the - in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment."


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