Mark Spitzer loves fish and he loves to fish. As a nationally known author (Seasons of the Gar, Return of the Gar), writing about fish and their issues is what he does best. In this blog series, Spitzer shares his experiences traveling the American West while researching a select number of freshwater fish that are often considered monstrous or freaky or hideously grotesque. The full version of this incredible tale can be in Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West (Bison Books, 2017). And this summer the journey will continue with In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet (June 2019).
Order and Disorder, Part 3
When last seen, monster-fisher Mark Spitzer was summarizing a PowerPoint presentation he gave at the Arkansas Philological Association’s 2018 Conference entitled “Order and Disorder in the Grotesque Monster-Fish World of Human Perseverance: The Philology of Consequence.” So now, here’s where he winds it up, providing a sneak preview of his latest eco-grotesquerie, In Search of Monster Fish, which the University of Nebraska Press will proudly release in Summer 2019—so pre-order now, and get it while it’s sizzling hot!
(continued from Order and Disorder, Part 2)
But wait, there’s more! Having taken my monster-fish studies in a more global direction with my latest fish book In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet (forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press, 2019), I addressed the driving question of that narrative study, which was originally proposed by Thomas McGuane in The Longest Silence (Vintage, 1999): How can we put back more than we take out? Considering this question in regard to world tuna populations plummeting nearly eighty percent in forty years while an average of 100 million sharks are removed from the ocean every year, I was brought to a new perspectives on the ultimate disorder: ecocide.
Using an image of a sickly conger eel as a metaphor to make the case that our fisheries are weakened and toxically poisoned and going down just as rapidly as sea-rise is coming up, as the hurricanes are intensifying, as the fact that there is twice as much carbon in the Arctic permafrost thawing out right now than there is presently wrecking the atmosphere, I got to David Wallace-Wells’s 2017 warning from New York Magazine that Arctic thermafrost carbon will be released in the form of a gas “that multiplies its warming power 86 times over”. This terrifying statistic echoes a recent study entitled Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene which finds that despite the best intentions of the Paris Climate Accord and everything we’re doing to cap emissions, the “Earth is already more than halfway towards the point of no return.” This study documents how we’re heading for a sea-level rise between “10 and 60 metres,” how we’re looking at a catastrophic five-degree rise in average global temperatures, and how we’re on track to “hit the level needed to send the planet down the ‘Hothouse Earth’ path in just a few decades”.
The maw of the beast, a wels catfish I caught in Catalonia, was then employed to make the point that there are just some visions us humans can’t face, which is why we are incapable of foreseeing disaster. To add to this disorder, there’s what I term “the Disenlightenment,” an era characterized by an expanding anti-Enlightenment attitude of disseminating political and corporate mis- and disinformation, “fake news,” and strategic propaganda designed to purposely veil the fact that what we’re reaping from short-term gain is scorching the life out of this planet.
So why can’t we see what we need to see to survive, and why don’t we do something about the fact that our house is about to go up in flames but we’re just playing pocket pool? Answer: We are incapable of envisioning apocalypse. That’s the problem. As Brian Merchant notes in his 2015 article “Apocalypse Neuro: Why Our Brains Don’t Process the Gravest Threats to Humanity,” our brains are not “wired to process slow-moving crises like climate change” because they’re programmed to react to immediate, in-your-face threats rather than those that take years to develop. As Merchant states, “Humans have, historically, proven absolutely awful, even incapable, of comprehending the large, looming . . . slowburn threats facing their societies . . . Our grey matter is set up to instruct us to cope with the here-and-now, and flails in the face of long, uncertain future threats”.
This is what’s generally referred to as the “slow-moving apocalypse theory,” but it’s not a theory anymore. This new abnormal is now established reality. It’s neuro-science. It’s the philology of consequence.
Thus, as Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption (Bloomsbury Press, 2011), remarked in his 2012 Ted Talk, “We need to act like the future depends on it. We need to act like we only have one planet”. And as he explained in a 2018 NPR interview, if our imaginations could’ve envisioned the horrors of World War II, 60 million people dead, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, all those invasions, and all that political and emotional trauma, then we might’ve averted all that tragedy and loss. But on the flip side, Merchant notes, “we wait until the crisis is completely out of control . . . And then we react and then we do extraordinary things . . . [so] we just got to decide to do it”. Which is where we are now: at the most crucial time in world history to get off the pot.
Fear-mongering, however, is not my preferred tactic. But when the 2018 UN Climate Report authored by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change comes out like it recently did and says that we are facing permanent, catastrophic global warming complete with unprecedented mass extinctions by 2030, how can we not do the math? That’s in only twelve years! But as the IPCC also states with high confidence, “There are a wide range of adaptation options that can reduce the risk of climate change” which can be applied for an average global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (that’s where we are right now). But if we wait for 2 degrees Celsius, it’s going to be impossible for the environment not to go straight to hell in a handbasket.
That’s my paraphrase, and that’s why I state in the conclusion of In Search of Monster Fish that we can try to slow our slide by actually envisioning the monstrous results we can’t bear to imagine. That is, we need to face the damage we’re doing with the intensity of those cigarette packages that show graphic images of blackened lesions and infected gums. Because looking away from what we’re doing, refusing to register the consequences of our actions, that’s just suicide. Meaning we better scare ourselves straight ASAP with the real, scientifically informed, vivid facts or we’ll lose all those fantastic monster fish that excite our imaginations—a disorder we’d be fools to let happen on our doomsday clock (which, according to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is currently pegged at two minutes to midnight).
But since I’d rather paint an optimistic picture that celebrates what we have to be in awe of rather than what we have to fear, I outlined what we need: dedicated legions to paint multitudes of images of other wonders we have to lose as well as what we have to gain, and we especially need the media to get these messages out. We need artists and teachers and politicians and organizations and all our imaginations to step up to the plate and paint as many true depictions as possible of where we’re going and what can be done because despite what the neuro-scientists are telling us, I believe our brains are capable of envisioning what the New York Times reports we’re heading for: “a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires . . . a mass die-off of coral reefs . . . inundated coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty”. And the reason I believe we can envision this collectively is because I can see it because others can see it because they’ve made their visions literally literal. And if I can imagine such images of disorder along with what’s needed to establish order despite what we’re told we can’t envision, then that’s proof that others can too. Which is why we need to help others see these extremes, and we need to do it with lightning speed because everything on this planet is at stake, and the stakes couldn’t be any higher. The more pictures the better—of what’s grotesque and what’s beautiful—in order to sustain the disorder we have left.
So that’s where I’m at, that’s where we’re at, that’s the disorder the environment is looking at in the next couple decades which we can circumvent, and that’s the slow-moving apocalyptic philology of consequence that ultimately leads to this declaration:
Long live the Grotesque Monster-Fish World of Human Perseverance! May we get it together before the unthinkable becomes so visible that there’s nothing left that we can do.