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Extinction: The Illusion of Abundance

Reflections on The Paris Cop21, The Sixth Extinction, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, and Empire of Necessity

I’ve been thinking about extinction, to be precise: the relationship of abundance to extinction, in the run-up to the twenty-first United Nations Conference on Climate Change, the Conference of the Parties (COP21) and in the wake of publication of several significant books.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, but Greg Grandin’s Empire of Necessity, published in 2014, and Carl Safina’s recent Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, have rather stunning sections on extinctions, of seals and African elephants, respectively, and both writers pose a clear connection between the slave trade in human beings and the ravaging of non-human species.

Grandin’s chapter “Killing Seals” is filled with graphic and nauseating details of mass slaughter as sailors, most were farmers on land back in the states, lined up with clubs on the seal-rich islands off Chile’s coast to indiscriminately bludgeon seals which, in the words of one of them, George Little, was “the work of death.” Grandin writes: “A slight blow on the head was sufficient to take down the ‘young pups’, but the old whigs (or mothers) and the clap-matches (males) needed harder blows. If a man went down amidst the clubbing, Little continued, ‘he would be torn to pieced by these huge animals,’” who were, however, mainly defenseless. Soon the beach would be littered with carcasses left to rot. It was the seal skins and their downy underneath that were of value in England and the Orient for the manufacture of luxury items.

After not too many years, the frenzy of seal killing reached it zenith as word spread of its ease and large profits to be made, and, then, quite soon, the economic boom became a crash as the islands’ once multitudinous seals became extinct.

And this is how New Englander Amasa Delano, captain of the Perseverance, after investing himself heavily in a disastrous sealing expedition, met the slave ship Tryal which had been taken over in a successful revolt by its human cargo, Muslim slaves from Senegal. They were adrift, hoping to find navigational help to guide them home. But, Delano decided after he boarded the ship and discovered the situation to brutally subdue the rebellious men and women, and then make certain those who survived were sold, again, after all, as slaves so that he, broke from the sealing crash, might claim a reward for return of “lost property” from the Tryal’s owner. “The West Africans defended themselves with ‘desperate courage,’ Delano said.” But his white male crew used their sealing knives “which were always kept exceedingly sharp” not just to slaughter, but to skin and torture the Africans, fighting with “extraordinary fury” against their non-white adversaries.

Safina is equally graphically clear on the connection between human bondage and animal extinction. As Africa’s elephant population was in process of being reduced 99% from Roman times to ours, slaves who were marched from capture on the continent to slave ships on the African coast were used also to transport ivory tusks from butchered elephants. The missionary Alfred J. Swanson came across such a forced migration as late as 1882 and recorded the sight of human beings chained, their necks locked into poles, each carrying an elephant tusk weighing as much as 80 pounds. “Feet and shoulders were a mass of open sores.” Women carried their children as well. If anyone were to falter, explained the slave master: “We cannot leave valuable ivory on the road. We spear the child and make the burden lighter. Ivory first.”’ The reverse had been true for the mature elephants whose tusks the enslaved humans carried; their butchered carcasses lay rotting next to grieving youngsters brutally orphaned and likely doomed to starvation by the ivory hunt.

Kolbert never touches the connections between human slavery and abuse of animals, but she joins the other writers in understanding how the perception of spectacular abundance encourages the destruction of whole species. “A 1662 account by a captain named Richard Whitbourne describes great auks being driven into boats ‘by hundreds at a time as if God had made the innocency of so poor a creature to become such an instrument for the sustentation of Man.’” Later the auks feathers and flesh were used in many other ways but food, as fish bait, mattress stuffing, fuel. Auks were herded into stone pens to wait until they could be butchered. But, in 1844, the last pair of great auk was murdered at behest of a collector and the auk became extinct.

What fuels such savagery against human and animal kind? What, but the promise of great profits, the lure of luxury items, fine ivory jewelry and statues, or healing potions, gloves and seal skin coats, and free slave labor leading to the amassing of great wealth; all of which seem available merely for the taking. So great is the abundance and so easy the conquest that the killers become insatiable.

The illusion of abundance produces the kind of madness that leads to wholesale slaughter. Berserking it is called when it happens on the battlefield. That’s the moment when the hero believes himself to be invulnerable though facing massive adversaries and with no regard for life he charges and wantonly kills. “I fucking loved killing,” is how one Vietnam vet described his episode. The army psychiatrist and classicist Jonathan Shay who has studied the effects on soldiers who survived says the experience of going berserk in battle creates an irremediable character flaw: “I believe that once a person has entered the beserk state that he or she is changed forever.” Have we not, without knowing, become victims of beserking in our assaults on the natural world; are we now irredeemably flawed and unable to help ourselves?

Like the seals, the auks, who could swim but not fly, offered scant resistance to their holocaust; they were by nature trusting souls. Elephants might have seemed more daunting foe but, Safina notes, “whenever elephants met men, elephants fared badly” (this is obviously still true today as numbers dwindle and poaching continues). “Elephants message in a bottle,” he writes: “vulnerability.”

The COP21 in Paris this December is being heralded as human beings last significant chance to come to agreement that will keep the warming of the world below two degrees Celsius. “Far below,” stresses James Hansen, foremost climatologist and the man who announced to Congress in 1988 that global warming had begun. But no one, including Hansen, expects that this twenty-first COP will actually succeed (though everyone hopes some significant reductions might result). Twenty previous climate conferences have produced scant results. That the stakes are higher this time because global warming is proceeding at a rate faster than scientists had hoped and most had projected does not mean that human consciousness is any better equipped to avoid the dual lures of great profits and the appearance of abundant resources available for the taking that doomed the great auk, the island seals and has so depleted the African elephants. After all, upwards of 7.3 billion people live on this planet and world population is projected to rise to 9 billion around 2025. What could do us in? Yet, as Kolbert points out, catastrophes do happen. Sudden, massive extinction events that of the dinosaurs, for instance, do occur, unpredictable and lethal to entire species of life.

Or, in an even more sinister interpretation, because targeted and intentional, what if, in a magnified replay of the enslaved women carrying to market their children and valuable ivory tusks, we tacitly agree to do away with significant numbers of (“expendable”) people who become climate refugees because fossil fuel profits matter more; won’t there still be plenty of privileged survivors around to enjoy the benefits of late-industrialization, and so illusion of abundance might continue?

Why ever should we, how ever could we, leave 80% of the oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground and under the seas? Especially not now when for the first time those vast, untapped reserves have become available to us because of hydraulic fracturing and the Arctic, too, is open to drilling because of its melting ice? Even as President Obama speaks to the dangers of climate change, he gives Shell the right to deep sea drilling in the Arctic, touting the benefits of “energy independence” for the United States.

If it is so, as it seems to be, that the very experience of super abundance led to over-hunting and in relatively few years to the complete extinction of the auk, the extinction of the Chilean islands’ seals and near extinction of the African elephant, as well as the abundant waste of body parts as auks were plucked for feathers and seals were skinned, their bodies were left to rot, (“by the end of the day, the men would be drenched in squalor and filth.”) and elephant tusks removed from hulking carcasses, then what can we can we say of a world economic system based upon growing consumption, forced obsolescence and gobs of garbage, a system that promises ever more and is premised upon increasing abundance but which actually creates abundant waste. If we read the histories of extinctions and accept, as Kolbert explains, that we are in the midst of a sixth great extinction, this one caused by humankind, and if we understand the science of climate change, then, we have to realize, I think, that we’ve arrived at a crisis of perception in which the illusion of abundance fuels notions of invulnerability leading to whole-scale beserking of the natural world.

What have we been missing? What is it we’ve been unable to see and comprehend?

The vision of an abundant Eden, a primal paradise, was an illusion, a trick of the mind that drives humans to destroy the very things they covet. The animals only appeared as if their flocks and herds were inexhaustible, there for the taking, easy to slaughter, because they had been left alone, once assaulted for an insatiable profit motive each species quickly succumbed.

Vulnerability is the true message of the hunt. If one remains sane in the midst of the assault, sane enough, that is to bear witness, then there comes a recognition of every life’s fragility.

Along with the first-hand reports of the wanton slaughters of the animals and birds are comments on the hunted creatures capacity for feeling, as if the murderers had been granted a sudden moment of grace in which they saw. Seals were “gregarious, very intelligent, sociable and affectionate; they are curious…they kiss each other and die with grief at the loss of their young.” Elephants, too, as many have reported, mourn elaborately and can die of grief. “The bird that is shot is a parent,” exclaimed Alfred Newton, a professor of zoology, who after going in search of the non-existent auk became a conservationist. The animals, in these moments, are no longer goods to be acquired for the sake of wealth; they become sentient creatures quite like us in our best moments: aware, dignified, and loving.

Such flashes of insight about the victims seldom lead to immediate changes of behavior in those who are engaged in killing or enslaving for profit. But the cumulative effects of understanding do lead to movements for change: the abolitionist movement was predicated, obviously, on growing commitment to the humanity of people held as slaves, and the various movements to end our enormous cruelty to many species of animal stem from understanding that animals feel.

There is much to say about the benefits to all that a heightened vision of vulnerability would entail. Some are immediately clear: a new reverence for the fragility and worth of simply being in the ever-more fragile world that would, itself, lead to a fierce commitment to respect the lives of all sentient creatures and the world. But how exactly do we forgo the easy temptations of disaster and dystopian scenarios in order to dramatize (my particular work) or write about, and create the stories of an eco-culture that will envision, enliven and deepen an awareness of our mutual vulnerability?

This is a question to which I hope to return in subsequent blogs as we approach the Paris Cop21 because it turns out there is also to be an ArtCop21, a festival of activist culture, surrounding the climate talks and intended to spur them forward.