Who will mourn the Bramble Cay melomys?
The small rodent, which once lived on the northern Australian island of Bramble Cay, is, as of the day I am writing this, February 20th, extinct. Already the rat hadn’t been seen on the island in the last 10 years, and three years ago the local government reached the conclusion now being reaffirmed by the Australian government: we have found the first species-victim of the Anthropocene.
One lesson to learn from this now vanished rat is that science is, in some ways, lagging behind what we already experience first-hand: it doesn’t snow like it did when we were kids, there are warm, spring-like days in what should be the middle of winter (“with weather like this who needs a Moncler?”), and when it does snow it comes down with such force and potency that that the highways of the humid subtropical North Carolina are littered with the mangled bodies of wrecked automobiles — violent snowstorms seem to lash out against a world whose climate is slowly transitioning to an ever-present summer, reminding us of the power a good polar vortex can still bring down upon our major metropolitan areas, shutting down the constant ebb of consumable resources which flow across our interstate highways like blood to the brain; these are the spasms of a dying weather cycle.
While all this happens, scientists are trapped in their own circuits, being propelled in loops by some bastardization of the Scopic drive: seeing, wishing to be seen. They orbit this thing we call ‘anthropogenic climate change,’ doomed to reenact the melancholic and scripted role of Susan Sontag’s Observer: watching, ever faithfully recording, impotent, unable to change anything. We have reached a Groundhog Day point in climate discourse: a report comes out, the newspapers cover it, there is low-level generalized panic, nothing happens, we forget, it repeats. Scientists can advocate, and they do. We should not blame scientists, it is their job, after all, to observe, not to intervene, and could they even intervene, if they had the desire to? I’m sure they would, they seem even more scared than we are. But the power to stop us from driving off this cliff (if we haven’t already) is so far distanced from our daily lives that it unclear whose, if anyone’s, foot is on the gas pedal: who could we ask to step on the breaks?
It’s not us. You can go vegan, shop local, sell your car, use public transport, ride a bike, and still ExxonMobil will keep pumping, the sky will still be crisscrossed by the exhaust trails of the planes used to ferry luxury goods to the palatial homes of Important and Rich People who are themselves hurtling through that very same sky in their private jets: to Davos, to SXSW, to their summer homes, their winter ski-resorts, to the White House. A hundred companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, and those companies have CEOs, and those CEOs are among the richest ten percent of people who are responsible for 50% of the “individual-consumption-based fossil fuel emissions.” These people, who are killing our planet, who are killing us, have names. But nothing happens to the people who are called those names (maybe that name is your name), who fly above us in their private jets and buy multimillion-dollar compounds to fly to in those private jets when oil gets scarce and civil society starts to break down. Some will fly to New Zealand, some to the “invitation only, five-star, underground survival complex” in Germany, some to their private, refurbished missile silos in the heart of America; relics of an averted apocalypse repurposed to fit the needs of the current one — in the end-times, the ultra-wealthy will still be practicing the bourgeois virtues of thrift and diligence. They know what’s coming even more than we do.
Climate change is, in the words of Timothy Morton, a hyperobject. Its gargantuan size and implications lead it to exist outside a realm of our conceptualization. We cannot truly understand its immense totality, all we can do is glimpse it from the corner of our eye, maybe on an out-of-place warm day, in an out-of-season tornado, in a tropical storm, a flood, a mental exercise, a now extinct species of rat, but we will never totally grasp it. And maybe that’s why we are unable to rally around it, to fight it, to focus on degrowth or shutting down the circuits of capital accumulation which have brought us here. We are fighting against an enemy we can’t really see, we can’t even imagine.
Let’s try a mental exercise:
● Visualize your home
● Visualize all the things in it, not just the ones that give you meaning or elicit an immediate emotional response.
● Visualize your door, the slight chip at the top of it from when you slammed it too hard when you were thirteen because you were mad at your parents (they wouldn’t let you go to a party) and you thought you would make sure you gave them an audible cue, a noise that would ring throughout the house, just so they would know how mad you were.
● Visualize your bookshelf and the books on it, maybe that first book, the one you read all on your own, or the first book that you read that was over a hundred pages, two hundred, three hundred. The worn-out spines and dusty pages.
● Visualize coffee stains on your family’s table.
● Visualize the room your parents sleep in.
● Now visualize that house without you, without your family, with no one to give those objects meaning, to read into those signs of wear, those imperfections, to see through these objects a life lived, a family’s history, and the indelible marks it made, that we all make, on the objects around us.
Maybe this is the way we can see climate change, as a collection of absences, as abandoned homes in the coastal regions of the United States, obliterated lives and memories — where once there were a series of imprints which you and your family alone held the key to understanding there are now only meaningless things you couldn’t carry with you, used objects, just sitting there, waiting for the water to rise. We can’t see all the bees dying, we can’t see deforestation, we can’t see shrinking crop yields, most of us cannot even see the ravaged coastline cities of Bangladesh. The climate apocalypse is here, it just isn’t in New Canaan Connecticut yet.
I recently saw a screenshotted article from Barron’s; I can’t remember whether it was on Facebook or Twitter. The title read: “Would Your Portfolio Survive a Nuclear Incident?” with the text underneath: “There hasn’t been a major nuclear incident, outside of accidental meltdowns, since World War II. This is no small miracle, and there’s reason to wonder when this string of good luck—because it has included many near-disasters—will end.” My question to you is: will your portfolio survive the Anthropocene? You can live in your gated and guarded suburb, get your driver to take your armored car into the center of the megacity your community is a rich-flight suburb of, to the Goldman tower, the Blackrock tower, the McKinsey satellite office, trade high-price water futures, speculatively bet on whether the American government’s decision to let the army open fire on climate-refugees at the border will affect the future of the dollar, write think-tank articles on why it’s too late for even targeted degrowth to save us so we should just cut taxes, and wait for this all to blow over, but it won’t.
Tim Beshara, federal policy director for the Wilderness Society, said in an Australian Senate hearing: “The Bramble Cay melomys was a little brown rat… But it was our little brown rat and it was our responsibility to make sure it persisted. And we failed.”
Today, the day I am writing this, February 20th, 2019, a small rat from an island in north Australia went extinct. It went extinct because we let it.
Who will mourn the Bramble Cay melomys?