December 26, 2013
Geologists worldwide have been working toward naming a new epoch. Look for the Anthropocene, or as it’s subtitled, The Sixth Extinction (author Elizabeth Colbert’s designation), coming to updated textbooks everywhere. Generally epochs are designated by fossil records—places on Earth where fossils of different orders ranging from 500,000 million years to 17,000 years were found. Extinctions brought each epoch to a close. This part of Illinois is rich with fossils of sea animals of the Devonian epoch: crinoids, trilobites, worms, sponges and shelled animals once safe in a coral reef, all turned to stone. Something killed them off—some planetary event. I have slabs of limestone at Genehouse with thousands of animals studding the rocks.
The first five extinctions were cosmic rolls of the dice. The Anthropocene debate is about whether to start this epoch at the Industrial Revolution or in 1940, roughly the dawn of human-manufactured radioactivity. That first burst of radiation, mostly the fallout from bomb testing, is still with us. Its invisibility keeps us from losing our collective sanity. If radiation were colored pink, say, we would see everything in the world with the proverbial rose-colored glasses. If archaeology somehow survives as a science, future explorers will open our monuments—nuclear and chemical waste dumps—and die. The Aztecs had their sun god, Huitzilipoctli, and they spilled a lot of blood; we have radiation—the new “The Mummy.” There is a rosy future in radiation.
If you’re still with me—and I bet many of you aren’t; I understand the feeling—then you might have guessed that the Sixth Extinction is us. Since most of my friends are religious, God may provide some comfort. Some may say, hey, it’s Revelations: cool. In fact, some right wing zealots have been working feverishly to bring that biblical vision to fruition. So anxious are they to bring about the Rapture, they’re busily planting red bulls and other portents in Israel and proclaiming the Middle East horrors to be the opening salvo. These rabid Revelations fans are impatient—White Jesus hasn’t yet come; if God won’t cooperate, we’ll bring ’er on our own selves.
Twenty years ago in Chicago, I was in the audience when the eminent anthropologist Louis Leakey reflected on us Big-brained folk, how we evolved down to a single specie when every other living organism and animal has multiple species. Nothing can survive as a specie, Dr. Leakey told us. He took a question from an earnest young woman. “You present a bleak picture of humankind,” the woman said. “What can we do to change things?” “Nothing,” Leakey replied. The audience gasped.
Let architecture stand for human arrogance. The big-brained build monuments and canyons of concrete. You can see the permanence, the destiny. God help me, I watched “Home Alone 2” over the holiday. And there was the kid, standing on the top of the World Trade Center. The camera pans back, framing the kid and the towers and that miracle of concrete, New York City. I was jolted. The kid was standing on air—I saw the ghosts and I cried. Who knew that big-brain monuments could collapse?
Remember Al Gore? Give him credit for having enough guts to “introduce” global warming. Scientists have been anticipating it for decades. No one had the guts to tell the awful truth. Our collective stupidity allowed us to denounce facts. Climate change is controversial? Not in Truthland.
Which leaves God. The greatest miracle of creation is evolution, not some virgin birth tales told in religions predating Christ by thousands of years. And perhaps God is the universe’s Big Banger who stepped back and watched His miracle unravel. Perhaps.
I killed a wasp in my basement this morning. It had been dying for days, tottering and waiting. I was its god. I determined its fate prematurely. I’m allergic to stings; I didn’t think about it. Wasps don’t have souls—thank God. Or do they? Every living organism contributed to our existence. Every living thing has a role to play, unwittingly or not. One species developed big brains, stood up and—unwittingly—littered, destroyed, played with matches and conquered the planet.
Except we didn’t. We poisoned it. Charles Dickens and E.M. Forrester saw it coming. I’m sixty-five—what the hell do I care? Because yesterday four young people and their parents came to Genehouse and listened to my talk (no mention of extinction) and exclaimed over my thousands of fossils and Indian artifacts and I gave them presents of stone. The young people were rapt. Jackson, one of those kids, wept. He feels, the poor sap. Let Rich, his father, explain why Jackson’s grandchildren, if we get that far, will not be in any class, middle or upper. The world as viewed through rose-colored glasses will only be rosy if you count burning plastics and chemical and nuclear waste dumps on fire.
If only Jackson were an ant or a bee—or even a rat. They will come marching home. They cooperate—the Commies. We . . . drink and drug and fatten ourselves and close our collective eyes against truth. It is oh so easy to see God beneath our eyelids, in the murk of shifting shadows. Hey, let’s run to outer space! We’ll have learned from our mistakes—goodbye, Earth, The Mother.
Let us pray.