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Limits in The Sixth Extinction and Play in Industrial Ruins

smartinez's picture

Selena Martinez


Paper #11

November 19, 2014

Limits vary for every species and object depending on certain traits such as the ability to adapt, renew, and parish. This can be exemplified by the relationship between humans and other species or objects. Elizabeth Kolbert’s novel The Sixth Extinction presents a collection of scientific material and personal narratives that draw attention to the mass loss of plants and animals through anthropogenic cause. Playing in Industrial Ruins investigates all qualities that contribute to what play is and the effects on a lack of enforced regulations in abandoned industrial ruins. In both cases the idea of pushing beyond a certain limit is questioned provoking clarity in the blur between human productivity and disaster.

With the superiority humans hold on Earth the abilities of the surrounding environment and themselves have been tested in an attempt to advance the human race. But on this journey to find the best way to produce more pleasure, reduce pain and conserve human energy, otherwise known as the Pleasure Trap, it is easy to push limits when they serve these innate human desires.  In chapter six The Sea Around Us, Elizabeth Kolbert writes, “Since the start of the industrial revolution, humans have burned through enough fossil fuels- coal, oil, and natural gas- to add some 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere…roughly double the levels they were in preindustrial days, by 2050.”(113) The use of these fuels was one of the turning points of the American economy by introducing new machines that provided communication, transportation and quicker production of goods which initially satisfies these three aspects of the Pleasure Trap. Yet these are considered important advancements and are continued to be used despite the limits it is testing of Mother Nature because we are now aware of the capabilities that are possible.  

The anthropogenic pollution Kolbert addresses in several chapters holds a few aspects of play. Playing in Industrial Ruins identifies these through segments of the essay as destructive, hedonistic, artistic, and adventurous play. What each of these types of play has in common is the ability to produce new skill sets through taking risks and experience. Regardless of what that skillset is play is identified as a necessary tool to further human growth by learning what is and isn’t appropriate. In Playing in Industrial Ruins it mentions, “Though high fences often deter would-be visitors to ruins, along with signs warning about security measures and the likelihood of prosecution… somebody will already have found a way past the defensive barriers…” (2) In the same way humans are willing to disregard warnings of pollution or justify why they should not stop their actions which pushes the limits placed by laws and the sustainability of other species.

While play can be innocent in some respects, the outcome may not be ideal depending on who is left to deal with it. For example the acidification of the ocean Kolbert discusses in chapter 6 (122), certain species have already gone missing such as three quarters of calcifiers while on the other hand humans are not dealing with direct life threatening issues from ocean acidification except the buildup of issues that will eventually unfold. Yet Playing in Industrial Ruins states that, “Ruins are valuable repositories of potentially-found items and loose materialities, which promote playful abandon and development skills, including the qualities of balance, inventiveness and improvisation recognized in accounts about the relationship between playfulness and space (Ward 1978)” (4) Like these aspects of play in ruins, the importance is to find the medium that allows the human race to flourish, but is able to preserve the health of the species or objects they are working with.

Various aspects of play can serve to be productive but the implementation of these aspects in certain situations without recognizing the limits of all parties involved can cause chaos to occur. The balance between two extremes of action, an excess and lack of, needs to be identified in order to survive and still be able to fulfil these aspects of play that enhance skills and further develop our generation and allow other generations of species to continue. Still certain questions remain unanswered between The Sixth Extinction and Playing in Industrial Ruins such as the idea of limits in cases of superiority and inferiority. When is it ethical to surpass or a bend a limit that carries consequences to more than one party when one of those parties is a generation that has yet to come and in the case of the calcifiers never will?   

Work Cited

Edensor, Tim, Bethan Evans, Julian Holloway, Steve Millington and Jon Binnie. "Playing in Industrial Ruins: Interrogating Teleological Understandings of Play in Spaces of Material Alterity and Low Surveillance." Urban Wildscapes. Ed. Anna Jorgensen and Richard Keenan. New York: Routledge, 2011. 65-79.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

You anticipate here the question of limits, which Bowers places @ the center of “recovering ecological intelligence” in our reading from last week. He writes of the “need to become aware of forms of knowledge that take account of local limits,” the recognition that even long-valued words like "progress, individualism, freedom, emancipation" were not aware of ecological limits…

What’s pretty astonishing here is the way you’ve pulled together the call, in Edensor, to risk playing without limits, and the cost Kolbert documents, of humans not recognizing necessary limits to their pleasures. “Playful abandon,” so encouraged in “Industrial Ruins,” leads to the destruction of the larger habitat, as Kolbert repeatedly shows. How can a species like ours, so restless, curious—playful!—flourish while preserving the health of other species, and of the planet that sustains us all? Does the sort of “surpassing or bending limits” that Edensor and colleagues call for inevitably lead to the sort of destruction that Kolbert documents? These are deep questions, a conundrum @ the heart of this course that I had not realized until you pointed it out.

Let’s talk, when we talk, about this huge question. And also about your style—I can’t tell who’s speaking here, where your voice comes from…