Living the Improbable
04.12.2019, 4:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“Human beings were catastrophists at heart until their instinctive awareness of Earth’s unpredictability was supplanted by a belief in uniformitarianism — … and also a range of government practices informed by statistical probability.” – Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement

impact, smudge studio 002019

We recommend two pieces of reading, perhaps most effectively experienced side by side. Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 The Great Derangement and Michael Preston’s “The Day the Dinosaurs Died” from the April 8th, 2019 issue of The New Yorker.

They resonate deeply with ideas shaping our current work and process, and reading them has helped to segue us into our upcoming projects. The book and article also renewed our sense that creative practice will continue to play a vital role in how the Anthropocene unfolds from here.

For Ghosh, “The Great Derangement” is the “time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight...” as agents of the Anthropocene. He sees forms of Modern writing as distracting (mostly Western) humans from sensing, noting, or being able to imagine the Anthropocene events that have been taking shape over the last 100 years. Ironically, this potentially catastrophic distraction is chronic in an era that “self-congratulates itself on self-awareness.”

In The Day the Dinosaur’s Died, Preston, via Roger Shattuck, reiterates Gosh’s lament that, “Twentieth century art has tended to ‘search itself’ rather than exterior reality” and “human consciousness and identity [has been] placed at the center of every kind of aesthetic enterprise.”

Humans aren’t the reason for, nor are they the culmination of, Earth’s 4.6 billion year existence. Ignoring this has been unhealthy for our species — and many many other species on Earth. Ghosh posits that art has had a significant role in preventing modern humans from making meaningful contact with this perspective.

Preston dramatically reveals this perspective to be scientific fact. “The Day the Dinosaurs Died” literally blows our self-referential, self-congratulatory impulses to bits by vividly reminding inhabitants of Earth that our planet is not immune from the destructive-generative forces of the cosmos. He actually reminds us that as indifferent and random as they might seem, we are indebted to these forces. They paved the way for our own species’ evolution 66 million years ago. The KT boundary-marking asteroid ushered in the opportunity for new forms of mammalian life to thrive and evolve in the Paleogene (including, eventually, we humans) via the total obliteration of nearly life forms all that had thrived in the age of dinosaurs. Best we don’t forget the generative, ongoing power of the geo/cosmos, as Ghosh admonishes.

Though not written as the Anthropocenian fiction or “literary art” that Gosh wishes for, Preston’s piece is filled with awe-inspiring wonder and gripping storytelling. It left us with a lingering sensation of the extent to which the actual material reality of living on Earth is wildly unpredictable, and fascinating — in some ways even more compelling than what we humans have creatively imagined about the fact of our existence on Earth thus far. All of what humans make…is derivative.

Case in point, from Preston:

“When Earth’s crust rebounded, a peak higher than Mt. Everest briefly rose up… a gigantic jet of molten material, which exited the atmosphere, some of it fanning out over North America. Much of the material was several times hotter than the surface of the sun, and it set fire to everything within a thousand miles. In addition, an inverted cone of liquefied, superheated rock rose, spread outward as countless red-hot blobs of glass, called tektites, and blanketed the Western Hemisphere.

Some of the ejecta escaped Earth’s gravitational pull and went into irregular orbits around the sun. Over millions of years, bits of it found their way to other planets and moons in the solar system… A 2013 study in the journal Astrobiology estimated that tens of thousands of pounds of impact rubble may have landed on Titan, a moon of Saturn, and on Europa and Callisto, which orbit Jupiter—three satellites that scientists believe may have promising habitats for life. 

The asteroid was vaporized on impact. Its substance, mingling with vaporized Earth rock, formed a fiery plume, which reached halfway to the moon before collapsing in a pillar of incandescent dust. Computer models suggest that the atmosphere within fifteen hundred miles of ground zero became red hot from the debris storm, triggering gigantic forest fires. As the Earth rotated, the airborne material converged at the opposite side of the planet, where it fell and set fire to the entire Indian subcontinent. Measurements of the layer of ash and soot that eventually coated the Earth indicate that fires consumed about seventy per cent of the world’s forests. Meanwhile, giant tsunamis resulting from the impact churned across the Gulf of Mexico, tearing up coastlines, sometimes peeling up hundreds of feet of rock, pushing debris inland and then sucking it back out into deep water, leaving jumbled deposits that oilmen sometimes encounter in the course of deep-sea drilling.

The damage had only begun. Scientists still debate many of the details, which are derived from the computer models, and from field studies of the debris layer, knowledge of extinction rates, fossils and microfossils, and many other clues. But the over-all view is consistently grim. The dust and soot from the impact and the conflagrations prevented all sunlight from reaching the planet’s surface for months. Photosynthesis all but stopped, killing most of the plant life, extinguishing the phytoplankton in the oceans, and causing the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to plummet. After the fires died down, Earth plunged into a period of cold, perhaps even a deep freeze. Earth’s two essential food chains, in the sea and on land, collapsed. About seventy-five per cent of all species went extinct. More than 99.9999 per cent of all living organisms on Earth died, and the carbon cycle came to a halt.”

Humans evolved within the aftermath of this chaos. We owe our existence to it. No one knows what material outcomes the Anthropocene will usher into reality over the next few decades, but we are in the midst of many unfolding extinctions.

Ghosh argues that it is the responsibility of artists and writers to imagine possibilities. We agree. Though Ghosh is primarily making his case for the field of literary fiction, we feel this applies to the visual arts, politics and beyond. He calls for art that “communicates with vividness, the uncanniness and improbability, the magnitude and the interconnectedness of the transformations that are now underway.”  One strategy for moving toward this vision is to move away from distorted notions of time and history as “continuous, irreversible, forward movement, led by an avant-garde.”

Our intuition is that American culture might have arrived at a point of being able accept that it is time to learn to co-exist with uncertainty; that we should indeed prepare to live through what, according to economic, environmental, and environmental statistics, might have seemed improbable only a few decades ago; that we can learn something vital about uncertainty by making engaging the geological and cosmological realities that intimately shape our lives. A real and meaningful connection exists between our lives today and the wild forces that have continually shaped and re-shaped our planet over billions of years. To make this connection is the aim of our work as “environmental” artists.

The environmental challenges (floods, fires, droughts, historic storms, etc.) over the last few years are pressuring our culture into a state humility. Denial, habitual beliefs and simple answers on what “to do” or how to “solve” the climate crisis have shifted somewhat, giving way to more unsettling realizations. The emerging awareness of endless entanglement reflects just how complex the issues are: simply not using plastic bags is not an environmental “solution”; there is no single plant-based milk that “solves” questions of sustainable farming or nutrition in the Anthropocene.

The unsettled and uncertain is a worthy place from which to initiate creative work — it’s real.

Together, Preston and Ghosh make a strong case for recalling that our planet and its species is not immune from the improbable. Myths of Modernism might have made humans feel temporarily safe, mistakenly leading us to believe we could engineer everything and anything, but this has never been a reality.

The logics that created the Anthropocene will not offer us the pathways we will need for living the Anthropocene.

Sensing the connections between human experience and cosmological change, as abstract and improbable as they seem, opens space for accessing our species’ instinctual awareness of planetary unpredictability. It also opens space for (modern) humility. If we are less surprised when change of all magnitudes comes, we might respond differently to the (ever-changing) pressures of everyday life within the Anthropocene. Change is inevitable. How we live it can be intentional, well considered, and creative. 

It is the job of artists to make the material realities of life on Earth something livable, even if how is not yet imaginable from here. But, if we no longer look for solutions, or for “heroes”, we can free up our focus for the urgent tasks at hand. There is a much more interesting and lively story unfolding (outside!) and it can be re-learned. We have always been living with and in the improbable.




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