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EXTINCTION EVENT

JASON WIRTH

 

Dr. Jason M. Wirth is professor of philosophy at Seattle University, and works and teaches in the areas of Continental Philosophy, Buddhist Philosophy, Aesthetics, Environmental Philosophy, and Africana Philosophy. His recent books include Mountains, Rivers, and the Great Earth: Reading Gary Snyder and Dōgen in an Age of Ecological Crisis (SUNY 2017), Schelling’s Practice of the Wild (SUNY 2015), The Conspiracy of Life: Meditations on Schelling and His Time (SUNY 2003) and The Barbarian Principle: Merleau-Ponty, Schelling, and the Question of Nature (SUNY 2013). In 2010, he was ordained as a priest in the Soto Zen lineage and is the founder of the Seattle University EcoSangha (www.ecosangha.net).

Almost fifty years ago, during the year when Earth Day (April 22, 1970) was first honored, the US West Coast anarchist poet and iconoclastic but deeply learned man of letters, Kenneth Rexroth, published an essay, “Facing Extinction,” (1) where he claimed that the most significant issue facing the counterculture was the prospect of human extinction. “We are becoming extinct. Extinct has become an active verb with a reflexive—s’extincter. The dominant society is extincting itself along with everything else it can extinct and especially us. Perfectly calm and collected scientists now say that it is unlikely that the human race will last into the next century” (FE, 184). The self-extinction event indicates that “the species has failed.” We are not only destroying our “ecological niche,” but we have “destroyed everybody’s ecology.”

Although Rexroth did not articulate it explicitly in this way, the self-extinction event is also an event in Heidegger’s sense of das Ereignis, an event of disclosure where we come to see who and what we are. For Rexroth, this was the coming into relief, the revelation, of the alternative society: “The Bodhisattva’s vow is ‘I will not enter Nirvana until all sentient creatures have been saved.’ If the alternative society becomes a society of ecological Bodhisattvas we will have reached the final confrontation—mutual aid and respect for life, full awareness of one’s place in the community of creatures—these are the foundations for an alternative society” (FE, 185). This language of “mutual aid” evokes the Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin and a vision of a non-centralized, non-dominating relationship to each other and the earth. Rexroth’s suggestion remains striking: philosophical anarchism (mutual cooperation without the domination of the many by the few) is also the challenge to think more ecologically about our models of politics and economics.

Image 1. Kenneth Rexroth was a poet, writer, translator and critical essayist. He settled in San Francisco in 1927 and began publishing poems regularly in the 1930s. In collections such as What Hour (1940) and The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944), he explored themes of ecological, philosophical and political significance. By the late 1940, he paved the way for the San Francisco Renaissance and influenced the world view of the Beat Generation.

Rexroth’s dire forecast for self-extinction by the end of the Twentieth Century obviously did not come to pass and it is thankfully not a foregone conclusion that it will. That being said, the trend continues on balance to look increasingly dire. Despite the Paris Climate Agreement (signed on Earth Day, 2016), net emissions, after a couple of years of levelling off, have again begun to increase, with China, India, and the US leading the way. In an administration that will be remembered for setting a perhaps unprecedented bar for scandal, US President Trump’s willful withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord will be remembered as one of its greatest. In an almost sublime exercise in Orwellian doublespeak, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in its recent 500-page report argued that a 4-degree Celsius increase in global average temperatures was inevitable by the end of the century. Although the climate science indicates that this would be utterly catastrophic and it should be sufficiently motivating to do whatever it takes to avoid it, the report itself came to a different conclusion. Defending the freezing of President Obama’s lower emission standards for cars and light trucks, the report argued that, although this would certainly add to net emissions, the problem is so large that this would make little difference. (2)

 

So we might as well do nothing!

Image 2. At COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015, Parties to the UNFCCC reached what was presented as “a landmark agreement to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future” (Image Credits: https://unfccc.int).

It is clear that we are not doing enough. We are not on track to meet either the preferred target of 1.5-degree Celsius average change or the default 2-degree change. In October of 2018, the journal Nature published an alarming report that demonstrated that improved sampling techniques indicate that the oceans are heating more rapidly than scientists previously assumed. As Laure Resplandy, one of the article’s authors, explained, “We thought we got away with not a lot of warming in both the ocean and the atmosphere for the amount of CO2 that we emitted. But we were wrong. The planet warmed more than we thought. It was hidden from us just because we didn’t sample it right. But it was there. It was in the ocean already.” (3)

 

The newest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gives us a little over a decade to change radically on an “unprecedented” scale how we live and consume or risk a “catastrophic” 2-degree Celsius average rise in global temperatures. (The default target looks far worse than we thought.) Although this would be bad for most everybody, it would continue to impact the poor disproportionately. In a sense, our relationship to the earth has come to a fork: either the powerful relinquish dramatically how they dwell upon the earth or human dwelling becomes increasingly catastrophic, starting with the least powerful. “Attention to power asymmetries and unequal opportunities for development, among and within countries is key to adopting 1.5°C-compatible development pathways that benefit all populations (high confidence).”

 Image 2. Over the past quarter-century, Earth’s oceans have retained 60 percent more heat each year than scientists previously had thought (Credits: Washington Post)

Can there be a justice driven global New Green Deal that benefits everyone? What would that look like? If we were to take the question of climate justice seriously, not only do we have to account for the disproportionate impact of industrial (capitalist) caused climate change on vulnerable populations, we have to account to future generations for who we now are. We are profligately consuming the earth’s resources, allowing the bottom lines of transnational corporations to outweigh any meaningful responsibility to future generations. The biggest problem with peak oil is not that we will run out of oil, which we will, but that we recognize no obligation to a future world without fossil fuels for any use whatsoever. Perhaps it won’t make any difference because there may not be many more generations, but the externality of a self-extinction event as a cost of doing business reveals the madness and depravity of who we are. It does not help to fantasize about a technological deus ex machina solution to the looming crisis, as if this is all just an engineering problem. It is an ontological event and only asking the engineers for a solution is like asking the drunks to run the brewery.

 A selection of Kenneth Rexroth's published works including Natural Numbers and Sky, Sea, Birds, Trees, Earth, House, Beast  

Image Credits: www.beatmuseum.org

Image 3. Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt and Company), 2014.

We can extend Peter Singer’s critique of our inherent speciesism (that we automatically privilege our species simply because we belong to it) in our food choices and our agricultural practices to our current political and economic life. Our self-assertion of our species in and as the Anthropocene has had and continues to have a devastating impact on the species with whom we share the earth. Life as we know it is under siege. There are increasingly frequent reports about an unfolding decimation of many global insect populations (4). Ocean life is also under great stress. In her unsettling book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert quotes Joseph Mendelson, a herpetologist at Zoo Atlanta: “I sought a career in herpetology because I enjoy working with animals. I did not anticipate that it would come to resemble paleontology.” Kolbert elaborates on Mendelson’s despair:

Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate. But extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels. It is estimated that one-third of all reef building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Artic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys. If you know how to look, you can probably find signs of the current extinction event in your own backyard. (5)

The extinction event also teaches us that the earth itself is prone to mass ruin and that there have been prior catastrophic alterations to its regimes of life. This should give us pause in at least four respects. First, this is not something passively happening to us. Our way of being is the root cause. We are the catastrophe. Second, the death of other species is not the problem that living beings die. All living beings die. That is a part of living. It is a crime against birth: genetic lineages that have shared the earth with our genetic lineages for millions of years are being robbed of their natality. Third, our very being is wrapped up in the complex interrelationships with other beings. Our manner of self-assertion is being revealed as self-destructive. Finally, we should remember that the earth does not belong to us. We evolved to live and flourish in a very particular kind of earth and we do not have a lot of evolutionary wiggle room, at least not given the shocking rapidity of ecological change.

 

Although we now have far greater refinement in our measurements and modeling, we are nonetheless confirming what we more or less already knew a half-century ago. With the founding of Earth Day, we acknowledged that there was an unfolding crisis. What happened? Why have we been so inert? Why does Earth Day scarcely register?

Image 4. Earth Day is an annual event celebrated on April 22. First celebrated in 1970, Earth Day now includes events in more than 193 countries, coordinated by the Earth Day Network, in order to promote ecological awarness. (Image Credits: https://www.earthday.org/)

Part of the problem has been a massive disinformation campaign. To cite a couple of examples: Highly funded groups like the Heartland Institute continue to muddy the waters of a rational appraisal of the situation. We have also learned that ExxonMobil, one of the most profitable enterprises in the history of enterprise, knew for decades of the “catastrophic” externalities of its business model, but considered them acceptable; indeed, they invested millions of dollars in confusing a generally gullible public about the science that they knew was true (6). Recently leaked documents from 1988 demonstrate that Shell also knew that its business model would have devastating consequences (7). Since both corporations knew how bad it would be, did they spread the word? Of course not! They spent an estimated two billion dollars in an orchestrated campaign of misdirection and lies (8).

 

As profound and pervasive as the problem of ideology and the manufacture of consent is, I do not think they deserve all of the blame. The extinction event is an ontological event and we are coming understand our being in other important ways. I would like to conclude with a brief reflection on two of them.

 

We are coming to appreciate what Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground called “our right to be stupid.” We demand to be able to say that 2 + 2 = 5. This is not some fancy existential freedom or the absurdity of the abyss. The assertion of our right to be stupid is our unilateral assertion of ourselves as the center. It is the assertion of our right to lord ourselves over the earth, willy-nilly.   

 

Or we could put this more positively: we are coming to see more clearly what it means to be human. Humanus, after all, has its etymological and ontological roots in humus, in the ground and soil of the earth (9), rather than in the heavens among the gods. We live at the pleasure of the earth. We are first and foremost earthlings. This is our ontological dispensation, our ethical challenge par excellence, and the threshold through which “unprecedented” political and economic change will have to come for all earthlings, human and otherwise.

---

 

[1] Kenneth Rexroth, “Facing Extinction,” The Alternative Society: Essays from the Other World (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 183-196. Henceforth FE.

[2] Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis, Chris Mooney, “Trump Administration Sees a 7-degree Rise in Global Temperatures by 2100,” Washington Post, September 28, 2018.

 

[3] Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis, “Startling New Research Finds Large Buildup of Heat in the Oceans, Suggesting a Faster Rate of Global Warming,” Washington Post, October 31, 2018.

[4] See for example, Hallmann CA, Sorg M, Jongejans E, Siepel H, Hofland N, Schwan H, et al. (2017) “More than 75 Percent Decline over 27 Years in Total Flying Insect Biomass in Protected Areas.” https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185809

[5] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 17-18.

[6] Both Inside Climate News and The Los Angeles Times reported this story. Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer, “Exxon: The Road not Taken: Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago,” Inside Climate News (September 16, 2015); Sara Jerving, Katie Jennings, Masako Melissa Hirsch, and Susanne Rust, “What Exxon Knew about the Earth’s Melting Arctic,” The Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2015.

[7] Benjamin Franta, “Shell and Exxon's Secret 1980s Climate Change Warnings,” The Guardian, September 19, 2018.

[8] Robert J. Brule, “The Climate Lobby: A Sectoral Analysis of Lobbying Spending on Climate Change in the USA, 2000 to 2016,” Climatic Change (2018) 149: 289-303.

[9] This echoes all the way down to its hypothetical archaic Proto-Indo-European root, Dhghem, earth.

 

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