This is the second of four parts discussing approaches to the prospect of NTE, specifically “Consume, Screw, Kill” by Daniel Smith in Harper’s Magazine (behind a paywall), which is a review of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Part one is found here.
I don’t plan to read The Sixth Extinction any more than Guy McPherson’s book Going Dark, primarily because I need no further convincing from either author how badly things are going in the world (not in the economic or geopolitical sense, though those aspects are also in the protracted process of cratering). Also, I have other titles with stronger claims on my (remaining) time. But Smith’s review of Kolbert’s book and this review of McPherson’s came across my path, both of which I read with some interest. Professional critics often sound false to me, their assessments frequently being bogged down with competing motivations that interfere with honesty and objectivity, including careerism and what’s allowed to be said in mainstream publications.
Smith recounts what’s in Kolbert’s book with considerable detail and worthwhile context. This part is valuable. But the logical emotional response is stuffed down like choked-back vomitus. (Is there such a thing as a logical emotion, or is that an oxymoron?) Instead, Smith’s principal critique is to waive away Kolbert’s indictment of humans, who have wrecked things not just for ourselves but for the rest of creation. Smith notes that over evolutionary and geological time, the Earth has always recovered from extinction events:
There are moments reading The Sixth Extinction when one is positively cheered by the geologic perspective on display. A giant rock smashed into Earth, baking it to a crisp — and still the planet recovered. More than recovered, it thrived! So profligate and inventive is the process of evolution, and so resourceful and fecund are the planet’s life-forms, that even now we can’t say how many species live here … None of this is to say that the collapse of biodiversity is not a tragedy. It is simply to say that tragedy is a human problem, inevitably defined in human terms.
Maybe this sixth time is little different, other than being anthropogenic in origin, but considering that ionizing radiation from unattended nuclear power plants is certain to irradiate the entire planet once we’re gone, I have a hard time chalking this one up as merely another in a series of catastrophic geological events. True, by now we have no control over foreseeable events, if ever we did, but we have culpability this time. The telescope / microscope argument carries no weight with me, either. To zoom in or zoom out far enough to alter one’s perspective so radically there is no longer any reason to fret is just a cheap rhetorical trick. Extinction won’t be a comic episode of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” or B-movie fare such as “Attack of the 40-ft. Woman” (both cautionary if fanciful tales of science run amok). Instead, it will be “Oops, we killed almost everything, including ourselves” — a nearly lifeless Earth. The word oops hardly expresses the response most have once they have processed the awful news. Smith goes on:
It is also to say that it is difficult to know just how to respond to the sixth mass extinction — or to The Sixth Extinction.
Really? The response any decent person ought to have is any one of, say, abject horror, galling self-recrimination, existential despair, desperate conservation, or resigned leave-taking, not some vague wondering. Individuals typically wrestle with the eventuality of their own demise at some point; that’s part of the human condition. The prospect of no future for one’s progeny, or anything else for that matter, well, that’s a novelty. Compartmentalization in the face of such a threat is the mark of an academic or journalistic approach, such as this further remark:
Kolbert nevertheless maintains a conspicuous ethical distance from her subject, no doubt both because she is one of the 7 billion defendants in the dock (and one who, I don’t think it’s churlish to note, has been racking up a disproportionate number of airline miles) and because of the likelihood that the sixth extinction is a foregone conclusion.
No, churlish is exactly what it is. How exactly does Smith think scientific reports, news stories, and books come into being except to go out and gather information, synthesize it, and draw from it conclusions? The risible charge that airline miles makes Kolbert or any of us a worse contributor than the next is idiotic in the extreme. No one has ideological purity or behavioral innocence. We all have a participatory hand, but we only happen to be here at the end stage. Indeed, the fix we’re in has been centuries if not millennia in the making. Along the way, the drift of culture and history has shaped our options broadly and narrowly, but only a very few have ever been in a position to influence outcomes with any significance, and they appear to have been routinely corrupted by that uniqueness.
Smith’s approach to pre-extinction contrasts with others I will blog about in parts 3 and 4 of this series.