Still Life with Apocalypse and Antelope


A new study, assessing nearly fifty years of data, has concluded that sperm counts have tumbled 50% and more among men in the developed world. Causes remain unknown. Speculation focuses on the rich world’s petrochemical plenitude (plastics? insecticides? pharmaceuticals?) and on the unintended consequences of its epicurean lifestyles (obesity? disordered sleep? vegetarianism?light pollution? physical inactivity? delayed marriage and child-bearing?).

Few of us possess the expertise to assess such studies on their own merits. Instead, we remind ourselves of  dystopian novels and films. Will the future look more like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale or like P. D. James’s Children of Men?

The usual skeptics are marking the territory with their usual skepticism. This instinctive resistance remains, for the moment, useful. As Carl Sagan often remarked, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A study so new and so grim will need thorough vetting.

That said, the findings are consistent with other tales of hormonal calamity. Accumulating reports suggest falling fertility in dogs, in Hudson Bay’s thick billed murres, in polar bears, in Scottish killer whales,  in red-tailed hawks, and in both amphibians and fish. If we are indeed on the cusp of a sixth mass extinction, the dying may have begun some years ago in amphibian testes and avian ovaries.

The evidence hasn’t met with hostility so much as indifference. In the U.S.,  credentialed journalists and alt-everyone-else focus instead on Trump Administration cockups, the Russo-American relationship, and immigration reform. The lead environmental story remains climate change, not declining fertility: once again this year, sea ice at both poles heads toward record seasonal lows. All this is newsworthy. But still.

It is clear that we suffer from chronic dystopian fatigue. No wonder: over the course of my entire life, I recall no moment unburdened by the hint of some vast disaster looming just over the horizon and caused, in part, by our own narcissistic folly. Over the past fifty years, we have entertained reasonable fears of thermonuclear war, genocide, chlorofluorocarbons, methane outgassing, anthropogenic mass extinction, coral bleaching, food chain collapse, deforestation, soil depletion, invasive species, nuclear meltdowns, AIDS, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, reliance on monoculture for staple grains, chlamydia, sulfur dioxide, dirty bombs, collapsing electrical grids, and, of course, rising seas.

All this feeds the dread already channeled in our more baroque necropolitan fantasies: death by asteroid, death by tsunami, death by earthquake, death by super-storm, death by massive volcanic eruption, and death by supernova, not to mention annihilation by carnivorous space aliens, vengeful lab animals, zombies, Godzilla, and the Antichrist.

Our waking nightmares of mass death have induced in us a condition analogous to the Stockholm Syndrome. Held hostage by existential threat, we negotiate with death. Okay, we concede, we  accept the premise: we accept the fact of our coming annihilation. In return for this concession, we ask only that, before we burn or drown or starve or die of childless old age that Death grant us the freedom to imagine a surviving remnant saved thanks to heroism or saving grace or a technological fix or a last-ditch interplanetary migration. Even Cormac McCarthy, whose novel The Road imagines the darkest dystopia since Hieronymus Bosch published his postcards from Hell, a few human beings manage survive all the way to the novel’s last page and, we trust, beyond.

All this reminds me of the way our distant ancestors hunted antelope. As omnivores go, ours is a physically feeble species. We do not run very fast. We lack the claws and teeth necessary to tear into our prey’s still-beating heart. However, sweat glands and a relatively hairless hide enable us to shed heat faster than most other animals. The few hunter-gatherers who survived into last century did not waste their weapons on a well-rested and alert kudu, bolting from their pursuit in a 40 mph sprint. Instead, they chased the creature for hours, forcing it to sprint again and again in the midday sun. Ultimately, its metabolism overtaxed, the animal edged toward heat exhaustion. It stopped and stood in shock, stupidly apathetic, as hunters readied their weapons for the close-quarters kill.

The shape and skin of our bodies fitted us to survive the physical exertion of a long-distance run. Language enabled another kind of long-distance journey: that of stories, from generation to generation, passing to our children the bounty of experience accumulated in our lives and in the lives of all our tribe.

But the stories themselves have legs. And it is those stories – patient, indefatigable, predatory – which now hunt us down. One story after another chases after us. Our imaginations burn and boil. Finally, hot and exhausted, we stop. We stare stupidly into the shadows, waiting for the razor-edged obsidian to whistle into our flesh.

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