Thoughts on Humanity

Thanatos, Extinction, and the Great Barrier Reef

“Morte e Vita” (Death and Life), an oil on canvas painting by Austrian symbolist painter, Gustav Klimt
“To Thanatos, Fumigation from Manna.
Hear me, O Death, whose empire unconfin’d
extends to mortal tribes of ev’ry kind.
On thee, the portion of our time depends,
whose absence lengthens life, whose presence ends…”

(Excerpt from Orphic Hymn 86 trans. Thomas Taylor, trans. The Hymns of Orpheus, 1792.)

In Greek mythology, Thanatos is the personification of death. He is the son of Night (Nyx) and Darkness (Erebos), and a twin to Sleep (Hypnos). In many versions, Thanatos (Greek for death) is a guide for the dead, leading them to Hades. Thanatos is both death and dying. And as all things eventually die and fade away, “nought escapes thy [Thanatos’] all-destructive rage.”

Freud believed that human beings all have a life instinct, Eros, and death instinct, later called Thanatos. The death drives (Todestrieb in German) compel humans to engage in risky and self-destructive behavior that can lead to their own death (a desire to return to the inorganic state from which they came). Anecdotally, we are all aware of our death drives, exceptionally so as one becomes more aware of ones ecological place on the planet.

For example, every moment we turn the ignition of our car, we contribute to climate change. We know we are adding CO2 to the atmosphere, we know we are adding to the increase in global temperatures, we know we are creating death and extinction. Despite this knowledge, the fact that climate change, and many inconceivably complex systems, are hyperobjects, as defined by Timothy Morton, lets Thanatos take the wheel.

The response to the ecological Thanatos tends to fall within two categories: Extinction is forever: de-extinction can’t save what we had or Top 5 Ways to Save Our Elephants From Extinction. Although, “viewing every conservation issue through the lens of extinction threat is simplistic [easy think] and usually irrelevant,” as Stewart Brand argues, there is a need for us to face our demons and acknowledge that “nought escapes” the perils of climate change.

Brining this dichotomy to light was a series of articles published over the last week. The first, claiming that the Great Barrier Reef is dead, in an a seriously satirical obituary that paints a picture of a war-torn seascape. The second, declaring “that it isn’t too late,” for the Reef and that the declaration of death would somehow generate more apathy towards the Reef. Everyone is thinking so easily about it all. Todestrieb im todestrieb.

“Dead and dying are two very different things.”

(“Great Barrier Reef Obituary Goes Viral, To The Horror Of Scientists.” Chris D’Angelo. The Huffington Post, 2016)

Saying that dead and dying are two very different things is to miss the point of Thanatos and extinction and the obituary for the Reef. Death drives are are more Morte than they are Vita. Death drives are The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Death drives are “In thee the end of nature’s works is known, in thee all judgment is absolved alone.” Death drives are horror and fear and sorrow and joy.

In a sense, self-destructive behavior also reinforces, quixotically, that a person is indeed alive. In looking Thanatos in the face we gain a sense of control, we place our hands on the wheel, and we laugh as we trick Thanatos into his own shackles. The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble, it is very ill, and we would be wrong to easy think our way into it not being too late. Conversely, how mad we must seem calling out for the dead before Thanatos. Todestrieb im todestrieb.

“Bring out your dead!”
“I’m not dead yet! I feel fine.”
“Well, he will be soon, he is very ill.”

(From “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Monty Python, 1975)

Malcolm is a human-animal searching for answers to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. He travels, lives, loves, and serves all over the world, making him no more an expert than the migratory sea turtle. Contact him here for questions, comments, and new ideas.