Whatever space we leave

“And if you walk past the construction barriers, you find the remains of a path made by men, right by a thick bush bearing big scarlet berries. Maybe that’s from the Ruhr, too.

“If you follow the path, you find two small drifter camps, both evidently abandoned. Shelters made from found materials, including industrial tarps used as lean-tos. Not unlike the hawks, in a way. Except that the hawks don’t leave all those empties behind. 

“I was reminded of this time last year, when I volunteered for the local homeless count, and at daybreak we checked out another traffic island across the river by the branch library, and found an entire village of such abandoned shelters, some of which looked to have been there for years. We also found little shanty towns packed in under the little bridges behind the strip mall, on one of the busiest streets in town, many of the occupants teenage kids. When you participate in a project like that, you leave with a certainty that the count grossly underestimates the real number of people living outside, hiding just outside your view, sometimes in the same places the wildlife hides. And, at least if you are the sort who writes dystopian novels you get the sense that you are seeing one of those unevenly distributed futures, where the rights of ways and empty lots become involuntary refugee camps for those displaced by our slow collapse.

“Maybe it’s this weird zone I live in, but over the last decade I’ve been noticing how the things one sees in post-apocalyptic cinema and the things one sees roaming the contemporary American landscape have started to look so much the same. The only difference is that, in real life, nature seems much more ready to retake whatever space we leave…”

Text: Christopher Brown, The Vultures of SXSW, Field Notes.

Image: Marton Antal, Post apocalyptic landscape in Adventuretime style.

“Millions of years of fossilised Sun…”

“Along the slaughter spectrum, the weapons of choice scale up accordingly. Psychopaths have an intimacy with friends and strangers who they kill with their bare hands, knives, guns, and other implements. While their crimes may grow to paralyze a community, they rarely reach over the horizon. Sociopaths are incapable of unleashing widespread misery single-handedly, and instead rely upon the assistance of others: the proxies under their command or sway. Their violence extends over multiple horizons using offshore tax havens, financial algorithms, and military juntas, just as long as they avoid that dock in The Hague. 

“Ecopaths build upon a sociopath’s mobility and managerial savvy. But it is wrong to call the space they traverse global, if by that we mean exchanges among nations and multinationals. They have lifted their game to transform the entire solar-terrestrial environment into a slow, overheated killing field. Their achievement lies in triggering millions of years of fossilized Sun to accumulate in the glare of the Sun’s present life. They weaponise the troposphere, that thin film of planetary possibility, in order to murder the conditions for life. Slayers as a species will also become extinct. 

“Unlike their psychopathic and sociopathic peers who have humans in their sights, ecopaths are equal opportunity destroyers, omnicidal maniacs. Omnicide may be unfamiliar to some. Danielle Celermajer reinvigorated the term during the first days of 2020 when bushfires demonstrated to the entire world that Australia was the continental canary in its own coalmine. ‘We are unlikely to identify anyone actively scheming the death of the five-hundred million wild animals whom we believe to have died in the first month’, Celermajer wrote in the peak of the summer. Before the month was out that number was confirmed at one billion. ‘True, in recent years, environmentalists have coined the term ecocide, the killing of ecosystems — but this is something more. This is the killing of everything. Omnicide.’ Celermajer goes on to categorically identify many of those responsible. This is what the auditioning process looks like for court dramas…”

Text: Doug Kahn, What is an Ecopath? Sydney Review of Books.

Fully automated luxury communism

“In 2008 a Dutch professor named Mark Post presented the proof of concept for what he called “cultured meat.” Five years later, in a London TV studio, Mr. Post and his colleagues ate a burger they had grown from animal cells in a laboratory. […] The first “cultured beef” burgers are likely to enter the market next year, at approximately $50 each. But that won’t last long. Within a decade they will probably be more affordable than even the cheapest barbecue staples of today — all for a product that uses fewer resources, produces negligible greenhouse gasses and, remarkably, requires no animals to die. It’s not just barbecues and burgers. Last year Just, a leader in cellular agriculture, cut a deal to start producing one of the world’s tastiest steaks, Wagyu. A company called Endless West, which also makes grapeless wine, has started to produce Glyph, the world’s first “molecular whiskey.” Luxury could be coming to all. The case of cultured food and drink, far from a curiosity, is a template for a better, freer and more affluent world, a world where we provide for the needs of everyone — in style…”

“To say the present era is one of crisis borders on cliché. It differs from the dystopias of George Orwell or Aldous Huxley, or hell in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. It is unlike Europe during the Black Death or Central Asia as it faced the Mongols. And yet it is true: Ours is an age of crisis. We inhabit a world of low growth, low productivity and low wages, of climate breakdown and the collapse of democratic politics. A world where billions, mostly in the global south, live in poverty. A world defined by inequality.

“But the most pressing crisis of all, arguably, is an absence of collective imagination. It is as if humanity has been afflicted by a psychological complex, in which we believe the present world is stronger than our capacity to remake it — as if it were not our ancestors who created what stands before us now. As if the very essence of humanity, if there is such a thing, is not to constantly build new worlds.

“If we can move beyond such a failure, we will be able to see something wonderful. The plummeting cost of information and advances in technology are providing the ground for a collective future of freedom and luxury for all…”

Text: Aaron Bastani, The World Is a Mess. We Need Fully Automated Luxury Communism, The New York Times.

Pic: Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog, 1994-2000.

“We do not know what the future will be…”

“It is a truism that we do not know what the future will be. But we can see trends. We do not know if the power of human ingenuity will help sufficiently to change the environmental trajectory we are on. Unfortunately, the recent years of innovation, investment and patenting indicate how human ingenuity has increasingly been channelled into consumerism and financial engineering. We might pray for time. But the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.

“We do not know for certain how disruptive the impacts of climate change will be or where will be most affected, especially as economic and social systems will respond in complex ways. But the evidence is mounting that the impacts will be catastrophic to our livelihoods and the societies that we live within. Our norms of behaviour, that we call our “civilisation,” may also degrade. When we contemplate this possibility, it can seem abstract. The words I ended the previous paragraph with may seem, subconsciously at least, to be describing a situation to feel sorry about as we witness scenes on TV or online.

But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.

“These descriptions may seem overly dramatic. Some readers might consider them an unacademic form of writing. Which would be an interesting comment on why we even write at all. I chose the words above as an attempt to cut through the sense that this topic is purely theoretical. As we are considering here a situation where the publishers of this journal would no longer exist, the electricity to read its outputs won’t exist, and a profession to educate won’t exist, I think it time we break some of the conventions of this format. However, some of us may take pride in upholding the norms of the current society, even amidst collapse. Even though some of us might believe in the importance of maintaining norms of behaviour, as indicators of shared values, others will consider that the probability of collapse means that effort at reforming our current system is no longer the pragmatic choice. My conclusion to this situation has been that we need to expand our work on “sustainability” to consider how communities, countries and humanity can adapt to the coming troubles…”

Text: Jem Bendell, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy

Image: Depiction of Hell, by Hieronymus Bosch

Life Support

“We knew that something was amiss in the first couple days,” said Brad Lister. “We were driving into the forest and at the same time both Andres and I said: ‘Where are all the birds?’ There was nothing.”

His return to the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico after 35 years was to reveal an appalling discovery. The insect population that once provided plentiful food for birds throughout the mountainous national park had collapsed. On the ground, 98% had gone. Up in the leafy canopy, 80% had vanished. The most likely culprit by far is global warming.

“It was just astonishing,” Lister said. “Before, both the sticky ground plates and canopy plates would be covered with insects. You’d be there for hours picking them off the plates at night. But now the plates would come down after 12 hours in the tropical forest with a couple of lonely insects trapped or none at all.”

“It was a true collapse of the insect populations in that rainforest,” he said. “We began to realise this is terrible – a very, very disturbing result.”

“It was not insects that drew Lister to the Luquillo rainforest for the first time in the mid-1970s. “I was interested in competition among the anoles lizards,” he said. “They’re the most diverse group of vertebrates in the world and even by that time had become a paradigm for ecology and evolutionary studies.”

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“The forest immediately captivated Lister, a lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in the US. “It was and still is the most beautiful forest I have ever been in. It’s almost enchanted. There’s the lush verdant forest and cascading waterfalls, and along the roadsides there are carpets of multicoloured flowers. It’s a phantasmagoric landscape.”

“It was important to measure insect numbers, as these are the lizards’ main food, but at the time he thought nothing more of it. Returning to the national park decades later, however, the difference was startling.

“One of the things I noticed in the forest was a lack of butterflies,” he said. “They used to be all along the roadside, especially after the rain stopped, hundreds upon hundreds of them. But we couldn’t see one butterfly.”

“Since Lister’s first visits to Luquillo, other scientists had predicted that tropical insects, having evolved in a very stable climate, would be much more sensitive to climate warming. “If you go a little bit past the thermal optimum for tropical insects, their fitness just plummets,” he said.

“As the data came in, the predictions were confirmed in startling fashion. “The number of hot spells, temperatures above 29C, have increased tremendously,” he said. “It went from zero in the 1970s up to something like 44% of the days.” Factors important elsewhere in the world, such as destruction of habitat and pesticide use, could not explain the plummeting insect populations in Luquillo, which has long been a protected area.”

Text: Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’, The Guardian.