Schelling and the Satanic: On Naturvernichtung

Jason M. Wirth


In her unsettling book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert quotes Joseph Mendelson, a herpetologist at Zoo Atlanta: “I sought a career in herpetology because I enjoy working with animals. I did not anticipate that it would come to resemble paleontology.” Kolbert elaborates on Mendelson’s despair: Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate. But extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels. It is estimated that one third of all reef building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion. The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Artic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys. If you know how to look, you can probably find signs of the current extinction event in your own backyard."

At the heart of this natural catastrophe is perhaps the earth’s most problematic creature: ourselves. Schelling prophetically grasped this pandemic outbreak amid the earth’s natural systems when he warned of “the true annihilation [Vernichtung] of nature” (SW V: 275) and when he characterized modernity as constituted by the absence of nature because “it lacks a living ground” (SW VII: 361).

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