The Holocene Extinction Event: Setting the Bar Low

Our ancient ancestors marched across the globe scorching the earth with giant walls of fire to chase their prey out into the open. They destabilized populations of easy-to-kill animals with such speed and ferocity that their part in a rolling wave of mass extinctions concurrent with human expansion is still debated, despite clear scientific evidence in support of their central role in the slaughter. They did in about 10,000 years what millions of years of predator/prey interaction (including dozens of climatic shifts and natural cataclysms) failed to do, i.e. wipe anything tasty asides from itself off the face of the earth as totally as possible. Once it got a little crowded, they immediately commenced eradicating each other with an endless enthusiasm, as the vast majority of all species on Earth seem to do.


Fast forward a tiny little frenetic blip in geologic time and you have us here today. Sometimes when I’m reading the news I feel like I’m riding in a bus with everyone else and the driver has depressed the accelerator as far as it can go and we have just left the roadway, with branches and rocks beating against the outside of the vehicle. We all see what’s happening but no one has any idea what to do or any ability to do anything even if they had a plan. Someone might try to get up and advance towards to front to seize control of the bus but is immediately cast back into their seat by gravity, momentum, and all the other natural laws that make the outcome of their attempts so obvious. The utter failure of the major emission-producing nations to set meaningful standards on pollution, the proliferation of nuclear arms as their host nations splinter into factions, the compression factor of the astonishingly fast rate at which the global population is growing: it’s pretty intense, and it doesn’t seem to bode well for what would be our children or grandchildren or even us in our old age.


But is it really that bad? Yes, of course it is. But only because we understand what it could be in theory. In practice though, given the sort of shambolic, brutal history of not just the human race but the natural order in general, things are actually pretty relaxed. I mean, here we find ourselves, searching for resources, consuming them, destroying our surroundings, just like we have been all along. But it isn’t a fall from grace, and we aren’t regressing, per se. You could watch a television commercial and say “Look at how stupid Americans are now, buying/watching/being tricked by all this crap”, but what is the alternative? What would you rather have? When has it ever been better? The 50s? The 30s? When people were hanging each other in public squares? Was that a golden age? There is something scary about how devastating the individual deviations from our modern placidity can be, for sure, and how apathetic people can remain, and how increasingly distant the rich and poor are becoming, but shocking catastrophes and futile, clumsy recalibrations are the order of the day, not just in this country or species or planet but everywhere. Pitchers can’t hit and humans can’t not kill everything.


I guess my point is that, as much as everything can be overwhelming, I feel more and more that it is important to keep calm and be precise. This is the real world, with warlords, child slaves, oil tankers, missles, volcanoes, grandfathers getting crushed by hippos, Predator drones, etc. and not some Ancient Greek moralistic sphere where people will all just stop acting like they always have because they realize, after 2 million years, that they are ruining stuff. I’m often frustrated by how much contemporary radicalism seems to bloody its fists pounding at the rock wall of the obvious, the human, and the unavoidable, only to be eventually co-opted and subsumed by those same things, just like always. Maybe a thorough reading of the rules of the game will help further understand how to “beat” it. Or at least elucidate why we keep losing.


Also, I know essentially nothing about philosophy so if I am rehashing some horrible person’s worldview that they used to rationalize some horrible thing, please let me know.

5 Responses to “The Holocene Extinction Event: Setting the Bar Low”

  1. 1 butttub
    October 27, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    I think you’re getting at a few very important things here re: recognizing the lack of a back-to-x-time period ideal as important to building contemporary politics.

    My one criticism (though it may be based on a misreading on my part)is that I think that you make the mistake of (or at least verge on- the line ‘humans can’t not kill everything seems especially unfair to the fluidity of ‘the human’) speaking of human nature-as-such or reducing to ‘natural’ or ‘biological’ what is a much more complex problematic of human-technological-environmental interaction. Still, you make the proper critique of radicalism that it too often appeals to a ‘higher’ human nature to reach the goal of world peace and stability.

    What I think is critical is that you point to two paths. The first is a kind of nihilistic, determinist path that says: ‘this is how things always go, I’ll just go along for the ride’. The second is that which takes history seriously and seeks radical change from a standpoint of hard, clear, and non-idealized historical memory. I think Foucault’s notion of ‘archeology’ is a perfect example of this latter path. Radical politics can then work from a better understanding of the determining and often hidden structures that tend to lead to humanity’s violent and destructive behavior.

  2. 2 Adam
    October 31, 2009 at 4:54 am

    i think i generally understand the sentiment behind this sort of post. you’re really riding the wave of the distraught thinker and posing these humongous problems. I feel you because i feel that way often. but i think it’s worth looking at your post more critically.

    absolutely strike your first paragraph. there is no need for the speculation of primitivism and it really detracts from what i think your argument is – that is: history is an overwhelming set of facts that implicate the human race in their own destruction, as well as that of the world. Forgive me if I’ve reduced you, but it seems like you’ve already sketched out some conception of the human being outside in an abstract paradigm But who cares if human beings originally exerted themselves as the dominant species on earth? have you nothing to say about survival and evolution? you make it seem as if god had created a humanity to commit some ill sometime in the last 10,000 years, as a sort of “introduction to dominance” class that everyone had to take.

    second paragraph: i’m with you. i think of this constantly and recoil; i feel powerless to avert this tendencies and yet somehow feel guilty in complicity. i think that’s part of being american. i also think that it also requires a level of self-respect and self-awareness to counteract these tendencies. you seem to have these qualities, as do most of my friends. and we should continue to be conscious of them. but unless you’re proposing a radicalizing business model, this is a fact of economics — surely we’ll go along with the progressives, but we need a leader to change it. (ARE YOU HER?)

    third paragraph: similar thought, different ends. you’re being hyperbolic:

    “But it isn’t a fall from grace, and we aren’t regressing, per se. You could watch a television commercial and say “Look at how stupid Americans are now, buying/watching/being tricked by all this crap”, but what is the alternative? What would you rather have? When has it ever been better? The 50s? The 30s? When people were hanging each other in public squares? Was that a golden age?”

    Come on, look at what you’re saying. Why are you condemning the United States? Because in the 30s we hung some people? Because we’re synonymous with capitalism? What is the “golden age” that you’re sarcastically implying? who ever said that the 30, or the 50s, were a golden age? and what are the characteristics of such an “age”? please respond, because i’m curious what exactly it is that you’re talking about here because i’m definitely not sure myself. also please explain your last sentence (BEN, i’m sure you get this, but I don’t).

    last paragraph: CALM AND PRECISE. CALM AND PRECISE. if everyone wanted to be so careful in their readings, blogs wouldn’t exist. they (interesting blogs) simply aren’t the medium for such things. now i’m guilty of my own hyperbole — so instead, let’s change that: please, everyone, write interesting blogs which dissect and complicate issues we are all engaged with. is this the space of ghostisland? or is it more creative? or are they the intermixed? (they certainly aren’t the same thing)

    Back on track: no offense, but you’re not being calm and precise. you’re conflating 2 million years of human history with a naive crisis in the present. and though I agree with what you’re saying, i don’t agree with your methodology. it’s fine to propose a question or two to the “radical” community, but what do you expect of such a community? it would be interesting for you (or someone else) to publicly articulate the conception of the radical that you’re thinking of.

    as a student of both radicals and non-radicals, I tend to side with the latter, however right they may be, because they tend to tell the truth. hyperbole is inspiring, but history is fascinating: let’s use both to construct reasonable, practicable world-views.

    adam johnson

    ps – happy halloween everyone!

  3. 3 Adam
    October 31, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    i just want to clarify that I misread your “50s – 30s – hanging people in the square era” as saying we hung people in the 30s. I don’t think you meant that (though we did). i also generally want to disclaim my entire post because i don’t think i know you. decontextualized vitriol on the internet always seems harsh, so i want to reiterate that i agree with your sentiment and though i generally stand by my post, i apologize for breaking it down paragraph by paragraph. that’s annoying.

    with all sincerity,

  4. 4 Jeff
    November 11, 2009 at 4:47 am

    Ah, no, no offense taken to any of it. Thanks for responding. I’m glad that people felt inclined to do so even if it was largely in reaction to the overall inadequacy of my original post. In the day or two after I posted it, upon re-reading it, I felt that I should’ve taken more time to compose it (I wrote it at work, first mistake) and that it is a disservice to GI to mash some unfinished concepts together just for the sake of contributing. So, apologies, as we can all hijack GI to our own ill-conceived ends and I feel guilty of that in this case. Also, I’m pretty rusty at trying to write down in an organized way some of these thoughts, and it’s not something I was ever that great at in the first place, so I appreciate the critical examination of it, if for nothing else than to provide me with an angle to refine my own thinking on the subject.

    In regards to the first paragraph, I guess that my idea was to try to set the stage for the idea that although sometimes I feel that the modern world is falling apart, there is such an almost unfathomable scale or violence and brutality in the history of human development that it is hard to rectify the idea that things seem so untenable now, but are also arguably the most sane and rational they have ever been, despite massive flaws that still exist. Also, I I think I should’ve made it more clear that I don’t see humans as exceptional in their behavior in any way, and that, throughout their development, they were/are merely reflecting a harsh natural order that is universal.

    As for the “golden age” paragraph, my goal was merely to emphasize that there is some sort of dissonance in my understanding of the current state of whatever slice of society I can take a stab at trying to understand. While there seems to be an active deterioration in some ways (i.e. rapidly increasing gulf between richest and poorest, failure to utilize technological advances for wider benefit), it is based on what I think is a mistaken notion of how things at one time “were” or “should be”, and in fact the way things “should be” (the elusive golden age) never really comes to pass. Rather than to condemn the United States, what I meant by that sentence was that a knee-jerk reaction to what seems to be mindless and debased is actually an incomplete and insufficient way of looking at things, but I still find myself slipping into it when I, for example, am taken aback by the simplicity of a television ads sales pitch or the base level with which it interacts with a consumer. The question that needs to be asked is not “is this depressing” or “is this stupid” or “is this horrible” but instead “is this depressing/stupid/horrible compared to x?” So what I am trying to get at here is how is it that I can read the news and say “Does the world seem to be in total chaos?” and answer yes, but then if the question is “Does the world seem to be in total chaos any more than at any other point that I have ever studied or known?” the answer is more of a maybe or, for much of history, a no.

    So, when I mention being calm and precise, I am not necessarily trying to say that I have just proposed some sort of way of looking at the world that abides by thinking in a calm or precise manner. Instead, I’m trying to say that, for me (as one who holds what are generally classified as “radical political beliefs”), in order to avoid a certain sort of overwhelming paralysis when thinking about ways to promote what I think would be a more sustainable, more humane, and more just system of existence against what sometimes seem to be incredibly long odds, it could be helpful to be less dismayed by the current specifics of what seems to be going horribly wrong in the world and instead attempt to focus on ways of approaching some of the undercurrent of all of this.

    This sort of all crashes together as a critique of radicalism as I’ve observed it in my life because radicalism seems to be constantly trying to run before it can walk. Rather than converging on every WTO protest it would be much much more valuable to devote resources towards building a foundation for a larger more sustained opposition towards the evil side of globalized capitalism. Writing, printing, and distributing material that widens understanding of why people should be opposed to something in a way that reasonably engages with the majority of the population, for example, or researching microlending to help strengthen localized economies and provide workable alternatives. That’s just a narrow example but I hope it helps illustrate what I am attempting to get at. By being caught up in the specifics of whichever particular person or country or company seems to be the most horrible at any given time seems to muddy my ability to maintain focus on what might ultimately be of greater importance. The connection between this thought and the ongoing Holocene E.E. is that everything (human nature included) can be really tough and cruel and scary in some ways and it has always and will always be that way. Therefore, it is important that people who feel like they have good ideas that will help others out feel strongly enough about those ideas that they are prepared to play by the “rules” of what can be a very difficult, rough game, and not get demoralized when there are setbacks and when the situation looks bleak. That frame of mind is something that I feel like many people are trying to work towards and I admire their efforts, and therefore I am trying to figure out ways to approach the perennial opposition to the advancement of my political viewpoints in a similar fashion. So, rather than this being a resolved sort of statement about how things are, I guess it’s more of a really convoluted puzzle that I keep bumping into and am trying to communicate and find out more about.

    Sorry that this is over a week after the last post, too. I was traveling for a little while.

  5. 5 Adam
    November 11, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    interesting response. i appreciate you taking the time to respond and i think you satisfied what i was looking for: a more specific account of your emotions that were packed into your more literary and “expressive” post. I think you articulately portrayed the sentiment of the first one in the second with a more calm and precise layout. initially i was a bit embarrassed that i responded, but i’m glad to see where this thought has developed and i think that i believe in it, generally. it just seems so easy to throw around this kind of language and it happens to such an extent that it seems insincere — so thank you for backing it up. nice work!


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