| By Jack Nichols
The lead article in Harper's (October, 1998) is, perhaps, the scariest on record for that magazine. Quoting Emily Dickenson who said that "Hope is the thing with feathers" author David Quammen, reflects on the uses of paleontology and points out that feathers don't generally fossilize well.
In part, because of the past century's misuses of technology, or what Mark Satin calls "inappropriate technology" a long view of the planet's fortunes—which is what paleontologists take—has come into being. Quammen says that paleontologists have highly-developed perspectives on longevity, enabling them to step beyond both hope and despair, their focus on cyclical change.
In The Nation (September 28) a lead article by one of India's best loved authors, Arundhati Roy, adds fuel to fright. Reflecting on technological misuses in her own country, Roy critiques nationalist leaders there for their shortsightedness. Lamenting India's May, 1998 nuclear testings, she says of the fifth calendar month that it will go down in history books "provided, of course, we have history books to go down in. Provided, of course, we have a future."
Describing what would transpire in the event of nuclear war she writes: "Our cities and forests, our fields and villages, will burn for days. Rivers will turn to poison. The air will become fire. The wind will spread the flames. When everything there is to burn has burned and the fires die, smoke will rise and shut out the sun. The earth will be enveloped in darkness. There will be no day. Only interminable night. What shall we do then, those of us who are still alive? Burned and blind and bald and ill, carrying the cancerous carcases of our children in our arms, where shall we go? What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we breathe?"
Ms. Roy's horrorvision strikes home with me particularly because of correspondence I had in 1965 with Nobel Prize winner/ philosopher Bertrand Russell. Knowing how the English-born Russell, one of the century's greatest minds, had been supportive of gay civil rights in London, I'd hoped to elicit increased support from him in the form of a statement aimed at American audiences.
While he deplored, he'd replied, barbaric anti-homosexual crusades, he reminded me that he too had been a victim, in 1940, of America's obsessive sex moralists running amok. Because of his published views on sexuality, his invitation to chair a mathematics post at the City College of New York had been revoked in a storm of controversy. He doubted, because of that unpleasant experience, that his words would have much effect in the U.S.A. And in any case, he said, he felt that his energies would be best spent on a different cause, that "the nuclear peril is more important."
Studying Ms. Roy's frightening appeal in The Nation, I thought how apathetic world leaders and populations had become since Bertrand Russell's passing in 1970. And, on occasion, I've since wondered about my own gay liberation priorities. Was Bertrand Russell right? Should I have followed his lead? Upon his death Lige Clarke and I had eulogized him in a GAY newspaper editorial. But as he was lowered into his grave, so too, it seems, were his concerns about human survival in the nuclear age. As gay liberation struggles were won at a dizzying speed I began to forget what a man who was much brighter than I had feared most. India's
bomb, writes Ms. Roy, "is the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people." Infuriated by headlines in her country supportive of May's tests, she says she is now willing to renounce her Indian heritage if it means "having a nuclear bomb implanted" in her brain. She says that if it is anti-Hindu and anti-national to feel this way, then she secedes. "I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic. I am a citizen of the earth. I own no territory. I have no flag. I'm female but have nothing against eunuchs. My policies are simple. I'm willing to sign any nuclear nonproliferation treaty or nuclear test ban treaty that's going. Immigrants are welcome. You can help me design our flag."
Still, even if there were no nuclear peril, even if apathy about the bomb dissolved into meaningful action against it, we would still have, according to David Quammen, "a planet of weeds." And who are these weeds? The species that survive will become like weeds, he says, reproducing quickly and surviving almost anywhere. Homopsapiens, remarkably widespread, prolific and adaptable—is the consummate weed."
But what kind of atmosphere does the Harper's writer envision for these consummate weeds to inhabit? The long view of the paleontologists offers a stark vision. The earth, writes Quammen, "has undergone five major extinction periods, each requiring millions of years of recovery."
"Biologists believe that we are entering another mass extinction, a vale of biological impoverishment…..Even by conservative estimates, huge percentages of earth's animals and plants will simply disappear…..In the next fifty years, deforestation will doom one half of the world's forest-bird species….Things fall apart…We confront the vision of a human population pressing snugly around whatever natural landscape remains…Even Noah's ark only managed to rescue paired animals, not large parcels of habitat….Man's accidental relocation of certain species has long created profound dislocations in nature….Wildlife will consist of pigeons, coyotes, rats, roaches, house sparrows, crows and feral dogs."
What, asks author Quammen, will happen after this mass extinction, after we destroy two thirds of all living species?
"Our planet of weeds," he guesses, "will indeed be a crummier place, a lonelier and uglier place, and a particularly wretched place for the 2 billion people comprising Alan Durning's absolute poor."
Is there anybody out there who wants to join Arundhati Roy in her nuclear-free zone? In the face of oil, coal, and other ultra-rich class interests, can the activist movement for appropriate technology hope to succeed?
Should not those of us who support gay liberation give thought to the fact that while our ability to experience same-sex love evokes in given individuals a euphoric mind-state, that homosexual love will hardly have time to bloom in a world that has been suicidally-wounded or killed by its own reluctance to face inappropriate technological dangers.