Kenneth Rexroth – “Facing Extinction” (August 18, 1969)

Kenneth Rexroth was a poet, translator, thinker. Wikipedia page here.

I have been reading his essays in “The Elastic Retort” and enjoying them enough to have bought another earlier collection (please don’t tell Dr Wifey – she thinks I am addicted to books). There’s also a bunch of Rexroth’s essays online, and this one, from the beginning of the Malthusian Moment, is worth your time. Source.

Facing Extinction

Last month I took part in a poetry reading at Nourse Auditorium — a benefit for the Planning and Conservation League. A goodly number of the city’s leading poets read and the auditorium was comfortably full. What was impressive was the immediate spontaneous response to the very name of the organization, which most of the audience and participants had never heard of.

Equally impressive was the character of the audience. They were like the people who came to the Six Gallery’s historic readings in 1955-56 and the one in Fugazi Hall almost 10 years later. It was as though the freaked-out generation had never been, as though the Flower Children had never been sold down the river by the Mafia. I do not mean the people were all that old. Most were as young or younger than those you see making out in the gutter on Haight Street.

These people were not victims. They gave every indication of being able to manage their own lives in terms of the values of the alternative society. They had all shown up at the call of conservation because they knew what the other alternative, the dominant society, was all about.


This is the most significant development in the counterculture. The teeny boppers may still be in revolt against their fathers and mothers. Elderly half-crazy novelists may still be organizing centers all over Europe to sell society on free heroin. The Underground Press may be full of nakeds, dope gossip and comic pornographic personals, but the interest of the counterculture has shifted to the most important issue in human history.

We are becoming extinct. Extinct has become an active verb with a reflexive — s’extincter. The dominant society is extincting itself along with everything else it can extinct and especially us.

Perfectly calm and collected scientists now say that it is unlikely that the human race with last into the next century, and that in the next five or ten years there will begin a series of catastrophic famines in each of which hundreds of millions will die. There are thousands of other species of sentient beings who will go out with man.

The possibilities of reversing this process are exceedingly remote. If measures of salvation were put into effect now, this week, most could not begin to pay off for a generation.

Japanese birth control specialists estimate that a program as effective as theirs will take 30 years to really make a difference. The poisoning of the sea and the pollution of inland waters is only beginning.

Most of the DDT that has already extincted several species is still in the soil and will be washing into the sea for years, even if the use of DDT is given up tomorrow. Most of the high prairie and the intermountain grazing areas have already been destroyed.

Twenty years ago, demographers looked forward with horror to 3 billion people in the year 2000. There are now 3½ billion people alive.

Civilization, and not just Western civilization, shows all the symptoms of ever-accelerating breakdown. If “civilization” means the control of life to ensure steadily increasing experience of values in both intensity, scope and depth, civilization is not breaking down, it came to an end in August 1914.

Man has lost control. What is accelerating is not the breakdown of civilization, but the breakdown of the species as such. Unless the processes now operating are reversed, and when reversed are still able to win out, man is a failure. The species has failed.

Unfortunately, man is not one of those funny-looking rhinoceros-like creatures in the paleontology books whose passing will not make a great deal of difference to other beings. Man has not just been crowded out of his ecological niche; he has destroyed everybody’s ecology. The changes which have taken place already in this generation are greater than those postulated to account for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Can the youth revolt, now that it is finding out what is most important of all to revolt against, make a significant difference? It can try. At least in the struggle to live a balanced life of mutual aid, of symbiosis with all the other creatures on earth, it can find the objectives, the hierarchy of life values, and the sources of self-discipline which it has lacked. In so doing it will create an actual, integral counterculture, a community of health within the Great Sickness, a New Moral World, as Robert Owen called his community.

If we can achieve an ecological morality, we will have achieved a community based on Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and Schweitzer’s respect for life and Buddha’s love for all sentient creatures and at the same time a spiritual morality and a community ethic with readily verifiable scientific foundations and with applications and consequences as detailed in the specific day-to-day acts and relations as can be found in any 12-volume work of casuistry and moral theology. Applications will be most always quite obvious and will not need a Talmud or a casuistry.

Can this happen? There is everything against it. The Dutch Royal family, the Du Ponts, the Rockefellers, drench the world with poisons. The black militants raid family-planning offices in the ghettos and beat up the workers. The head of India’s birth-control plan proposes to solve the problem with a year of national abstinence. The Pope says if you take the pill, you’ll go to hell.

If poets like Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Richard Brautigan, David Meltzer, Ron Loewinsohn, Lew Welch and the rest and their audiences preach and practice the ecological revolution, they’re not likely to win. The time is gone, but at least they can establish a Kingdom in the face of Apocalypse, a garrisoned society of the morally responsible which will face extinction with clear consciences and lives as happily lived as possible.

[August 18, 1969]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: