age of the bark beetles

Photo by Josh Haner, NYT

“When I go see things with my children, I let them know they might not be around when they’re older,” he said. “‘Go enjoy these beautiful forests before they disappear. Go enjoy the glaciers in these parks because they won’t be around.’ It’s basically taking note of what we have, and appreciating it, and saying goodbye to it.” – Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

In 1975, two years before he was tortured and murdered, Pasolini wrote a column in the Corriere della serra entitled “on the fireflies’. He begins with a question much debated on the Italian left at the time – how fascist was the ruling order in Italy? – but he quickly left the usual pro and contra behind, instead moving to a new view of Italy’s history by pointing to an unremarked moment, an unnoticed threshold. This threshold was not unique to Italy, but could be extrapolated to the the history of any capitalist or industrial country:

‘Since I am a writer and I polemicize, or at least I discuss with other writers, permit me to give a definition of a poetic-literary character to this phenomenon, which has intervened in the Italy of our times…

In the beginning of the sixties, because of air pollution and, chiefly in the countryside, because of water pollution (azure streams and limpid ditches), the fireflies began to disappear.”

Pasolini’s poetic-literary approach brings together natural and human history in one enormous stroke. The disappearance of the fireflies is not simply a fact of concern for naturalists – it is a fact that has a bearing on memory, on the bonds of one generation to the other, and even on the enormous invisible losses that come with ‘creative destruction’ and that refuse to be registered by the political forces that express themselves day after day, and now minute after minute, in the media. By noticing the fireflies, Pasolini breaks out of the parochial discourse of blame and offense in which both the hegemonic party and the oppositional movements in Italy were stuck, like flies to flypaper.

Pasolini’s words became famous, but the signal he sent out died. Nobody ever formed a firefly party. The machine did not stop. The treadmill of production and consumption continued to roll over the planet, producing the routines that make it really impossible to notice that there are no fireflies, that you can’t see the stars at night, that the elms are disappearing, that there are no bluebirds in the garden. Making it impossible to see where you live and what has changed.

Perhaps just as the disappearance of the fireflies marked a cut in the Holocene humanness of Italy, the appearance of the bark beetles mark a cut in the Holocene humanness of Americans. And perhaps, or so I, ever the exaggerator, hope, the appearance of the OWS movement marks an awareness that the treadmill is now running us into the ground.

The bark beetle has a pretty simple lifecycle. The adult beetles dig into the bark of trees, and lay eggs there, as well using the cover of the bark to survive the cold weather. Many of the pupae that hatch from the eggs die off, due to cold temperatures. Some, however, survive, enough that another generation of pine beetles will again lay its eggs.

This simple lifecycle has been sped up by the last Conquista – the conquest of the atmosphere. In terms of the lifecycle of the European movement outward, the first conquest was that of the Americas, the second the partial conquest of Asia, and the third that of Africa. The fourth seizure is of uninhabited atmosphere, which is “free”, and which has been laid claim to by Western industry and now global industry. Just as the conquest of the Americas was accompanied and made possible by a mass dying – the mass dying of the Amerindians, due to the diseases carried by the Europeans – the conquest of the atmosphere is also leading to a mass dying, from which the descendents of the Europeans are averting their eyes.

“From the mountainous Southwest deep into Texas, wildfires raced across parched landscapes this summer, burning millions more acres. In Colorado, at least 15 percent of that state’s spectacular aspen forests have gone into decline because of a lack of water.
The devastation extends worldwide. The great euphorbia trees of southern Africa are succumbing to heat and water stress. So are the Atlas cedars of northern Algeria. Fires fed by hot, dry weather are killing enormous stretches of Siberian forest. Eucalyptus trees are succumbing on a large scale to a heat blast in Australia, and the Amazon recently suffered two “once a century” droughts just five years apart, killing many large trees.”
The natural history of the Americas and the political history of the moment are, it seems, joined in ways that are a mystery – or rather, that are made a mystery. We actually register these things, but out of the corner of our eye.

And this is the political party we need to form: a corner of the eye party. A firefly party. An aspen party. The treadmill of production is deafening, but perhaps we can plug our ears enough to look around. Look around and recognize that the unemployment we face and the massive inequality of wealth that has seized the developed world with the implacable and mechanical force of a bark beetle infestation and that infestation itself are all parts of one thing: the politics of the Holocene. These are the stakes. And if we lose the Holocene to the hedge funders or the coal plants or BP, we lose everything.

“But for the natives…God’s hand hath so pursued them as, for three hundred mile’s space, the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox, which still continues amongst them. So as God hath hereby cleared our title to this place…” John Winthrop