We welcome Tom Lekan, of the University of South Carolina, as a guest on the blog . . . click for his bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab. This is the first installment of a two-part post; please come back again next week for the conclusion.
Perched atop the weathered gray cliffs of the Isle of Portland off the southern coast of England, a massive stone memorial to the Sixth Great Extinction is emerging out of the bowels of a former granite quarry. Designed by the architectural firm of renowned Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye and funded in part by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Fund in the United States, the 30-meter high Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (MEMO) will comprise a monument to the 860 species of birds, mammals, sea life, and insects assessed as extinct since the demise of the dodo in the seventeenth century, along with a conservation education center. The designers conceive of the building’s form—which mimics the shape of turreted fossils frequently encountered along the beach in this area—as a “continuous spiral of stone” carved with stone relief images of the extinct animals. More bas reliefs will be added in the future as additional species inevitably become extinct; when this happens, the bell of biodiversity (see video above), also “encrusted with fossils,” will ring out as it does annually on May 22, the International Day of Biological Diversity.
One can’t help being struck by the audacity of Adjaye’s vision for MEMO, one of the first memorials to address head on the problems of telling meaningful stories within the vast geological timescales that define the Anthropocene. Weaving together Portland site histories, “the epic of evolution,” and the fossil record of life, the site promises to help visitors recognize how the incremental loss of biodiversity across just a few generations has generated a catastrophe of planetary significance. In just over 300 years, we have become like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The Isle of Portland is part of the Jurassic Coast in the County of Dorset, a Geological World Heritage site containing the fossilized remains of 180 million years amidst the stratigraphic layers along its beach cliffs. According to the online project prospectus, from this “magical location” atop the former Bower’s Quarry came the limestone that Sir Christopher Wren used in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. It was here, too, that his collaborator, Robert Hook, pieced together a theory that the giant ammonites found in the stone must have come from a species “totally destroyed and annihilated”—an insight that emerged right about the same time that the dodo was dying out on Mauritius.
Adjaye’s team tells the story of the Anthropocene from a precise moment in the seventeenth century, a synchronicity of fossilized geo-history, the history of European expansion, and local natural history that informs the designers’ attempts to envisage future fossils as well. Each new stone relief will come from the quarry, from which “indigenous stonemasons” from Portland will carve into the dead bodies of long-extinct plankton (the geological basis for the region’s famed limestone). The designers have promised a light-filled interior space and a restored quarry grassland outside for performance art, exhibitions, installations, and festivals. Though, as one critic has noted, the current estimate of 10,000 to 100,000 species going extinct annually would mean the bell would have to toll about 274 times a day—making it difficult to imagine being able to hear anything or anyone above the deafening noise from the top. Other critics have contended that the island’s isolated location will attract few visitors and doubt that stone bas-relief techniques—even those by fashioned by visiting artists and students in other locations, as the project promises—will inspire the same kind of wonder as the actual dinosaur fossils that kids love. One wonders, too, if the project’s £30 million price tag (roughly $43 million at last count) could be better spent updating woefully funded regional natural history museums or fostering local initiatives to investigate and stem species loss. Such initiatives could then be part of Maya Lin’s brilliant What is Missing, a global, multi-media memorial to the planet.
For me, it was the lines in the prospectus about MEMO’s aspiration to become a “world heritage” architectural icon in the “age-old” tradition of Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and the Taj Mahal that transformed MEMO from an idiosyncratic Guggenheim of Lost Species into something more unsettling. Adyaje doesn’t just want to create a naturalistic counterpart to these icons, he wants a monument that rivals them, especially its competing U.K. limestone shrine, St. Paul’s Cathedral. As someone who has engaged with memorials, commemorative practices, and memory landscapes in Berlin and elsewhere as part of my teaching and writing about urban history and German Studies, I’m keenly aware of the dangers of hubristically indulging in what Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as “monumental history.” By this, Nietzsche meant a process of examining the past with the explicit intent of finding models for one’s country, or one’s own life. The monumental past is concerned with the greatest moments in the history of humanity that provide the reassurance that greatness has been previously attained and can possibly be again. Such monumental history may seem odd in conjunction with MEMO—which after all is a monument to the colossal failure of our species. And yet by linking the observatory to Stonehenge and the Taj Mahal, the site’s designers and patrons—who include Ed Wilson, the Duke of Edinburgh, Sir Tim Smits of the Eden Project, the list of royal and otherwise prominent individuals goes on—risk evading more critical understandings of the cultural and biological dimensions of the extinction crisis. As an environmental historian interested in the gritty and everyday land use struggles that have accompanied nature conservation and landscape preservation projects, I cringe a bit when I read that MEMO brings together the “soul of the artist” and the “authority of science” to energize the “instinctive wonder” of “our species.” Lurking in the background here is Wilson’s notion of disciplinary consilience, in which the humanities play the role of creatively disseminating the established facts of science—a big cosmic history of “us,” the Anthropos of the Anthropocene. Nietzsche warned that such history fails to yield a more critical account of the contingencies, unexpected turns, and, most important, deeper causes of events. His warning is still apt in my view when we are presented with “age-old” stories about humanity, the destroyer of other animals, across time, space, cultures, and relations of power.
But perhaps the point of MEMO is not critical or temporally specific understanding at all, but rather an empathetic engagement with our fellow creatures through mourning. Indeed, framing environmental loss as a process of mourning offers a powerful, post-humanistic response to what may appear as cold scientific facts. While many activists continue to “race extinction,” as the recent Discovery Channel documentary demonstrated, scholars such as philosopher and anthropologist Thom van Dooren and indigenous studies investigator Ashlee Cunsolo Willox encourage us also to pause, reflect, and mourn that which has been irrevocably lost. Cultivating multispecies empathy and melancholic forms of interspecies affect, notes Cunsolo Willox in a recent call for papers, “has the potential to transcend anthropocentric values and become the mechanism through which we can begin to ground a different ecological ethic premised on shared interspecies loss and grief and on the recognition of non-humans as fellow vulnerable beings.”
Van Dooren, for his part, rejects the notion that humans are exceptional in their need to mourn. His research on the gravely endangered Hawaiian crow demonstrates that numerous avian species, along with elephants, foxes, and others, recognize and experience death and loss, a factor that draws us into an awareness of the multispecies continuities and entanglements that make life possible for everyone. Discerning the web of factors leading to extinction inevitably links scientific investigation to storytelling, and by telling stories about the significant others who co-populate the earth, Van Dooren asserts, they emerge as subjects of planetary history. Our companion species have a right to exist on their own terms, irrespective of the “ecosystem services” they might provide for human beings.
I’m not sure if Cunsolo Willox or Van Dooren would endorse MEMO as the architectural materialization of their post-humanist ideas about multispecies mourning, but it’s worth considering what types of extinction stories and empathetic engagements the Adjaye project opens up—and occludes. Mourning non-humans is not the same as grieving and commemorating the problematic histories of human beings’ mass killing of each other in wars, genocides, or acts of terror. And yet a big, expensive, and centralized memorial to a turning point in geological time caused by human beings will still invite fractured and contested accounts of the causes, consequences, and significance of extinction or near-extinction processes, the identification of human perpetrators in the mass killing of earthy life, and the appropriateness of different aesthetic choices for memorializing the “slow violence” of extinction on earth. The problem of mourning extinction is compounded by the fact that, unlike other memorials to atrocity, the extinction process is ongoing, and yet the victims or the descendants of victims cannot speak for themselves or seek restitution for their loss. They must rely on differentially situated human interlocutors who must tell of their suffering through narratives—or in the case of MEMO—stone reliefs—that are always already embedded in human beings’ phenomenological lifeworlds. Even as Wilson asks us to consider the horror of the last dodo being bludgeoned to death on Mauritius around 1662, the story is still a deeply humanitarian gesture. We can never have access to the experience of “dodo-ness,” even if it’s likely that dodos, like so many avian species, grieved their dead.
 On the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory, see http://www.memoproject.org/ [Accessed 1 May 2016]. Online articles discussing the project include one in DeZeen online at www.dezeen.com/2014/11/13/david-adjaye-mass-extinction-memorial-observatory-construction-starts/, [accessed 1 May 2016] and one by Telegraph travel editor John O’Ceallaigh from 27 June 2013: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/dorset/articles/The-Jurassic-Coasts-monument-to-extinction/.
 See the blog Babel: http://mainprjkt.com/mainprojekt/babel-what-the-huh-part-3-mass-extinction-60.
 On Wilson and cosmic histories of the Anthropocene, see religious studies scholar Lisa Sideris’s essay “Anthropocene Convergences: A Report from the Field,” in Robert Emmett and Thomas Lekan, eds.”Whose Anthropocene? Revisiting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘Four Theses’,” RCC Perspectives: Transformations in Environment and Society 2016, no. 2., 89-96. Available online at http://www.environmentandsociety.org/perspectives/2016/2/whose-anthropocene-revisiting-dipesh-chakrabartys-four-theses [accessed 1 May 2016].
 Ashlee Cunsolo Willox Call for Papers: Environment and/as Mourning: http://ashleecunsolowillox.ca/2012/06/28/call-for-papers-environment-andas-mourning/. [Accessed 25 January 2016.]
 Thom Van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).