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    Main | Alan Watts and Martin Luther King, Jr. on Nuclear War »
    Tuesday
    May162017

    Death by a Million Pinpricks 

    We have now seen that a naturalist might feel himself fully justified in ranking the race of man as distinct species; for he has found that they are distinguished by many differences in structure and constitution, some being of importance.  These differences have, also, remained nearly constant for very long periods of time.  Our naturalist will have been in some degree influenced by the enormous range of man, which is a great anomaly in the class of mammals, if mankind be viewed as a single species.  He will have been struck with the distribution of the several so-called races, which accords with that of other undoubtedly distinct species of mammals.  Finally, he might urge that the mutual fertility of all the races has not as yet been fully proved, and even if proved would not be an absolute proof of their specific identity. 

                                                                                                                           -Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chapter VII:  On the Races of Man

     

    When you want to destroy someone you always define them as unpeople – not really human – monkeys maybe, idiots maybe, machines maybe, but not people.  

                                                                                                                            -Alan Watts, The Nature of Consciousness, The Myth of the Automatic Universe

     

    However human meanness got started, we know that it has characterized the hominid line for a long time.  I have already mentioned evidence of murder among the Australopithecines and Pekin man.  So it is with a considerable proportion of all the known hominid fossils: over and over again fractures indicate that death was caused by instruments in the hands of fellow-men… Natural or not, the habit people have of killing one another is extraordinary when view in the perspective of the biological community.  I know of nothing comparable among other kinds of animals – even the “wars” among ants are between different species… People have developed endlessly diverse methods of killing one another, and they do it from a wide variety of motives.  As far as methods are concerned, we have the simple brute force of strangulation; the use of hand tools such as knives and clubs; the development of tools that are effective at a distance, such as arrows and rifles; and finally the discovery of really wholesale way of killing with the impersonal blasts of nuclear explosions.  Death may be direct and immediate, as with a knife through the heart; or it may be inflicted surreptitiously by the use, for instance, of a slow-acting poison.  As for motives... 

                                                                                                                                    -Marston Bates, On Being Mean, Gluttons and Libertines

     

     

                There appears to be a recent uptick in the talk about the end of the world as we know it.  This could be a result of the company I keep, whom thankfully are always interested in discussing the fate of humanity, the state of nature, and the meaning (if any) of life, but certainly such conversations are also inspired by the numerous geopolitical conflagrations raging across the globe (compounded by the ostensible pathetic hopelessness exhibited by our political leaders and institutions) and the declining state of the natural world as demonstrated by the consistently deteriorating conditions in almost every ecological system of Earth’s biosphere, which is regularly punctuated by large-scale environmentally destructive industrial disasters.  The perceived forms in which the end of the world shall manifest varies from person to person, and is obviously influenced by predisposing factors such as one’s spiritual beliefs, personal experiences, and station in life, but is often nebulous due the uncertainty granted by myriad variables that would potentially contribute to the destruction of humanity.  This is to say that the way in which the world will end assumes different forms depending on who you talk to, and even then a person may rightfully harbor multiple theories for possible doomsday scenarios which may result in varying degrees of humanity’s downfall, be it merely collapse of civilizations, which would leave room for survivors, or the absolute extinction of the human race, in which there would be no survivors.  Some common forms that that play out in people’s heads include a world war scenario in which the destruction of humankind will take place gradually (perhaps over the course of a century or so, which is virtually nothing a geological time-scale) and involves states going to war against each other and perhaps simultaneously unraveling in internecine civil conflicts.  Environmental decay is also seen as a prominent if not preeminent factor involved in to the gradual expiation of our species, and a Mad Max resource-wars scenario in which edible food, potable water, and clean air are scarce often plays out in conjunction with (either as a cause, an outcome, or independent exacerbating force) circumstances surrounding this anticipated collapse of civilizations.  In both these cases (resource wars or world war sans nuclear holocaust) there is a question of possible survivors, whom may or may not be compiled into bands of marauding cannibals, such as those depicted in the film The Road.  A nuclear holocaust is another possibility that may play out and lead to the destruction of humankind (as well as large cross-sections of life on Earth), and in this scenario the obliteration of the world is rapid, if not instantaneous, and there is little realistic chance wandering bands of mutilated humanoids will roam wide-eyed and drooling across the wastelands of a scorched earth beneath the blackened skies of a nuclear winter.  In both the nuclear holocaust and non-nuclear world war scenarios the end of mankind is perceived as the unfortunate consequence of intractable rivalries between nations whose leaders and countrymen viewed the opposing nation in a light of sufficient difference, as though they were a separate species altogether, so as to warrant the extermination of the other.  Needless to say, human perceptions about the imminence, form, intensity, and impact of any possible doomsday scenario are informed by our connection to data that shapes our outlook on life.  Presently, many of us are inundated with bad news on a regular basis via the internet.  Our ability to constantly be “in the know” may lead to a doomsday paranoia as a result of always being surrounded by negative experiences, similar to fourteenth century European cultures whom believed that the Black Death was a harbinger of the Apocalypse, or the followers of Malthus whom feared a global food shortage and widespread famine as a result of his forgivable yet unaccommodating arithmetic. 

     The Triump of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder  , Image from: WikiArt.org

                There is of course another angle from which to view the prospective demise of humankind: that considering all of our present ecological and social predicaments, humans are not facing the end of world as we know it, and that despite the dire state of affairs amongst our species and mother nature, we are doing alright if not better than ever before depending on the metric you are using to measure what index, and furthermore that human innovation and ingenuity will resolve the pressing environmental problems that threaten humanity’s progress and prosperity.  Proponents of this argument point to the downward trend in violence per capita over time – that there appears to be incontrovertible evidence indicating that the percentage of violent deaths from conflict has plummeted since the rise of civilizations.  Also, other major indicators of a healthy society, such as average life span and infant mortality rates trend in a positive direction that bodes well for the general state of humanity.  Yet even if it is the case that one out of ten people are no longer dying in the battlefield or during childbirth, the absolute numbers in some of these metrics for human development have increased.   Take for instance slavery and refugees.  In terms of percentage, there are less people enslaved today compared to most of human history, but in terms of absolute figures there has never been as many people enslaved than there are now.  The number of refugees in the world today is the highest it’s been since World War II, but only if you are looking at absolute numbers.  Be this as it may, I wouldn’t want to be the one trying to explain these statistics to the Syrian whose town has been bombed to rumble or an impoverished family in Lagos.  To the multitudes currently enduring what the great JKF referred to as the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself, the fact that the percentage of humans living in immiseration and violence is less than it has ever been before is irrelevant, and to present these people with such claims would be cynical, arrogant, and misguided.

    Image from: War and Peace, Our World In Data

                The school of thought which promotes the notion that humans have entered the Anthropocene, the geologic epoch marked by homo sapiens’ impact on climate and the environment, may indeed be a correct analysis.  Our imprint on Earth may be evinced in future core samples that contain a layer of earth rich in plastic, concrete, toxins, and synthetic chemicals.  It is probably true that humans, the ultimate apex species, will be responsible for the destruction of the vast majority of present life on Earth due to our exploitation of the natural world, which comes in a wide variety of devastating methods such as excessive pollution and consumption (especially where the seas and forests are concerned), the burning of fossil fuels, the contribution to ocean acidification, increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, so as to render impossible our own existence due to the ecological support systems that we will have annihilated through our myopia, narcissism, avarice, decadence, and stupidity.  (Still, even if we do kill ourselves, there appears to be a conviction among most Earth-scientists that the planet will recover and life in some form or another will go on.)   In this suicidal slow-death scenario, humanity shall experience death by a million pinpricks.  This process is already underway, and implies that the cumulative and synergistic effect of human actions that expand our ecological footprints will result in the eventual death of the biological systems and networks that we depend on for survival, thus leading to our own demise.  In this scenario, a pinprick constitutes a single variable in the constellation of detrimental factors, varying in their degree of intensity, contributing to the gouging and whittling away of the biological foundation sustaining human life on Earth.  Examples of pinpricks, in no particular order, include mass produced items such as every manufactured car, tank, submarine, cargo ship, missile (one tomahawk cruise missile contains around five hundred ounces of silver), airplane, oil, oil or fracking well, bucket wheel excavator, computer, telephone, television, refrigerator, air conditioner, dish washer and dryer, condom, diaper, shampoo and conditioner bottle, fish-shaped soy sauce container, etc.  Pinpricks can come in the form of activities or events such as every time we take a cruise, take a flight, take a shit, flush the toilet, fill up our gas tanks, go on a road trip, go to Las Vegas, rave at Burning Man, race the Daytona 500, crash a car, crash a plane, construct a bridge or building, expand a highway, make a movie, make a diamond ring, throw a bachelor party, have a wedding, have a baby, have an abortion, have a funeral, have surgery, launch a missile, launch a war, launch a startup, drop a bomb, poach an animal, eat a hamburger, catch a fish, step on a piece of reef, and so on.  Although these pinpricks may be fairly innocuous as isolated events, the cumulative effect of the pinpricks performed regularly and ubiquitously amounts to ecocide. 

     Image from: Ocean Conservatory/Susan White/U.S Fish and Wildlife Service

                There is one more point I would like to mention in this drawn-out and occasionally preposterous entry.  While humanity made be said to pulling the rug out from under its feet, as we travel down our current path of unstainable consumption and pollution (according to the UNDP, a child in developed country will contribute as much to pollution and consumption as thirty to forty children in a developing country), struggling to attain homeostasis with the rest of the natural world by balancing-out our use of natural resources with the deleterious effect that extracting and converting these latent energy sources into fuel has on the environment, and are dragging down and taking out many other organisms and species of flora and fauna in this process, in a philosophical sense it could be argued that this is not unnatural.  Human beings are products of the environment, even if we act as a cancer or virus in that environment (which some people and culture may do, but many cultures do not) by presently harming it, we are still creatures that have evolved from the extensive and ancient tree of life.  Even if we end up destroying ourselves, it could still be argued that this is the natural progression of the human experience in nature.  (That said, we should be doing everything possible to prevent our collective suicide and fight the forces destroying the planet from their corridors of power in Wall Street and the Pentagon, the latter of whom are sometimes responsible for killing innocent people in foreign countries.  This battle between those who are inclined toward oppression and slavery and those who are victimized by or opposed it is also natural.) Human beings are natural, and those who try to portray our species as a virus or cancer that must be stamped-out or sterilized are embarking down a dangerous road of the alienation and control of members of or species whom they think lesser than they are.  Having come from the Earth and the cosmos, whichever direction we take as species and however our run in this universe ends is going to be natural (although we do have a say as to how long, prosperous, meaningful, and fruitful it could be).   There is nothing else it could possibly be.  

    The Sun, image from Wikipeda/Nasa

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