Tag Archives: colonisation and settler colonialism

Cosmology clash: Mauna Kea

si-tmt_0

Courtesy of TMT Observatory via Wikimedia Commons.

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

– David Jewitt, quoted in the New Scientist 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nene_goose

Nene goose by Benjaminkeen via Wikimedia Commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Decolonising the Anthropocene

Last month I argued that a posthumanist orientation to colonization can help humans to face the challenges of the Anthropocene. And just last week, I read a fascinating article that offers new opportunities for developing this line of critique.

The piece, “Defining the Anthropocene” by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, assesses several of the possible ‘golden spikes’ (more accurately, Global Stratographic Section and Points, or GSSPs) that might mark the advent of the epoch. It engages with several of the better-known options: the beginning of agriculture; the start of the industrial revolution and the first detonation of nuclear weapons. But it also introduces a new candidate: the 1492 Columbian expedition that initiated the intensive European colonization of the Americas. In short, this paper puts forward the novel thesis that colonization is a driving, perhaps even defining, element of the Anthropocene.

Colon Pointing by sfgamchick (http://goo.gl/GKHraX). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-Commercial-NonDerivs.

Colon Pointing by sfgamchick (http://goo.gl/GKHraX). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-Commercial-NonDerivs.

Specifically, it foregrounds the decimation of the human population of the pre-Columbian Americas – the authors cite estimates of 54-61 million people in 1492, which was reduced to a minimum of about 6 million as a result of exposure to diseases, war, famine and enslavement. This period of mass death and killing, they explain, led to the almost comprehensive cessation of farming and a reduction in the use of fire to terraform landscapes. In turn, this sparked the regeneration of over 50 million hectares of forest, woody savanna and grassland, which vastly increased carbon uptake. Drawing on two sources from two Antarctic ice cores, the authors state that this resulted, by 1610, in what was probably the most significant dip in pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 levels of the past 2000 years. According to the Lewis and Maslin, this event can function as a GSSP because it constituted a global event and has several auxiliary markers (including pollen records showing regeneration, proxies indicating anomalous Arctic sea-ice extent, a reduction in coal deposits and others). The authors refer to this approach as the “Orbis hypothesis”, a name chosen to emphasize the globalization of trade and the modern world-system.

Moreover, the authors draw attention to the so-called Columbian exchange of biota endemic to the ‘new’ and ‘old’ worlds. According to their analysis, this inter-mingling led to a “swift, ongoing, radical reorganization of life on Earth without geological precedent” and, ultimately, has helped to produce the “unprecedented homogenization of the world’s biota”. The unique signature created by the transferral of species during this period, they contend, is “comparable to the appearance of new species as boundary markers in other epoch transitions”, and thus a suitable marker for the Anthropocene. In pointing this out, the authors make important connections between the European project of colonization and the current mass extinction event. This linkage demonstrates the tendency of colonial violence to resonate across species boundaries.

The Orbis hypothesis is a novel development in Anthropocene thinking, and not only because it adds another possible golden spike to the existing array. Crucially, it also makes links between the forms of agency, power and violence that have contributed to the Anthropocene.

One of the most striking contributions that Lewis and Maslin’s argument can make to critical discourses on the Anthropocene is that it introduces violence into the picture. In short, drawing on the Orbis hypothesis, one can reframe the ‘golden spike’ of the Anthropocene as a foundational moment of violence. For political philosophers from Arendt to Zizek identifying and confronting foundational moments of violence is crucial to understanding the relations of power, violence and oppression that constitute a society. This makes it possible not only to understand why and how a polity has arrived at a particular state of affairs, but also to confront the violence upon which it perhaps uncritically rests. For instance, numerous authors have highlighted the links between democratic lifestyles and the effaced histories of genocide and/or terror that gave rise to them (see, for example, the seminal work of Michael Mann).

In existing discourses of the Anthropocene, there little mention of violence, let alone of constitutive violence. Instead, these discourses tend to be preoccupied with the unintended adverse effects of human interventions into ‘natural’ processes. For instance, most discussions of climate change focus on the effects of the extraction and burning of fossil fuels in interaction with processes such as atmospheric change, ocean acidification and a rise in global temperature. These approaches draw attention to the political, economic and social relations and processes that help to produce these interactions – for instance, the adverse impacts of damaging levels of consumption. But in these cases, the relationship between the harm and the behavior in question is indirect, and sometimes extremely so. It is notoriously difficult to establish intention or responsibility in the case of climate change due to the number of actors involved and their distribution across time and space. On the contrary, colonialism involves direct modes of violence in a concrete historical context: the forms of killing, enslavement, war, rape, political oppression and other acts that constituted the European colonial toolkit. Lewis and Maslin’s argument draws a direct link between the constitutive violence of colonialism and the profound changes in the conditions of earthly life brought about by the Anthropocene. Indeed, both of the possible GSSPs that they suggest (the Orbis hypothesis and the onset of the nuclear age) are rooted specifically in the human capacity for violence. By establishing the relationship between concrete practices of violence and the onset of the Anthropocene, the authors open up a new register for critique.

Another important contribution of this approach is that it expands notions of the violent legacy of colonization, offering evidence that it has altered the entire Earth system. From this perspective, the wounds inflicted by colonization do not pass away with the human bodies it directly enslaves; they are engrained in, and integral to, very lively Earth systems that persist today and will continue far into the future. Moreover, the hypothesis suggests that this legacy of violence has produced global conditions which ultimately encompass and affect all life-forms on Earth. This calls for a re-thinking of the argument developed by Aime Césaire and Frantz Fanon that colonial violence rebounds back to the colonizer. In this interpretation of the Anthropocene, the violent legacy of colonization redounds not directly on the original colonizers, but on the global, interspecies populations of generations that followed the moment of colonization. In other words, the ‘boomerang effect’ of colonial violence appears not so much as a dynamic that ricochets between subject and object, but rather a feedback loop that amplifies as it expands through space and time. And of course, it bears emphasizing that the communities hardest hit by current effects of Anthropocene climate change are those already shaped by a legacy of colonial violence.

Moreover, the article opens up scope for exploring the diachronic relationship between potential markers of the Anthropocene. Most attempts to identify a ‘golden spike’ tend to focus on the synchronic: that is, they isolate a particular ‘moment’ in which the epoch began. In contrast, by arguing that “colonialism, global trade and coal brought about the Anthropocene”, Lewis and Maslin point out that the annexation of the Americas made the European Industrial Revolution possible. Specifically, this colonial project allowed European states to expand beyond their existing resource base and to develop economically, freeing up labour for industrialization. Highlighting the causal and temporal relations between pivotal moments in the emergence of the Anthropocene can help to illuminate the continuities between forms of power, technology, violence and politics that create seemingly disparate results. For instance, the line drawn by Lewis and Maslin can of course be extended further: the Industrial Revolution made possible the developments in nuclear technology and the ‘Great Acceleration’ that have also been mooted as possible ‘golden spikes’. This, in turn, allows for a more coherent analysis of the driving forces of Anthropocene conditions, their sources and their transmuting manifestations.

For these reasons, Lewis and Maslin’s article offers important opportunities for enhancing and bolstering the important claims of critical theory, and particularly the posthumanist/postcolonial ethos I am proposing. Lewis and Maslin’s hypothesis can help to expand the understanding of the impacts of colonization and its victims, both spatially and temporally. Moreover, it opens up new interpretations of the manifestations of violence, which can help add to the ethical repertoire available to those seeking to understand the causes and effects of the Anthropocene.

Crucially, this approach also suggests that it is crucial to criticize and resist proposed ‘solutions’ to the Anthropocene that involve overtly colonial logics, including many forms of geo-engineering and the colonization of space. It stands to reason that if colonial violence is a major driver of the Anthropocene and its more deadly effects, it is foolhardy to reproduce this logic. The implication is not that such projects should be ruled out, but rather that careful reflection is needed to ensure that they do not reproduce colonial violence, but rather focus on alternative forms of (in)habitation.

However, the article is equally significant because it points to the contribution that postcolonialism, posthumanism and other key critical debates can make to discourses of the Anthropocene, particularly those surrounding its definition. Lewis and Maslin dangle an important idea:

“The Orbis spike implies that colonialism, global trade and coal brought  about the Anthropocene. Broadly, this highlights social concerns, particularly the unequal power relationships between different groups of people, economic growth, the impacts of globalized trade, and our current reliance on fossil fuels”

I say ‘dangle’ because the article points to the co-constitution of political, social, economic, cultural, atmospheric, mineral and many other processes, but does not develop it fully. Fair enough – this is a paper that focuses on the stratigraphic evidence for the temporal definition of the Anthropocene. However, the article hints at ample opportunities for more robust and fruitful collaboration between postcolonial (and other critical) theorists and scientists researching and defining the epoch. Indeed, viewing the argument through a postcolonial lens can help to identify some of its potential drawbacks.

First, the ‘flip side’ of marking European colonization as a driving force of the Anthropocene is that the former may become naturalized. More generally, the risk of equating human forms of agency with ‘natural forces’ is that they come to be seen as inevitable, determinate and less contestible than ‘political forces’. As discussed above, one of the most promising aspects of this article is that it opens up a new arena for the ethico-political critique of the Anthropocene: attention to the role of violence and its fusion with planetary processes. However, it is important to maintain the tension between recognition of the fusion of forces traditionally treated as ‘human’ and ‘natural’ and the political contestation of their ‘naturalness’. This is essential if the Anthropocene is not to become another shorthand for deterministic depoliticization.

Second, while marking a key moment of European colonization as the golden spike of the Anthropocene draws crucial attention to the links between these phenomena, it is important to temper the potential Euro-centrism that such a view might promote. On the one hand, it helps to underscore the idea that the Anthropocene is not the product of ‘humanity’, but rather particular segments of it, as Andreas Malm and Alf Hornberg perceptively point out. On the other hand, it may entrench the notion that Europe is the primary mover and originary source of the more expansive forms of power associated with the Anthropocene. In other words, interpreted in an uncritical way, it may suggest that the hyper-magnified form of agency associated with the Anthropocene is another expression of the power and dominance of Europe and its colonial legacies. In a similar sense, the proposed approach might give the impression that colonization is the marker of the ‘human’ and its manifestation in the Anthropocene. The many statues of Christopher Columbus, including the one pictured above, emblematize this image of colonial agency quite literally inscribed into the stone. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the concept of the Anthropocene is not always employed as a tool for critique or reflection. Indeed, it is often lauded as the condition for a hyper-inflated notion of human agency and enhanced control over the planet. For this reason, it is necessary to temper claims about the colonial origins of the Anthropocene with a pluralistic understanding of the other significant, if less dominant, forces and current that shape the planet and social life.

The promise – and the challenge – raised by this article is that this power, and the narratives that surround it, be engaged with critically. Indeed, Maslin and Lewis argue that “the power that humans wield is unlike any other force of nature, because it is reflexive and therefore can be used, withdrawn or modified”. While this statement tends to attribute more autonomy and objectivity to human agency than is likely to be the case in the conditions of the Anthropocene, it makes an important point. Namely, if adopted and elaborated in a critical and pluralistic way, the Orbis hypothesis can contribute to the important task of decolonizing the Anthropocene – as a discourse, a set of present conditions, and a source of possible futures.


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.


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