Category Archives: Anthropocene

Can water go extinct?



Water, and its protectors, are fighting for survival. As I’m writing, the Supreme Court of Canada is hearing historic legal challenges from the Chippewas of the Thames and the Inuit of the Clyde River. The Chippewas are protesting the reversal of and increased flow along Enbridge’s Line 9, which transports oil through more than 100 waterways across southern Ontario and Quebec. The Inuit of the Clyde River, Nunavut, are protesting seismic testing by mining corporations that threatens to disrupt or displace marine life forms on which they rely. Both parties are presenting evidence that decisions on these extractive processes were made in violation of treaty rights.

A matter of hours before these cases were heard, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved two more major pipeline projects in British Columbia –  the Transmountain and Line 3 projects – that will vastly expand the amount of oil transported from the Alberta Tar Sands to global markets. These pipelines will also increase the exposure of the province’s rivers and coasts to the threat of chemical spills from the pipes themselves and increased tanker traffic, whose possible negative effects on marine life have not been sufficiently examined. 

The toxification of water in Canada, and especially in Aboriginal communities, is a constant threat to livelihoods and ways of life. Just a week before the Supreme Court Hearings, a report by the Toronto Star found that residents of Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (Grassy Narrows) Ontario, are consuming fish containing 13 times the acceptable levels of mercury. This is the ongoing and neglected legacy of the dumping of 10 tons of mercury into the Wabigoon River in the 1960s.

And of course, further south, one of the most remarkable social movements of the this generation is taking place. Militarized police forces are using water cannons, rubber bullets, barbed wire and old-fashioned physical violence to protect pipeline developers against thousands of water protectors, composed largely of members of the Sioux Nation and their allies, camped at Standing Rock. Whether in court, in the camp or in their own communities, water protectors are putting their bodies on the line to demonstrate that ‘water is life’.

If water is life, can it die, can it go extinct – and does this matter? At the moment, I am working to re-think mainstream accounts of extinction so that they better reflect the enormity of what is at stake. Standard biological definitions – ‘the death of every member of a species’ – are fraught with exclusions and constraints that, despite feverish rhetoric surrounding  a possible ‘sixth mass extinction event’, actually downplay the gravity of the situation. My (developing) ideas on global extinction are not conventional. I refuse to focus only on ‘species’ that are deemed to be ‘living’ within Western scientific frameworks of knowledge. Instead, I am examining how structures  of violence – in particular, colonial and extractive modalities – destroy the continuity of worlds and the co-constitution of the beings that create them.

From this perspective, global extinction is not just an ‘(unintended) effect’ emerging from the actions of ‘humans’ as a whole. Instead, it is a mode of structured destruction, a large-scale syndrome of combined violences concentrated in particular places and sustained by the efforts and power of particular groups of humans. These structures are uniquely global – and I don’t use this term to refer to a ‘neutral’ measure of scale. Rather, it reflects a particular mode of large-scale worlding, rooted in European images of an encompassing globe, that seeks to elide itself with earth (for more thoughts on this, check out last month’s post). These structures fracture worlds, protocols, life forms and collective continuities achieved amongst them.

If we approach global extinction this way, how does water fit in? Can it die, and can in go extinct?  In a recent book, Elizabeth Povinelli asks whether rocks can die. She has particular rocks in mind: Two Women Sitting Down, two female rat and bandicoot Dreamings in the Northern Territory in Australia. In 2011, the Two Women were fractured by OM Manganese, the mining company extracting minerals in the region for export to Chinese markets. Although this was the first legal suit in which destruction of a sacred site was successfully brought by Indigenous owners in Australia, the amount of the damages awarded ($150 000) was paltry.

Two Women Sitting Down

Two Women Sitting Down

More to the point, though, Povinelli stresses that the charge was not manslaughter, but rather desecration of a sacred site. Her work has long documented the ways in which state actors pay lip service to the animacy of Dreamings. In fact, they often demand that Indigenous communities perform certain ‘beliefs’ that confirm Western stereotypes and standards of ‘authenticity’. But at the same time, it is clear that the animacy of these beings is regarded by state actors as a matter of ‘belief’, ‘myth’ or ‘metaphor’, rather than knowledge. This explains why the destruction of Two Women Sitting Down did not ‘count’ as a killing, but rather a kind of offence against ‘beliefs’.

According to Povinelli, Two Women Sitting Down and other Dreamings challenge the basic foundations of geontology: the structures of power and knowledge in which ‘Life’ is divided from ‘Non-life’ within Western scientific culture. For Povinelli, geontology underpins all forms of bio-, necro- and thanato-politics. These are strategies used to manage life and death through, amongst other strategies, population control, security regimes, conservation practices and genetic engineering. Geontology also provides the foundations for the construction of resources, commodification and the circulation of capital by designating what does and does not have ethical standing – and therefore, what can be used as ‘resource’. ‘Non-Life’ almost always falls into the ‘resource’ category.

Simply by existing as themselves, figures like Two Women Sitting Down unsettle the boundaries between Life and Non-Life – and, I would argue of the scope of harm (or something like it). This does not only go for rocks. Povinelli also writes about Tjipel, a ‘transgender creek’ whose multiple becomings – as human girl, river, resource, Dreaming, home, relation, possible fracking site and more – confound geontological categories.

Other bodies of water, too, are asserting themselves across geontological boundaries to transform politics. For instance, in 2012, the Whanganui River in Aotearoa New Zealand was given a legal identity under the name Te Awa Tupua (claims to traditional ownership of the river are ongoing). This gave the river the same rights and interests long offered to corporations. In asserting its personhood in legal terms, Te Awa Tupua became the first body of water to receive this status. However, formal legal status is not required for water to disrupt entrenched, colonial political categories. The water protectors at Standing Rock, on the coast of British Columbia, all along Line 9, the Clyde River, Grassy Narrows and elsewhere are not just advocating for water, but as water. This constitutes another powerful challenge to dominant political regimes, and asserts water as a political and ethical being, that can live, die and experience harms.

But can water ‘go extinct’, and does this matter? If so, this might offer a way to bring the status of water as life into mainstream discourses – not as an alternative to recognising the political, ethical and legal status of water, but rather as a complement. Before exploring this question, it’s important to distinguish death from extinction, especially in the way I’m re-framing these terms. As Deborah Bird Rose has pointed out, life and death intertwine so that death is twisted back into life, in part through the collective efforts of the living, ensuring the continuity of multi-life-form communities. Extinction destroys both life and death –  as such, it cannot be the same as death, or simply a scaled-up version of death. I would add to this that while death refers to the Western scientific definition for the cessation of life in an individual organism, extinction applies to multi-life-form collectives. That is, extinction is the destruction of plural modes of being, their deep histories and contingent futures. Also, as I have argued above, global extinction is not just an accumulation of deaths, or even of species extinctions, but large-scale structures of violence that sever the creative continuities of life.

Water is not included in mainstream discourses of extinction, except occasionally as a factor in the deaths of animal or, more rarely, plant populations. That is, water is not considered to be a being capable of going extinct, or a subject of extinction. This assumption exemplifies the kinds of geontological and biontological reasoning that Povinelli is concerned with. Unlike many other cosmologies, in Western science, water is understood as a form of Nonlife that relates to Life as a resource that supports its vital processes. However, a closer look at Western understandings of water show that these assumptions do not hold water.

This understanding of water imagines it as a pure, neutral medium that is somehow outside of, or an external medium for life (and its messy, colliding histories), a resource that life ‘uses’ instrumentally. Under the banner of H20, Western cultures frame water in terms of its chemical composition, as a ‘pure’ substance or theoretical abstraction. Jamie Linton calls this imaginary substance ‘modern water’. In fact, actual waters are co-constituted by beings that are usually coded as ‘life’ in Western terms. This includes not only macro-fauna such as fish, algae or kelp, but also the myriad bacterial and other microscopic beings, alive and dead, that constitute it. These beings cannot be meaningfully separated from water,  so water is not just a ‘resource’ for them, but the condition of their existence. Similarly, the ‘modern water’ paradigm promotes an imaginary, generic idea of water that is ultimately the same in its physical properties wherever it appears, give or take differences in temperature, salinity, mineral content and so forth, and of course, the effects of ‘pollution’.  In fact, waters are also made plural by the singular constellations of beings – classed as Life and Non-Life, organic and inorganic, by Western science – that co-constitute them. As such, the toxification, damming or other damaging of a body of water constitutes the destruction of unique worlds, not the manipulation of a generic substance.

At the same time, it is better known that water constitutes living beings. It is a well-worn cliche that water makes up most of the human body, including the structure of living cells. However, less recognized is the way in which water is the condition of the modes of being coded as ‘Life’ by Western science. Instead, it tends to be treated as a resource that is separate from organisms and brought into them through eating, drinking or absorption. On the contrary, water is as much a milieu for ‘land-dwelling’ creatures as air is. It is not outside of bodies, but always-already part of them. Beyond nourishing bodies, quenching their thirst and lubricating their movements, water conditions and transforms life.  Moving through bodies and worlds, it leaves traces or concentrations of toxicity that inhibit life or force it into new modes of growth. Patterns of evaporation and rainfall creatively constrain the life forms that emerge in the effort for collective survival (for instance, the difference between rainforest amphibians and desert plants). The volume and direction of rivers affects not only access to water, but also the way that life orients itself in space towards or away from it. Water conducts sound – greatly intensified by shipping and mining – that can allow cetaceans to communicate, but also injure, disorient and displace them, along with other marine life forms and the communities that live in concert with them. In all of these cases, water is an inalienable condition of life, not a substrate that ‘Life’ uses instrumentally.

From this perspective, life is co-constituted by water and vice versa (to say nothing of how water co-constitutes other forms of ‘Non-Life’, including place, climate, air and soil). Changes in water alter the conditions for the flourishing of life forms and can drive their extinction. But at the same time, the elimination or displacement of life forms that co-constitute water undermine its conditions and the singular worlds it forms. Of course it is possible theoretically to imagine an abstract version of H20 without any traces of ‘Life’ or other forms of ‘Nonlife’, but this would not be the concrete, plural waters on which multi-life-form worlds rely. So, even from perspective rooted in Western science, water co-constitutes, is co-constituted by, and therefore is life. Carried to its logical conclusions, Western science finally,  arrives where multiple bodies of Indigenous thought have dwelled for millennia.

Viewed in this way, water can go extinct, in the sense that I have described above. That is, water is a co-constituent of multi-life form worlds whose integrity and continuity is severed when any of them are destroyed. Another way of putting this is to say that it is impossible to understand global extinction without including water (or air, or soil, but those require a separate discussion). The harm and destruction of global extinction are distributed across bodies, boundaries, ‘species’ and geontological categories in such a way that their full impact can’t be grasped if any of these beings are excluded. From this perspective, the harms and violences of global extinction accrue directly to water in itself, not just as an indirect resource for life.

What is the advantage of understanding water as a subject of extinction? First, this approach helps to break down divisions that impose particular ontologies and denigrate forms of being that don’t ‘count as Life’. In so doing, it provides another fulcrum for destabilising dominant modes of politics that exclude ‘Non-Life’ (including forms of life categorised as such). This can complement the powerful efforts of Indigenous groups and their allies around the world to assert the living status of water. Second, this approach offers a much more comprehensive account of extinction and the enormity of the damage it inflicts across worlds.  In a similar sense, understanding the destruction of waters as part of global extinction underscores the importance of water for the continuity of life on earth in a broader, more-than-human ethical sense. Third, understanding threats to water in terms of global extinction offers another way of highlighting, diagnosing and resisting the structured destructions, slow and fast violences advancing across the earth. It is important to stress that this argument is indebted to Indigenous knowledges about water and not intended to displace them with yet another ‘Western’ approach. On the contrary, my aim is to show Western knowledge systems and political powers cannot avoid facing the consequences of their arbitrary distinctions between ‘Life’ and ‘Nonlife’, and the violences carried out in order to maintain them.

Ignoring Extinction/Refusing Global Politics


This is a full recording of a talk I gave at the New School for Social Research in New York on 27 October, 2016, including perceptive and generous comments by Rafi Youatt. It was part of a workshop entitled “Global Politics Without Ignorance” organised by Anne McNevin, Erdinc Erdem and others at the New School. The workshop focused on different understandings of knowledge and ignorance within global politics, drawing on critical race theory and embracing a wide variety of approaches, including decolonial and posthumanist thought.

A couple of notes. First, whenever I use the terms ‘human’ or ‘humanity’ (or emphasise something weirdly), assume I’m doing air quotes. Second, I refer to a few others in the room by first name only – they are: Anne (McNevin), Rafi (Youatt), Patrick (Jackson) and Zuleika (Arashiro). Because I can’t include embedded quotes in audio form, I’d like to cite the sources of a couple of things I mention. My discussion of refusals by plants is drawn largely from the work of Wendy Makoons Geniusz and Robin Wall Kimmerer; while the discussion of the Sedna and the withdrawal of animals is drawn from the work of Tim Leduc . I also want to thank the Creatures’ Collective for inspiring and co-incubating many of the ideas discussed here.

The imagery in the background is called ‘Transversals’ and was produced during the workshop as I began thinking through this alternative to ‘(the) global’ or ‘universals’ (more on this to follow…)

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. 


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.

Ferry_Beausoliel_First Nation

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.



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 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. 


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.


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…)


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.


Death/metal by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.


Planetary Boundaries by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.


Subcommittee by Audra Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Planet Politics: Mass Extinction and Worldliness

Green planet by Dejan Hudoletnjak. Licensed under CC 2.0 Attribution-NonCommercial

Green planet by Dejan Hudoletnjak

The following is part of a manifesto – “Planet Politics: A Manifesto for the End of IR” created along with my colleagues Tony Burke, Simon Dalby, Stephanie Fishel and Daniel Levine and first presented at the 2015 Millennium Conference on “Failure and Denial in World Politics”. We argue that international relations has failed to offer a politics that reflects the Earth, and that will enable humans to co-inhabit it in the long term. Departing from the standard formalism of academic writing, our manifesto calls for the abandonment of business, politics and ethics as usual, and for a ‘planet politics’ attuned to the biological and geological forces of a diverse Earth. My contributions focus on mass extinction and worldliness.

** You can read the full manifesto here** 

Mass extinction is a problem of global ethics 

In late 2014, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (2014) reported a startling statistic: according to their global study, 52% of species had gone extinct between 1970 and 2010. This is not news: for three decades, conservation biologists have been warning of a ‘6th mass extinction’, which, by definition, could eliminate more than three quarters of currently existing life forms in just a few centuries (Barnosky et al, 2011). A possible (and likely) mass extinction event threatens all life forms on earth – humans included – whether through direct extinction or through its effects (for instance, the collapse of food chains). It does not simply involve the death of organisms or the ‘disappearance’ of ‘species’, even in very long numbers. Rather, it entails the irreversible destruction of their lifeways, histories, worlds and the possibilities of their being. Moreover, it challenges the basic possibility of survival, providing its fundamental boundary condition.

International relations has utterly failed to take account of extinction. As one of two disciplines concerned explicitly with survival (biology is the other), IR cannot continue to ignore its limiting condition and ultimate horizon. Within IR theory, there is simply no conceptual framework for confronting extinction. Cold-war era concepts such as ‘nuclear winter’ (Sagan 1983), ‘omnicide’ and genocide each refer to the possibility of large-scale harm that could lead to extinction. However, they do not attempt to explain what extinction is, but simply treat it as a form of death writ large. In contemporary IR discourses, extinction has been subsumed within security discourses, where it is bracketed as a ‘business as usual’ problem of scientific management and biopolitical control (Aradau and Munster 2011; Evans and Reid 2014). These approaches are ultimately futile: extinction is an ontological event that concerns the destruction of possibilities of being; it cannot be managed through the manipulation of life and death processes. But as long as this belief persists, mass-mediated scare stories about extinction can only bolster and enhance biopolitical power.

Instead, extinction and mass extinction need to be understood in onto-ethical terms. This means acknowledging that extinction involves an ontological rupture – that is, the destruction of modes of existence – and confronting the ethical implications of this. Just as the concept of genocide was created to confront the seemingly unthinkable – the total destruction of peoples – we need ethical concepts, frameworks and sensibilities that can address the enormity of extinction. This means asking what it means to lose or destroy a life form.

The question of what is ‘lost’ in extinction has, since the inception of the concept of ‘conservation’, been addressed in terms of financial cost and economic liabilities (see, e.g., McAfee 1998; Sullivan 2010). The dominant neoliberal international political economy of extinction has radically reduced and distorted perceptions of ‘what is lost’: not capital or profit, but distinctive, irreplaceable worlds, and the diverse possibilities of being embodied in each life form (Grosz 2011). Beyond reducing life forms to capital, currencies and financial instruments, it homogenizes understandings of extinction, imposing a globalizing, Western secular worldview on a planetary phenomenon. Along with this worldview comes a range of assumptions – that humans are separate from other beings; that life forms can be counted and accounted for as clearly-defined ‘species’; that protecting other life forms needs to be rooted in anthropocentric forms of ‘value’. To address the enormity of mass extinction, we need to draw on multiple worldviews – including those emerging from indigenous and marginalized cosmologies that understand the relations between humans and other beings in profoundly different ways. Doing so not only allows us to understand better what is at stake in extinction, but will also multiply the repertoires of responses.

At the same time, even within the Western secular framework (which dominates IR), we need to think more clearly about the ethical implications of extinction. The current escalation of extinctions is in large part a result of anthropogenic causes – global warming, habitat destruction, direct killing and the transportation of species around the earth. Since human action is involved, we can think in the ethical terms that apply to it. For instance, we can trace the forms of violence that contribute to these trends, as well as the chains of exploitation and oppression that underpin them. We can also begin to frame extinction in terms of harm – or, if it proves to exceed existing concepts, to develop new normative frameworks for responding to it. In either case, it is crucial and urgent to realize that extinction is a matter of global ethics. If it does not fit within the existing parameters of global ethics, then it is these boundaries that need to change: (Mass) extinction carries an ethical weight and force that humans can no longer ignore.

We need a worldly sensibility towards politics, and a political sensibility towards worldliness

 Humans are worldly – that is, we are fundamentally and inextricably part of a world. It is not ‘our’ world, as the grand theories of international relations have it – an object and possession to be appropriated, circumnavigated, instrumentalized and englobed (Sloterdijk 2014). Rather, it is a world that we share, co-constitute, create, destroy and inhabit with countless other life forms and beings.

To be worldly is to be entangled. We can interpret this term in the way that Heidegger (2010) did, as the condition of being mired in everyday human concerns, worries and anxiety to prolong existence. But, in contrast, we can and should reframe it as authors like Karen Barad (2010) and Donna Haraway (2008) have done. To them and many others, ‘entanglement’ is a radical, indeed fundamental condition of being-with – it suggest that no being is truly autonomous or separate, whether at the scale of international politics or of quantum physics.

Being worldly, and being entangled, means being plural – more specifically, being ‘singular plural’ (Nancy 1997). Beings-in-worlds co-constitute one another, so that all beings are a multitude. At the same time, world itself is singular plural: what we refer to as ‘the’ world is a multiplicity of worlds that intersect, overlap, conflict, emerge and dissolve. Worlds are not ‘just’ places, and they are not the same as planets. Planet Earth fosters a multiplicity of worlds at multiple scales and across various time scales – from the current multiplicity of social, technical and economic natures-cultures to the extinct worlds of deep time.

Each world emerges from, and consists in, the intersection of diverse forms of being – material and intangible, organic and inorganic, ‘living’ and ‘nonliving’. World emerges from the poetics of existence, the collision of energy and matter, the tumult of agencies, the fusion and diffusion of bonds. These are the conditions of worldliness.

Because of their worldliness, ‘worlds’ are not static, rigid or permanent. They are permeable and fluid. They can be created, modified – and, of course, destroyed. Indeed, concepts of violence, harm and (in)security that focus only on humans ignore most of what constitutes the harm: the destruction and severance of worlds (Mitchell 2014). Indeed, the destruction of worlds is what separates the concepts of genocide (see Nancy 1997) and ecocide (Higgins 2010) from other forms of violence. To destroy worlds is to sever the conditions of worldliness.

To respond to worldliness, and to our own role in its destruction, we need a politics that is worldly, and a worldliness that is political. This requires acknowledging these basic ontological features of worlds, and transforming them into ethical principles that make us responsive to our basic condition of worldliness.

First, we can acknowledge and embrace the conditions of worldliness. Being worldly means understanding that we are nurtured, threatened, nourished and harmed by profound forces – and that our movements, responses and poetics make a difference to worlds. We also need to understand that being-worldly means being-vulnerable along with the other co-constituents of the worlds we inhabit and traverse. Instead of attempting in vain to escape this co-vulnerability, as the global rich attempt to insulate themselves from the worst effects of global warming suffered by the poor – we need to acknowledge its inescapability. Specifically, we need to think about how our world-vulnerability can be embraced as a source of positive solidarity, rather than simply the, fearful, clinging, negative solidarity (Braidotti 2013) forged by survival anxiety.

This means acknowledging that being worldly is not an option or a choice, nor is it an obstacle to human ‘progress’ that can be overcome, whether through major projects of terraforming or emerging projects of space colonization (Mitchell, forthcoming). Instead of confronting worldliness with resentment that prompts nihilistic violence or apathy (Connolly 2011) – or, on the other hand, the instrumentalizing optimism of eco-modernism (Ecomodernist Manifesto, 2015) – this ethico-politics would embrace the conditions, possibilities and limitations of being-worldly. This does not mean that humans can never leave the Earth, but we are always-already in worlds (whatever planet they appear on). Being-other-worldly – whether on Earth or on other planets – means respecting and nurturing the multiplicity and unicity of worlds instead of imposing a ‘master world’ upon them.

Second, we can cultivate gratitude for worldliness and the gifts it confers upon us. We can learn from Nigel Clark (2011) and other post-Levinasian thinkers, who urge us to acknowledge that humans owe their existence to chains of beings stretching back to the Big Bang (and beyond), and outwards in every direction, across the boundaries of species and all other categories. And, in turn, we can attempt to give back – to inhabit, protect, nurture, and, yes, kill and consume other beings and worlds – without expecting them to conform to our demands, or exacting promises from them. Being-worldly means embracing the collective risk of being: engaging in this complex and ultimately finite project with gratitude, attention, resolution and, above all, amor mundi.


Aradau, C and Munster R (2011) Politics of Catastrophe. London: Routledge.

Barad, Karen, 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Barnosky, A, N. Matzke, S. Tomiya, G.O. U. Wogan, B. Swartz, T. B. Quental, C. Marshall, J. L. McGuire, E. L. Lindsey, K. C. Maguire, B. Mersey & E. A. Ferrer (2011) “Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?” Nature, Vol. 471, pp. 51-7.

Braidotti, R (2013) The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Clark, N (2011) Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. London: Sage

Connolly, W  (2011) A World of Becoming. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Evans, B and Reid, J (2014) Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously. Cambridge: Polity.

Haraway, D (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Heidegger, M (2010 [1953]) Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh, revised and with a foreword by Dennis J. Schmidt. Albany: State University of New York Press.

McAfee, K. (1998) “Selling Nature ? Biodiversity and Green Developmentalism” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 17: 133-54.

Nancy, J., 1997. The Sense of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sloterdijk, P. (2014) Globes: Spheres II. Los Angeles: Semotext(e)

Sullivan, S (2013) “Banking Nature? The Spectacular Financialisation of Environmental Conservation” Antipode Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 198-217.

Cosmology clash: Mauna Kea


Courtesy of TMT Observatory via Wikimedia Commons.

“Astronomy is about as pure and as clean as you can get, so what’s the big deal?”

– David Jewitt, quoted in the New Scientist 

The quote above is part of a well-known UCLA astronomer’s response to protests against the construction of the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. From Jewitt’s perspective, proposals to build notorious polluters such as coal-fired power plants or factories on such a site might justifiably cause a ruckus. But why, he wonders, should the ‘pure and clean’ work of astronomers raise problems?  The assumptions behind this line of thinking are preventing proponents of the TMT from understanding and engaging constructively with the protests.

Since mid-April 2015, work on the planned 18-storey, $1.4 billion TMT structure has been non-violently disrupted by protests led by indigenous Hawaiians, who see the project as the desecration of a sacred site.  In indigenous Hawaiian cosmology, Mauna Kea is the place where two deities – the sky father Wākea and the Earth mother Papahānaumoku – married and gave birth to the Hawaiian islands. Mauna Kea itself is understood literally to be the eldest sun and navel of the living body of the islands. Its flesh is merged with that of humans, who for centuries have deposited cremated remains and the umbilical cords of newborns on its slopes. It a place where human and nonhuman, living and deceased, past, present and future co-exist. To the protesters, Mauna Kea is not an extinct volcano, but rather a vital being capable of being harmed.

While previous protests have contested the building of 13 existing telescopes on the mountain,  the current movement is notable for its international profile. Indeed, it has been propelled into the international spotlight by social media campaigning (for instance see @ProtectMaunaKea and hashtag #WeAreMaunaKea), including the notable interventions of celebrities. As a result of its global reach, the arrests of 31 protesters on 29th April drew widespread attention, and construction stopped for two months. By last week another dozen protesters had been arrested for allegedly placing boulders in the way of construction vehicles on the project’s access road. While it’s not uncommon to hear of the arrest of protesters, the circumstances surrounding this incident are unusual. According to activist Walter Ritte, many of the protesters deny that they (or any other humans) can be held responsible for the blockade. Instead, Ritte states, “the Hawaiians are saying that the rocks were put there by the Menehune”. In Hawaiian lore, the Menehune are small people who live deep in the forest and hills, constructing ponds, roads and temples during the night. From the perspective of these protesters, the Menehune, too, are joining in opposition against the construction of the TMT.

This statement might not make much sense to the scientists who want to see the TMT built quickly. Western secular science is not renowned for its openness towards worldviews that attribute agency or ethical status to nonhumans. It is based on a cosmology that understands humans to be the only sources of agency, creativity and subjectivity, and the rest of the universe to be material for human use. This set of beliefs makes it difficult to understand why the construction of the TMT is a ‘big deal’ because it obscures the root of the conflict. While it has been framed in terms of a confrontation between ‘science’ and ‘tradition’, ‘culture’ or ‘spirituality’,  this is actually a clash between cosmologies. For the scientists, too, Mauna Kea  could be understood as sacred –  albeit in a very different way. The unobstructed views from the top of the mountain offer a ‘crystal-clear window into the cosmos and the ability to look 13 billion light years into space. This kind of vision could transform human knowledge of the universe and the ability better to locate themselves within it. Moreover, planetary scientists believe that if they are able to study the formation of exo-planets, they may unlock the origins of the Earth – and potentially other Earth-like planets. So, in fact, both parties in this protest are concerned with affirming their beliefs about the origin and sustenance of the Earth and its inhabitants. Both seek to preserve and/or assert an explanation of how these beings came to exist by locating them within the broader cosmos. And for both communities engaging with the cosmos connects them to deep history and to the future of humans.

Understanding the situation as a clash of cosmologies helps to explain why the two ‘sides’ are failing to find common ground. Most importantly, the TMT’s proponents have not engaged with the cosmological claims of the protesters in their own terms. They have not ignored these concerns entirely, but they have reframed them in terms of Western secular cosmological beliefs. Specifically, they have framed protestors’ concerns in terms of two issues: ‘environmental impact’ and ‘cultural impact’.

These concerns are reflected in the 379-page Environmental Impact Statement produced as part of the seven-year process in which approval for the project was obtained. This report gives a brief account of the beliefs associated with Mauna Kea, as well as the ecosystems that will be disturbed if the project proceeds as planned. It acknowledges that “the impact of past and present actions on cultural, archaeological, and historic resources is substantial, significant and adverse” (and that it will continue to be in future). In particular, the project will involve transforming one of the mountain’s unique cinder-cones (as have the construction of the other telescopes before it).

The Statement addresses these concerns in two ways. First, it claims that the site has been designed to minimize (not to eliminate the risk of) damage. According to Sandra Dawson,  TMT’s Hawaii Community Affairs representative, the structure was carefully sited so that it did not displace archaeological shrines, is not visible from holy sites, and is designed to minimize ‘visual disruption’, including particular views of the mountains.


Nene goose by Benjaminkeen via Wikimedia Commons.

In some cases, ‘limiting damage’ takes the form of re-classifying the objects in question so that they are not understood as subjects of damage. For instance, the Statement claims that areas disturbed by construction are ‘not determined to be historic properties’. One site believed to be a historic shrine is thought to have been constructed 10 years ago. Another, it claims, is ‘likely to be a natural geologic feature’. From this perspective, damage is only done if the site in question is deemed to be both ‘historic’ and ‘manmade’. This approach assumes that history is something that happened in the past (or at least more than 10 years ago), ignoring its continuities with the present and future, and their sustenance within living communities. It also devalues sites on the basis of their being ‘natural’ rather than human-made, which ignores the entanglement of human communities and geological forces (see Nigel Clark’s seminal work on this subject). Similarly, while the project could affect two endangered species (the Nene Goose and the Silversword plant) and endanger a third (the Weiku beetle), the report determines that the species and ‘resources’ damaged “are not unique or critical to the survival of any species in that area”. In other words, these creatures are understood not as the co-constituents of a unique world, but rather as replaceable units of a generic category (species).

Second, and in a related sense, the Statement suggests that where damage cannot be avoided, what is destroyed will be replaced or traded for something else. Along with the numerous economic benefits it outlines, the TMT promises to be a bastion of ecological sustainability, as the first zero-wastewater producing facility on the site. It also proposes to replace every displaced mamane tree with with two more, and to introduce a program to limit the incursion of ‘invasive species’ (a hot-button issue in Hawaii ).

In terms of ‘culture’, the Statement suggests that significant funds should be earmarked for a ‘community benefits package’ to include exhibits exploring the “links between Hawaiian culture and astronomy”. Those working at the facility will be given training in cultural and ecological ‘sensitivity’ and the facility itself is to be furnished “with items to provide a sense of place and remind personnel of Maunakea’s cultural sensitivity and spiritual quality”. Moreover, stemming from the protests, Hawaii’s governer David Ige has demanded that the construction of the new telescope be offset by the decommissioning ¼ of existing telescopes by the time the TMT is operational. All of these measures appear to minimize, trade-off or compensate for the harms feared by protesters. From the perspective of the project’s proponents, the TMT offers fair trade-offs: what is lost will be replaced, so no harm no foul.

This kind of reasoning only works, however, if one is immersed in a cosmology that understands the nonhuman universe as disenchanted. From such a perspective, material goods (including living things) can be replaced or traded for other goods. This logic does not hold, however, in a cosmology in which a place is unique and irreplaceable – in short, a living being that cannot be disassembled and reassembled at will. Within the latter worldview, the sacredness of Mauna Kea cannot be reduced to the minimization of ‘environmental damage’ or by trading it for economic benefits. And it certainly cannot be compensated for by fetishizing ‘native Hawaiian culture’ as a museum-object, a topic for ‘sensitivity training’, or a motif for interior decoration. On the contrary, this approach seems only to compound the colonial strategies which have marginalized the Hawaiian people since the late 19th century.

Indeed, the Mauna Kea protest highlights an important new development in the history of colonization. It is marked by a clash of cosmologies in two senses: not only the conflict described above, but also the link between ‘cosmology’ as space science and the lifeworlds of indigenous peoples. The struggle unfolding around the TMT is a decolonial one – and it is oriented not only to the colonial history of indigenous peoples, but also to a potential colonial future.

Peak of Mauna Kea by Wolfram Burner Licensed under CC  Attribution-Non-Commercial.

Peak of Mauna Kea by Wolfram Burner Licensed under CC

To appreciate this, it is necessary to place the protest in the context of emerging projects of space colonization. Crucially, one of the scientific benefits of the TMT is that it will enable scientists better to identify and study exo-planets. While some planetary scientists pursue their work primarily in the interest of furthering knowledge, recent anthropologies (see for instance, the work of Valerie Olsen, David Valentine and Lisa Messeri) suggest that many are driven by a vocational desire. Namely, they want to identify other ‘Earth-like planets’ orbiting other stars, where humans might one day make a home. While there are important differences between the science carried out at observatories like the TMT and the goals of space entrepreneurs, planetary science cannot be neatly separated from the goal of space colonization.

Elsewhere, I have outlined some of the continuities between Earthly colonization and the ambitions of ‘NewSpace’ entrepreneurs. One of the key claims of these entrepreneurs is that their projects differ from historical colonial projects because they are victimless. This claim is based on the belief that there are ‘no natives in space’. I argue that this hardly guarantees a lack of victims. On the contrary, humans (let alone other beings) are harmed when they are subjected to the disciplinary processes of colonization. Although this is not the explicit aim of protesters, the Mauna Kea protest highlights two additional dimensions of this argument.

First, it shows that the attempt to colonize other planets can generate harms on Earth. As Messeri’s rather brilliant doctoral thesis suggests, planetary scientists simultaneously occupy virtualized places in outer space and very real spaces on this planet. The places in which these real structures are located – mountaintops, deserts, forests – may appear to be as isolated as the lunar, Martian and other surfaces they allow humans to survey. But modern history suggests that claims about ‘empty space’ can rarely be trusted. Indeed, as Peter Redfield’s work suggests, the development and testing of the European and American space programs was largely enabled by the use of (previously) colonised territories. In other words, the colonisation of outer space rests on the further (or continuing) colonisation of parts of the Earth. This certainly seems to be the case in Mauna Kea, where the desire to colonize outer space further displaces groups originally marginalized by the colonization of the Earth. In this sense, astronomy may be relatively ‘clean’ in terms of its ecological impacts but its practitioners and funders do not have entirely clean hands.

Second, careful attention to the issues raised by the Mauna Kea protesters helps to contest the idea that outer space is ‘empty’ and devoid of life. On the contrary, many indigenous communities understand outer space and its bodies to be a continuous part of what Western secular science usually glosses as ‘nature’ and limits to the Earth. To give just a few examples, a piece by M. Jane Young from the late 1980s explains how many Inuit and Navajo people believe that the moon is either a living being or the home of deceased ancestors, while the Skidi Pawnee believe that human beings originated in the stars. More recently, Debbora Battaglia has described how the communities she worked with in Papua New Guinea believed the moon to contain a woman with a child on her back. According to Battaglia, when one of her respondents encountered one of the moon rocks distributed by the Nixon administration as a diplomatic gesture, he was dismayed by the claims of returning astronauts that it was ‘only a rock’. I am certainly not an expert on Hawaiian cosmology, but it seems clear that a similar belief system animates the current protest. That is, the sky is understood to be a being – the Sky Father – whose integrity and relations with other beings (the Earth, humans, other living beings) is harmed by the building of the telescope. From this perspective, space is not empty and lifeless – and it can be harmed by colonization, even before would-be colonisers lift off from Earth.

Attending carefully to these beliefs illuminates why the TMT is such a ‘big deal’ to indigenous Hawaiians – and why this is so difficult for its proponents to understand within their own frames of reference. Many proponents of the TMT have expressed surprise at the fact that the measures they have taken have not assuaged the concerns of the protesters and a desire to engage respectfully with protesters. If they are serious about this, it will be necessary for them to change tack. At the moment, their efforts involve translating the concerns of the protesters into the terms of Western secular cosmology – that is, language of replaceable, compensable environmental or cultural damage.  Instead, it would be better for both parties to engage in what Bruno Latour  and Isabelle Stengers (amongst others) have called ‘diplomacy’ and ‘cosmopolitics’. This would require that none of the parties make a claim to universality and dominance.  In contrast, it demands the creation of political fora in which drastically different worldviews can be expressed without subsuming one into another. Instead of ‘rushing towards universalisation’, as Stengers puts it, cosmopolitics provides an opportunity for the expression of incommensurable difference. In this context, ‘diplomats’ are those who are able to travel back and forth between worlds, recognizing and conveying profound difference, rather than simply imposing the norms and structures of one world on another. In short, cosmopolitics means that multiple world views and forms of being need to be considered on their own terms rather than translated into a dominant paradigm.

Cosmopolitics, however, does not just happen. It requires work, the ability and willingness to peek beyond one’s own cosmological assumptions (if only partially), and above all, patience. By slowing down the process of the TMT’s construction, the Mauna Kea protest creates a profound opportunity to reflect on the conflictual co-existence of multiple cosmologies and the ongoing, subtle and not always intentional violence of colonization. It will remain to be seen whether the parties involved will seize this opportunity to engage in cosmopolitics. By publicly articulating and embodying their worldviews, the protesters have taken the first step in doing so, and  it’s now up to the TMT’s supporters to reciprocate. The collision of cosmologies currently unfolding on the slopes of Mauna Kea offers these parties a chance to inaugurate a politics attuned to the multiplicity of worlds on Earth (and beyond), and to the brutal but subtle, sometimes unintentional, violence of colonisation.  Let’s hope they take it.

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