Monthly Archives: October 2013

Securitization gone wild: killer slugs, ASBO bees and xenophobia

Photo by Helen K licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Photo by Helen K licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

This week is Halloween, a time when images of fanged, grimacing jack-o-lanterns bring to mind that most terrifying of security threats: killer plants. If, like me, you grew up in the 1990s, then your childhood nightmares may well have been inspired by that harrowing chronicle of vegetal threat, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which documented a gang of tomatoes that ‘came alive’ for the purpose of terrorizing and killing humans.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was, of course, a silly programme based on an even sillier premise – except in one crucial sense. Namely, it captured and satirized the widespread terror of ‘natural’ beings that breach the boundaries set for them by humans. This fear – paranoia even – is alive and well in today’s media.

Pest Invasion

For instance, did you know that the Northern hemisphere is currently experiencing an ‘invasion’ of terrifying ‘crop pests’? According to a Guardian article from September 2, 2013, a diverse group of these invaders (including insects such as pine beetles and rice blast fungus) are advancing north at the rate of 1.7 miles per year, carried through the transport of agricultural goods and by the weather. By raising temperatures in northerly regions, the article claims, climate change has made these areas more attractive to unwanted, ‘Southern’ migrants. It’s a good thing for those who feel threatened by migration that humans aren’t similarly affected by rising temperatures (oh, wait…)

Why are the movements of these fungi and beetles such a concern for international security? According to the article, ‘pests’ of this kind destroy crops, leading to loss of the amount of food needed to feed  8.5% of the world’s population. This prompts Professor Sarah Gurr from the University of Exeter to state that we need to “monitor the spread of crop pests and to control their movement from region to region if we are to halt the relentless destruction of crops across the world”.

Attack of the killer Slugs

Photo by Brintam licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

As if that wasn’t bad enough, this year the UK also had to contend with an invasion of what the Guardian termed ‘giant killer slugs’. Apparently, “the gardens and fields of Britain were saved from a grim invasion this spring”, in which “millions of giant Spanish slugs… threatened to devastate plants across the country”. In the UK, it suggests, the slugs could have destroyed gardens and damaged the economy by munching on  crops. This time, the temperamental climate was on ‘our side’: unseasonably cold weather killed large numbers of the baby slugs before they could wreak havoc on our lawns.

However, the report suggests that these ‘voracious Spanish slugs’ “may soon make an unwelcome return to our shores”. In response, Dr. Ian Bedford has created the website Slugwatch, which helps people to identify pleasant, hard-working British slugs (which help with composting and make good food for ‘native species, and of which only four of thirty species are considered to be ‘pests’) from these foreign invaders and to report them to scientists to be tracked and controlled.  (These scientists might also consider designing wheel barrows with the words ‘Go home’ emblazoned on the side). Bedford urges the public to mobilize around this threat because, as he points out, bad weather has only saved us from the slug siege ‘for the time being’.

ASBO Wasps

These kinds of threats, however, do not only come from external migrants, but also from the UK’s own underclass species. Take, for example, the spate of attacks on innocent British picnickers by ‘drunk and jobless wasps’, as reported by The Independent on 4 September, 2013. Having completed their dronely duties, male “worker wasps now have nothing to do but laze around getting drunk on fermenting fruit”. Hopped up on the sweet stuff and drawn by the smell of food, they attack and sting unsuspecting humans. According to a response on the Guardian’s Environment Blog, the same cold spring that saved us from the killer slug attack kept wasps in hibernation for longer than usual, unleashing them on us in the late days of summer. As in the case above, the extermination company Rentokil (whom I’m sure are motivated solely by a sense of civic duty) have set up the website UK Wasp Watch. The site encourages people to tweet sightings of wasps and displays the results in an interactive, thermal colour-coding (e.g. red for wasp ‘hotspots’) showing sightings across the UK and, oddly, the Netherlands.

Photo by bluebus licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Photo by bluebus licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

But these creatures are not without their defenders. Stuart Roberts, Chairman of the Bees, Wasps and Ants recording society, claims that what the Rentokil map shows is actually people’s intolerance of wasps, rather than the threat of an impending crisis.  Our problem with wasps, he claims, “is that they have a sting and are aggressive in defence, but honeybees behave the same way. And so do humans.” Roberts also defends wasps by arguing that they play the important role of “slaughter[ing] insects” like caterpillars and flies which wreck our gardens.  In other words, the wasps are on our side in the fight against violent (in)sects.

Roberts also points out that we are much kinder to honeybees, which have become a cause celebre of late, featuring in more than one award-winning documentary. Honeybees are recognized as the silent, compliant labouring class which fertilizers the human food supply. But they are also linked to our survival: the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder has long featured in neo-apocalyptic narratives about human extinction. The moral of this story is that we’ll tolerate the creatures that are on ‘our side’ in the fight against violent attackers or mass extinction, but no others.

Securitization gone wild

Each of these three news reports securitizes the movements of particular creatures. That is, it identifies these beings as threats to human lives (or lifestyles), frames the threats as an urgent problem and tries to mobilize the public to act in ways that will constrain them. Securitization is intended to prompt swift, reactive responses to threats. By making these threats seem severe and urgent, it dulls our awareness of nuances and other possibilities, and masks the often disturbing ideas that drive it. The securitization of the ‘pests’, slugs and wasps reflects two troubling issues.

Border control

First, it expresses and condones the notion that humans are separated from ‘nature’ by an invisible border, and that any breaches of this border by the latter are of the gravest concern. Just as borders and regimes of domestic security are intended to protect the territorial boundaries of states, in these examples, ‘humanity’ is treated like a kind of meta-state whose role is to contain, constrain and arrest ‘nature’. As Sarah Whatmore argues, humans maintain a colonial form of domination over ‘nature’ by classifying, controlling and commodifying the creatures we place within it.

Whilst the creatures brought under our control seem more or less harmless, those that remain outside of its scope are consigned to ‘wildness’, and pose a constant threat to the sphere of ‘civilization’. But this border only opens one-way. That is, humans are happy to intervene in ‘nature’ – for instance, by tweaking the genetic structures of plants and animals – as long as this helps to guarantee that we are safe and well-fed. But we’re terrified if plants or animals that might alter our habitats or change our lifestyles move into what we regard as ‘our territory’ (land cultivated by humans) or threaten the species with which we identify.

This line of thinking relies on severe inside/outside distinctions between the human and nonhuman. As we can see from the examples above, the creatures causing all the fuss are not only treated as menaces because they are nonhuman or ‘wild’, but also because they are considered to be out of place. As Tim Cresswell has argued, pejorative terms like ‘weed’ (or, in the cases above, ‘pest’) signify that a particular being has transgressed the borders of ‘nature’ into realm of ‘humanity’. These beings are uninvited, uncultivated and undesired. They threaten to crowd out the ‘proper’ or valued inhabitants of a space. They also raise the spectre of multiplication by breeding prolifically and spreading across space, undermining existing patterns of order as they move.

In each example above, the creatures in question represent alien others: the ‘southern’ pests, the ‘Spanish’ slugs, or the tardy, lazy ‘worker bees’ interrupting middle-class picnics. These unwanted ‘invaders’ threaten to destroy the economy and access to resources for those deemed to be ‘native’ species (human and otherwise). According to this viewpoint, they need to be separated from desirable species, and these latter creatures need to be actively and vigilantly protected from them.

Most importantly, perhaps, their presence and movement reflects just how poor human systems of control are at constraining ‘nature’ which, from the examples above, seems to be an untrustworthy ally – in fact, a volatile double agent.

I hardly need to point out the parallels between these kinds of attitudes and the current spike in public vitriol against immigrants (‘legal’ or otherwise), economic migrants, the working or jobless poor and the looming problem of climate-related migration. If anything, these examples show us that xenophobia is, for much of the UK public, an idea that crosses species (if only we could be so egalitarian in our ethical stances towards other species). But this is not always starkly obvious: the same person who claims to be open-minded about the needs of the poor might experience visceral disgust at the idea of a slug ‘invasion’. And the two ideas are not that far apart.  By urging  a privileged group (in this case, humans and their favoured species)  to ‘close ranks’ when they feel threatened, this impulse entrenches deep and arbitrary divisions between beings.

Fear of change

The other element that comes across clearly in the securitization of these creatures is the human fear of change. Each of the examples above suggests that the movement of living things will alter the world to which we are accustomed. ‘New’ species may appear where they were never seen before, and in some cases, they might harm the species to which we’ve grown attached. They might also breed with these species, creating new hybrids (something else with which Westerners are typically squeamish, according to Latour). In any case, the movement of creatures signals future change, and suggests – as in the case of ‘pest invasion’- that changes already under way are beginning to take effect. Climate change, in particular, threatens to transform the face of the earth in ways that will make it increasingly inhospitable to humans and the species with which they identify. In the wake of the recent IPCC report, the picture seems both grim and inevitable.

This is typical of the kind of thinking that securitization promotes: black and white, pessimistic and often neo-apocalyptic. It treats the future as a dire given, leaving no space to consider alternatives. But even in the case of climate change, not all transformations will be bad, at least not for all beings.

A recent study by Chris D. Thomas, published in Nature, suggests that human-induced climate change may actually increase bio-diversity. Movements and migrations of the kinds described above may help to enrich ecosystems without necessarily disadvantaging the species regarded as ‘native’. According to Thomas, evolutionary origination is also accelerating in human-made surroundings. This means that species are evolving, diverging, hybridizing and even speciating at a higher rate.

Thomas calls attempts to control and suppress these processes – such as the campaigns described above or the European Commission’s plans to regulate species introduced to new places by humans – an ‘unwinnable war’. But it is also, he claims, quite often an irrational one. As he puts it,

“The response of people who find themselves ‘invaded’ by such ‘displaced’ species is often irrational. Deliberate persecution of the new — just because it is new — is no longer sustainable in a world of rapid global change”

The upshot of this study is a powerful idea: that the future will not look like the past, or the present. Species will change and intermingle. Human reliance on particular resources will have to change – so, we may need to look for different food sources just as we are pursuing alternative forms of energy production. At the same time, ‘new’ or hybrid species may emerge  and interlink with other species in ways that we can’t predict based on existing knowledge.

Instead of clamping down and participating in the fantasy of control, we need to think more openly about the drawbacks and benefits – for us, and for other beings – of these transformations. And we also need to be flexible, creative and imaginative when thinking about our role in a rapidly changing world instead of treating all change as a harbinger of doom.

This is the kind of attitude we should towards the mobilizations and migrations that take place around us, whether human or otherwise. Thomas is not a climate change apologist or denier, nor does his study gloss over the harms that might occur to humans and other species as a result of climate change. But he also refuses to deny the fact that the world is in a constant state of formation and transformation – some of which is very positive.

This way of thinking is necessary if we are to resist the narrow-minded, xenophobic, reactionary thinking that the stories above exemplify. Yes, the world is changing and, yes, we humans will have to accept that different kinds of beings will enter and alter ‘our’ worlds. But, as Thomas’ work suggests, this is not  necessarily something to be afraid of.


Who are you callin’ a drone? On hating robots and hating humans

Photo by asterix611 licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Photo by asterix611 licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

On 2 October, 2013, a small ‘recreational aircraft’ equipped with a camera crashed into a pylon near the Sydney harbour bridge, prompting an investigation involving the civil aviation authorities and the counter-terrorism unit. The vehicle was a quadcopter , a kind of machine often used by researchers and hobbyists to record video footage. The next day, across the globe in Manhattan, another quadcopter crashed into a busy street, nearly striking a pedestrian – and bearing with it a clear image of its operator, who was subsequently arrested on charges of reckless endangerment.

While the Australian investigation continues at the time of writing, there is no indication that either of these robots was being used for anything other than recreational purposes. Certainly, both incidents posed a threat to public safety and broke civil aviation rules, but this level of threat could just as easily have been caused by the malfunctioning of a remote-controlled toy or hot-air balloon (not to mention a crash between ‘manned’ vehicles). They were a far cry from the lethal strikes carried out by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by the US over Pakistan and Yemen.

Yet both episodes were reported as ‘drone crashes’ and framed as harbingers of a future dominated by rampant ‘drone attacks’.

The ‘d’ word

It’s easy to understand why journalists use this language. The word ‘drone’ immediately invokes an image of deadly, terrifying, soulless machines, of the aptly named Predators and Reapers increasingly used by Western states to conduct the ‘war against terror’. Indeed, many automated robots – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in particular – carry out lethal strikes from a distance of thousands of miles, or force civilians to live in conditions of constant anxiety.

And still others deliver cakes and pizzas, help football teams to hone their technique, or take part in dance performances. Calling all of these creatures ‘drones’ is a very bad idea.

In a recent blog post, Keven Gosztola argues that we should emphatically use the word ‘drone’ to draw attention to the rise of robotic warfare and its implications for civil liberties and human rights. Reporting on a ‘drone and aerial robotics’ conference held in New York, he states that many delegates refused to use the term, opting instead for technical terms such as ‘remotely-piloted aircraft’.

Echoing Carol Cohn’s pioneering work on nuclear euphemisms, he suggests that these highly technical names mask the lethal purposes of many militarized robots. Usually, he suggests, these names are used by people with ties to the military, law enforcement, defence contractors or businesses, who have vested interests in turning a blind eye to the moral implications of their work.Others, he argues, refrain from using this word because it contributes to public criticism which might undermine national security or express sympathy towards ‘terrorists’.

Gosztola’s conclusion is that we should use the ‘d word’, and do so deliberately, as a means of critiquing the military-industrial complex and its ever more efficient ways of killing. I agree with him, but with an important caveat: we should use this term, but we should use it precisely. That is, we should use it to refer to those robots designed and/or deployed to carry out lethal strikes and surveillance by governments or non-state actors. But we should be extremely careful about applying it to anything else, for several reasons.

Preserving the political power of ‘buzz’ words

The most obvious reason is that calling all robots ‘drones’ dilutes the normative force of the term. As Gosztola’s article points out, the term ‘drone’ is a buzzword (no pun intended) whose power lies in its ability to generate immediate fear and revulsion, which might in turn translate into outrage and public action. ‘Buzzword’ need not be a derogatory term. Instead, it can refer to a term that evokes passionate emotions and channels political action.  However, like all buzzwords, it loses its force if it is applied to anything and everything that moves mechanically. If it is used to refer to all robots, or to robots that might, hypothetically, be used in violent ways, then it will be stretched so far as to be meaningless. In this case, arguments about ‘drones’ will collapse into endless debates about the inability to distinguish between, let alone regulate, technologies that could be used either for harmless or beneficial purposes or for killing (military or otherwise).

Robots don’t kill people – people do

This raises another issue: the term ‘drone’ suggests that there is something monstrous about the machines themselves. But the problem is not robotic technology – rather, it is with the people who use it and their reasons for doing so. There is not (yet) any such thing as a fully autonomous robot, let alone one capable of developing a personality with traits such as sadism or malevolence. These qualities remain, for now at least, distinctly human.

Indeed, all of the machines discussed above fall into the categories of human-in-the-loop and human-on-the-loop systems. So what turns these machines into efficient ‘killers’? The clue is in the name. Robotic systems may assist in selecting targets and may, in the near future, do so with minimal or no human input. But currently and for the foreseeable future it is humans who determine whether a robot is used for counter-insurgency or to monitor endangered orang-utan populations.

In this sense, there is nothing inherently evil about robots. Rather, the problem is that these robots are dominated and instrumentalized by humans, who use them to kill and oppress other humans. There is no reason to believe that fully autonomous robots would, without human interference, behave violently towards humans or any other set of beings unless humans programmed them to do so (see below). So, using the term ‘drone’ to describe robots lets humans off the hook, using machines as scapegoats for the human capacities for violence, destruction strategic killing.

Hating robots, hating humans (and other beings)

Photo by nebarnix licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic.

Photo by nebarnix licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic.

This brings us to a final, and perhaps less obvious, reason why we shouldn’t call all robots ‘drones’: doing so promotes robot hatred. The term ‘drone’ works as a buzzword because it taps into a deep and widespread human fear. The simple fact is, a lot of us are terrified by robots. We assume that there is something about them that poses an existential threat to us. But I think that this has a great deal more to do with humans than it does with the robots in question.

One explanation for this is quite simple: we are terrified of things that are unlike us. Robots are, for the most part, made of metals, plastics and other inorganic compounds. They are not alive in the strict, biological sense that underpins Western science. They don’t possess the kinds of emotional, cognitive or normative restraints that we expect our fellow humans to have, and on the basis of which we predict their behaviour. The standard argument is that humans are hard-wired to care for beings that are like them and neglect or, at worst, harm those that are unlike them. Extrapolating from this idea, many humans fear that, given the chance, robots would run amok killing every human in sight. There is a deep irony in this argument: we assume that the robots would harm us because they are radically different from us. Yet this leap of logic requires us to project onto ‘robots’ a notoriously human pattern of behaviour:  hostility to others on the basis of difference. In other words, we fear robots precisely because they might act like we do.

However, we are also terrified by the similarities between ourselves and certain kinds of robots. Some robots encroach on territory that humans have long regarded as ‘ours’. By moving independently or self-repairing, some robots undermine the human belief that we are the only truly autonomous beings. When they make use of algorithmic decision-making to pathways for movement, predict obstructions to their movement or identity things in their environment, they undermine the idea that ‘intelligence’ is the unique preserve of humans (other sentient organisms also raise this issue). Robots with certain capacities for human-like behaviour expose and transgress the boundaries humans set up in order to distinguish themselves from other beings and to cement their dominance (for a useful discussion of this, see Jairus Grove’s work).

It gets even more complicated than this. Robots aren’t just a useful foil for human nature. They also represent the things we find disgusting or repugnant in ourselves. In fact, it’s on the basis of these very properties that humans ‘humanize’ themselves, and ‘dehumanize’ others (whether humans or nonhumans). We do this through the process of abjection, in which we form an identity by rejecting the aspects of ourselves that both repel and compel us.

Abjection plays an important role in dehumanization. According to the social-psychological theory of infra-dehumanization, people make subconscious decisions about whether or not a being is human by assessing different sets of properties. ‘Human nature’ properties (which are also possessed by a number of non-humans) include warmth, responsiveness and autonomous agency. ‘Human uniqueness’ properties include ‘refined emotions’, self-control and moral responsibility. If a being is deemed to be low in ‘human uniqueness’ properties, the theory suggests, we treat it like a nonhuman animal. And if it’s thought to be low in ‘human nature’ properties, we treat it like a robot. In other words, one of the main ways we dehumanize is by treating certain beings like robots.

Here’s where abjection gets dangerous. According to the logic of dehumanization, this kind of self/other thinking creates a sharp divide between the beings which are treated as subjects of ethical consideration, and those that aren’t. It encourages humans to dispose of those beings deemed to be nonhuman in instrumental ways –  that is, to subject them to violence, harm or destruction if they threaten us or are simply useful in meeting our needs.

This logic underpins racism, xenophobia and other inside/outside distinctions that enable humans to kill with impunity. According to theorists of dehumanization, it is precisely this cognitive process that has made mass genocide and mass killing (of humans and other animals)  both thinkable and do-able.

This brings us to another irony: dehumanizing others enables us to kill with the cold, calculating sense of impunity of which we deeply suspect robots.

By treating all robots as (potential) ‘drones’ – that is, as inhuman and dehumanizing monsters – we cement the self/other logic described above. We also over-generalize,  demonizing robots unnecessarily and treating each robot as a threat to our humanity. The use of robots by humans to target civilians from afar and surveil populations almost certainly is a threat of this kind. But the simple existence of robots with various levels of autonomy is not.

The ‘d’ word is for dissent – not demonization (or doomsday predictions)

So, from this perspective, hating robots is deeply linked with hating humans, and with hating aspects of humanity. I’m not arguing that robot-phobia will convert the average person into a genocidal killer. Nor am I suggesting that we should all welcome companion robots into our homes or mourn the loss of robots destroyed in combat. And I’m certainly not claiming that hatred of robots is equivalent to hating humans in moral terms (that is a whole other can of worms). What I’m suggesting is that invoking the word ‘drone’ to describe any and every robot encourages this kind of self/other dichotomy, and the myth of absolute human superiority that it underwrites.

I do, however, think that robot-hatred can have an effect on how we treat humans and other beings. Elaine Scarry argues that exposure to things we find beautiful can evoke in humans a response of empathy and care that we then extend further in our relation to other people and things. I suspect that the reverse is also true. That is, if we allow or celebrate hatred of an entire set of other beings and normalize this kind of thinking, then it is likely to shape our ethical relations with all kinds of others – humans included.

Photo by strangejourney licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Photo by strangejourney licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

From this perspective, if the term ‘drone’ helps to raise awareness and mobilize dissent against the instrumentalization of robots for extra-judicial killings and surveillance, then it should be used in these cases, as Gosztola suggests, to bolster public critique of the use of force. It should not be used as a blanket term to whip up generalized anti-robot fervour or to stoke public panics about  a future (and present) shared with robots.

Fear and outrage at drone warfare – that is, the systematic use of robots for killing and suppression – is rational, warranted and utterly crucial to contemporary political debates. But the fear of robots in general is just another narrow-minded expression of our own insecurities about being human.

Lost worlds: the Guarani-Kaiowa confront mundicide


Photo (‘Alone in the dark’) by Samchio licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 Generic. This picture shows deforestation undertaken to make way for sugar cane farming.

According to a recent report by the NGO Survival, the Guarani- Kaiowa tribe of Brazil faces one of the highest suicide rates in the world.  Indeed, in 2012, it was reported that the entire tribe threatened to commit suicide after a court ruled that they must leave their sacred land. This epidemic of self-harm has been linked to the destruction of the landscapes the Guarani- Kaiowa hold sacred and have traditionally inhabited. Much of this land has been sold for the purposes of ranching, sugar cane farming and the production of biofuels – all of which require the destruction of ancient forests and their ecosystems.  Many landowners have hired armed security guards to deter members of the tribe from returning to the land. Thousands of Guarani- Kaiowa have been moved to crowded camps fraught by violence, where they face high rates of depression and alcoholism.

How can we understand harm of this kind? It goes far beyond the loss of ‘land’. What the Guarani- Kaiowa are suffering from is not simply the absence of a set of resources for production and consumption, or a source of ‘livelihood’ (the way the courts understand it). They are also severed from relationships that they had with this land, its other living inhabitants and its inanimate features.  These relationships gave rise to distinctive ways of life, whose histories were inscribed into the earth, trees and bodies of the people and animals who lived there.

A recent article claims that we might frame this situation as a ‘silent genocide’. But genocide is not quite the right term, and not only because this kind of harm fails to meet its basic legal criteria (for instance, the intention to destroy a people). It is also, in another sense, not extensive enough,
because it refers specifically to the destruction of human groups. That is, it presumes that groups of humans can be destroyed in isolation from the complex worlds in which they are embedded, and which they co-constitute with other beings.  What the Guarani- Kaiowa are confronted with is not only the loss of a people, but also the loss of a world.

Indeed, the article goes on to quote Mary Nolan, a US nun and human rights lawyer, who argues that  “the Guarani people think their relationship with the universe is broken when they are separated from their land”.  This framing of the situation  – as the destruction of an irreducible, intricate, unique whole – comes much closer to expressing the kind of harm in question. Indeed, the author states, “many in the community cosmologically interpret their situation as a symptom of the destruction of the world”.

This is a very astute observation (and it’s not every day that journalists write about cosmology). The destruction of ‘world’ is not just about damage to ecosystems or the removal of land rights. It involves the destruction of the conditions of being that make being on earth what it is.

In his book Being Singular Plural, Jean-Luc Nancy argues that the term ‘world’ does not denote a planet or a social construct. Rather, ‘world’ refers to conditions of ‘being-together’ with multiple kinds of beings.  Each form of being exists only in relation to others, and no particular form of being has ontological primacy. In fact, as Nancy puts it, we would not be ‘humans’ if there were not ‘dogs’ or ‘stones’. From this perspective, worldliness is a state in which radically diverse kinds of beings co-constitute each other and form collectives that cannot be reduced or disaggregated.

If we understand worlds in this way, it is impossible to imagine harm like that faced by the Guarani tribe occurring just to humans – or, for that matter, to any other set of beings. Instead, it is the conditions of worldliness that are harmed or destroyed. For this very reason, Nancy argues in his book The Sense of the World that we cannot understand genocide adequately if we think of it only as an attack on a people. Rather, he claims, it is an attempt to destroy the conditions of worldliness – “the putting to death of the world”.

This is precisely what is happening in south-western Brazil, and existing concepts of harm cannot capture it – not the loss of ‘land’ or territory, not the collapse of human rights, not even genocide. We need to call harms like this what they really are: mundicide, or the destruction of worlds. Only this term can capture the depth, complexity and irreplaceability of what is lost.

Pop apocalypticism: Bob Geldof and the End of the World


Photo by Celesteh licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Bob Geldof has recently claimed that the world will end – and soon, perhaps in the next 17 years. In an address to a summit of young people in Johannesburg, he warned that anthropogenic climate change could lead to ‘the end’. His speech was rife with neo-apocalyptic themes, including an arbitrary yet specific date for the end of the world and references to unspecified ‘signs’ of impending doom. Geldof presented himself as a kind of millenarian prophet, pronouncing judgment on humanity (let’s not forget the messiah-complex lyrics of his song ‘The End of the World’, in which he compares his prophecy to those of Buddha and Nostradamus).

Apocalyptic posturing like this is counter-productive if the goal is to inspire innovative action around climate change. On the contrary, it’s more likely to provoke a sense of despair and helplessness, resentment at previous generations and the damaged ‘world’ that threatens to snuff out humanity.

But what I find most jarring about Geldof’s claims is that he equates the end of the world with a ‘mass extinction’ event that will wipe out the human species. From this perspective, ‘the world’ will cease to exist if humans in their current form are not here to inhabit it.  Indeed, he claims that “The world can decide in a fit of madness to kill itself”. Given that the only subjects referred to in his speech are humans, we can only assume that the ‘it’ in this sentence is ‘humanity’, and that the self-destruction of humanity is the destruction of the world. The idea that ‘humanity’ and ‘the world’ are co-extensive is a common and misleading one, and it is an example of anthropocentrism at its most extreme.

A great deal of the discourse on climate change is oriented towards protecting ‘humans as we know them’ and maintaining their ways of life. But the truth is that ‘the world’ is not only human. The scope of evolution shows us that species come and go  – and, of course, evolve. Truly challenging thinking about how to cope with world-threatening events does not frame the end of ‘humanity as we know it’ as the end of the world, but rather as a shift into a different configuration of the world.

This is not necessarily a good thing for humans. And I am most certainly not suggesting that we should sit back and accept the destruction of humanity. But we need to use the possibility of humanity’s destruction as a prompt for thinking about multiple possible futures, not for mongering fear about certain and inevitable destruction. We are mired in international security discourses obsessed with uncertainty. Yet it is actually perceived certainties like the one Geldof professes that most suppress human action and ethical sensibilities. They do so by making all outcomes appear pre-determined and all attempts to change them pointless or unfeasible.

There is a need to talk about what the world will look like in the future as a result of destructive human action, and if/when humans (at least as we know them) may no longer exist.  This conversation is already going on in a number of places, not least the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.    In the public sphere, this discussion needs to focus on what the world might be like without humans, instead of assuming that it will be no more.

Thinking about the possibility of a (literally) post-human universe can help us better to understand what we mean by ‘human’ and what we want humanity’s role in the world to be. It can also help to set humans into context, placing us back into the broader sweep of geological time from which humanism has artificially removed our species.  

It may engender a more realistic sense of human capabilities, putting human agency into perspective by juxtaposing it with much larger forces and events and encouraging us to think about how our agency might be combined with these forces in more positive ways. And, by forcing us to think about a world where we don’t exist but other beings do, it can help us to cultivate humility in relation to other beings and ways of life.

At its very best, thinking about the end of ‘humanity as we know it’ it can cause humans to imagine creative ways of responding in the face of the loss, destruction and radical finitude. The pangs of melancholy or anticipated loss can help us to engage with the world with a greater sense of attachment and respect. Awareness of finitude and the massive scale of time can help us better to value and attend to the conditions that we cherish.

All of these things are likely to lead to a sense of commitment to the world that can inspire creative action.  They offer much stronger for inspiring action  because they are based on positive affective attachments rather than nihilism and fear.  

In other words, a little bit of apocalyptic thinking can be a good thing – and it may be necessary if humans are to make even a minimally adequate response to the large-scale harms to which they have contributed so much.

The problem with Geldof’s brand of pop apocalypticism is that it backs humans into a corner. Claiming that the world will end within 17 years makes human action seem impossible or at least ineffective.

It also entrenches the fantasy of human agency as the dominant force in the universe. Indeed, Geldof calls on his audience to respond to their impending demise by being ‘more human’ – that is, by reasserting human agency. It is precisely this kind of anthro-instrumental logic that closes humans to meaningful connections with other beings and underwrites their destructive consumption of the world.

On the other hand, an outlook that entirely denies the possibility of human extinction can focus human thinking too narrowly on short-term , small-scale efforts. This outlook fails to push human thought and ethics to its borders, and therefore is likely to produce conservative and uncreative responses.

So it’s important to hold the idea of human extinction suspended in our minds as a contingency, in two senses: as one possibility among many, and as a point from which many possibilities may emerge.

Ironically, this may be the only way to generate the ethically-infused action needed to protect humans and the many other kinds of beings with whom we form a world. To do this, we need to contemplate the end of ‘humanity as we know it’ without treating it as the end of the world.

What have the humans ever done for us?

Photo by neeravbhatt licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Photo by neeravbhatt licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

…Or, Why I Changed My Mind About Anthropocentrism in International Ethics

I’ve spent the last year or so trying to develop a concept of harm that encompasses diverse nonhumans and the collectives they form. Up until very recently, I thought that anthropocentrism was the major obstacle to this goal. In fact, here’s me saying as much in a video produced for my department’s research blog. It seems like a simple enough argument: anthropocentrism stunts the potential for ethical responsiveness and entrenches human domination. Some of the most interesting work in broadly ‘posthumanist’ critiques of IR and security reflect this belief. Martin Coward stakes his work on urbicide explicitly ‘against anthropocentrism’, arguing that built environments and objects can be targets of harm in their own right. Robyn Eckersley argues that anthropocentrism is the most important factor that stops humanitarian regimes from taking account of ‘ecocide’, or the destruction of species and ecosystems. In a recent article, Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden argue that anthropocentrism not only entrenches a false separation between humans and other kinds of beings, but also obscures the diversity of the human species. Influential  ‘new materialist’ scholars like Jane Bennett and William Connolly suggest that nonhumans have the potential to shape complex phenomena. That is, nonhumans have ‘actancy’ (in Bruno Latour’s language)  or contribute to emergent forms of causality that far exceed human agency and control. IR scholars who have adopted this approach show how nonhumans – whether weapons or ‘critical infrastructure’ shape how international security functions (or, indeed, how it malfunctions).

Either way, the argument suggests, being anthropocentric leads to wilful blindness about the well-being of other kinds of beings – and, ultimately, to destructive actions and events.

The problem is, anthropocentrism is quite a difficult position to escape, a problem I confronted early on in my research on ‘worldly’ security ethics. I shared my work with some colleagues who specialize in analytic philosophy, particularly in the areas of environmental ethics and animal rights. You can always count on this lot to ask pesky questions such as ‘OK, but what kind of being is asking these questions about ethics?’ or ‘an entirely open ethical system sounds great, but how would it work in a system that relies on categories?’ And they usually have a point. Every tactic I tried – arguing for an ethics that was totally open to all kinds of beings, or for a co-constitutive ontology – started or ended with a human viewpoint. Plus, at the end of the day, if an ethical system is going to shape security practices, it needs to have some basic categories and restrictions, which are created by and designed for (you guessed it) humans. So, it looks as if we’re stuck with anthropocentrism.

But is this necessarily a bad thing? That depends very much on what kind of anthropocentrism we’re talking about. There are, in fact, several forms of anthropocentrism, some of which preclude an open ethics, and others which do not.


What people normally mean when they say ‘anthropocentrism’ is a specific logic that I call ‘anthro-instrumentalism’. This is an ethical standpoint that assigns value to nonhumans only if they are instrumentally useful to humans – which, for the most part, means if we can eat, drink or breathe them, live in/on them, be inspired by them, make something out of them and/or sell them to other humans. It relies on what Latour calls the ‘Great divide’: the ontological barrier set up between humans and everything (everyone?) else.

Within this logic, the only reason that humans should protect nonhumans is because the latter can make human life better. This leads to the belief that any human need – no matter how trivial – is worth more than any nonhuman need. So, for instance, human demands for luxury or entertainment are prioritized above the survival and non-suffering of animals.

This form of anthropocentrism also promotes zero-sum thinking. It treats human care and attention as a scarce commodity, and suggests that paying attention to nonhumans necessary diverts attention away from humans. The nightmare scenario for proponents of this belief is that we might adopt an ethical system that gives nonhumans equal or even higher priority than humans – for instance, by refraining from eliminating viruses that might wipe out large groups of humans.

The fear that such scenarios strike into the hearts of humanists is very useful in drumming up support for anthro-instrumental policies, such as human security. Human security frames the human individual as the absolute subject of security and the ultimate recipient of protection. It is focused on producing autonomous, individual humans buoyed up by physical health, a clean ‘environment’, the ability to participate fully in economic and social life and integrity of the person and her cultural milieu.

Producing and sustaining this kind of ‘secured’ human demands a great many ‘resources’: the materials produced and traded in the economy; the plants and nonhuman animals that are cultivated and killed for food; the production of bio- or chemical compounds as medicine and the destruction of bacteria. And let’s not forget the  fuels, plastics, metals, chemicals and other materials used to create the weapons that protect and enforce physical security.

According to the norm of human security, all of these beings can and must be instrumentalized if the individual human is to be protected and its potential maximized. So even though nonhumans are the namesakes of various dimensions of security, they are not its referent objects – humans are. For example, ‘environmental security’ is not about protecting the ‘environment’ in its own right, but rather about protecting the ‘resources’ humans need to sustain the specific form of life discussed above. So, this kind of anthropocentrism is clearly an unsuitable basis for an ethics aimed at protecting collectives of diverse kinds of beings.

Weak anthropocentrism

But being human – and thinking, acting or feeling like a human – does not necessarily stop one from adopting an open ethical stance. Eugene Hargrove has argued that anthropocentrism can’t be reduced to the kind of anthro-instrumental logic I’ve described above. It simply refers to a perspective that arises from being human, and it can take many forms. Hargrove explores four of them:

i) anthropocentric instrumental value (as described above)
ii) non-anthropocentric instrumental value (the instrumental value that nonhumans – animals and plants, say – have for each other);
iii) non-anthropocentric intrinsic value (the value that nonhumans have, independent of human judgment)
iv)anthropocentric intrinsic value (value attributed by humans to nonhumans, regardless of the latter’s usefulness to the former).

According to Hargrove, the first form of value is too narrow for the reasons I’ve suggested. But he also claims that humans can’t appreciate the second and third forms – we can only, at best, imagine what it is like to be another form of being. So, from this perspective, our best bet is to embrace the fourth form of value and harness human capabilities like agency, affect and the capacity for rational thought as a means of opening our ethical responses to other kinds of beings.

This is actually a very promising basis for a conception of ethics that is open to the more-than-human. And, it turns out, it is the ethical stance that lies at the heart of many of the approaches that claim to oppose ‘anthropocentrism’. For example, Coward’s work (mentioned above) argues that urban spaces should be protected in their own right because they are embodiments of the conditions of radical plurality that make us human. So, the rationale for opposing urbicide is that this form of violence is an attack on ‘humanity itself’. This argument comes from an unmistakably human perspective –but that doesn’t mean that it is ignorant of, or indifferent to, nonhumans.

Many new materialisms are also weakly anthropocentric. Their proponents aim to overhaul the concept of agency to include the quasi-agential properties or actancy of many other kinds of beings and assemblages of them. But when it comes to ethics, new materialism invokes human values, experiences, emotions and forms of agency as means for responding to harms to nonhumans. For instance, when Connolly highlights the need to ‘mobilize actions and ethical sensibilities’ to counter destructive phenomena such as climate change, he doesn’t appeal to buildings, machines or animals (and certainly not deities). Instead, he calls on humans to draw on their ‘care for this world’ to induce changes in individual and group conduct, to apply pressure on international institutions, or to engage in artistic practices driven by gratitude. From this perspective, human agency is not the only game in town, but it is an important means for responding to threats that affect humans and the complex, heterogeneous worlds which they help to constitute.

So, anthro-instrumentalism is the real obstacle to a ‘worldly’ ethics, not anthropocentrism per se. There is nothing wrong with starting from a human viewpoint, as long as it is used as a basis for acknowledging and respecting alterity and not as a normative measuring-stick or a cordon sanitaire. And there is no problem with seeking to harness human agency as a means of response to harms, provided that it is seen as one contribution to complex  knots of causality that involve many other kinds of beings.

It also suggests that we should put more thought into how our (limited, and probably not exclusive) human capacities for rational thought, intentionality and directed agency are amplified through the actancy of other beings. For instance, the digital infrastructure of the internet is already used to mobilize social movements that have re-shaped physical and political landscapes in ways that exceed intentional, planned human agency.

So, for me, the challenge is to re-think the ‘anthro’ in weak anthropocentrism, framing it as a being that is fundamentally linked – ontologically, physically and ethically – with radically different beings. Perhaps ironically, weak anthropocentrism offers a platform  from which we can challenge – and change – what it means to be human and other-than-human.

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