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The Culture of Extinction
Alex Steffen, 18 Sep 04

One of the formative experiences in my life was covering the Kyoto round of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). A cub reporter, I was frankly awed by the whole culture of major treaty negotiations: the diplomats and world leaders, the grizzled journalists and government flacks, the whirl of information and the party hordes. I was intimidated (for instance, at one point I was introduced to Prince Phillip. At 23, I didn't think my cocktail banter up to entertaining royalty, but he was very nice about it).

But what hit me harder than the event was the subject. For Kyoto was the first time I was forced, day after day, to come to grips with extinction. Day in, day out, I listened to speeches and interviewed experts who debated which species we'd already driven into extinction, which were going fast, which might still be saved, and which were, in E.O. Wilson's phrase, already the living dead. At one point someone gave me a document -- a rather thick document -- which turned out to be a listing of the known species believed to have vanished. Page after page after page, gone. And everyone -- everyone -- agreed the die-off was going to get much, much worse.

[[it gets better, below, sort of...]]

I left CITES feeling emotionally bludgeoned.

Since then, I've spent a few late nights thinking about what it means to be living in the midst of the Sixth Extinction -- what it means to have a part in causing the largest mass-extinction since the Death of the Dinosaurs.

I continue to struggle with it. The extinction crisis is one of the major problems humanity faces -- right up there with climate change, poverty and genocide -- yet it is little-mentioned outside of environmental and scientific circles. Why?

I think the reasons are cultural. To consider the extinction crisis is visit with death and guilt and horror. It's like living in a W.S. Merwin poem. It overwhelms you. It pulls you down like dark cold water. We are not culturally equipped to handle this stuff.

But cultures change. Cultures can be changed.

There's even an opportunity: the Threshold Foundation is offering a $50,000 grant "for projects to proactively address societal awareness of mass extinction and our responsibility in creating and reversing it."

"We are looking for new out-of-the-box approaches, which are at once creative, psychologically sophisticated and media-savvy. We see this issue as potentially analogous to the cultural taboo against discussing cancer a few decades ago, or to our collective attitudes toward smoking, drunk driving, firearms, asbestos, or most recently the health crisis of obesity due to fast food."

Years ago, I thought we ought to build a Museum of Absent Nature, something the size of the American Museum of Natural History, where visitors could wander among the biologically-departed and point out the dodos, great apes and snow leopards to their kids. But honestly, who would go? It would just sit there, a giant intellectual mausoleum, dusty, empty and full of ghosts. Such a place would just entomb the extinct far out of our sight.

No, what we need is more immediate engagement with the Sixth Extinction, something that moves it onto the streets, brings it into people's homes, takes it to the bar and buys it drinks until we're forced to be comfortable enough with it to at least talk about it. Something like the red or yellow ribbons people wore to destigmatize HIV and breast cancer. Something that moves it from abstract issue to human concern. And, preferably, something beautiful and moving.

So, here's my modest proposal: I propose that we start wearing the dead on our skin.

Images exist of a great many extinct species, and I expect the proportion of well-documented extinctions to increase in the next couple decades. I propose that we assemble and maintain a database of names, pictures and information on species which have gone or are clearly soon to go extinct. I propose we make it possible for people to "adopt" a dead species, on one condition.

That condition? That you have an image of that species tattooed on your body in a visible place, with the Linnaean name underneath.

Style, size, color, location -- those are all your call. I'd think some tattoo artists would even do them for free, if asked. The main thing is that you agree to become someone who remembers, in a very personal way, that this plant or animal once existed, and no longer does, because we killed it; and who is willing to talk with others about it, to drag the taboo out of the closet and carry it around with you.

It'll hurt. It'll hurt, and then it'll heal, and then we'll start to talk about it. We might even begin to live differently. We might even begin to more widely celebrate and feel wonder at the species -- living and dead -- with whom we share the planet.

It's worth a try. Consider this a free idea -- if someone wants to put this into a grant application to Threshold and get it going, I'm totally behind you.

I'll even volunteer to be the first to put my hand under the needle.

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I'm seriously considering it. The tattoo, not submitting it. That's a great idea and one that makes me actually *want* a tattoo--something I'd be cautious of before. This is a more than worthy cause and I would be happy to wear that animal the rest of my life.

Posted by: Max Ruderburg on 18 Sep 04

Most people see tattoos as a form of vanity.

Posted by: Stephen Balbach on 19 Sep 04

While it is certainly an idea with a great canvas - the human body, my only worry is that tattoos are seen as ornaments. Ornaments are trophies, the spoils of war. For instance, the guy who walked around with fingers cut off from his victims, braided in a necklace.

Suppose I get a extinct specie on my hand and walk around, saying - "Oh, this? It's a Great Indian Bustard, we sort of killed the entire specie a few years ago." Will they cringe at the thought? Or will they laugh -- I wonder. Worse, what if insensitive people, and there are quite a few, actually think this is too cool and adopt it.

What if - instead of a dusty mausoleum, we become a giant worldwide museum of death, walking and talking, wearing the dead as trophies on our bodies, proud to have survived the vagaries of nature by staying alive?

(I'm just being the devil's barrister. It's really a cool idea. I'm just trying to think of the bad consequences of too much success. However, if I get a tatto in the near future, it will certainly be what Alex suggested.. )

Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 19 Sep 04

Who is "most people"? Tattoos mean different things in different (sub)cultures.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 19 Sep 04

Rohit wrote: "What if [...] we become a giant worldwide museum of death, walking and talking, wearing the dead as trophies on our bodies, proud to have survived the vagaries of nature by staying alive?"

I suppose that's still better than what we're currently doing, which is pretty much ignoring the whole issue.

Posted by: Derek K. Miller on 20 Sep 04

Well, visible tattoos often kick off discussions. Somtimes people are closed-minded, but most often it generates a surprisingly sincere dialog.

I think that this could be a very effective project. If you're more than half serious, contact the folks at BME. They could turn out dozens to hundreds of potential participants, find willing artists and maybe even provide tech support for the database. The guy who owns the site is named Shannon Larratt. (Note: I have no connection to BME, so don't pester me about this.) But they were instrumental in getting Shelly Jackson's Word Project off the ground.

If the project takes off, though, I might consider sporting some poor lost creature on my forearm or calf. Although this does get close to the Leviticus prohibition of making marks upon ones self for the dead - it would be a risk that I'd be willing to take. Heck, I'd even adopt an obscure creature, like a mud-colored fish or an insect.

Posted by: Larry Brennan on 20 Sep 04

I have trouble with the idea of tattooing, though it may be nothing more than a generational thing.  For me tattoing shows up like body piercing and even ceremonial acts;   mostly I just cringe at the idea of doing that.

I like the idea of honoring absent species and being aware of the impact of human activity on biodiversity.  I think part of the difficulty is that we are also taught that extinction is part of the evolutionary process we live within and social Darwinists might not see anything amiss, just as some might not think that having dominion over the earth's creatures requires some responsibility for stewardship.

And I like the idea.  There are other places to depict missing species, though appearance on O'Reilly book covers might be taken as political commentary on the subject matter.  There are still school-kid spiral binders, movie theater pre-preview advertising periods (maybe in place of that gawdawful "20"), TV public-service "moments," and the world's most popular reading material, the back of cereal boxes.  Personally, I miss the printing on the cardboard between layers of the original shredded wheat.  Then there's the ubiquitous missing-kid space in various mail inserts and on milk cartons.  A plea from Mother Nature, perhaps?

A welcome idea.  And then there are the equivalent of ad rotaters that bloggers use to show different photographs at the tops of their sites.  Maybe the images could be served-from or at least linked-to a page on the subject and more background on the concerns.  I would participate in something like that.

Thanks for inviting us to look at this, Alex.

Posted by: orcmid on 20 Sep 04

i love the idea; metephorically, it's very strong. on a pragmatic level, it's difficult to accept, as some cultures (jewish) don't allow for tattoos, others look at tattoos as something the opposite of what you stated (and is more accurate as what someone else stated -- i.e., trophies of plunder).

but kudos to the creative idea.

Posted by: puppy on 20 Sep 04

I've been thinking about this idea a lot, Alex. Strangely, it coincides with an art piece I've been thinking about -- a sort of protest/performance/documentation event to link endangered species and urban dwellers...which I will post about when I develop it more.

I associate "identification marks" like these--for that is how the Linnean name would resonate--with the Holocaust. It's potentially alienating to some, but powerful when considering the implications the Sixth Extinction.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 22 Sep 04

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