attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: extinction

The sixth extinction

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.

Extinction, again

Whatever pretension to a philosophy of time that Catastrophia has it is one that is thoroughly linear. There is only one moment in the catastrophic thought and it is the moment in which all other moments take place. All temporalities, all spacetimes, exist within that spacetime of beginning and end. It is axiomatic for the catastrophic thought that the original catastrophe is the coming into existence of anything whatsoever. In theological language it is Creation that is catastrophic, a singular disaster that- given the absence of a transcendental divinity to have created it- is without any justification. This time, this time inaugurated by the ontological explosion, that truly original accident that was generative of substance, is the time that is also bound to entropy, to that third law of thermodynamics, to the process that will eventual dissolve reality. The universe, that most large scale of hyperobjects, is inextricably headed towards the dark era, the future period in which matter has thoroughly disintegrated and the last beings will exist as isolated monads incapable of even colliding with one another and eventually…the universe itself may cease. Or, given that here all that remains is the quantum level, anything may happen. But the dark and the cold will have vanquished the vibrant, the vital, the existing. From the moment of the explosion to the moment of the last positrons slowing down and the last electron going out (as it were) we find the entire history of that aberration of existence. This cosmological extinction is the extinction par excellence, and the arguments of philosophers as to whether it cripples or motivates us is already to bring this last extinction under the domesticating influence of a comforting thought. Catastrophic time is the temporality within which all other times play out. There is no possible subject who can experience this moment, no possible way to tame this time which is properly nothing but the happening of an event, the only ontological event worthy of attention. It is therefore a time that neither occurs in the blink of an eye or that extends itself into an infinite. Explosion and evaporation.

I have argued before that all our tasks for the future consist in little else than a self-managed extinction. There is no way out. OR, there is only choosing our way out. The inelegant concept of ‘existential catastrophe’ [1] (brought to my attention by a post at misanthropology) is one that elides the fundamental point that we are because of, inside of, part of the original catastrophe. We are catastrophic, always already. The idea that we can escape from precariousness, as the authors of the same paper that coins ‘existential catastrophe’, propagate is one that is fundamentally stupid. This comes as no surprise though. It is the same stupidity that is the motor of human success, that forms part of the coalition against death into which each of us is inaugurated through the development of consciousness.

Any post-nihilistic pragmatics will require that we operate consciously within catastrophic time and that we surrender the impossible task of removing precariousness from the human condition. These are the same project in fact, given that the former reveals to us the anthropocentrism of the latter…the benign revelation that precariousness is the condition of all things. IF this garners the accusation of privelging the perspective of extinction and heat death then this is a necessary part of the pragmatic ethics of a self-management of extinction. As I have said before, the task now is to think the ethics of palliative care for the species. The dream of species-being is realised at last.

[1]/ Here.

Becoming-extinctions

When the strange threat of extinction looms, and ecological collapse renders the special place of the landscape we gave over to the dead in order to symbolise their pagan-scientific rebirth in the worms and flowers in the soil, when death was isolatable and discreet and still that of the individual organism, becomingnoncorporeal is the last abortive transcendence. Akin to the idea of cyber-gnosis, becoming-noncorporeal appears as a kind of nostalgia for a time when death was something that could conceivably be overcome.

On the importance of water

Guardian Global Development

Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists

Water scarcity’s effect on food production means radical steps will be needed to feed population expected to reach 9bn by 2050

Historic Drought Cripples Farms And Ranches In American West

A bull grazes on dry wheat husks in Logan, Kansas, one of the regions hit by the record drought that has affected more than half of the US and is expected to drive up food prices. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world’s population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.

Humans derive about 20% of their protein from animal-based products now, but this may need to drop to just 5% to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050, according to research by some of the world’s leading water scientists.

“There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected 9 billion population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in western nations,” the report by Malik Falkenmark and colleagues at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) said.

“There will be just enough water if the proportion of animal-based foods is limited to 5% of total calories and considerable regional water deficits can be met by a … reliable system of food trade.”

Dire warnings of water scarcity limiting food production come as Oxfam and the UN prepare for a possible second global food crisis in five years. Prices for staples such as corn and wheat have risen nearly 50% on international markets since June, triggered by severe droughts in the US and Russia, and weak monsoon rains in Asia. More than 18 million people are already facing serious food shortages across the Sahel.

Oxfam has forecast that the price spike will have a devastating impact in developing countries that rely heavily on food imports, including parts of Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East. Food shortages in 2008 led to civil unrest in 28 countries.

Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in an increasingly climate-erratic world, the scientists said. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One third of the world’s arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals. Other options to feed people include eliminating waste and increasing trade between countries in food surplus and those in deficit.

“Nine hundred million people already go hungry and 2 billion people are malnourished in spite of the fact that per capita food production continues to increase,” they said. “With 70% of all available water being in agriculture, growing more food to feed an additional 2 billion people by 2050 will place greater pressure on available water and land.”

The report is being released at the start of the annual world water conference in Stockholm, Sweden, where 2,500 politicians, UN bodies, non-governmental groups and researchers from 120 countries meet to address global water supply problems.

Competition for water between food production and other uses will intensify pressure on essential resources, the scientists said. “The UN predicts that we must increase food production by 70% by mid-century. This will place additional pressure on our already stressed water resources, at a time when we also need to allocate more water to satisfy global energy demand – which is expected to rise 60% over the coming 30 years – and to generate electricity for the 1.3 billion people currently without it,” said the report.

Overeating, undernourishment and waste are all on the rise and increased food production may face future constraints from water scarcity.

“We will need a new recipe to feed the world in the future,” said the report’s editor, Anders Jägerskog.

A separate report from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) said the best way for countries to protect millions of farmers from food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia was to help them invest in small pumps and simple technology, rather than to develop expensive, large-scale irrigation projects.

“We’ve witnessed again and again what happens to the world’s poor – the majority of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihoods and already suffer from water scarcity – when they are at the mercy of our fragile global food system,” said Dr Colin Chartres, the director general.

“Farmers across the developing world are increasingly relying on and benefiting from small-scale, locally-relevant water solutions. [These] techniques could increase yields up to 300% and add tens of billions of US dollars to household revenues across sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.”

Extinction

If extinction looms over us as a vital material possibility or, as is becoming more and more apparent, as an approaching likelihood then this brings with it a more immediate threat. Pseudo-anarchists known as Primitivists (cf. John Zerzan) have long attempted to ground their paleolithic Romanticism on the terms of ecological collapse, and have seen a kind of forced industrial collapse as the great act of exodus from this world we must leave. It should come as no great leap of the imagination to see a Primitivism based on the threat of human extinction. More than this, we ought to anticipate that there are others who will be discussing extinction…others who might want to harness it to less than desirable means. The forces of sovereignty, of the state-form and the police, will also have their eyes on the catastrophic horizon. Our extinction should not be seen as simply a material fact; it is also a political field with multiple points of occupation. This is another reason why we ought to consider the self-management of extinction as a live political question.  What politics might the thought of extinction produce?

objective nihilism (reprise)

This time from Michael of Archive Fire.

“Man can build his greatness on the nothingness that crushes him.” – André Malraux

Levi Bryant has yet another brilliant post up (here) discussing the aim of Speculative Realism (SR) in relation to nihilism and extinction more generally. I think Levi is on target with his comments about how North Americans seem to be working through our growing realization of the possibility (probability) of extinction in the face of ecological collapse (among other calamities). I believe this “awareness” is still mostly registering on subconscious levels – i.e., biologically as toxins, ecologically as climate, hurricanes, floods – and denied or obfuscated on political and ideological levels, but it is definitely becoming expressed.

The following are some key passages from Levi’s post:

Everything hinges on asking why the critique of correlationism– the most contentious and controversial dimension of SR –has arisen at this point in history. Why have so many suddenly become impassioned with the question of how it is possible to think a world without humans or being without thought? It is such a peculiar question, such a queer question, such a strange question. Why, after all, would we even be concerned with what the world might be apart from us when we are here and regard this world? There are, of course, all sorts of good ontological and epistemological reasons for raising these questions. Yet apart from immanent philosophical reasons, philosophy is always haunted by a shadow text, a different set of reasons that are not so much of the discursive order as of the order of the existential and historical situation and which thought finds itself immersed at a given point in history. Over and above– or perhaps below and behind –the strictly discursive philosophical necessity for a particular sort of thought, is the existential imperative to think something. Here the issue is not one of establishing how a certain philosophical imperative demands a response to a strictly philosophical question, but of addressing the question of why a particular question begins to resonate at all at this point in history and not in others…

…if I were to hazard a guess as to why the critique of correlationism, the thought of a world without humans, has suddenly become a burning one, then my suggestion would be that this is because we are facing the imminent possibility of a world that is truly without humans. If it has become necessary to think the possibility of a world without humans, then this is because we face a future– due to the coming climate apocalypse –of a world that truly is without humans…

Culture can be seen as a symptomatic thinking through– veiled and concealed, while nonetheless present and on the surface right there before our eyes –of the Real of its historical moment. This seems to be the case with apocalyptic films and movements in recent decades. What we seem to be thinking through is the possibility of our own extinction or, at the very least, the extinction of the world as we know it.

Speculative Realism is important because several of the authors involved seem interested in operationalizing the need for novel understandings and engagements with the creeping potencies of the nonhuman and the precarious. SR offers widely dispersed possibilities for reconsidering human thought and behavior after the hideous yet enlightening realizations of being-in-a-material-world.

My sense is that North Americans currently tend to reject such realizations and then bury the accompanying dread of finitude and animality through consumption and/or fantasy – with T.V or crystal meth no less than simply commodities – in order to sooth the pain of their existential fears and resentments. To be sure, there are variances in the manner people respond but i believe the push and pull of consumption and distraction remain paramount.

I’m reminded of Ernest Becker’s work in this regard:

“Full humanness means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day. When you get a person to emerge into life, away from his dependencies, his automatic safety in the cloak of someone else’s power, what joy can you promise him with the burden of his aloneness? When you get a person to look at the sun as it bakes down on the daily carnage taking place on earth, the ridiculous accidents, the utter fragility of life, the power¬lessness of those he thought most powerful—what comfort can you give him from a psychotherapeutic point of view? Luis Buimel likes to introduce a mad dog into his films as counterpoint to the secure daily routine of repressed living. The meaning of his symbolism is that no matter what men pretend, they are only one accidental bite away from utter fallibility. The artist disguises the incongruity that is the pulse-beat of madness but he is aware of it. What would the average man do with a full consciousness of ab-surdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror. Sartre has called man a “useless passion” because he is so hopelessly bungled, so deluded about his true condition. He wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and so he thrives on fantasies. As Ortega so well put it in the epigraph we have used for this chapter, man uses his ideas for the defense of his existence, to frighten away reality. This is a serious game, the defense of one’s existence—how take it away from people and leave them joyous?” (Becker, The Denial of Death, p.58-59)

As Heidegger argues with tremendous force in Being and Time, humans are fundamentally coping-beings. By composition and disposition we seek to make-sense and understand ourselves. We are the weirdo-beings that give a damn about being – creatures required by circumstance to adapt. But what adaptations are possible for us this late in the ‘game’?

As Levi states:

It is our circumstances themselves, the material reality of our world, that has become nihilistic, not the thought of this or that thinker. Indeed, I suspect that many of us are terrified and anguished by this objective nihilistic darkness that approaches and that may very well have happened, as Timothy Morton suggests. Perhaps we are already dead and we just don’t yet know it.

I believe the task of intellectuals (and not just philosophers) today is to indulge rather than mask the nihilistic forces of contemporary life – forces which manifest in both subjective and objective ways. Partaking in the dark revelations of current ecologies can only push us further towards more earthly, or creaturely, that is to say materialist modes of thinking and doing. Thinking the visceral and consequential facticity of intercorporeality entails thinking about our intimate connections as immanent achievements (our continuity with ‘nature’) and our vulnerability (or precarity with-in ‘nature’) simultaneously. We will have to effectively integrate the facticity of matter as matter in order to generate useful and mutually understandable expressions and sentiments among participants (or at least those of us left behind, so to speak). The practical motivations of material and speculative adaptation and communicability are at the core of any possible species of ecological and humanist thought.

Of course, we could take up the lines purposed by Laruelle or Brassier, or the eliminativists, or cleanse our phantasies in the rhetorical psychedelica of Timothy Morton, or even come up with our own codes and performances capable of limiting thought and opening us to the intercorporeal facticity of life – to Life as Flesh – but even this would be just a start. The important work to be done is decidedly practical and not necessarily academic (as Levi notes above). We must build new infrastructures.

The reference to ‘coping-beings’ and to the work of Ernst Becker (and in the Terror Management Theory that is inspired by his work) are particularly interesting. This is the direction I’m moving in as well, albeit in a way that is more willing to immerse itself in that nihilism. The new infrastructures that Michael is talking about are, I think, the materiality of the self-conscious meaning productions that I discuss as coalitions in favour of death here.

Of course I am quite happy to state that any attempt at the coming work that Michael talks about as both philosophical and practical is just another coping-mechanism. The thought of extinction is a coping with the possibility of extinction, a rendering it into the relative safety of a fantasy cognition. In the language of TMT the new infrastructures Michael is calling for would be called cultures and in my terms it would be machines of meaning-production. Yet part of me keeps on hearing the question; why cope? why go on? And, as I repeat again and again, the only answer I can come up with is a certain human addiction to living. My temptation is altogether more Schopenhauerian, more ‘literally eliminativist’: what if the only work left to us weren’t recovery or salvage but merely the possibility of a self-managed extinction? Only those who still refuse the truth of our possible extinction could regard this question as horrific.

This might not be horrific but I think we are constitutionally unable to follow such a program. Indeed, what we have essentially hit on in all this talk of culture, infrastructure or meaning-production has already been hit upon before. To add to Michael’s list of Heidegger and Becker, and to my own addition of TMT, we should really add Peter Wessel Zapffe’s concept of anchorings. In order to grasp the concept of anchoring I quote from Zapffe’s essay ‘The Last Messiah’ at length:

Anchoring might be characterised as a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness. Though typically unconscious, it may also be fully conscious (one ‘adopts a goal’.) Publicly useful anchorings are met with sympathy, he who ‘sacrifices himself totally’ for his anchoring (the firm, the cause) is idolised. He has established a mighty bulwark against the dissolution of life, and others are by suggestion gaining from his strength. In a brutalised form, as deliberate action, it is found among ‘decadent’ playboys (“one should get married in time, and then the constraints will come of themselves.”) Thus one establishes a necessity in one’s life, exposing oneself to an obvious evil from one’s point of view, but a soothing of the nerves, a high-walled container for a sensibility to life that has been growing increasingly crude. Ibsen presents, in Hjalmar Ekdal and Molvik, two flowering causes (‘living lies’); there is no difference between their anchoring and that of the pillars of society except for the practico-economic unproductiveness of the former.

Any culture is a great, rounded system of anchorings, built on foundational firmaments, the basic cultural ideas. The average person makes do with the collective firmaments, the personality is building for himself, the person of character has finished his construction, more or less grounded on the inherited, collective main firmaments (God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future). The closer to main firmaments a certain carrying element is, the more perilous it is to touch. Here a direct protection is normally established by means of penal codes and threats of prosecution (inquisition, censorship, the Conservative approach to life).

The carrying capacity of each segment either depends on its fictitious nature having not been seen through yet, or else on its being recognised as necessary anyway. Hence the religious education in schools, which even atheists support because they know no other way to bring children into social ways of response.

Whenever people realise the fictitiousness or redundancy of the segments, they will strive to replace them with new ones (‘the limited duration of Truths’)- and whence flows all the spiritual and cultural strife which, along with economic competition, forms the dynamic content of world history.

The craving for material goods (power) is not so much due to the direct pleasures of wealth, as none can be seated on more than one chair or eat himself more than sated. Rather, the value of a fortune to life consists in the rich opportunities for anchoring and distraction offered to the owner.

Both for collective and individual anchorings it holds that when a segment breaks, there is a crisis that is graver the closer the segment to main firmaments. Within the inner circles, sheltered by the outer ramparts, such crises are daily and fairly painfree occurrences (‘disappointments’); even a playing with anchoring values is here seen (wittiness, jargon, alcohol). But during such play one may accidentally rip a hole from euphoric to macabre. The dread of being stares us in the eye, and in a deadly gush we perceive how the minds are dangling in threads of their own spinning, and that a hell is lurking underneath.

The very foundational firmaments are rarely replaced without great social spasms and a risk of complete dissolution (reformation, revolution). During such times, individuals are increasingly left to their own devices for anchoring, and the number of failures tends to rise. Depressions, excesses, and suicides result (German officers after the war, Chinese students after the revolution).

Another flaw of the system is the fact that various danger fronts often require very different firmaments. As a logical superstructure is built upon each, there follow clashes of incommensurable modes of feelings and thoughts. Then despair can enter through the rifts. In such cases, a person may be obsessed with destructive joy, dislodging the whole artificial apparatus of his life and starting with rapturous horror to make a clean sweep of it. The horror stems from the loss of all sheltering values, the rapture from his by now ruthless identification and harmony with our nature’s deepest secret, the biological unsoundness, the enduring disposition for doom.

We love the anchorings for saving us, but also hate them for limiting our sense of freedom. Whenever we feel strong enough, we thus take pleasure in going together to bury an expired value in style. Material objects take on a symbolic import here (the Radical approach to life).

When a human being has eliminated those of his anchorings that are visible to himself, only the unconscious ones staying put, then he will call himself a liberated personality

Anchoring is thus a term for all those means by which we protect ourselves against meaninglessness that the threat of extinction opens up in this historical period and, of course, the joint threat of a very real extinction actually taking place.

So I agree. We shouldn’t turn away from the objective nihilism of the world, nor should we allow that nihilism to crush us into the ‘dust of this planet’. But if we are to build, to create, then we can only do so based on the knowledge of the emptiness of all our constructions, whether those things- and all the other things that compose the cosmos- are potent agents with their own agenda or not. The issue confronting humanity isn’t one that can be lost or won in debates about realisms or objects or concepts of life either. It is only one that can be won by openly admitting a cosmological pessimism, a materialist pessimism, that is self-conscious of the nothingness of which is partakes and generates.

Presence

How did the word ‘vitalism’, with all its energetic connotations, ever come to be a banner for life? Everything of immediate importance loses urgency; deadlines, expectations, duties all fade. Extinctions mount in my imagination, riding on the crest of pestilential swarms, eruptions, impacts and the dying of the sun. I hold my lover’s gaze as she asks me if one day I might love her. How answer except honestly? With the lie: I am still here.