A couple of years ago, the San Francisco based, internationally recognized artist Enrique Chagoya (below left) had an art show at the Electric Works gallery called Super-Bato Saves The World. Chagoya was playing with iconography involving the end of the current Mayan calendar during the Winter Solstice of 2012, and the hysterical portents of planetary doom it was supposedly prophesying.
I asked the artist at the party if he was one of the Apocalyptic Believers, and his reply has lingered:
"No, I'm not one of the believers. I have a niece in Mexico, though, who recently went on a journey with a Mayan shaman where she had a Eureka moment in the middle of their jungle trip. She told me the shaman had explained that all the environmental stuff we're doing is helping a little, so that the end is actually going to be a little later. Not a whole lot later, but not 2012 either."Unfortunately, that sounds about right. There have been plenty of Cassandras warning of Doom for Mankind over the last five decades, but certain voices have resonated with me.
As a teenager in 1969, I heard the Stanford scientist Paul Ehrlich give one of his doomsday population growth speeches at a school board convention at Bill Graham auditorium in San Francisco's Civic Center. Though most of his specific apocalyptic scenarios were as off-base as the Mayan calendar prophecies, his basic point about algorithmic overpopulation and the problems it would cause remain as potent as ever. In a 2011 interview in the LA Times, Ehrlich notes: "When we wrote it, there were about 3.5 billion people on the planet; about half a billion of them were hungry. Today there are 7 billion people on the planet and about a billion of them are hungry. We've lost something on the order of 200 million to 400 million to starvation and diseases related to starvation since the book was written. How "wrong" [were] we?"
Artists have always been the world's most powerful prognosticators, and the apocalyptic visions of novelists John Wyndham, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood have for some reason hit me with an almost mystical intensity over the years. It was especially disturbing to read an except from an article by Atwood written seven years ago for the British magazine Granta which was featured in Kit Stolz's environmental reporting site, A Change in the Wind.
The Canadian Atwood notes one of the more disturbing scenarios we are looking at in the near future:
"The Arctic is an unbelievable region of the earth: strikingly beautiful if you like gigantic skies, enormous landforms, tiny flowers, amazing colors, strange light effects. It's also a region that allows scant margins of error. Fall into the ocean and wait a few minutes, and you're dead. Make a mistake with a walrus or a bear, same result. Make the wrong wardrobe choice, same result again. Melt the Arctic ice, and what follows? No second chances for some time.
You could write a science fiction novel about it, except that it wouldn't be science fiction. You could call it Icemelt. Suddenly there are no more small organisms, thus no fish up there, thus no seals. That wouldn't affect the average urban condo dweller much. The rising water levels from--say--the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps would get attention--no more Long Island or Florida, no more Bangladesh, and quite a few islands would disappear--but people could just migrate, couldn't they? Still no huge cause for alarm unless you own a lot of shore-front real estate."
"But wait: there's ice under the earth, as well as on top of the sea. It's the permafrost, under the tundra. There's a lot of it, and a lot of tundra as well. Once the permafrost starts to melt, the peat on the tundra--thousands of years of stockpiled organic matter-- will start to break down, releasing huge quantities of methane gas. Up goes the air temperature, down goes the oxygen ratio. How long will it take before we all choke and boil to death?
It's hard to write fiction around such scenarios. Fiction is always about people, and to some extent the form determines the outcome of the plot. We always imagine--perhaps we're hard-wired to imagine--a survivor of any possible catastrophe, someone who lives to tell the tale, and also someone to whom the tale can be told. What kind of story would it be with the entire human race gasping to death like beached fish?"
Insistent voices hinting that humanity as we know it is not going to be around much longer was one of the reasons for starting this blog, with its focus on documenting a small corner of the world on a near daily basis. Creating records for a radically altered future feels like a calling.
And with that cheery thought, Happy Winter Solstice 2012, everyone. And thanks to the Asian Art Museum for all the Buddhas.