Field Notes, Vol. 4 no. 1: Dinosaurs and Killer Astroids
The other day I read the latest research on the effects of the Chicxulub asteroid that crashed into Earth approx. 66 million years ago. As some of you readers probably know, the asteroid didn’t hit land; it hit the ocean off what is today known as the Yucatan Peninsula. And when it did, it created giant tsunamis that spread out over the entire planet. Scientists now estimate that some of these waves may have been a mile high! This got me thinking about the dinosaurs, and what the Earth’s history can teach us in our current moment of upheaval.
In February 2021, I posted this entry in my Field Notes blog: “Preparing for What’s Next.” It seemed like things were settling down, and while the disruptions of the previous year had been many and large, those early months of 2021 got us all thinking that perhaps things were returning to normal.
Normal. A word that, early on during the lock-down months, represented a longed-for goal, the preferred end to the madness and disruption of the pandemic. “Normal” was a word we hung on to as an expression of hope: someday this will all be over…and things will be back to normal. But as the pandemic dragged on, many people started to ask themselves what, exactly, was so great about returning to the status quo when that represented business-as-usual, with all the world’s myriad problems and injustices? Instead, might the global-scale disruption of the pandemic be an opportunity to rethink established norms, to reboot an updated and improved global community? Many of us in the performing arts space certainly hoped so: what was the virtue of returning to the pre-pandemic norms of failing business models and shrinking audiences? So, just like so many other parts of our society, some arts leaders have begun to ask a different question: what might a new normal look like?
As we all know, Covid has been a harsh teacher (in many ways). For us in the arts it first forced us to accept the scale of the disruption: once live performing arts were shut off to us, we were all reminded just how essential they were to our overall sense of well-being. Being suddenly prevented from the communal experience of performances was nothing short of shattering for millions of people. As those first few weeks of lockdown extended to months, an even more discouraging reality set in: not every organization would survive; not every freelancer was going to make it. Individuals who supplemented their artistic income with work in the service industry were hit from both sides: just as performing work was drying up, their fallback jobs in restaurants, driving an Uber, or other service roles evaporated as well. And as this disruption stretched for even more months and then to years, the last brutal lesson became inescapable: things were not going to go back to the way they used to be – at least not anytime soon.
I know the dinosaur metaphor is a cliché, but if it’s properly applied it has a powerful message. You see, whenever large-scale disruptions occur—whether they are in the natural world or in society—three things inevitably follow: some operators will adapt and survive, others will fail to adapt and end up going extinct, and a few will emerge from the shadows and assume a new and powerful role in their particular niche.
While it’s true that most dinosaurs were doomed by the asteroid and its aftermath, that event alone doesn’t have much to tell us: it’s the geological equivalent of s*** happens. The lesson comes from what happened next: yes, some dinosaurs went extinct (along with many other species – about 70% of all life on the planet); but some dinosaurs evolved into birds or other reptiles. And, perhaps most significantly, in the wake of the void created by so much destruction a little-known and previously insignificant class of animals – the mammals – surged into newly freed-up ecosystems. Soon they would come to dominate the animal kingdom, a dominance that continues to this day. So, to me, the story of the dinosaurs is really about adaptation and the evolution of new things. Life was transformed, but it continued on. The destruction of the dinosaurs – a remarkably successful class of animals who dominated the planet for more than 160 million years – cleared the way for…us.
Our society has just been hit by its own “cultural asteroid.” Perhaps Covid wasn’t quite as devastating as Chicxulub, but it has nevertheless disrupted the world order in profound ways. Which path will our artists and arts organizations take in the wake of that disruption? Will we adapt to new circumstances? Will we support new creative forces that have previously been crowded out by established cultural behemoths? Or will we be so hide-bound by tradition that we cannot change, and thus go extinct? The dinosaurs didn’t really have a choice in the matter: they were at the mercy of their environment and the biological forces at work in their DNA. We, on the other hand, do have a choice: how might the arts – such a central and fundamental force for humanity’s benefit – be reborn after this most recent “cultural asteroid”? What do the next generations of “arts birds” and “arts mammals” look like, and what role will each of us play in shaping and supporting them?
For more thoughts on this question, stay tuned for Part 2 of this edition of Field Notes!