April 21, 2015

A Brief Survey of the Cultural Reaction to the end of the world (probably)

/clears throat... Hi, so I'm back. From a nuclear wasteland, no less. Seriously. [points vaguely up the timestream] you can read all about it there. That's a pic of me and my buddy Wayne in full Stalker-chic, transiting between two totems marking nuclear tests sites from some sixty years ago.

I honestly can't believe it's only been five weeks since the last newsletter. A lot has happened. Including breaking the rules about not eating or drinking in the Underworld. Maybe I never left the Zone? You are tuned in to (De)Extinction Club and I am simultaneously alive and dead. You are Schroedinger's subscriber and we are broadcasting from the Shades.

I had infrequent net access those first two weeks, being mostly on the road, heading to the middle of nowhere. There was some limited access in Central Australian motels, largely over the aptly named nomadnet, or when pulling into a town big enough to have a solid data connection, but even then its eat with one hand, upload to instagram with the other before resuming the mission of clocking up the kilometres, and riding with the local charismatic industrial megafauna.

Meanwhile, mammoth things have been afoot, that was clear from the briefest look at my Twitter timeline whenever, wherever it would load.

And now seems like a good moment to pause and take a brief survey of the state of the extinction aesthetic and scope out what seems to be the formation of an actual DeExtinction Culture.

So in this newsletter we range across time and space, through pop culture and science, diving into the streams of the Zeitgeist.

We start in the 16th Century. Wayne told me this great tale from his time living in Italy as kid on a military base there: the story of the time a mountain was thrown up from the ground beneath it in just a week. That place is Monte Nuovo:

A series of damaging earthquakes and changes in land elevation preceded its only eruption, which lasted from September 29 to October 6, 1538, when it was formed. The event is important in the history of science because it was the first eruption in modern times to be described by a large number of witnesses.

How awesome would that be? To see the earth shake and rewrite itself before your eyes? Proper mythic stuff.

Now imagine just a few decades later standing at the top of the freshly minted landform, the awesome act of the gods you witnessed as a child, starring in wonder now at the sky and the sudden appearance, from nowhere, of its “new star”.

It's November, 1572 and for one of the eight known times in the history of humanity, a supernova – commonly named after Tycho, though John Dee (Dark Extropian Hero) among others saw it first - is visible to the naked eye in the sky. Upending the ancient models of the heavens.

You're standing on the edge of a brand new volcano and your eyes are being hit by the light of an exploded sun. What a time to be alive! How cosmic everything must have seemed then! How terrifying to contemplate it all.

A friend and I just mounted our own solo expedition into a nuclear wasteland. What a time to be alive! (Probably.)

This was no ordinary, casual nuclear tourism, no. We weren't being smuggled into Chernobyl by grey legal pseudo-Stalkers from Kiev. It was just us in a 4WD we'd never driven before and some custom mapping software I'd only had installed a few days before leaving home. Navigating by GPS alone down roads that hadn't been maintained since they were created, praying a solar flare wouldn't temporarily knock out that lifesaving network of satellites far above us that we were completely dependant upon. There were no other passers by to call up for aid. There was just us. But fully provisioned and as prepared as one can be, mind you. Geared up such that if things did actually go full Mad Max post-apocalypse, we could just keep on rolling.

Instead, what we came back to a few days later, civilisation still in tact, late capitalism in full effect, was a whole slew of news items relating to our core, flagship, charismatic, emblematic DeExtinction fauna; the Mammoth. Something that has only continued to ramp up since. It's exciting times for DeExtinction fans! Good thing I've got this newsletter handy to talk about it all, huh?!

As we'd discussed previously, as Stewart Brand had hinted at talking about Revive & Restore, George Church and his team have indeed made significant progress in resurrecting the mammoth, gene by extinct gene [via io9]:

To do it, his team analyzed the DNA extracted from the well-preserved remains of mammoths found on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, where the species is thought to have made its last stand some 3,300 years ago. The Harvard researchers weren't able to reconstruct the DNA in its entirety, but they were able to recreate, or synthesize, a functional version of it in the lab. Mammoths are closely related to Asian elephants, so a complete cell did not have to be created from scratch.

"We prioritized genes associated with cold resistance including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and, especially hemoglobin," Church told The Sunday Times. "We now have functioning elephant cells with mammoth DNA in them. We have not published it in a scientific journal because there is more work to do, but we plan to do so."

Cool Mammoth fact: a lot of the remains they're finding in Siberia are actually North American migrants! [via DailyMail]:

Recent research has shown that many woolly mammoths discovered in Siberia may have originated in North Ameria and migrated across the Bering Strait when sea levels were lower.

Many believe the original Siberian population of mammoths disappeared around 40,000 years ago, with North American mammoths dominating until around 4,500 years ago.

The exact reason for their extinction is still debated with many blaming changes to the climate as causing their demise.

Back to volcanoes for a moment, but keeping it circa forty thousand years ago – and you'll like this one, secret supervolcanic society members – volcanoes totally didn't kill the Neanderthals! (Still us then.) I know you were worried about that one. I'm sure the rituals are all metaphorical anyway. Don't stress! Continue your infiltration and report back via standard protocol. Data will continue to be accumulated.

There's so much we don't know about extinction events. And like those 16th C citizens having their world view shattered by the sudden appearance of new mountains and stars in the sky, it's worth remembering that the incontestable, common knowledge - duh, everybody knows that! - fact that an asteroid (PRAISE THEM!) killed the dinosaurs was but a new and still forming theory in the 1980s, and the key evidence, the impact crater itself, only found in 1991! It's only as old the Millennials then, really. And like them, it's a theory still coming of age.

Figuring out the exact mechanics is requiring some proper, full-on super science, with associated Michael Bay-style montage forming of an international team of experts to “drill nearly 5,000 feet below the seabed to take core samples”, as the University of Texas is keen to inform us:

The team, led by Gulick and Joanna Morgan of Imperial College London, will be sampling the crater’s “peak ring” — an enigmatic ring of topographically elevated rocks that surrounds the crater’s center, rises above its floor and has been buried during the past 65.5 million years by sediments.

Like, there's better samples on the Moon, and if we had've had a, like, linear progressive post-Apollo space program, it would probably be no big thing to take a rover over from the local Lunar colony and drill there.

Instead, they're going out to sea and drilling down a great depth, ya know, like that movie, The Core.

Because, as I mentioned, we have no freaking clue exactly what happens when a big space rock meets a planet when travelling at a great speed and maybe things like forming various plans to deal with existential risk type scenarios might require that kind of info? [More deets via LiveScience]:

By sampling there, the researchers can get a clearer picture of ancient biological and geological processes.

Scientists think that, when a big rock smashes into Earth at high enough velocities, the collision causes the crust temporarily to act sort of like a liquid, first forming a so-called transient crater (like the indentation that forms on a lake surface after a rock is thrown in), and the center rebounds, or splashes, upward and then outward. "We think the peak ring is the record of the material that rebounded and splashed outward," Gulick told Live Science.

All of these ideas are based on models and aren't necessarily what happened. "We've never gotten a rock back from a peak ring to know if that's correct," Gulick said.

The researchers also hope to find details about the process that weakened the granite of the crust to get it to flow like a liquid, Gulick noted. "We don't understand that process," he said.

That's cool, no big deal. No great rush, take your time, Science! I'm sure you'll figure out the exact nature of the horrible mechanics of a gloriously molten planetary crust with probable associated fireball - the air igniting, no less - all spreading out from the force of the impact of leftover building material from the making of the solar system. 

According to the data discussed at the very recent Planetary Defence Conference, we should only expect a Tunguska-level event every 500 years, and a Chelyabinsk-sized encounter every 50 years. So we've got plenty of time to figure out how those cosmic bullets might kill us all. Probably. It's not EXACTLY like we're playing Russian Roulette with the planet and its inhabitants. There's certainly no burden us as, I don't know, Gaia's eyes and ears and brain to do something with our increasingly complex models of the universe and the many threats it presents. Sure, I mean, there's plenty of other ways to all die horribly before then anyway, most of which look like suicide to, to the outside observer. *cough*climate chaos*cough* 

BUT BACK TO THE NOW. And what is super hashtag teh now? Mammoths and DeExtinction, that's what! (You know that, you're already at the secret after party.) Those hip kids at VICE, who've been well on board the deextinction train for some time now, made a short documentary on the subject: The Mission to Resurrect the Woolly Mammoth [22mins – right click, open tab, watch over lunch or dinner go on!]. "PROUDLY SPONSORED BY ORPHAN BLACK."

What Clone Zeitgeist?

Now they went with the rival camp to the one occupied by George Church's gene-by-gene, hacking the Asian elephant DNA crew, focusing instead on the efforts of the 'more sexier' “Bad-Boy Geneticist” as WIRED called him (and WIRED certainly isn't TIRED these days no) South Korean HWANG WOO-SUK. Nah. Doing deals with the Russian mafia is sweet as. Milking the shrinking upper middle class of America for a cool hundred grand to clone their dogs, that's like... admirable, from a certain perspective (not mine, obvz). So you roll that cash over and run your own private moonshot; Mammoth cloning.

Now, as long time subscribers know, we've covered this tundra... this thawing, frozen ground before... back in our second newsletter no less; "it's about ethics in mammoth deextinction journalism". (Oh yeah, zeitgeist references, we got 'em!) Which revolved around then peak DX cultural artefact, Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy, way back in November, 2014. Oh how far we've come since then!

Like, now we have updates! Beth Shapiro's book about this whole subject, “How To Clone A Mammoth” which, compared to the semi-gonzo journalistic style of the VICE crew is super serious science, is out next month (spoiler – she says we can't... literally... clone one. Nope!). And we will have a lot more to say about this book and its implications. Which will be much easier when I've actually read it. Ha! And, put certain other... plans, schemes into effect. We'll come back to that also. Keep watchin' your inbox!

But what this book is already doing is helping create a larger discussion around the idea of DeExtinction specifically, and crucially, conservation ecology in general. It's only ever been about saving the world, kids! Creation in the midst of destruction. Humanity's greatest hour can be the eleventh one. Tell your friends!

No seriously – do, send them to http://tinyletter.com/deextinctionclub, go on!

The new bleak is the new black, and all that. Kimmy Schmidt told me so.

Anyway... SCIENCE! ECOLOGY! Resuscitating a dying planet. What's bringing mammoths go to do with that? Well, as Beth Shapiro says:

While it’s not clear to me that there are compelling reasons to bring exact replicas of extinct species back to life, there may be compelling reasons to develop the technology to genetically manipulate living species. For example, this technology might be useful to provide a genetic “booster” shot for species that are critically endangered. So, instead of using this technology to bring extinct species back to life, we could use this technology to aid in the conservation of living and endangered species or ecosystems”

And George Church weighs in with in the same article:

“creating a cold-adapted Asian elephant would mean that the species could roam further north than its existing, threatened habitat. “Elephants are currently in danger as they overlap with human populations. If they could be readapted to places of minus 50C, where there is low human density, they would stand a higher chance of survival,” he says.

Both have suggested that the present-day tundra landscape of Canada or Siberia could accommodate a latter-day population of mammoths. It would be an extreme version of the idea of re-introducing lost species into an ecosystem where they were once expelled, only this time set in the Pleistocene and not in the present.”

Which brings us to the awesomeness that is Pleistocene Park. It's actually pretty hard to get a great deal of details on this experimental zone right now, but I just found this TEDx talk about it today and will keep looking, keep making inquiries, oh yes. Sergey Zimov is a proper mad science genius, and is shown driving around in his version of a synthetic mammoth – a tank. Knocking down trees like a giant elephant would, flattening the snow; he's quoted as saying it does every a mammoth does except poop. But he's not waiting for the return of the mammoth, he's busy cloning the whole ecosystem instead by assembling a set of interacting species – various deer and bison and such – that perform a close approximation of a Pleistocene era ecology, working to prove that this alone should keep the methane within the tundra locked down.

We seriously do not want that stuff getting out, adding more elements to the already roller coaster feedback loop-the-loops of runaway climate change. NOPE!

Environmental and ecological collapse, it's what's happening, plain to see. Can I get an amen?

And all sorts of solutions are in the offing. The knee-jerk reaction of many a quotable conservationist is to say that any Mammoth DeExtinction effort distracts from the dire state of existing elephant populations. As if we're an easily distracted species that can only focus on one thing. In capable of multitasking, or better doing things in parallel.

We say, “why choose?” There is absolutely no reason that our complex technological civilisation can't manage both things... it just has to want to. And the more we talk about this, the more possible it becomes. It's about consciousness raising, innit.

Once we start putting more options on the table we have a chance. Another suggestion is – get this – to list the Mammoth as an endangered species.

Making the mammoth the first extinct species to be placed on the formal endangered list, one expert at the museum will suggest, could help end the illegal international trading of ivory.”

If, by this point, you've already watched that VICE documentary, or otherwise learnt it, you'll be familiar with the fact that mammoth ivory is a huge market now, having replaced the tusks of poached elephants as that industry's sole source material. A super not-very-legal at all industry; full rogue operations and gun battles over truck loads of mammoth trunks. Which is cool if you're a gonzo-esque VICE journalist. And which is how a South Korean scientist gets tied up with the Russian mob; because that's who you go to when you have a craving for some semi-fresh mammoth meat, apparently.

Unless you're hanging out with these guys:

They're all about to take "a shotof pure mammoth-broth - the first tasting of Mammoth in over 10.000 years". And here's the recipe if you want to try it at home (just call the Russian mob for that vital ingredient) [via the Sandmotor tumblr]:

a small ‘shot’ of pure mammoth-broth for everyone made from just the fossils cooked for a few hours in water, followed by a delicate soup with these ingredients:

  • assorted Zandmotor Fossils

  • Water

  • freshly picked Ramson (Daslook, Allium ursinum)

  • Birchwine (Berk, Betula)

  • fermented Cornel (Kornoelje, Cornus mas)

  • raw Reindeer meat (Rendier, Rangifer tarandus)

Yum? There's no reaction GIFs to tell. That's a pretty serious extinction aesthetic dining experience though.

Somehow I think Hannibal Lecter would be down with this. He's all about the apex predator dining experience, after all.

But it's the elephants that matter right now. They literally control the weather. So every effort should be made to protect and preserve them. Better yet, restock the planet with them. Sergey Zimov's vision of a Pleistocene Park isn't the only mad science proposal for ecological restoration by redistributing the currently existing megafauna population. The ambitious plans for ReWilding America would have lions, camels and elephants back in the United States:

This idea of rewilding from a deep time perspective is going back to a time before the first humans began to migrate to the Americas in the late Pleistocene [about 10,000 years ago] and asking how we can restore the ecological landscape.

And the creation of such reserves wouldn't just restore the local environment, it would give the species a chance to repopulate away from existing threats, like poachers. I think I've touched on this before. Empty the zoos into these reserves. Swap post colonial tourism for neo ecological restoration. Ya know the drill.

I've definitely said the best thing for the planet is less of us on it, and my preference being we all go to space vs sleep walking into oblivion. And I know I just said it again in the conclusion of my review of British psychological TV show FORTITUDE, which I just recently wrote up on Daily Grail. Mostly examining the show, - set in Svalbard, starring, as it I named it, 'Checkhov's Mammoth' - as a climatological horror drama series through the lens of speculative realism. Drawing on some of the same material already mentioned above, but ending by talking about the genuine threat of disease from thawing mammoths:

What new or old plagues, parasites or viruses might be the end result of climate chaos as more of world's ice melts? As grey legal, un-policed, Russian Mafia linked, mammoth hunters raid the thawing tundra. And other frozen megafauna and whatever might lie sleeping within them are thawed out, as the Arctic melts and shrinks. As the Northwest passage, freed of troublesome pack ice, becomes an exciting new shipping route. What extra passengers might it transport? It's not alarming if you accept that the universe is constantly trying to kill us.”

And also conducting a brief, related survey of extinction aesthetic pop culture – near-term near human extinction by Bond-esque villains, to be specific, and putting humans back into the web of life by making them beastial:

Spoiler warnings for: Agent Carter, Kingsman, Helix and Utopia.

In the seventh episode of the Agent Carter TV series, SNAFU, a bioweapon is used by the evil Leviathan group to turn the patrons of a cinema into homicidal manics who tear each other to shreads. In Kingsman: The Secret Service a similar scene (highlight of the movie, if you like that sort of thing) occurs in a church, this time via a barely explained, hand wavium 'signal' transmitted by mobile phones, which turns out to be the Bond-esque villain's plan to reduce the human population down a level fitting the carrying capacity of the Earth. A sustainable level. Justifiable genocide, all for the greater good.

In the first season of Helix a viral outbreak at, yes, an Arctic research station turns the infected into “violent zombie-like "Vectors", spreading the infection to others, with a small percentage eventually regaining some normality if treated”. And in the second season, the greater plot revolves around a group (of immortals, btw) that will deploy this virus worldwide – a la 12 Monkeys – to thin the human herd, and the race to not fight it, but instead find a more benign cure for the human infestation; widespread sterility. And finally, sterilising the bulk of the human race to save the Earth is the plot driver of the excellent UK TV series Utopia (about to be remade for the US audiences by David Fincher – I did warn you about spoilers).

The best thing for the planet is less humans on it – but I'd argue we create a vast, posthuman space republic instead of being turned into homicidal beasts by plague or circumstance; or voluntarily walking into extinction ourselves, as cosmic pessimist Rust Cohle suggests. Accept responsibility for our tainted inheritance as Earth's apex predators and work towards healing its ecosystems through the knowledge gained in nearly destroying them. Or just let nature take its brutal, uncaring course. ”

Now, no one's saying that all the charismatic fervently Green billionaire types are secretly, covertly eco fascists or sustainability by-way-of genocide proponents or, ya know, vampires... I'm just saying there's other options to those kinds of solutions.

Like becoming responsible apex predators and managing the ecosystem in a self-aware way. Sitting conscientiously at the top of the Tree of Life.

Which, as we being to wind things down, brings us to Bonobos and poop. Just like our friends the Elephants, if the Bonobos are made extinct, the forests they called home may die with them:

David Beaune of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, found that bonobos have a pretty amazing role in the forest. They eat for about 3.5 hours every day and travel a mean of 1.2 kilometers from meal sites before defecating and depositing the seeds that have passed through their systems.”

Just like the long extinct Glyptodon was a key “muck-spreader” for the now poor and degraded ecosystem of the Amazon, at the very minimum this distant cousin species of ours is keeping its forest ecosystem healthy. And just as we now understand how the whales and their “fecal plumes” make their local habitat the oceans function to maximum capacity, there's a multitude of reasons to protect, preserve and restore all these important species and the actions they perform, and in doing so revive a planet in its death throes.

We're learning to identify the key leverage points in the very midst of the Collapse. We can shore up the structures of these ecologies and take them back towards a pre-Anthropocentric level of health. Wolves engineer rivers. Etc. We're making a note of it all.

In shortWe've already shit all over the planet, it's time to start fertilising it again!!!

So, Go Team Organic Geoengineering! Remember, the next level is Galactic Ecology.

We can do it! This is all just the selective filter for the posthuman race. Tie up your shoelaces, let's do this thimg!

Okay... that was sufficient energy for this moment in time. Now I need to read the latest issue of Nameless; you met him above, he's the star of a new super extinction aesthetic / cosmic horror comic book by that guy Grant Morrison (maybe you've heard of him?) and then fall asleep.

Until next time true believers! It won't be so long between updates. (He said once more...) But there's much I haven't had time to touch on here, and more still yet to come. And great many adventures still to be had.