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."



  1. Welcome back Gail and thank you for your perspective on both our species and our recurring predicament.

    I so appreciate your realistic outlook and introspective analysis of our inherent flaws. Very few people want to seriously look in the mirror, or even view the social and ecological environment we inhabit without the rose-colored glasses of optimism bias. It's too bleak to consider for most. After all, we have to be completely deluded to believe this nonsense will continue for much longer, but continue doing what we're doing until we can't.

    Great work!


    1. Thanks Tom! There is a largely approving review of Dawson's book at Truth-out where the comments are all anti-capitalist as expected. Sigh. I left this remark to one of them:

      I am no apologist for capitalism. The problem with blaming capitalism for the destruction of the biosphere is that there is more to it than one economic system. ALL human societies have plundered the natural resources that surround them. The idea that there was once someplace a sort of ecological, sustainable, peaceful Camelot is a myth unsupported by facts. I don't think there is any solution to the tendency for overshoot and collapse but for SURE, if you persist in misidentifying the root of the urge for unbridled growth (ie, evolutionarily hardwired behavior) there is no chance our conscious minds will even understand why we have reached the precipice of ecocide, let alone do anything substantive about it.

      Here's the post:

    2. Yes, welcome back Gail, I've very much missed your posts too. I've been chipping away at a book manuscript that broadly argues in your direction for some time now, and it's always hard to address the cultural, political and social optimists who argue, quite persuasively, that given human adaptability/ingenuity, brain plasticity and - fundamentally - cultural and behavioural variability/flexibility, there is plenty of reason for hope, or even optimism; the current problems, they assume, are primarily a matter of the wrong/dysfunctional economic and/or political arrangements/systems. This line of thinking is especially well-entrenched in academic Humanities’ subjects, where I work, where cultural/social/historical construction, complexity and nuance are typically taken as evidence of a virtual blank slate for human behaviour and/or an open future in terms of human possibilities. Even scholars who favour seeing humans and other beings in terms of naturecultures (an entwined composite of both, see Donna Haraway’s stuff on this) tend to grasp the cultural element as an escape route/clause from our very well-established pathological trajectory of ecolological degradation, overconsumption and species extirpation. It’s rarely considered that, despite our cultural/political flexibility, the undertow/inertia of our biology, genetics, evolutionary hardwiring etc., may be more than sufficient to screw us and the rest of biosphere over. Like Tom, I value your comments as a reminder that there are still a few of us arguing in this direction (the majority of the populace certainly seem to deploying their optimism bias in many creative ways). The bottom line may simply be that our cultural and social variability permits us to be destructive in ever more diverse, creative, nuanced and self-absorbed ways.

      The Truth-out comments are interesting and feature some well-honed knee-jerk responses, e.g. association with Dawkins' Selfish Gene thesis, with the cutting rebuttal that, of course, humans exhibit altruism too, so, no problem. In some academic debates in the Humanities you might find yourself being associated with evolutionary psychology in a similarly dismissive manner (which is often taken as self-evidently na├»ve or mistaken with regard to human behavioural complexity and freedom). Nice to see Paul Chefurka in the comments too, I’ve missed his writings of late, but perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places.



    3. How nice to hear from you! It must be infinitely more difficult to be embedded in academia where you can't just walk away when the blindness gets too frustrating and the arguments are more difficult to refute because they're not all like the idiots who inevitably suggest you kill yourself the minute you suggest there's an overpopulation problem, or accuse you of being miserable because you don't believe in a soul, or ask you why you want to live if you think life is so horrible (I don't ! At least it isn't for me, now). I don't think I was ever exactly woowoo, but I did believe in progress, and especially the power of education to transform and enlighten. It was only very reluctantly that I came to see that people don't have free will, and almost always choose fantasy over reality. I came to that after much reading of philosophy, archaeology and history. Every time someone would point me to some tribe or culture that was egalitarian or peaceful or sustainable I would find upon further investigation that it just wasn't so, at least not for long enough to be considered benign.

      I believe Paul is mostly active on facebook now although he also has a blog that he rarely updates. FB might seem juvenile but actually I have found it a terrific forum to have real-time conversations, to exchange topical links, to meet people and make actual real-life friends, and share gallows humor. It's much more immediate and gratifying than the time delay of blogs. I generally make posts only in The Panic Room - you can find Paul listed as Bodhi P.C.

    4. The disconnect and dissonance working in academia probably isn’t any worse than working in most other jobs. One admittedly, as you suggest, gets a different flavor of denial, indifference and/or rejection, but as with most other environments (work, social, home, family), these are topics that are usually best avoided. The main dilemma that I tend to face, as an educator, teaching environmental philosophy amongst other things, is precisely how much should one share of one’s personal assessments of the empirical data and theories, especially with young, optimistic and debt-ridden students.

      My current approach is to simply teach and assess the various theories, histories, facts and concepts in the syllabus, and then let the students start to make the connections and inferences themselves. Sometimes they will ask, “but what do you think?” - and there is some space for candor. But I always stress that I wouldn’t expect or want them to be convinced. They need to immerse themselves in the literature, stare at the hockey stick graphs, read the histories/theories, and only then assess our planetary prospects. Frankly it has taken me decades to process this stuff, and I certainly have no strong desire to try and persuade youngsters of my particular conclusions. That said, though, there is a lot of vital knowledge that I think ought to be available, taught and wrestled with in universities, but often isn’t. So, for those students who do want to explore the ecological rabbit hole in greater depth (typically those who are already far further along the path of joining the dots than I was at their age), I run an extra-curricular group that explores and discusses such grim topics as overshoot, overpopulation, resource scarcity, ecological degradation, extinction, capitalism etc. And this is probably the most rewarding thing that I do at university, even if it does amount to us sitting around, watching documentaries and trying to make sense of the whole ecological mess.

      Plus, I teach a course on Existentialism, life and meaning most years, and there is little better preparation for a post-nihilist life beyond university than reading Camus, Epicurus. De Beauvoir, the Stoics, Cioran and others.

      Many thanks for the information, I may check in with the Panic Room in the future. I try to avoid too much social media, as I spend too many hours in front of a computer screen already, but needs must to find the interesting conversations.

  2. Good to read you again, Gail. Well-articulated, as always.

    I've noticed over the last year or two that you've slowed way down in your postings. As have we, over at Apocadocs: as the hope waned for being part of the warning chorus waking up the world, and seeing continuing evidence of the intractability of human nature, we found it harder and harder to be quippy about ecosystem collapse. As we increasingly saw inevitable ruination (resource depletion, climate chaos, ecosystem destruction, etc.) being ignored or arbitraged, our energies shifted. 'Doc Jim is doing fabulous work as director of Earth Charter Indiana. I've focused more inwardly: after striving against the infrastructural impediments to sustainable mixed small organic farming for the last decade (and ageing out of it), I'm focusing now on our children and grandchildren for the next decade or so. And, of course, trying to walk the Red Road of righteous living, as much as we can.

    Today I used FB to share a fascinating article: -- "The Only Woman to Win the Nobel Prize in Economics Also Debunked the Orthodoxy: The truth about the tragedy of the commons." In communities, "the commons" can be managed by the community, for the community's benefit, in perpetuity. In depersonalized societies (aka "the market" or "globalization" or "capitalism"), then the openness of "the commons" is more likely to become a tragedy, in short order.

    It gives me a little hope: Ostrom's work demonstrates that humans in concert can make wise decisions, absent external drivers like profiteering power.

    It gives me scant hope as well: the deathgrip of the dominant social paradigm will be exceedingly difficult to dislodge.

    I write this mostly to spark some Wit'sEnd post sometime in the future: the choices and priorities that you found compelling, over the last five to ten years, which shifted the parameters of your public engagements, because of exigent reality. We haven't written that, yet, but may still. Jim and I spent seven years of nearly daily engagement, joking about 8600+ news stories ( You produced thoughtful essays for more than eight years.

    You and we were trying to call out to our fellow humans, like so many others, to wake up and change. And yet society is still at the cusp of the abyss, having changed virtually nothing.

    How has your personal mission changed, as the likelihood of your minimal longterm impact on the trajectory of global collapse has become clear?

  3. Have you read 'Tristes Tropiques' by Levi-Strauss? If not, I think you would like it. It resonates with what you have said here.
    I read you, Gail, long ago when tree health was a major focus. I have been so immersed in the western tree story I missed that the east has equivalent problems, of which I know only a gloss, and some of which is also probably here, such as the emerald ash borer.
    Drought has exacerbated the problems here and seems to be an issue this year, 2016, in the east as well. Global warming fuels all this havoc so fast that the heads spin of those who notice.
    Still, I plant trees, and, like you, my private life is not horrible. Yet,cause for optimism is scant, but then one reads about a place like Rojava. Here is an article that is now six years old, but you may have missed, about trees.

  4. Ho hum, I guess you have seen this. People floundering around trying to make sense of tree deaths in the US.

  5. Haha, even my daughter sent me that one! My usual comment is buried somewhere in there. Thanks Paul.


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