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.
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.
I’d like to start 2017 off with a post from another Creatures Collective collaborator, my wonderful friend Zoe Todd. Her thoughts articulate my own hopes for the year – especially that we can all find ways to be what is needed in the months to come.
gather up the moss
clean the corners, but not too much
leave things for comfort
of the little creatures
the other beings
sweep up dust
sneeze it towards the sun
sweep your hands across this expanse
this little nest
which you have fought so hard to build
the warmth of the day
hug yourself closely
gather up the threads
the dropped change
clean up the piles
of books and half-finished poems
prepare because you worry
that this little nest
this little place you fought so hard to build
you worry it will need to be
or maybe not soon but soon enough
but you hope
that in your fallibility
your petty anger
your expansive rage
you hope that if loved ones and strangers
must flee unspeakable things
you hope you can provide comfort
you consider that
you refuse hardening
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This powerful post by Creatures’ Collective member Noah Theriault crystallises the need for loving modes of refusal in today’s violent political climate.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about refusal and resistance. What is the difference between them? And what implications does this distinction have for individual and collective action? In part,…
Source: Refusing the Anthropocene
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.
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.
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…)
*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.
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 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.