Saturday, September 15, 2012

Essays: Our Best Hope

From "Why I Write," by Simon Schama:

In one of his more breathtaking performances (which is saying something), David Foster Wallace, at a state fair, moves from looking hard at the prize pigs: “Swine have fur! I never thought of swine as having fur. I’ve actually never been up very close to swine, for olfactory reasons” to thinking, with Swiftian mercilessness, not just about what happens when the pigs are industrially processed, but how we contrive to deal with that routine slaughter. “I’m struck, amid the pig’s screams and wheezes, by the fact that these agricultural pros do not see their stock as pets or friends. They are just in the agribusiness of weight and meat ... even at the fair their products continue to drool and smell and ingest their own excrement and scream, and the work goes on. I can imagine what they think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don’t have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materialises at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal-rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon.” (“Ticket to the Fair”, 1994).

This passage does everything Montaigne would have wanted from his posterity: self-implication without literary narcissism; a moral illumination built from a physical experience. Like the best non-fiction long-form writing, it essays a piece of the meaning of what it’s like to live – or, in the case of Hitchens’ last magnificent writing, to die – in a human skin. Essay writing and reading is our resistance to the pygmy-fication of the language animal; our shrinkage into the brand, the sound bite, the business platitude; the solipsistic tweet. Essays are the last, heroic stand for the seriousness of prose entertainment; our best hope of liberating text from texting.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Exponential Growth

A scary passage from Jian Leng's Editor's Notes in the current issue of The Figure in the Carpet:

Human population shows a nearly perfect trend of exponential growth. And perhaps that concept is the key to understanding the danger of climate degradation, expanding human population, our growing need for more energy sources, and the demand for ever-increasing food production. It was not until I came across a quote by economist Chris Martenson that I understood the impact of exponential growth in human populations. Martenson notes that exponential growth is a complicated idea best understood by imagining the following scenario. Imagine someone drags you into Yankee Stadium and handcuffs you to the top bleacher row. You must also imagine that Yankee Stadium is watertight. Off in the distance down on the field you see someone with an eyedropper and that person drops one drop of water. Then imagine that amount doubling in the next minute and in every minute that follows. How long before the water gets up to your level and you drown? Only fifty minutes. But that short time period is not the most amazing thing. The most amazing thing is that the stadium is still 93% empty at 45 minutes. It is only in the last 5 minutes that the exponential growth kicks in, where the danger begins to overwhelm you and you are pulling frantically at the handcuffs on your wrists.

So it is with the dangers inherent in the Anthropocene Epoch. Are we in the last five minutes of the exponential growth of carbon dioxide buildup and climate change, the last five minutes of population growth and insufficient food production, the last five minutes of those fossil fuels we know so well and love to hate? I do not know the answers, but the questions are beginning to keep me up at night.