What began as simple pecuniary theft in order to accumulate capital has, over the last half-millennium, devolved into the rapacious taking of foreign lands to put that ever-increasing capital to work. Hannah Arendt understood that this process was key to the de-humanization of subject populations and the development of totalitarian governments in the twentieth century. What has been less understood, until recently, is that by this same process we have also alienated the non-human world. We have now awoken to a ‘Nature’ that has developed an alarming kind of suicidal agency: we are reaping the whirlwind of global warming and the entropic decimation of much of the non-human life with whom we share the planet.
The U.N. recently issued a summary report from their Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The complete 1,500-page report will be issued later this year. The summary notes that, “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history…but it is not too late to make a difference.”That was early in May – and the news cycle has long since moved on. This initial summary, of what is sure to be truly horrifying data, is mostly ignored by an indifferent world and the full report, when it lands, will likely read by very, very few.
That was it - the summary of a definitive report demanding, “…a fundamental system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values” - barely noticed. Australia, a country highly vulnerable to a changing climate and with much of its unique fauna already at grave risk, a well-educated and literate population, where voting is compulsory, just elected a government determined to dismiss the impacts of global warming, pollution and habitat destruction – fully undeterred, apparently, by the U.N. report.
Societies and individuals alike fail to take action in the face of a torrent of publications, video and other media that are unequivocal in explaining the perils the earth faces. Occasional victories, such as the banning of DDT some years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the more recent international agreement to limit the use of CFC’s are rare indeed. The attempts by the U.N., active since 1988 in the attempt to reduce carbon emissions - the proximate cause of climate change, have failed utterly.
Can we take any comfort from the fact that the language which Anglophones are using to describe these complex, interrelated threats to the health of the planet is changing? That this change may even herald a long awaited shift in consciousness that can confront climate change? Inevitably, in this age of limited attention spans, the evolution in language has been occurring at the level of the meme - the smallest unit of declamatory communication. Encouragingly, ‘Global Warming’, the meme, is becoming ‘Extinction’, the meme, a potentially virulent token that expresses our concern for the condition of the biosphere. The IPBES summary finds that, “about one million animal and plant species are threatened by extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.” As the condition of the planet worsens, the language that describes this phenomenon must become more robust. Climate change protest, and all activities directed at slowing the rate of extinctions, resource depletion and pollution have been re-framed as ‘Rebellion’, at least in the U.K., where overturning the establishment has long been popular (cf. Brexit).
‘Extinction Rebellion’, has even greater potential memetic power. Its abbreviation is simply XR. For visual reinforcement, there is a sophisticated hour-glass logo, stylized as an ‘X’ encased within a circle. This is dissemination of an idea at a level routinely reserved for the marketing of products. As such, it reflects the co-option of the tools of the oppressive, socio-political ideology of neoliberalism that is complicit in our failure to confront the planetary malaise.
The evolutionary arrival of ‘Rebellion’ (née protest) is an example of punctuated equilibrium, the theory that this process is occasionally roiled by episodes of rapid speciation (or change) between long periods of quietude. This instance of Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of rupture in a ‘steady-as-she-goes’ normality grew out of the campaign ‘Rising Up!’ in the U.K., which proposed the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ back in September 2018. Its founder, Roger Hallam, backed by academics, politicians and scientists, claims that, “The world has changed … A space for truth-telling has been opened up.” While the physical protests will likely peter out, its radical coinage may live on.
The history of our inaction since the ‘Great Acceleration’, coined by J.R. McNeil in 2014 to describe the geometric increase in fossil fuel usage since 1945, is encompassed in ‘The Great Dithering’ - a meme established by Gabriel Metcalf, also in 2014, which he proposed as a name (lifted from the sci-fi author, Kim Stanley Robinson), for, “the period of human history, following modernism and postmodernism, in which humanity failed to act rapidly or decisively enough to avert catastrophic climate change.” The ‘Extinction Rebellion’, together with the global declamations of the young, other-worldly, English-accented revolutionary Greta Thunberg, and the just released U.N. IPBES summary are all attempts to end the dithering and inspire societal, economic, technological and political change. But, as Thunberg says, despite her own frenetic travels, despite the U.N.’s impeccably researched data, despite the availability of ‘Extinction Rebellion’ T-shirts (and the meme), “nothing has changed.”
‘Anthropocene’ is firmly entrenched as an earworm amongst the climatically woke. Proposed, in 2002, by the Nobel prize-winning climate scientist Paul Crutzen, this word/meme is used to define the geological period, now taken to have begun right after the end of World War II, like the ‘Great Acceleration’, when it became apparent that human activity impacts the planet in ways that transcend traditional geologic and biological forces – through the discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, human caused erosion and sedimentation, sea level rise, increased acidification of the ocean, and extinction levels that are now some 1000 to 10,000 above background rates.
Elizabeth Kolbert popularized the notion of ‘The Sixth Extinction’, in her book of the same name, sub-titled, An Unnatural History, and published to great acclaim and a Pulitzer in 2014. It inevitably references the previous five extinctions, in all of which climate change was implicated and in all of which a minimum of 75% of extant species were lost. In the last such event, 66 million years ago, the coup de grace was delivered to a climate-changed, vulnerable world by an asteroid. Ancient squid-like ammonites and the mighty reptilian dinosaurs perished alike despite both having been around, at that point, for close to two million years.
And yet, now the world, with the neurasthenic, metronomic gait of a zombie, continues to trudge towards the precipice – over which its inhabitants, it seems, must plunge into a time of environmental feedback, where snow and ice melt produce permafrost methane release, amplifying the processes that lead to a drowned and vastly diminished planet. Evident, in this death march, is a lack of feeling that we humans routinely bring to the issue of carbon emissions and habitat loss which entirely smothers the dramatic exhortations of Thunberg, the passionate leaders of the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and the U.N.’s painstakingly researched IPBES summary report, with a blanket of profound indifference.
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is sui generis, a one-woman green-meme-machine. Her recent speech at Howard University, sponsored by The Sunrise Movement, a youth climate activist organization supportive of the ‘Green New Deal’, had the rhythmic eloquence and emphatic repetitions found in the Black rhetorical tradition. She framed action to decarbonize the economy as a struggle for basic human rights - for a living wage, health benefits for all, and a sustainable and just America. She ridiculed the middle-ground beloved of Republican and Democratic centrists. She ridiculed those who claimed the ‘Green New Deal’ was too much, and then blazingly listed the egregious environmental misdeeds of the last half-century perpetrated by Congress that were ‘too much’ for her. She declaimed: “We are at a precipice…We are here to say ‘no more’…Hope will come for us who refuse to settle for less”. Apart from highlighting the fact that we have just reached a historic high of 415 parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there was little regurgitation of data. The speech was heart-felt and inspirational, and while Greta Thunberg has been popularly proclaimed as the Joan of Arc of Europe’s environmental advocates, AOC is now our own visionary heroine, as both women dare to challenge the logic of profit – heresy to the corporate interests that enslave us.
The ‘Extinction Rebellion’ has been effective in clarifying the political terms of the climate debate, the U.N. has issued a damning environmental assessment that explicitly links global warming with extinction, and AOC and Thunberg have added their missionary fervor in the cause of sustainability and justice. But the philosopher of ‘Dark Ecology’, Timothy Morton, in his latest book, Being Ecological, 2018, founded on his embrace of object oriented ontology, suggests that environmental anguishing is but a theistic echo of agrilogistics - the organizing principle of the Neolithic revolution, when agricultural technologies, supported by new religions and newly stratified societies, began to develop more than a millennium ago. We remain, he suggests, locked in patterns of shaming, visions of salvation, and eschatological imaginings, while we ignore the reality around us. We remain, at heart, Mesopotamians, confirmed in the habits of mind necessary for civilization, champions of the Neolithic revolution which, “...has been going on for about twelve thousand years, since the start of agriculture, which eventually required industrial processes to maintain themselves, hence fossil fuels, hence global warming, hence mass extinction”.
The latest U.N. data dump is, he implies, just the thing to further impede the possibility of ‘being ecological’. Greta Thunberg’s rhetoric feeds directly on ancient eschatological traditions, and the intrepid ‘Extinction Rebels’ speak truth to power within ritualized hierarchies long designed to vitiate such assaults. He suggests that our fascination with the latest reports of a damaged world - facts that need constant up-dating - reflect the manic reiterations of trauma experienced by those who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Our inability to fully understand that we are living in a time of mass extinction leads us to crave what he calls ‘information dump mode’ as a way of confirming ourselves outside of its reality. Instead of an urgent call to action, each iteration of data confirms our paralysis. Immobilized by each new tranche, we remain stuck, he suggests, re-living the trauma. We need, he urges, “to start to live the data” – to initiate an entirely new way to absorb the information that has been washing over us for so many decades by living it in a manner that actively erodes our ancient civilizational programming.
The impact on climate of the burning of fossil fuels was first identified by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896, and media attention was occasionally drawn to this fateful connection over the next century, but it was not until 1988 that a global focus was brought to bear on the issue when the U.N. formed its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There has been a steady stream of jeremiads on climate change ever since, and the issue rose to new levels of public prominence when Al Gore released his film, An Inconvenient Truth, in 2006. Morton attempts to solve the grave conundrum that while trapped within an atmospheric blanket made ever more efficient because of our carbon emissions, we are burdened with a consciousness that inhibits our ability to change our behavior, and that the torrents of data that document this crisis are complicit in our paralysis.
He notes that our personal contributions to the problem are statistically meaningless (a little like voting in a large democracy) since there is no feedback loop to register our individual emissions. We have to act on trust. But, he writes,
“…ecological data is so complex, and is about such complex phenomena, that it’s difficult to make that data into facts, let alone start living those facts, rather than repeating truthy factoids…”,
And these ‘truthy factoids’ are the very stuff of memes. He points to a radical gap between things and data (the Kantian core of object-oriented ontology) and that, “Ecological things are very complex, involve a lot of moving parts, are widely distributed across Earth and time, and so on.” They congregate in what he describes as ‘Hyperobjects’, one of which is global warming, and which inevitably resist data analysis. Yet data is all our modern scientific world provides us with which to approach things. Now, as the IPBES summary report bombards us with factoids we crouch before the onslaught, as Morton suggests, “in the fetal position or simple curled up like a hedgehog.”
His alternative, of ‘living the data’, involves a process of what he calls ‘tuning’. First of all, he establishes that living non-violently with non-human beings is at the core of ‘being ecological’, and that the deconstruction of the fire-wall that exists between humans and non-humans is imperative. He writes, “Since a thing cannot be known directly or totally, one can only attune to it.” He urges that we create living, dynamic relationships with other ‘ecological beings.’
We have a history of fiercely argued texts that attempt an elucidation of the contemporary data and confront the social, moral, and economic issues around global warming. Many of us have any number of memes lodged in our brains that prompt us towards responding to the unprecedented events that attend our age of extinction. Many of us are both armed and armored with data. We feel that there is both a protective and a predictive value in reading the texts and watching the videos. We may even believe that the acquisition of ecological data is valuable in persuading others of our dire circumstance. We may believe that we have a purpose to account for the present condition of the planet – not as prophets of doom but simply as contemporary truth tellers. We may find it exhilarating to imagine that the long arc of environmental awareness is bending towards action. We may even believe that technological progress assures us of a final triumph in our attempts to de-carbonize the economy.
But much of this may indeed be a ‘busy-busy’ recapitulation of the Neolithic revolution, when knowledge was sought for precise, productive ends and data was substituted for the reality beneath the surface of things (a reality that Paleolithic people spent millennia exploring and the knowledge of which still resides today in those few populations untouched by Western Civilization). Morton has taken this notion, argued by Jared Diamond among others, and linked it to a philosophical path that leads him out of Modernity and into the almost impenetrable thickets of object-oriented ontology.
Where does that leave the rest of us? It is difficult, outside of academia, to argue convincingly that we should abandon Modernity. Yet our obsession with facts, the factoids and the mimetic ideation that lives in our brains as memes, may well be standing in the way of our simply meshing with the environment, not as humans uniquely capable of realizing reality through our consciousness, but as ecological beings.
The house that I live in is embedded in chaparral, the flora and fauna community that dominates the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, a transverse range in Southern California. It’s spring and so it’s time for the annual brush clearance mandated by the Ventura County Fire Department. It’s a time of weed-whacking the invasive oats, brome grasses and tocalote thistles (Centaurea melitensis) and hand weeding the mustard. Late May rains mean that the weeding has taken on added urgency because, for a few weeks, it’s possible to pull the mustard rather than chopping it with a Pulaski axe.
Partly because of the late rains, and partly because it’s the second year of recovery after the devastating Thomas Fire of 2017-2018, the native wild flowers have been extraordinary. Bird life seems to have recovered with the notable exception of the tiny wren-tit, with its signature chaparralian song. At night, the faint hooting of a pair of greater horned owls drifts through open windows.
I have spent the last ten years informally studying this community, and it is the haunting birdsong, the wild flowers, trees, rocks, mountains and sky that help me to explore what it might mean to live as an ecological being: to discover the possibilities of an enmeshment with the non-human world. But still imprisoned within Modernity, it is the ever growing literature focused on the global warming induced sixth extinction (and its related memes) that give urgency to my quest.