Death Metal for a Dying Planet

Mario Reinaldo Machado March 25, 2020

Travis Ryan, lead singer of the metal band Cattle Decapitation, performs at the Brighton Music Hall in Boston on Dec. 2, 2019. (Photo by Vince Edwards)

BOSTON — In the small, packed venue of Brighton Music Hall on Dec. 2, 2019, amps crack­le with feed­back; the room is sta­t­ic with anticipation.

As met­al band Cat­tle Decap­i­ta­tion takes the stage, omi­nous atmos­pher­ic sounds set­tle over the room like dark clouds. A voice intones: The recent unpar­al­leled tem­per­a­tures in the Arc­tic as well as the data show­ing abnor­mal ris­es in upper-atmos­phere methane lev­els con­verge to give the impres­sion that the near future of the entire human race is at stake.”

The voice goes on: In 2018, the World Bank group report­ed that many coun­tries will need to pre­pare for over 100 mil­lion dis­placed peo­ple, as well as the dis­place­ment of mil­lions of inter­na­tion­al refugees, due to the ill effects of cli­mate change.” Time feels as though it’s been sus­pend­ed, the fate of the entire plan­et loom­ing before us. Then the band kicks into the title track of its new album, Death Atlas, bom­bard­ing the crowd with dis­tort­ed chords and inces­sant dou­ble-bass as lead singer Travis Ryan issues demon­ic decrees: A las, the deed is done / Mankind now dead and gone / Post-Anthro­pocene, Earth reset to day one / Fire now rages on.” His vocals mutate into a slow and mon­strous growl: We deserve every­thing that’s coming.” 

Son­i­cal­ly, Cat­tle Decap­i­ta­tion might sound like famil­iar met­al music, but fans have been drawn to the band for what sets it apart from oth­ers in the genre: It is, explic­it­ly, a voice for the exis­ten­tial fears of the Anthropocene. 

The Anthro­pocene is a term pro­posed to cap­ture the notion that we’ve entered a new geo­log­i­cal epoch, one marked by the cas­cad­ing impacts of glob­al cli­mate change. For the past sev­er­al decades, both sci­en­tists and artists have done their part to sound the alarm about a loom­ing socio-eco­log­i­cal catastrophe. 

Karen Frey, a geo­g­ra­ph­er at Clark Uni­ver­si­ty, is one such sci­en­tist work­ing to inform the pub­lic about the effects of cli­mate change on Arc­tic sea ice. The sense of urgency has always been there for sci­en­tists,” Frey says, sur­round­ed by globes and maps in her office. But how do you con­vey urgency and hope simultaneously?” 

While Ryan tours the world with a band known for both its bru­tal sound and rad­i­cal polit­i­cal mes­sages, Frey spends her field sea­sons on sci­en­tif­ic expe­di­tions to the north­ern oceans — some of the most unfor­giv­ing envi­ron­ments on the globe. Using dif­fer­ent tools and through dif­fer­ent media, both seek to map the real­i­ties of cli­mate change and com­mu­ni­cate the mag­ni­tude and urgency of the glob­al cli­mate crisis.

The Pacif­ic Arc­tic region where I study — the unrav­el­ing that has occurred up there…” Frey trails off, search­ing to com­mu­ni­cate what her years of field obser­va­tions and research have shown her. 

Undoubt­ed­ly, one of t he most pro­found changes we will see in our life­time is the dis­ap­pear­ance of the peren­ni­al sea ice pack in the Arc­tic Ocean,” she says. The lat­est sci­en­tif­ic mod­els indi­cate that by 2060, the Arc­tic will be ice-free all sum­mer. Frey says she’s found that the image of a blue Arc­tic — an expanse of open water where we have come to expect ice — hits peo­ple par­tic­u­lar­ly hard. When you look at a map or a globe,” Frey says, you are always imag­in­ing that white poly­gon around the North Pole. But that will cease to exist in our lifetime.”

Psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, this extent of sea-ice loss trans­forms our vision of Earth and our­selves. The effect lit­er­al­ly makes us feel alien­at­ed on our own plan­et. Through Earth visu­al­iza­tion, includ­ing maps and mod­els drawn from satel­lite imagery, Frey sim­u­lates what’s called an overview effect.” First described by astro­nauts look­ing back on our pale blue dot” float­ing in the cos­mic void, the overview effect is a cog­ni­tive shift caused by a rad­i­cal change in our per­spec­tive of Earth. It’s the inde­ter­mi­nate, over­whelm­ing feel­ing evoked by observ­ing an immense land­scape or star­ing out the win­dow of an air­plane at the patch­work world below — any expe­ri­ence that dwarfs the human scale.

Cat­tle Decapitation’s Death Atlas aims to pro­duce a sim­i­lar effect. The album includes a Post-Anthro­pocene Map, a 42-by-64-inch vision of a cli­mate-rav­aged future Earth. The famil­iar con­tours of our puz­zle-piece con­ti­nents have been dis­fig­ured by ris­ing seas. Aus­tralia-sized islands of garbage whorl at the cen­ter of all major oceans. As if to reflect Frey’s research, the white polar ice has been replaced by an expanse of open ocean. But unlike Frey’s blue Arc­tic, this ocean is the hue of stag­nant rust.

Frey hopes the pow­er of the overview effect can help pro­duce the sort of social tip­ping point we need to turn the cor­ner in the fight against cli­mate change.

It might take death, unfor­tu­nate­ly. It might take destruc­tion,” Frey says sober­ly. But hope­ful­ly, those social tip­ping points will hap­pen soon­er rather than lat­er, such that we avoid those things.”

When asked whether she is an opti­mist, Frey doesn’t skip a beat. I think you have to be,” she says, a rebel­lious glint in her eye. My hope comes from the fact that this prob­lem is too big, it is too real, to not be dealt with.”

This piece was adapt­ed from an arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Guer­ni­ca mag­a­zine.

Mario Reinal­do Macha­do is a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in the Huff­in­g­ton Post and Nation­al Geographic.
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