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.