Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fascination for death

We are a peculiar culture. We are extremely reluctant to accept the possibility that our civilization might decline and fall, like all those which have preceded us, yet consider the idea of utterly trashing the biosphere with a fascination which would have made an early twentieth century symbolist uneasy. We have had another example of it with a paper published in the June issue of Nature.

The paper itself is quite serious. The authors' thesis is that our dumping loads of CO2 into the atmosphere will cause Earth to undergo a state-shift, that is, that the climate of the planet will, abruptly, become something totally different. It is quite possible. In fact, given our remarkable ability to do nothing to make our lifestyle more sustainable, it is quite likely.

The problem is the way it was relayed. Thus, in the (highly reputable) French paper Les Echos, we could read La fin du monde en 2100 ?, which translates as The End of the World in 2100 ?. The idea is that the change will be so dramatic and so brutal, that life will be unable to adapt and we will be left with with a warmer version of Mars.

At this point, it may be interesting to go back a bit in time, say 250 millions years. Then most
land masses were collected in a single super-continent, which, like most super-continents erred on the dry side. This did not keep, mostly reptilian, life from thriving, with such specimens as inostrancevia a bear-sized reptile with 12 cm long saber-teeth. The vegetation was not exactly lush but there were still vast expenses of forests, mostly in the south.

It was not a paradise, especially if you stumbled on a inostrancevia in a dark wood in the middle of the night, but it was a functional world, with functional ecosystems.

Then, everything which could possibly go wrong did.

A magma plume burst through what would become Siberia, burning through the largest coal seam of the time. The Siberian traps, as they are cold, covered 2 millions km² with lava and released an embarrassing surplus CO2 into the atmosphere – enough to raise global temperatures by 5°C. This was enough to destabilize oceanic methane clathrate, send a lot of methane into the atmosphere and turn an already hot and dry world into something reminiscent of Arakis.
  The oceans became severely deficient in oxygen, but unfortunately not quite dead. Its normal inhabitants were just replaced by hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. The oxygen level in the atmosphere plummeted, making life quite difficult for those few animals which had not been baked to death.

Yet life could survive in a overheated desert bordered by a steaming ocean and surrounded by a poisoned atmosphere, and did.

Hard as we try, we can't even get close to the disaster that was the Great Dying, as the Late Permian extinction is called. The best – or rather the worst – we can expect is a speedy return to the hothouse conditions that were the norm during most of Earth's history.

It may comes as a surprise for most of you, but our planet is going through an ice age, an unusually cold and dry period, with a low biodiversity. The climate has been getting colder and colder for the last 30 million years and had the trend continued, we would have been headed toward a full-fledged glacial period, a few tens of thousands years from now. It seems we'll get a swamp and jungle world instead, with some deserts as well, and a lot of shallow seas. It will be teeming with life, probably more so than ours.

Of course, a lot of species will disappear during the transition, like at the end of the last glacial period or during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Others will prosper, as did our ancestors at the beginning of the Eocene.

The problem, is that most crops we are dependent upon have evolved in a Mediterranean setting and won't fare well in the new environment, not to speak, naturally of the slow invasion of the lowlands by the sea.

We won”t be able to use our usual strategy of social complexification and investment into technology. We don't have the resources we need to face the situation this way, even today, just after what was probably the peak of our power and richness. With the beginning of the energy descent our capacity to make investments to face such or such emergency while keeping our infrastructures in working order will shrink. At some point, we will probably be obliged to dismantle vital infrastructures, or allow them to decay, to free the resources we desperately need to keep short term crisis from spiraling out of control.

One can even argue that it is what is happening right now with the slow unraveling of the welfare state and the shrinking of public services in Europe.

The only strategy which will work in the long run is the one our ancestors used before the European expansion : cultural diversification and local adaptation. Since local conditions will have changed nearly everywhere, that means hat all cultures will have to reshape themselves, probably beyond recognition.

And yes, that is also true for so-called traditional or tribal cultures. After all, you cannot stay seal hunting Inuits if your glaciers have turned into alpine meadows and pine forests. You can, however, become Kalaallisut speaking herders and fishers.

But Inuit culture will be essentially dead, as will be all other modern cultures.

It is probably because, as a civilization we somehow feel this, that we have such a fascination for death, a fascination which manifests itself through zombies and vampire movies as well as through Les Echos's apocalyptic vision of a lifeless Earth. We, as a civilization, feel that something, big, and dark, and terrible is coming. We don't know what it is, we don't know when it will strike, but strike it will and it will destroy everything in its wake, a destruction we both fear and relish.

It is not an unprecedented feeling. It was particularly widespread in the Russian intelligentsia before 1914. The country was rapidly industrializing and while the countryside was still backward, a modern middle class was growing in the cities, as well as a radicalizing working class which would latter swell the ranks of the Red Guards during the October putsch.

Yet the government was controlled by an aristocratic clique headed by a brutal – and incompetent – autocrat right from the XVIIth century. The contradiction was so glaring that it was obvious to everybody that something was to happen. Few if any people expected this something to take the form of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, but most felt that it would be destructive, and many welcomed this coming destruction, not as a renewal, but for itself.
Thus, the poet Alexander Blok exclaimed after hearing about the sinking of the Titanic : “the ocean is alive !”. In case you wonder, it was an expression of joy.

In one of his latter poems, The Twelve, written in January 1918, where he describes the bloody march of twelve red guards as a mystical event, the same Alexander Blok writes :

Crack ~ crack ~ crack!
Crack ~ crack ~ crack!
... So they march with sovereign tread ...
Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying a blood-red flag ~
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where bullets crossed ~
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.

The problem is that where Blok took a pen, others took a gun and acted out on these necrophiliac tendencies, leading to both the Bolshevik hell and the Nazi death cult. It is perfectly possible that the present fascination with death leads to similar results – similar, not identical, Nazism and Communism are spent forces but the impulses behind them are well alive.

It is easy to imagine a radical movement emerging from those apocalyptic fantasies and promising to exorcise them by bringing about the same kind of storm which engulfed early twentieth century Russia. It is also easy to see how such a movement could get into power when the present ruling class will have sufficiently undermined its own legitimacy.

This would be a massive disaster, on many levels. What we need is a pragmatic policy aimed at cushioning the descent and at making it as bearable as possible for the common people, without any delusion about what we can do and hope for. This may, and probably will, imply the removal of the present kleptocracy, but this is quite incompatible with the kind of ideological fantasies which generally emerge from apocalyptic feelings.

The first step in avoiding them is to recognize that our actions have only a limited influence upon the fate of the Earth and our delusions of power are just that, delusions. Then we might begin to lead meaningful lives, within the strict bounds set upon us by the laws of Nature.

As for the Earth, well, as Sara Teasdale said :

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.


  1. "Thus, the poet Alexander Blok exclaimed after hearing about the sinking of the Titanic : “the ocean is alive !”. In case you wonder, it was an expression of joy."

    Russia's intelligentsia was alone in this regard prior to 1914. See Thomas Mann's character Naphta in "The Magic Mountain".

  2. Have you ever wondered if we (humans, and life on earth) are not some petri-dish experiment of some other intelligence? Maybe like the movie "2001 A Space Odyssey". It's only 10,000 years since northern Europe was under miles of ice. 'Only', I say! Just 100 years since the events that Damien talks about in Russia. To bring it all back to perspective: "it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
    A friend was recently in Hong Kong. From his hotel window he saw the thousands walking on the pavements 15 floors below. He told me they really, really looked like ants. We think we're bigger and more important than that, though.

  3. Go see the movie "Compliance." This was based on a true story you can find described on Wikipedia. You have been watching the dramatized behavior of real voters. I'm not being facetious - MacDonald's managers vote.

    There is no "humanity" that can properly be called "we." There are no "cultures" that reason and respond to situations to any greater extent than an ant colony. We individual humans are being swept along by forces we do not and cannot control. It is a great source of anxiety and misery for us to think otherwise.

    John Gray's Anatomy (or Straw Dogs) can help orient our thinking in ways that might be helpful. At this point pluralism of the Isaiah Berling variety is probably the best alternative. There are many ways for humans to make a living on this planet and I, for one, think any way that produces the kind of people represented in Compliance deserves to die. It is a culture of zombies. That's why we are so fascinated by the neo-zombie noir. It presents them (us) as sensitive and intelligent creatures.

  4. Jon, you are right, that was a widespread feeling at the time. Yet, the Russian intelligentsia had a particularly bad case of it, with particularly bad results.

    Lizzy, yes I've wondered about that, and then I asked myself where this other intelligence came from, and I realized I had just replaced a problem by another. As for history being meaningless, yes it is, indeed and the universe certainly doesn't care about our fate. We may, however. It is all a question of point of view.

    The problem begins when you think that human history matters to anybody but humans.

    Villager, I haven't seen Compliance, but I have seen other movies with the same theme - I comme Icare or The Wave come to mind. Obedience to authority is not a bug, however, it's a feature, which can be useful in some situations. Like all human impulses, it must be put under controm and not allowed to get out of hand. Problem arise when it is highjacked by a dysfunctionnal culture.

    Some cultures have made conscious decisions in the past (Iceland's conversion to Christianity for instance), so that's definitely possible, but for that, you need a sovereign body able to make a decision.

    I tend to aggree about pluralism... within limits. There are a lot of bunkers from the forties in my home city, and you can guess by whom they were built. Sometimes, you have to excise the cancer mass and keep the dangerous weed from growing.

  5. Well, I see things sort of spiralling out of control in the 'civilized' part of the world. What about all the "rights" we have. It is my Right to have food and medicine and employment and full-access to the internet, 24 hour-coverage with my smart phone, and on and on.
    It's my friend's Right to have 14 (no joke) different pairs of black leather boots, bought on credit. No wonder this economy is so stuffed.

    1. Indeed the inflation of rights seems to have become one of the main features of modern societies. This is in part a consequence of the ideology of progress.

      Of course, there is no such things as rights in nature, only possibility and constraints. The right to DO something is meaningful within a human society. The right to have something, the implementation of which depends on resource availability, is just entitlement

  6. I would refer you to an article I wrote 2 years ago;ALL ABOARD THE ENTROPIC DEATH
    It is obvious,to all who care to acknowledge it,that humanity faces multiple crises;Resource depletion,overpopulation,the degredation of eco-systems and the early phases of massive climate disruption,as our greenhouse gas emissions have succeeded in pushing the system out of equilibrium into an increasingly violently oscillating state of dis-equilibrium.
    Yet collectively,we continue with "business as usual";Growth will save us from the current economic recession,recycling rubbish and driving hybrid cars will prove to be a panacea for all the planetary abuse we have commited;A post modern version of Hair shirt pennance wherby our cars become ever uglier and childish in their appearance as a masochistic punishment for their continuing anti-social existence.
    This is of course a load of rubbish;Emission levels continue to inexorably rise,as do sea levels increasingly common "freak " weather conditions cause droughts and floods,causing millions to becomerefugees and to suffer starvation etc ,etc and so the sad litany of species facing self extinction goes on and on...WHY?
    Many contend its simply because of an intrinsic selfishness;We in the (post)industrialised west like our material comforts too much and so make excuses to continue enjoying them.
    However,my belief is that the reason why the global capitalist system cannot and will not change is because that beneath the conscious surface activities of greed,self obsession,power trips and exploitation lies a deep subconscious and collective unconscious death wish;The system yearns for self destruction ,for punishment ,like Raskolnikov in Dostoyevskys masterful "Crime and punishment" the guilt of the crime is too great for the unconscious to bear;Atonement is secretly,longingly desired.
    Why this secret death urge? My answer may cause some readers discomfort but hear me out;Global Capitalism in its current form is an American meme slavishly imitated across the globe and the death urge implicit in this conceptual cancer, stems from the collective unconscious guilt of the native american genocide which allowed the european colonists to claim the vast territories of that continent.
    American popular culture is full of books and films depicting invasion;By goggle eyed aliens, Soviet sadists or Funda-mental Islamists;This is the conscious manifestation of the underlying guilt; The crime is transposed to a fictional aggressor who acts out the mass murdering ethnic cleansing which,in reality,forms the foundation of the USA as anation state;Small wonder then, that Israel is such a close ally;Leaving aside its geo-political usefulness as a nuclear armed regional hegemon,pyschologically there is unfortunately much in common;Shock! Horror! I've mentioned the" I" word!
    Is there a solution ? Its simple really;NO. Humanity will continue along the path of thanotos until the multiple crises converge and billions are wiped out by famine,flood disease and war;The cancer has metastasised for too long and now we must collectively pay for the crimes of those who are in the thrall of a disgusting pathological sickness.
    But the Earth abides.........

    1. Have you read the book Too Smart For Our Own Good by Craig Dilworth? I think it's all a lot more simple than you think. It's not "evil America" mucking up the whole world,
      save for a few people who've seen the light; it's more that we humans, as a species, are doing what all species do -- expanding to the limits of our world. Our limits have been expanding ("Too Smart"), but they still exist. We don't see it because in the main, it's not being shown to us, pointed out to us. We're not all victims like you suggest of America, but we are victims of us, humanity, humaness, life-on-earth-ness.

    2. Lizzy,

      There is little doubt that, like all living things, we tend to exploit all available resources. I feel, however, that things are more complicated than that. Being smart is no guarantee of evolutionary success. 40.000 years ago, there were four "smart" species in the world. Three have gotten extinct at a time where they did not have technology to destroy their environment.

      Besides, a few cultures have consciously decided to limit their expansion for the sake of internal stability - most notably Tokugawa Japan. Even without going to such extremes, most cultures controlled tightly trade activities and considered traders as a necessary evil. This made the kind of runaway industrialization we have experienced quite impossible.

    3. Of course, it is not America's fault. America is just an imperial state pursuing imperial interests and as empire go, it is pretty lenient (just have look at Chinese history)

      What happened is that we developped, mostly in Europe, a particular set of ideologies (the enlightment) uniquely suited to turn the rather large coal reserves we were endowed with into runaway industrialization and societal atomization. Neither China nor India, nor Islam did that, which des not mean we did not have good reasons to do it.

      Successful civilizations tend to promote stability rather than expansion, which is not incompatible with sometimes highly destructive crisis. It is likely that our successors will abandon our cancerous ways, which, by the way, will come to a price.

    4. Damien,

      The "smart" Dilworth refers to in his book is basically that we invent our ways out of problems, you could use the word "cunning". And he says it's not clever - it creates problems. Do you think Tokugawa limited expansion for stability, not due to lack of resources? Bushmen and Australian Aborigines did due to lack of resources and the necessity to keep numbers under control. There was a version of this in previous times in the UK -- people did not marry/ procreate until they had sufficient resources. It was forbidden, costly and dangerous to so do. Thus family size was limited.
      I'm not sure I understand your comment about the enlightenment ideologies leading to industrialisation. I reckon a lot of what happened here is due to luck and entrepreneurialism: luck of the resources and the discoveries; and the 'skill' to develop this luck into something valuable. Qu'est-ce que tu en penses?

    5. Well, it's what Tainter says, from a different perspective : we solve problems by increasing social complexity, which costs resources and creates other problems which we solve the same way... until the coasts become unbearable and the whole thing falls apart. In fact I suspect that collapse is a part of the process, a kind of mess cleaning.

      As for the Tokugawa, they were probably at the limit of their carrying capacity, but they could do what others did when faced with such limits : expand geographically. They had the technology and the manpower. They certainly had the military with a musketry on par with Western Europe's and better tactics. The problem was that the Tokugawa had seized power after decades of feudal chaos. They REALLY wanted stability.

      Now, it is true that agrarian people used various tricks to limit population increase. Delayed marriage was one, clerical celibacy another. Ancient people favored infanticide.

      About industrialization, well, both the late Roman Empire and Song China had the technological means and the social structure to kick-start industrialization. They had natural resources and certainly the skill to exploit them. They also had a lot of good reasons to do so on their borders (The Mongols or Germanic tribes). Yet they didn't.

      I suspect it was because they valued civic service far above entrepreneurship and trading, so the rich traders and craftsmen which led the European industrial revolution remained a marginal part of the society. In Europe, we began to consider that the base of the society was the individual to solve the problem posed by the religion wars. This created an ideology, the enlightenment, which focused upon the individual rather than on the community, which ultimately led to the putting on a pedestal of the entrepreneur, individual conqueror of nature.

      This did not happen elsewhere, and Chinese elite considered this kind of ideology as highly disruptive, as did early socialism before it allied with liberalism.

  7. 35 degrees and thunder skies (Switzerland, at 400m., about the lowest point.)

    We- we- we: yes we won’t have the resources to ‘adapt’. I agree with the gist of Damien’s post.
    But it ignores that a certain section of the elites, who think that because of their superior dominating power, will always be able to manage and come out on top, be happy and safe, comfortable and rich, and have ‘slaves‘ - cheap workers.

    They manage, control, humans on the surface of the earth (few are elsewhere), and that takes quite a lot of effort which must furnish automatic returns.

    They do not think about or understand extreme social upheaval (repression will do the trick), agriculture and soil composition, or even fossil fuel distribution. Not to mention communication cables, electricity. They act in a stable, flat earth, where it is just too bad that billions will have to die or do with less. They are going to be surprised.


    Their fascination for death is the death of others.


    1. Ana,

      I have glimpsed the world of the elites. I have had lunch with the man who has become the prime minister of France and my best friend gravitates around this milieu. I have the number of a senator on my cell phone... and I can tell you they are not Machiavellian, they are clueless.

      They really think they can preserve the statu-quo through green-washing and economic tinkering... and that it is the best thing for everybody. They don't think billions will die, because, you know, the system they game is so efficient that it simply can't happen.

      As for violent revolution... both in France and the USA, today's elites have been born from such a violent revolution, so they really think they embody their values and that therefore, it can't happen to them. When lamppost day will come, they will be... indignant.

  8. Yes Damien, I agree in a way. I also know ppl like that or am somewhat familiar with that milieu.

    Green-washing is super common, as is sticking to ‘free market ideology’ and the lifting of all boats and so on. Though in the past few years some doubts creep in but no alternatives suggest themselves, at best it is ‘stiffer bank regulation’ / ‘better redistribution’, reforming the IMF (how?) more jobs, better health care, and the like.

    But these ppl speak to you and me or to the public through speeches, policy papers etc., and no mention is made of deaths in Iraq, or thru hunger, or the monies being swept out and away from some developing countries, year by year, straight to the W...

    No French or Swiss pol speaks about deaths in Nigeria or the Congo....the deaths of those other ppl.


    But you are right to call me out on my blanket statement.