Drew Milne

Lost Leaders
March 18, 2019 Milne Drew


Some say that predatory sin was born of ignorance rather than the will to kill. Why chase what can be picked from a stationary bush, shrub or tree. Project extinction. Let them eat nuts and berries. Or was it just the urge to plant something and grow food that paved the way to mutually assured destruction. Dog eat dog is but one emblem in the pantheon of extinction. The drift is to signal virtue while finding analogies that domesticate the unfolding violence. Survival of the sophist. That said, some primary attributes reach into the bucket and puncture the very seas there intimated. The exact rate or moment remains controversial, but scarcely matters save as a talking point for unnatural historians. Assuming you can attune to the mean standard of background extinction, the recent decline is vertiginous. In less than half a century, almost half of the earth’s algal biomass, the marine soup of life from which pretty much everything flows, has gone. How many quotations would you need to verify the warmer ocean and the graveyards of coral. The rhetorical questions come thick and fast. Do you deny that there is something just a little too aesthetic about the thought of total annihilation, a tasty whiff about the gun of fossilisation aimed at our very feet. The long arm of industrialisation can take a bow, string it, and send a shuddering bolt of death through the diversity of life. We may not care for archery, or indeed for poetic analogies, but the weapons of death sustain our species, and then come to an abrupt halt. But is this species ours to pepper with possessives. Mock the we and ours, then, in the name of the greater good, the everything that shifts, right down to our microbial comrades in the gut and getting on with digestion. Biological nihilism scarcely accounts for the collective pronoun. It is the wealthiest who consume and destroy the most. Over half a century, or so, roughly half the number of animals that once lived on earth were extinguished. The collective noun becomes smaller by the day. Until we realise some error in the project, we can nevertheless say that the smallpox virus is now extinct in the wild, along with the rinderpest. Let’s not count the chickens in the laboratory. Birds have been dropping like flies. Flies have been dying like there’s no tomorrow. Then again, most of all the species ever to have lived died out long before we even began to trouble the rest. As the record of human wisdom comes to seem top heavy, remember that even Hegel had some fanciful ideas about fossil records, though he had the wit to equivocate when evidence began to stack up against the theory of divine experiment. Absolute finality nevertheless greets the dawn with news of unfolding mass extinction. The demise of some treasured food or drink, coffee perhaps, will be your own call to arms, but for now, contemplate solidarity with the biomass, your comfort pillow amid human destruction. Think of stress testing as a weapon of hunting that did for megafauna and will do for us. Overdo everything and everything is cooked, acidified, or just wiped out as an unintended consequence of some clumsy quick fix sold on by the cunning of reason. Dirty solutions rule and then enrich the quality of disaster. Perhaps agriculture isn’t compatible with culture. We too will be fossils, if we’re lucky.

Drew Milne‘s collected poems, ‘In Darkest Capital’ were published by Carcanet in 2017. Recent poems have appeared in Lana Turner Review, Chicago Review, Poetry London, PNReview, Angelaki, Blackbox Manifold, and Visual Verse. He is the Judith E Wilson Lecturer in Drama & Poetry, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge.