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.
“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.
What is the Environmental Justice Atlas?
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:
- Economic activity or legislation with actual or potential negative environmental and social outcomes;
- Claim and mobilisation by environmental justice organisation(s) that such harm occurred or is likely to occur as a result of that activity
- 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.
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 unthinkability. It 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 2013; Weisman 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 1999; Stannard 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.
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 2014; Ceballos 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 2010; Atleo 2012; Kimmerer 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 2017, Brockington 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.
Featured photo credit: Tar Sands, Alberta (cc) Dru Oja Jay, Dominion. http://bit.ly/2v3I4f7
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.
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)
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
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.