Why IR theory needs to join the ‘extinction marathon’
“International theory is the theory of survival” – Martin Wight, 1960
Recently, the Serpentine gallery in London hosted a timely and boundary-pushing event that they called the ‘Extinction Marathon‘ (the title seems to nod to the subversive ‘extinctathon’ network of Margaret Atwood’s ‘extinction trilogy’ ). This event was the latest in a series of annual ‘marathons’ exploring important public issues – in this case, the impending/unfolding sixth mass extinction event. It included films and installations, performance art and philosophical texts. Its impressive programme, curated by artist and activist Gustav Metzger, was a roster of some of the most celebrated and ground-breaking artists, philosophers, writers, scientists, conservationists and campaigners working on the issue of extinction. Yet there was something missing from the list: not a single participant was a specialist in international relations (IR) theory.
This is clearly not because the Extinction Marathon’s organizers have it in for IR theorists or are deliberately excluding them. And I’m not insisting that every discipline must be ‘represented’ at every public event of this kind. On the contrary, the absence of IR specialists illustrates an important point: almost none of us are confronting the problem of mass extinction (a notable recent exception is the new book by Brad Evans and Julian Reid). For a field rooted in the concept of survival, this is a very odd blindspot indeed.
Mass extinction epitomizes ‘existential threat’ : it may involve the destruction of many (eventually all) forms of currently-existing earthly life. It undercuts the possibility of survival as a normative horizon and a practical goal. If this is not a problem for a discipline concerned with survival, I don’t know what is.
Throughout its trans-formations and fragmentations, IR theory has been deeply, if not primarily, concerned with survival – although the term carries many different connotations. Within realism (both classic and neo-) ‘survival’ most often refers to the integrity and stability of the state within a brutal, hostile and anarchic ‘state of nature’. Within the state of nature, the subject of survival – whether the individual human or the state – is preoccupied with finding ways to sustain its existence. For instance in Waltz’s neo-realist account, survival is the bottom line for states, and the ‘ground of all action’, without which no other goals would be possible. Similarly for Morgenthau, it is the desire for survival that drives the formation of all structures and constraints on human action, including morality. Indeed, Odysseos has argued that political realism is an “ethos of survival” – that is, a mode of relation to others based primarily on overcoming the threats they raise.
Despite the fact that it is usually associated with realism, ‘survival’ is actually one of the few concepts that links divergent theories across the gamut of IR. Perhaps most similar to the realist account of survival is its construal in constructivism. Much of Wendt’s ground-breaking argument about anarchy hinges on the survival of states and their ‘intersubjective conditions of existence’. Indeed, in this account, relations are not only sources of threat, but also of a state’s identity. Recent work on ‘ontological security’ in IR (see Mitzen 2006, Steele 2005 and Rumelili, 2014) invoke the idea of ‘state survival’ in the form of the stable identities of states formed through reasonably predictable relations with, and recognition by, other states.
Similarly, in the Copenhagen School’s key concept of ‘securitization’, “security means survival in the face of existential threat” (Buzan et al 1999,). Indeed, the referent object in situations of securitization is defined as a thing that is ‘existentially threatened and that [has] a legitimate claim to survival” . This marks an important transition in the meaning of ‘survival’ within IR discourses. For the Copenhagen School, a referent object need not be a state; it may be a social structure, an economy – or even an endangered species.
This shift in the subject of survival is strongly reflected in discourses on human security (rooted in liberalism) and emancipatory approaches to IR and security. For instance, Booth has famously described emancipatory approaches to security as a way to bring together Wight’s “theories of the good life” and “theories of survival”. In this vein, the 1994 UNDP human development report which introduced the term ‘human security’ into public discourses, hones in on the everyday survival needs of human individuals. Likewise, in a seminal report the Commission on Human Security describes human security as ‘empowerment to survive’. In both of these cases, ‘survival’ (glossed as physical existence) is ‘not enough’. It is the minimum requirement for a much wider range of goals: for instance, the self-realization of humans as autonomous, economically, socially and politically integrated, healthy, responsible individuals. But, despite the emphasis on these other goals, survival is no less important to these discourses.
The emphasis on survival is even more pronounced in biopolitical and resilience-oriented conceptions of security, both of which critique neo-liberalism. Within the former, the imperative to survive converges with the Marxian concept of ‘species-being’. That is, security interventions seek to manage the human species as a whole, largely through regulating the lives and deaths of specific human populations. In the context of resilience, the survival of these populations is juxtaposed with, and exposed prophylactically to, ‘catastrophes’ that threaten the existence of bio-governed life. Indeed, Aradau and Munster cite a FEMA document that classifies threats on a scale of emergency-disaster-catastrophe-extinction. This suggests that proponents of resilience are aware of the possibility of human extinction, and that, at least to some extent, they use it as a horizon for imagining the worst. And as Aradau contends, resilience discourses make no promise that humans will survive this threat. Instead, they produce a mode of existence in which security is impossible and a form of survival-without-security is the only future on offer.
This brief and highly-glossed romp through IR and security theory suggests that the concept of survival is not only integral to the foundations of the discipline, but is also alive and well (pun intended) in the most recent debates. Yet at no stage in the history of IR, and in none of these schools of thought, has there been an attempt specifically to theorize the condition that negates survival: extinction. Even at the height of Cold War strategy, aimed at preventing the devastation of life through nuclear warfare, the concept of extinction did not receive any special attention. If it is used at all in IR discourses, it is used either as a metaphor for the dissolution of states, or as a synonym for ‘mass killing’, ‘catastrophe’ or simply ‘the unimaginable’. Indeed, the idea that mass extinction is ‘unthinkable’ has helped to create a profound inarticulacy about it within IR debates.
One of the reasons why IR has been slow to enter the discussion of extinction is that this discipline is highly anthropocentric – that is, it tends to assume that only humans can be subjects of attention in their own right. That is, IR considers itself to be concerned with the survival of homo sapiens and its institutions. Of course, discourses on the sixth mass extinction are deeply concerned with the probabilities and possibilities of human extinction, which should attract the attention of even the most anthropocentric of IR scholars. But, for the most part, the term ‘extinction’ tends to invoke images of other species, whose survival (or not) is assumed to be the remit of scientists and artists. If nonhumans are addressed in IR discourses, it is most often as ‘resources’ to be sustained in order to ensure the continuation of particular modes of human life, and ‘extinction’ is filed away as a subdivision of ‘environmental security’, rather than a central issue for IR. Other disciplines – notably the humanities, anthropology, geography, literature, sociology and scientific fields such as ecology – have been questioning anthropocentrism for decades. More recently, an exciting wave of posthumanist IR (see, for instance here , here and here ) have begun to challenge the human/nonhuman dichotomy that underpins IR theory and practice. But there’s much more work to be done terms of shifting the parameters of IR theory if it is to become responsive to this phenomenon, which cuts right to its core.
IR theory needs to jump into the ‘extinction marathon’ – not the specific event discussed above, but rather the broader set of debates, discourses and interventions surrounding this issue. IR is a promising terrain in which to talk about extinction, not least because it is already oriented to debates about the meaning of ‘survival’ and could help us to think through what this concept means in an age of extinction. In addition, the increasingly global (rather than statist or inter-national) nature of IR means that it is focused on a scale that is calibrated to large-scale, complex events. Moreover, IR is already partially oriented towards planetary challenges such as climate change and global economic crises, so it offers a cognitive environment that would be (relatively) conducive to the scale and complexity of mass extinction. It is also deeply future-oriented (for better or for worse) and set up to foster discussions of future contingencies. As such, it can provide a distinctive set of intellectual and practical tools for imagining futures and responding ethically to a threatening present.
But perhaps most importantly, IR theory is one of the few disciplines that has made survival its centrepiece. If it can’t engage creatively with mass extinction – a profound challenge to Earthly survival – then its own survival as a means of navigating the present and future should be challenged.