The sixth extinction

by Arran James

Somehow the Guardian’s series entitled The Sixth Extinction has managed to escape my attention. With the strap line ‘How humans are driving animals and plants to extinction’, it certainly bills itself as sad, but provocative reading.

It features a visually arresting ‘interactive map of the world’s extinct and endangered species’, which introduces itself with the intro-blurble ‘Over the past 500 years, human activity is known to have decimated 869 species. Habitat destruction, hunting, alien species, disease and climate change are among the forces responsible for the vulnerability and loss of the 12,000 species on the IUCN’s red list of endangered species. With a total of 16,928 plant and animal species at risk, life on Earth is populated by creatures poised at the brink of extinction. Today, one in eight birds, one in four mammals, one in five invertebrates, one in three amphibians, and half of all turtles face extinction’. It isn’t pussy footing around.

The series also features an interview with musician and naturalist Bernie Krause and includes samples of audio he has recorded from habitats before and after extinction- and produced some haunting silences therein, as well as the deploying the immediately appealing term ‘bioacoustics’. Ocularcentrism has a tendency to make us forget that life is an acoustic phenomena as much as it is visual. Krause writes that ‘A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening’- although I can’t say I’m too happy with hierarchising or playing off industrial or commercial noise with against that produced by more organic beings- after all, I doubt Krause is talking about the sound of talking.

There is also a report on the conservation model of Ecuador, which hosts the most biodiverse area in the world and is the only country in the world to have included nature in its constitutional rights…and the claim that ‘Pharmaceutical companies have based countless patents on results from the forest, where the chemical mix and match is immeasurably more dynamic than that of any science lab’, is interesting if ultimately anthropocentric.

Yet this blog considers that cosmological extinction is a real but not yet actually accomplished fact, that human extinction is not a distant possibility, and agrees with Timothy Morton’s reminder that climate science knows that the disaster has ‘already occurred and that we are now living in its aftermath’. For Morton the Krause recordings are ‘fragile sonic worlds’ that are ‘objects of sadistic pleasure and Schadenfreude’. The entire Sixth Extinction, with its desire to watch the extinction events, to be a kind of panoptic overseer of the processes of extinction, and to situate itself within a classificatory system (Extinction VI, rather like DSM-V?) speak of a kind of mania for the whole thing. It

This might sound like it would be part of Catastrophia’s remit (‘love of collapse’, after all)…but Catastrophic ethics are an ethics of compassion, and they want to be nonanthropocentric. Sadism is incompatible with Catastrophia. The end of all things is precisely the immanent fact of creation that Catastrophia names in the term Catastrophy. It is in this sense that its pessimism is still one that is attached to what is, even if stubbornly and ambivalently. Death and extinction are not problems we can solve, either through evasion or mastery. The Guardian’s Sixth Extinction series may be interesting but it remains afraid of destiny, of cosmic fate, and for this reason it is a good example of the domestication of thought, specifically the domestication of the thought of the end of though, life, and perhaps being itself. Catastrophia orients us to the intimate precariousness of everything that catastrophically exists. Everything is a fellow traveller towards the last moment. Everything, is heading at every moment to extinction. Everything living, indeed everything that exists (in my terms, ‘Cosmos’) is attempting to cope with that, to survive it’s own death a little longer. In this way, perhaps we are melancholic- perhaps this is why we are so confused and stupid when it comes to ecological politics- melancholic in Freud’s sense… we can’t let go of a lost object.

There might be little to separate Catastrophia from Tim Morton’s own dark ecology in the end, save his greater depth of thinking.