Pre-Extinction Follies, pt. 1

Posted: August 13, 2014 in Debate, Environment, Ethics, Industrial Collapse
Tags: , , ,

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.

The matrix below provides keywords to illustrate different worldviews or ways of being (modified from its source) that overlap within each of us:

Spiritual Natural
What You Revere truth, wisdom higher being Gaia
Major Beliefs power of intention, science, logic appreciation of blessings, miracles, art complexity, emergence, unfathomability of nature
Means to Self-Fulfillment self-knowledge, self- management, understanding of reality selflessness, self- awareness, being of service reconnection, generosity
Center of Being intellect (head) emotion (heart) senses/intuition (body)
Most Respected Activities work, learning, contemplation prayer, meditation compassion, appreciation, play, communing
Some Favorite Words critical thinking, integral, coherent manifest, sacred, divine more-than-human, biomimicry, biophilia
Dominant Political Philosophy Progressive Humanist Green

I object to separating (not entirely arbitrarily) what is more nearly whole by pointing to this passage from E.O. Wilson’s book Consilience (which I’ve used before):

Without the stimulus and guidance of emotion, rational thought slows and disintegrates. The rational mind does not float about the irrational; it cannot free itself to engage in pure reason. There are pure theorems in mathematics but no pure thoughts that discover them. In the brain-in-the-vat fantasy of neurobiological theory and science fiction, the organ in its nutrient bath has been detached from the impediments of the body and liberated to explore the inner universe of the mind. But that is not what would ensue in reality. All the evidence from the brain sciences points in the opposite direction, to a waiting coffin-bound hell of the wakened dead, where the remembered and imagined world decays until chaos mercifully grants oblivion.

However, if there be biases and habits of mind formed from one’s experiences, chatterers probably fall into the rational column — at least until they are dumbstruck by the awesome weight of recognition of pre-extinction. Responses may tip over into (in no particular order) panic, anguish, guilt, despair, and resignation. Of the three approaches cited above, only Drumright feels to me an honest, authoritative response. Smith’s approach seems caught up in irrelevant critique about the best tone to adopt when breaking the news, whereas Nowviskie responds with a bizarre recommendation that newly developed tools in the humanities (thus, the digital humanities) be used to establish a quasi-permanent record of ourselves across evolutionary and geological time. Let me discuss each in turn.

Because my discussion would extend to burdensome length, I decided to break the blog post into four parts, of which this is the introduction. In addition, because pre-extinction is arguably the most important story (probably the wrong word) in the history of mankind, I find that I can’t look away and remain calm, composed, and objective. It must be addressed. Unrest experienced across the globe right now is part of the surprisingly fast extinction process humans have set in motion, with weather disruptions and diminishing resources creating geopolitical instability. Hyperfocus on competing factions and armaments is to my mind a glaring distraction that temporarily blocks awareness of the larger issue. But the time will come when full recognition will be unavoidable. Who knows when, exactly, what looks in hindsight as an eventuality will manifest?

  1. This is a very interesting post, and I look forward to the rest of your series. I must say, though, that I don’t recall making the “bizarre recommendation” you attribute to me in any way, shape, or form. My lecture did discuss some past thought experiments and attempts (by the Fascist architect Albert Speer, groups like the Long Now, and in scholarly and playful responses to US government-commissioned nuclear waste mitigation studies) to leave material traces and communicate in so-called “deep time.” But I also highlight Dark Mountain, the Extinction Studies Working Group, and several individual scholars, who focus more on personal, emotional, and aesthetic responses to the concept of extinction and question the hubris of the very concept of the Anthropocene. This is much more the collective, ephemeral, and near-term approach that I advocate for digital humanities scholars (my audience at the conference). My paper urged them to become more philosophically and politically engaged with these issues — indeed, in part by using new humanities tools and theories, which lend themselves to analysis of nature and culture in the longue durée; to grappling with massive datasets like those through which we can best understand climate change and extinction; to understanding fragility, degradation, loss, and decay through attempts at recovery; and to experimenting with alternate visualities, ways to foster immediate communication, and frameworks for imagining the future, while acknowledging inevitable diminishment and obliteration. I do not suggest that DH toolsets “be used to establish a quasi-permanent record of ourselves across evolutionary and geological time.”

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. You surveyed quite a lot of information, which isn’t quite the same as making recommendations. I surmise my takeaway was different from your intent. I will get to your presentation in time, but you’re third in line, and I’m very slow.

      • motorola says:


        Have you checked out Langdon Winner’s latest entries to his blog, “Technopolis”? They run in a similar but not identical vein. “Name the ‘Cene’ “(as in anthropocene) discusses what to call this particular era we are in, and “A Future for Philosophy of Technology–Yes, But on What Planet?” describes the various topics and elements that will need to be addressed in order to have a meaningful discussion about the future. At the very least, his sense of humor is refreshing.

  2. motorola says:

    I read your “Donovan’s Brain” post and re-read the Wilson quote in order to understand the latter. I still don’t get the last sentence, though. What does he mean by the “coffin-bound hell of the wakened dead where the remembered and imagined world decays until chaos mercifully grants oblivion.” What would be an example?

    • Brutus says:

      As I read it, the “coffin” in the vat that holds the brain, which is reawakened after death of the body. Because of its lack of input and context, its activity would be a hell of confusion, like a hall of mirrors, until at last the mind disintegrates (oblivion). The closest example might perhaps be the “locked-in” syndrome where the person is paralyzed and unable to communicate except through the eyes. However, the comparison is weak because the person continues to receive visual, aural, and other stimulation and can still understand things from within the context of their own emotions.

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