Saturday, February 17 , 2018, 1:02 pm | Fair 65º


Dan McCaslin: Welcome to the Anthropocene, Part II — A Sixth Mass Extinction

Three subspecies of Channel Island fox recently were removed from the national Endangered Species List. Click to view larger
Three subspecies of Channel Island fox recently were removed from the national Endangered Species List. (Chuck Graham photo)

[Noozhawk's note: Part one of a two-part series. Click here for part one.]

News: On Monday, Aug. 29, 30 earth scientists in Cape Town at the International Geological Congress recommended replacing our current Holocene Epoch description with the term “Anthropocene Epoch.” The Working Group on the Anthropocene contends that the Holocene must give way to a new epoch defined by nuclear tests, plastic pollution and, yes, the domesticated chicken.

Renowned Nobel Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson has noted that science fiction informs us about what’s happening today and in the near future in ways that straight science cannot.

My interest in science fiction goes way back to Isaac Asimov’s I Robot and Foundation series.

UCLA post-humanist scholar Ursula Heise writes in the Willkommen im Anthropozän volume accompanying the Deutsches Museum exhibit that “science fiction, in print and in film, has emerged as the aesthetic genre that most persistently engages with the fate of the planet Earth as a whole.”

Particularly relevant today are Philip K. Dick’s final prophetic “theological” series, especially V.A.L.I.S. and Transmigration of Dr. Timothy Archer, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy along with his more recent 2312. My students at Crane School loved Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, and agree they’re much superior to the bombastic movie versions.

One of the most prevalent sci-fi themes appears in William Gibson’s brilliant 2014 novel, The Peripheral. He depicts two Earth realities: the 2020s and a vague “70 years later” when our Earth has been transformed in both positive and negative ways.

The heroine lives in the very near-future America where jobs are scarce unless you count quasi-legal drug manufacturing or Homes (Homeland Security); and the 2020s-Present feels desperately hopeless.

The story involves time travel back from the late 2080s where the Earth itself is healthier after decades of a slow-motion extinction Gibson fancifully describes as “the jackpot.” Elizabeth Kolbert would write “sixth mass extinction.”

Gibson is a negative-Anthropocene prophet who writes that it wasn’t a comet or nuclear war that wrought the jackpot, but rather “the changing climate, droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone, collapse of the other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less … .”

In fiction, clever writers can plot a way through, and somehow Gibson’s heroine and her friends figure things out, and we get the Hollywood ending, which might please the positive-Anthropocene curators at the “Welcome to the Anthropocene” German exhibit.

If human ingenuity, greed and technology have gotten us into this predicament, then our ingenuity, technology and wisdom may pull us out. There are many positive real-time stories, including ones from our Santa Barbara area. One example is a Noozhawk story about the recovery of three Channel Islands fox subspecies and their removal from the U.S. endangered species list.

While we can read many stories like this (I mentioned the European bald ibis recovery in my previous article), the overall scenario is not so rosy, as even the Deutsches Museum scientists admit.

One way to describe the problem is that there are simply too many humans. Humans make up about a third of the biomass of large terrestrial vertebrates, and the animals we keep to eat — cows, pigs, goats, sheep — make up most of the other two-thirds. The world’s larger wild creatures make up less than 5 percent of the total biomass (lions, elephants, bears and the like).

Another way to view this depressing situation is to accept that the Anthropocene does represent a catastrophic mismatch between the pace of human technological evolution as compared to the genetic evolution of nearly every other species on Earth.

To put it yet another way, basic “evolution” never would have produced the 1.4 billion-plus cattle grazing, farting and defecating on the Earth today. Cattle did not “naturally” evolve to serve as tri-tip or hamburger for humans!

We cannot simply tell if a sixth great extinction is on its way; the last one was 66 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous. Genuine scientists will tell us that such die-offs are always succeeded by a recovery of biological diversity.

This isn’t very comforting since any catastrophic extinction event would destroy human civilization and likely all, or most, humans.  Gibson cleverly points out the fictional “jackpot” (extinction event) “had not necessarily been as bad for the very rich people. The [surviving] richest had gotten richer, there being fewer to own whatever there was [left].”

But his brilliant descriptions of 2080s London show lonely plutocrats aching for the joys of associations and crowded pubs. He describes a few of the 2080s lords as “gloriously pre-posthuman” — they won’t even accept the new antibiotics that cure everything.

As Jiddu Krishnamurti often noted, the essence of humanity is in our social relationships, not the things we make.

The “Welcome to the Anthropocene” curators and authors go much more deeply into technology, what it means and how we could deploy technologies to avert any real-time “jackpot.” They believe that our technologies are poised to become as autonomous and complicated as organic life itself.

Some predict a coming “technium,” and there were exhibits manifesting this optimistic concept. We can see how the digital world is alive with words taken directly from nature, such as mice, virus, cloud, server farms, directory trees — and it’s legitimate to speak of “digital ecosystems” like today’s stock market.

Yes, we’re now involved with the captivating idea that some emerging technologies will likely exhibit true autonomy, and may have to accept that something that can gather energy, repair itself and reproduce has an existence just as “natural” as an ant or a jellyfish. Does a “technological species” have to mimic an organic one in order to be viable?

One of the curators bastardizes a famous quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein: “If a robot could talk, we could not understand her.”

In the “nature” of the future, the duality between nature and culture will have dissolved, and in fact is dissolving right in front of our eyes today.

The Dutch design and art group Next Nature explores this dissolution in their exhibit called "Razorius gillettus" — each one of the dozens of razors shown in the photo is slightly different, and in fact closely resembles natural evolutionary processes

Successful adaptations (that worked better and attracted more buyers) are preserved, while unsuccessful ones are dropped. It can be argued that, well, they cannot reproduce themselves (true), but this is also true of many domesticated fruits and livestock (e.g., mules).

Amid all these ideas, a key question arising from the highly stimulating “Welcome to the Anthropocene” exhibits is, “What are our greatest future challenges?”

Among many answers given, an Australian National University scientist, Will Steffen, responded: “Our biggest challenge is to reconnect with the biosphere.

Contemporary society has lost touch with the living world around us. We are increasingly living in the electronic worlds of cyberspace.”

I connect this to the joy and opportunity we have living here in Santa Barbara where we can walk over to one of our many parks (Elings Park is near my house), or even better, drive a few minutes and hike directly into wilder nature that still exists near us — AND TAKE THE KIDS!

Gary Ferguson’s piece on Americans’ fear of the “Great Outdoors” is mirrored in may similar writings, and it’s fact that visits to our national parks are down.

This fear of nature is tough to decipher, and we may need to lay the responsibility right at the parents’ door: Get off the couch, turn off the news or pro football, bring snacks and the right gear for your children, head on over to Bohnett Park or into the San Rafael Wilderness today or this weekend.

If scientist A.D. Barnosky is right, the sixth mass extinction already has arrived and is happening right in front of us. Bringing back ibises and condors won’t cut it. Like Gibson’s “jackpot,” this sixth extinction isn’t cataclysmic or noticeable to us humans with our short life spans. It's time to seize the day today and go hiking with your family and friends.

4.1.1. — Books and articles

» A.D. Barnosky et al., “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?” Nature [2011: 515-517]

» Isaac Asimov, Robot series and Foundation and Empire series

» Iain M. Banks, Matter (2008)

» Orson Scott Card, Ender and Speaker for the Dead (five-novel series)

» Philip K. Dick, most of his novels, including V.A.L.I.S. (1981), The Transmigration of Dr. Timothy Archer (1982), The Simulacra

» Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction (2014, now in paperback)

» Kim Stanley Robinson, "Mars" trilogy and novel 2312

*All or most of these are available at Chaucer’s Bookstore

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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