Can water go extinct?

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Women Sitting Down

Two Women Sitting Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ignoring Extinction/Refusing Global Politics

 

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

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

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


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.

 

 

 

 

 


Extinction is the end – or is it?

Extinction is the total, irreversible end of a life form – or is it? The claim of irreversibility is often used to highlight the stakes of extinction, and the danger of following courses of action that one cannot repair. I’ve used this argument myself to drive home the seriousness of the global extinction crisis. But something doesn’t sit quite right with it. It is too totalizing, too final, too certain a claim to reflect the plurality and uncertainty of the turbulent Earth. What’s more, it might pre-emptively, and figurally, extinguish life forms in a way that exceeds the biological sense of extinction.

One of the major problems with dominant scientific and public understandings of extinction is that it is equated with death, either in aggregate or writ large. In the first case, extinction is understood as the biological death of every member of a species, and mass extinction as the accumulation of species deaths past a particular threshold. In the second case, extinction is understood as a scaling-up of death – that is, the metaphorical ‘death’ of species, constituted by the biological deaths of all their members.

First of all, extinction isn’t death: the two concepts are, and need to be kept, distinct. As Deborah Bird Rose has insightfully argued, extinction is the severance of processes of life and death that sustain each other, and the life forms they encompass. But what really causes problems with mainstream accounts of extinction is that they conceptualize death in Western secular terms. Within contemporary Western secular cosmologies (which I have written about extensively here), death is literally a ‘dead end’. Western secularity, in fact, has almost no place for death – it is understood as a superlative evil, an irreversible absencing and loss from which there is no return. It is this concept of death that underpins framings of extinction as the total and irreversible elimination of a life form.

By framing ‘extinct’ beings in this way, these discourses may erase evidence of the refusal of extinction – that is, creative, collective modes of survival beyond the scope of Western (secular) science. To appreciate this, we need to look beyond the hard boundaries of this cosmology.

 

 

“What if extinction isn’t really extinction?” asked my colleague Tim Leduc in one of the rich and challenging discussions that made up the first meeting of the Indigenous Visions research collective. His careful and nuanced research on Inuit and Haudenosaunee cosmologies in dialogue with Western cultures of climate change has given him an alternative perspective on this idea. Tim points out that within the Inuit Qaujimautuqangit framework, there are ample stories of the disappearance of animals. They relate to the Sedna, an indweller of the deep seas who controls all of the animals and plants, both in sea and on the land. When the Inuit break the protocols of daily life – including hunting – negotiated with the Sedna, she causes the animals on which the Inuit rely to withdraw from the land and sea. Tim’s research shares the observation of Inuit people living in Nunavat who have seen evidence of Sedna’s discontent in the decline of Arctic char and the changed behaviour of polar bears, amongst other signs. Vanessa Watts  pointed out that there are similar stories of withdrawal in the Anishinaabe tradition, also related to the breaking of laws and protocols between forms as a result of human actions. She stressed that, from this viewpoint, the animals are not extinct in the scientific sense, but have withdrawn. It is possible – although by no means guaranteed – that the restoration of protocols would enable the animals to return.

From the perspectives shared by both Tim and Vanessa, the global extinction crisis is about the breaking of laws, rules and protocols that have sustained life amongst multiple kinds of beings for millennia. In fact, it involves a  dominant group of people breaking bonds carefully nurtured and sustained by others – a feature of the colonial forms of inhabitation that are integral to global-scale ecological rupture.  This approach inverts standard accounts of extinction, which frame it as a problem of technical control and economic management, and seek to prevent Western secular notions of death. Instead, the disappearance of life forms understood as the grievous violation of an agreement, a harm to be actively and humbly mended. Such a perspective is promising for re-visioning the global extinction crisis as a crisis of global ethics.

This framing removes the reprieve of finality. In short, if one believes that extinction is irreversible, one is let of the hook when it comes to dealing with the extinct life form. Treating extinction as the breaking of a protocol places an onus on all humans – but especially those who are most responsible for driving forward this crisis – to restore, maintain and, crucially, create new multi-life-form treaties for sharing the Earth. This only becomes possible if one moves away from an understanding of extinction as an  irreversible process immune to human action. This assumption is upheld by homogenous ideas of human action that focus on instrumental control rather than reciprocity and negotiation.

The idea that extinction is total also erases the traces and presences of the extinct within the extant. For instance, by treating a life form as ‘extinct’, these discourses ignore their persistence in human communities – whether in the collective imagination or the names of clans. I (and the other members of the collective) are also not sure what happens to animals that occupy v spirit worlds once they are extinct in biological terms. This is a question that we’ll have to explore with the help of the elders and knowledge-keepers with whom we’ll be working.

A total and irreversible concept of extinction also obscures genetic legacies, which forge living links between the extant and extinct. As Nigel Clark has pointed out, all currently existing life is indebted to forms of life that went before, to their striving and collective efforts of survival that enabled evolution. This relationship continues not only in the form of DNA and shared histories that transgress the boundaries of species, but also (to name just a few) in morphology, histories of habitation and migration and instinct transmitted and transformed through evolution. To adopt, as Clark encourages, gratitude towards these beings is to acknowledge the impossibility of total extinction.

As long as the concept of extinction refers to total and irreversible elimination, it erases these, and many other, acts of survival and of the refusal to go extinct. Critics might argue that this line of thought undercuts the seriousness of the problem and might create a moral hazard. That is, if we don’t understand extinction as total and irreversible, will it not give license to those driving the crisis to continue with business as usual? This is not at all the argument I’m making. On the contrary, what this approach suggests is the need for careful attention to the securitizing, totalizing, dichotomizing language of Western secular science, which draws as sharp boundaries between ‘extinct’ and ‘extinct’ as it does between ‘living’ and ‘dead’. This approach can erase powerful acts and processes of continuity, of the transversal of these boundaries, of presencing against the accumulation of mass absence described by experts on extinction. Crucially, this presencing may not be visible or sensible, at least not in the frame of Western secular science. It may take the form of hiding or withdrawal, and it makes no promises of reversal, but always holds open the possibility – and the imperative – of the renewal of broken bonds.

Will the extinct return if those bonds are mended? This cannot be predicted, and the renewal of bonds shouldn’t be undertaken in such a conditional way. This is akin to techno-scientific attempts to evade Western secular death by forcing the extinct back into being, whether through coercive breeding, de-extinction or mourning. From the perspective I’ve sketched out here, these strategies add insult to injury: they respond to the violence of broken protocols by coercing life forms into the sphere of bio-political control.

And the ‘return’ of large numbers of life forms is not always the sign of a repaired bond. Indeed, Tim and Vanessa both spoke about stories within the Anishinaabe tradition of the return of large raptors, other birds and animals as a sign of major, perhaps catastrophic change. Since I moved to southern Ontario in late 2015, I have seen these kinds of phenomena: groups of as many as 20 or 30 red-tail hawks circling together as they moved north; and the gathering of what I am told is nearly 30 000 crows in a local park every evening (see the short film posted above).

We need to pay attention to these forms of presencing, whether they are warnings of disaster or the sign of slowly repairing bonds. Moving away from an understanding of extinction as large-scale death, as total and irreversible, takes away the easy option of consigning the extinct to oblivion. Instead, it calls for the hard work of confessing and addressing broken protocols, and working to create new ones, with no guarantee of a return, and no relief from responsibility.


Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

[distribution of tobacco twists to elders and invited participants]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art exhibition

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

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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.

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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


Spiked: violence, coloniality and the Anthropocene

This online mini-exhibition is presented in advance of the initiation of the Anthropocene Re-working Group (with Zoe Todd), which will take place at the Conference “Landbody: Indigeneity’s Radical Commitments” at the Centre for 21st Century Studies, Milwaukee, 5-7 May 2016. 

The full text of our presentation is available here: Earth violence text Mitchell and Todd

Since this is a work in progress, please let us know if you would like to reproduce it. For the same reason, all rights are reserved for the use of these images. . Contact me if you’d like to share, reproduce or alter them. 

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Strata by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

 

Since the early 2000s, there has been a scramble amongst scientists to define the boundaries of the ‘Anthropocene’. In the rush to mark and claim this era, hundreds of scientists and some social scientists are racing to find a definitive ‘golden spike’. The golden spike is a discursive, imagined, yet very real placetime in which scientists intend to drive a stake, claiming the conversion of the Earth into a human dominion. Most notably, the ‘Anthropocene Working Group’ of the subcommission on Quarternary Stratigraphy is planning this year to announce where/when the spike should be driven. It will choose amongst numerous proposals, including the detonation of the first nuclear weapons, the Industrial revolution, and the beginning of large-scale agriculture.

In so doing, this group of overwhelmingly white, male scholars of the physical sciences, whose meetings are closed to the public, plan to make a claim on behalf of ‘humanity’ over the history, future and fate of the planet.

Critics of the Anthropocene are producing excellent work on the domination of scientific perspectives amongst Anthropocene discourses,on Anthropocentric narratives that magnifies human agency and entrenches the human/nature divide, and the inaccuracies of claims that ‘humans’ as a whole are responsible for the phenomena transforming the Earth. Yet there has been little focus on the role of foundational violence in the Anthropocene and the distinctively colonial violence enacted through the forces re-shaping the Earth and the discourses arising to describe them. Recently, the geographers Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have made an important contribution to this discussion. They argue that the beginning of the Anthropocene should be placed in 1492, the year when the colonization of what would become the Americas resulted in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Maslin and Lewis focus on the ecological outcomes of this period of mass violence and expropriation.

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Spiked by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Building beyond this,  Zoe Todd and I are initiating a new artistic/performative/collective thought experiment focused on role of violence in the Anthropocene. We will be looking at multiple modes of violence, including the detonation of nuclear weapons and the slow violence of capital accumulation, industrialization and extinction. Each of these phenomena, central to the concept of the Anthropocene, are rooted in the historical/geological moments and trajectories of violence that are colonisation. To this end, we are inaugurating a public ‘Anthropocene Re-working Group’ whose goal is to explore the violences shaping the planet in open-ended, multi-media, multi-disciplinary ways (more on this to follow…)

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Entanglement by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

To begin this project, I wanted to get my hands on some actual spikes to think and feel through the discourse of a ‘golden spike’. Engaging with these spikes allowed me to reflect on their materiality and their potential for violence. Handling them enabled me to sense their  weight and shape, their utility as weapons, the intention of penetration with which they were forged, their appropriative nature, as the stakes through which claims to land and ‘resources’ are made. These particular spikes, salvaged from a defunct stretch of railroad, also evoked the violence of industrialisation, the expropriation of Indigenous lands across North  America and the near-extinction of the American buffalo as a result of hunting from trains. Even their material basis is poignant: it brings to mind and hand the metals torn from soil and stone to fuel the demand for industrial resources and capital speculation.

I composed these images in order to encourage contemplation of the ‘golden spike’ as a central and meaning-multiplying  embodiment of the impulse to mark and bound the Anthropocene. These are my initial responses to the idea of the golden spike and the intention to tell different stories about the violence of the Anthropocene. I hope that this nascent project will encourage and foster the exchange of many alternative stories, images and ideas.

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Death/metal by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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Planetary Boundaries by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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Subcommittee by Audra Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.


Everything is *$@&ing dying!

We need to talk about the Global Extinction Crisis 

The global extinction crisis (GEC) is hard to talk about – and I don’t mean metaphorically. There’s a broad, diverse and growing group of scholars, activists, artists and thinkers engaging seriously and eloquently with this phenomenon. But it can be surprisingly hard to communicate about it with colleagues in other fields, policy-makers, students and others outside of the academy. More often than one might think, talking about the GEC sparks a range of negative reactions, from skepticism to outright dismissal. Why is this the case?

I don’t think it’s down to ignorance or outright denial – although there are certainly a lot of misconceptions, which I’ll discuss shortly.  There is widespread awareness of the term ‘extinction’, and of the fact that some species – ‘endangered’ ones in particular – are facing it. But unlike discourses on catastrophic climate change (which emerged in the same era as awareness of the GEC) there doesn’t seem to be a strong public sense of the scope and scale of the issue. For many of my interlocutors, the idea of a global extinction crisis just doesn’t resonate in a way that generates robust public discourse.

In the hopes of making these conversations a little easier, I’ve put together an FAQ including the most common questions I’ve come across – as well as the not-so-hidden objections, resistances and dismissals (in brackets).

I don’t know what a ‘global extinction crisis’ is (optional air quotes). Do you mean biodiversity decline/loss? (cue possible mansplaining).

No – I definitely mean the global extinction crisis. The term ‘decline in/loss of biodiversity’ refers to a particular way of understanding extinction drawn from Western secular scientific discourses. It measures the quantity of species, their richness and other factors (aggregated as ‘biodiversity’ – see my critique of the concept here) in relation to pre-calculated baselines. In other words, the concept of biodiversity decline/loss is a way of measuring patterns of species extinctions against scientific judgments of what does, or should, exist in a particular ecosystem.

Importantly, it also refers to the process through which the GEC happens, rather than the phenomenon itself – in the same way that ‘rising global average temperature’ describes the process that produces catastrophic climate change but does not capture the full meaning of the phenomenon. If we use the concepts of ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ synonymously with the concept of the GEC, we confuse one particular means of measurement with the much broader ecological, socio-cultural, ethical, economic and myriad other dimensions of the issue.

Talking about the GEC in terms of ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ also has a euphemizing effect: these terms suggest a slow, gradual diminution of biodiversity. In fact, the GEC is marked by a rapid and massive spike in species extinctions (see the graphs below). In terms of the distortion of scale and magnitude, referring to the GEC as ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ is similar to referring to war as a spike in violent crime rates, or to catastrophic climate change as ‘bad weather’. It misses the conceptual point, and significantly distorts understandings of what is at stake.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 19.06.40

Source: Ceballos et al, 2015. “Accelerated Modern Human-Induced Species Losses: Entering the 6th Mass Extinction”, Science Advances, Vol. 1 No. 5. A shows a highly conservative estimate and B shows a conservative estimate of the spike in species extinctions.

 

Ah, now I get it – you’re talking about the effects of climate change (expression of relief at the introduction of a more familiar topic).

 No: climate change and the GEC should not be conflated, but they are related in several important ways. First, catastrophic climate change is a driver of the GEC (see this article for a good explanation). Climate change affects global patterns of extinction in a number of ways, including by altering the composition of biomes to which particular life forms are adapted. For example, ocean acidification destroys the habitat of many marine species, while rising temperatures in montane areas may cause the extinction of specially-adapted tree species.

Second, climate change and the GEC share several drivers: for instance, deforestation contributes to both. However, it is important not to confuse a shared driver for the equivalence of two very different phenomena. Deforestation functions in specific ways within each respective phenomenon: by altering atmospheric conditions in the case of climate change, and by destroying unique habitats in the case of the GEC. In a related sense, it is crucial not to mix up the GEC with any one of its drivers. There is a tendency to assume that the GEC is a form of large-scale, generalized destruction, but it actually refers to something very specific: the total, global and irreversible elimination of a large number of interconnected life forms. To stick with our example, deforestation often produces extinctions that contribute to the GEC. However, it may instead produce local extirpations or decreases in population, but no extinctions. So despite the fact that both phenomena involve large-scale destruction, they should not be confused.

Third, catastrophic climate change and the GEC are threat multipliers: that is, they converge, compound and accentuate particular threats. For instance, the possible extinction of bees along with aridication of farmland could combine to produce massive famines. In such cases, the convergence of climate change and global patterns of extinction are more than the sum of their parts, and they exacerbate each other.

Fourth, the GEC may become an important (and underestimated) driver of climate change. For example, the large-scale extinction of plant species would have a substantial impact on the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The extinction of insects and other animals involved in the pollination of plants would also contribute to this trend.

So, climate change and the GEC are linked in important and complex ways but are undoubtedly distinct. This is often obscured by popular discourses, which often subsume the GEC within the category of climate change (or as one aspect of the Anthropocene). Indeed, the GEC rarely makes an appearance in international policy discourses except when it is mentioned as one of the many possible effects of climate change. As a result, its distinct causes, processes, significance and demands are often assumed to be the same as those of climate change. This leads policy-makers to underestimate the magnitude and significance of the issue, and discourages a clear focus on responses tailored to the GEC. Instead, the GEC should be recognised as a planetary crisis and threat on par with climate change and nuclear warfare in its potential effects on Earthly life.

Oh, you mean mass extinction, like the ones that killed the dinosaurs and dodos? (Optional subtext: that seems like a pretty niche topic, given the many, more urgent problems that humans are facing today).

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Popular images of dinosaurs consign the GEC to history. Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Yes and no. An increasing number of scientists are predicting that the GEC will ultimately produce a sixth mass extinction event – formally defined as the elimination of 75% or more of extant species. If that does occur, then yes, the alteration of life on Earth may be similar – that is, similarly extreme – to what occurred during the previous five mass extinction events. Dominant species may disappear, along with entire branches of the evolutionary tree. And yes, some life forms will almost certainly survive, evolve and eventually fill these vacant niches – whether they turn out to be bacteria, giant rats or something completely unpredictable on the basis of existing life forms.

However, the global extinction crisis is not a distant historical event: it is happening now. The public popularity of narratives about extinct life forms – and dinosaurs in particular – has had the ironic effect of consigning mass extinction events to history. That is, people think of them as things that happen to other species, so long ago and far away that they seem fictional or mythical. This effect may be partially because of the physical and temporal scales of the crisis. No one can see the GEC ‘as a whole’, and it is spread out across a time period that, although miniscule in geological terms, far outstrips public memory and governmental planning. Also, mass extinction events are defined retrospectively, since every other one preceded the existence of humans by millions of years. So, since it hasn’t run its course yet, we can’t talk about the GEC in the same way that we discuss the five mass extinction events. However, it is currently unfolding into the recent past and the deep future, and transforming the fundamental possibilities of life on Earth. (So no, I doubt it qualifies as a ‘niche’ topic.)

Is there any actual/conclusive proof that a mass extinction is going to happen? (optional tone of knowing skepticism)

People tend ask this because they are (a) afraid that it might be true and/or (b) quite reasonably concerned about the distortionary effects of fear-mongering and securitization. Indeed, the extinction of 75% or more of extant life forms seems extreme, and perhaps too bad to be true. For some people, it sounds like the kind of scare-tactic used to strong-arm governments and business into inconvenient ‘environmental’ policies. For others, it sounds more like the kind of affective manipulation that governments and businesses might use in order to consolidate biopolitical power and control. These approaches are not entirely wrong-headed, wherever one stands politically. No one knows beyond a doubt exactly how many life forms might be eliminated in the GEC, and whether or not it will cross the threshold of a mass extinction event. There is substantial and growing evidence to suggest that this is likely to occur (for starters, see here, here and here) – and also lively contestation of this data (see, for instance here).

Either way, the debate over whether the technical threshold for a mass extinction event is passed is far beside the point. We may not be able to know whether or not 75%, 20%, 5% or 97% of currently existing life forms will still be extant in a few hundred years. What we do know is that the rates at which they are disappearing are rapid and extreme. The entire, intricate fretwork of life on Earth is undergoing a dramatic change – and not just a transformation, but rather the total destruction of many of its elements. It matters whether the numbers eventually add up to 75%, 20%, 5% or 97%, since each of these scenarios would produce a very different world. But this is not the only thing that matters. More significant, I think, is the global-scale destruction of the unique, irreplaceable worlds that have nurtured life on this planet for millions of years. We don’t need to wait for this destruction to pass a particular threshold to know how significant this is.

Scientific and philosophical skepticism are crucial contributors to public discourses on the GEC. They help to interpret, examine and criticize the various knowledge claims competing for the public’s attention. However, taken to an extreme, they may produce the kind of (un)intentional denialism that fuels climate skeptics in the face of overwhelming evidence. This means that we should focus on the concrete manifestations of the GEC instead of demanding certainty from the abstract terms used to interpret it. We should also turn more of this invaluable critical attention to responding to the GEC, whatever it turns out to ‘be’ in abstract terms.

 Wait, do you mean just animals might go extinct, or humans too? (gasp) 

I mean, potentially, everything currently alive (see title). Humans tend to think about extinction as something that happens to ‘animals’ (even though many of the most threatened life forms are plants) and not to ‘us’. The GEC doesn’t discriminate along species lines, no matter how much members of homo sapiens might like to be exempt. It involves the collapse of interconnected life forms, and it is not possible to determine in advance exactly which ones will go extinct and which ones will survive – this will be determined by the particular patterns and extinction cascades that occur. Even if this could be determined, it is not a matter of ‘losing’ particular species in a subtractive manner. What is threatened by the GEC is not an aggregate of species, but rather the unique, irreplaceable worlds formed amongst and across them. It is these worlds – and all of the life forms that constitute them – that will be affected by the GEC. This is not to suggest that all life forms are affected equally, for instance, those species designated as ‘endangered’ are more likely to go extinct than others. However numerous examples from history show that previously abundant species (e.g. African elephants or Great Auks) were subject to sudden extinction. So, it is misleading to assume that a life form is ‘safe’ simply because it does not make the IUCN ‘Red List’.

Humans should not uncritically assume that their species will survive the GEC, particularly in its current form. In fact, discussions about the possibility of human extinction in discourses of ‘existential risk’ should be brought into more critical encounters with discussions of the extinctions of other species. For instance, nuclear or biological warfare, asteroid strikes or hostile artificial intelligence might not only threaten the continued existence of homo sapiens, but rather of all living things. Potential drivers of the GEC – whether relatively gradual species extinctions or a suddenly nuclear blast – should be examined in concert. The most important factor, ethically speaking, is that they threaten the continuity of life forms – humans included.

It is important to note that for some of my Indigenous interlocutors, the idea of ‘extinction’ is negatively loaded. When applied to Indigenous groups, it tends to frame them as ‘endangered species’ that will inevitably face extinction. In this way, it also naturalizes the elimination of peoples, obscuring the central role of colonial violence. It’s crucial not to reinforce such destructive narratives (in fact, I think more attention needs to be paid to the role of colonial violence in the GEC). Here, the term ‘extinction’ doesn’t apply to just some humans, but rather to the idea that homo sapiens as a whole is not exempt from it. I am attempting to break down the siloed bodies of thought that separate discussions of ‘biodiversity’ from those of ‘human extinction’ by thinking of extinction in ontological terms. That means viewing it through the lens of the possibilities of being, non-being and negation – which do not stop at the boundaries of species.

Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of IR theorist or ethics expert? Why are you talking about this? (And what makes you think you’re qualified to talk about this – you’re not a proper scientist).

True, I am not a scientist, ‘proper’ or otherwise. But the GEC is not only a matter of science, nor is scientific inquiry the only way to respond to it. This crisis raises profound challenges to the continuity and possibility of life on Earth. I struggle to think of a more relevant topic for IR, which is concerned primarily with survival and security (which I have written about here), or global ethics, in which the largest-scale harms, dilemmas and problems are debated.

The possible collapse of Earthly life undermines the basic assumptions and principles of IR theory, demanding new paradigms and frameworks. Meanwhile, in global ethics, its magnitude and significance calls into question major concepts such as harm, responsibility and responsiveness. Across both of these disciplines, there are important frameworks for responding to large-scale harms and catastrophes, including genocide and nuclear warfare. Yet no such frameworks exist for the GEC.

A phenomenon as complex as the GEC should not be approached through a single definition or mode of response, even one as wide as ‘science’. As environmental humanists point out, the phenomenon of extinction is experienced in multiple ways across cultures and multi-species communities, who respond to it in diverse ways. Scientists have an important role to play in conceptualizing the GEC and considering possible responses, but theirs is not the only form of knowledge needed to confront this phenomenon. Insights from the arts and humanities, anthropology, geography and philosophy are helping to elaborate the nature, scope and depth of the GEC. Crucially, Indigenous and non-Western cosmologies, and the plural bodies of knowledge that they produce, offer distinct ways of conceptualizing the GEC and modalities of response. All of these forms of knowledge need to be engaged and brought into creative confrontation in order to respond to the GEC.

As an interdisciplinary researcher, I’m interested in drawing together, contrasting and critically combining different ways of knowing and experiencing the GEC in order to produce new and unexpected modes of response. Don’t expect me to answer specific questions about the rates of extinction facing your favourite species (a common test of a person’s ‘scientific chops’), or to reproduce the results of a particular study. What I do is to interpret what these data mean in terms of ethics, across cultures and forms of knowledge, in relation to existing norms and practices in international governance, politics, law and security, how they affect politics and how they might translate into effective collective action.

The GEC is too important to be ‘left to the scientists’ –not scientists specifically, but any group of people working within a single knowledge framework. This issue is big enough, and important enough, that we’re going to need every possible source of insight, wisdom and vision to confront it.

Yeah, I know what you mean about extinction (guilty look). But at the end of the day, it’s a ‘dirty word’/depressing topic and nobody in policy circles wants to talk about it.

This rings true, since policy-makers seem to avoid the term ‘extinction’ like the plague (see above). Of course policy-makers need to sell their ideas, and the promise of comprehensive demise is not necessarily a strong motivator – although, as mentioned earlier, the fear factor might be. But unfortunately, this attitude produces a profound inarticulacy about the GEC in governance circles, and encourages the use of misleading formulations.

For instance, as discussed above, policy-makers often use the term ‘biodiversity decline/loss’ to talk about aspects of the GEC. In most cases, the general area of policy-making is simply called ‘biodiversity’ or sometimes ‘conservation’. Both of these terms obfuscate in important ways. ‘Biodiversity’ is the ‘good’ that policy-makers want to protect or secure. To focus only on the positively-charged idea of biodiversity would be akin to using the term ‘survival and well-being’ to talk about disaster relief. It doesn’t address the threat at hand, but only the desired outcome of policy-making.

Using the term ‘conservation’ focuses not only on the positively-charged action being taken, but it also reduces the entire set of possible responses to one logic and approach. Certainly, conservation may play an important role in addressing the GEC, but it does not exhaust the gamut of ethical, socio-cultural, spiritual, political, economic and other modes of responsiveness that should be mobilized. It also entrenches the dominance of Western, scientifically-based and increasingly capital-driven forms of activity that not only exclude other approaches but may exacerbate the problem. It is very important not to assume that ‘conservation’ is a unified field, or that it is a proven ‘solution’.

What’s more, talking about the GEC in terms of ‘biodiversity’/’conservation’ makes it sound as if this phenomenon is manageable within the boundaries of existing frameworks and practices. This obscures the potentially unprecedented, radically disruptive nature of the problem, for which no existing policies, frameworks or norms are adequately prepared. After all, if they were, the GEC would not be occurring.

 

 

This FAQ demonstrates how difficult it can be to talk about the GEC. Often I find myself silently (or less silently) exclaiming: “Everything is *&$#ing dying! How much more clearly can I put it?” Of course this is an exaggeration, and of course the GEC is nowhere near this simple to grasp. But I stand by the sentiment: we need to be talking about the GEC directly, seriously, and, if not quite unflinchingly, then with reflexivity and critical thinking. We – and I mean a big, wide, profoundly plural, multi-cosmology, cross-disciplinary, inter-sectoral, intersectional, multi-species ‘we’ – need to confront the GEC face on, and with everything we’ve got.

 


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