Extinction is not a metaphor…
Extinction has become an emblem of Western, and white-dominated, fears about ‘the end of the(ir) world’. This scientific term is saturated with emotional potency, stretched and contorted to embody almost any nightmare, from climate change to asteroid strikes. In academic and public contexts alike, it is regularly interchanged with other terms and concepts – for instance, ‘species death’, global warming or ecological collapse. Diffused into sublime scales – mass extinctions measured in millions of (Gregorian calendar) years, a planet totalized by the threat of nuclear destruction – ‘extinction’ has become an empty superlative, one that that gestures to an abstract form of unthinkability. It teases Western subjects with images of generalized demise that might, if it gets bad enough, even threaten us, or the figure of ‘humanity’ that we enshrine as a universal. This figure of ‘humanity’, derived from Western European enlightenment ideals, emphasizes individual, autonomous actors who are fully integrated into the global market system; who are responsible citizens of nation-states; who conform to Western ideas of health and well-being; who partake of ‘culture’; who participate in democratic state-based politics; who refrain from physical violence; and who manage their ‘resources’ responsibly (Mitchell 2014).
Oddly, exposure to the fear of extinction contributes to the formation and bolstering of contemporary Western subjects. Contemplating the sublime destruction of ‘humanity’ offers the thrill of abjection: the perverse pleasure derived from exposure to something by which one is revolted. Claire Colebrook detects this thrill-seeking impulse in the profusion of Western blockbuster films and TV shows that imagine and envision the destruction of earth, or at least of ‘humanity’. It also throbs through a flurry of recent best-selling books – both fiction and speculative non-fiction (see Oreskes and Conway 2014; Newitz 2013; Weisman 2008). In a forthcoming intervention, Noah Theriault and I (2018) argue that these imaginaries are a form of porn that normalizes the profound violences driving extinction, while cocooning its viewers in the secure space of the voyeur. Certainly, there are many Western scientists, conservationists and policy-makers who are genuinely committed to stopping the extinction of others, perhaps out of fear for their own futures. Yet extinction is not quite real for Western, and especially white, subjects; it is a fantasy of negation that evokes thrill, melancholy, anger and existential purpose. It is a metaphor that expresses the destructive desires of these beings, and the negativity against which we define our subjectivity.
But extinction is not a metaphor: it is a very real expression of violence that systematically destroys particular beings, worlds, life forms and the relations that enable them to flourish. These are real, unique beings, worlds and relations – as well as somebody’s family, Ancestors, siblings, future generations – who are violently destroyed. Extinction can only be used unironically as a metaphor by people who have never been threatened with it, told it is their inevitable fate, or lost their relatives and Ancestors to it – and who assume that they probably never will.
This argument is directly inspired by the call to arms issued in 2012 by Eve Tuck and Wayne K. Yang and more recently by Cutcha Risling-Baldy. The first, seminal piece demonstrates how settler cultures use the violence of metaphorical abstraction to excuse themselves from the real work of decolonization: ensuring that land and power is in Indigenous hands. Risling-Baldy’s brilliant follow-up extends this logic to explain how First People like Coyote have been reduced to metaphors through settler appropriation. In both cases, engagement with Indigenous peoples and their relations masks moves to innocence: acts that make it appear as if settlers are engaging in decolonization, while in fact we are consolidating the power structures that privilege us.
In this series, want to show how Western, and white-dominated, discourses on ‘extinction’ appear to address the systematic destruction of peoples and other beings while enacting moves to innocence that mask their culpability and perpetuate structures of violence. As I argued in Part I of this series, extinction is an expression of colonial violence. As such, it needs to be addressed through direct decolonization, including the dismantling of settler colonial structures of violence, and the resurgence of Indigenous worlds. Following Tuck, Yang and Risling-Baldy’s lead, I want to show how and why the violences that drive extinction have come to be invisible within mainstream discourses. Salient amongst these is the practice of genocide against Indigenous peoples other than humans.
…it is literally genocide.
What Western science calls ‘extinction’ is not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of desirable ‘human’ activities. It is an embodiment of particular patterns of structural violence that disproportionately affect specific racialized groups. In some cases, ‘extinction’ is directly, deliberately and systematically inflicted in order to create space for aggressors, including settler states. For this reason, it has rightly been framed as an aspect or tool of colonial genocides against Indigenous human peoples. Indeed, many theorists have shown that the ‘extirpation’ of life forms (their total removal from a particular place) is an instrument for enacting genocide upon Indigenous humans (see Mazis 2008; Laduke 1999; Stannard 1994). Specifically, the removal of key sources of food, clothing and other basic materials makes survival on the land impossible for the people targeted.
Nehiyaw thinker Tasha Hubbard (2014) makes a qualitatively distinct argument. She points out that the Buffalo are First People, the elder brothers of the Nehiyaw people (and other Indigenous nations – see Benton-Banai 2010). Starting in the mid-1800s, the tens of millions of buffalo that ranged across Turtle Island were nearly eliminated through strategic patterns of killing carried out by settler-state-sponsored military and commercial forces. Their killing was linked to governmental imperatives to clear and territorially annex the Great Plains by removing its Indigenous peoples. As Hubbard points out, methods of destroying buffalo herds included large-scale killing, but also the disruption of their social structures, the destruction of the ecosystems on which they rely, and the removal of calves. These acts involve each of the components of the definition of genocide enshrined in the UN Genocide Convention:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
From Hubbard’s viewpoint, rooted in Nehiyaw philosophy and ethical-legal principles, the systematic destruction of the buffalo is not like genocide, nor is it exclusively a tool for carrying out genocide against human peoples. It is genocide in its own right: an attempt to destroy a particular First People and the possibilities of its continuity. In other words, the deliberate and systematic attempt to eliminate the buffalo, enacted by settler states, simultaneously enacted genocide against Indigenous peoples and their nonhuman relatives.
Genocides of Indigenous peoples (human and otherwise) continue apace in contemporary settler states, transformed into multiple manifestations. For instance, they are integral to ‘biosecurity’ strategies designed to police the biological boundaries of these states and their citizens. Laced with racializing and xenophobic rhetoric (Subramaniam 2001), strategies such as culling or planned
eradications are intended to remove ‘invasive’ or ‘foreign’ life forms in order to protect ‘Native’ ones. Many of the ‘invasive’ life forms targeted for destruction were transported to unfamiliar lands through colonial patterns of settlement and global trade flows.
However, this logic of elimination (Wolfe 2006) is often perverted, turned against Indigenous* beings whose flourishing impedes the expansion or consolidation of the colonial state. For instance, Deborah Bird Rose (2011 a, 2011 b) shows how this form of violence is continually waged against flying foxes, who are framed by the settler state as “pest[s] whose extinction is [deliberately] sought”. This act of elimination involves explicit genocidal ideation, or the imagination of the destruction of a people. Rose characterizes it as a “matter of imagining a world without [dingoes or flying foxes], then setting out to create it” (Rose 2011a). The Australian settler state has used multiple tactics to induce terror and preclude flourishing amongst flying foxes, from the emission of high-pitched electronic signals to smearing trees with python excrement (Rose 2011b). Indeed, in 2014, I lived near to the roosting site of a group of flying foxes in Turrbal and Jagera Country (suburban Brisbane to settlers). Such nesting places are called ‘colonies’ , reflecting a Western scientific rhetoric that frames Indigenous peoples as ‘invaders’ of the settler state. The trees that housed the nesting site backed onto a municipal facility, whose fence had been covered with barbed wire, in which many of the bats snared their wings and starved to death. This ‘security’ measure – designed to protect the facilities relied upon by urban settlers from the intrusion of flying foxes – is a powerful weapon for precluding ongoing flourishing of Indigenous other-than-human peoples. I learned from neighbours that this ‘colony’ had previously been ‘moved’ from several other sites around the city, suffering significant declines in population each time. Indeed, despite reported declines of 95% in flying fox communities in Queensland and neighbouring New South Wales, the Queensland settler state legalized the shooting of the bats in 2012 by fruitgrowers.
Of course, in some cases, the elimination of life forms is not as targeted or intentional – it may take the form of land-based extractive violence, the creep of ocean acidification, the decimation of rainforests by climate change. Proponents of a Eurocentric definition of genocide could argue that these events lack intention. Indeed, within international law, intention to commit genocide is a necessary criteria for conviction. However, theorists of critical genocide studies have long argued that this definition is inadequate: it brackets out a great many of the acts, logics and structures that produce the destruction of unique peoples. According to Tony Barta, definitions of genocide that focus on ‘purposeful annihilation’, and in particular on physical killing, have “devalu[ed] all other concepts of less planned destruction, even if the effects are the same” (Barta 2000, 238). For this reason, he shifts the focus from ‘genocidal intention’ to ‘genocidal outcome’ – that is, from the abstract assignation of genocidal agency to the felt and embodied effects of eliminative violence. It is the focus on intent, he contends, that allows white Australians to imagine that their relationship with Aboriginal people is non-genocidal despite overwhelming evidence of systematic and deliberate racialized destruction over several centuries. In contrast, an approach based on ‘genocidal outcomes’ makes it possible to account for complex causality and weak intentionality – that is, for myriad acts mediated by subtle, normalized structures that, together, work to eliminate a people. I want to argue that the same logic applies to nonhuman peoples: the destruction of a life form, its relations with other beings and its possible futures is a genocidal outcome, whether or not intention can be identified.
Similarly, Christopher Powell (2007) argues that, since a ‘genos’ is a
“network of practical social relations, destruction of a genos means the forcible breaking down of those relationships…these effects could be produced without a coherent intent to destroy. They could result from sporadic and uncoordinated actions whose underlying connection is the production of a new society in which there is simply no room for the genos in question to exist. They might even result from well-meaning attempts to do good” (Powell 2007, 538)
As I have argued elsewhere, extinction is defined by the breaking of relations and the systematic destruction of the conditions of plurality that nurture co-flourishing worlds. Whether inflicted out as a deliberate act of extirpation, or as the convergent effect of eliminative logics expressed over centuries and enormous spatial scales, extinction is the destruction of relations and the heterogenous societies they nurture.
Understood in this way, ‘extinction’ is not a metaphor for genocide or other forms of large-scale violence: it is a distinct manifestation of genocide. Masking the genocidal logics that drive extinction involves several moves to innocence (Tuck and Yang 2012). Treating extinction as something short of genocide entrenches Eurocentric understandings of personhood that are limited to homo sapiens, which is itself an act of violence against these peoples. Ironically, the entrenchment of this dichotomy also enables the logic of ‘dehumanization’, in which human communities are likened to reviled nonhumans (for instance, cockroaches) in order to motivate violence against them. As I have argued elsewhere (Mitchell 2014), the logic of generalised ‘dehumanisation’ is uniquely effective in Western frameworks in which the lack of ethical status for beings other than humans removes obstacles to their mass destruction. Within worlds in which human and nonhuman persons are linked through complex systems of law, treaties, protocols and long-standing relations, this claim is illogical. Within Western settler states, however, it functions as a means of justifying ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples and their relations.
In addition, by framing extinction as a problem for a universal figure of ‘humanity’ (more on this to follow…) mainstream discourses of extinction obscure its profound entwinement with race and racializing structures. These examples make it clear that eliminative violence is targeted on specific groups of people and their other-than-human relations, as defined by the aggressors. Indeed, patterns of genocidal violence extend racializing categories, hierarchies and eliminative impulses to other-than-human peoples. Just as approaching gender violence separately from race effaces their intersection, understanding extinction as distinct from race is deeply misleading. This is not only because racialized people are more likely to suffer from the effects of ‘extinction’ and other forms of environmental racism (which they are). It is also because the eliminative violence that drives extinction extend and enact race beyond the category of homo sapiens by defining particular groups against white settler norms and as threats to the settler society. To approach extinction separately from issues of race is, therefore, to miss one of its most defining features.
Extinction is not a metaphor – in many cases, it is quite literally genocide enacted against Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human relations. To treat it as a metaphor is to obscure and participate in the structures of violence that drive it. From this perspective, in addition to active decolonisation efforts, and the resurgence of Indigenous peoples, addressing extinction also requires attacking the genocidal, racializing, eliminative logics that are diffused throughout settler (and other) states. It also requires honouring the unique relations, worlds and peoples that are targeted by these discourses and practices.
*In this context (referring to flying foxes and other non-human peoples), I use the term ‘Indigenous’ to refer to the historical inhabitation and co-constitution of a particular place, and enmeshment in meaningful relationships with the other beings that co-constitute that place. Within this perspective, life forms deemed ‘exotic’ or even ‘invasive’ in Western science could potentially become part of that place if accepted by, and in mutually beneficial relations with, existing communities. I use the term in contrast to narratives of ‘native’ or, sometimes ‘Indigenous’ species, which make dichotomous distinctions between those beings deemed to be ‘endogenous’ and ‘exogenous’.