Category Archives: human extinction

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…)

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Re-Branding Mass Extinction?

Is the ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’ a genuine threat, or an overblown buzzword that distorts public debate about the state of the planet? Stewart Brand has recently weighed in on the latter side of the argument in an article in Aeon. He contends that “viewing every conservation issue through the lens of extinction threat is simplistic and usually irrelevant”. According to Brand, talk of mass extinction leads to the misdirection of public opinion and resources, and it may cultivate ‘panic and paralysis’. Is this a straightforward case of extinction denial, or does Brand have a point?

Well, it’s a bit of both. I find much to agree with in his polemic against mainstream discourses of extinction. Frightening prognostications of mass extinction need to be tempered by balanced debate.  That said, much of Brand’s argument is contradictory, misleading or simply too narrowly framed to reflect the scope and complexity of the issue. His intervention is certainly not outright denialism based on blind ideology and irrationalism (the kind we often witness amongst climate change deniers). Nonetheless, it makes some glaring assumptions that can distort debates just as thoroughly as the discourses at which it takes aim.

What he gets right

Securitization

Brand’s article takes a well-deserved swipe at what us IR theorists would call the securitization of extinction and mass extinction. Specifically, he points out that these phenomena are framed as inevitable and intractable problems. As Brand puts it, news headlines that underscore mass extinction frame our whole relationship with nature as one of unremitting tragedy. The core of tragedy is that it cannot be fixed, and that is a formula for hopelessness and inaction. Lazy romanticism about impending doom becomes the default view.” This, he claims, has “led to a general panic that nature is extremely fragile or already hopelessly broken. That is not remotely the case. Nature as a whole is exactly as robust as it ever was – maybe more so, with humans around to head off ice ages and killer asteroids.”

Brand certainly has a point about this. There is a real risk that viewing all issues related to the biosphere in terms of worst-case scenarios can suppress creative thought and responsive action. This is precisely the goal of security entrepreneurs: to bypass political debate in order to ensure the swift and reactive implementation of ‘solutions’. In order to maintain nuanced, pluralistic engagement with issues that affect the planet, it is important to contest such approaches and to create spaces for innovative political action. As the second quote above suggests, this involves having a clear (but not over-stated) sense of one’s ability to cope with the challenges one faces.

However, I fear that Brand has overstated his case: while humans have developed technology that helps them better to locate asteroids and evade strikes, they have not yet eliminated the problem. And if ‘heading off ice ages’ involves warming the planet, then Brand has a point, but it is something of a moot one. Brand’s argument is stronger when it turns to the language and semiotics used to frame extinction and mass extinction. In particular, he singles out the IUCN’s continuum of threat, claiming that:

Source: IUCN Red List

“Least concern’ is strange language. What it means is ‘doing fine’. It applies to most of the 76,000 species researched by the IUCN, most of the 1.5 million species so far discovered, and most of the estimated 4 million or so species yet to be discovered. In the medical analogy, labelling a healthy species as ‘least concern’ is like labelling every healthy person ‘not dead yet’.Source: US Dept of Homeland Security

This is a fair point. The IUCN Red List categorizes its subjects in negative terms, framing their identity (and much of their value) as a function of their scarcity or proximity to non-existence. In visual terms, its rankings are colour-coded, moving from green to bright red to represent increasing levels of threat, and black to mark the ‘dead end’ of extinction. With this image, the IUCN draws on a common trope – the thermostat – that is instantly recognizable as an indicator used to communicate the risk of terrorist attacks (amongst other things). It is a textbook artefact of securitization: this symbol can prompt strong and immediate reactions amongst publics conditioned to associate it with urgent threats. In so doing, it can produce an overly-negative impression of the existing state of affairs.

By drawing attention to these problems, Brand highlights the need to resist overly pessimistic, black-and-white accounts of extinction and mass extinction. In this, he is joined by Brad Evans and Julian Reid, who show how fears about extinction can be mobilized by powerful actors to engender submission to biopolitical forms of control. By treating extinction as a fait accompli, these power regimes preclude the possibility of other forms of politics – and life. In contrast, resisting subjugation to such regimes involves embracing inventiveness and the possibility of real novelty in the face of crisis.

Extinction opens up possibilities

In a related sense, Brand points out that extinction isn’t all bad news for everyone. Instead of succumbing entirely to the processes of extinction, he contends, “Life becomes different, and it carries on”. In other words, extinction transforms ecosystems, but whether for the better or the worse depends largely on one’s perspective, interests and the context in which one is situated. Brand claims that the ‘inexorable’ direction of evolution is towards greater diversity. In so doing, he quotes some of the pioneering research by my colleague at the University of York, Chris D. Thomas. He refers to Thomas’ recent finding that climate change is driving not only decline, but also a ‘global acceleration of evolutionary rates’, including a marked increase in speciation by hybridization.

Moreover, he cites the work of the conservation biologist Dov Sax,  who has suggested that so-called ‘invasive species’ may actually be enriching ecosystems. This is a refreshing rejoinder to the dominant tone of xenophobia and speciesism that shapes most discussions of these jet-setting organisms (see this previous post).However, as we shall see shortly, Brand wants to argue from both sides of the debate about ‘invasive species’ – a few paragraphs later, he is cheering on their wholesale slaughter.

The argument that extinction brings creativity along with destruction is an important tool for resisting the vice grip of securitization and maintaining a politics of possibility. By emphasizing the creativity of evolutionary processes, and the integral role of extinction in fuelling them, this kind of argument can engender openness to the potentialities of life. That is, instead of attempting to capture the biosphere in a freeze-frame, this kind of approach makes it possible to celebrate new and radically different life forms. This, in turn, can lead to an affirmative politics of solidarity transformation-with other life forms, as Rosi Braidotti has recently suggested. In addition, authors such as Elizabeth Grosz and Genese Sodikoff have shown that extinction is culturally productive and destructive.

Where he’s off-base

Extinction has its compensations 

On the other hand, the element of hope or even wonder produced by this argument should be tempered by an awareness of the very real, irreplaceable relations that extinction severs. Brand’s argument suggests that it is possible to occupy a ‘view from nowhere’ in which the appearance of ‘new life form Y’ can compensate for the loss of ‘old life form X’. On this basis, Brand treats as a non sequitur the claim that “with the past two mass extinction events there were soon many more species alive after each catastrophe than there were before it”. Simply put, the more (biodiversity) the better. This argument confuses difference in kind with difference in degree. The latter mode of difference treats beings as if they are interchangeable, or at least comparable against a common measure. In other words, it frames ‘species’ in its second etymological sense: as a kind of currency that can be measured, made equivalent, and exchanged. In this sense, the amount of species, and the quantifiable differences between them is what matters. For instance, Brand argues that the important fact regarding the current cod population off the coast of New England is not that it is close to extinction, but rather that it is “just 3 per cent of its historic size and therefore probably way out of whack with its ecosystem.”

This point is useful in that it departs from the binary (extant/extinct) produced by most discourses on extinction, drawing attention to those species that may survive for long periods of time in a kind of existential limbo. Moreover, instead of artificially isolating certain species, it highlights the effects of large-scale deaths on whole communities. However, it also treats the issue as a matter of numbers: the ‘health’ of the ecosystem is determined by a particular, historically specific proportion of one species in relation to the others. In a similar sense, Brand argues that the loss of a particular species is not really so important provided that there is another one that can occupy its niche and perform its function within the ecosystem. For instance, he focuses on the case of Lonesome George, one of the world’s most famous endlings. Specifically, he claims that while much was made in the international media about George’s death and the demise of his sub-species, several other species of Galapagos tortoise perform exactly the same role of removing excess understory vegetation. Brand contends that, in such cases, the extinction of a subspecies or species might be inconsequential.”

This is a prime example of difference-in-degree thinking. It suggests that all life forms that perform the same function are ultimately interchangeable, erasing the singular relations forged between particular species in specific times and places. In contrast, difference in kind refers to the irreducible, positive forms of difference embodied by unique multi-species communities. As Grosz argues, these differences cannot be quantified, but they are experienced by living beings. Differences in kind entail the singular relations that emerge between species within and across particular conjunctions of space and time. They are embodied in what Thom Van Dooren has called ‘flightways’: the unique multi-species histories that are usually classed as ‘species’. From this perspective, each flightway – and each extinction – is singular and cannot be replaced or compensated for. I would argue that this idea much better reflects the way that many human communities experience their relationships with nonhumans – as integral and irreplaceable. From this perspective, it is cold comfort to argue that a treasured species will be replaced by something new.

Of course, such arguments can be used to support highly conservative, often nationalistic narratives in which particular species come to represent human groups. But they need not be taken to such extremes. My point is that it is important to embrace new differences, but this needs to be carefully balanced with a respect for the unique worlds that are destroyed with each extinction.

Too much focus on formal definitions 

As my comments above suggest, it’s a good idea to maintain an open and skeptical mind regarding statistics published about the possibility of a 6th Mass Extinction Event. The leading scientists studying the issue confirm that it is not currently possible to determine with any certainty whether it will happen. Brand labours this point, pointing out wide variances in reported rates of extinction (from 0.01 % to 1 % of species being lost per decade). He also quite logically points out that extrapolations from current rates assume their consistency across several centuries – and what are likely to be a very tumultuous few centuries for the planet. Only if this were to occur, he contends, “we might be at the beginning of a human-caused Sixth Mass Extinction”.

While this appears to be a reasonable position, I can’t help but think that there is a bit of sophistry at play here, and that Brand is missing the point. His argument revolves around whether or not processes of extinction result in the elimination of a certain proportion of species existing at a given time (the standard is 75%, although Brand gives the figure of 70%). It is quite possible that the current global patterns of extinction will not produce this result. And of course one could only declare a mass extinction with absolute certainty retroactively. (The same, unfortunately, goes for genocide.)

However, the threshold at which many extinctions are declared a mass extinction is determined by the need for a functional definition; it is not an ontological fact. The ethical stakes of extinction do not hinge on whether 75% or 74% (or 3%) of currently existing species go extinct. Rather, they are rooted in the fact that many of the species with which humans have co-evolved are being eliminated, and largely due to alterable human action. No one, including Brand, seems to be disputing this point (in this sense, discussions of mass extinction differ from those of climate change). Despite Brand’s claims that extinction is localized (and it is, in part), it is also happening on a global scale, and matters to numerous communities in many different ways. Whether or not what is happening fits the biological definition of mass extinction does not change this situation.

Furthermore in focusing on the exactitude of predictions, Brand seems to be throwing the precautionary principle to the wind. This principle, which is enshrined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (amongst other major international agreements) states that “Where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.” This certainly seems to be the case in relation to current patterns of extinction. It is important to ensure that this principle is not abused in such a way that it flouts scientific consensus and the public good. But it suggests that, given reasonable evidence that something momentous is happening in relation to extinction, it makes sense to think about various scenarios – from the best to the worst. This includes seriously contemplating the possibility of a mass extinction event, or at least a global surge in extinctions. The alternative is to risk being entirely unprepared – ethically and practically – for what might come.

Don’t get so emotional – it’s not a cosmic problem

In one of the more impassioned sections of his essay, Brand insists that “Viewing every conservation issue through the lens of extinction threat…introduces an emotional charge that makes the problem seem cosmic and overwhelming rather than local and solvable.” First of all, what exactly is wrong with having an emotional reaction to extinction? As discussed above, the relations between Earthly life-forms are based on histories of violence and care, love and abjection, co-flourishing and exclusion – all of which produce, and are driven by, profound emotions. To view extinction (or indeed, any form of change that amounts to the severing of these relations) without emotion seems like an improbable scenario, and one that poorly reflects the relations between humans and other life forms.

Second, I take Brand’s point that dealing with extinction may not be entirely beyond the scope of human efforts and ingenuity. But, whether they create changes for the ‘better’ or the ‘worse’ (and this, once again, based on positionality), the extinctions occurring now will reshape life on Earth. In short, these processes could alter the entire structure and conditions of life on this planet – and, as far as we know, the universe. Furthermore, the structures, conditions and relations between life forms are central to most, if not all human cosmologies. So, in order to understand what extinction means and what its stakes are across various multi-species communities, it is necessary to look to cosmologies. So, if anything, extinction is precisely a ‘cosmic’ matter.

The eradication of ‘invasive species’ is a ‘good news story’ 

As mentioned above, Brand seems to want to have his cake and eat it when it comes to so-called ‘invasive’ species. On the one hand, he argues that the transferal of species around the world can enrich or even restore damaged ecosystems (see above). But on the other hand, he narrates several stories in which human ‘heroes’ protect cherished ‘native’ species by systematically

'Judas goats' used on the Galapagos islands. Source: BBC News.

‘Judas goats’ used on the Galapagos islands. Source: BBC News.

eradicating unwanted life forms. For example, he discusses the efforts of some New Zealanders in the 1980s to destroy populations of rats in order to protect ‘native’ kakapos through ‘relentless poisoning and trapping’. In addition, he recounts the multi-year extermination project carried out with high-powered rifles, hunting dogs, helicopters and ‘Judas goats’ on the goats of the Galapagos.  Brand also celebrates the fact that “More than 800 islands worldwide have now been cleansed of their worst extinction threat, with more coming [sic]. Some [eradication processes] are pretty spectacular”.  And he enthusiastically greets new plans in New Zealand systematically to remove all cats, rats, goats and other species not deemed to be endemic to the island.For Brand, these stories are evidence of the ability of humans to ‘solve’ the ‘local’ problem of extinctions.

However, from a different perspective, they embody the same chilling logic that underpins programs of systematic mass killing. Deborah Bird Rose argues that the deliberate extirpation of flying fox communities in Australia bears a striking resemblance to genocide. Such strategies, she claims, may be

“…primarily about destroying the possibility of the enemy’s on- going existence in the area you’ve defined as yours (whether that be a continent, a state, a region, or an orchard). Such efforts are integral to modernity’s eradication of the ‘useless’ in the pursuit of perfection. Lethal measures are designed to free one’s environment of the presence of unwanted others. To accomplish this, extermination involves terror as well as death; it involves a boundary of exclusion which will cordon off an area, keeping it ‘free’ of the unloved and undesired.”

In other words, such responses to the fear of extinction are deeply aggressive. They seek to protect loved or favoured life forms by destroying others. Of course, the animals to which Rose refers are endemic to Australia, but this does not change the logic of the act. Strategies of deliberate eradication erect subjectively-defined boundaries between those species that are deemed to be ‘native’ and ‘invasive’, relegating the latter to the ultimate form of exclusion from a community: death.

What’s more, strategies of deliberate extirpation assign universal values to ‘native’ versus ‘exotic’ life-forms that might vary substantially across different multi-species communities. An interesting example of this can be found in Sodikoff’s work on conservation in Eastern Madagascar. She recounts how international conservation plans intended to remove ‘invasive’ species such as feral boars and skinks. These projects undercut existing systems of Malgasy fady (ancestral taboos) that ensure relations of respect and restraint between species, including these ‘invaders’. Although technically not ‘native’ to Madagscar, the life forms in question had become entwined with human communities and enfolded in their ethical systems. To destroy them was, in this case, to commit a major ethical breach. This example shows that it is highly problematic to assume that eradication is a ‘good’ thing except from an extremely narrow and exclusionary conception of ethics. 

Over-optimism:

Finally, much of Brand’s argument hinges on the assumption that technological development can transcend whatever conditions and problems emerge from existing patterns of extinction.  He is particularly excited about the possibility of ‘precision conservation’ techniques based on minimalist tweaking of wildlife gene pools’ that could enable ‘applied evolutionary biology’. Moreover, Brand is probably best known today for championing projects of de-extinction. Indeed, researchers at his Long Now Foundation are working to re-create the extinct passenger pigeon, and, in the article, Brand writes with admiration about projects such as the Pleistocene Park.

The core of his argument is that  With every increment of improvement in scientific tools, data and theory, and every single project expanding the breadth of conservation practice, we learn more about nature’s genius, and we increase humanity’s ability to blend in with nature, to the everlasting benefit of both” This statement is delivered with very little qualification or definition of what this ‘everlasting benefit’ might be. It expresses a variety of techno-optimism founded in faith in technological change, which tends to bypass nuanced discussion of its implications and limitations.  I would argue that this approach is just as misleading as the unproductive nihilism of the mass-extinction-mongers. What’s more, it is just as deeply rooted in the mobilization of emotion that Brand wants to condemn.

*** 

It’s important to be critical about any claims to certainty, whether nihilistic or optimistic in nature. In this sense, Brand’s article helpfully calls out simplistically pessimistic predictions of mass extinction invoked for their shock value. But it does not argue or explain away the very real, multiple ethical and practical challenges raised by the patterns of extinction that are transforming the planet. In fact, it swings too far to the other side, creating a binary between these two poles. Instead, what is needed are nuanced discussions of extinction that reflect its multiple meanings, the variety of experiences it engenders, and the (sometimes irresolvable) ambivalence of the creative/destructive change it brings.


No promises

Mass extinction, security and intervention in the Anthropocene 

This video is a full recording of my paper, given on 2 December 2014 at the international symposium (Im)mortality and (In)finitude in the Anthropocene, organised by Thom Van Dooren and Michelle Bastian. Please see the symposium’s website for recordings of the other talks and keynotes. 

About the talk: 

How can and should humans respond to mass extinction? To ask this question is to inquire into the nature and capabilities of human agency – in particular, its ability to intervene in the conditions of earthly life. In Western secular cosmology, humans are expected to intervene in being – that is, to determine the conditions of their own existence and that of the other beings with which they cohabit the Earth. This expectation has produced a powerful image of agency, one in which humans are capable of interposing themselves into spatio-temporal trajectories and channeling them in desired directions. For instance, they may absorb these trajectories within existing structures and conditions, or harness them to bring about new states of affairs. In all cases, human agency is understood to be capable of intervening ontologically to create conditions favourable to human life, and other forms of life valued by humans. The concept of intervention is most often discussed in the field of international relations, where it refers to the acts of states and international organizations to interpose themselves in trajectories of violence. However, intervention is not always an exceptional or disruptive event; increasingly, it has become an aspect of everyday life. In discourses and practices of contemporary security, interventions to predict, contain or defuse threats to human life are embedded within the mundane aspects of collective life. Crucially, these interventions are intended to keep a promise (see Aradau 2014) that the continuity of life as we know it can be maintained indefinitely.

Mass extinction raises a significant threat in terms of this notion of security and the interventions designed to achieve it. By negating entire modes of being, it precludes any possibility of their continuity into the future. Yet most contemporary responses to mass extinction follow the model of security interventions. They are reflected in techniques such as conservation, the collation of ‘big data’ on biota, the identification of ‘endangered’ species, forced breeding and other mechanisms to regulate the tempos of life and death. All of these interventions assume that it is possible for humans to intervene effectively in processes of mass extinction in order to ‘fix the problem’ – that is, to halt or at least slow it down, in order to keep the promise of security.

However, I argue that this imaginary of agency is complicated and ultimately confounded by the conditions of the Anthropocene. Within this understanding, what we tend to think of as human agency is in fact an unstable amalgam of agentic forces: biotic, geological, chemical, physical and cosmic. I argue that the conditions of the Anthropocene undermine the temporal basis of intervention: the notion that humans can stand outside of the processes into which they intervene, entering and exiting at will; the belief that humans can instrumentally redirect these processes; and the human ability to consolidate their interventions around new or previous trajectories. Instead, in the conditions of the Anthropocene, action is reflexive – there is no temporal distance between the ‘subject’ of the act and its ‘object’. Moreover, Anthropocene processes such as extinction unfold over periods and scales (both massive and miniscule) that evade human-calibrated notions of time. As such, humans cannot inter-vene in these processes. Instead, they are always-already intra-vening (Barad 2007). This means that the instrumental, linear promise of security offered by the image of intervention is replaced by the nonlinear, unpredictable, self-magnifying processes of intra-vention.

The upshot of this analysis is that humans cannot expect attempts at intervention to keep the promise of security. Does this mean that human agency is hamstrung – that is, that we can do nothing in the face of mass extinction? On the contrary, I conclude by arguing that recognition of the conditions of the Anthropocene, and of the effects of intravention, open up a range of different possibilities for facing mass extinction. Facing up to extinction without making or demanding promises can multiply the possibilities of ethical response to mass extinction, and the forms of life that they enable.


Not in the running

Why IR theory needs to join the ‘extinction marathon’

Extinction symbol - see http://www.extinctionsymbol.info

Extinction symbol – see http://www.extinctionsymbol.info

“International theory is the theory of survival” – Martin Wight, 1960

Recently, the Serpentine gallery in London hosted a timely and boundary-pushing event that they called the ‘Extinction Marathon‘ (the title seems to nod to the subversive ‘extinctathon’ network of Margaret Atwood’s ‘extinction trilogy’ ). This event was the latest in a series of annual ‘marathons’ exploring important public issues – in this case, the impending/unfolding sixth mass extinction event. It included films and installations, performance art and philosophical texts. Its impressive programme, curated by artist and activist Gustav Metzger,  was a roster of some of the most celebrated and ground-breaking artists, philosophers, writers, scientists, conservationists and campaigners working on the issue of extinction. Yet there was something missing from the list: not a single participant was a specialist in international relations (IR) theory.

This is clearly not because the Extinction Marathon’s organizers have it in for IR theorists or are deliberately excluding them. And I’m not insisting that every discipline must be ‘represented’ at every public event of this kind. On the contrary,  the absence of IR specialists illustrates an important point: almost none of us are confronting the problem of mass extinction (a notable recent exception is the new book by Brad Evans and Julian Reid). For a field rooted in the concept of survival, this is a very odd blindspot indeed.

Mass extinction epitomizes ‘existential threat’ : it may involve the destruction of many (eventually all) forms of currently-existing earthly life. It undercuts the possibility of survival as a normative horizon and a practical goal. If this is not a problem for a discipline concerned with survival, I don’t know what is.

Throughout its trans-formations and fragmentations, IR theory has been deeply, if not primarily, concerned with survival – although the term carries many different connotations. Within realism (both classic and neo-) ‘survival’ most often refers to the integrity and stability of the state within a brutal, hostile and anarchic ‘state of nature’. Within the state of nature, the subject of survival – whether the individual human or the state – is preoccupied with finding ways to sustain its existence. For instance in Waltz’s neo-realist account, survival is the bottom line for states, and the ‘ground of all action’, without which no other goals would be possible. Similarly for Morgenthau, it is the desire for survival that drives the formation of all structures and constraints on human action, including morality. Indeed, Odysseos  has argued that political realism is an “ethos of survival” – that is, a mode of relation to others based primarily on overcoming the threats they raise.

Despite the fact that it is usually associated with realism, ‘survival’ is actually one of the few concepts that links divergent theories across the gamut of IR. Perhaps most similar to the realist account of survival is its construal in constructivism. Much of Wendt’s ground-breaking argument about anarchy hinges on the survival of states and their ‘intersubjective conditions of existence’. Indeed, in this account, relations are not only sources of threat, but also of a state’s identity.  Recent work on ‘ontological security’ in IR (see Mitzen 2006, Steele 2005 and Rumelili, 2014) invoke the idea of ‘state survival’ in the form of the stable identities of states formed through reasonably predictable relations with, and recognition by, other states.

Similarly, in the Copenhagen School’s key concept of ‘securitization’, “security means survival in the face of existential threat” (Buzan et al 1999,). Indeed, the referent object in situations of securitization is defined as a thing that is ‘existentially threatened and that [has] a legitimate claim to survival” . This marks an important transition in the meaning of ‘survival’ within IR discourses. For the Copenhagen School, a referent object need not be a state; it may be a social structure, an economy – or even an endangered species.

This shift in the subject of survival is strongly reflected in discourses on human security (rooted in liberalism) and emancipatory approaches to IR and security. For instance, Booth has famously described emancipatory approaches to security as a way to bring together Wight’s “theories of the good life” and “theories of survival”. In this vein, the 1994 UNDP human development report which introduced the term ‘human security’ into public discourses, hones in on the everyday survival needs of human individuals. Likewise, in a seminal report the Commission on Human Security describes human security as ‘empowerment to survive’. In both of these cases, ‘survival’ (glossed as physical existence) is ‘not enough’. It is the minimum requirement for a much wider range of goals: for instance, the self-realization of humans as autonomous, economically, socially and politically integrated, healthy, responsible individuals. But, despite the emphasis on these other goals, survival is no less important to these discourses.

The emphasis on survival is even more pronounced in biopolitical and resilience-oriented conceptions of security, both of which critique neo-liberalism. Within the former, the imperative to survive converges with the Marxian concept of ‘species-being’. That is, security interventions seek to manage the human species as a whole, largely through regulating the lives and deaths of specific human populations. In the  context of resilience, the survival of these populations is juxtaposed with, and exposed prophylactically to, ‘catastrophes’ that threaten the existence of bio-governed life. Indeed, Aradau and Munster cite a FEMA document that classifies threats on a scale of emergency-disaster-catastrophe-extinction. This suggests that proponents of resilience are aware of the possibility of human extinction, and that, at least to some extent, they use it as a horizon for imagining the worst. And as Aradau contends, resilience discourses make no promise that humans will survive this threat. Instead, they produce a mode of existence in which security is impossible and a form of survival-without-security is the only future on offer.

This brief and highly-glossed romp through IR and security theory suggests that the concept of survival is not only integral to the foundations of the discipline, but is also alive and well (pun intended) in the most recent debates. Yet at no stage in the history of IR, and in none of these schools of thought, has there been an attempt specifically to theorize the condition that negates survival: extinction. Even at the height of Cold War strategy, aimed at preventing the devastation of life through nuclear warfare, the concept of extinction did not receive any special attention. If it is used at all in IR discourses, it is used either as a metaphor for the dissolution of states, or as a synonym for  ‘mass killing’, ‘catastrophe’ or simply ‘the unimaginable’. Indeed, the idea that mass extinction is ‘unthinkable’ has helped to create a profound inarticulacy about it within IR debates.

One of the reasons why IR has been slow to enter the discussion of extinction is that this discipline is highly anthropocentric – that is, it tends to assume that only humans can be subjects of attention in their own right. That is, IR considers itself to be concerned with the survival of homo sapiens and its institutions. Of course, discourses on the sixth mass extinction are deeply concerned with the probabilities and possibilities of human extinction, which should attract the attention of even the most anthropocentric of IR scholars. But, for the most part, the term ‘extinction’ tends to invoke images of other species, whose survival (or not) is  assumed to be the remit of scientists and artists.   If nonhumans are addressed in IR discourses, it is most often as ‘resources’ to be sustained in order to ensure the continuation of particular modes of human life, and ‘extinction’ is filed away as a subdivision of ‘environmental security’, rather than a central issue for IR. Other disciplines – notably the humanities, anthropology, geography, literature, sociology and scientific fields such as ecology – have been questioning anthropocentrism for decades. More recently, an exciting wave of posthumanist IR  (see, for instance here , here  and here ) have begun to challenge the human/nonhuman dichotomy that underpins IR theory and practice. But there’s much more work to be done terms of shifting the parameters of IR theory if it is to become responsive to this phenomenon, which cuts right to its core.

IR theory needs to jump into the ‘extinction marathon’ –  not the specific event discussed above, but rather the broader set of debates, discourses and interventions surrounding this issue. IR is a promising terrain in which to talk about extinction, not least because it is already oriented to debates about the meaning of ‘survival’ and could help us to think through what this concept means in an age of extinction. In addition, the increasingly global (rather than statist or inter-national) nature of IR means that it is focused on a scale that is calibrated to large-scale, complex events. Moreover, IR is already partially oriented towards planetary challenges such as climate change and global economic crises, so it offers a cognitive environment that would be (relatively) conducive to the scale and complexity of mass extinction. It is also deeply future-oriented (for better or for worse) and set up to foster discussions of future contingencies. As such, it can provide a distinctive set of intellectual and practical tools for imagining futures and responding ethically to a threatening present.

But perhaps most importantly, IR theory is one of the few disciplines that has made survival its centrepiece. If it can’t engage creatively with mass extinction – a profound challenge to Earthly survival – then its own survival as a means of navigating the present and future should be challenged.


Planet B (C, D, E…)?

Space colonization, (Post-)colonial critique and the new new worlds 

“There is no ‘planet B'” – Environmentalist slogan 

“The power-accumulating machine…needs more material to devour in its never-ending process. If the last victorious Commonwealth cannot proceed to ‘annex the planets’, it can only proceed to destroy itself”

– Hannah Arendt, the Origins of Totalitarianism

Greetings from the Moon by Andrew Forgrave (http://bit.ly/1p9XVvr). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode)

Greetings from the Moon by Andrew Forgrave (http://bit.ly/1p9XVvr). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/legalcode)

“In many ways, the European domination of the world seems to have been inevitable”, writes John S. Lewis. Yet, he argues it might just as easily have been the Chinese empire that took control of 85% of the Earth’s surface if it weren’t for the intervention of ‘court eunuchs’ concerned with the expenditure of resources. By 1403 Chinese explorers had charted the coast of Africa and made their way almost to the opening of the Mediterranean. If it weren’t for these pesky eunuchs, Lewis argues, China could have beaten Europe to world-wide colonial dominance.

Is this an extract from the manual of a colonial governor? No, in fact, it is excerpted from the introduction of an influential text on outer space mining and colonization written in the mid-1990s. Lewis cites the aborted 15th century Chinese colonial project in order to convince his readers that “similar choices face us in the [present]”. Despite the ground-breaking missions of the Cold War period, he argues, the ‘Emperor’ (state funding) has died and the “Eunochs have won the day”. To ensure its dominant position in the universe, Lewis avers, ‘humanity’ needs to thwart the efforts of these men without gonads and engage in a new age of colonial expansion for which the “global expansion of European technology and civilization brought about by the terrestrial age of exploration is but a pale foreshadowing”.

Despite the fictional vignettes of a future in space dispersed throughout its chapters, Mining the Sky is not intended as a piece of science fiction (or, for that matter, satire). Indeed, it reflects a powerful impulse towards neo-colonialism that began at the height of European colonialism, gained speed during the Cold War, right around the period of ‘decolonisation’, and has intensified in the decades since. This is the project of space colonisation.

At the time of writing, there are multiple schemes underway to colonize outer space. One involves mining minerals from asteroids to supply humans on Earth and in future space colonies. Another entails the creation of human colonies on planets geo-engineered to fit human specifications. One of the leading figures in the space colonization industry, entrepreneur Elon Musk, suggests altering Mars  in this manner by creating an accelerated greenhouse effect akin to the one driving global warming. In a different interview, Musk suggests that it might be necessary to bio-engineer  organisms capable of surviving on other planets. Another proposed model, the ‘low-earth orbit’ approach, involves developing spacecraft into ‘forts’, around which would be constructed commercial trading posts, homesteads and urban areas powered by resources from Earth. Similar designs could potentially be applied to a ‘free space’ model, in which free-floating forts could sustain themselves using resources extracted from other space objects. Finally, space tourism is already a lucrative industry; the space travel company SpaceAdventures has been offering commercially-available space flights since the early 2000s, while Virgin Galactic continues to recruit participants for its outer space tours. So, as Ban Ki-Moon responds to world-wide climate protests with the environmentalist slogan ‘there is no planet B’ , space entrepreneurs are singing a very different tune.

There is no attempt to hide the colonial nature of these projects; on the contrary, colonization is touted as the only certain way to escape extinction and ‘bring life’ to a ‘cold, dead’ universe. In typical colonial fashion, these discourses place a great deal of emphasis on ‘expansion’ which, as Arendt contends, is the central tenet of imperialism. Considering the following quote:

“Why build space settlements? Why do weeds grow through cracks in sidewalks? Why did life crawl out of the oceans and colonize land? Because living things want to grow and expand. We have the ability to live in space…therefore we will”

This quote is extracted taken from a NASA-sponsored web-based primer on the subject of space colonization which has, amongst other things, been used as a resource to support space colony design contests for American schoolchildren. Its author, a long-time NASA contractor and researcher at its Ames Research centre, frames space colonization as a teleological tendency within living things and humans in particular. It suggests the inevitability of human expansion into space, and the prerogative conferred by technological capacity (‘we will because we can’). This image is complemented by discourses that treat space colonization as the next step in the stadial progression of human history. Eric C. Anderson, a principle of space mining company Planetary Resources, considers the ability to create interplanetary colonies the marker of an exciting new ‘stage of humanity’s history’. He goes on to state that “frontiers are opened by access to resources. We would like to see a future where humans are expanding the sphere of influence of humanity into space”. Meanwhile, Musk has quite explicitly compares this process to the enlargement and sustenance of an empire . “Let’s say”, he argues, “you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action would you take, to minimize decline?”. For these space entrepreneurs, interplanetary colonization is simultaneously a means for ensuring human domination of the Anthropocene Earth, and for extending this domination beyond the limits of the blue planet.

Indeed, space colonization projects promise humans the ability to transcend a comprehensively colonized Earth which limits their growth and imposes finitude on the ‘species’. Speaking at the ‘Humans to Mars’ conference in Washington in 2014, NASA Chief Charles Bolden stated that “we are, right now, an Earth-reliant species…but only a multi-planet species can survive for a long period of time”. Similarly, Planetary Resources argue that “unchained from Earth as a our single source, humanity could use this in-space resource to expand…into the solar system”. In both cases, humans are exhorted to throw off the chains of their Earth-bound existence, embracing Earth alienation as a means for achieving unlimited growth.

One of the mundane conditions from which space colonization seems to offer an escape is the effects of a rapidly expanding human population on Earth. On a video promoting Virgin Galactic’s new LauncherOne commercial spacecraft, Richard Branson argues that a ‘burgeoning global population with an insatiable hunger for dwindling levels of finite resources’ poses ‘humanity’s gravest challenge yet’.

Drawing on imagery bizarrely evocative of Hitlerian polices of expansion, one scholar of space law describes space colonization as a means of escaping the ‘povential devastation’ of overpopulation by enlarging “humanity’s living room”. Indeed, some  proponents of space colonization want to respond to the effects of explosive human population by “catalysing humanity’s growth, both on and off the Earth”. Indeed, according to Lewis, it is a “pitifully small” population that prevents ‘humanity’ from attaining its full potential.

Realizing the unlimited growth of ‘humanity’ would require staggering amounts of resources – including what Branson terms ‘off-earth resources’. These resources are regularly described as nearly infinite in their quantity and free for the taking. Deep Space Industries  claims that “our planet sits in a vast sea of resources” waiting to be exploited by humans.

Echoing this claim, Planetary Resources state that a single platinum-rich 500 meter wide asteroid contains approximately 174 times the annual output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world-reserves of platinum-group metals (ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium and platinum). Anderson states that:

“we need to use the resources of space to help us colonize space. It would have been pretty tough for the settlers who went to California if they’d had to bring every supply they would ever need along with them from the East Coast. That’s why Planetary Resources exists”.

Similarly, Deep Space Industries is preparing itself to be “the gas station, the oasis for food and water, and the building supply station for the frontier”. There is a clear resonance here with Aimé Césaire’s  claim that the central actors in European colonialism were “the adventurer and the pirate, the wholesale grocer and the ship owner, the gold digger and the merchant, appetite and force”. Their remit, he contends, was to “extend to a world scale the competition of its antagonistic economies”. The companies described here are positioning themselves as privateers and pioneers capable of extending these economies to an inter-planetary scale.

Indeed, like its Earthly predecessors, space colonization is seen as a process undertaken jointly by states and private entrepreneurs. In this dynamic, states often provide impetus and incentives for risk-taking on behalf of private entrepreneurs who may, in turn, help to resource the expansionist policy of states. This is certainly the case in the development of contemporary space colonization projects. The Canadian-based Space Security Index project notes that “There is an increasingly close relationship between governments and the commercial space sector. Various national space policies place great emphasis on maintaining a robust and competitive industrial base and encourage partnerships with the private sector. The space launch and manufacturing sectors rely heavily on government contracts”. However, existing international law relating to outer space fails to reflect the extent to which private companies compete with, and may even usurp, states as the main actors in the colonization of other planets. Developments in technology have made it possible for private companies (several headed by extremely wealthy individuals or small groups thereof) to undertake capital projects that previously only states could afford. Moreover, Musk claims that entrepreneurs are responding to a gap in the market left by the retraction of public funding for space programmes. As a result, the space colonization industry is emerging as a poorly-regulated field in which private companies, states and even individuals are laying claim to extra-terrestrial territory. Indeed, Branson concludes his promotional video for LauncherOne with the slogan “Space is Virgin territory”. This is not just a kitschy marketing ploy but also a reflection of the commercial territorialism that marks contemporary space colonization.

The history of colonial warfare has raised fears amongst international organizations that similar conflicts might arise in outer space. Both the UN’s Outer Space Treaty and the European Union’s proposed International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities warn of a possible arms race amongst state or non-state actors and emphatically state the Cold War-era demand that space be a non-militarized zone. However, while the OST locates outer space within the scope of international law and prohibits any state or nation from appropriating it, it does not explicitly prevent individuals or private companies from pursuing a policy of ‘first grab’ . The later ‘Moon Treaty’ seeks to ban the appropriation of the moon or other space objects by any state or individual, excepting international bodies. Yet, as of late 2014 it has gained only 16 signatories, none of which are major ‘space-faring’ countries. This leaves unanswered the question of the right to occupy and exploit outer space – and of whom might possess the authority to grant that right.

Space colonization, however, is not only discussed in terms of financial profit and economic-(extra)territorial power. On the contrary, commercial discourses on space exploration frame their projects as means for fulfilling inherent human aspirations and potentialities. For instance, the UN’s Vienna Declaration on Space and Human Development begins by stating that “humans have always gazed at the sky with wonder and…from such was born the curiosity… from which the foundations of modern space science and technology were laid”. The extension of human knowledge is also associated with the aspirations and achievements of a collective ‘humanity’. According to the mission statement of the 100 Year Starship , a charitable organisation devoted to outer space exploration, space colonization activates “not only our imagination, but the undeniable human need to push ourselves to accomplishments greater than any single individual [sic]”. Figures of the explorer and the “spirit of exploration” are also pronounced within these discourses. For instance, Deep Space Industries label themselves as “miners and explorers, makers and suppliers”. Some stimulate this sense of collective fulfilment by actively engaging members of the public. For instance, MarsOne  is currently recruiting individuals from around the world for its one-way mission to create a space colony on Mars, a project that it thinks will “inspire generations to believe that all things are possible”. Other projects seek to recruit the global public in the imaginative labour of space colonization. Planetary Resources has recently funded a project called ‘Asteroid Zoo’ in which individuals from around the world are encouraged to ‘hunt’ asteroids using data from NASA’s Catalina Sky Survey. Not only does this site offer participants a chance to ‘discover’ a ‘mineral-rich’ asteroid, but it also offers them the sense of being directly involved in the collective process of colonization.

Asteroid 2012 DA14 and the Eta Carinae Nebula by NASA (http://bit.ly/1moXQIo). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution- Non-Commercial (http://bit.ly/1moXTUG)

Asteroid 2012 DA14 and the Eta Carinae Nebula by NASA (http://bit.ly/1moXQIo). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution- Non-Commercial (http://bit.ly/1moXTUG)

So far, this discussion suggests that contemporary space colonization is a continuation of the logics and strategies of modern European modes of imperialism. Indeed, its proponents use the term ‘colonization’ quite openly, apparently oblivious to the fact that this term conjures up images of mass-scale oppression, violence and injustice. However, it is not ignorance that underpins the use of this terminology, but rather the belief that this mode of colonization is entirely distinct from previous models in three important senses. This position is staked on three claims.

First, despite its overtones of optimism and energy, contemporary space colonization projects are pitched against the prevailing mood of extinction. Space colonization is framed as perhaps the only of maintaining human life beyond the exhaustion of the Earth’s resources and allowing this life-form to reach its full potential. It is also framed as a means of protecting humans from threats to their survival. According to Lewis, the ability to identify and mine near-Earth asteroids (which might impact with the Earth) would enable humans to grasp the “the sword of Damocles that hangs above our heads – and bea[t] that sword into plowshares to serve the future of humanity. Musk  argues that colonizing other planets is akin to taking out insurance on one’s life or possessions: “It’s not because you think you’ll die tomorrow, but because you might”. In this statement, he frames the enterprise of space colonization as one of (highly profitable) speculation against the possible extinction of homo sapiens. In a separate interview, Musk switches to an imperative tone: “either we spread Earth to other planets, or we risk going extinct”. Here, space colonization is framed in terms of necessity – an argument from necessity that takes for granted that human life must continue to exist at all costs. Musk’s statement also suggests that it is not only human life that must colonize other planets to avoid mass extinction, but rather Earthly life in total. Indeed, from this perspective, it is not only ‘other planets’ that must be colonized in order to evade mass extinction, but also the bodies and genetic material of animals, plants and other beings mobilized into the colonial project. Moreover, where modern European imperialism claimed to offer ‘civilization’ to the peoples and territories it subjected, space colonization claims to bring the ‘life process’ to the ‘dead’ and seemingly empty landscapes of ‘uninhabited’ space (see below). It suggests that humans must fill the universe with the intelligent, Earth-originating life that Lewis calls the ‘highest fulfillment’ of time, space and matter. These texts suggest that space colonization is an expression of necessity not just of power to expand, but also of life to continue in defiance of its potential extinction.

Second, and in a related sense, space colonization is framed as a universal project bringing universal benefit. Building on the notion of a universal subject embodied by international humanitarian organizations and structures, space colonizers claim to act in the name of ‘humanity’, extending its empire from the international to the interplanetary sphere. A prime example of this is the UN’s Vienna Declaration, which states that “outer space should be the province of all mankind”. This slogan simultaneously reflects the idea that outer space is a hinterland to be exploited by ‘humanity’, and that humanity will annex it as a single, unified actor. Moreover, the Vienna Declaration suggests that because outer space transcends national boundaries and interests, it permits “the development of global solutions to address common challenges… [by] providing a vantage point from which to view planet Earth”. In other words, the Earth-alienated viewing platform provided by space colonies enable a kind of cosmopolitanism capable of unifying ‘humanity’.

Like its precursors, the figure of universal ‘humanity’ is framed as a benevolent colonizer, as reflected in the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA)’ slogan: ‘bringing the benefits of space to mankind’. Indeed the Outer Space Treaty clearly states that the exploration and use of outer space must be “carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”, irrespective of their ability to contribute scientifically or financially to these projects. Tellingly, the OST, the EU’s draft code and other key diplomatic documents seek a commitment to distribute the profits and benefits of space colonization across ‘humanity’ (although they are short on prescriptions for effecting the structural changes necessary to accomplish this). We might expect this kind of language from international organizations, but even Planetary Resources argues that “the entire human race will be the beneficiary” of space colonization. Furthermore, it is frequently suggested that space colonies can become refuges for those seeking freedom from political, ethnic or religious persecution; indeed, Lewis states that “space will at first be largely a haven for refugees”. In short, these discourses suggest that although space colonization remains a project of instrumental extraction, profit and power-generation, the agent enacting and benefiting from these activities is ‘humanity as whole’.

Based on this logic, the annexation of space by ‘humanity’ is positioned as a form of colonialism with no victims, and is frequently contrasted with modes of colonialism based on the expropriation and enslavement of human subjects. Instead, space colonization is depicted as an attempt to “build new land, not steal it from the natives” – indeed, according to Reinstein“there are no known natives to outer space”. As such, he contends, “in the absence of prior existing property rights…there seems to be nothing inherently immoral about a right of grab”. From this perspective, rather than victimizing one set of humans to benefit another, space colonization is framed as the acquisition of a true terra nullius – a place with no human or other identifiable inhabitants – in order to benefit ‘humanity’ as a self-contained ethical whole. Moreover, contemporary discourses of space colonization claim to do the dirty work of saving human life from extinction ‘safely outside of our delicate biosphere’ . Just as European colonizers delegated suffering and death to their Others , space colonization is designed to delegate the effects of massive-scale resource extraction to planets to Earth’s Others. ConsiderAnderson’s rhetorical question:

“Wouldn’t it be great if one day, all of the heavy industries of the Earth—mining and energy production and manufacturing—were done somewhere else, and the Earth could be used for living, keeping it as it should be, which is a bright-blue planet with lots of green?”

Similarly, Reinstein argues that “If minerals are extracted from dead asteroids floating through our solar system, perhaps there would be one less strip-mined rain forest. If solar energy is captured and beamed down to Earth’s electric grid, that could be one less oil spill in our oceans. In short, space colonization promises to externalize the processes used by humans to colonize Earth the better to sustain them, in particular through the more comprehensive management of resources. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space argues that Earth observation (or world-alienation) underscores our sense of the Earth’s fragility and enables more comprehensive management of natural resources and ‘environmental disasters’. From this perspective, space colonization offers incalculable benefits to ‘humanity’, along with the ability to more comprehensively colonize Earth, with no apparent victims.

A form of colonization that benefits all humans and creates no victims? This simply sounds too good to be true. Indeed, Edward Said points out that “every single empire in its official discourse has said that it is not like all others, that its circumstances are special” and has been able to persuade intellectuals of this . And, as Césaire warns, “no one colonizes innocently…no one colonizes with impunity either”. It is beyond the scope of this short piece to explore the various ways in which contemporary space colonization may victimize its subjects. This includes the transportation (voluntary or coerced) of diverse life forms into space, along with their intensive bio-engineering to survive within an unaccustomed environment. Moreover, these forms of space colonization involve the massive terraforming of other planets, an activity which cannot be assumed to be ethically neutral, especially considering the effects of similar activities on Earth. Moreover, as postcolonial theorists from Cesaire and Fanon to Arendt and Mbembe remind us, one of the primary effects of colonization is the dehumanisation of both the colonizer and the colonized. In a context in which the colonizer is the Anthropocene figure of humanity, it is all of humanity, and many other life forms, that are made vulnerable to the violence associated with dehumanisation.

What all of this points to is the need for a mode of post-  (and maybe also pre-) colonial critique that is capable of addressing the colonization of the new new worlds. As this discussion has suggested, existing postcolonial theory can help us to identify and critically examine many of the tenets of this expanding mode of colonialism. However, this body of thought needs to adapt to a form of colonialism in which the subjects and objects are significantly changed, in which the victims of colonial violence are obscured, and in which the scale is massively magnified. In other words, we need to draw on the insights of postcolonial international relations as a starting point for thinking about (post-)colonial interplanetary relations.


Refiguring ‘resilience’ in an age of extinction

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This month, I reviewed the book Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously by Brad Evans and Julian Reid for Antipode. I argue that this insightful and polemical book  effectively brings discussions of extinction and the new ethical horizons it creates into discourses on global security. But at the same time, I urge the authors to think about how neoliberal notions of resilience can be refigured in more positive terms, so that uncertainty becomes a mode of possibility rather than solely an instrument of control.

You can find the fully text here  Antipode book review Evans and Reid or view it on Antipode’s website here .


Human insecurities

Posthumanism as a new line of critique in international security 

This is the text of a talk given at the ISRF- ReCSS Workshop on Critiques and Critique, 12-13 May 2014. It  very briefly introduces several key strands of post humanism and makes the case for a post humanist critique of international security.  

Handprints by Trent MacBride. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution Non-Commercial http://bit.ly/1i20mQs

Handprints by Trent MacBride. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution Non-Commercial http://bit.ly/1i20mQs

The capacity for critique is considered to be one of the unique and defining characteristics of humans, and a keystone of the humanities. So, one of the most radical ways to advance critical thought is to critique humanity itself. This is the basis of what is being called  ‘posthuman turn’ in philosophy, ethics, social theory and, more recently, international relations.

‘Posthumanism’ is an umbrella term that really describes a syndrome of critical interventions, each arising from, and ending up in, a slightly different place. For me, the common thread is that a normative, naturalized idea of the human must be challenged if humans are to acknowledge the ontological conditions of the universe they inhabit with other beings, and the ethical demands that flow from these conditions.

As I have argued elsewhere, ‘posthumanism’ may not (and need not) entirely escape anthropocentrism. It is very much about asking how humans can and should exist in relation to the rest of the universe. Indeed, it has earned the prefix ‘post-‘ not because it has left humanism behind, but rather because it is troubled by, and works upon, the fixtures of humanist thought.

‘Posthumanism’ is a problematic term, and many of the thinkers who are regularly cited as examples might protest their inclusion in this category. Part of the problem is that the term ‘post-humanist’ is negative: it doesn’t do justice to the many positive, genuinely innovative alternative modes of thought that are included within it, and it suggests a greater unity than actually exists amongst them. So, I’d like to briefly (and very incompletely) talk about a few of these approaches and highlight the distinctions between them.

One such approach focuses on making space within existing ethical frameworks for beings other than humans. Such debates have been going on for decades within analytic philosophy and applied ethics, especially in the work of scholars like Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, both of whom call for the extension of ethical status to many (but not all) animals. Retaining an emphasis on human-centric ethical reasoning, these approaches remain within the remit of humanism.However, recent contributions drawing on continental philosophy have tried to extend the ‘circle’ in different ways, for instance, by advocating the extension of ethical consideration to plants or artefacts and human habitations. They argue (variously) that this status depends not on meeting abstract, human-determined criteria (e.g. the ability to suffer), but rather on the basis of possessing a distinctive form of being, or co-constituting other beings.  Ultimately, though, they stick to the strategy of attempting to expand or transform existing ethical structures and the ontologies on which they’re based.

Other approaches focus more on disrupting accepted ontologies and ethical categories. New materialisms, exemplified by the work of theorists such as Jane Bennett and William Connolly challenge the idea that human agency and mind are the only forces that shape the universe. Instead, they argue that nonhuman beings of many kinds – from weather to metal – can shape the course of events. Contributions drawing on complexity theory offer another image of how various forces and objects combine to create unexpected, emergent effects within IR. Both of these approaches offer radically different explanations of causality and force within the universe, which has important implications for how we think about human action and its ability to shape events.

Another approach might be called cosmological pluralism, and includes the work of anthropologists and historians such as Bruno Latour, Phillippe Descola, and Tim Ingold. Drawing attention to alternative cosmologies, these approaches challenge the Western secular divide between ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ objects, ‘enchanted’ and ‘disenchanted’ beings, and persons/nonpersons. This disrupts the boundaries of the ethical ‘circle’ and the sometimes very arbitrary exclusions it enforces.

Still another pathway focuses on the potential for transcending the human that may emerge from technological developments such as robotics, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology. Some approaches, like those of Donna Haraway are open to the diversity of lifeforms and hybrids that these developments might produce, offering a vision of plurality and radical relationally. Others, such as  Francis Fukuyama worry that the hybridisation of humans will, in fact, spell the end for the human species as we know it – an outcome which is treated unproblematically as a ‘bad’.

Another strand of posthumanism is quite literal: it assesses the potential for the destruction of humanity by any number of ‘existential risks’, from long-term astrophysical processes to sudden, acute and imminent effects of climate change. Largely based on empirical modelling, contributions in this field tend to be oriented towards pragmatic actions to prevent human extinction – that is, to avoid a literally post-human cosmos.

The proliferation of  images and narratives of extinction, loss and transformation associated with the ‘posthuman’ have also inspired a new line of critique, the ‘post humanities’, led by scholars such as Claire Colebrook, Rosi Braidotti and Tim Morton. Their work investigates how the category of humanity is formed and sustained – largely through literary, artistic and social practices. They actively question the validity of this category and the extent to which it should be protected or retrenched.

As this very brief survey suggests, ‘posthumanism’ is less a unified line of critique than a sensibility that finds multiple expressions which, in posthumanist imagery, ‘swarm’ the structures of humanism. My work contributes to this ‘swarm critique’, drawing from amongst these approaches to question conceptions of ‘security’. Recently, international relations (IR) has seen a number of interesting interventions from ‘posthumanist’ perspectives. These tend to focus on the ability of nonhumans – from ‘drones’ to infrastructure – to contribute to stability or insecurity at the international scale. However, to date, there has been little research on the implications of these approaches for security ethics. To address this, my project applies a broad posthumanist sensibility to the questions: ‘what is harm?’ and ‘what should be protected?’ Empirically, it engages with the problem of extinction (including the possibility of human extinction), which pushes the boundaries of existing notions of security, both physical and ontological.

This intervention comes at a time when humanism is arguably stronger force than ever within IR, as exemplified by the rise of humanitarian discourses and the rise of principles such as ‘human security’, which place a specific norm of human life at the centre of ethics. If, as I argue, international security has become an expression of humanity writ large, then a fundamental critique of this field must be rooted in a critique of humanity itself.

In its relatively brief history, IR and security studies have been transformed by several waves of critique, including those of feminism and post-colonialism. I want to think about whether post-humanism – in its rich variety, outlined very briefly above-  can offer a similar line of critique, or perhaps even a much more radical one, given that it breaks with the humanist tradition within which even these critical approaches have remained. This is not simply an attempt to formulate a ‘posthumanist-flavoured’ version of security. Rather, by examining the fragile bases of ‘humanity’ as a category, it raises the question of whether security  – for humans and other beings – is really possible.

In IR,  the term ‘insecurity’ refers to an uncomfortable state, one that human institutions are designed to reduce. Instead, I argue that we should embrace the fundamental insecurity of the category of humanity as a powerful form of critique and an opportunity to open ourselves towards uncertain, but not necessarily tragic, futures.


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