earthweal weekly challenge: EXTINCTION TALES


Greetings all, 

Not much to celebrate coming out of COP26: National entities agreed to work somewhat harder at curbing their fossil fuel consumption, yet even the starting points — what countries say they are emitting —are disturbingly far from the countries’ actual emissions.

It didn’t help that fossil fuel industry delegates outnumbered every national delegation, or that the conference had the highest carbon footprint of all United Nations environmental conferences, an estimated 102,500 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Ouch.

That there is any lasting consensus might be an achievement in itself, but a heating globe only heeds results, and we are far, far short of sufficient ones.

So we go on. Australian coal mines are booming, urban heat has tripled since 1980s, India is drowning, poor countries hit hardest by climate change have their hands out to wealthy nations most responsible for the problem and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is underwater.

The stories are both daunting and haunting, yet as we say at earthweal, there is both grief and hope. Ed Yong at The Atlantic reports a strange tale of extinction, interdependence and solutions. Modern whaling technology has all but wiped out the blue whale population, taking their numbers down from about 350,000 to less than 1,000. In the space of a century, some 2 million baleen whales were killed. These whales feed voraciously on plankton and krill (before industrial whaling, about 430 million metric tons every year); and though you’d think that krill populations would be booming now, they are actually collapsing, ironically due to the loss of all those whale who annually dumped millions of tons of iron-rich poop into the sea. Without the whale poop, entire food systems were deprived of fertilizer, turning vast areas of the Antarctic Ocean into deserts. But there’s hope: scientists believe that by seeding the oceans with iron again, plankton would again start to populate and provide a food source for recovering whale populations. And there’s a bonus: plankton are devourers of carbon dioxide, making them an excellent agent for fighting climate change. So pour, baby, pour.

The natural sciences teach us that extinction of a particular species never happens in isolation; entire ecosystems thrive and shadow in tandem with them. How do we learn to see these grander webs? How do we describe them, what do they mean? That work seems to be an essential part of the present moment and is where the humanities are needed. Thom van Dooren calls for

… a thinking that inhabits complex multi species worlds without the aid (and impediment) of simplistic divisions between the human and the nonhuman, the cultural and the natural. The world is far messier and more interesting than this. And so the tools of ethnography and philosophy are required to develop a fuller picture of the entangled significance of extinction, of its myriad meanings and the diverse ways in which it matters. Alongside endangered species themselves, again and again we have seen that possibilities for ongoing life for a variety of others are drawn into extinction events: the loss of healthy environments to live in, of pollinators, of livelihoods for some and religious practices for others. (Flight Ways (Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law) (p. 148). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.)

This is exactly where the power of poetry is so needed, to “add flesh to the bones of the dead and dying …  give them some vitality, presence, perhaps “thickness” on the page and in the minds and lives of reader” (van Dooren). Our shamanic powers helps us think like whales and krill, sea-bottom velds and Antarctic chill.

Earthweal is thus a call to action, “not an attempt to obscure the truth of the situation, but to insist on a truth that is not reducible to populations and data: a fleshier, more lively, truth that in its telling might draw us all into a greater sense of accountability” (ibid. 9-10).

Dooren again:

Extinction stories that implicate humans have a long history. But, despite this fact, we have not yet found good enough ways of thinking through what extinction is and what it means. At the same time, we have seen that there is no singular extinction phenomenon. Rather, in each case a different way of life, a different set of relationships and entangled significances, is at stake. And so just how these extinction stories might, or should, be told requires continual rethinking. Again and again, we need to ask: What does it means to bring an abrupt ending to this particular way of life? What does this loss mean inside its specific multispecies communities? How are “we” called into responsibility here and now, and how will we take up that call?  (ibid. p. 148).

What are the meanings of living in complex and interweaving ecosystem? How are we dependent on it, and what changes when a part of it is lost?

For this challenge, weave extinction tales. Make ithem a manifesto, a myth, a meander or a hymn. Ponder not only the loss of a particular lifeform but intimate web it has become a ghost in.


11 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: EXTINCTION TALES

  1. Haven’t been writing to prompts lately, not been around the blog either. But hope that will change as I get to read some great poems here and start writing more regularly. Thanks for doing this, Brendan… appreciate it very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Rajani, happy to see you here, hope you’ve been well. Weren’t you working on a book recently? This forum hasn’t gotten much more active, it’s rather sleepy but the contributions are strong, the chorus is sweet. Best – Brendan


      • Grateful to have made it to the other side of the second wave that was pretty devastating in this country. Yes, my book got published in September. It is called ‘Duplicity’ and it has a lot of the angst from the worst of the pandemic days. Please do check it out if you can, it is listed on Amazon. I will write about earthweal on my blog soon and do my bit to push attention to this very important topic- the only topic that we should be discussing, given the state of the earth. Thank you, Brendan.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Rajani, how wonderful to see you here. It’s true, it is difficult for me to write about anthing other than the climate crisis as world leaders start the slide down the slippery slope of denial. Brendan, this challenge continues our theme of loss and extinction so well. I hope I can do it justice.


  3. Our power was out all day…big wind. B.C. is in crisis. So much rain fell in 24 hours that THREE towns were evacuated, totally flooded, all major highways are closed, some collapsed, and 200 people were trapped on the highway between two landslides overnight and much of today. Likely some were crushed in the landslides. The climate crisis has hit with such force no one can deny it now. And this just months after the wildfires. It can happen anywhere but when it happens this severely, it is sobering. The damage cant even be comprehended. And it is just the BEGINNING of winter. Snow is expected to add to the mix tonight. They said dealing with climate change was too expensive. Not dealing with it costs more. Things are accelerating. Target dates of 2050 for lowering emissions are ludicrous. Scientists have been telling us this for 40 years. We learn the hard way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awful stuff, Sherry. The wildfires + torrential rains are an awful mix a changing climate so far only at 1.1 or 1.2 C warmer. And we’re going to blow past 1.5 to 2.5 or more. Hope you are staying safe and tell the story.


    • I hope you are safe and well Sherry. I think what’s most shocking is the fact that politicians remain in denial. Even if we reach ‘net zero’ today, things will continue to get worse before they get better…


  4. So called leaders are so busy mopping up disasters, they never get to pro-active measures. The price of denial and putting things off for the next guy to deal with has just come due. Sigh. After a lifetime as an optimist, I am becoming fatalistic.


  5. Sending thoughts your way Sherry.
    I am called again to pen something for earthweal and am grateful for such a platform for my occasional musings. Thank You Brendan.
    Maybe the Winter months will harden my resolve to write more again.


  6. aaah…..I missed the boat. Lovely to read all the poems on this forum – some strong medicine here. posted my contribution to the conversation over at open link weekend.


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