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).
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.