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Bearing Witness to Extinction

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”

– Carl Sagan

“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world. This capacity predates modernity.”

– Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

According to a study by the WWF the earth has lost over half of its wildlife in just 40 years. A staggering statistic that should shake every conscious person to their core. Each of us is a witness to this Great Dying, the sixth mass extinction, the last one being 65 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs.Yet despite overwhelming evidence of a rapidly crashing biosphere many leaders, if not most, in the privileged global north seem oblivious or apathetic to the carnage.All around the planet wildlife populations are in a free fall, from birds to amphibians to mammals to marine life to insects. But today the interests of capital not only dominate our economic, media and political order, they dominate our consciousness.

The Latin meaning for homo sapiens is “wise man.” But as I ponder our precarious position on theprecipice of the Sixth Mass Extinction I cannot help but be struck by its glaring irony. Standing in a cemetery crowded with the bones of countless species I am left with little room to marvel at our cleverness. The magicians and merchants of corporate consumerism have fostered this pernicious disconnection from the natural world and have created a labyrinth of distractions and doubts that numb the senses to our own looming demise. It is a difficult box to break free from. Insipid optimism is demanded of all subjects of the global corporate kingdom. Those who defy it are often derided or ridiculed as alarmists. Sometimes they are rendered invisible. It is a kind of optimism that eschews facts. A cult of thinking that chides anyone who dares look at things as they truly are.

But to deny the ecocide unfolding before us today is a feat of astounding absurdity. And it should be clear to anyone paying attention that this is not a natural event. Human beings have become a force of nature. And an extraction and exploitation economy, that benefits fewer and fewer people each year, has created the conditions that are leading toward the collapse of the biosphere on which we all depend. Thanks to decades of indoctrination, however, we have been meticulously trained to ignore, downplay or rebrand capitalism, a planet killing ideology, which separates living beings into worthiness categories for the wealth accumulation of a few. It has ushered in an age where when one species is decimated another “previously less desirable” one is turned to for unbridled exploitation. Haddock, cod and tuna were ruthlessly harvested until their numbers crashed catastrophically, so fish like farmed tilapia were “up marketed” to replace them. And this is not only true of fish populations.

Biodiverse forests are scraped away for more profitable monocropslike palm oil with the result being a catastrophic loss of habitat for scores of species like the endangered orangutan.  Mountaintops are blown to smithereens and once pristine streams are buried under tons of toxic ash for mere minutes of electricity. Plastics continue to be manufactured for one use while the detritus lasts millennia, dumped into the world’s oceans by the truckload every minute of every day, choking hundreds of thousands of species of birds, turtles, whales and other marine life. Indigenous habitats are sponged off the landscape to make room for squalid factory farms that sentence millions of sentient beings to a life of unimaginable terror, cruelty and gruesome horror all to meet the demand for cheap and unhealthy fast food. And the ever untouchable war industry continues to decimate wildlife. In fact, the US military has been cited as one of the world’s biggest polluter and contributor to global climate change.

But ours is a culture that encourages denial, obfuscation and distraction. It relies on our indifference and uses it to rob us of our collective agency. After all, paying attention might cause us to question aloud the entire premise on which this madness is based and demand radical systemic and societal change. The choice, however, is ultimately ours. We can continue to avert our gaze from the looming chaos and believe the lie fed to us that we are separate or even superior to the lifeweb that envelopes this planet. We can sleepwalk toward extinction with a shopping bag in one hand and the latest smartphone in the other. Or we can acknowledge sorrow as a natural response to catastrophe. In grief we make a choice to not only honour the countless species that have already been lost, but to oppose the ongoing carnage, recognize our part in it especially in the global north, and realize we too are subject to extinction. It is in no way accepting things as they are or giving up; and it is not a solitary affair either.

Stepping into our grief is indeed bearing witness to the monstrous crime of ecocide. It is a bold act of defiance to a culture of denial, distraction and death. Grief is the beginning of transformation. And acknowledging it with sincerity lends a voice of testimony that can lead toward revolutionary dissent. It is the only coherent answer to an imposed and unnatural extinction. But it is also a rallying cry for solidarity and rebellion. Indeed, this may be the last chance we have left to make a stand on a dying world.

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

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