Tag Archives: climate change

Planet Politics: Mass Extinction and Worldliness

Green planet by Dejan Hudoletnjak. Licensed under CC 2.0 Attribution-NonCommercial http://bit.ly/1Rh0QkI

Green planet by Dejan Hudoletnjak http://bit.ly/1Rh0YR5

The following is part of a manifesto – “Planet Politics: A Manifesto for the End of IR” created along with my colleagues Tony Burke, Simon Dalby, Stephanie Fishel and Daniel Levine and first presented at the 2015 Millennium Conference on “Failure and Denial in World Politics”. We argue that international relations has failed to offer a politics that reflects the Earth, and that will enable humans to co-inhabit it in the long term. Departing from the standard formalism of academic writing, our manifesto calls for the abandonment of business, politics and ethics as usual, and for a ‘planet politics’ attuned to the biological and geological forces of a diverse Earth. My contributions focus on mass extinction and worldliness.

** You can read the full manifesto here** 

Mass extinction is a problem of global ethics 

In late 2014, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (2014) reported a startling statistic: according to their global study, 52% of species had gone extinct between 1970 and 2010. This is not news: for three decades, conservation biologists have been warning of a ‘6th mass extinction’, which, by definition, could eliminate more than three quarters of currently existing life forms in just a few centuries (Barnosky et al, 2011). A possible (and likely) mass extinction event threatens all life forms on earth – humans included – whether through direct extinction or through its effects (for instance, the collapse of food chains). It does not simply involve the death of organisms or the ‘disappearance’ of ‘species’, even in very long numbers. Rather, it entails the irreversible destruction of their lifeways, histories, worlds and the possibilities of their being. Moreover, it challenges the basic possibility of survival, providing its fundamental boundary condition.

International relations has utterly failed to take account of extinction. As one of two disciplines concerned explicitly with survival (biology is the other), IR cannot continue to ignore its limiting condition and ultimate horizon. Within IR theory, there is simply no conceptual framework for confronting extinction. Cold-war era concepts such as ‘nuclear winter’ (Sagan 1983), ‘omnicide’ and genocide each refer to the possibility of large-scale harm that could lead to extinction. However, they do not attempt to explain what extinction is, but simply treat it as a form of death writ large. In contemporary IR discourses, extinction has been subsumed within security discourses, where it is bracketed as a ‘business as usual’ problem of scientific management and biopolitical control (Aradau and Munster 2011; Evans and Reid 2014). These approaches are ultimately futile: extinction is an ontological event that concerns the destruction of possibilities of being; it cannot be managed through the manipulation of life and death processes. But as long as this belief persists, mass-mediated scare stories about extinction can only bolster and enhance biopolitical power.

Instead, extinction and mass extinction need to be understood in onto-ethical terms. This means acknowledging that extinction involves an ontological rupture – that is, the destruction of modes of existence – and confronting the ethical implications of this. Just as the concept of genocide was created to confront the seemingly unthinkable – the total destruction of peoples – we need ethical concepts, frameworks and sensibilities that can address the enormity of extinction. This means asking what it means to lose or destroy a life form.

The question of what is ‘lost’ in extinction has, since the inception of the concept of ‘conservation’, been addressed in terms of financial cost and economic liabilities (see, e.g., McAfee 1998; Sullivan 2010). The dominant neoliberal international political economy of extinction has radically reduced and distorted perceptions of ‘what is lost’: not capital or profit, but distinctive, irreplaceable worlds, and the diverse possibilities of being embodied in each life form (Grosz 2011). Beyond reducing life forms to capital, currencies and financial instruments, it homogenizes understandings of extinction, imposing a globalizing, Western secular worldview on a planetary phenomenon. Along with this worldview comes a range of assumptions – that humans are separate from other beings; that life forms can be counted and accounted for as clearly-defined ‘species’; that protecting other life forms needs to be rooted in anthropocentric forms of ‘value’. To address the enormity of mass extinction, we need to draw on multiple worldviews – including those emerging from indigenous and marginalized cosmologies that understand the relations between humans and other beings in profoundly different ways. Doing so not only allows us to understand better what is at stake in extinction, but will also multiply the repertoires of responses.

At the same time, even within the Western secular framework (which dominates IR), we need to think more clearly about the ethical implications of extinction. The current escalation of extinctions is in large part a result of anthropogenic causes – global warming, habitat destruction, direct killing and the transportation of species around the earth. Since human action is involved, we can think in the ethical terms that apply to it. For instance, we can trace the forms of violence that contribute to these trends, as well as the chains of exploitation and oppression that underpin them. We can also begin to frame extinction in terms of harm – or, if it proves to exceed existing concepts, to develop new normative frameworks for responding to it. In either case, it is crucial and urgent to realize that extinction is a matter of global ethics. If it does not fit within the existing parameters of global ethics, then it is these boundaries that need to change: (Mass) extinction carries an ethical weight and force that humans can no longer ignore.

We need a worldly sensibility towards politics, and a political sensibility towards worldliness

 Humans are worldly – that is, we are fundamentally and inextricably part of a world. It is not ‘our’ world, as the grand theories of international relations have it – an object and possession to be appropriated, circumnavigated, instrumentalized and englobed (Sloterdijk 2014). Rather, it is a world that we share, co-constitute, create, destroy and inhabit with countless other life forms and beings.

To be worldly is to be entangled. We can interpret this term in the way that Heidegger (2010) did, as the condition of being mired in everyday human concerns, worries and anxiety to prolong existence. But, in contrast, we can and should reframe it as authors like Karen Barad (2010) and Donna Haraway (2008) have done. To them and many others, ‘entanglement’ is a radical, indeed fundamental condition of being-with – it suggest that no being is truly autonomous or separate, whether at the scale of international politics or of quantum physics.

Being worldly, and being entangled, means being plural – more specifically, being ‘singular plural’ (Nancy 1997). Beings-in-worlds co-constitute one another, so that all beings are a multitude. At the same time, world itself is singular plural: what we refer to as ‘the’ world is a multiplicity of worlds that intersect, overlap, conflict, emerge and dissolve. Worlds are not ‘just’ places, and they are not the same as planets. Planet Earth fosters a multiplicity of worlds at multiple scales and across various time scales – from the current multiplicity of social, technical and economic natures-cultures to the extinct worlds of deep time.

Each world emerges from, and consists in, the intersection of diverse forms of being – material and intangible, organic and inorganic, ‘living’ and ‘nonliving’. World emerges from the poetics of existence, the collision of energy and matter, the tumult of agencies, the fusion and diffusion of bonds. These are the conditions of worldliness.

Because of their worldliness, ‘worlds’ are not static, rigid or permanent. They are permeable and fluid. They can be created, modified – and, of course, destroyed. Indeed, concepts of violence, harm and (in)security that focus only on humans ignore most of what constitutes the harm: the destruction and severance of worlds (Mitchell 2014). Indeed, the destruction of worlds is what separates the concepts of genocide (see Nancy 1997) and ecocide (Higgins 2010) from other forms of violence. To destroy worlds is to sever the conditions of worldliness.

To respond to worldliness, and to our own role in its destruction, we need a politics that is worldly, and a worldliness that is political. This requires acknowledging these basic ontological features of worlds, and transforming them into ethical principles that make us responsive to our basic condition of worldliness.

First, we can acknowledge and embrace the conditions of worldliness. Being worldly means understanding that we are nurtured, threatened, nourished and harmed by profound forces – and that our movements, responses and poetics make a difference to worlds. We also need to understand that being-worldly means being-vulnerable along with the other co-constituents of the worlds we inhabit and traverse. Instead of attempting in vain to escape this co-vulnerability, as the global rich attempt to insulate themselves from the worst effects of global warming suffered by the poor – we need to acknowledge its inescapability. Specifically, we need to think about how our world-vulnerability can be embraced as a source of positive solidarity, rather than simply the, fearful, clinging, negative solidarity (Braidotti 2013) forged by survival anxiety.

This means acknowledging that being worldly is not an option or a choice, nor is it an obstacle to human ‘progress’ that can be overcome, whether through major projects of terraforming or emerging projects of space colonization (Mitchell, forthcoming). Instead of confronting worldliness with resentment that prompts nihilistic violence or apathy (Connolly 2011) – or, on the other hand, the instrumentalizing optimism of eco-modernism (Ecomodernist Manifesto, 2015) – this ethico-politics would embrace the conditions, possibilities and limitations of being-worldly. This does not mean that humans can never leave the Earth, but we are always-already in worlds (whatever planet they appear on). Being-other-worldly – whether on Earth or on other planets – means respecting and nurturing the multiplicity and unicity of worlds instead of imposing a ‘master world’ upon them.

Second, we can cultivate gratitude for worldliness and the gifts it confers upon us. We can learn from Nigel Clark (2011) and other post-Levinasian thinkers, who urge us to acknowledge that humans owe their existence to chains of beings stretching back to the Big Bang (and beyond), and outwards in every direction, across the boundaries of species and all other categories. And, in turn, we can attempt to give back – to inhabit, protect, nurture, and, yes, kill and consume other beings and worlds – without expecting them to conform to our demands, or exacting promises from them. Being-worldly means embracing the collective risk of being: engaging in this complex and ultimately finite project with gratitude, attention, resolution and, above all, amor mundi.

REFERENCES

Aradau, C and Munster R (2011) Politics of Catastrophe. London: Routledge.

Barad, Karen, 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Barnosky, A, N. Matzke, S. Tomiya, G.O. U. Wogan, B. Swartz, T. B. Quental, C. Marshall, J. L. McGuire, E. L. Lindsey, K. C. Maguire, B. Mersey & E. A. Ferrer (2011) “Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?” Nature, Vol. 471, pp. 51-7.

Braidotti, R (2013) The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Clark, N (2011) Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. London: Sage

Connolly, W  (2011) A World of Becoming. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Evans, B and Reid, J (2014) Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously. Cambridge: Polity.

Haraway, D (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Heidegger, M (2010 [1953]) Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh, revised and with a foreword by Dennis J. Schmidt. Albany: State University of New York Press.

McAfee, K. (1998) “Selling Nature ? Biodiversity and Green Developmentalism” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 17: 133-54.

Nancy, J., 1997. The Sense of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sloterdijk, P. (2014) Globes: Spheres II. Los Angeles: Semotext(e)

Sullivan, S (2013) “Banking Nature? The Spectacular Financialisation of Environmental Conservation” Antipode Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 198-217.


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.


Securitization gone wild: killer slugs, ASBO bees and xenophobia

Photo by Helen K licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Photo by Helen K licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

This week is Halloween, a time when images of fanged, grimacing jack-o-lanterns bring to mind that most terrifying of security threats: killer plants. If, like me, you grew up in the 1990s, then your childhood nightmares may well have been inspired by that harrowing chronicle of vegetal threat, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which documented a gang of tomatoes that ‘came alive’ for the purpose of terrorizing and killing humans.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was, of course, a silly programme based on an even sillier premise – except in one crucial sense. Namely, it captured and satirized the widespread terror of ‘natural’ beings that breach the boundaries set for them by humans. This fear – paranoia even – is alive and well in today’s media.

Pest Invasion

For instance, did you know that the Northern hemisphere is currently experiencing an ‘invasion’ of terrifying ‘crop pests’? According to a Guardian article from September 2, 2013, a diverse group of these invaders (including insects such as pine beetles and rice blast fungus) are advancing north at the rate of 1.7 miles per year, carried through the transport of agricultural goods and by the weather. By raising temperatures in northerly regions, the article claims, climate change has made these areas more attractive to unwanted, ‘Southern’ migrants. It’s a good thing for those who feel threatened by migration that humans aren’t similarly affected by rising temperatures (oh, wait…)

Why are the movements of these fungi and beetles such a concern for international security? According to the article, ‘pests’ of this kind destroy crops, leading to loss of the amount of food needed to feed  8.5% of the world’s population. This prompts Professor Sarah Gurr from the University of Exeter to state that we need to “monitor the spread of crop pests and to control their movement from region to region if we are to halt the relentless destruction of crops across the world”.

Attack of the killer Slugs

Photo by Brintam licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

As if that wasn’t bad enough, this year the UK also had to contend with an invasion of what the Guardian termed ‘giant killer slugs’. Apparently, “the gardens and fields of Britain were saved from a grim invasion this spring”, in which “millions of giant Spanish slugs… threatened to devastate plants across the country”. In the UK, it suggests, the slugs could have destroyed gardens and damaged the economy by munching on  crops. This time, the temperamental climate was on ‘our side’: unseasonably cold weather killed large numbers of the baby slugs before they could wreak havoc on our lawns.

However, the report suggests that these ‘voracious Spanish slugs’ “may soon make an unwelcome return to our shores”. In response, Dr. Ian Bedford has created the website Slugwatch, which helps people to identify pleasant, hard-working British slugs (which help with composting and make good food for ‘native species, and of which only four of thirty species are considered to be ‘pests’) from these foreign invaders and to report them to scientists to be tracked and controlled.  (These scientists might also consider designing wheel barrows with the words ‘Go home’ emblazoned on the side). Bedford urges the public to mobilize around this threat because, as he points out, bad weather has only saved us from the slug siege ‘for the time being’.

ASBO Wasps

These kinds of threats, however, do not only come from external migrants, but also from the UK’s own underclass species. Take, for example, the spate of attacks on innocent British picnickers by ‘drunk and jobless wasps’, as reported by The Independent on 4 September, 2013. Having completed their dronely duties, male “worker wasps now have nothing to do but laze around getting drunk on fermenting fruit”. Hopped up on the sweet stuff and drawn by the smell of food, they attack and sting unsuspecting humans. According to a response on the Guardian’s Environment Blog, the same cold spring that saved us from the killer slug attack kept wasps in hibernation for longer than usual, unleashing them on us in the late days of summer. As in the case above, the extermination company Rentokil (whom I’m sure are motivated solely by a sense of civic duty) have set up the website UK Wasp Watch. The site encourages people to tweet sightings of wasps and displays the results in an interactive, thermal colour-coding (e.g. red for wasp ‘hotspots’) showing sightings across the UK and, oddly, the Netherlands.

Photo by bluebus licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

Photo by bluebus licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic

But these creatures are not without their defenders. Stuart Roberts, Chairman of the Bees, Wasps and Ants recording society, claims that what the Rentokil map shows is actually people’s intolerance of wasps, rather than the threat of an impending crisis.  Our problem with wasps, he claims, “is that they have a sting and are aggressive in defence, but honeybees behave the same way. And so do humans.” Roberts also defends wasps by arguing that they play the important role of “slaughter[ing] insects” like caterpillars and flies which wreck our gardens.  In other words, the wasps are on our side in the fight against violent (in)sects.

Roberts also points out that we are much kinder to honeybees, which have become a cause celebre of late, featuring in more than one award-winning documentary. Honeybees are recognized as the silent, compliant labouring class which fertilizers the human food supply. But they are also linked to our survival: the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder has long featured in neo-apocalyptic narratives about human extinction. The moral of this story is that we’ll tolerate the creatures that are on ‘our side’ in the fight against violent attackers or mass extinction, but no others.

Securitization gone wild

Each of these three news reports securitizes the movements of particular creatures. That is, it identifies these beings as threats to human lives (or lifestyles), frames the threats as an urgent problem and tries to mobilize the public to act in ways that will constrain them. Securitization is intended to prompt swift, reactive responses to threats. By making these threats seem severe and urgent, it dulls our awareness of nuances and other possibilities, and masks the often disturbing ideas that drive it. The securitization of the ‘pests’, slugs and wasps reflects two troubling issues.

Border control

First, it expresses and condones the notion that humans are separated from ‘nature’ by an invisible border, and that any breaches of this border by the latter are of the gravest concern. Just as borders and regimes of domestic security are intended to protect the territorial boundaries of states, in these examples, ‘humanity’ is treated like a kind of meta-state whose role is to contain, constrain and arrest ‘nature’. As Sarah Whatmore argues, humans maintain a colonial form of domination over ‘nature’ by classifying, controlling and commodifying the creatures we place within it.

Whilst the creatures brought under our control seem more or less harmless, those that remain outside of its scope are consigned to ‘wildness’, and pose a constant threat to the sphere of ‘civilization’. But this border only opens one-way. That is, humans are happy to intervene in ‘nature’ – for instance, by tweaking the genetic structures of plants and animals – as long as this helps to guarantee that we are safe and well-fed. But we’re terrified if plants or animals that might alter our habitats or change our lifestyles move into what we regard as ‘our territory’ (land cultivated by humans) or threaten the species with which we identify.

This line of thinking relies on severe inside/outside distinctions between the human and nonhuman. As we can see from the examples above, the creatures causing all the fuss are not only treated as menaces because they are nonhuman or ‘wild’, but also because they are considered to be out of place. As Tim Cresswell has argued, pejorative terms like ‘weed’ (or, in the cases above, ‘pest’) signify that a particular being has transgressed the borders of ‘nature’ into realm of ‘humanity’. These beings are uninvited, uncultivated and undesired. They threaten to crowd out the ‘proper’ or valued inhabitants of a space. They also raise the spectre of multiplication by breeding prolifically and spreading across space, undermining existing patterns of order as they move.

In each example above, the creatures in question represent alien others: the ‘southern’ pests, the ‘Spanish’ slugs, or the tardy, lazy ‘worker bees’ interrupting middle-class picnics. These unwanted ‘invaders’ threaten to destroy the economy and access to resources for those deemed to be ‘native’ species (human and otherwise). According to this viewpoint, they need to be separated from desirable species, and these latter creatures need to be actively and vigilantly protected from them.

Most importantly, perhaps, their presence and movement reflects just how poor human systems of control are at constraining ‘nature’ which, from the examples above, seems to be an untrustworthy ally – in fact, a volatile double agent.

I hardly need to point out the parallels between these kinds of attitudes and the current spike in public vitriol against immigrants (‘legal’ or otherwise), economic migrants, the working or jobless poor and the looming problem of climate-related migration. If anything, these examples show us that xenophobia is, for much of the UK public, an idea that crosses species (if only we could be so egalitarian in our ethical stances towards other species). But this is not always starkly obvious: the same person who claims to be open-minded about the needs of the poor might experience visceral disgust at the idea of a slug ‘invasion’. And the two ideas are not that far apart.  By urging  a privileged group (in this case, humans and their favoured species)  to ‘close ranks’ when they feel threatened, this impulse entrenches deep and arbitrary divisions between beings.

Fear of change

The other element that comes across clearly in the securitization of these creatures is the human fear of change. Each of the examples above suggests that the movement of living things will alter the world to which we are accustomed. ‘New’ species may appear where they were never seen before, and in some cases, they might harm the species to which we’ve grown attached. They might also breed with these species, creating new hybrids (something else with which Westerners are typically squeamish, according to Latour). In any case, the movement of creatures signals future change, and suggests – as in the case of ‘pest invasion’- that changes already under way are beginning to take effect. Climate change, in particular, threatens to transform the face of the earth in ways that will make it increasingly inhospitable to humans and the species with which they identify. In the wake of the recent IPCC report, the picture seems both grim and inevitable.

This is typical of the kind of thinking that securitization promotes: black and white, pessimistic and often neo-apocalyptic. It treats the future as a dire given, leaving no space to consider alternatives. But even in the case of climate change, not all transformations will be bad, at least not for all beings.

A recent study by Chris D. Thomas, published in Nature, suggests that human-induced climate change may actually increase bio-diversity. Movements and migrations of the kinds described above may help to enrich ecosystems without necessarily disadvantaging the species regarded as ‘native’. According to Thomas, evolutionary origination is also accelerating in human-made surroundings. This means that species are evolving, diverging, hybridizing and even speciating at a higher rate.

Thomas calls attempts to control and suppress these processes – such as the campaigns described above or the European Commission’s plans to regulate species introduced to new places by humans – an ‘unwinnable war’. But it is also, he claims, quite often an irrational one. As he puts it,

“The response of people who find themselves ‘invaded’ by such ‘displaced’ species is often irrational. Deliberate persecution of the new — just because it is new — is no longer sustainable in a world of rapid global change”

The upshot of this study is a powerful idea: that the future will not look like the past, or the present. Species will change and intermingle. Human reliance on particular resources will have to change – so, we may need to look for different food sources just as we are pursuing alternative forms of energy production. At the same time, ‘new’ or hybrid species may emerge  and interlink with other species in ways that we can’t predict based on existing knowledge.

Instead of clamping down and participating in the fantasy of control, we need to think more openly about the drawbacks and benefits – for us, and for other beings – of these transformations. And we also need to be flexible, creative and imaginative when thinking about our role in a rapidly changing world instead of treating all change as a harbinger of doom.

This is the kind of attitude we should towards the mobilizations and migrations that take place around us, whether human or otherwise. Thomas is not a climate change apologist or denier, nor does his study gloss over the harms that might occur to humans and other species as a result of climate change. But he also refuses to deny the fact that the world is in a constant state of formation and transformation – some of which is very positive.

This way of thinking is necessary if we are to resist the narrow-minded, xenophobic, reactionary thinking that the stories above exemplify. Yes, the world is changing and, yes, we humans will have to accept that different kinds of beings will enter and alter ‘our’ worlds. But, as Thomas’ work suggests, this is not  necessarily something to be afraid of.


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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