While it’s refreshing to see newspapers and channels begin to address the big issues pertinently (Murdoch, Fox, etc. still abstaining), I’m feeling bludgeoned by the words of doom: “unprecedented,” “record high,” “once in a hundred years,” “apocalyptic,” and so on and so on. Even the basic adjectives – hot, cold, stormy, wet, drought, melting, windy, etc. – have a tired ring, needing always to be resized to reflect a new Anthropocene era. I wonder – do we need new words to reflect new realities? What, for example, is a new adjective to describe ambient heat hotter than humankind is accustomed to? Do we need a fresh shorthand with which to christen 2020?
A prestigious, wise group of climate scientists just scared the shit out of me. “Climate tipping points – Too risk to bet against” came out in Nature on November 27. Tipping points, “large-scale discontinuities,” were traditionally shoved off into the future, the future of +5C, but over the last couple of years, scientists have begun to see evidence of them as possibilities over +1C or +2C. The West and East Antarctic ice sheets are perilously close to going into irreversible melting and the Greenland ice sheet could be “doomed” at +1.5C. At +2C, the Arctic has a 10-35% chance of going ice-free in summer. 99% of coral reefs could die at +2C, triggering onward effects. The Amazon might tip into irreversible drying out sooner than expected. Throw in forest fires, permafrost thawing, and a slowdown in Atlantic circulation, and these sages see nine tipping points flaring in complex, reinforcing combinations. Their conclusion?:
Some scientists counter that the possibility of global tipping remains highly speculative. It is our position that, given its huge impact and irreversible nature, any serious risk assessment must consider the evidence, however limited our understanding might still be. To err on the side of danger is not a responsible option. If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization. … In our view, the evidence from tipping points alone suggests that we are in a state of planetary emergency: both the risk and urgency of the situation are acute.
What a jolt. A funding appeal received yesterday from Birdlife Australia features a horrific modern scene of five Brolgas in their grassland habitat, their horizon in flames, indistinct black birds wheeling desperately away. What, I’m pondering, will the fate of the world’s fifteen crane species be in the Anthropocene era? Is this photo a portent? No, it must not be so.
If only I had as much philosophical certitude on the fundamental questions posed by the Anthropocene as writer Roy Scranton. Author of the book “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization,” the kind-of-follow-up book “We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change,” and a recent article in The Baffler that thumped me but offered some concluding purpose, he’s at the Jonathan Franzen/David Wallace-Wells end of the bouncy-versus-nihilistic spectrum. So should I read his new Lit Hub article “Narrative in the Anthropocene is the enemy“? I’m no deep philosopher but have decided to face reality squarely, so of course I sink into his pyrotechnic prose:
Narrative is the enemy. … Let us be clear about our situation. We live in the early stages of a global ecological collapse that will make much of the equatorial region and most seaboards unlivable, cause widespread famine and political conflict, generate mass human death and mass non-human extinction, and return human life to the abject submission to natural disaster which was its state prior to industrialization. We face the probable collapse of civilization as we know it within decades and the possible extinction of the human species within centuries. The idea that human culture will persist into the future in any recognizable state is a conceit which no longer bears examining, for to even ask the question of what the future holds today is to face an abyss of suffering that defies all reasonable thought.
Gulp. Our typical responses, Scranton avers, whether from denialists or my XR brethren, are stories we tell, stories that mean nothing. This time Scranton proffers just ” a margin of agency wherein narrative could be seen as shaping our decisions in the future.” Me, I clutch at a simple “act or sink” existentialist beacon, so I can only marvel at Scranton’s prose and guess at what its eventual impact on me will be.
The topic of animal/bird/insect migration is a hot scientific one and there are plenty of ways for an amateur like me to approach it. After a few promising but unproductive false starts, a friend pointed me to “Incredible Journeys: Exploring the Wonders of Animal Navigation“, which hit our shelves in April. Author David Barrie is my kind of elucidator: an ex-diplomat and campaigner, he’s a sailing nut cum adventurer and his book “Sextant” tackles human navigation. He writes eloquently and with a surety of control that is intoxicating. Every chapter took me further along towards glimpsing how Cranes, among the half of Earth’s bird species who migrate, might do so.
One thing I needed to understand: bird navigation is not just “wow!”, it’s a lifelong existence-gambling purgatory (call it an adventure if you like, what word we choose depends on our conception). Yes, migration is remarkable, but it’s also a body-depleting, fraught plunge into the unknown each and every time. How a given bird species migrates – from breeding grounds to overwintering grounds – and indeed how an individual bird executes – is something wrought by evolution over untold years.
Each year’s to and fro trips can be fucked up by weather, wind, predators, luck, and of course humankind’s inexorable grabbing of pathways, feeding stops, and destinations.
And the variety of migration tales! For every magazine-friendly whooper “hero” story of a tiny bird that bravely plugs away across land and sea, losing a huge chunk of body weight, to “miraculous” arrivals at the same stop as last year, Barrie relates narratives that contrast and complexify and mystify.
For example, we’re used to birds breeding in an optimum location and then flying south or north to escape the cold. But the murrelet breeds on remote islands across the Pacific, 8,000 kms, and migrates west to the waters of China and Japan.
No other bird is known to undertake a similar east-west migration in the Pacific and why the murrelet does so is a mystery, as indeed is its method of navigation. The researchers think this extraordinary journey may reflect the route the birds took–in the long distant past–as they expanded their range from an original base in East Asia to North America.
Call me easily impressed but here is a once-off migratory path, not taken by any other birds, baked into the murrelet’s genes since antiquity!
I screech in fury. I whoop with elation. Silently.
Ever since being arrested in a Extinction Rebellion action, I’ve pondered how to fully express those twin emotions, felt while face down on pavement, cufflinks being fastened to wrists. Fury at what I and my generation bequeath to my grandchildren’s children and their forebears. Elation at finally joining with others to do something.
Perhaps I could find a screaming place in Australian mountains but I hike with others. Certainly in Japan you’re never remote enough. So I tried a different approach.
I’m no expert at meditation but a year of trying ten minutes a day using an app has given me the basics, so at Ryoan-ji in northwest Kyoto, I do my best to sink into fifteen minutes beside the fifteen rocks and exquisitely raked sand.
Inside I shriek my voice hoarse.
Inside I dance a jig.
No one would label me as emotive and I have my lips shut, but a tear escapes and then a smile cracks my face.
It’s time to gird our hearts to rebel on habitat destruction. A couple of days ago I mourned, the result of reading the remarkable paper (and covering article) by Jeremy Simmonds and three other Queensland scientists. Why mourn? Well, in my neck of the woods, the southern part of Australia, our bird species, both the “endangered” and the backyard ones), have lost well over half of their original habitat. This in a theoretically sparsely populated nation like Australia!
We all know how this happens even in today’s more environmentally conscious era. Land is needed so land is cleared. Conservationists battle some land or sea loss, using conservation laws, but the land destroyers chip away “in the name of necessity,” citing “low impact,” often gaming the system. Habitat loss appears incremental but it’s inexorable.
Surely now is the time to mark out a line: from now on, no more loss of habitat. None! Humankind must make do with what it has and surely it can do that. Even innocuous land clearing must be resisted.
Surely what we need is the equivalent of an Extinction Rebellion. Of course XR addresses habitat and diversity loss, and species extinction, within its ambit of the consequences of unaddressed climate change, but its bigger goals to do with emissions must stand paramount. What I visualise is something focused on precisely habitat loss, a calculus of square kilometres carried out by scientists.
Under legislation called for by such a movement, the onus of proof would not be on the negative impacts on “biodiversity” or this or that species. No, the onus of proof would be on the land clearing applicant – he/she/it would need to prove any land cleared has de minimis impact on all non-human species. Such a movement would defend all land under threat.
What might we call this movement? Land Moratorium? Land Protectorate? Hands Off Habitat? Expulsion Rebellion?
A couple of months ago, a British journalist who wrote a number of climate-change-related books over the noughties and into the 2010s, Fred Pearce, penned a trenchant piece titled “Global extinction rates: Why do estimates vary so wildly?” It’s an apt question and one I’d asked myself when I began researching, in the clumsy way amateurs do, the survival prospects of the fifteen Cranes species. Like Pearce, there seemed to me a disjuncture between oft quoted warnings of the current global extinction rate being “up to 100 times higher than the background rate” and my initial study of the IUCN data (the most authoritative), which shows only rare identified extinctions. So I read Pearce’s article with interest.
Unfortunately, the journalist isn’t about to proffer an opinion but merely to canvas the wide range of estimates. By his telling, observed, documented species losses are most infrequent; there may or may not be a gross understatement in the total number of global species often quoted as 1.9 million; modelled extrapolations bring up those assertions of frequent, accelerating extinctions; the whole field is a mess of imprecision.
As of now, I’m in limbo. It’s clear that even if documented extinction rates remain low, average numbers in almost all non-human species have declined and are now declining at faster rates, to the extent that we might be hovering on a precipice of clear vanishings of species. Humankind is undoubtedly bludgeoning and squeezing out the other species. But I am not alone in wanting more precision. And precision only comes about with governments acting with haste to fund concerted, wide-range studies. More science is needed.
Amongst the more-or-less climate change doomsayers (I say “more or less” because there’s a gradation from doom with hope to the worst extreme), Roy Scranton, novelist and essayist extraordinaire, ranks as depressing but weirdly uplifting. The thing is, he writes so passionately, the writing itself offers bizarre tangential hope.
The day I turn to his “We Broke the World” article in The Baffler, which I’ve kept lurking in a cupboard, my Melbourne sky is blue. I’m alone and lonely. The previous evening I went to my fourth Extinction Rebellion meeting and came away elated but, inevitably, also daunted. So what will Roy tell me this time?
He kicks off with a bravura scene asking me to stare at myself in a mirror and imagine my absence, my extinction. Nigh impossible, he tells me, and unpacks why, together with one of this idea’s consequences:
And so just as we are phenomenologically and cognitively biased toward presentism, which comprises both a strong belief that the future will be much like the present and a tendency to forget how different the past was, so are we biased toward what we might awkwardly call “presence-ism,” which is to say, a belief that whatever exists is and was and will keep on being. This fundamental cognitive bias against thinking non-existence makes certain problems challenging for us to comprehend. One such problem is the idea of extinction. … It takes a strenuous act of imagination to envision the massed herds and flocks of wild animals that once thundered over land now paved with highways and box store parking lots, dotted with cellphone towers, and crisscrossed by diesel-chugging tractor trailers and buses and SUVs.
What Scranton has dragged me to is, of course, the latest IPBES report, released at the end of May, a policy maker summary of its (global) assessment report on the state of Earth’s species. I took a look at the report in July, jotting down notes like ” Global warming fucks everything up. 5% of species could go extinct at +2 degrees, at +3 degrees this is 16%.” My Cranes-centered viewpoint had me gathering facts. What will Scranton conclude, I now wonder?
Scranton tears into the “absurdity almost depraved” of the IPBES science-administrators calling for “transformative change” (hence Scranton’s article title) akin to worldwide revolution. “Failing this,” he says to me, “we all face—all humanity—within our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children—a catastrophic collapse of the biosphere upon which human life depends.” Our presence-ism and presentism points us towards nihilism. After expressing some scientific caveats that can hardly assist, “it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we’re all totally fucked.”
But there’s a conclusion after the conclusion. Perhaps we can contemplate reality squarely, perhaps we can battle “reactive cycles of rage, depression, bargaining, and denial.” Perhaps I can. Andres, Scranton pleads, return to that mirror, meditate with observance, and “practice saying goodbye.”
Right now, Angel Olsen croons her song “Tonight” from her remarkable album All Mirrors. I put on my shoes and head off to write, to read and write.
I don’t know if you’re aware of the stunning success story of the Whooping Crane? Nearly extinct after World War II, decades of dedicated effort by government agencies and volunteers, in particular George Archibald at the International Crane Foundation (which he founded, take a look at it now!), have given rise to a latest count (from the ICF website) of 849 Whooping Cranes, 163 of whom are in captivity.
A couple of months ago, in the depths of existential despair as a result of events and my own reading, I chanced upon the August Whooping Crane Eastern Population Update from the pen of Crane Analyst Hillary Thompson. This discusses the 86 of the overall 849 Whooping Cranes in a handful of northeastern states, mostly in Wisconsin. Reading the report was a balm soothing my raging heart, a song about the dedication that humankind can show to non-human species, in a sense the best of humankind. Hillary Thompson goes into full details on the year’s 19 wild-hatched chicks, all banded and hence kept track of, and that story struck me as modern-day drama. I found myself affected by the final item in the report, “Mortality or Long-term missing.” Here’s what Hillary records: “9_03 (F) was found dead on 3 July at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Juneau Co, WI. Cause of death appears to be predation.”
Thank you, Hillary. Thank you, ICF. Thank you and thank you.