Monday, November 05, 2007

Is Humanity Finished?

In addition to the old literature I am fond of typing about in this space, I also go on periodic binges of taking out books from the library which I skim through when I eat my toast or am sitting with my children as they fight and demand food and so forth. Most of these books, whether they are art surveys or travelogues or current events tomes, I must confess, are pretty light, though some of them certainly aspire to be serious. I get them out because they promise either to amuse me, make me think I am keeping some kind of contact with the outside world where things happen, indulge my dearer prejudices (though I must have very peculiar prejudices, because it is rare I find anything that satisfies me in this area), or, more commonly, my perverse ones. Those in the latter category tend to be such works as forecast the imminent doom of the United States, Western Civilization, or even the entire human race, by all of which entities I have a sad and, as I say, perverse inclination much of the time to feel unloved and unvalued, such that at a very base level of my mind the idea of their collapsing altogether--as if this were somehow going to render me a more valuable and significant and loved person--is fascinating to me. Thus I read a lot of books about peak oil, the various impending economic crises, cultural decline, demographic implosion, the perfect girl/woman phenomenon, the listless underachieving boy/man phenomenon (these are very titillating/borderline pornographic for us old men as they describe scenes like college campuses where the male/female ratio hovers around 1 to 2 and the women, gorgeous, toned, brilliant and impeccably dressed, are reduced to competing for the attentions of a bunch of slovenly, inarticulate, fast-food inhaling cretins--most of whom by the way have half the sperm counts their grandfathers did at the same age--who would rather play video games and look at porn on the internet than interact, sexually or otherwise, with real and very willing women. We certainly would never have presented such pitiful excuses for a manly spirit!!!), and anything generally concerned with how stupid almost everybody is compared to the author and other similarly ideal people, usually from the past. The more negative the books are the more I am usually left with the suspicion that their authors' motivations for writing them are the same as mine are for reading them; which in both cases are urges that would almost certainly have been better off being resisted.

For the most part I don't read a lot of books about global warning and its close cousin, the trashing of the environment, mainly because I find the kind of people who write those sorts of books to be completely devoid of humor or any other specific indication of human feeling, though also because, with the exception of things like Venice possibly being wiped out before I get to go there again, I can't seem to bring myself to get very fired up about it. Emotionally I don't feel I have much at stake in the movement, I think because, though it purports to be otherwise, the overarching strain of anti-humanism implicit in it is still too strong. The fun people, or the wise people, or the true artists, or even the genuinely kindly people, from my vantage point, have not, for lack of a better word, internalized the ethos of this movement enough yet to wrest some of its spirit away from the fanatics and the earnest bores, and infuse it with real life. Therefore to get me to read a book about it requires a more or less outrageous premise. Predicting the death of hundreds of millions of people or the extinction of the human race through greed and stupidity, and even implying that this might not be wholly undesirable and to some degree even ought to be promoted, is at this point pretty standard; what grabbed my attention regarding the book below was the totality of the author's attitude that human life was not only essentially purposeless, but had been a catastrophe for the planet earth, which its presence had thrown into complete disorder for no good reason. These are hard ideas for me to get my admittedly unathletic mind around.

The World Without Us is typical of the current school of "popular" (i.e. general audience) non-fiction books about science, history, etc, written by journalists or scholars who like to write for mainstream magazines and appear on television as pundits or experts of one kind or another. It is filled with facts and figures as well as episodic travels to out of the way places (Belarussian forests, Mexican archaelogical sites, the Korean DMZ), and recollections of forgotten figures from history (guys who collected and labelled dirt samples for 50 years in Victorian England, the Polish counts who over 400 years inadvertently preserved the only ancient growth forest remaining in Europe) that promise both to reveal insights for our current interpretations of the pertinent questions as well as dazzle the reader with the thorough reasearch and polymathic learning of the author. I am fairly ignorant of natural history, so there was much that was news to me in this book. I was not aware, for example, that North America was once teeming with great wild beasts including numerous varieties of elephants, camels, enormous sloths, a species of buffalo much larger than the bison which survive today, gigantic birds larger than ostriches, until they were slaughtered by human beings (which depletion of the food supply also forced the people living on these continents 11,000 or so years ago to learn to grow and live more off of corn, potatoes and other plant life. Think a lesson lies embedded there for us?) I was also unaware of the massive extent of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which as recently as the mid-1800s blackened the skies of the eastern U.S. as far as the eye could see in their annual migrations, as well as that an estimated 2 billion birds a year continue to lose their lives as a result of human interference, power lines, glass windows, cats (if humans are the main villains of this book, cats are regarded as sort of our secret police wing, killing small animals pitilessly and indiscrimately and living well above their natural consumption level [Fancy Feast beef and salmon platter, etc] as the fruits of the unholy alliance). In one of the more entertaining sections of the book, the author ruefully speculates that if humans were to die out, cats would be most able to survive in the new wild conditions of all our domesticated animals. Dogs would be in trouble, as they would be forced into competition with wolves and other more ferocious species; cows would be wiped out by hungry predators in an ecological eyeblink. I don't anticipate pigs and sheep would fare much better. The section on New England's forests, now that I hike and spend a considerable amount of time in them, was especially of interest. Most of the woods in New England, with the exception of northern Maine, are regrowths upon abandoned famland, which anyone who goes into them will find evidence of in the long stone walls that are still standing all over the place though in the middle of an apparently wild forest. Because the farms were for the most part abandoned before 1900 however, before widespread use of pesticides and introduction of foreign plants, the regrowth has been almost exclusively of the originally native trees--birches, beeches, maples, oaks, etc. This is apparently a rare phenomenon in the modern world.
Towards the end of the book--the section in works of this type where possible solutions to the seemingly intractable problems facing the thinking segment of society are posited--the author (Alan Weisman) pushes for a drastic reduction in human population, currently projected to reach a peak of 9 or 10 billion by the year 2050 before levelling off, by limiting all women on the planet, or at least attempting to, to a maximum of one child. He does concede that this is unfair to the women of countries like Ethiopia, where it takes 310 children to wreak the environmental damage over a lifetime that can be expected of one American tot. Next we are introduced to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group of people who, whether they are serious or not, sound like a exhilirating bunch to run with. They evidently have no capability, and less desire, to be persuaded that there is any intelligent justification for propagating the human species, as human beings collectively, in their view, given their advanced consciousness and intellectual capacity, have failed to justify their existence or adequately define its purpose. Underneath this proactive and outwardly confident stance toward extinction however is a sense that the bloated population, though momentarily still growing, is on the edge of a catastrophe that will cull its numbers involuntarily, to the point where recovery to the present state of civilization will be impossible, and without the ability to manage it comfortably and without suffering.

While I don't want to be too obvious in my self-interested attempt to defend the continued propogation and existence of the species, such sentiments as those above are not exactly what used to be spoken of, and occasionally understood, and occasionally admired, as the human spirit. The advocates of extinction are saying in effect that humanity has gone as far as it can hope to go, that its life is a dead end, that no more meaningful knowledge or other advancements offering illuminations on its purpose are to be expected, and that it is time to give up. This is a view that can only be reached by a mind that is so oversophisticated as to be capable of regarding itself a little too complacently. Surely there is more, not less, to life and the capacities of the human mind--and soul--than what it has for the most part attained awareness of so far? I do not feel that I have done much more than begun to be vaguely aware of the more exalted possibilities of existence, even such ones as are commonplace experiences among the brightest and most beautiful of my contemporaries, or are at least closer to being accessible to them, and consequently I still would like, and still have hope, that other people, my descendants, to be blunt, will have the opportunity, pointed in the right direction perhaps by me as much as possible, to go further along this path of understanding, enlightenment, humanness, whatever one wants to call it.

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