Mass Extinction

Wings of desire: why birds captivate us from The Guardian

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Swallows nesting in Knossos Palace, Crete. Photo Chris Fremantle

Swallows nesting in Knossos Palace, Crete. Photo Chris Fremantle

Our behaviour is causing a mass extinction on the planet and birds are one of the many lifeforms suffering.  Mark Cocker’s new book and the cover article, Wings of desire: why birds captivate us, in this week’s Guardian Review  explores the relationship between humans and birds in practical, cultural and spiritual terms.  It clearly articulates thousands of reasons beyond the loss of biodiversity for us to make more space for birds in our lives.

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Which -cene Are We In?

Are we heading into an era of a homogonized plant and animal communities, brought on by our global economy that moves everything around, whether it is goods, animals or bacteria and fungus?

In an article titled The Sixth Extinction in the May 25, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert writes about the mysterious disappearance of tree frogs from Panama and Costa Rica, which scientists now believe is caused by a fungus that we’ve unknowingly helped jump continents. In the article, I was struck by a term used to refer to the epoch we live in: the homogenocene.

Last year, I made a post about the anthropocene or geological epoch defined by humans. The homogenocene is also all about us and refers to the declining biodiversity and diminishing ecosystems left in the wake of human development. When talking about the natural world, what’s important is to realize that every living thing on earth will have to go through the bottleneck of human development. The assumption now is that many species will die out, leaving us with a diminished natural world David Quamman has called the Planet of the Weeds.

{New York Weed (Longspine sandbur), ink on paper, 30 x 22 inches, 2005 by Katie Holten.}

Whatever we call it (my vote is for homogenocene, although it seems that both terms have an extra syllable that makes it hard to pronounce) this is a topic artists have been working with recently, such as the Katie Holten drawing above.

What role can artists take as scientists report on this undergoing mass extinction? One route might be helping understand how to live in this increasingly homogenized natural world, or how to begin carving out localized economies and ways of living. Or making sense of and helping communicate about what is lost.

I have to be honest though, reading about mass extinction makes me feel that almost all artistic effort and work is futile in the face of these global problems. Humans are already the ultimate weed and the planet is simply becoming one giant self-portrait. And rather then tending it like a scruffy garden or arboretum, I’m afraid we might end up with one big lawn.

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