On this episode of What the Huh we are turning to the latest buzz in the ears of our species: Mass Extinction 6.0, a.k.a., “Who Cares?! We’re Doin it Right!” For those of you living under the evolutionary rock, scientists collectively suspect that we are living in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, one that, unlike its predecessors, is caused almost entirely by a single species: Homo sapiens. This means that, while only unfathomably violent geological events the world over could precipitate the previous extinctions, we humans are awesome enough to cause one ourselves.
And, of course, we are going to make a monument about it. Enter, the recently begun Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory project. MEMO is an education and biodiversity awareness charity that has commissioned David Adjaye to design a massive spiral ziggurat on the Isle of Portland in order to dedicate this most astonishing failure of our species. The Isle of Portland is part of the famed ‘Jurassic Coast’ a fossil-rich site containing 180 millions years of fossils. And guess what, Adjaye’s Ziggurat of Failure will be built with that very same fossil-laden stone, quarried from the now forgotten Bowers Quarry on the Isle of Portland. How clever, to build a memorial to species with the bones of other species.
Allow me to step back just a bit and explain the building. MEMO tells us it is inspired by “the age-old tradition of Stonehenge, the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal.” (Because those things are so the same.) Adjaye’s proposal is a monolithic stone spiral structure—resembling the shell of an ungodly large prehistoric hermit crab perched atop the Jurassic Coast—filled with images of all known species to have gone extinct since the demise of the Dodo Bird, arranged in a spiral gallery that climes the structure’s interior, crowned by an oculus. This upturned Guggenheim of Extinction would be hilarious in its artistic pretenses if it weren’t so horrifying. It’s as if Adjaye is more interested in building his own meditation on the Pantheon than representing our current evolutionary crisis.
The project’s most poetic feature by far is the Bell of Biodiversity, to be rang every year on the International Day of Biodiversity, and also whenever another species is declared extinct. The poesy of that bell brings tears to my eyes. Tears, that is, if shock, affront, futility, and also deafness. Scientists have found that the normal rate of natural selection leaves about 2,000 species extinct annually. Now, the estimation is between 10,000 and 100,000 species go extinct annually due to loss of habitat, pollution, hunting, and climate change. Just a quick little exercise I learned in math class tells us that—on the high end—the Bell of Biodiversity will technically have to ring approximately 274 times a day—which is 11 times each hour, or once every 5.24 minutes—if it is to accurately represent this Mass Extinction. If we consider a typical church bell rings in the 24 hrs of the day, and therefore 8,760 times each year, then it would take your local belfry 11.416 years to ring as much as the Bell of Biodiversity would in one year.
Yes, it is ok to just sit there astounded into silence at this programmatic feature’s near-Sartrean level of absurdity, because it is obscene and because the docent probably won’t be able to hear anything you have to say anyway—they’ll have gone deaf after the first week. And it’s not like I’m using the world “obscene” lightly here—certainly not as lightly as they are throwing around poetic language and programmatic creativity to cover the terrific horror of what is going on here on earth.
Let’s briefly return to the inspiration precedents MEMO enumerates: Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and the Taj Mahal. How brilliant that they should choose icons of splendid worlds long past, as is the case with the Taj and the Pyramids. Or worlds that, in the case of Stonehenge, are deeply shrouded in mystery and confusion, because there is a high chance that the same will be said about our current era when we’ve run ourselves mostly extinct as well and our survivors look upon Adjaye’s Ziggurat. Even more fabulously—though this might be a bit of a stretch—as the building continues its upward spiral in order to depict each individual extinct species, it will soon be climbing to the skies like a great spiral of death, our very own Tower of Babel (another icon of a forgotten world long past). This actually reminds me of the Memorial for Qatar’s World Cup Workers, an imaginary project by 1Week1Project also dedicated to humanity’s crimes although one that has no illusion about the nature or volume of those crimes.
Please don’t misunderstand me: the actual purpose of MEMO is education about the fundamental importance of biodiversity and the rate we are driving it into memory. But the conception of this project and the language of its architectural pitch are as offensively misguided as Christians taking the bible to people dying of polluted water sources and AIDs. It seems beyond appropriate that this massive ≥£30 edifice is perched upon a cliff above a hole (quarry), since that’s pretty much where Homo sapiens, our fellow surviving species, and our environment are perched now—a cliff above a grave we dug ourselves.