Burn, Baby, Burn

If it wasn’t bad enough learning how virtually everything man does is touched by greed and the exploitation of workers or slaves, we also learn that the destruction of the sea and land continues unabated, threatening the very existence of the natural world we all depend on.

Early on we learn that one of the reason that fishermen on the shore so seldom catch fish is that the herring, one of the most basic sources of nutrition in the ocean are being destroyed:

Out on the high seas the fishing continues, at least for the present, though even there the catches are growing smaller, quite apart from the fact that the fish that are landed are often useless for anything but fish-meal. Every year the rivers bear thousands of tons of mercury, cadmium and lead, and mountains of fertilizer and pesticides, out into the North Sea. A substantial proportion of the heavy metals and other toxic substances sink into the waters of the Dogger Bank, where a third of the fish are now born with strange deformities and excrescences. Time and again, off the coast, rafts of poisonous algae are sighted covering many square miles and reaching thirty feet into the deep, in which the creatures of the sea die in shoals. In some of the rarer varieties of plaice, crucian or bream, the females in a bizarre mutation, are increasingly developing male sexual organs and the ritual patterns of courtship are now no more than a dance of death, the exact opposite of the notion of the wondrous increase and perpetuation of life with which we grew up. It was not without reason that the herring was always a popular didactic model in primary school, the principal emblem, as it were, of the indestructibility of Nature.

As if it’s not enough to show how man is incidentally killing off the herring, Sebald points out a historical example of how a scientist tortured fish to better learn under what conditions they can or cannot survive:

Again, the inspector of the Rouen fish market, a certain Noel de Mariniere, one day saw to his astonishment that a pair of herring that had already been out of the water between two and three hours were still moving, a circumstance that prompted him to investigate more closely the fishes' capacity to survive, which he did by cutting off their fins and mutilating them in other ways. This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described as the most extreme of the sufferings undergone by a species always threatened by disaster.

Such research techniques might bring to mind Japanese whaling in the name of “research? to ensure that all the whales have been killed off, not just a few.

Am I the only person who’s offended when I go to a prestigious museum of natural history and observe a stuffed Ivory-Billed Woodpecker? I wonder to myself, was this the last one, or just the mate of the last one? Ah, yes, but relatively unimportant if we know what they looked like.

Though it comes quite a bit later in the book, one wonders if the deforestation of the English shores hasn’t contributed to the decline of the fish as it has contributed to the decline of the salmon along the Pacific Coast of America.

I’ve long known that the consumption of energy, almost any form of energy, has negative side effects, but I’d never really thought of that idea in quite the way Sebald suggests:

It had grown uncommonly sultry and dark when at midday, after resting on the beach, I climbed to Dunwich Heath, which lies forlorn above the sea. The history of how that melancholy region came to be is closely connected not only with the nature of the soil and the influence of a maritime climate but also, far more decisively, with the steady and advancing destruction, over a period of many centuries and indeed millennia, of the dense forests that extended over the entire British Isles after the last Ice Age. In Norfolk and Suffolk, it was chiefly oaks and elms that grew on the flatlands, spreading in unbroken waves across the gently undulating country right down to the coast. This phase of evolution was halted when the first settlers burnt off the forests along those drier stretches of the eastern coast where the light soil could be tilled. Just as the woods had once colonized the earth in irregular pat- terns, gradually growing together, so ever more extensive fields of ash and cinders now ate their way into that green-leafed world in a similarly haphazard fashion. If today one flies over the Amazon basin or over Borneo and sees the mountainous palls of smoking, hanging, seemingly motionless, over the forest canopy, which from above resembles a mere patch of moss, then perhaps one can imagine what those fires, which sometimes burned on for months, would leave in their wake. Whatever was spared by the flames in prehistoric Europe was later felled for construction and shipbuilding, and to make the charcoal which the smelting of iron required in vast quantities. By the seventeenth century, only a few insignificant remnants of the erstwhile forests survived in the islands, most of them untended and decaying. The great fires were now lit on the other side of the ocean. It is not for nothing that Brazil owes its name to the French word for charcoal. Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal by incessantly burning whatever would burn. From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of these lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has all been combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread.

It’s disheartening to believe, but it's certainly possible that the time I spend on my computer is contributing to the deforestation that I often protest on my site. Can it be true that everything I buy, no matter how green it might seem, may well contribute to the loss of my beloved forests?

3 thoughts on “Burn, Baby, Burn

  1. Hi Loren,

    We can’t beat thermodynamics. By nature’s making we will convert useful energy into useless energy. It is what we do until we die. We do have some control of the rate of breakdown and what we create while reducing energy from one state to another. I could make an argument that you are doing some of the most important work that can be done. I hope you feel you can make that argument also. Check out the book “Into the Cool” by Dorion Sagan and Eric Schneider for excellent coverage of this topic.

  2. Is the Noël de Marinierre story true? I think Sebald plays little jokes on us and the name kind of gives it away? He also invents a story about two Victorian scientists in the same book inventing ways of transforming herring scales into electricity. Again the names of the inventors cast doubt on the story.

    • Since it’s fiction he’s certainly allowed to make it up, and you’re right the name does suggest that. Of course, isn’t the mixing of fact and fiction precisely what Sebald does and does so well that he reveals new truths?

What do you think?