Why is this interesting? - The Extinction Edition

On nature, evolution, and the sixth age of extinction

Abe Burmeister (AWB) is the founder of Outlier, a favorite of WITI. They make beautiful clothing out of interesting, technical fabrics that are quietly bombproof. The brand has found favor from everyone from Tokyo urbanites to SF soldiers on deployment in Iraq. Also, Abe has been a longstanding writer and thinker, back to the early days of the blogosphere, through a cult site called Abstract Dynamics, which hosted incredible writers like the late Mark “K Punk” Fisher, Philip Sherburne, and Sasha Frere Jones. He’s one of the most interesting and opinionated people we know, and we are very happy to have him on the page today. (CJN)

Abe here. It’s possible that we’re living in the sixth age of extinction.The fifth of these wiped out the dinosaurs and made room for the rise of mammals, and in general these ages are characterized by the disappearance of 80% or more of life on the planet. What makes this one different than all the previous is that humans are responsible. The good news is that the planet survived the previous five and we’ve got a long way to go before the extinction rates get to those past levels. The bad news? Well a recent UN report tells us “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely”.

Earlier this year people might have stumbled across a reminder of this grave state in the form of Extinction Rebellion, an activist organization that staged various die-ins around London and New York, blocking enough traffic in the British capital to make the news. (WITI readers might also remember the name from the 6/12 Data Dump Edition. It’s where Radiohead’s are donating their surplus revenue.) Of course if XR seems too extreme for you, there are more polite and stylish ways to worry about extinction. One could simply buy a Lacoste “Save Our Species” polo, with their trademark crocodile replaced with one of ten endangered species, each localized to the city it is sold in. Act fast though there are only 3,520 shirts made. Those a bit more textually oriented might want to check out Chris D. Thomas’ Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in the Age of Extinction, one of the most fascinating contrarian books to emerge in recent memory. It’s certainly one of the most strangely positive books of this era, perhaps even perversely utopian.

Why Is This Interesting?

If global warming is the defining trauma of our age, then climate change denialism is clearly the denial phase of grief. Extinction Rebellion then is the latest and sharpest articulation of raw anger, while something like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal is the most recent of many government attempts at negotiation. The depression phase seems less prevalent in public life, but it hides in quiet places. What’s interesting about Inheritors of the Earth is that it represents one of the clearest attempts at an acceptance, a picture of a new world that is emerging in the wake of human impact on the planet.

The book blasts through a flood of details all of which point to one extremely clear thesis: that evolution works much faster and more robustly than we had previously assumed. While an age of extinction may well be upon us, it is also an age of evolution. As humans drag animals and plants across the globe, ecosystems are transforming and evolving around us, with biological diversity actually increasing in many places. This includes areas we hardly think of as nature, cities and suburbs especially, but not ironically in the “rural” spaces of farmland. In the process new species are emerging via both hybridization and mutation sometimes within just decades, and there is good reason to believe there are many more to come.

If there is a villain to this book, it’s not the anthropocene itself, but rather the strange ways that human’s try to deny their continual impact on nature. The earth after all is a highly dynamic system, with continents breaking apart and colliding, islands rising out of the ocean and mountains getting washed down to the sea. Humans, however, tend to view nature as being exactly the state of human impact that existed when they first encountered it. Cities are built, freezing mutable riverbanks into place, and farmland is built in flood land soil that we hope never floods. Many of the species humans first started documenting extensively a few hundred years ago, especially the large predators and niche island occupants, are either already extinct or at risk of going away. But from Thomas’ many examples at least, there is good reason to believe many more species are poised to emerge in the gaps, creating a landscape that will look very different than what we thought nature was when we grew up.

In many ways this is an ecological take on Heraclitus, a book that looks at earth as a dynamic and ever changing flow. Nature, at least in Thomas’ viewpoint, can handle the impact of humans just fine, if anything it’s thriving, just not in the picturesque way we like to think of it. On the flip side though, whether humans can handle the impact of humans, well that’s still an open question. (AWB)

Comic of the Day:

It’s a law of the internet (or should be) that there’s an XKCD for everything. The XKCD “Earth Temperature Timeline” is way too big to include here, but worth checking out. So here’s “Cold” instead.

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Abe (AWB)