Archive for August, 2014

Before continuing with my series on “Pre-Extinction Follies,” I want to divert to an idea I’ve struggled with for some time, namely, that by virtue of socialization and education (and especially higher education), we train our minds to think according to a variety of different filters. Which filter is most powerful and for what objectives is a question that leads to many potential answers, such as, just for example, (1) the scientific worldview and its follow-on power to manipulate (and pollute) the land, sky, and oceans of the planet, (2) the spiritual worldview and its power to transfix the human psyche, (3) the artistic worldview and its power to resonate with emotion and intuition, or (4) the sportsman’s worldview and its power to construe the world in terms of pointless endless cycles of competitions, games, and championships. As I observed here, there is considerable overlap that makes distinguishing between competing worldviews somewhat questionable, but considering how depth and nuance is driven out of most points of view, keywords, soundbites, and dogma function just fine to separate and define people according to classes, races, demographic groups, etc.

The idea of twisted minds, never far from my thinking, came to the fore again recently because of two experiences: reading (at long last) Joe Bageant’s Rainbow Pie and getting HBO, which granted access to comedy shows (Real Time with Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) that rework political and cultural news to make it palatable to and digestible by the masses. Having been a viewer of The Daily Show for some time and long before that a variety of Bill Maher’s exploits, I appreciate the acumen it takes to transmit (some of) the news comically. That particular filter is precisely why I go there. Along the way, I get exposure to lots of ideas I normally avoid (yes, I practice a form of information aversion at the same time I’m an information sponge, though not a political junkie or news hound), but I don’t kid myself as hosts of those shows sometimes chide their own audiences that I’m getting all of the news there.

Still, I can’t help but feel frustration at the way various media folks twist the news. In unscripted interviews and panel discussions in particular, ask a question of an economist and an economics answer results. The same is true, respectively, of news anchors, magazine and blog writers, and celebrities (mostly actors). They may have excellent command of the issues, but their minds reshape issues according to their training and/or vocation, which makes me want to hurl things at the screen because opinions and policy are frequently so constrained and twisted they become idiotic. An economist who promotes growth is a good example (more of what’s destroying us, please!). The worst, though, are politicians. Career politicians (is there any other kind?) are conditioned to distort issues beyond recognition and to deal with people (and their issues) as demographics to be shuffled in the abstract around the imaginary surface of some playing field. Dedication to service of the commonweal is long gone, replaced by theater, spin doctoring, and perpetual campaigning.

In contrast, someone comes along infrequently who has the wit and god’s eye view necessary to contextualize and synthesize modern information glut effectively and then tell the truth, the latter of which carries a very high value for me. That would be Joe Bageant, whose writing and perspective are fundamentally alien to me yet communicate with power and clarity, cutting through all the manufactured bullshit of trained and twisted minds. Writing about literacy, Bageant has this to say about the redneck folks (the white underclass) he knew and was part of growing up:

  1. They do not have the necessary basic skills, and don’t give a rat’s ass about getting them;
  2. Reading is not arresting enough to compete with the electronic stimulation in which their society is immersed;
  3. They cannot envisage any possible advantage in reading, because the advantages stem from extended personal involvement, which they have never experienced, are conditioned away from, and is understandably beyond their comprehension; and
  4. Their peers do not read as a serious matter, thereby socially reinforcing their early conclusion that it’s obviously not worth the time and effort ….

Elsewhere, Bageant writes about the unacknowledged lessons of class warfare that his brethren knew as a matter of intuition from living through it rather than through abstract instructions of some sociology text or teacher. We all possess that intuition about a wide array of issues, but we suppress most of it as a result of educational conditioning and conformity (the rightthink or political correctness for which we congratulate ourselves on issues such as sexism, racism, and LGBT rights). So we prefer the happy lies and fables of politicians, entertainers, and educators to the awful truth of what’s really happening all around us, plain to see. It’s a systemic fraud in which we all participate.

What strikes me, too, is that education (or literacy) does not function as a panacea for the masses. Over-educated Icelanders made that clear roughly a decade ago. Bageant decries the ignorance (“ignernce”) of his social stratum and their continuous knuckling under to their supposed betters, yet he admits they flee into the middle and upper classes when opportunity arises, social mobility usually resulting from educational accomplishment. The unspoken conclusion, however, is that the educated elite conspire (albeit sometimes unwittingly) to perpetuate and intensify class warfare and to preserve their enhanced position on the scale. And they do so with the armature of education.

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 humanity, 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.

I’ve been working my way (as always, slowly) through three different approaches and a fair number of hyperlinks found therein to the prospect of Near-Term Extinction (NTE — modifying that as Near-Term Human Extinction, or NTHE, is an unnecessary and self-absorbed embellishment). The three are these:

  1. Consume, Screw, Kill” by Daniel Smith in Harper’s Magazine (behind a paywall), which is a review of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction,
  2. The Last of Everything” by Daniel Drumright, which is a blog essay at Nature Bats Last, and
  3. Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene” by Bethany Nowviskie, which is a transcript of a talk given at the Digital Humanities 2014 conference in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Each of these is rather long and involved. Drumright has been in the vanguard for decades, but the others may be relative latecomers (hard to know whether this is accurate) to the complex of ideas I’ll call “pre-extinction follies.” That complex is basically a response to the recognition that we humans are very likely not long for this world due to a variety of factors well beyond our control but delayed in their effect. That delay provides opportunity for quite a bit of introspection while the lights are still burning and store shelves are still stocked. From an only slightly longer perspective, such responses are arguably the province of what some call the chattering classes: those many pundits and commentators with time, education, and media resources available to ponder issues that lie largely beyond the ken of the masses. That would include me, obviously. (more…)

The Chicago Reader has a feature article on something I have blogged about repeatedly, namely, infiltration of abandoned structures to take photographs and video(s) in the interest of documenting modern ruins and establishing an aesthetic I called “post-industrial chic.” The Reader article provides new nomenclature for this behavior and sensibility: urban exploration, or urbex for short. The article cites Detroit, Chicago, and Gary (IN) as urbex hubs, but my previous surfing around the Internet revealed plenty of other sites, including those on other continents, though perhaps none so concentrated as the American rust belt. The idea is proliferating, perhaps even faster than abandonment of structures built to house our more enterprising endeavors, with Facebook pages, Meet.Up groups, and an already defunct zine/blog/book complex called Infiltration, which is/was devoted to penetrating places where one is not supposed to be. It would be suitably ironic if Infiltration had itself been abandoned, but instead, its founder and chief instigator passed away.

It’s impossible to know what may be going on inside of the minds of those who are, by turns, documentarians, aesthetes and artists, thrill-seekers, and voyeurs. Have they pieced together the puzzle yet, using their travels to observe that so many of these crumbling structures represent the ephemeral and illusory might of our economic and technical achievements, often and unexpectedly from the Depression Era with its art deco ornamentation? Is there really beauty to be found in squalor?

Answers to those questions are not altogether apparent from urbex sources. Whereas artistic statements are de rigeur in galleries and artist’s websites, urbex purveyors tend to be uncharacteristically silent about their drive to document. There are frequent paeans to the faded, former glory of the abandoned sites, but what resonates is the suggestion of human activity and optimism no longer enjoyed but held over in the broken fibers of the structures rather than a recognition that, by not even being worth the bother of tearing down, these ruins are close reminders of our own uselessness in old age, impermanence, and mortality.

To those more doom-aware, if I can be so presumptuous, another deeper significance flows from late-modern ruins: our self-defeat. The Pyrrhic victory of human success (in demographic terms) over the rest of creation has lasted long enough to span entire lifetimes, which has been enjoyed innocently by those born at the propitious historical moment (if, indeed, they managed to survive various 20th-century genocides and wars). But for those of us born only a little later, we are already witness to the few decayed bits (thus far) of the far more expansive human-built world we will leave behind.

This fate was explored by the History Channel film Life After People, which omits the obvious reasons for our disappearance but simply leaps ahead in time to contemplate how the natural world reacts to our absence. The film, as it turns out, became the pilot for a series that appears to have run for two seasons, largely on its own recycled bits. Invented imagery of this eventuality is echoed in all manner of cinematic demolition derbies, with New York City and the White House among the most iconic locations to undergo ritual destruction for our, um, what? Enjoyment?