Saturday, January 22, 2011

Heading for High Ground

Today the New York Times carries a story about climate change and the growing threat of wildlife extinctions, around the globe but particularly in the tropics, where animals like birds just can’t move a few hundred miles north, or a few hundred yards up the diminishing habitat on mountaintops, to escape the mounting heat.  The article quotes an evolutionary biologist: “It’s a really simple story that at some point you can’t go further north or higher up, so there’s no doubt that species will go extinct.” 
(I'm feeling like a) Grayheaded Bush Shrike

I am familiar with the sentiment. Yesterday was my last day on the job, a job that I happened (uncharacteristically) to like a lot and that paid me well. Yesterday, as it also happened, I went to the doctor under some duress and learned that I have pneumonia. None of this is really about global warming, nor about my pneumonia, nor about whether global warming might cure my pneumonia, nor even, for all of that, about me losing my job. It’s about change, adaptation, about just having to go further north or higher up yet again.  And does it have to be so . . . well, is 'traumatic' too strong? Couldn’t I just leave my job behind without all the stress and fanfare of respiratory trauma? There comes a point in everyone’s days, I suspect, when personal extinction looks like a promise of improvement; when one heartily wishes that extinction would just get it over with and make life easier, if you see what I mean.  

But not moving, refusing to adapt (or being too tired to), means you’re dead or will be soon; and no one will talk to you when you’re dead – at least no one you’d want to be talking to you if you weren’t already dead. So you start moving higher up again, whether you want to or not. The classic Darwinian view of adaptation is that it's a mechanism to insure the survival of a species, not just an individual. But even the remotest exposure to human behavior, not to mention all the empirical data in biology, prove this view to be completely fatheaded: the only thing that counts in anyone's day-to-day calculations is the ability of the individual to save his or her own bacon, the species be damned. What happens, after all, when ornate and complicated behavior which may have worked out just fine for, say, a million years or so (like Larry King's television show), just stops working and everyone walks away? 

Why should unemployment be so existentially disorienting rather than devoutly to be wished? Partly it's because we just can't carry on any more doing what we need to do to live, like growing rice and beans, or taking the boat out and bringing back catfish, or slaughtering buffalo from the Suburban. Life has grown complicated and technologically swamped, and we need so much now to survive, like Kindles or bicycles that shift electronically. (And a little New Zealand sea bass would be nice on those occasions that call for something special, like being mistaken for someone of the same name with an income above a quarter of a million and accidentally getting a tax break.)

I find that some of my calculations are both unrealistic and piecemeal - if, for example, my 15-year-old pickup with 200,000 miles will only wait to die until I do, that's a major bullet I'll have . . . . that's a major expense I'll have been spared. Or I'll be fine if I just stop eating altogether. But clearly these are merely stopgaps and not longterm solutions. Well, the part about the pickup isn't longterm, anyway. It quickly becomes apparent that this is the retirement equivalent of dicing with Death, trying to strike a fool's bargain with the Grim Reaper. No, one needs a plan.

One doesn't have to reinvent the wheel, and besides, the wheel has already been invented. Rather reinvent all those little cogs and radial gears and worm gears and rack-and-pinion arrangements that pass for the human brain. 

1 comment:

  1. Here's another avian conceit to chew on:

    Hope is the Thing with Feathers
    by Emily Dickinson

    Hope is the thing with feathers
    That perches in the soul,
    And sings the tune without the words,
    And never stops at all,

    And sweetest in the gale is heard;
    And sore must be the storm
    That could abash the little bird
    That kept so many warm.