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Re-Branding Mass Extinction?

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

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

What he gets right

Securitization

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

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

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

Source: IUCN Red List

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

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

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

Extinction opens up possibilities

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

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

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

Where he’s off-base

Extinction has its compensations 

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

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

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

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

Too much focus on formal definitions 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over-optimism:

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

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

*** 

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


Pop apocalypticism: Bob Geldof and the End of the World

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Photo by Celesteh licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Bob Geldof has recently claimed that the world will end – and soon, perhaps in the next 17 years. In an address to a summit of young people in Johannesburg, he warned that anthropogenic climate change could lead to ‘the end’. His speech was rife with neo-apocalyptic themes, including an arbitrary yet specific date for the end of the world and references to unspecified ‘signs’ of impending doom. Geldof presented himself as a kind of millenarian prophet, pronouncing judgment on humanity (let’s not forget the messiah-complex lyrics of his song ‘The End of the World’, in which he compares his prophecy to those of Buddha and Nostradamus).

Apocalyptic posturing like this is counter-productive if the goal is to inspire innovative action around climate change. On the contrary, it’s more likely to provoke a sense of despair and helplessness, resentment at previous generations and the damaged ‘world’ that threatens to snuff out humanity.

But what I find most jarring about Geldof’s claims is that he equates the end of the world with a ‘mass extinction’ event that will wipe out the human species. From this perspective, ‘the world’ will cease to exist if humans in their current form are not here to inhabit it.  Indeed, he claims that “The world can decide in a fit of madness to kill itself”. Given that the only subjects referred to in his speech are humans, we can only assume that the ‘it’ in this sentence is ‘humanity’, and that the self-destruction of humanity is the destruction of the world. The idea that ‘humanity’ and ‘the world’ are co-extensive is a common and misleading one, and it is an example of anthropocentrism at its most extreme.

A great deal of the discourse on climate change is oriented towards protecting ‘humans as we know them’ and maintaining their ways of life. But the truth is that ‘the world’ is not only human. The scope of evolution shows us that species come and go  – and, of course, evolve. Truly challenging thinking about how to cope with world-threatening events does not frame the end of ‘humanity as we know it’ as the end of the world, but rather as a shift into a different configuration of the world.

This is not necessarily a good thing for humans. And I am most certainly not suggesting that we should sit back and accept the destruction of humanity. But we need to use the possibility of humanity’s destruction as a prompt for thinking about multiple possible futures, not for mongering fear about certain and inevitable destruction. We are mired in international security discourses obsessed with uncertainty. Yet it is actually perceived certainties like the one Geldof professes that most suppress human action and ethical sensibilities. They do so by making all outcomes appear pre-determined and all attempts to change them pointless or unfeasible.

There is a need to talk about what the world will look like in the future as a result of destructive human action, and if/when humans (at least as we know them) may no longer exist.  This conversation is already going on in a number of places, not least the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.    In the public sphere, this discussion needs to focus on what the world might be like without humans, instead of assuming that it will be no more.

Thinking about the possibility of a (literally) post-human universe can help us better to understand what we mean by ‘human’ and what we want humanity’s role in the world to be. It can also help to set humans into context, placing us back into the broader sweep of geological time from which humanism has artificially removed our species.  

It may engender a more realistic sense of human capabilities, putting human agency into perspective by juxtaposing it with much larger forces and events and encouraging us to think about how our agency might be combined with these forces in more positive ways. And, by forcing us to think about a world where we don’t exist but other beings do, it can help us to cultivate humility in relation to other beings and ways of life.

At its very best, thinking about the end of ‘humanity as we know it’ it can cause humans to imagine creative ways of responding in the face of the loss, destruction and radical finitude. The pangs of melancholy or anticipated loss can help us to engage with the world with a greater sense of attachment and respect. Awareness of finitude and the massive scale of time can help us better to value and attend to the conditions that we cherish.

All of these things are likely to lead to a sense of commitment to the world that can inspire creative action.  They offer much stronger for inspiring action  because they are based on positive affective attachments rather than nihilism and fear.  

In other words, a little bit of apocalyptic thinking can be a good thing – and it may be necessary if humans are to make even a minimally adequate response to the large-scale harms to which they have contributed so much.

The problem with Geldof’s brand of pop apocalypticism is that it backs humans into a corner. Claiming that the world will end within 17 years makes human action seem impossible or at least ineffective.

It also entrenches the fantasy of human agency as the dominant force in the universe. Indeed, Geldof calls on his audience to respond to their impending demise by being ‘more human’ – that is, by reasserting human agency. It is precisely this kind of anthro-instrumental logic that closes humans to meaningful connections with other beings and underwrites their destructive consumption of the world.

On the other hand, an outlook that entirely denies the possibility of human extinction can focus human thinking too narrowly on short-term , small-scale efforts. This outlook fails to push human thought and ethics to its borders, and therefore is likely to produce conservative and uncreative responses.

So it’s important to hold the idea of human extinction suspended in our minds as a contingency, in two senses: as one possibility among many, and as a point from which many possibilities may emerge.

Ironically, this may be the only way to generate the ethically-infused action needed to protect humans and the many other kinds of beings with whom we form a world. To do this, we need to contemplate the end of ‘humanity as we know it’ without treating it as the end of the world.


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