And You May Find Yourself Living in an Age of Mass Extinction…. So begins Timothy Morton’s latest book, All Art is Ecological.
Published as part of Penguin’s new Green Ideas Series, this slim paperback sits alongside nineteen other works of environmental writing. From farmers and biologists to artists and philosophers, spanning decades, the books offer a wide range of perspectives, which Chloe Currens, the editor of the series, says serves to present an evolving ecosystem of environmental writing.
Along with classics like Masanobu Fukuoka’s The Dragonfly Will Be the Messiah and Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring; there is the work of many contemporary thinkers, such as Greta Thunberg’s No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, Amitav Ghosh’s Uncanny and Improbable Events, and George Monbiot’s This can’t be happening.
I wanted to read them all—but I started with Timothy Morton, who has been called “the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene.” A big fan of his writing, I think Timothy Morton is pretty much the most exciting thinker alive. I was, therefore, not surprised to find myself challenged from the very first sentence.
What does this mean exactly: You MIGHT find yourself living in an age of mass extinction?
It’s getting late, and your friends are leaving; however, you decide to linger for a bit at the bar, enjoying a last drink, perhaps quietly observing the people around you. As your gaze sweeps the room, it suddenly locks onto another’s, and your idle attention snaps into focus. You feel a strange fluttering sensation in your stomach intensifying as they hold your gaze, and your tentative smile is returned. Emboldened by the smile and the effect of the drinks before this ‘last’ one that will not remain the last, you move over and strike up a conversation. You end up leaving the bar together.
The following months are love and bliss. The harmony is effortless and immediate. Getting to know each other becomes intimacy, becomes familiarity. You move in together, pick out wallpaper and dishware, begin the work of crafting a life together.
But in the end, it doesn’t last. Small irritations become fault lines, become trenches. The mood sours; perhaps you suspect there may be someone else involved. Otherwise, how to explain this sudden coldness? The turning away with downcast eyes?
Yet when they leave you, it hurts more than you thought it would. It hurts for a long time, too, and although the wound eventually scabs over, then scars, it leaves a tender spot that will be with you for the rest of your life, occasional flare-ups indicating a change in cosmic weather you don’t quite understand. You lie awake at night sometimes, wondering how things might be if you still were together—or even, if you’d never met them. Would you be happier? Or would there be something intangible, yet profound, missing in your life? Read more »
Anyone who has ever found themselves caught in a staring contest with an octopus –those soulful cat-eyes returning your gaze through the thick glass of an aquarium tank– can attest to the uncanny power these creatures exert over our human imagination.
They certainly look alien. With three hearts pumping blue, copper-infused blood, their tentacles (“each with a mind of its own”) are covered in suckers that can feel AND taste. Because their beaks are the only hard parts of their bodies, a large octopus can squeeze through a hole not much bigger than one of their eyeballs. They are like the Great Houdinis of the deep! Without a hard shell like other mollusks, octopuses have evolved clever ways for keeping a step ahead of predators: Not only can they change colors to camouflage themselves, blending into almost any watery environment, but they can also send out ink bombs. After lobbing one to confuse an enemy, an octopus can jet propel away from danger at surprising speeds in a funnel of water.
Is it any wonder that there have been people who believe they might have originated in space? From the Scandinavian myth of the Kraken and Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to Japanese sea monsters and the sexual predators found in erotic shunga prints, again and again–in so many cultures around the world– these creatures show up in stories and art as monsters and space aliens. And who could forget the fear instilled in the losing soccer teams by Paul the Clairvoyant World Cup Octopus? The Argentines got so angry at him that they threatened to kill him and cook him in a paella, if he kept foretelling their bad luck!
My own personal octopus “horror” is the not-as-rare-as–you-would-think sight of Japanese TV personalities (and a few of my friends) traveling in Korea and eating live octopuses–desperate tentacles clawing their way out of the people’s mouths! Read more »
David Attenborough reserves a certain mournful tone for narrating death in the natural world. In the Jungles episode of BBC’s epic documentary series Planet Earth, we hear that voice, interspersed with the rich, crackling sound of splintering wood, as we see a massive rain forest tree collapse under its own weight after centuries of growth. Just as the tree’s last branches fall out of view through the canopy, Attenborough, in his reassuringly authentic British accent, opines: “the death of a forest giant is always saddening, but it has to happen if the forest is to remain healthy.” After the surrounding trees spring back into place, we descend to the rain forest floor, and enter a realm whose usual gloom has been suddenly washed away by the new hole in its leafy ceiling. Here we can see, with the help of Planet Earth’s signature time-lapse cinematography, how the flood of light that now reaches the forest floor triggers a race to the top by the unbelievable variety of plant life struggling to collect that valuable light. The narration explains how each species has its own strategy for besting its competitors. Vines climb up neighboring trees, sacrificing structural strength for rapid vertical growth. Broad-leaved pioneers such as macarangas are the clear winners at this early stage; their huge leaves provide them with enough energy to grow up to eight meters in a single year. But “the ultimate winners are the tortoises, the slow and steady hardwoods,” which will continue striving for their places in the light-drenched canopy for centuries to come.
The series’ unmatched capacity to bring the natural world to life, as it were, has made it both the premier wildlife documentary of its day and the most enjoyable toy for twenty-first century stoned college students. Time-lapse photography and stunning footage of impossibly rare animals transport us, as viewers, into virgin territory, a territory that operates according to its own natural laws, thus far spared from human interference. While the show’s inventive cinematography animates the natural world, Attenborough is able to give meaning to natural processes by articulating the concealed, organic logic that organizes life. Sped up, slowed down, zoomed in, or seen from above, Planet Earth explains nature’s apparent randomness by casting the world’s plants and animals as players in an epic struggle for survival. The planet’s breathtaking beauty – along with its inhabitants’ sometimes-bizarre bodies and behaviors – is the integrated result of countless relations between harsh climates, scarce resources, and living things competing to exist. But if this is the narrative of the natural world, does it accurately reflect an already existent reality? What artifacts can we find of this production of meaning about the world? Is there a difference between Nature and the natural world? And most importantly, where do we – as viewers, as humans, as people – fit into this story?