Category Archives: plurality

Lifework Part II

Macquarie Mural Leanne Tobin

This mural at Macquarie University, by acclaimed Darug artist Leanne Tobin, expresses Darug Eel, Goanna and other Dreamings that shape and sustain Wattamattagal Country

Last autumn, I published a short piece – ‘Lifework’ – that reflected on my ongoing journey towards more committed, responsible, meaningful and respectful forms of research. The post provoked some wonderful responses that gave me the opportunity to learn from others’ journeys towards honouring the life of the work they’re engaged in, and of the other beings with whom they learn and create.

On a recent research visit to Darug Country (Australia), on the land of the Wattamattagal/Wallumattagal[1] clan, I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop on the theme of ‘Lifework’ with a talented group of Masters and Doctoral students from Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales. The workshop was jointly hosted by the Environmental Humanities programs at each of these universities. Special thanks to Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Kate Lloyd and Emily O’Gorman for organizing this session. This research visit was possible thanks to funds from Wilfrid Laurier University and the Independent Social Research Foundation.

During the workshop, we had the chance to share our research projects and to talk about the callings, commitments, responsibilities and aspirations that enliven our lifework, and we decided to write down our thoughts as a collective response to the ‘Lifework’ piece. Since we affirm knowledge as living, embodied and in constant motion, I am delighted to see the conversation thrive and grow.

What follows is a co-composition amongst:

Wattamattgal/Wallumattagal Country – with our gratitude to the Elders, past, present and future, who have and always will care for this land.

And, in alphabetical order:

Sophie Adams

Tasmin-Lara Dilworth

Sarah Judge

Kate Lloyd 

Patrick McEvoy

Audra Mitchell 

Harriet Narwal

Emily O’Gorman

Jo Anne Rey

Sandie Suchet-Pearson

Sabiha Yeasmin Rosy

Thomas Wicket

 

Communication is central to our lifework. The ways we communicate, and with whom, matter deeply. We need to refuse expected modes of communication, expressing ourselves in ways that are congruent with, and respectful of, our worlds and the worlds we work with and within.

We also need to acknowledge that language cannot be reduced to written or spoken word. Instead, it is expressed by multiple bodies, relations and places, not only in marks or sounds, but also in movement, in presence and absence, in sensations that make themselves felt through all of the senses, through dreams and Ancestral knowledge. Communicating well means attending care-fully to many kinds of beings and to all the different ways they communicate with us.

It is also important to think about the ways that we communicate with plural others. This is not simply a matter of clarity or the efficient transmission of information. On the contrary, it means interacting in ways that respect and amplify the expressions of others, rather than imposing our own perspectives. This may mean confronting familiar and encouraged patterns and habits of communication that curtail the expression of others. For instance, written English, and academic writing in particular, prioritizes nouns. Meanwhile, many of the languages (human and more-than-human) with which we work are driven by verbs or by gerunds, which are noun-verbs. Working with gerunds means recognizing the constant co-becoming of beings and worlds. Resisting the priority of nouns means rejecting the fixture of identities, ways of knowing, doing and being. This also makes it possible to open ourselves more fully to other beings, whether humans, goannas, snakes, stories or waters.

Simply being able to see or recognize – without necessarily identifying, or pinning down others – is essential to our lifework. This requires cultivating our skills in noticing and our plural registers of perception. It also means suspending, as much as possible, our expectations about every encounter.

Creativity is integral to our lifework. We recognize that all forms of creativity are co-creativity, and affirm the intention of making worlds together with plural others. Lifeworking creatively means embracing playfulness and fun, not always being serious, and making expansive room for the unexpected.

Embracing co-creativity also means working to create openness and to inhabit uncertainty with purpose. It means resisting completion, or the attempt to close the trajectories of being, doing, knowing and relating. We aim to make ourselves vulnerable to uncertainty, doubt and the openings they create within ossified systems of knowledge production. This also involves accepting complexity, including working with multiple narratives, paths and questions that do not always resolve into a single theme or category. Instead of working to simplify or reduce, we welcome the complication of our lifework by the many beings who contribute to it.

Creativity is a form of resistance and a powerful political act. It entails rejecting the reduction of our relations and interactions to simple, static models and facts. An ethos of co-creativity is oriented world-affirming and world-creating; it understands everything as expansive and incubating multiple futures.

We lifework with love. This does not only mean showing care and taking pleasures in the beings and experiences to which we are oriented and with which we are familiar. It also involves accepting and even embracing what we feel we cannot relate to. This does not mean relinquishing our critical perspectives; we resist and reject through love just as much as we embrace with it. It means that our lifework is animated by attachment and affection for the worlds in which we are embedded.

Trust is essential to our lifework, but it cannot be demanded or taken for granted. We need to understand the risks and privileges that come with trusting, being trusted and being able to trust – or the inability to do these things. The risks surrounding trust differ between different beings – amongst humans, between humans and other beings, and between other beings. Becoming sensitive to the risks of trust is fundamental to life-working respectfully. At the same time, we need to recognize that not trusting others is a privilege not available to everyone as a result of structures of oppression and dependency that generate radically unequal relations. Building trust in our work means recognizing its nuances, its inequalities and the forms of power that shape it for different beings entering into co-creative relations.

We oppose violent totalisms. In particular, our work confronts the unwillingness to share space that has become integral to Western political and economic logics. In some cases, these logics take concrete, large-scale forms such as genocide, white supremacism and settler colonialism. Although our projects differ and do not all focus directly on these subjects, our ways of working contest the logics of power and stuctures that generate them.

We also contest and seek to dismantle acts of hatred against beings other than humans, including hate campaigns against particular beings (for instance, ibis, bell birds, flying foxes, magpies, foxes and lantana). We are acutely aware of discourses on ‘invasive species’ and the very real effects of the movement of beings across worlds. However, instead of mobilizing hate towards these beings, we seek to direct attention towards the conditions in which they have been displaced, and the conditions of their co-existence. Many of these beings are defined as ‘nuisances’, ‘vermin’ or ‘weeds’ by dominant settler colonial cultures because they fail to fit within instrumental logics of usefulness. Instead, we affirm their powerful efforts to survive across multiple times and spaces, and the respect this demands. In some cases, these beings even help to protect and nourish worlds. For instance, although it is considered an ‘invasive weed’ in Australia, the lantana also provides critical habitat for small woodland birds that would otherwise be threatened by habitat loss and cat predation. We affirm and respect the conviction that Country should decide whom and what flourishes with/in it, and which relations are possible.

Our lifework comes with the responsibility to recognize, call out and dismantle structures of violence. We feel powerful obligations to deconstruct dominant forms of authority that make claims to universality. At the same time, we are inspired by and learning from multiple other forms of authority, knowledge, wisdom, law and guidance.

A crucial part of this process is to reflect on the power and possibilities that come with being researchers. We need to pay close attention to the acts of amplification and erasure that our framings, theories and questions enact. In addition, we need to be aware that we must often go to meet others – in their worlds, their country, their knowledge systems – instead of expecting them to come to us. However, we need to go to others as invited guests, rather than entitled intruders. All of us – whether Indigenous or members of settler communities – need to reflect on how colonial violence shapes our worldviews and patterns of thought, how and whom it privileges and oppresses, and how we can combat it.

Although we are committed to critique of existing structures of dominance, we also affirm the need to emphasize the positive efforts, acts and relations that we are privileged to be part of in our lifework. More than this, we commit to strengthening, amplifying and contributing our energies towards these positive assertions of co-be(com)ing.

 

 

[1] Darug scholar and co-author Jo Rey points out that, since most clan, place and other names are transmitted orally, spellings can vary. She derives the spelling in the following way: Wallumai: Black Snapper fish; matta: place; gal: people –> Wallumattagal: Place and people of the Black Snapper Fish

 

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(Bio)plurality

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This is a recording of my recent talk at the Environmental Humanities programme at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Thanks to Thom Van Dooren and Matt Kearnes for organising.

 


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…)


Lifework

*Please also see Lifework Part II*

Over the last year or so, it’s been my privilege to help convene a wonderful collective of scholars, writers, thinkers and knowledge-keepers – the Creatures Collective. We are a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars (I am amongst the latter) who are working together and as part of broader collectives, families and relations to contest dominant narratives of the global extinction crisis. Our conversations center plural forms of Indigenous knowledge and we strive to approach our work as a lived, experiential ethics – what Creature Noah Theriault has called ‘more-than-research’. This approach seeks not only to understand the protocols, laws and bonds broken by ‘extinction’, but also actively to help remake them. This is not only research – it aspires to be a lived, committed, embodied form of work.

I have felt disconnected from this kind of work for most of my career. Finishing my PhD as the global financial crisis ramped up, I entered a UK academic job market in which staying afloat meant producing large numbers of quantifiable, ranked outputs and generating constant flows of grant money (or at least applications). Achievements were not experienced so much as measured, assessed and compiled, calculated into averages and translated into floating numerical indicators of ‘excellence’. Conventions of value and prestige consigned entire categories of publication and modes of working to worthlessness. For instance, a colleague was told that many of her early publications were ‘CV pollution’. Working weekends and late into the night were so normalized that it was considered self-indulgent to take them off. Even if the actual expectations for outputs were not outrageous, I felt enveloped by the pressure to maintain whatever level of productivity I’d reached, constantly attempting to overshoot in the hopes of making some space to catch my breath. Of course, as soon as I did, new demands consumed my hard-hoarded time. As I ‘progressed in my career’, I watched my PhD students racing to publish at an even faster rate than I had found necessary, barely taking the time to settle into their projects before being consumed in frantic job-market strategizing.

This logic and lifestyle were not exactly difficult for me to internalize. If anything, I adapted to them them with an unhealthy degree of compliance. But doing so had deep implications for how work felt. The grating anxiety of quantification formed a thick callous, separating me from my work. I entered a kind of dissociative state in which the work I was doing passed through me without making much of an impression. The time or energy I felt I had available to commit to a piece of work was limited: as soon as a book or article was published, it dropped out of my circle of concern. I became prolific and promiscuous with projects, jumping from one to the next, phasing each one to match the machinery of deadlines, publication gaps and reviewing backups to ensure a constant feed of outputs. What this actually fed was my anxiety: any gaps in the assembly line became signals of failure. Getting promoted and achieving other ‘milestones’ didn’t remove the deadening buzz of pressurized momentum – if anything, they amplified it.

My experience is hardly unique: the culture of constant anxiety, strain, workaholism and wildly inflating expectations is the norm in neo-liberal universities. How are academics expected to deal with this? Well, we are encouraged to develop something called a ‘work/life balance’. At first glance, this sounds like a good idea: earmarking some time free from constant performance surveillance and production mania. But in reality, ‘work/life balance’ is a tool of neoliberal resilience – it encourages small periods of rest in order to sustain high levels of productivity. More than this, it installs a dichotomy between work and life that is harmful to both. It is not simply that ‘work/life’ balance frames ‘life’ as fragments of excess or waste – what is left over after work (if that ‘after’ ever arrives). Just as alarming is the fact that work is opposed to life – it becomes lifeless.

Collaborating with the Creatures Collective has brought me to a different understanding that I will call lifework (centring life, and opposed to the harsh severance of work/life or the disjointing of work-life). Within this group, we talk about work as ethics, as the embodied fulfillment of responsibilities, as relation-weaving and worldmaking. Work is lived, and work has life – one lives, and lives with, one’s work as one lives with other beings. This absolutely does not mean that formal, professional ‘work’ should be allowed to bleed into every aspect of one’s daily life. There are always aspects of working in a modern Western institution that produce abstraction and disconnection, and need to be strictly limited. It also does not mean shirking the duty to publish, write grant proposals or ‘produce’ in those conventional senses. It is still possible to operate in these worlds and to honour many of the demands that they make. Lifework is vigorous, creative and highly generative of a wide range of ‘outcomes’- but production is part of the life of the work, and not an end in itself. It involves recognizing the life (one’s ‘own’ and that of others) put into one’s work, being present in that work and in those lives. Lifework recognizes that work produces beings that affect worlds around them, deserve respect, and command care.

Photo Aug 25, 09 52 55.jpg

Some members of the Creatures Collective co-writing. Clockwise from right: Zoe Todd, Erik Mandawe, June Rubis, Noah Theriault, Audra Mitchell. Other member of the collective include Sarah Wright, Tim Leduc, Vanessa Watts and Genese Sodikoff.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned and principles I’m trying to live up to since working as part of this collective. Because we are a collective, these ideas are ours and not ‘mine’ – but I would not claim to speak for the group as a whole. Instead, I would say that these ideas are inspired and fostered by our collaborative work and relations.  These ideas are also deeply influenced by Indigenous research methods, and by the approaches of Indigenous scholar-friends, but they are not, strictly speaking, Indigenous methods. Instead, they are reflections about the lifework I’m engaging in with others, and how I’m learning to care for it:

Lifework is a responsibility. By virtue of being who and what I am, on this land and planet, as a being that harms other beings in my existence and actions, I have responsibilities to them. The work I do should clarify these responsibilities and help me to live up to them.

Lifework is a commitment that goes far beyond production. I need to make the commitment to every piece of work I do, with all that entails: obligation, care, humility and patience. Regardless of pressures, norms or incentives, I should not begin any piece of work that I am not willing to commit to care for in this way.

Knowledge, ideas, wisdom, creativity and inspiration are gifts. I work with them, but they are not mine in a proprietary way: they are always given, and maintained, by plural others. I need to recognize and receive them as gifts, and wherever it is possible, to reciprocate. I also need to understand lifework in the form of gifts. This does not mean assuming that my work is so excellent that I consider it a ‘gift to the world’. On the contrary, it means having the humility to think about how it can serve others and meet their needs, how it can be given without demanding reciprocity (which would involve exchange, not giving – see Rauna Kuokannen’s excellent work on this subject).

Lifework should not be rushed. It requires building community, living with ideas, changing one’s mind, allowing experience and relations to shape me. All of this takes time; it richens and ripens over time. Lifework needs to be lived with.

Putting something into words – especially shared words – has power and impact, no matter how small or indirect. It may be necessary to wait patiently until I can speak or write about something with integrity before I try to do so.

Just because I can master a subject, form of knowledge, or practice does not mean that I should. I need to be careful, respectful and attentive about what is ‘for me’ and what isn’t. I need to know the limits of my knowledge and place limits on what I expose, take, transport to other spheres or transform.

I need to be concerned about the lives of ideas, words and knowledge that I work with. That means that I need to think carefully about what might be done with those beings, how they might be received, interpreted, instrumentalized, abused, commodified or otherwise co-opted. This does not necessarily mean refusing to write or speak about them, but rather committing to care for them after they are put into different worlds (e.g. in print, online, or into antagonistic forms of academic discourse). It also does not reflect any fantasies of control over the lives of ideas once they leave me, or a stubborn refusal to allow them to be changed, hybridized, hacked, or remixed. Instead, it calls for a commitment to care for those ideas, to defend and protect them when needed, but also to embrace their transformations. This responsibility does not end with publication: it simply enters a new phase.

Keeping secrets, holding knowledge, is as important as disseminating it widely. The imperative to ‘mobilize’ knowledge amongst wide public audiences is a part of academic life. It can be serve a lot of worthy purposes – for instance, fulfilling one’s duties to communities and broader publics, raising awareness of important issues, helping to decolonize knowledge, and creating beneficial networks. However, it can also expose knowledge to predation, instrumentalization, (willful) misinterpretation or violation. Concepts like ‘impact’ and ‘knowledge mobilization’ suggest that knowledge is beneficial to the extent that it is made public. This suggests that all of ‘humanity’ should have a claim to particular knowledge. In fact, sometimes protecting knowledge means keeping it secret, helping to nurture modes of transmission that are closed to outsiders (and respecting this in one’s own actions). It might mean refusing to divulge information that could result in harm, or in cases in which exposure is harm in itself (Simpson 2014). Even if this means that much of the knowledge shared in co-researching is ‘off the record’, this kind of work makes important contributions to the nurturing of knowledge.

When I learn from others, I am taking something and I owe something in return – if only the necessary respect. I may not always be allowed to take what I want. There are obligations involved, permission to be asked, negotiations to be carried out. Others (human and otherwise) can always refuse, and I need to honour and learn from, rather than resent, those refusals.

Lifework must embody my ethics, not just comply with them. Of course, any action compromises my ethics (aside from, and sometimes in conflict with, codes of institutional or professional ethics) should not be part of the work I do. But beyond this negative account, the work I do should help to realize my ethical commitments in the world. My work and ways of working must be ethical acts in themselves.

If I ever find myself working on something that I find boring, repetitive or uninteresting, I should not be doing it. To work with ideas or beings that I don’t actively care about is disrespectful to those things. I should be the right person to make each argument I’m making. If I am not inspired or called by it, then I am not the right person.

Each piece of work I do takes a great deal, not only from me, but from all of the others that co-work with me: time taken away from other things, care, energy, resources, input, patience, calories, bytes, printed paper, emotion, and so on. For this reason, no project should be considered a ‘throwaway’, or a quick job (this calls to mind the recent idea of the ‘quick monograph’ now circulating in UK academia). Rushing to produce something and then abandoning it is deeply wasteful and contemptuous of the value of all of these beings that co-create it.

Sometimes lifeworking in this way means starting from scratch. No matter what I have done or achieved, if I am entering into a new place or body of knowledge, or interacting with beings who are new to me, I need to start from the ground up. There is no shame or loss of stature in this – it is a privilege to be allowed to begin again and renew as one moves through different worlds. This learning takes the time, energy and commitment of others, which all need to be respected, and should not be taken for granted or treated as an entitlement.

 

These are a few of the ideas I am reflecting on – and living with – as I try to move from work/life to lifework. I am not claiming that I live up to these principles  completely, or every day. Instead, they are intentions that are guiding my work, helping me to find – and hopefully to nurture – the life in and around it. I would love to hear from others who are trying to do the same.

 

*Note: I want to recognise that it’s relatively easy for me to write these things from the privileged position of tenure. Colleagues who do not (yet) have this security, and/or are working against structural forms of exclusion, may find it much riskier to talk about their experiences, let alone to criticise the power structures that lock so many of us into unhealthy work-lives. For that reason, I strongly believe that it falls on those of us with tenure (or equivalent job security) do everything we can to create a culture in which all of our colleagues have the time and space to take care of themselves and others. This not only means trying to achieve wellness, kindness and reciprocity in our own lifework, and being a source of support for others, but also talking about these issues in order to make healthier ways of working acceptable in our workplaces.

 

 

 

 

 


Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis

 

Eco fragments 6On Wednesday, 1 June, I am honoured to host some of the most fascinating  scholars working at the intersection of Indigenous philosophy and ecological crisis, both here in Canada and around the world, at the event Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis . If you happen to be in the Waterloo area, please join us  for the opening event, which will include Haudenosaunee remembrance and condolence ceremonies, a talking circle featuring workshop participants and all attendees, songs from the Waterloo Aboriginal Students Association  and an art exhibition/ spoken word performance featuring the work of the very talented Cara Loft and Zoe Todd . This event will mark the beginning of a collaborative project that features contributions from (in alphabetical order):  Tim Leduc, Genese Sodikoff, Makere Stewart-Harawira, Noah Theriault, Zoe Todd, Vanessa Watts and Sarah Wright (joining us on behalf of the Bawaka Country Research Collective)  Special thanks also to my colleagues at the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University (especially Jean Becker, Melissa Ireland and Kandice Baptiste) for their guidance, input and teachings. I am grateful to the gifted (and tireless) Tahnee Prior for her help in organising the event, and to the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Independent Social Research Foundation for funding this event. 

For those of you who can’t join us in person, I’d like to share an abridged version of my opening talk for the event, to give you a sense of the community and projects we are aiming to build. Please note that the text has been edited to remove personal and/or ceremonial aspects of the event out of respect for these people and traditions. 

This workshop marks the beginning of an ongoing, collaborative project, so please get in touch if you are interested  in finding out more.

 

Thank you so much for coming today. I am honoured that you could all join us for the opening of this new project, and I look forward to learning from and with all of you over the next hours and days .I hope that this will event will mark the beginning of many rewarding relationships and new collaborations.

We’ll begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee peoples and offering a formal expression of gratitude to them as our hosts.

[distribution of tobacco twists to elders and invited participants]

… Before handing over to William Wordworth to begin the remembrance and condolence ceremonies, I’d like to say a few words about why we have come together for this few days of sharing, learning and envisioning.

Western science tells us that the Earth is in the midst of a global extinction crisis. The biological extinction of life forms is accelerating rapidly and across the planet as a result of human activity. We are warned that this may be the beginning of a ‘6th mass extinction’ in which most existing life forms may be eliminated in a few centuries.

Yet there is little discussion of what ‘extinction’ means – it is simply assumed to mean the death of ‘every member of a species’. There are so many problems with this definition: not least the Linnaean mode of classification that has given us the concept of species or the more recent construct of ‘biodiversity’, both of which exclude myriad forms of life and relations and draw sharp boundaries between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ that confound the basic principles of so many living cosmologies.

Even the concept of extinction as the irreversible elimination of a life form effaces the ways in which relations ‘extinct’ life forms may continue through relations with the spirit world, through genetic entanglement, and through lived histories that extend across the imposed boundaries of ‘species’.

Crucially, all of these concepts embed deeply colonial ideas of ‘nature’ and human relations with it – from the early roots of conservation in the creation of national parks and the violent eviction of their human inhabitants, to contemporary forms of hyper-capitalist conservation in which ‘species’ and ‘ecosystems’ are traded, offset and financialized as commodities, severing relations of kinship and care.

These concepts furnished by Western secular science cannot capture the enormity of the global extinction crisis – and they mask the violent erasures that they create, including the crowding out of alternative accounts and ways of being-knowing.

Talking to colleagues and friends from different Indigenous communities, I’ve learned how loaded the term ‘extinction’ can be: it evokes colonial beliefs that Indigenous peoples are ‘extinct’, or headed for extinction. I can’t think of a less appropriate way to describe communities whose powerful, collaborative acts of survivance in the face of waves of crisis and violence epitomises the vibrancy of life and strength.

So, we need new terms, concepts and frameworks, but also stories, songs, images, dances, communities of intention – in a word, visions.

These visions must be expansive enough – both in timescale, geographical scale and the complexity they can embrace – to address the global extinction crisis (or whatever we want to call it!) They must reach back into the deep, ancestral past – and far forward into plural possible futures, while remaining grounded in the everyday experiences of multi-species communities in which we are all, differently, enmeshed. They must address the entangled vulnerabilities of Earthly life, rejecting sharp distinctions between humans and nature, living and dead, tradition and modernity.

What better place to look than the rich, vibrant multitude of living Indigenous philosophies and cosmologies?These cosmologies have survived, adapted and nurtured plural life-forms across millennia, negotiating and fostering life in the face of crisis. Indeed, for many Indigenous peoples, the apocalypse has already happened, with the advent of European colonisation. For several centuries, they have been responding, adapting and creating in the face of violence, rupture and destruction – not least the expropriation of their ancestral lands and the severance of their fundamental relations with specific places and beings.

This workshop builds on the intuition that Indigenous philosophy and cosmology can offer radically different approaches to understanding the global extinction crisis. It rejects the Cartesian, rationalist logic of classification and scientific management, instead embracing plural understandings of how humans and other beings form, sustain and care for multiple worlds here on Earth.

While ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ – localizes Indigenous knowledge,  Indigenous philosophies and cosmologies have much to offer in terms of wrestling with the global nature of this crisis, and should not be parochialized against the backdrop of apparently ‘universal’ Western scientific and governance perspectives. I certainly do not want to downplay the importance of connection to specific places and beings, but rather to explore the global significance of contemporary, living Indigenous thought. As Vine Deloria Jr and Rauna Kuokannen (amongst others) have argued, Indigenous knowledge tends to be instrumentalized, treated a source of empirical material that can be used to substantiate the claims of Western science and policy-making. Yet diverse bodies of Indigenous knowledge offer profoundly distinct cosmologies, frameworks, philosophies and spiritualities that are also abstract and transcendent, while remaining grounded in place and concrete experience. Moreover, the idea of ‘traditional’ knowledge imposes a linear, progressivist view of time which parcels it out neatly into past, present and future – and relegates Indigenous thought to the past. Instead, embrace multiple temporalities and are energised by Indigenous visions of multiple possible futures.

Our goal in this project is to engage a wide range of forms of Indigenous knowledge in order to identify resonances amongst them – NOT to find one universal, over-arching theory. In so doing, we hope to generate new insights and visions for apprehending the multiple dimensions of the global extinction crisis, decolonizing the structures of knowledge that dominate the way it is discussed, researched and governed, and cultivate creative, visionary responses to it.

Art exhibition

The following images are from the exhibition “Cultural Projections” by Cara Loft. Cara is Aboriginal Recruitment and Outreach Officer for the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is a Mohawk Woman from wolf clan and her home community is Tyendinaga First Nation. Cara holds a BA in Health Sciences and a postgraduate degree in International Development, with a focus on community development in First Nations communities in Ontario. She is an avid beader, a women’s traditional dancer and hand drummer. Cara is  passionate about supporting aboriginal youth in Canada in all capacities possible, and her current work focuses on  bolstering education, leadership & cultural pride. “Cultural Projections” highlights Cara’s experiences travelling through Aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario, with a focus on pathways and passages. 

Attawapiskat_Catholic_Church_2015

Attawapiskat Catholic Church by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

52.9259° N, 82.4289° W

Attawapiskat First Nation lies on the western side of James Bay. It is an isolated Cree community with a population of 1,549. Each December a Winter Road is constructed to connect the remote communities of Moosonee, Kashechewan, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat being the most northern and remote stop on the James Bay Winter Road. When driving on the Winter Road, the first view you see on the way into Attawapiskat in the Catholic Church sitting high on the hill top. This serves as a reminder of the colonization that took hold of the ‘People of the Parting Stone’ and continues to grip this community. This is reflected in the flagrant natural resources extraction from the open pit Victor Diamond Mine, located a mere 90 km from Attawapiskat.

Ferry_Beausoliel_First Nation

Beausoleil Ferry by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

43.7418° N, 7.4230° E

Beausoliel First Nation is spread across three Indian Reserves, the one pictured here is Christian Island located in Georgian Bay. The peoples of Christian Island largely depend on the ferry system to move back and forth to the mainland; and also move supplies onto the island. Recently one of the main passenger ferries, the 57 year-old M.V. Sandy Graham, was deemed unsafe and had to have $500, 000 worth of repairs to make it usable again. The other ferry, the Indian Maiden, is also in need of repairs as well. Pictured here, we see a community member using their own barge to transport equipment to Christian Island. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or other-wise used or acquired.” Without access to a working ferry, the peoples of Christian Island are at risk of losing their traditional territory and way of life.

 

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Pike, Pic Mobert by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

48.6833° N, 85.6333° W

Pic Mobert is an Anishnabeg First Nation community composed of two small reserves located along the White River in Ontario: Pic Mobert North and Pic Mobert South. These rural communities have roughly 400 band members living on reserve. One of the staple foods in this community is the fish; providing both a practical source of food and cultural connection to the land and waters. Pictured here is a pike caught through the traditional practice of netting. An oasis in North Western Ontario; Pic Mobert is still considered an impoverished reserve without the proper health, education & social resources to address the issues within their communities. Despite these gaps, the cultural connection to land and water is strong and speaks to the resiliency of these communities.

Serpent_River

Serpent River by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

46.183°N 82.550°W

Serpent River is an Anishnabeg community located along the North Shore of Lake Huron. The traditional territory of these peoples extends from the North Channel of Lake Huron, to just past the city of Elliot Lake. In 1847, uranium was discovered near Elliot Lake prompting the Chief at the time to demand protection from mining exploitation. Thus began the era of natural resource extraction from the Serpent River territory. Today, Serpent River is a modest community of 373 on reserve band members that sits quietly on the banks of Lake Huron. Despite a history of land misuse, the natural beauty of this territory is not lost today. Pictured here are the tree’s mid-fall in Serpent River.

 

This_Is_Indian_Land_Garden River_2015

Garden River First Nation by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

Garden River First Nation is located near Sault Ste Marie and is a largely Anishnabeg community. With roughly 1,100 band members, this community sits mainly along the St. Mary’s River and Highway 17B passes through their traditional territory. There has been dispute over Highway 17B and its passage through the Garden River Community, mainly due to the deaths of community members on this road. In April of 2016, band members from Garden River closed down highway 17B for a day to highlight the meaningless accidents and tragedies that happen along this highway. Pictured here is the old rail bridge over Garden River, and a written affirmation of who the traditional title holders and protectors of this territory are.

Fish Friday Images by Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd is a lecturer in Anthropology at Carleton University. A Métis scholar from amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), her work spans the subjects of human-fish relations, Indigenous philosophy, feminism, art, and the important role of Indigenous legal orders within the legal pluralities that shape Canada. Her series of ‘Fish Friday’ images (posted every Friday on her website and Twitter account) explore the fish stories that and creatures that have shaped her more-than-human relations web of relations. 

 

Northern Pike by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Northern Pike by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

My Ideas - 7

Whitefish by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Larry the Lamprey by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Larry the Lamprey by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Lake Trout by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Lake Trout by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Eric the Walleye by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Arctic Char by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Arctic Char by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

My Ideas - 52

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved


Cosmology clash: Mauna Kea

si-tmt_0

Courtesy of TMT Observatory via Wikimedia Commons.

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

– David Jewitt, quoted in the New Scientist 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nene_goose

Nene goose by Benjaminkeen via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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

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

Peak of Mauna Kea by Wolfram Burner http://bit.ly/1U16tXu. Licensed under CC  Attribution-Non-Commercial.

Peak of Mauna Kea by Wolfram Burner http://bit.ly/1U16tXu. Licensed under CC
Attribution-Non-Commercial.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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