Category Archives: International Ethics

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…)


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


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. 


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.

Worldly Security: Security Dialogue Podcast

Anthropocene Globes 7 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Anthropocene Globes 7 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

In this podcast for Security Dialogue, I talk with Claudia Aradau  about worldliness, critical security studies, new materialism and global ethics. We also discuss the future contributions that more-than-human thinking can make to security studies, and vice versa. The discussion relates to my February 2014 article “Only Human: Beyond Worldly Security”. More information about the article and can be found here.

You can listen to the podcast here.

CFP: More-than-human Worlds of Violence, Sicily, 23-26 September 2015

Call for papers, panels or roundtables: P1060005

More-Than-Human Worlds of Violenceat the European International Studies Association’s 2015 Convention in Giardini Naxos, Sicily, from 23-26 September 2015. 

Violence is almost always framed as a dynamic that arises between human subjects. Nonhumans are usually treated as its instruments, its passive objects, and/or the background against which it unfurls. For instance, nonhumans may be instrumentalized as weapons, backgrounded as conditions of combat or identified as sites of damage (as opposed to harm). However, emerging discourses on ‘posthumanist’ international relations challenge the anthropocentric ontology that produces these assumptions. Insights from new materialism, animal studies, the environmental humanities, science and technology studies, and other fields have helped to reframe nonhumans as ‘lively’ presences in world politics. From the role of animals in warfare to drone surveillance to the ethics of mass extinction, they illuminate the ways in which nonhumans are integral to various modes of violence. Specifically, they suggest that nonhumans embody, transform and produce specific forms and modalities of violence that cannot be reduced to human agency or subjectivity. This line of thought raises a number of important questions, including, but not limited to:

  • (In what ways) can nonhumans be subjects, objects, actants or sites of violence?
  • What specific forms of violence do nonhumans participate in and produce?
  • What ethical implications might arise from an ontology of violence attuned to the capacities of nonhumans?
  • How might a more-than-human ontology reshape the concept of violence?

Subjects may include – but are not limited to: the weaponisation of nonhuman; the impacts of various forms of violence in/on nonhumans and multi-species communities; violence in the Anthropocene (e.g. extinction, climate change); complexity and violence.

Please note that this is an interdisciplinary section and conference participation is strongly encouraged from all subject areas, including the arts and humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Even if you do not normally present your work at international studies conferences, this section will provide an open and welcoming forum for engaging in interdisciplinary work on violence and the more-than-human that has an international and/or global dimension.

This section aims to represent the best new work at the intersections of more-than-human scholarship and violence, and will include participants at all career levels – postgraduate students and early career researchers are especially encouraged to apply.

Participants may submit a proposal for an individual paper, panel or roundtable (if you have an idea for a different kind of session, please email me). The deadline for all submissions is 15 January 2015. Please note that if you have already agreed to participate in this section, you must still submit your abstract through the online system.

If you have any questions about the panel, feel free to get in touch with me. Also, please circulate this CFP to networks, colleagues and students who might be interested.




Not in the running

Why IR theory needs to join the ‘extinction marathon’

Extinction symbol - see

Extinction symbol – see

“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.

Refiguring ‘resilience’ in an age of extinction



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 .

The loss of life

Reflections on extinction: ontology, ethics and security

Extinction is not just a matter of life and death – for living beings, it is the hinge between existence and non-being. I want to argue that it poses an unprecedented challenge for security, and to the ontology and ethics that attend it.

The Earth is in the midst of what many biologists are calling the ‘sixth mass extinction’ an event in which a large proportion of currently existing species may disappear within a couple of centuries – and Homo sapiens may not be exempt. There is significant consensus across scientific disciplines that this extinction event is linked to human terraforming activity – including climate change, habitat destruction, and the intermixing of species through trade and deliberate introductions. Mass extinction could also be accelerated through anthropogenic threats such as nuclear disasters or the development of hostile artificial intelligence. Outside of direct human action, long-term astrophysical processes, such as the eventual ‘heat death’ of the universe, place distant but very real limits on the continuity of life on Earth.

Ammonite Fossil by Gledon Rolston Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Ammonite Fossil by Gledon Rolston Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Mass extinction lends a distinct meaning to the phrase ‘the loss of life’. It involves not only the loss of individual lives, or even forms of life, but, ultimately, it may even threaten the continuation of life as a mode of existence.

What, if anything, do the concepts, ethics and frameworks of security have to say in response?

International security is premised on the possibility of survival, whether one is a realist concerned with the survival of states in conditions of anarchy, or a proponent of critical or human security, in which the biological survival of the human body is only a minimum criteria for attaining well-being. The  practical meaning of existing concepts of security hinge on the assumption that survival of some kind is possible and that it can be pursued through human efforts.

Mass extinction pushes this concept to its limits, and then beyond them. It questions whether survival is within the reach of human hands – or, as I shall discuss shortly, whether it is unproblematically desirable. It presents a qualitatively different kind of ontological insecurity: not just the loss of identities, but the irreversible loss of forms of being and the unique worlds they form.

Concepts and ontology

Yet the problem of mass extinction has not been broached in a significant way within either international security or international ethics, largely because these discourses lack the conceptual and ontological framework to confront it.

On the one hand, the anthropocentrism of these discourses obscures the phenomenon of extinction. In discourses on security, the discussion of nonhuman life forms is dealt with primarily in discussions of environmental security, where it is treated as a problem of the management of resources for human flourishing and enjoyment. International organizations such as UNESCO and the IUCN are concerned with the protection of ‘biodiversity’ and of particular species. However, they reproduce the same managerial ethos: UNESCO seeks to preserve biodiversity for the enrichment and wellbeing of humans; and the IUCN’s work is dedicated to influencing decisions on the resources allocated to the protection of species valued by humans. Popular treatments of extinction focus primarily on the plight of species that have cultural or political resonance for humans, while even non-anthropocentric ecologists pragmatically frame their appeals in terms of the economic benefits of preserving genetic diversity. In each of these cases, the extinction of beings other than humans is treated as an inconvenience or, at worst, a threat to human ways of life or well-being.

On the other hand, international security and international ethics have no adequate conceptual or normative frameworks for dealing with human extinction, an issue that has been discussed in scientific, philosophical and popular literature for several decades (see, for instance, LeslieBostromLovelock,  Rees, and Weisman). Of course, the possible elimination of humans through nuclear war is more or less explicitly present in the Cold War-era discourses in which IR emerged. However, the possibility of extinction is treated as a kind of generic worst case scenario, a superlative form of violence and prop for normative or strategic arguments. No attention is to the phenomenon of extinction itself.

The lack of reflection on the concept of ‘extinction’ is by no means unique to security studies. Indeed, there are reams of literature in several disciplines about rates of extinction, possibilities for protecting specific species or ‘biodiversity’ itself, methods of conservation and explanation of causes. These literatures tend to rely on counting, modelling, predicting and otherwise trying to describe the empirical evidence of and future possibilities of extinction. But they neglect a crucial ontological question: what does it mean to ‘go extinct’?

In standard use, the term extinction refers to the death of all members of a particular species or taxon. But extinction is not simply a scaling-up of death – either in terms of ‘counting up’ the numbers of the dead, or of positing a ‘more extreme’ form of death. Indeed, death may not even be the right place to start when thinking about extinction. Death, as the saying goes, is a part of life, and a necessary part of the process through which specific forms of life are propagated and through which they evolve. Extinction, in contrast, is an unmaking of being, the irreversible loss not only of a form of being, but also of the ontological conditions for that form of being. It is a negation of both life and death for that form of being. So the concept of death can’t help us to grasp what is at stake in extinction.

On top of this, extinction is beyond human experience. It is something that humans can only partially witness; we cannot see a species die, even if we witness the perishing of the last of its members. Extinction is a hyper-object: it is distributed over large (and sometimes extremely large) temporal and physical scales that far exceed human lifespans and capacities for perception. In another sense (and here there is a similarity to death), we cannot experience our own extinction. Extinction connotes the conditions of the impossibility of a form of being. As the anthropic principle states, in order for us to think about a problem like extinction, it must be the case that we find ourselves in conditions in which it is possible for beings like us to exist and ponder problems like extinction. So no matter how much data we collect on past and possible future extinctions, we can never have experienced extinction empirically.

This is compounded by the fact that extinction is a negative phenomenon – although it is framed as an ‘event’, it is in fact a withdrawal from being, an inversion of existence. While we can envisage the faces and bodies of individual beings or archetypes, it is almost impossible to imagine an absence. And that is what extinction is (or, technically speaking, isn’t).

Nor is our own extinction something that most humans want to imagine. As J.L. Schellenberg argues, humans tend to prefer thinking of themselves as the apex of evolution, and exempt from extinction. We want to have our cake and eat it: we laud evolution for having produced us, but want to be given special exemption from its future unfolding. Extinction is a particular problem for the Western secular humans whose belief system dominates science. By threatening to erase all traces of life on Earth, it negates the ‘immortality strategies’ through which they guarantee the posthumous meaning of their lives. These sources of resistance create enormous affective and conceptual boundaries to pondering what extinction actually is.

Harmony Dodo by Phineas Jones Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Comm Non-Derivs

Harmony Dodo by Phineas Jones Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Comm Non-Derivs

So how can we get our heads around the idea? What kind of language and concepts should we use? We immediately run into problems if we start with evaluative terms, such as ‘wrong’, ‘injustice’ or ‘harm’. In discussing extinction, I’ve used the concept of harm because, unlike most other ethical concepts (e.g. violence) it is not always tied to human subjectivity and agency. Yet without its evaluative connotation, the term is almost meaningless. Why is this a problem – isn’t extinction a terrible calamity to be evaded at all costs?

For many people committed to conservation, this is a logical bottom line. However, as evolutionary biology tells us, the species to which we may commit ourselves to ‘saving’ – including our own species – exist only because other species have gone extinct before them, opening niches in which they could thrive. As Ursula Heise points out, extinction in itself is a creative as well as a destructive process, a comedy as well as a tragedy. Please don’t interpret this as an argument that humans should simply allow mass extinction to occur, particularly when it is possible to modify human behaviour to avoid it. The point is simply that it is difficult to use evaluative language to talk about extinction, and that doing so is open to subjective, and anthropocentric, value judgments that are impossible to adjudicate in the pragmatic terms of science. 

This is equally true with regards to species that exist or are going extinct in the present. The desire to ‘save’ any particular species is based on a judgement that it has more right to exist than any future species that might evolve from it, or take its place. Value judgements of this kind affect ‘triaging’ in conservation: decisions to protect one life form above others involve a more or less explicit belief that some species deserve not only to live, but to be, more than others do. It also suggests that humans have the authority to decide which forms of being are to continue existing, and which aren’t. This isn’t just the ‘making live and letting die’, or the ‘making die and letting live’ of bio-politics and necropolitics. It’s an onto-politics, a matter of enabling and negating forms of being. Indeed, the constant references in the literature on extinction to ‘saving’ species or ecosystems show us that this task is not only one of rational biopolitical management. It is also another refrain in the salvational narrative of Western secular philosophy, in which human agency is thought to replace the divine as the source of order in the universe. In these discourses, security is salvation, and salvation is security. As I have argued elsewhere, this belief may entrench faith in a force (human agency) that is a primary cause of the problem.

Another problem is that mass extinction exceeds categories such as ‘harm’ or ‘damage’ which are the basis for most legal and policy frameworks related to ethics. As mentioned above, extinction is not just a loss or diminution, or a ‘disappearance’ of specific individuals, but the making-impossible of a form of being. I know of no existing ethical concept that can deal with a problem of this nature and magnitude.

The closest concept we have is that of genocide, which acknowledges the  irreversible destruction of ways of life. However, of the many reasons why this concept cannot be easily applied to the problem of extinction, two are exemplary. First, genocide it is restricted to groups within one species (homo sapiens). It is premised on upholding the unique and special status of humans, and, in normative terms, is staked against dehumanization. This suggests that any attempts to extend the concept beyond the species boundary would undermine its basic principles. Second, genocide involves the intentional destruction of a group of people, and the element of intentionality is integral to the principle. The human activities that cause extinction may be intentional in themselves, and humans have a long history of deliberately exterminating particular species. However, the phenomena of mass extinction is not the result of systematic, instrumental human action and cannot be traced back to a master plan. This suggests that any ethical concept developed to confront mass extinction must be qualitatively distinct from, and not just a variation on, the concept of genocide.

Moreover,  the inherent speciesism of many existing accounts of extinction frames the possibility of human extinction and that of other animals as if they were distinct problems. Not only does this reproduce the ontologically troublesome separation of humans and other beings, but it also creates the illusion that humans are insulated against the mass extinction event. Certainly, humans have significant advantages relative to other species in weathering (no pun intended) the challenges of global warming and other threats. But at the end of the day, one of the defining features of mass extinctions is that they turn virtues into liabilities: with sudden changes in climate or other conditions, traits that have helped species to survive for millennia become fatal weaknesses. There is nothing to suggest that humans are exempt from this problem. If we are to grasp the problem of extinction in its full enormity, then we need to understand human extinction in the context of mass extinction, and vice versa.


These conceptual and ontological issues bring up a range of ethical questions – perhaps most importantly, what kind of ethics can help humans to confront and respond to mass extinction? Each of the ethical positions that I consider to be the most likely candidates falls short of the task.

‘Expanding circle’ ethics advocate extending existing conceptions of justice and protection to some other animals. However, since extinction affects all forms of life, and affects them not as individuals but in a relational manner, this approach is not adequate to the task. Universal moral considerability  combined with a responsive ethics would better enable humans to respond to the calls of diverse life forms under threat. Yet it also opens up the problem that humans may only extend consideration to those beings for whom they feel an affinity. Similar problems affect care ethics, which rely on relations of attachment in order to stimulate ethical action towards another being. In these cases, whilst humans could extend care or ethical consideration to anything, the actual scope of their ethical commitments is likely to be limited. For instance, although the survival of invertebrates is crucial to the integrity of the biosphere, the inaccessibility of these beings to human senses, or indeed the abject relations of most humans to them, might preclude ethical responses. Or, humans might only be concerned about beings that are considered rare, while common species may be just as important to sustaining the richness of life on Earth.

A different kind of issue arises with new materialist approaches, many of which propose cultivating an ethic of openness, generosity and even enchantment with other beings as the basis of ethical relations. Whilst this sensibility is valuable (and perhaps necessary in order to avoid nihilism), it is unclear whether it can be translated into a concrete, collective ethics capable of confronting a problem like mass extinction.

None of these approaches can capture the problem of extinction on its own, or unmodified. So it is crucial to start thinking about what an ethical relation to extinction could and should look like, seeking out new ethical visions or synthesizing existing ones.


What does this all have to do with security? The ontological and ethical issues discussed above have numerous implications for the practice of security.  For instance, can existing norms, laws and institutions of security cope with a problem as enormous as mass extinction? This doesn’t simply involve questioning the specific norms, laws and institutions that currently exist, but also the strategy of relying on these entities as sources of security. What lengths are we willing to go to protect ourselves and other beings against extinction – are coercive methods justified, and if so, to what extent? How can security structures deal with the billions of refugees – of human and other species – that are moving around the globe in order to avoid extinction, and what ethics should guide our treatment of them? And how much can we justify in order to prevent our own extinction? Stephen Hawking and others have recently argued that humans must colonize other planets in order to escape this fate. Does the much-cited imperative to secure the continuation of (human) life in the universe outweigh any ethical concerns these projects might raise – for instance, in relation to the destruction of other planets?

But for me the most important argument is the fundamental challenge that extinction raises for the idea of security. The orientation I am proposing does not involve simply extending the concept of security or securitizing mass extinction. On the contrary, mass extinction hugely exceeds both of these strategies and demonstrates the outer limits of security as a concept. It forces us to confront the quite literal loss of life – whether specific species, ecosystems, or indeed life as a category of being. In so doing, it compels us to reflect on the value of existence. For me, this is perhaps the most basic question with which security (and perhaps any discipline) can wrestle.

%d bloggers like this: