On racism and environmentalist practice – reflections on a journey

by Persephone Pearl, Rachel Porter and Emily Laurens

Please note that we acknowledge the complex structural barriers to inclusion faced by people due to class, ableism, educational and financial privilege, prejudice related to gender and sexuality and so on, but in this article we have chosen to focus on and discuss racism and white privilege as a formative societal influence.

The authors of this essay, the ‘we’ referred to here, are Persephone Pearl, Rachel Porter and Emily Laurens. We are white cisgender British women in our 40s, all educated to university level, all with children, all working in the arts. In 2011 we co-founded an environmental project called Lost Species Day and have dedicated a lot of time and love to the initiative over the years. In more recent years, this energy has become more reflective and critical of the movement and questioning of our work and its place in it. We have written this essay because, aware of the scale and rapidity of environmental degradation and its uneven impacts on people and places, we want to talk about white supremacy and how it plays out in the environmental movement. We hope that it will be useful to anyone concerned about climate and ecological breakdown, wanting to understand the history and drivers of this breakdown, and/or wanting to make links with social and racial justice movements. It is offered as a resource for people restless or dissatisfied with the language and practices of contemporary mainstream environmentalism. It is written in solidarity to frontline environmental and human rights defenders, with love for everyone working for bold action on fossil fuels and extractivism. It is inspired by and arises from ideas, actions, invitations and initiatives by people of colour and Black people.

Remembrance Day for Lost Species (RDLS or Lost Species Day), now in its ninth year, is coming up again on November 30th. It is an unfunded initiative, an invitation to people to hold events exploring biodiversity loss on or around this date each year. It started as a demonstration outside parliament – in May 2010, as part of an overnight climate vigil, a few friends created a pop-up installation of a graveyard for extinct species on a patch of grass opposite the Houses of Parliament. We were fed up with feeling helpless and excluded from environmental policy. We wanted to make work that spoke to the scale of the ecological problems we were witnessing. 

After the climate vigil, we made a play, Funeral for Lost Species, in a real graveyard in Brighton. We imagined it was a graveyard for extinct species and that we were a team of celestial funeral directors, responsible for ensuring every species got a suitable send-off, thus ensuring the continuity of existence. It parodied the mainstream environmental movement and articulated Eurocentric culture’s de-sacralising drive, and the clash between science and spirituality in the Eurocentric paradigm. Mostly, though, we were glad to make a space for contemplation of biodiversity loss, and when the project ended we wanted to carry on doing this. 

It turned out that some people were making a memorial to extinct species on a hill in Sussex at that time. It felt apt to work with them, to continue exploring how to make rituals for the Anthropocene. We held the first Remembrance Day for Lost Species in November 2011, with a lot of support and interest. A supporter designed us a logo inspired by the extinction symbol, which was based on the image of an hourglass inside the circle of the earth. 

RDLS emerged as part of a wave of artist-led projects exploring the theme of mass extinction and collapse in the UK. Something important was being tapped into and explored, but the networks we were aware of consisted largely of white privileged people confronting the failings of capitalism and consumerism without including a proper analysis of the racialised underpinnings and workings of those power structures – an omission that could only come from a lack of awareness or care about how structural racism punishes some and privileges others.

After a few years, we saw that most Lost Species Day events were taking place in Europe and North America, and realised that an initiative like this, despite seeming imperative to us, unless examined, was largely irrelevant, particularly for people who are:

  • economically marginalised 
  • struggling for survival
  • on the front lines of climate breakdown
  • affected by conflict and colonialism
  • queer and trans people facing hate crimes, and other people facing human rights violations
  • in prison or at risk of imprisonment
  • facing persecution by the state and corporations
  • living lives that are entwined with those of endangered species and places

The list went on. We realised that our purported inclusive approach was in fact exclusionary due to its lack of an analysis of structural racism and classism. All are welcome!, went the cry – but these words, predicated on privilege, were hollow. Rather late in life, we realised that our brand of environmentalism was a product of racial and class privilege – and worse, that its ‘colour blindness’ colluded in the ongoingness of white supremacy. Privilege had led us to assume it was acceptable to focus on biodiversity loss without building this work on a foundation of solidarity and anti-racist practice. But as environmental communicator Susuana Amoah puts it, “white supremacy and colonialism are fundamental causal factors in the climate emergency”

Might remembrance for lost species contribute to cultural erasure? Arguably, focusing on the stories of extinct species without studying and discussing concomitant harms to people and cultures perpetuates white environmentalism’s huge history of cultural erasure and genocidal acts. Environmentalism is not exempt from racism. We finally recognised the all-subsuming power of whiteness, and the rule of white supremacy as a hegemonic ordering force globally and in our psyches. Canada-based scholar Audra Mitchell’s writing on white tears for extinct species made for reading that was hard but that we were instinctively drawn to. We made commitments to: 

  • turn to Black, indigenous, decolonial and people of colour activists, organisations, artists and academics for wisdom
  • pay attention to and amplify the voices of the people living through entwined genocides and ecocides
  • make the links between, rather than separate, the stories of harms to people and non-humans
  • remember that hurt feelings are not actual injuries, that as the beneficiaries of white supremacy we have a duty to speak and act on racism from our position of safety
  • ask ourselves daily, as scholar Imani Robinson invites us to, What are we going to do today to create the world we want to live in?

On Extinction Rebellion

We have watched Extinction Rebellion grow without building a critique of white supremacy into its central environmental messaging or organising structure. As part of a strategy that uses the rhetoric of emergency to reach the mainstream, this has been amazingly successful, and XR have done what they set out to do in terms of shifting the Overton Window on the climate emergency, and creating a mass movement – a colossal and vital achievement at a time when the speed of environmental change is escalating dizzyingly. There are doubtless many committed people working hard within Extinction Rebellion to address structural racism in its language and tactics, and to articulate a language of solidarity with impacted communities. But their efforts are not reflected in the public demands or practices of the organisation, which adopts – or co-opts – the tactics of the Civil Rights movement whilst maintaining majority white leadership, pro-police politics, and no demands or strategy for dismantling structural racism. Its language of emergency trumps inclusivity of process and depth of listening. 

Black Lives Matter UK (BLMUK) / Wretched of the Earth (WOTE) activist Joshua Virasami describes the historic and contemporary lack of connection between animal rights / environmental activism and human rights / social justice movements as “tragic”, and invites neighbourliness and the centring of solidarity and inclusion as core practices in environmental action. When white people turn up they can have a massive impact. White people in the UK are the demographic majority, with confidence born of freedom from exposure to micro-aggressions, fear of false accusations, arrest, overt violence, risk of death and countless disadvantages due to systemic racism. This and other aspects of privilege are very useful in service to justice. As of yet, too little support has been lent to the efforts of movements led by people on the front lines of environmental disaster, surviving multiple apocalypses over centuries of colonialism and exploitation. The ongoing disconnection from, and failure to honour, these movements is due to structural racism and internalised white supremacy, invisible to the beneficiaries, ruinous for the survivors and the victims. 

The mass silence and large absence of white people from movements that integrate work for racial justice does everyone a disservice. Without the warping lens of racism, it is obvious that movements for social change must centre and be led by those who are most affected, like the Civil Rights movement, Black Lives Matter and countless campaigns by frontline environmental protectors. The people most vulnerable to harms are the people most knowledgeable about those harms, experientially as opposed to ideologically. The white-dominated environmental movement must learn from other parts of the movement. It must centre and amplify the voices and perspectives of people with direct lived experience of climate-related harms. 

XR is an infant movement that has become powerful very quickly, with the help of a lot of funding and influential supporters. Its senior team needs to move quickly to incorporate a commitment to racial justice within its practice and core demands. A movement that ignores or minimises its responsibility to address white supremacy risks: 

  • Alienating diverse cultural groups and struggling to make up this lost ground later
  • Overshadowing and potentially diverting funding and support from pre-existing work by other activist groups
  • Intensifying danger for minority groups, as the absence of non-white perspectives in organising spaces creates more space for negative projections. Messages about scarcity and lack can feed prejudice about Black people and people of colour as ‘foreigners’ and ‘others’, and increase abuse and violence. 

Perhaps most significantly, actions by an environmental movement that does not address racism can generate a false sense of hope. Campaigns that do not incorporate social justice as foundational will not change the system in the likely event of inadequate governmental action on climate breakdown. Arguably, Extinction Rebellion’s politics and structures reproduce the racism on which capitalism depends. To quote Wretched of the Earth

Climate change has not happened by a sequence of small missteps; the economic structures that dominate us have been brought about by ongoing colonial projects whose sole purpose is the pursuit of domination and profit. For centuries, racism, sexism and classism have been necessary for this system to be upheld, and have shaped the conditions we find ourselves in.”

Social justice must be the backbone of the environmental movement

With a focus on quality of process rather than the default white activist mode of urgency and panic comes curiosity, and a stepping-back from righteous anger into more reflective modalities that unpick assumptions about how to make change. Adrienne maree brown’s work on Emergent Strategy is inspiring here. 

Having explored some of the ways in which white people use structural power consciously and unconsciously to ignore, undermine and erase initiatives led by Black people and people of colour, let’s explore how white people can consciously and strategically utilise racial privilege to serve and give power to frontliners. A few questions for campaigns and projects:

  1. Are there already existing Black, indigenous and people of colour-led initiatives doing similar work to the project you are undertaking? Could you be putting your energy, time, platforms, money and other resources into their cause? Or at least listening to their advice? If not, why not? Suzanne Dhaliwal has written extensively about this. 
  2. Are your strategies adding to threats to the safety of people of colour? Do they support migrant solidarity? Are they inclusive? Who do they exclude, and how? 
  3. Who is on the front lines of your efforts? Where are they in your movement?  Are their voices audible? Are they part of the leading team? If not, how might you work to change this? 

Making space for lost species: remembering extinct species, cultures and places

These questions bring us back to Lost Species Day, and how and whether to move forward with it. Can this project be decolonised, or do its roots in white privilege mean that it’s conceptually too flawed to ever be truly anti-racist? We don’t know yet, but we pledge to:

  • Research our ancestors’ relationships with the places where we live, and use RDLS as a way to reconnect with our local ecosystem
  • Use RDLS as an educational opportunity for people who want to learn more about the reality of accelerating global biodiversity collapse through an anti-racist lens
  • Promote RDLS as a space for emotional engagement with the devastating effects of colonialism and the extinction and climate crises
  • Put energy into collaborating with and growing other days of celebration and remembrance. For example, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Trans Day of Remembrance, Black History Month.
  • Offer resources and service to Black and people of colour-led activist groups born from a drive for justice, doing explicitly decolonial and anti-racist work. For example, Black Lives Matter UK , Wretched Of The Earth.

We hope – and we would welcome others’ views on this – that a recurring day of ecological and bio-cultural remembrance can be of service and of social relevance at this time of multitudinous apocalypses and structural harms. It can: 

  • Make spaces for remembering histories that are at continual risk of erasure and being forgotten
  • Offer a way for nature lovers into conversation about racism and its links with environmental harms
  • Offer space for exploring the concept of DIY rituals, and encouragement for people attempting the work of connection whilst being conscious of colonialism and cultural appropriation
  • Articulate the importance of the work of facing the grief of ecological severance, and make links between this and the grief of inhabiting inherited structures of white supremacy 
  • Point towards possibilities for personal, interpersonal and cultural healing
  • Articulate the fact that all people and beings constitute a living connected system – there is no ‘other’.

We have removed the original Lost Species Day logo from the RDLS platforms because of its visual connection with the extinction symbol which is now synonymous with Extinction Rebellion. We are grateful to N.Puttapipat and Matt Stanfield for allowing us to use their logo while we explore possibilities for a new logo that better articulates our aspiration that Lost Species Day emphasises the interconnectedness of extinct and critically endangered species, cultures and ecological communities, and promotes the message that whilst these losses are rooted in violent and discriminatory governing practices, the day provides an opportunity for participants to make or renew commitments to all who remain.

Persephone Pearl 

Rachel Porter 

Emily Laurens

October 20th 2019

With many thanks to colleagues and Lost Species Day project supporters who have advised on and helped edit this essay

RESOURCES

ONCA resources on environmental justice: https://onca.org.uk/category/environmental-justice/

Mary Annaïse Heglar on racism, memory and POC-led movements: https://medium.com/s/story/sorry-yall-but-climate-change-ain-t-the-first-existential-threat-b3c999267aa0

Audra Mitchell’s blog: https://worldlyir.wordpress.com/

Megan Hollingsworth on anticipatory grief: https://soundcloud.com/extinction-witness/introduction-to-joy-giving-practice-rdls-2016

Wretched of the Earth May 2019 letter to XR: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/an-open-letter-to-extinction-rebellion/

Emergent Strategy Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/emergentstrategyideationinstitute/

Ibram Kendi on redefining racism: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/19/the-fight-to-redefine-racism

Amélie Lamont’s Guide to Allyship: http://www.guidetoallyship.com/

Robin DiAngelo on inadequate responses to racism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Jin7ISV85s

Julian Brave NoiseCat on racist history of environmental movement: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/bjwvn8/the-environmental-movement-needs-to-reckon-with-its-racist-history

Brighton Migrant Solidarity website: https://brightonmigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/

October 2019 news on student-led campaign to decolonise higher education: https://www.expressandstar.com/news/uk-news/2019/10/18/uk-higher-education-must-be-decolonised-students-warn/

Gentle/Radical, Wales-based artist-led project connecting community, locality and social justice: Gentle/Radical 

Stop Glorifying John Muir – by Erin Monahan

This article and image are reproduced with the author’s permission from Terra Incognita Media. The piece was published there in March 2019.

It’s Actually Not Complicated At All

“Separate the art from the artist.” “Everybody is complicated.” “They were a product of their time.” “He was a complicated guy.” “It’s complicated.”

These comments come up frequently when we talk about the truth of those who our society have lauded and held in high esteem as heroes or geniuses. These are all white-centring sentiments that are triggered by white fragility. We see this trend of protecting men like John Muir, Louis C.K., or Harvey Weinstein, or Edward Abbey, or Charles Bukowski, to name only a few, yet I could go on — forever — because the list of white men who abuse their power is exhaustive and exhausting. To know that these men write our history, decide what is included in a “canon” of literature, is deeply, painfully, exhausting because it skews the past to plow a narrative fit for ongoing colonization, and allows white men to keep hoarding power. Uplifting these men as “heroes” and exclusively shelving their stories, excludes and discounts the myriad lived experiences and perspectives of womxn, femmes, trans, non-binary folx, Black, Indigenous, People of Color who were contemporaries of these men, and who would tell you a very different story.

A surge of discussion has been happening in the outdoor industry about John Muir’s complicity in the dispossession of Indigenous communities heavily due to the work that Indigenous Women Hike (IWH) has been doing to encourage folx to “Rethink the Wild.”

“Rethink the Wild” is IWH’s t-shirt and awareness campaign. The t-shirt illustration is a classic image of Muir sitting, one leg crossed over the other, leaning over his walking stick, but this time with bloody hands, and a quote that reads, “A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness.”

When preparing to go public with this illustration, Jolie Varela, the founder of Indigenous Women Hike, dealt with a lot of anxiety and stress, due to the inevitable backlash from those who prefer to keep things hushed when it comes to the impacts of ongoing colonization, and the way in which our environmental “heroes” play a huge role. Varela shared the illustration with this caption:

“The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as ‘an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is absent.’ The American idea of wilderness did not exist, it had to be created.

Indigenous people have always been a part of the land. We’ve always existed in spaces that American history has written us out of. National Parks were created on Treaty Lands. ‘Great’ American conservationists fought to preserve their idea of wilderness— which meant Indian Removal by any means. This meant dishonoring treaties.

This art is meant to start a conversation. Profits from this shirt design will go toward our efforts to travel with our Indigenous relatives in Peru. In the midst of the government shutdown, National Parks are being desecrated. Indigenous homelands are being desecrated. But is it any wonder when we consider how these lands came to be known as public lands in the first place? To move forward we must acknowledge this sad and violent history. We need to take a deeper look at ‘Great American Heroes’ like John Muir. We must no longer be complicit in the erasure of Native peoples from these spaces. We must Rethink the Wild.”


John Muir visited Ahwahnee (Yosemite) for the first time in 1868, ten years before the Bannock War, which took place in 1878. But when Muir arrived to the Sierras, forced Indigenous removals were already under way and John Muir was aiding and abetting it with his writing. John Muir very much knew that indigenous people were fighting for their lives and being forced into internment camps — what we now call reservations. In John Muir’s case his contemporaries included Sarah Winnemucca, a Northern Paiute author, activist and educator. A couple decades after his first time in the Sierras, “The Soft-Hearted Sioux” written by Zitkala-Sa [aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin] (1876-1938) was published. This story details how indigenous youth were forced to assimilate to white culture and worship Christianity. Zitkala-Sa was very much against the eradication of indigenous culture and language. Harriet Jacobs who wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In 1868, the same year John Muir first arrived in Ahwahnee (Yosemite Valley), Elizabeth Keckley published her memoir Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. A few years earlier in 1855, Josephine Brown published Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter. As an assistant to her father’s extensive anti-slavery activities, Brown’s writing was no doubt crucial in Black liberation and exposing the machinery of white supremacy.

Many like to excuse John Muir as just a “product of his times,” but this comes up short, not only because it’s never acceptable to aid and abet structures of oppression, but also because there were ample people bringing to light the violence of slavery and colonization. John Muir knew what was going on and he didn’t care. This is hard for us white people to accept because it means that we have to not only “Rethink the Wild,” but rethink everything that we believe in and have built our identities around, and maybe even rethink some tattoos we got, or Instagram handles we created. There’s no gentle way around it. Worshipping Muir needs to stop. It’s time to rip the band-aid off.

Who Defines What is “Natural”? Who “Naturally” Belongs?

In Black Faces, White Spaces, Carolyn Finney shares that,

“…we have collectively come to understand/see/envision the environmental debate as shaped and inhabited primarily by white people. And our ability to imagine others is colored by the narratives, images, and meanings we’ve come to hold as truths in relation to the environment….

In the case of race and the environment, it’s not just who we imagine has something valuable to say. These assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions are at the very foundation of our environmental thinking, how we define the ‘environment,’ and how we think of ourselves in relationship with the environment. Who do we see? What do we see?”

White people have always decided what is “natural,” as well as who “naturally” belongs and who doesn’t. John Muir did not do “some powerful work for conservation and parks.” He co-founded the Sierra Club and worked to ensure that Ahwahnee became Yosemite National Park — these structures are tools that maintain power for a few (white people, particularly white men), as well as perpetuate gatekeeping (the practice of limiting and controlling resources). National Parks are active tools in ongoing indigenous genocide.

A few days after launching Rethink the Wild, Varela shared with Indigenous Women Hike’s Instagram account an image of the book Dispossessing the Wilderness by Mark David Spence. She wrote:

“For my Indigenous folx, this was an emotional read. I was brought to tears more than a few times. This is obviously a heavy subject but as a Native woman wanting to learn more about ‘American Conservation’ this is a good place to start.

The book is pretty dense, but interesting. Anyone who recreates and visits National Parks needs to read this book. Dispossessing the Wilderness highlights the removal of Natives from Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks.”

In Dispossessing the Wilderness, David Spence goes into detail about how the National Parks were marketed and sold to white audiences as vacation spots to “get away from it all.” To get away from, you know, the buzzing, mundane, chaotic, stressful, anxiety-inducing, apocalyptic, capitalist hellhole we created for ourselves — we all need a break sometimes. In order to selfishly save our mental health we created “wilderness” a construct entirely concocted out of the white imagination to rationalize our greed, industrial growth and expansion. “Wilderness” functions as an important tool that was pushed forward by the poster-boys of the romantic period like Thomas Cole, George Catlin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Herman Melville — John Muir loved these guys. They were the architects of what white America salivates over today: idealized uninhabited landscapes.

A Non-Consensual Fantasy

Why this obsession with uninhabited, when uninhabited spaces have never even been a thing? This isn’t the first time we projected this anti-indigenous falsehood. This fantasy extends back to our fantasies of exploration and manifest destiny, when settlers first came to the shores of Turtle Island (what we now call the United States). Because we were feeling the detrimental physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects of capitalism, the gender binary, and our self-imposed oppressive hierarchies, we sought an invention of untouched land that was never actually untouched. But in our twisted white minds we get off on non-consensual fantasies. Intergenerational trauma lives in our bodies because we are the descendants of colonizers and slave-holders — those who imposed the violence of non-consent, or in other words, rape culture. We have inherited the position of the oppressor, which means that we need to seek healing for ourselves and our minds. All white people need to heal from our internalized white supremacy. We are only causing harm to ourselves and others if we are not actively working on this daily.

The Earth doesn’t need “saving” – it needs to be left alone. We need to stop projecting our colonizer narratives onto the Earth and its people. What drives white environmentalism is also what drives the non-profit industrial complex. White people have generational wealth, resources, power, and money, and therefore, the ability to create non-profits under the guise of helping and working towards “sustainability.”  But the only thing sustaining is that those who need the resources the most remain in poverty, and those who have the money remain in power. Really, really rich men thrive on the reliance of the poor.

The answer to all of this is not complicated, but quite simple: white people, we need to start giving up our power, doing away with hierarchy in our organizations, and focusing on equitable outcomes for all. This may be a scary idea because it means changing everything about our lives, but it doesn’t have to be scary. Giving up power means being in community with each other, building relationships instead of power dynamics, and ultimately, everyone benefits. The systems as they are now are not healthy for anyone, not even those who benefit from them.

Racism and colonization is an issue that is very much still of our time. Jolie Varela expressed on social media that she wishes more people would “…acknowledge Indigenous people/organizations who are already doing this work, who have been doing this work…As an indigenous woman who still feels the effects of removal brought on by JM and his brand of American Conservation I do not view this as ‘complicated.’ It’s obvious because I see the impacts of this brand of removal every day. It’s not ‘complicated’ it’s messed up. I think addressing this issue as complicated allows people to make excuses for just how uncomplicated it really is. Because then people would have to address their own behavior and their own privilege. And it’s a way to excuse violent behavior.”

Often, White People Wonder, “What Can I do?” So, Here Is What I Do:

As a white woman who wants to end the legacy of harm and violence that I inherited from my ancestors (intentionally or not), I try to constantly confront white supremacy and how it shows up in myself and in my life. I frequently refer to Tema Okun’s list of White Supremacy Culture characteristics to help me locate where and how white supremacy is at play throughout my day and in my thinking, behavior, and actions. I support Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) -led initiatives, organizations, and businesses. When opportunities come my way, I either give it up to a BIPOC, or I look for ways to include, spotlight, or recommend BIPOC to be included if they are not already. I follow, read, and pay for anti-racist education. I understand that anti-racism is a practice, not an identity. This means that I never deny my inherent racism for being raised in a society that conditions me to believe myself superior for my skin color, but I can practice anti-racism to try to prevent myself from causing harm as much as possible.

I don’t write off my friends and family who are resistant to talking about whiteness. I find ways to engage them in conversation about white supremacy and our complicity in it. I step out of my comfort zone and take risks at work in having these conversations because I know, ultimately, the risks are probably in my head, or rather, in my white fragility. I facilitate a series called “Detaching from Whiteness.” I don’t shy away from having these conversations with kids. Not only will they most likely be the most receptive, but it is a moral failing if we don’t talk candidly with children about systems of oppression because this is the world they are inheriting. Often, the kids end up teaching me. I value relationships over profit or social capital, which is the opposite of white supremacy culture. I give my money to people doing the work on the ground. I give my money to those who stand on street corners looking for change because I know it’s going to someone who needs it, not a third-party. I actively work to see myself in others, while honoring, respecting, and acknowledging our difference.

All of this is where I begin.

Erin Monahan is the founder of Terra Incognita Media. She’s a writer, facilitator, and rock climber based in Portland, Oregon. Her writing focuses on detaching from the commitment to the construct of Whiteness. You can follow her on Instagram @erin.k.monahan

Ponso No Tao: A Place for Living – by Tsai Tung Li

Tsai Tung Li
Ponso No Tao: A Place for Living

Paper, pencil, watercolour, collage 2018

The subject of extinction also touches on culture, environmental justice, and race. Even within the same ethnicity or country, there are huge differences between the culture where a person comes from and the culture where they live. This doesn’t only affect human beings – it is mirrored in the lives of animals in the wild and in cities. In my own country, Taiwan, this can be seen in the story of Orchid Island.

Orchid Island, or Ponso No Tao – ‘a place for living’ – is off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. The islanders are mostly aboriginal Taiwanese: Tao people, who work as farmers and fishermen living closely with nature. Tragically, Orchid Island is best known in relation to the issue of nuclear waste. A nuclear waste storage facility was built at the southern tip of the island in 1982. It continues to receive waste from Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants. Islanders did not have a say in the decision to locate the facility on the island. This happens in lots of communities in the world: often people don’t even have a chance to speak out. I am grateful to have a chance to bring it up here, whether it arouses grief, rebellion or simply awareness.

By conveying the messages of Lost Species Day through images and a story close to my life, I intend to create conversations with people of all ages. Trying to see things with a more childlike sensibility gives space for imagination. Choosing a flying fish as a narrator not only symbolises the aboriginal people but also gives a voice to this beautiful animal who cannot vocalise its suffering. My goal is to raise awareness of environmental injustices and create a conversation about the impacts of capitalism.

Extinction Witness VOW 2 ACT – by Megan Hollingsworth

“Absolutely [global warming is] reversible. There’s no question about it … but hope has to pass the sobriety test and walk a pretty straight line to reality.  Otherwise, it’s delusion.”

Paul Hawken, author and founder at Project Drawdown, Interview at Regenerative Development Conference


In 2014, Glaciologist Eric Rignot suggested that there may yet be a chance to slow down the West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s rapid irreversible decline and “a different level of communication” is required to translate the gravity of what he and his peers see.

The Vow 2 Act emphasizes that role modeling helpful action is the primary different level of communication needed. And is written by Extinction Witness founder and creative director Megan Hollingsworth as a practice response to Eric Rignot’s call.

The Vow language is grounded in the knowledge that the ecological health crisis is driven by a human health crisis. And awareness that the roots of the human health crisis are the spiritual crises of materialism, entitlement, and punitive judgment.

The results of brutal competition complicated by materialism are in. Whether or not we personally experience scarcity, this is a globally scarce moment that calls for compassionate intention, frugality, efficiency, and ingenuity.

Someone living in New York, where over 11,000 children under the age of 6 live in the shelter system, need not visit Yemen or Ghana to see the child’s deprivation brought by cruel socioeconomic practices generations-old.

While the words used and stories told matter, actions are effective only so far as the intention that forms the basis of the actions.


“ …Unfortunately, the Brazilian people, elite and masses alike,  were generally unprepared to evaluate the transition critically; and so tossed about by the force of the contending contradictions, they began to fall into sectarian positions instead of opting for radical solutions.”

Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness, 1973


Vow 2 Act signatories vow to be a different level of communication by thought, word, and all other actions. This, a true “radicalization” of the individual toward truly radical solutions to collective ills.

Vow signatories commit to rebellion in the purest sense. Rebellion as honesty, compassion, and kindness.

Rebellion as the ability to see one’s own propensity for ignorance and refrain from ignorance. To see one’s own propensity for greed and refrain from greed. To see one’s own propensity for hatred and refrain from hatred.

Rebellion as the ability to practice compassion toward oneself and all others by thought, word, and hand that every expression and exchange display and promote compassion with kindness.

Please continue reading and consider taking the Vow 2 Act.

The Environmental Justice Atlas

What is the Environmental Justice Atlas?

The text below is taken from the EJ Atlas website 

The Environmental Justice Atlas documents and catalogues social conflict around environmental issues, mapping ecological conflicts and resistance to injustice, and fighting for environmental justice. It is a teaching, networking and advocacy resource – a database used by strategists, activist organisers, scholars, and teachers, as well as citizens wanting to learn more about the often invisible conflicts taking place.

Across the world communities are struggling to defend their land, air, water, forests and their livelihoods from damaging projects and extractive activities with heavy environmental and social impacts: mining, dams, tree plantations, fracking, gas flaring, incinerators, etc. As resources needed to fuel our economy move through the commodity chain from extraction and processing to disposal, at each stage environmental impacts are externalised onto the most marginalised populations. Often this all takes place far from the eyes of concerned citizens or consumers of the end-products.

The EJ Atlas collects these stories of communities struggling for environmental justice from around the world. It aims to make these mobilisations more visible, highlight claims and testimonies and to make the case for true corporate and state accountability for the injustices inflicted through their activities. It also attempts to serve as a virtual space for those working on EJ issues to get information, find other groups working on related issues, and increase the visibility of environmental conflicts.

What is an ecological conflict?

Socio-environmental conflicts are defined as:

Mobilisations by local communities/ social movements – which might include support of national or international networks – against particular economic activities, infrastructure construction, or waste disposal/pollution, where environmental impacts are a key element of their grievances.

The atlas documents social conflicts related to claims against perceived negative social or environmental impacts with the following criteria:

  1. Economic activity or legislation with actual or potential negative environmental and social outcomes;
  2. Claim and mobilisation by environmental justice organisation(s) that such harm occurred or is likely to occur as a result of that activity
  3. Reporting of that particular conflict in one or more media stories.

These conflicts usually arise from structural inequalities of income and power. Dimensions of environmental justice include:

  • distribution over the burdens of pollution
  • access to environmental resources
  • the right to participate in decision-making
  • the recognition of alternate world-views and understanding of development.

The action repertoires may include formal claim-making, petitions, meetings, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, legal actions, civil disobedience, collective violence, international campaigns and other action forms. In the act of claiming redistributions, these conflicts often form part of – or lead to – larger gender, class, caste and ethnic struggles.

What are the drivers of these conflicts?

Growing consumption of resources is fuelling ever more conflicts globally. Most of these are used to satisfy the material needs of the rich segments of the world population. But over-consumption by the rich visits ecological violence on the poor. It is a story of luxury for some versus livelihood for many.

The search for resources to feed the growing global socio-metabolism of the economy also leads to an expansion of the “commodity frontiers”, with extractive projects now reaching the last untouched places on earth such as the Arctic, deep sea, remote forests inhabited by indigenous populations, or even the centres of industrialised economies, such as middle-class communities threatened by fracking. The EJ Atlas aims to expose and explain the material dimensions of socio-environmental conflicts related to extractivist economies, criminalisation of dissent, and lack of democratic participation and decisional processes.

Access to justice is often elusive for impacted communities as many companies enjoy impunity for grave human rights infractions, corruption, and other abuses. Through subsidiaries, for example, mother companies can escape prosecution for criminal acts. Local governments are often not able or willing to prosecute environmental crimes because they are desperate for much needed investment in strategic sectors, or have come to exchange agreements with them, or feel under threat by creditors and international finance institutions. At the same time, the home countries of the companies refuse to rein in their companies as their only objective is pushing their companies into new markets or getting geopolitical control over those territories. Increasing financialisation of the economy has made such global justice issues much more complicated, as the actors behind many decisions related to investments and projects are private investments funds, private equities, pension funds, etc which fall outside any democratic control.

To deal with this lack of accountability, civil society organisations argue for international mechanisms to deal with abuses, such as the Eradicating Ecocide initiative. Further, legal scholars argue that communities should have the right to seek justice in the home countries of the companies if it is not available at home.

In some cases, communities succeed in getting a seat at the table, changing laws and legislations and contribute to institutional changes that lead to more equitable outcomes and increased citizen participation in decision-making processes. Of the cases currently in the map, almost 18% have been qualified as “successes” for environmental justice by the reporter, when court cases were won, communities were strengthened, access to the commons was reclaimed, or projects were scrapped. These victories are a testament to the power of protest and the ability to impact the political process. They also show the transformative power of resistance, where communities gain in terms of self consciousness, community organising, political action and incisiveness, when they push forward alternative projects to the imposed ones and their own resistance narratives and life philosophy and cosmology concepts (like Sumak Kawsay, Ubuntu, Lekil Kuxlejal, Radical Ecological Democracy, etc).

To learn more about access to justice, watch this video: “Access to Justice and Extractive Industries”

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice was born as a slogan for the first time in the United States during the 1980s among Black and Latinx communities. They mobilised against injustices perpetrated in their communities by polluting industries and waste disposal facilities. It later became an analytical frame, largely in relation to concerns about the unequal distribution of social and environmental costs between different human groups, classes, ethnicities but also in relation to gender and age. EJ draws attention to the link between pollution, race and poverty, and tackles socio-spatial distribution of “bads” (emissions, toxins) and “goods” (like green spaces and better services).

It later expanded as a concept and theoretical framework, including multi-dimensional and interlinked aspects of justice related to three fundamental dimension of EJ: distribution, recognition and participation, as explained above. It has also globalised, tackling issues such as trade agreements, the transfers of wastes, climate change and the Rights of Nature and has served to link up groups and networks within a common similar frame and understanding.

The global dimension is evident when it comes to trade and environmental degradation. A mine, a dam, a road in the forest are not isolated objects but connected sites along which value flows, accumulation occurs and costs are externalised.

Environmental Justice is both a social movement and an activist/mobilised science, and thus offers the potential to bring together citizens, researchers and scholars to create knowledge as part of a global and globalising environmental justice movement.

Explore the EJ Atlas here. Like it on Facebook, and sign up for the newsletter. Please use and share the resources in its resource library and blog. If you have information about a conflict not included on the map, you are invited to add it. You may register here. Share the website and maps and help be a part of a growing global movement for environmental and social justice.

 

Decolonizing against extinction part II – by Audra Mitchell

Essay reproduced from https://worldlyir.wordpress.com/ with the permission of the author 

Extinction is not a metaphor – it is literally genocide

Extinction has become an emblem of Western, and white-dominated, fears about ‘the end of the(ir) world’. This scientific term is saturated with emotional potency, stretched and contorted to embody almost any nightmare, from climate change to asteroid strikes. In academic and public contexts alike, it is regularly interchanged with other terms and concepts – for instance, ‘species death’, global warming or ecological collapse. Diffused into sublime scales – mass extinctions measured in millions of (Gregorian calendar) years, a planet totalized by the threat of nuclear destruction – ‘extinction’ has become an empty superlative, one that that gestures to an abstract form of unthinkabilityIt teases Western subjects with images of generalized demise that might, if it gets bad enough, even threaten us, or the figure of ‘humanity’ that we enshrine as a universal. This figure of ‘humanity’, derived from Western European enlightenment ideals, emphasizes individual, autonomous actors who are fully integrated into the global market system; who are responsible citizens of nation-states; who conform to Western ideas of health and well-being; who partake of ‘culture’; who participate in democratic state-based politics; who refrain from physical violence; and who manage their ‘resources’ responsibly (Mitchell 2014).

Oddly, exposure to the fear of extinction contributes to the formation and bolstering of contemporary Western subjects. Contemplating the sublime destruction of ‘humanity’ offers the thrill of abjection: the perverse pleasure derived from exposure to something by which one is revolted. Claire Colebrook detects this thrill-seeking impulse in the profusion of Western blockbuster films and TV shows that imagine and envision the destruction of earth, or at least of ‘humanity’. It also throbs through a flurry of recent best-selling books – both fiction and speculative non-fiction (see Oreskes and Conway 2014; Newitz 2013Weisman 2008). In a forthcoming intervention, Noah Theriault and I (2018) argue that these imaginaries are a form of porn that normalizes the profound violences driving extinction, while cocooning its viewers in the secure space of the voyeur. Certainly, there are many Western scientists, conservationists and policy-makers who are genuinely committed to stopping the extinction of others, perhaps out of fear for their own futures. Yet extinction is not quite real for Western, and especially white, subjects; it is a fantasy of negation that evokes thrill, melancholy, anger and existential purpose. It is a metaphor that expresses the destructive desires of these beings, and the negativity against which we define our subjectivity.

But extinction is not a metaphor: it is a very real expression of violence that systematically destroys particular beings, worlds, life forms and the relations that enable them to flourish. These are real, unique beings, worlds and relations – as well as somebody’s family, Ancestors, siblings, future generations – who are violently destroyed. Extinction can only be used unironically as a metaphor by people who have never been threatened with it, told it is their inevitable fate, or lost their relatives and Ancestors to it – and who assume that they probably never will.

This argument is directly inspired by the call to arms issued in 2012 by Eve Tuck and Wayne K. Yang and more recently by Cutcha Risling-Baldy. The first, seminal piece demonstrates how settler cultures use the violence of metaphorical abstraction to excuse themselves from the real work of decolonization: ensuring that land and power is in Indigenous hands. Risling-Baldy’s brilliant follow-up extends this logic to explain how First People like Coyote have been reduced to metaphors through settler appropriation. In both cases, engagement with Indigenous peoples and their relations masks moves to innocence: acts that make it appear as if settlers are engaging in decolonization, while in fact we are consolidating the power structures that privilege us.

In this series, want to show how Western, and white-dominated, discourses on ‘extinction’ appear to address the systematic destruction of peoples and other beings while enacting moves to innocence that mask their culpability and perpetuate structures of violence. As I argued in Part I of this series, extinction is an expression of colonial violence. As such, it needs to be addressed through direct decolonization, including the dismantling of settler colonial structures of violence, and the resurgence of Indigenous worlds. Following Tuck, Yang and Risling-Baldy’s lead,  I want to show how and why the violences that drive extinction have come to be invisible within mainstream discourses. Salient amongst these is the practice of genocide against Indigenous peoples other than humans.

…it is literally genocide.

What Western science calls ‘extinction’ is not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of desirable ‘human’ activities. It is an embodiment of particular patterns of  structural violence that disproportionately affect specific racialized groups.  In some cases, ‘extinction’ is directly, deliberately and systematically inflicted in order to create space for aggressors, including settler states. For this reason, it has rightly been framed as an aspect or tool of colonial genocides against Indigenous human peoples. Indeed, many theorists have shown that the ‘extirpation’ of life forms (their total removal from a particular place) is an instrument for enacting genocide upon Indigenous humans (see Mazis 2008;Laduke 1999Stannard 1994). Specifically, the removal of key sources of food, clothing and other basic materials makes survival on the land impossible for the people targeted.

Nehiyaw thinker Tasha Hubbard (2014) makes a qualitatively distinct argument. She points out that the Buffalo are First People, the elder brothers of the Nehiyaw people (and other Indigenous nations – see Benton-Banai 2010). Starting in the mid-1800s, the tens of millions of buffalo that ranged across Turtle Island were nearly eliminated through strategic patterns of killing carried out by settler-state-sponsored military and commercial forces. Their killing was linked to governmental imperatives to clear and territorially annex the Great Plains by removing its Indigenous peoples. As Hubbard points out, methods of destroying buffalo herds included large-scale killing, but also the disruption of their social structures, the destruction of the ecosystems on which they rely, and the removal of calves. These acts involve each of the components of the definition of genocide enshrined in the UN Genocide Convention: 

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

From Hubbard’s viewpoint, rooted in Nehiyaw philosophy and ethical-legal principles, the  systematic destruction of the buffalo is not like genocide, nor is it exclusively a tool for carrying out genocide against human peoples. It isgenocide in its own right: an attempt to destroy a particular First People and the possibilities of its continuity. In other words, the deliberate and systematic attempt to eliminate the buffalo, enacted by settler states, simultaneouslyenacted genocide against Indigenous peoples and their nonhuman relatives.

Genocides of Indigenous peoples (human and otherwise) continue apace in contemporary settler states, transformed into multiple manifestations. For instance, they are integral to ‘biosecurity’ strategies designed to police the biological boundaries of these states and their citizens. Laced with racializing and xenophobic rhetoric (Subramaniam 2001), strategies such as culling or planned eradications are intended to remove ‘invasive’ or ‘foreign’ life forms in order to protect ‘Native’ ones. Many of the ‘invasive’ life forms targeted for destruction were transported to unfamiliar lands through colonial patterns of settlement and global trade flows.

However, this logic of elimination (Wolfe 2006) is often perverted, turned against Indigenous* beings whose flourishing impedes the expansion or consolidation of the colonial state. For instance, Deborah Bird Rose (2011 a, 2011 b) shows how this form of violence is continually waged against flying foxes, who are framed by the settler state as “pest[s] whose extinction is [deliberately] sought”. This act of elimination involves explicit genocidal ideation, or the imagination of the destruction of a people. Rose characterizes it as a “matter of imagining a world without [dingoes or flying foxes], then setting out to create it” (Rose 2011a). The Australian settler state has used multiple tactics to induce terror and preclude flourishing amongst flying foxes, from the emission of high-pitched electronic signals to smearing trees with python excrement (Rose 2011b). Indeed, in 2014, I lived near to the roosting site of a group of flying foxes in Turrbal and Jagera Country (suburban Brisbane to settlers). Such nesting places are called ‘colonies’ , reflecting a Western scientific rhetoric that frames Indigenous peoples as ‘invaders’ of the settler state. The trees that housed the nesting site backed onto a municipal facility, whose fence had been covered with barbed wire, in which many of the bats snared their wings and starved to death.  This ‘security’ measure – designed to protect the facilities relied upon by urban settlers from the intrusion of flying foxes – is a powerful weapon for precluding ongoing flourishing of Indigenous other-than-human peoples. I learned from neighbours that this ‘colony’ had previously been ‘moved’ from several other sites around the city, suffering significant declines in population each time. Indeed, despite reported declines of 95% in flying fox communities in Queensland and neighbouring New South Wales, the Queensland settler state legalized the shooting of the bats in 2012 by fruitgrowers.

Of course, in some cases, the elimination of life forms is not as targeted or intentional – it may take the form of land-based extractive violence, the creep of ocean acidification, the decimation of rainforests by climate change. Proponents of a Eurocentric definition of genocide could argue that these events lack intention. Indeed, within international law, intention to commit genocide is a necessary criteria for conviction. However, theorists of critical genocide studies have long argued that this definition is inadequate: it brackets out a great many of the acts, logics and structures that produce the destruction of unique peoples. According to Tony Barta, definitions of genocide that focus on ‘purposeful annihilation’, and in particular on physical killing, have “devalu[ed] all other concepts of less planned destruction, even if the effects are the same” (Barta 2000, 238). For this reason, he shifts the focus from ‘genocidal intention’ to ‘genocidal outcome’ – that is, from the abstract assignation of genocidal agency to the felt and embodied effects of eliminative violence. It is the focus on intent, he contends, that allows white Australians to imagine that their relationship with Aboriginal people is non-genocidal despite overwhelming evidence of systematic and deliberate racialized destruction over several centuries. In contrast, an approach based on ‘genocidal outcomes’ makes it possible to account for complex causality and weak intentionality – that is, for myriad acts mediated by subtle, normalized structures that, together, work to eliminate a people. I want to argue that the same logic applies to nonhuman peoples: the destruction of a life form, its relations with other beings and its possible futures is a genocidal outcome, whether or not intention can be identified.

Similarly, Christopher Powell (2007) argues that, since a ‘genos’ is a

“network of practical social relations, destruction of a genos means the forcible breaking down of those relationships…these effects could be produced without a coherent intent to destroy. They could result from sporadic and uncoordinated actions whose underlying connection is the production of a new society in which there is simply no room for the genos in question to exist. They might even result from well-meaning attempts to do good” (Powell 2007, 538)

As I have argued elsewhere, extinction is defined by the breaking of relations and the systematic destruction of the conditions of plurality that nurture co-flourishing worlds. Whether inflicted out as a deliberate act of extirpation, or as the convergent effect of eliminative logics expressed over centuries and enormous spatial scales, extinction is the destruction of relations and the heterogenous societies they nurture.

Understood in this way, ‘extinction’ is not a metaphor for genocide or other forms of large-scale violence: it is a distinct manifestation of genocide. Masking the genocidal logics that drive extinction involves several moves to innocence (Tuck and Yang 2012). Treating extinction as something short of genocide entrenches Eurocentric understandings of personhood that are limited to homo sapiens, which is itself an act of violence against these peoples. Ironically, the entrenchment of this dichotomy also enables the logic of ‘dehumanization’, in which human communities are likened to reviled nonhumans (for instance, cockroaches) in order to motivate violence against them. As I have argued elsewhere (Mitchell 2014), the logic of generalised ‘dehumanisation’ is uniquely effective in Western frameworks in which the lack of ethical status for beings other than humans removes obstacles to their mass destruction. Within worlds in which human and nonhuman persons are linked through complex systems of law, treaties, protocols and long-standing relations, this claim is illogical. Within Western settler states, however, it functions as a means of justifying ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples and their relations.

In addition, by framing extinction as a problem for a universal figure of ‘humanity’ (more on this to follow…) mainstream discourses of extinction obscure its profound entwinement with race and racializing structures.  These examples make it clear that eliminative violence is targeted on specific groups of people and their other-than-human relations, as defined by the aggressors. Indeed, patterns of genocidal violence extend racializing categories, hierarchies and eliminative impulses to other-than-human peoples. Just as approaching gender violence separately from race effaces their intersection, understanding extinction as distinct from race is deeply misleading. This is not only because racialized people are more likely to suffer from the effects of ‘extinction’ and other forms of environmental racism (which they are). It is also because the eliminative violence that drives extinction extend and enact race beyond the category of homo sapiens by defining particular groups against white settler norms and as threats to the settler society. To approach extinction separately from issues of race is, therefore, to miss one of its most defining features.

Extinction is not a metaphor – in many cases, it is quite literally genocide enacted against Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human relations. To treat it as a metaphor is to obscure and participate in the structures of violence that drive it. From this perspective, in addition to active decolonisation efforts, and the resurgence of Indigenous peoples, addressing extinction also requires attacking the genocidal, racializing,  eliminative logics that are diffused throughout settler (and other) states. It also requires honouring the unique relations, worlds and peoples that are targeted by these discourses and practices.

*In this context (referring to flying foxes and other non-human peoples), I use the term ‘Indigenous’ to refer to the historical inhabitation and co-constitution of a particular place, and enmeshment in meaningful relationships with the other beings that co-constitute that place. Within this perspective, life forms deemed ‘exotic’ or even ‘invasive’ in Western science could potentially become part of that place if accepted by, and in mutually beneficial relations with, existing communities. I use the term in contrast to narratives of ‘native’ or, sometimes ‘Indigenous’ species, which make dichotomous distinctions between those beings deemed to be ‘endogenous’ and ‘exogenous’.

 

Featured image: Buffalo Calf by Mark Spearman licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic.

Decolonizing against extinction part I: extinction is violence – by Audra Mitchell

This essay is reproduced with permission from the author Audra Mitchell from her blog: 

Western scientists* are proclaiming the start of a ‘sixth mass extinction event’ that may involve the destruction of more than three quarters of earth’s currently-existing life forms. In their attempts to explain this phenomenon, most scientists have converged around four major, interlinked drivers: climate change, habitat destruction, species exchange, and the direct killing of plants and animals. In most cases, these drivers are understood as the unintended consequences of generic ‘human’ activity, and as a result of desirable trends such as development or urbanization (Wilson 2002; Barnosky 2014Ceballos 2016).

A crucial driver is missing from this list: transversal structural violence against Indigenous peoples and their relations, and colonial violence in particular.

Structural violence’  involves systemic forms of harm, exclusion and discrimination that disproportionately affect particular groups, and which can take many forms (physical, psychological, economic, gendered and others). They are embedded in and expressed through political, cultural, economic and social structures (Farmer 2009) that can persist across large spans of time and space. I use the term ‘transversal’ to refer to forms of structural violence that extend across multiple boundaries – not only those of nation-states, but also other kinds of nations (human and otherwise), communities or kinship groups, and temporalities. Prime examples of transversal structural violence include: settler colonialism, colonial genocides (Woolford et al 2014); environmental racism  or ‘slow violence’, including toxification and pollution;  and complexes of sexual, physical, communal, spiritual and land-based violence associated with the extractive industries.

Each of these forms of violence is ecologically devastating, and their convergence in European projects of colonisation is even more so. Many formations of transversal structural violence are significant causes of the so-called ‘four horsemen’ of extinction mentioned above. For instance, ‘direct killing’ is carried out to clear land for settlement, and it occurs as a result of ecological damage caused by resource extraction. Settler colonialism, carbon-based economies and regimes of environmental racism also support forms of socio-economic organization (for instance, carbon and energy-intensive urbanized societies) that intensify climate change and increase habitat destruction. Meanwhile, colonization has played a significant role in the ongoing transfer of life forms across the planet – whether unintentionally (e.g. the transfer of fish in the bilge water of ships); as an instrument of agricultural settlement (e.g. cattle ranching), or as a deliberate strategy of violence (e.g. smallpox).

However, transversal structural violence is a driver of extinction in itself, with its own distinct manifestations. First, it involves the disruption or severance of relations and kinship structures between humancommunities and other life forms, and the dissolution of Indigenous systems of governance, laws and protocols that have co-created and sustained plural worlds over millennia (Borrows 2010Atleo 2012Kimmerer 2013). Second, the destruction of Indigenous knowledges through policies of assimilation, expropriation, cultural appropriation and other strategies undermines these forms of order and the relationships they nurture. Third, the displacement of and/or restricted access to land by Indigenous peoples interferes with practices of caring for land or Country that are necessary for the survival of humans and other life forms (Bawaka Country 2015). Colonial genocides embody all of these forms of destruction by killing or displacing Indigenous communities, undermining Indigenous modes of governance and kinship systems, systematically destroying relationships between life forms and erasing knowledge. All of these modes of violence weaken co-constitutive relationships between Indigenous communities, other life forms and ecosystems that have enabled their collaborative survival. This results in disruptions to ecosystems – and climate – that  Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte (2016) has recently argued would have been considered a dystopia by his Ancestors.

In other words, transversal structural violence, and colonial violence in particular, are fundamental drivers of global patterns of extinction. It stands to reason, then, that responses to extinction that focus on managing endangered species or populations, or ‘backing up’ genetic material, are insufficient: they leave the structures of violence intact and may add to their power. Instead, efforts to address extinction need to focus on identifying, confronting and dismantling these formations of violence, and on restoring or strengthening the relations they sever.

Yet responses to global patterns of extinction are overwhelmingly rooted in Western scientific concepts of conservation – a paradigm that emerged within 20th century European colonial government structures (Adams 2004). Contemporary conservation approaches – from the creation of land and marine parks to the archiving of genetic materials – may exacerbate the destruction of relations between Indigenous peoples and their relations. For instance, conservation strategies often involve displacing Indigenous peoples from the land that they care for (Jago 2017Brockington and Igoe 2006), or curtailing of processes such as subsistence hunting, fishing or burning that have enabled the co-survival of Indigenous groups, plants, animals and land for millennia. Meanwhile, ex situ and genetic forms of conservation (including zoos and gene banks) may violate these relationships by instrumentalizing or commodifying kinship relations. Increasingly popular conservation approaches based on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) approaches claim to center Indigenous communities and knowledges. However, they ultimately instrumentalize fragments of Indigenous knowledge systems (for instance, data on climatic change) to test or support Western approaches. As such, they leave the structures of colonization and other forms of transversal structural violence untouched, and may even exacerbate them.

All of this suggests that confronting global patterns of extinction calls for decolonization and other ethos that work to eliminate transversal structural violence – and I don’t mean this metaphorically. Enabling the restoration of relations that can enable the ongoing flourishing of life on earth will require the transfer of land and power back into plural Indigenous peoples and their distinct modes of sovereignty, law and governance (Tuck and Yang 2012). These relationships and forms of order have enabled plural Indigenous peoples and their multitude of relations to co-flourish for millennia, including through periods of rapid climate change, and they are needed to ensure the continuation of this co-flourishing. This means that decolonization is not simply related to global patterns of extinction: it is necessary to ensuring the ongoingness of plural life forms on earth.

* see: (Barnosky et al 2011Ceballos et al 2015Régnier et al 2015; McCauley et al 2015WWF 2016; Brook and Alroy 2017)

Featured photo credit: Tar Sands, Alberta (cc) Dru Oja Jay, Dominion. http://bit.ly/2v3I4f7 

Rougette – by Matt Stanfield

Featured image: taxidermic rougette, with faint reddish-orange “collar” still visible despite fading. Image: Wikimedia CC, citron

A triple thread of discrimination, exploitation and subjugation runs through many historical extinctions. These injustices have long constrained the agency of entire strata of human societies. Above the disadvantaged many, a revolving cast of small elites have sat and called the shots. How many wage-slaves in the so-called rich world possess one iota of the power of the super-rich? And what of the agency of those trapped in the sweatshops and subsistence farms of the world?

Of course, injustice is not just an economic issue. Racism, misogyny, religiously-inspired bigotry and much more besides all fuel the malign inequities of the modern age. Moreover, cruelty and callousness amongst humans has a long, sad history of bleeding far beyond the boundaries of our own species.

This is one such tale. It is a story of slavery, in this case carried out for the benefit of French and British plantation owners, at the expense of the life and liberty of many living around the Indian Ocean. This tale of despoliation on Mauritius and Réunion also accounts for the extinction of a small and singular bat species: the rougette.

 The Dutch abandoned Mauritius in 1710 and five years later France laid claim to it. French settlers had already established themselves on nearby Île Bourbon (later Réunion) decades prior. One hundred-and-twelve years of Dutch activity on Mauritius had profoundly harmed its ecosystem. Six bird species and one lizard are thought to have vanished, with likely much more besides. Yet Mauritius retained a great many wondrous species.

Amongst these was the small Mauritian flying fox (Pteropus subniger), also found on Réunion. Alluding to the band of reddish fur around their necks, the French often called them rougettes. The Pteropus genus contains some of Earth’s largest bats, such as Pteropus vampyrus, whose wings might span five feet. As suggested by their English common name, rougettes were far smaller, about two feet from wingtip to wingtip. When the French began settling Mauritius in earnest during the 1720s, the creatures were common.

This would not last. Mauritius’ new masters had a plan for it. Thousands of enslaved African, Malagasy and Asian people were shipped there to work in the lucrative sugar industry. For over a century Île de France, as the island was renamed, would be a brutal slave colony. Though the percentage of Île de France covered in sugar plantations grew quite slowly, about one-sixth of the already disturbed forests were felled under French rule. The enslaved were tasked with carrying out the backbreaking clearances.

Rougettes were especially vulnerable to deforestation due to their unusual roosting habits. Early observers wrote that up to four hundred might roost inside a single old hollow tree. Most of the rougette’s congeners roost on tree branches, not crammed together in crevices. As old-growth forest was destroyed, suitable roosts for this bat grew scarcer. P. subniger suffered a further consequence of human cruelty: enslaved people were fed appallingly, with those working the sugar fields given far fewer calories than required, and negligible quantities of protein. Survival depended on supplementing what were basically starvation rations.

Eating the native fauna was the best hope for long-term survival available to enslaved people on Île de France and Île Bourbon alike. The eighteenth-century French observer De la Nux claimed rougette hunting on Île Bourbon originated with enslaved Madagascans, though this is unverifiable. Anyhow, by the eighteenth century rougettes were, in De la Nux’s unsympathetic opinion, part of the diets of ‘numerous poorly off and unfastidious people’. P. subniger were fatty creatures, an adaptation to the cooler temperatures of their favoured high-altitude forests. This made them an invaluable source of calories for many denizens of the French Mascarenes.

Eighteenth-century engraving of enslaved people on cleared land near Port Louis, in north-western Mauritius. Image public domain.

In 1815, after the French Revolution broke the power of the Bourbon kings and Napoleon lost his wars, Britain became the colonial master of Île de France, restoring the name of Mauritius to the island. Île Bourbon stayed under French rule.

Deforestation cost Mauritius around a quarter of its remaining virgin forest over just twenty years of British rule. Simultaneously sugar cane cultivation expanded vastly, though cane fields did not replace much of the forest. Instead the felled wood fuelled the sugar-mills. Despite all this, at least one record suggests Mauritian rougettes may have remained reasonably common into the early 1830s.

Everything changed for Mauritius on 1 April 1835, with the formal abolition of slavery. Three in every four of Mauritius’ inhabitants were told that they were now free. Tragically “emancipation” was a poisoned chalice. Whilst Britain’s government compensated former slave owners for their “inconvenience”, nearly eighty thousand former slaves on Mauritius faced two unpromising options. Either they could serve an “apprenticeship” to their former masters, or try to eke out a life away from the settled parts of the island. Unsurprisingly the majority chose to abandon the savagery of the plantations, heading for isolated parts of the island to practice slash-and-burn peasant agriculture. Though this internal diaspora of the desperate likely harmed rougette populations, especially in those parts of the highlands which were settled, none of those involved had chosen to be on the island in the first place.

Much the greater act of ecological harm in the wake of 1835 was the work of the “plantocracy”. It proved profitable for plantation owners to import indentured Indian labourers to replace their slaves. The sugar industry boomed. The cost was the suffering of tens of thousands of Indians and the halving of Mauritius’ forested area in just a decade.

On Île Bourbon things were no better. Slavery remained legal there until 1848, when political upheaval in France led to formal abolition and a new name for the island: Réunion. In an inversion of the situation on Mauritius, it was impoverished white settlers who occupied the highlands of Réunion which harboured the island’s remaining rougettes.

The rougette as it once was. Hand-coloured French engraving from the late nineteenth-century. Image public domain.

In the end, nearly two centuries of plantation agriculture-driven hunting and habitat destruction would drive P. subniger extinct. The final record on Réunion came in 1862, with the animal last reported on Mauritius two years later. Live rougettes were not heard of again.

The sting in the tail of the bats’ demise is that, being primarily nectarivorous, plants which they pollinated might have passed into oblivion with them. We’ll never know.

 

Bibliography
Cheke, Anthony & Hume, Julian P., Lost Land of the Dodo (London, 2009)

Flannery, Tim & Schouten, Peter, A Gap in Nature (London, 2001)

Macmillan, Allister, Mauritius Illustrated (London, 1914)

Various authors, IUCN Red List, online (2017)

Various authors, Volume 1: Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report (Mauritius, 2012)

 

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – by Megan Hollingsworth

The last of the mighty big and free were prisoners guarded with guns,

the named among popular relics saved for trophies

like swaths of impressive land and sea

or captive specimens locked in laboratory cages

within rooms without windows.

 

And they were all whats

And they were all its

Some to be tagged, released, and watched

 

Why? Because the body’s pleasure had been denied

Sanctity? Because, after being treated as an object

forgetting all souls housed,

someone claimed the body an object

nothing more than material to be used, maybe,

and more, a curiosity to be observed

in a photograph pinned to the wall

now pornographed on screen

 

Child sex trophies along with wives

for the successful

not so different at root

than skulls placed in plastic bags

on shelves

labels noting where they were found,

an estimate of when they were killed

 

All too common to count,

the fortunately unfortunate heartsease got away

 

 

Author’s Note: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a 2017 revision of a poem written in 2014 during a month’s witness with rhinoceros and thoughts on the militarization of species conservation. As well, why some humans protect who they do. And they were ‘whats’ is in reference to Maya Lin’s last memorial, What Is Missing? And they were ‘its’ is in reference to the description of Ilin Bushy-tailed Cloud Rat at IUCN Red List. Heartsease, Viola tricolor, also known as Johnny Jump up heart’s ease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, and love-in-idleness, is a common European wildflower, growing as an annual or short-lived perennial introduced to and spread in North America.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is offered for Indigenous People’s Day as the ‘why and how’ of who gets protected and what communities ‘reserved’ is fresh in my mind following a visit to Yellowstone National Park with my son September 30th, 2017 – National Public Lands day and one of the annual free-entrance days for National Parks. With intent to show my son the Lower Falls and perhaps share the experience I had seeing the view for the first time in 1994, the day visit was bittersweet.

When I first visited Yellowstone with my mother while on summer vacation from college, I was uninformed of how U.S. National Parks, spurred by the cutting of giant sequoia during the California Gold Rush, came into existence through continued forced removal of native peoples. I had also not yet experienced living in forest homestead or extended periods wandering Wilderness. The time in the Park on September 30th was very much what visiting the Park has felt like since being informed of genocide and these personal experiences of immersion in community. To me, the Park feels like a zoo or museum with charismatic community members like relics on display. Captives, like famous actors and musicians, mobbed when they appear.

Along with the urgent need for preservation of all remaining intact ecological communities, the ‘us and them’ practice of species conservation and community preservation needs to end. And the ‘half-Earth’ meme clearly emphasise the reintegration of human lifeways to established reserves where peoples have been removed in the course of establishment. Just as the whole of ecological community needs to be integrated in urban centers in the vein of ‘win-win ecology’.

I imagine the time when all humans again experience themselves indigenous – as participants in biologically diverse community rather than as guests and observers of ‘wildlife’ and ‘nature’. Because we humans are participants in biologically diverse community. Biodiversity is social diversity. And there is no escaping that reality. This is painfully obvious as everyone suffers and whole communities fail when humans neglect responsibility to care for those vulnerable in our midst.

On our way into the Park, my son and I happened to stop for a lunch break along Gardiner River just before bighorn sheep arrived for a drink and the crowd arrived to photograph them. As we were headed home, we chanced to see two black at separate points, though near one another, both surrounded and traffic stalled. I did not stop and did my best to explain why to my son, who is seven years old.

Looking out into the canyon from Lower Falls, Yellowstone National Park

Lower Falls, Yellowstone National Park

My son was less impressed by the grandness of the Lower Falls than with the spaces he could fit inside, and tiny rocks and sticks and clay he found on trail.