Extinction is the end – or is it?

Extinction is the total, irreversible end of a life form – or is it? The claim of irreversibility is often used to highlight the stakes of extinction, and the danger of following courses of action that one cannot repair. I’ve used this argument myself to drive home the seriousness of the global extinction crisis. But something doesn’t sit quite right with it. It is too totalizing, too final, too certain a claim to reflect the plurality and uncertainty of the turbulent Earth. What’s more, it might pre-emptively, and figurally, extinguish life forms in a way that exceeds the biological sense of extinction.

One of the major problems with dominant scientific and public understandings of extinction is that it is equated with death, either in aggregate or writ large. In the first case, extinction is understood as the biological death of every member of a species, and mass extinction as the accumulation of species deaths past a particular threshold. In the second case, extinction is understood as a scaling-up of death – that is, the metaphorical ‘death’ of species, constituted by the biological deaths of all their members.

First of all, extinction isn’t death: the two concepts are, and need to be kept, distinct. As Deborah Bird Rose has insightfully argued, extinction is the severance of processes of life and death that sustain each other, and the life forms they encompass. But what really causes problems with mainstream accounts of extinction is that they conceptualize death in Western secular terms. Within contemporary Western secular cosmologies (which I have written about extensively here), death is literally a ‘dead end’. Western secularity, in fact, has almost no place for death – it is understood as a superlative evil, an irreversible absencing and loss from which there is no return. It is this concept of death that underpins framings of extinction as the total and irreversible elimination of a life form.

By framing ‘extinct’ beings in this way, these discourses may erase evidence of the refusal of extinction – that is, creative, collective modes of survival beyond the scope of Western (secular) science. To appreciate this, we need to look beyond the hard boundaries of this cosmology.

 

 

“What if extinction isn’t really extinction?” asked my colleague Tim Leduc in one of the rich and challenging discussions that made up the first meeting of the Indigenous Visions research collective. His careful and nuanced research on Inuit and Haudenosaunee cosmologies in dialogue with Western cultures of climate change has given him an alternative perspective on this idea. Tim points out that within the Inuit Qaujimautuqangit framework, there are ample stories of the disappearance of animals. They relate to the Sedna, an indweller of the deep seas who controls all of the animals and plants, both in sea and on the land. When the Inuit break the protocols of daily life – including hunting – negotiated with the Sedna, she causes the animals on which the Inuit rely to withdraw from the land and sea. Tim’s research shares the observation of Inuit people living in Nunavat who have seen evidence of Sedna’s discontent in the decline of Arctic char and the changed behaviour of polar bears, amongst other signs. Vanessa Watts  pointed out that there are similar stories of withdrawal in the Anishinaabe tradition, also related to the breaking of laws and protocols between forms as a result of human actions. She stressed that, from this viewpoint, the animals are not extinct in the scientific sense, but have withdrawn. It is possible – although by no means guaranteed – that the restoration of protocols would enable the animals to return.

From the perspectives shared by both Tim and Vanessa, the global extinction crisis is about the breaking of laws, rules and protocols that have sustained life amongst multiple kinds of beings for millennia. In fact, it involves a  dominant group of people breaking bonds carefully nurtured and sustained by others – a feature of the colonial forms of inhabitation that are integral to global-scale ecological rupture.  This approach inverts standard accounts of extinction, which frame it as a problem of technical control and economic management, and seek to prevent Western secular notions of death. Instead, the disappearance of life forms understood as the grievous violation of an agreement, a harm to be actively and humbly mended. Such a perspective is promising for re-visioning the global extinction crisis as a crisis of global ethics.

This framing removes the reprieve of finality. In short, if one believes that extinction is irreversible, one is let of the hook when it comes to dealing with the extinct life form. Treating extinction as the breaking of a protocol places an onus on all humans – but especially those who are most responsible for driving forward this crisis – to restore, maintain and, crucially, create new multi-life-form treaties for sharing the Earth. This only becomes possible if one moves away from an understanding of extinction as an  irreversible process immune to human action. This assumption is upheld by homogenous ideas of human action that focus on instrumental control rather than reciprocity and negotiation.

The idea that extinction is total also erases the traces and presences of the extinct within the extant. For instance, by treating a life form as ‘extinct’, these discourses ignore their persistence in human communities – whether in the collective imagination or the names of clans. I (and the other members of the collective) are also not sure what happens to animals that occupy v spirit worlds once they are extinct in biological terms. This is a question that we’ll have to explore with the help of the elders and knowledge-keepers with whom we’ll be working.

A total and irreversible concept of extinction also obscures genetic legacies, which forge living links between the extant and extinct. As Nigel Clark has pointed out, all currently existing life is indebted to forms of life that went before, to their striving and collective efforts of survival that enabled evolution. This relationship continues not only in the form of DNA and shared histories that transgress the boundaries of species, but also (to name just a few) in morphology, histories of habitation and migration and instinct transmitted and transformed through evolution. To adopt, as Clark encourages, gratitude towards these beings is to acknowledge the impossibility of total extinction.

As long as the concept of extinction refers to total and irreversible elimination, it erases these, and many other, acts of survival and of the refusal to go extinct. Critics might argue that this line of thought undercuts the seriousness of the problem and might create a moral hazard. That is, if we don’t understand extinction as total and irreversible, will it not give license to those driving the crisis to continue with business as usual? This is not at all the argument I’m making. On the contrary, what this approach suggests is the need for careful attention to the securitizing, totalizing, dichotomizing language of Western secular science, which draws as sharp boundaries between ‘extinct’ and ‘extinct’ as it does between ‘living’ and ‘dead’. This approach can erase powerful acts and processes of continuity, of the transversal of these boundaries, of presencing against the accumulation of mass absence described by experts on extinction. Crucially, this presencing may not be visible or sensible, at least not in the frame of Western secular science. It may take the form of hiding or withdrawal, and it makes no promises of reversal, but always holds open the possibility – and the imperative – of the renewal of broken bonds.

Will the extinct return if those bonds are mended? This cannot be predicted, and the renewal of bonds shouldn’t be undertaken in such a conditional way. This is akin to techno-scientific attempts to evade Western secular death by forcing the extinct back into being, whether through coercive breeding, de-extinction or mourning. From the perspective I’ve sketched out here, these strategies add insult to injury: they respond to the violence of broken protocols by coercing life forms into the sphere of bio-political control.

And the ‘return’ of large numbers of life forms is not always the sign of a repaired bond. Indeed, Tim and Vanessa both spoke about stories within the Anishinaabe tradition of the return of large raptors, other birds and animals as a sign of major, perhaps catastrophic change. Since I moved to southern Ontario in late 2015, I have seen these kinds of phenomena: groups of as many as 20 or 30 red-tail hawks circling together as they moved north; and the gathering of what I am told is nearly 30 000 crows in a local park every evening (see the short film posted above).

We need to pay attention to these forms of presencing, whether they are warnings of disaster or the sign of slowly repairing bonds. Moving away from an understanding of extinction as large-scale death, as total and irreversible, takes away the easy option of consigning the extinct to oblivion. Instead, it calls for the hard work of confessing and addressing broken protocols, and working to create new ones, with no guarantee of a return, and no relief from responsibility.


Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis

 

Eco fragments 6On Wednesday, 1 June, I am honoured to host some of the most fascinating  scholars working at the intersection of Indigenous philosophy and ecological crisis, both here in Canada and around the world, at the event Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis . If you happen to be in the Waterloo area, please join us  for the opening event, which will include Haudenosaunee remembrance and condolence ceremonies, a talking circle featuring workshop participants and all attendees, songs from the Waterloo Aboriginal Students Association  and an art exhibition/ spoken word performance featuring the work of the very talented Cara Loft and Zoe Todd . This event will mark the beginning of a collaborative project that features contributions from (in alphabetical order):  Tim Leduc, Genese Sodikoff, Makere Stewart-Harawira, Noah Theriault, Zoe Todd, Vanessa Watts and Sarah Wright (joining us on behalf of the Bawaka Country Research Collective)  Special thanks also to my colleagues at the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University (especially Jean Becker, Melissa Ireland and Kandice Baptiste) for their guidance, input and teachings. I am grateful to the gifted (and tireless) Tahnee Prior for her help in organising the event, and to the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Independent Social Research Foundation for funding this event. 

For those of you who can’t join us in person, I’d like to share an abridged version of my opening talk for the event, to give you a sense of the community and projects we are aiming to build. Please note that the text has been edited to remove personal and/or ceremonial aspects of the event out of respect for these people and traditions. 

This workshop marks the beginning of an ongoing, collaborative project, so please get in touch if you are interested  in finding out more.

 

Thank you so much for coming today. I am honoured that you could all join us for the opening of this new project, and I look forward to learning from and with all of you over the next hours and days .I hope that this will event will mark the beginning of many rewarding relationships and new collaborations.

We’ll begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee peoples and offering a formal expression of gratitude to them as our hosts.

[distribution of tobacco twists to elders and invited participants]

… Before handing over to William Wordworth to begin the remembrance and condolence ceremonies, I’d like to say a few words about why we have come together for this few days of sharing, learning and envisioning.

Western science tells us that the Earth is in the midst of a global extinction crisis. The biological extinction of life forms is accelerating rapidly and across the planet as a result of human activity. We are warned that this may be the beginning of a ‘6th mass extinction’ in which most existing life forms may be eliminated in a few centuries.

Yet there is little discussion of what ‘extinction’ means – it is simply assumed to mean the death of ‘every member of a species’. There are so many problems with this definition: not least the Linnaean mode of classification that has given us the concept of species or the more recent construct of ‘biodiversity’, both of which exclude myriad forms of life and relations and draw sharp boundaries between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ that confound the basic principles of so many living cosmologies.

Even the concept of extinction as the irreversible elimination of a life form effaces the ways in which relations ‘extinct’ life forms may continue through relations with the spirit world, through genetic entanglement, and through lived histories that extend across the imposed boundaries of ‘species’.

Crucially, all of these concepts embed deeply colonial ideas of ‘nature’ and human relations with it – from the early roots of conservation in the creation of national parks and the violent eviction of their human inhabitants, to contemporary forms of hyper-capitalist conservation in which ‘species’ and ‘ecosystems’ are traded, offset and financialized as commodities, severing relations of kinship and care.

These concepts furnished by Western secular science cannot capture the enormity of the global extinction crisis – and they mask the violent erasures that they create, including the crowding out of alternative accounts and ways of being-knowing.

Talking to colleagues and friends from different Indigenous communities, I’ve learned how loaded the term ‘extinction’ can be: it evokes colonial beliefs that Indigenous peoples are ‘extinct’, or headed for extinction. I can’t think of a less appropriate way to describe communities whose powerful, collaborative acts of survivance in the face of waves of crisis and violence epitomises the vibrancy of life and strength.

So, we need new terms, concepts and frameworks, but also stories, songs, images, dances, communities of intention – in a word, visions.

These visions must be expansive enough – both in timescale, geographical scale and the complexity they can embrace – to address the global extinction crisis (or whatever we want to call it!) They must reach back into the deep, ancestral past – and far forward into plural possible futures, while remaining grounded in the everyday experiences of multi-species communities in which we are all, differently, enmeshed. They must address the entangled vulnerabilities of Earthly life, rejecting sharp distinctions between humans and nature, living and dead, tradition and modernity.

What better place to look than the rich, vibrant multitude of living Indigenous philosophies and cosmologies?These cosmologies have survived, adapted and nurtured plural life-forms across millennia, negotiating and fostering life in the face of crisis. Indeed, for many Indigenous peoples, the apocalypse has already happened, with the advent of European colonisation. For several centuries, they have been responding, adapting and creating in the face of violence, rupture and destruction – not least the expropriation of their ancestral lands and the severance of their fundamental relations with specific places and beings.

This workshop builds on the intuition that Indigenous philosophy and cosmology can offer radically different approaches to understanding the global extinction crisis. It rejects the Cartesian, rationalist logic of classification and scientific management, instead embracing plural understandings of how humans and other beings form, sustain and care for multiple worlds here on Earth.

While ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ – localizes Indigenous knowledge,  Indigenous philosophies and cosmologies have much to offer in terms of wrestling with the global nature of this crisis, and should not be parochialized against the backdrop of apparently ‘universal’ Western scientific and governance perspectives. I certainly do not want to downplay the importance of connection to specific places and beings, but rather to explore the global significance of contemporary, living Indigenous thought. As Vine Deloria Jr and Rauna Kuokannen (amongst others) have argued, Indigenous knowledge tends to be instrumentalized, treated a source of empirical material that can be used to substantiate the claims of Western science and policy-making. Yet diverse bodies of Indigenous knowledge offer profoundly distinct cosmologies, frameworks, philosophies and spiritualities that are also abstract and transcendent, while remaining grounded in place and concrete experience. Moreover, the idea of ‘traditional’ knowledge imposes a linear, progressivist view of time which parcels it out neatly into past, present and future – and relegates Indigenous thought to the past. Instead, embrace multiple temporalities and are energised by Indigenous visions of multiple possible futures.

Our goal in this project is to engage a wide range of forms of Indigenous knowledge in order to identify resonances amongst them – NOT to find one universal, over-arching theory. In so doing, we hope to generate new insights and visions for apprehending the multiple dimensions of the global extinction crisis, decolonizing the structures of knowledge that dominate the way it is discussed, researched and governed, and cultivate creative, visionary responses to it.

Art exhibition

The following images are from the exhibition “Cultural Projections” by Cara Loft. Cara is Aboriginal Recruitment and Outreach Officer for the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is a Mohawk Woman from wolf clan and her home community is Tyendinaga First Nation. Cara holds a BA in Health Sciences and a postgraduate degree in International Development, with a focus on community development in First Nations communities in Ontario. She is an avid beader, a women’s traditional dancer and hand drummer. Cara is  passionate about supporting aboriginal youth in Canada in all capacities possible, and her current work focuses on  bolstering education, leadership & cultural pride. “Cultural Projections” highlights Cara’s experiences travelling through Aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario, with a focus on pathways and passages. 

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Attawapiskat Catholic Church by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

52.9259° N, 82.4289° W

Attawapiskat First Nation lies on the western side of James Bay. It is an isolated Cree community with a population of 1,549. Each December a Winter Road is constructed to connect the remote communities of Moosonee, Kashechewan, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat being the most northern and remote stop on the James Bay Winter Road. When driving on the Winter Road, the first view you see on the way into Attawapiskat in the Catholic Church sitting high on the hill top. This serves as a reminder of the colonization that took hold of the ‘People of the Parting Stone’ and continues to grip this community. This is reflected in the flagrant natural resources extraction from the open pit Victor Diamond Mine, located a mere 90 km from Attawapiskat.

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Beausoleil Ferry by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

43.7418° N, 7.4230° E

Beausoliel First Nation is spread across three Indian Reserves, the one pictured here is Christian Island located in Georgian Bay. The peoples of Christian Island largely depend on the ferry system to move back and forth to the mainland; and also move supplies onto the island. Recently one of the main passenger ferries, the 57 year-old M.V. Sandy Graham, was deemed unsafe and had to have $500, 000 worth of repairs to make it usable again. The other ferry, the Indian Maiden, is also in need of repairs as well. Pictured here, we see a community member using their own barge to transport equipment to Christian Island. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or other-wise used or acquired.” Without access to a working ferry, the peoples of Christian Island are at risk of losing their traditional territory and way of life.

 

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Pike, Pic Mobert by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

48.6833° N, 85.6333° W

Pic Mobert is an Anishnabeg First Nation community composed of two small reserves located along the White River in Ontario: Pic Mobert North and Pic Mobert South. These rural communities have roughly 400 band members living on reserve. One of the staple foods in this community is the fish; providing both a practical source of food and cultural connection to the land and waters. Pictured here is a pike caught through the traditional practice of netting. An oasis in North Western Ontario; Pic Mobert is still considered an impoverished reserve without the proper health, education & social resources to address the issues within their communities. Despite these gaps, the cultural connection to land and water is strong and speaks to the resiliency of these communities.

Serpent_River

Serpent River by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

46.183°N 82.550°W

Serpent River is an Anishnabeg community located along the North Shore of Lake Huron. The traditional territory of these peoples extends from the North Channel of Lake Huron, to just past the city of Elliot Lake. In 1847, uranium was discovered near Elliot Lake prompting the Chief at the time to demand protection from mining exploitation. Thus began the era of natural resource extraction from the Serpent River territory. Today, Serpent River is a modest community of 373 on reserve band members that sits quietly on the banks of Lake Huron. Despite a history of land misuse, the natural beauty of this territory is not lost today. Pictured here are the tree’s mid-fall in Serpent River.

 

This_Is_Indian_Land_Garden River_2015

Garden River First Nation by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

Garden River First Nation is located near Sault Ste Marie and is a largely Anishnabeg community. With roughly 1,100 band members, this community sits mainly along the St. Mary’s River and Highway 17B passes through their traditional territory. There has been dispute over Highway 17B and its passage through the Garden River Community, mainly due to the deaths of community members on this road. In April of 2016, band members from Garden River closed down highway 17B for a day to highlight the meaningless accidents and tragedies that happen along this highway. Pictured here is the old rail bridge over Garden River, and a written affirmation of who the traditional title holders and protectors of this territory are.

Fish Friday Images by Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd is a lecturer in Anthropology at Carleton University. A Métis scholar from amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), her work spans the subjects of human-fish relations, Indigenous philosophy, feminism, art, and the important role of Indigenous legal orders within the legal pluralities that shape Canada. Her series of ‘Fish Friday’ images (posted every Friday on her website and Twitter account) explore the fish stories that and creatures that have shaped her more-than-human relations web of relations. 

 

Northern Pike by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Northern Pike by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

My Ideas - 7

Whitefish by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Larry the Lamprey by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Larry the Lamprey by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Lake Trout by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Lake Trout by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Eric the Walleye by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Arctic Char by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Arctic Char by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

My Ideas - 52

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved


Spiked: violence, coloniality and the Anthropocene

This online mini-exhibition is presented in advance of the initiation of the Anthropocene Re-working Group (with Zoe Todd), which will take place at the Conference “Landbody: Indigeneity’s Radical Commitments” at the Centre for 21st Century Studies, Milwaukee, 5-7 May 2016. 

The full text of our presentation is available here: Earth violence text Mitchell and Todd

Since this is a work in progress, please let us know if you would like to reproduce it. For the same reason, all rights are reserved for the use of these images. . Contact me if you’d like to share, reproduce or alter them. 

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Strata by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

 

Since the early 2000s, there has been a scramble amongst scientists to define the boundaries of the ‘Anthropocene’. In the rush to mark and claim this era, hundreds of scientists and some social scientists are racing to find a definitive ‘golden spike’. The golden spike is a discursive, imagined, yet very real placetime in which scientists intend to drive a stake, claiming the conversion of the Earth into a human dominion. Most notably, the ‘Anthropocene Working Group’ of the subcommission on Quarternary Stratigraphy is planning this year to announce where/when the spike should be driven. It will choose amongst numerous proposals, including the detonation of the first nuclear weapons, the Industrial revolution, and the beginning of large-scale agriculture.

In so doing, this group of overwhelmingly white, male scholars of the physical sciences, whose meetings are closed to the public, plan to make a claim on behalf of ‘humanity’ over the history, future and fate of the planet.

Critics of the Anthropocene are producing excellent work on the domination of scientific perspectives amongst Anthropocene discourses,on Anthropocentric narratives that magnifies human agency and entrenches the human/nature divide, and the inaccuracies of claims that ‘humans’ as a whole are responsible for the phenomena transforming the Earth. Yet there has been little focus on the role of foundational violence in the Anthropocene and the distinctively colonial violence enacted through the forces re-shaping the Earth and the discourses arising to describe them. Recently, the geographers Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have made an important contribution to this discussion. They argue that the beginning of the Anthropocene should be placed in 1492, the year when the colonization of what would become the Americas resulted in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Maslin and Lewis focus on the ecological outcomes of this period of mass violence and expropriation.

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Spiked by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Building beyond this,  Zoe Todd and I are initiating a new artistic/performative/collective thought experiment focused on role of violence in the Anthropocene. We will be looking at multiple modes of violence, including the detonation of nuclear weapons and the slow violence of capital accumulation, industrialization and extinction. Each of these phenomena, central to the concept of the Anthropocene, are rooted in the historical/geological moments and trajectories of violence that are colonisation. To this end, we are inaugurating a public ‘Anthropocene Re-working Group’ whose goal is to explore the violences shaping the planet in open-ended, multi-media, multi-disciplinary ways (more on this to follow…)

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Entanglement by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

To begin this project, I wanted to get my hands on some actual spikes to think and feel through the discourse of a ‘golden spike’. Engaging with these spikes allowed me to reflect on their materiality and their potential for violence. Handling them enabled me to sense their  weight and shape, their utility as weapons, the intention of penetration with which they were forged, their appropriative nature, as the stakes through which claims to land and ‘resources’ are made. These particular spikes, salvaged from a defunct stretch of railroad, also evoked the violence of industrialisation, the expropriation of Indigenous lands across North  America and the near-extinction of the American buffalo as a result of hunting from trains. Even their material basis is poignant: it brings to mind and hand the metals torn from soil and stone to fuel the demand for industrial resources and capital speculation.

I composed these images in order to encourage contemplation of the ‘golden spike’ as a central and meaning-multiplying  embodiment of the impulse to mark and bound the Anthropocene. These are my initial responses to the idea of the golden spike and the intention to tell different stories about the violence of the Anthropocene. I hope that this nascent project will encourage and foster the exchange of many alternative stories, images and ideas.

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Death/metal by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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Planetary Boundaries by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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Subcommittee by Audra Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.


Everything is *$@&ing dying!

We need to talk about the Global Extinction Crisis 

The global extinction crisis (GEC) is hard to talk about – and I don’t mean metaphorically. There’s a broad, diverse and growing group of scholars, activists, artists and thinkers engaging seriously and eloquently with this phenomenon. But it can be surprisingly hard to communicate about it with colleagues in other fields, policy-makers, students and others outside of the academy. More often than one might think, talking about the GEC sparks a range of negative reactions, from skepticism to outright dismissal. Why is this the case?

I don’t think it’s down to ignorance or outright denial – although there are certainly a lot of misconceptions, which I’ll discuss shortly.  There is widespread awareness of the term ‘extinction’, and of the fact that some species – ‘endangered’ ones in particular – are facing it. But unlike discourses on catastrophic climate change (which emerged in the same era as awareness of the GEC) there doesn’t seem to be a strong public sense of the scope and scale of the issue. For many of my interlocutors, the idea of a global extinction crisis just doesn’t resonate in a way that generates robust public discourse.

In the hopes of making these conversations a little easier, I’ve put together an FAQ including the most common questions I’ve come across – as well as the not-so-hidden objections, resistances and dismissals (in brackets).

I don’t know what a ‘global extinction crisis’ is (optional air quotes). Do you mean biodiversity decline/loss? (cue possible mansplaining).

No – I definitely mean the global extinction crisis. The term ‘decline in/loss of biodiversity’ refers to a particular way of understanding extinction drawn from Western secular scientific discourses. It measures the quantity of species, their richness and other factors (aggregated as ‘biodiversity’ – see my critique of the concept here) in relation to pre-calculated baselines. In other words, the concept of biodiversity decline/loss is a way of measuring patterns of species extinctions against scientific judgments of what does, or should, exist in a particular ecosystem.

Importantly, it also refers to the process through which the GEC happens, rather than the phenomenon itself – in the same way that ‘rising global average temperature’ describes the process that produces catastrophic climate change but does not capture the full meaning of the phenomenon. If we use the concepts of ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ synonymously with the concept of the GEC, we confuse one particular means of measurement with the much broader ecological, socio-cultural, ethical, economic and myriad other dimensions of the issue.

Talking about the GEC in terms of ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ also has a euphemizing effect: these terms suggest a slow, gradual diminution of biodiversity. In fact, the GEC is marked by a rapid and massive spike in species extinctions (see the graphs below). In terms of the distortion of scale and magnitude, referring to the GEC as ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ is similar to referring to war as a spike in violent crime rates, or to catastrophic climate change as ‘bad weather’. It misses the conceptual point, and significantly distorts understandings of what is at stake.

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Source: Ceballos et al, 2015. “Accelerated Modern Human-Induced Species Losses: Entering the 6th Mass Extinction”, Science Advances, Vol. 1 No. 5. A shows a highly conservative estimate and B shows a conservative estimate of the spike in species extinctions.

 

Ah, now I get it – you’re talking about the effects of climate change (expression of relief at the introduction of a more familiar topic).

 No: climate change and the GEC should not be conflated, but they are related in several important ways. First, catastrophic climate change is a driver of the GEC (see this article for a good explanation). Climate change affects global patterns of extinction in a number of ways, including by altering the composition of biomes to which particular life forms are adapted. For example, ocean acidification destroys the habitat of many marine species, while rising temperatures in montane areas may cause the extinction of specially-adapted tree species.

Second, climate change and the GEC share several drivers: for instance, deforestation contributes to both. However, it is important not to confuse a shared driver for the equivalence of two very different phenomena. Deforestation functions in specific ways within each respective phenomenon: by altering atmospheric conditions in the case of climate change, and by destroying unique habitats in the case of the GEC. In a related sense, it is crucial not to mix up the GEC with any one of its drivers. There is a tendency to assume that the GEC is a form of large-scale, generalized destruction, but it actually refers to something very specific: the total, global and irreversible elimination of a large number of interconnected life forms. To stick with our example, deforestation often produces extinctions that contribute to the GEC. However, it may instead produce local extirpations or decreases in population, but no extinctions. So despite the fact that both phenomena involve large-scale destruction, they should not be confused.

Third, catastrophic climate change and the GEC are threat multipliers: that is, they converge, compound and accentuate particular threats. For instance, the possible extinction of bees along with aridication of farmland could combine to produce massive famines. In such cases, the convergence of climate change and global patterns of extinction are more than the sum of their parts, and they exacerbate each other.

Fourth, the GEC may become an important (and underestimated) driver of climate change. For example, the large-scale extinction of plant species would have a substantial impact on the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The extinction of insects and other animals involved in the pollination of plants would also contribute to this trend.

So, climate change and the GEC are linked in important and complex ways but are undoubtedly distinct. This is often obscured by popular discourses, which often subsume the GEC within the category of climate change (or as one aspect of the Anthropocene). Indeed, the GEC rarely makes an appearance in international policy discourses except when it is mentioned as one of the many possible effects of climate change. As a result, its distinct causes, processes, significance and demands are often assumed to be the same as those of climate change. This leads policy-makers to underestimate the magnitude and significance of the issue, and discourages a clear focus on responses tailored to the GEC. Instead, the GEC should be recognised as a planetary crisis and threat on par with climate change and nuclear warfare in its potential effects on Earthly life.

Oh, you mean mass extinction, like the ones that killed the dinosaurs and dodos? (Optional subtext: that seems like a pretty niche topic, given the many, more urgent problems that humans are facing today).

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Popular images of dinosaurs consign the GEC to history. Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Yes and no. An increasing number of scientists are predicting that the GEC will ultimately produce a sixth mass extinction event – formally defined as the elimination of 75% or more of extant species. If that does occur, then yes, the alteration of life on Earth may be similar – that is, similarly extreme – to what occurred during the previous five mass extinction events. Dominant species may disappear, along with entire branches of the evolutionary tree. And yes, some life forms will almost certainly survive, evolve and eventually fill these vacant niches – whether they turn out to be bacteria, giant rats or something completely unpredictable on the basis of existing life forms.

However, the global extinction crisis is not a distant historical event: it is happening now. The public popularity of narratives about extinct life forms – and dinosaurs in particular – has had the ironic effect of consigning mass extinction events to history. That is, people think of them as things that happen to other species, so long ago and far away that they seem fictional or mythical. This effect may be partially because of the physical and temporal scales of the crisis. No one can see the GEC ‘as a whole’, and it is spread out across a time period that, although miniscule in geological terms, far outstrips public memory and governmental planning. Also, mass extinction events are defined retrospectively, since every other one preceded the existence of humans by millions of years. So, since it hasn’t run its course yet, we can’t talk about the GEC in the same way that we discuss the five mass extinction events. However, it is currently unfolding into the recent past and the deep future, and transforming the fundamental possibilities of life on Earth. (So no, I doubt it qualifies as a ‘niche’ topic.)

Is there any actual/conclusive proof that a mass extinction is going to happen? (optional tone of knowing skepticism)

People tend ask this because they are (a) afraid that it might be true and/or (b) quite reasonably concerned about the distortionary effects of fear-mongering and securitization. Indeed, the extinction of 75% or more of extant life forms seems extreme, and perhaps too bad to be true. For some people, it sounds like the kind of scare-tactic used to strong-arm governments and business into inconvenient ‘environmental’ policies. For others, it sounds more like the kind of affective manipulation that governments and businesses might use in order to consolidate biopolitical power and control. These approaches are not entirely wrong-headed, wherever one stands politically. No one knows beyond a doubt exactly how many life forms might be eliminated in the GEC, and whether or not it will cross the threshold of a mass extinction event. There is substantial and growing evidence to suggest that this is likely to occur (for starters, see here, here and here) – and also lively contestation of this data (see, for instance here).

Either way, the debate over whether the technical threshold for a mass extinction event is passed is far beside the point. We may not be able to know whether or not 75%, 20%, 5% or 97% of currently existing life forms will still be extant in a few hundred years. What we do know is that the rates at which they are disappearing are rapid and extreme. The entire, intricate fretwork of life on Earth is undergoing a dramatic change – and not just a transformation, but rather the total destruction of many of its elements. It matters whether the numbers eventually add up to 75%, 20%, 5% or 97%, since each of these scenarios would produce a very different world. But this is not the only thing that matters. More significant, I think, is the global-scale destruction of the unique, irreplaceable worlds that have nurtured life on this planet for millions of years. We don’t need to wait for this destruction to pass a particular threshold to know how significant this is.

Scientific and philosophical skepticism are crucial contributors to public discourses on the GEC. They help to interpret, examine and criticize the various knowledge claims competing for the public’s attention. However, taken to an extreme, they may produce the kind of (un)intentional denialism that fuels climate skeptics in the face of overwhelming evidence. This means that we should focus on the concrete manifestations of the GEC instead of demanding certainty from the abstract terms used to interpret it. We should also turn more of this invaluable critical attention to responding to the GEC, whatever it turns out to ‘be’ in abstract terms.

 Wait, do you mean just animals might go extinct, or humans too? (gasp) 

I mean, potentially, everything currently alive (see title). Humans tend to think about extinction as something that happens to ‘animals’ (even though many of the most threatened life forms are plants) and not to ‘us’. The GEC doesn’t discriminate along species lines, no matter how much members of homo sapiens might like to be exempt. It involves the collapse of interconnected life forms, and it is not possible to determine in advance exactly which ones will go extinct and which ones will survive – this will be determined by the particular patterns and extinction cascades that occur. Even if this could be determined, it is not a matter of ‘losing’ particular species in a subtractive manner. What is threatened by the GEC is not an aggregate of species, but rather the unique, irreplaceable worlds formed amongst and across them. It is these worlds – and all of the life forms that constitute them – that will be affected by the GEC. This is not to suggest that all life forms are affected equally, for instance, those species designated as ‘endangered’ are more likely to go extinct than others. However numerous examples from history show that previously abundant species (e.g. African elephants or Great Auks) were subject to sudden extinction. So, it is misleading to assume that a life form is ‘safe’ simply because it does not make the IUCN ‘Red List’.

Humans should not uncritically assume that their species will survive the GEC, particularly in its current form. In fact, discussions about the possibility of human extinction in discourses of ‘existential risk’ should be brought into more critical encounters with discussions of the extinctions of other species. For instance, nuclear or biological warfare, asteroid strikes or hostile artificial intelligence might not only threaten the continued existence of homo sapiens, but rather of all living things. Potential drivers of the GEC – whether relatively gradual species extinctions or a suddenly nuclear blast – should be examined in concert. The most important factor, ethically speaking, is that they threaten the continuity of life forms – humans included.

It is important to note that for some of my Indigenous interlocutors, the idea of ‘extinction’ is negatively loaded. When applied to Indigenous groups, it tends to frame them as ‘endangered species’ that will inevitably face extinction. In this way, it also naturalizes the elimination of peoples, obscuring the central role of colonial violence. It’s crucial not to reinforce such destructive narratives (in fact, I think more attention needs to be paid to the role of colonial violence in the GEC). Here, the term ‘extinction’ doesn’t apply to just some humans, but rather to the idea that homo sapiens as a whole is not exempt from it. I am attempting to break down the siloed bodies of thought that separate discussions of ‘biodiversity’ from those of ‘human extinction’ by thinking of extinction in ontological terms. That means viewing it through the lens of the possibilities of being, non-being and negation – which do not stop at the boundaries of species.

Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of IR theorist or ethics expert? Why are you talking about this? (And what makes you think you’re qualified to talk about this – you’re not a proper scientist).

True, I am not a scientist, ‘proper’ or otherwise. But the GEC is not only a matter of science, nor is scientific inquiry the only way to respond to it. This crisis raises profound challenges to the continuity and possibility of life on Earth. I struggle to think of a more relevant topic for IR, which is concerned primarily with survival and security (which I have written about here), or global ethics, in which the largest-scale harms, dilemmas and problems are debated.

The possible collapse of Earthly life undermines the basic assumptions and principles of IR theory, demanding new paradigms and frameworks. Meanwhile, in global ethics, its magnitude and significance calls into question major concepts such as harm, responsibility and responsiveness. Across both of these disciplines, there are important frameworks for responding to large-scale harms and catastrophes, including genocide and nuclear warfare. Yet no such frameworks exist for the GEC.

A phenomenon as complex as the GEC should not be approached through a single definition or mode of response, even one as wide as ‘science’. As environmental humanists point out, the phenomenon of extinction is experienced in multiple ways across cultures and multi-species communities, who respond to it in diverse ways. Scientists have an important role to play in conceptualizing the GEC and considering possible responses, but theirs is not the only form of knowledge needed to confront this phenomenon. Insights from the arts and humanities, anthropology, geography and philosophy are helping to elaborate the nature, scope and depth of the GEC. Crucially, Indigenous and non-Western cosmologies, and the plural bodies of knowledge that they produce, offer distinct ways of conceptualizing the GEC and modalities of response. All of these forms of knowledge need to be engaged and brought into creative confrontation in order to respond to the GEC.

As an interdisciplinary researcher, I’m interested in drawing together, contrasting and critically combining different ways of knowing and experiencing the GEC in order to produce new and unexpected modes of response. Don’t expect me to answer specific questions about the rates of extinction facing your favourite species (a common test of a person’s ‘scientific chops’), or to reproduce the results of a particular study. What I do is to interpret what these data mean in terms of ethics, across cultures and forms of knowledge, in relation to existing norms and practices in international governance, politics, law and security, how they affect politics and how they might translate into effective collective action.

The GEC is too important to be ‘left to the scientists’ –not scientists specifically, but any group of people working within a single knowledge framework. This issue is big enough, and important enough, that we’re going to need every possible source of insight, wisdom and vision to confront it.

Yeah, I know what you mean about extinction (guilty look). But at the end of the day, it’s a ‘dirty word’/depressing topic and nobody in policy circles wants to talk about it.

This rings true, since policy-makers seem to avoid the term ‘extinction’ like the plague (see above). Of course policy-makers need to sell their ideas, and the promise of comprehensive demise is not necessarily a strong motivator – although, as mentioned earlier, the fear factor might be. But unfortunately, this attitude produces a profound inarticulacy about the GEC in governance circles, and encourages the use of misleading formulations.

For instance, as discussed above, policy-makers often use the term ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ to talk about aspects of the GEC. In most cases, the general area of policy-making is simply called ‘biodiversity’ or sometimes ‘conservation’. Both of these terms obfuscate in important ways. ‘Biodiversity’ is the ‘good’ that policy-makers want to protect or secure. To focus only on the positively-charged idea of biodiversity would be akin to using the term ‘survival and well-being’ to talk about disaster relief. It doesn’t address the threat at hand, but only the desired outcome of policy-making.

Using the term ‘conservation’ focuses not only on the positively-charged action being taken, but it also reduces the entire set of possible responses to one logic and approach. Certainly, conservation may play an important role in addressing the GEC, but it does not exhaust the gamut of ethical, socio-cultural, spiritual, political, economic and other modes of responsiveness that should be mobilized. It also entrenches the dominance of Western, scientifically-based and increasingly capital-driven forms of activity that not only exclude other approaches but may exacerbate the problem. It is very important not to assume that ‘conservation’ is a unified field, or that it is a proven ‘solution’.

What’s more, talking about the GEC in terms of ‘biodiversity’/’conservation’ makes it sound as if this phenomenon is manageable within the boundaries of existing frameworks and practices. This obscures the potentially unprecedented, radically disruptive nature of the problem, for which no existing policies, frameworks or norms are adequately prepared. After all, if they were, the GEC would not be occurring.

 

 

This FAQ demonstrates how difficult it can be to talk about the GEC. Often I find myself silently (or less silently) exclaiming: “Everything is *&$#ing dying! How much more clearly can I put it?” Of course this is an exaggeration, and of course the GEC is nowhere near this simple to grasp. But I stand by the sentiment: we need to be talking about the GEC directly, seriously, and, if not quite unflinchingly, then with reflexivity and critical thinking. We – and I mean a big, wide, profoundly plural, multi-cosmology, cross-disciplinary, inter-sectoral, intersectional, multi-species ‘we’ – need to confront the GEC face on, and with everything we’ve got.

 


Is IR Going Extinct?/Posthuman Security Ethics/Planet Politics

Peer-reviewed publications are like buses – you wait for a year and then three come out on the same week. This week, three pieces have come out that mark different trajectories in the research I’ve been doing for the last few years. I thought I’d write a few words about what I’m trying to accomplish with them, and how I hope they will continue to develop.

If you’d like a copy of any of these pieces please feel free to drop me an email.

Is IR Going Extinct? European Journal of International Relations, OnlineFirst

This article began life on this blog (in fact, it is my very first ‘blog baby’). However, it has considerably morphed along the way, thanks to the input of a number of colleagues, conference audiences and, of course, the editors and reviewers at EJIR. In this article, I argue that IR has been shockingly inarticulate about a phenomenon that threatens to undercut its basic premises, including survival and security: mass extinction. I go on to argue that, in order to confront extinction, IR needs to engage seriously with the inhuman – for instance, by referencing timescales before (and after) human existence and acknowledging the evolutionary histories to which humans owe this existence. With this goal in mind, I show that extinction itself may not be directly thinkable, but that humans can think its possibility. I also argue that thinking extinction does not mean embracing malevolent forms of nihilism (although, as Ray Brassier argues, we should refrain from assuming that nihilism is ‘bad’ per se) or anti-human sentiments. In other words, I reject claims that mass extinction is ‘unthinkable’ due to cognitive shortcomings or moral taboos. Instead, I argue that IR should confront mass extinction, developing pluralistic modes of responsiveness, concepts and sensibilities for contending with it.

In the review process, a couple of interesting arguments came up that I think deserve attention. First of all, some interlocutors wanted to know ‘why IR?’ – that is, why should IR specifically devote attention to this problem, which has traditionally been the preserve of biology, paleontology and other ‘hard sciences’. Alternatively, questions of being and nonbeing might be better served by philosophy. On the one hand, one might ask ‘why not IR?’, or why is IR sticking its head in the sand about a big and obvious security challenge – perhaps the ultimate one. My response is that IR is one of the important places where action, ethics and threat converge. That is, it is a field in which the practical problems of survival – for humans and myriad other beings – merge with problems of ethics and agency. IR is one of only a handful of disciplines that is actively concerned with the possibilities of survival, as well as one of the few fora in which potentially world-threatening events (think nuclear war and global warming) get any air time. So, of existing fields, it is one of the best-placed to foster discussions of mass extinction, provided that it is open to being transformed by them. This leads to perhaps the most important point: as a field fixated on survival, IR cannot ignore a phenomenon that threatens to undermine the practicable possibility of survival for most life forms.

Of course, addressing mass extinction would involve considerable transformations to IR, to the extent that IR as we know it might ‘go extinct’. Several interlocutors have asked whether this is worth it – that is, whether a desirable form of IR would emerge from this confrontation. To some extent, this is a moot question: a global extinction crisis is happening, and it changes everything. Human thought as a whole (disciplines aside) will need to respond to it, whether we like it or not. However, these comments helped me to hone in on the potential for positive, radical transformations of IR that might emerge from a confrontation with mass extinction. Amongst these are the ability to transcend notions of the human that embed hierarchical structures such as race and gender. Moreover, I argue that relinquishing the anxiety-driven desire for survival-as-it-is and at-all-costs can help humans to avoid the increasingly suffocating interventions of biopolitical governmental regimes. But more than this, embracing finitude and the gift of existence can engender a politics of affirmation, one that welcomes uncertain futures without expecting promises of security. This opens up the possibility of a radical form of cosmo-politics that could produce a much wider range of responses to mass extinction that despair, denialism or fortress mentalities. Humans may not be in a position to choose their future, and they might not ‘like’ the kinds of politics that are demanded of them – but they can creatively affirm these.

Would a field of thought that embraced this ethos still be IR?  I’m not sure. That said, I have no particular ties to IR’s survival one way or another. My concern is that humans nurture and proliferate modes of thought and action that enable them to respond creatively and ethically to unfolding futures. By ‘hacking’ IR – that is, cultivating some of its concepts and the platforms it creates, but repurposing them to address wider, more complex realities – we can go some way in doing this.

Planet Politics: A Manifesto from the End of IR, Millennium Journal of International Studies  (forthcoming) 

I’ve written a fair bit about this article before, but it has gone through a number of changes throughout the revision process, and our writing collective is thrilled to have it published in Millennium. In our new version, thanks to encouragement from editors, reviewers and interlocutors, we have actively embraced the manifesto tone and beefed up our call to action/thought.

For my own part, I’ve responded to some helpful input from one of my co-authors, Daniel Levine. Dan urged me to think more carefully about a call for worldliness in a context in which the conditions of living on Earth are at stake – that is, a form of Arendtian amor mundi that is directed towards the planet rather than just human worlds. I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on this, especially in relation to my slowly simmering project on massive-scale worlding (more about this later…). A good starting point for thinking about this Heidegger’s distinction between Earth – the volatile, stubborn, erupting conditionality of planetary existence – and human worlding, or the creation of spheres of meaning and stability for human habitation. According to Heidegger, the agonistic relationship between earth and world has made human existence possible. This seems to be precisely what is radically off-kilter in the global ecological crisis: human worlding has become entirely alienated from the Earth, and any conflictual balance between them has been lost. From this perspective, doubling down on worlding – whether geo-engineering, space colonization or the creation of super-intelligences – can only exacerbate the problem. Instead, humans need to be thinking about worlds that are in tune with the Earth and open to its eruptions. This is something I’ll be developing – hopefully well beyond Heidegger’s work and the Western philosophical canon – as this discussion moves forward.

Ethical security studies cover“Posthuman Security/Ethics” in Burke, Anthony and Jonna Nyman, Ethical Security Studies: A New Research Agenda, Routlege.  

Tony Burke and Jonna Nyman have put together a boundary-pushing research agenda that re-frames security as an ethical field. That is, instead of focusing narrowly on the ethical standards used to regulate existing forms of security, they open up discussion of security as a discourse that generates, transforms and enacts ethics. In turn, the book explores how ethical impulses, imperatives and dilemmas of ethics shapes understandings of what security is, what it can be, and what it shouldn’t be. My contribution to this project takes this argument further, arguing that security is a mode of ‘doing’ ethics. Specifically, it examines how the ethical category of ‘humanity’ structures the boundaries of ethics. I argue that existing, humanist conceptions of security produce and realize ethical norms and boundaries that shape the framing of ethical problems, subjects and forms of responsiveness.Drawing on posthumanist scholarship, philosophies of the inhuman and Indigenous movements, it critiques existing security ethics through the lenses of subjectivity, relationality and agency. This chapter offered me the chance to pull together some of my work on different aspects of posthumanism, extinction and global ecological ethics, but it helped me to sharpen my understanding of the productive resonances between security and ethics.

Ethical Security Studies contains fascinating contributions from: Vivienne Jabri, Matt McDonald, Ali Bilgiç, Rita Floyd, João Nunes, Annick Wibben, Fiona Robinson, Christopher Browning, Helen Dexter, Priya Chacko, Chris Rossdale and, of course, Tony and Jonna themselves. Thanks to the whole team for their efforts on this book, and for inviting me to take part.


Posthuman security: reflections

This month’s post comes courtesy of E-IR. It offers some reflections on the discussions related to ‘posthuman security’ that have been brewing over the past couple of years. It is part of a series that also includes contributions from Elke Schwartz, Matt McDonald and (coming soon) Carolin Kaltofen. Thanks to Clara Eroukmanoff and the E-IR editorial team for putting this series together.

This article has also been published on Global Policy Journal’s blog.  

 

Posthuman Security: Reflections from an Open-ended Conversation

 


What goes extinct?

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Photo by Network Osaka. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.o Attribution, Non-commercial, No-Derivs.

This post explores in more depth the inspiration and driving questions behind my new article “Beyond Species and Biodiversity: Problematizing Extinction” just published in Theory, Culture and Society. For a copy of the full article, feel free to contact me: amitchell [at] wlu.ca.

Extinction must be one of the most under-theorized, under-discussed, and under-thought concepts in academic discourses. Although thousands of books and articles have been produced about extinction, it is rare to come across a deep, reflexive account of what extinction is(n’t), what it means, what goes extinct, and what it means to ‘go extinct’. In fact, one of the few statements available regarding the meaning of extinction comes in the form of a definition: “extinction is… the death of every member of a species”. Meanwhile, most mainstream narratives of biodiversity define extinction as the diminishing of resources, which are increasingly framed in financial terms.

Surely extinction is more, or different than this – it involves the irreversible elimination of unique lifeways, but also the creation of vacuums that are filled by new ones. It is a deeply ethical problematic, not only in terms of the ‘bads’ and ‘goods’ that it generates, but also in terms of the chains of dependency and responsibility that emerge between life forms as they emerge, speciate and go extinct. At the same time, its normative valence is complicated: on the one hand, we can point to immense harms that extinction causes to the entangled worlds that sustain earthly life. On the other hand, becoming too attached to these worlds in their existing form can produce a form of ressentiment towards future worlds and life forms. This, in turn, may result in the disavowal of connections to a profoundly plural Earth. Instead, it’s important to focus on the dynamic aspects of being and extinction.

To do that, we need to think more deeply about the idea of  ‘going’ extinct.  Extinction is fundamentally about about transformation, change, (un)becoming and evolutionary movement. It is a process, rather than a punctual moment – for instance, the death of the ‘last member of a species’. As scholars like Genese Sodikoff have eloquently argued, extinction is both a creative and a destructive process. This is not the Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’ that fuels and smoothens the processes of global capitalism. Rather, it consists in the punctuation and rupture of histories and lifeways through the intrusion of non-being, or the eruption of ‘the void’ into the realm of human-dominated worlding. Indeed, scholars of the non-relational argue that it is crucial to pay attention to absences, excesses and the realm beyond what human thought can capture. Those beings that have ‘gone extinct’ inhabit this space. Some of them (dinosaurs, for instance) haunt and shape human discourses, while others (non)-exist well beyond the borders of human thought, but nonetheless affect the conditions of existence on Earth.

And the subjects of extinction are have not always ‘gone’ at all. In fact, amongst the most prominent subjectivities emerging from the current global extinction crisis is that of ‘humanity’. Contemporary discourses emerging in such different fields as existential risk and the posthumanities argue that ‘humanity’ must face its own extinction, in both figurative and literal terms. Rather than (just) obliterating subjectivity, confrontation with this possibility also produces new understandings of the limitations and transformations of ‘the human’. On the one hand, it might produce resurgent (trans-)humanisms that further entrench these norms and strictures, or accentuate them further, in the attempt to sustain ‘humanity’ at all costs. On the other hand, it may also open up new opportunities for transformation beyond essentializing constructs such as gender and race.

My new article opens up a conversation about the diverse subjects that are produced by extinction, and by dominant responses to the threats it raises. It examines a range of forces – abstraction, abjection, absence and (the lack) of love – that shape and distort these subjectivities. In so doing, it moves far beyond the claim that ‘what goes extinct’ is ‘species’ or ‘biodiversity’, and that the only register to measure this change is that of quantitative loss. Instead, it moves towards a much more pluralistic understanding of what extinction is, does, creates and destroys. It ends by calling for a cosmopolitical ethical-political framework that can help to attune humans to the diverse subjects of extinction and stimulate responsiveness to the various claims they make on us.

The image at the top of this post is from a project by Artist As Citizen – the full set of cards can be downloaded here. 


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