Monthly Archives: November 2013

On the Torture of Small Animals

Until yesterday it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder about the effects of water cannons and helicopters on small and vulnerable creatures. The Queensland town of Charters Towers is proposing to assault flying-foxes using these and other methods. The starting date is December 2, so time is of the essence. A petition is now circulating to prevent this assault. It  is addressed to the Charters Towers Regional Council: ‘Reconsider using water cannons, smoke, sirens and helicopters to disperse the black flying-fox colony in Lissner Park after requesting a Damage Mitigation Permit.’

The petition is organised by Barbara Brindley of Wynnum, Queensland. She writes: ‘All flying-fox camps are full of mothers and babies at this time of the year and whilst many babies are still being carried by their mothers, the majority are too big for mothers to fly with and will be left in the crèche trees at the mercy of the water cannons. Water cannons break bones and helicopters create down drafts that smash bodies and wings.’ Most of us recoil at the thought of all the suffering involved in such actions, and it is important to know that many people in Charters Towers also recoil – at the very least from the prospect of carrying out the assault while the young are still unable to fend for themselves.

Grey-headed flying-fox mother with baby. Courtesy of Nick Edards
Grey-headed flying-fox mother with baby.
Courtesy of Nick Edards

As I wrote in my post on ‘Zombie Politics’ (29-8-13), ‘ persecution, vilification and harm are part of today’s public discourse and public policy’. Recent legislative changes are promoting opportunities to inflict suffering on flying-foxes. Queensland has reinstated shooting, and has had to exempt flying-foxes from the Animal Care and Protection Act in order to do so. The state is also proposing to give local councils greater freedom to assault flying-foxes without ethics oversight.

It could be argued that Charters Towers is just carrying on a well-established Australian tradition. For over a century Whitefella settlers tried their hardest to exterminate flying foxes. With government approval, they shot, poisoned, gassed, burnt, and electrocuted flying foxes. They cut down their maternity camps, created a great variety of forms of harassment to drive them away, paid a bounty for the corpses, and bombed them. They even brought an expert from Great Britain to advise on how to accomplish the extermination.

Times change, and flying-foxes are now protected as native species. There are four species in mainland Australia. Two are officially listed as threatened, one seems to be doing okay, and the data are insufficient to make a definitive assessment of the fourth. Flying-foxes by preference are nomadic. They love to live in large groups, and they follow the blossoming and fruiting of their favourite trees and shrubs. Or, that is what they did prior to the extermination of some 95% of Australia’s east coast indigenous forests. Now they live as best they can on what remains, and they feed on crops when they can get at them. In addition, they move to cities and towns where food and water are likely to be more consistently available than in the devastated bush. And it is exactly in these urban areas that they are likely to be regarded as a nuisance to human health and safety, and thus to be targeted for ‘dispersal’. But of course it is also in these areas where people have the opportunity to learn to appreciate the wonder of flying-foxes.

Fly-out in Sydney. Courtesy of Tim Pearson
Fly-out in Sydney.
Courtesy of Tim Pearson

I could go on to write about how flying-foxes are keystone species that pollinate what is left of the Myrtaceous woodlands with which they are co-evolved. This would be a story of how their lives matter to other species. I could write in detail about their vulnerability to extinction, about the fact that each mother gives birth only to one baby per year, so that with their relatively short life-spans, flying-fox populations are inherently vulnerable. This would be the story of inter-generational nurturance and continuity. And I could write about the long struggle in the western world to enact anti-cruelty legislation: a story of the recognition that it is not good for humans to deliberately cause suffering in other creatures. These points are all relevant, but there is more.

It may seem that philosophy and water cannons are far apart, but as we live our lives we take stands that reflect our philosophies of life and death. Underlying much of the hype against flying foxes is an old, demonstrably untrue, but almost magical mantra that says that humans are entitled to an unencumbered place in the sun. An ugly self-righteous human is displayed in a lot of this discourse as it revolves around the proposition that anything that impinges on humans and their projects, on their comfort, and indeed on their desire to take up all the space under the sun, will have to be eliminated.

This question of who can be tolerated and who will have to be eliminated goes to the heart of ethics in the contemporary world. As Hannah Arendt explains, the great crime of genocide lies in large part in the underlying decision to refuse to share the earth with specific other humans. In this time of man-made mass extinctions, the refusal to share the earth with other species is becoming visible as an ethically and ecologically disastrous failure on the part of humanity.

The Charters Towers assault is an opportunity to take a stand for a world in which our fellow creatures are not made the subject of vilification and hatred, and are not tortured and brutally killed. Such a stand calls for the exercise of human intelligence and good will in developing arts of co-existence.

There are good instrumental reasons for protecting the lives of flying foxes: because the forests need them; because we don’t know all there is to know, and therefore do not know and cannot know what we would be destroying if we were to destroy them. But side by side with all the reasonable and instrumental reasons for sustaining the lives of flying foxes, there are these other issues: we can and should protect them because they too belong here, because they are beautiful, because life is richer with them than it could ever be without them, because we humans have the capacity to love other animals and in these days of habitat loss and numerous other threats, flying foxes need our love. And indeed, we could protect them because in killing them we are in danger of losing ourselves. We need to be able to love others, to protect them, to live with them, and to experience the awe of their ways of life. How we manage to share our place in the sun defines not just where we are, but who we are.

Wounded flying-fox in care at the Tolga Bat Hospital.
Wounded flying-fox in care at the Tolga Bat Hospital.

In the midst of this impending torment, suffering, vilification, and human shamefulness, I want also to remember the joy of life. An earlier post on ‘Flying-foxes in Outback Australia’ (24-8-13) told the story of my trip to see a truly fantastic flying-fox fly-out. Hundreds of thousands of them were camped in the mangroves near the Aboriginal community of Port Keats in the Northern Territory, and when they lifted off at dusk it was incomparable spectacle. My home-video is now available, and even though it shows only a fraction of the fly-out, it gives a sense of this awesome event.

nick 2

What can a person do today for flying-foxes?

~~~       The petition is on-line: sign and circulate to everyone you know; add a comment.

~~~      Check out the people who are active in defence of flying-foxes; consider making a donation or adopting (financially) a flying-fox in care:

-~~~       The Tolga Bat Hospital, Atherton, Queensland

-~~~       Bat Conservation and Rescue, Queensland, Inc.

~~~        Spread the word: the stands we take really do matter.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

Thinking Extinction in Sudbury Ontario

Thinking Extinction Logo
Thinking Extinction Logo

Laurentian University in Sudbury Ontario recently started a new research initiative: the Centre for Evolutionary Ecology and Ethical Conservation. The first major event to be hosted by the Centre was a three day international symposium on species extinction. Brett Buchanan, author of an impressive book on philosophy and ethology, called Onto-Ethologies, was the leading figure behind the symposium. I was one of the lucky invited participants. From Sydney to Sudbury is a bit of a hike. It was well worth it.

Interestingly, the symposium was timed to coincide with author Margaret Attwood’s annual visit to Sudbury where she celebrates her birthday. Her recent world’s end trilogy, Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, uses the speculative form to work explicitly with themes of extinction. She and her husband Graeme Gibson, author of the beautifully presented Bedside Book of Birds, dedicate much energy and effort to thinking about environmental issues and working on behalf of endangered birds; their contributions to the symposium added an extra measure of wisdom.

The symposium speakers came from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S., and included philosophers, biologists, and humanities scholars from a range of disciplines and interdisciplinary fields. The conversation ranged across a huge terrain of practice, theory, ethics, dilemmas, technology, biology, and social analysis. One way or another, almost every presentation was disturbing, and questions multiplied rather than diminished. One point that came up again and again is not new but is gaining urgency: mass extinctions are inseparable from the great, accelerating environmental crisis often signalled by the term ‘climate change’.

Overall, the focus was not exactly on extinction, per se, but more on prevention – what would it take to stop the scale of the mass extinction event now in process? What it would take socially, culturally, biologically, ecologically, technologically, ethically, and financially to turn back all this death? Each domain is huge, each poses many questions that are unanswerable at this time. Problems are quite well understood. Answers are not. The symposium organisers will be putting the videos up on the web, so people all over the world will have a chance to carry the conversations into in their own places, problems, programs and debates.

It now seems clear that by any rigorous definition of extinction, many animals will not go extinct in the foreseeable future because some individuals will be kept alive. One of the issues that claimed a fair bit of attention, therefore, was the different life experiences of animals subjected to in-situ vs. ex-situ conservation. In-situ can be glossed as ‘in the wild’. It involves sustaining habitats, corridors, waterways and other ecological contexts that are essential to the members of any given species as they live their lives on their own terms (to greater or lesser extents).  Ex-situ can be glossed as ‘in human care’. (Thanks to Gabriela Mastromonaco of the Toronto Zoo for pointing out the linguistic oddity of this term: with appalling ease it transmutes into ‘inhuman care’.)

At this time, the ultimate ex-situ conservation measure involves fragments. The warehousing of tissue samples and other genetic material, as undertaken in ‘Frozen Ark’ programs, involves numerous zoos that keep samples on ice. The mission: ‘to save samples of frozen cells containing DNA from endangered animals before they go extinct’. There are now 48,000 samples on ice, representing genetic material from 5,500 endangered and non-endangered animal species. One of the many disturbing and fascinating questions that arises is: with this mode of storage, is it even necessary to keep individuals alive? Proponents of the Frozen Ark call it ‘insurance’. These and other records of the biology of endangered species can be worked with by scientists now and in the future, perhaps, as some would-be techno-wizards would have it, to re-populate a species that had been left to die out in the non-frozen world.

The more common ex-situ conservation takes place with live animals in zoos and other care facilities. This is more than just warehousing, though. Care may also involve breeding programs, some more invasive than others. Thanks to Gabriela, we saw unforgettable images of artificial insemination procedures being carried out on elephants. Captive breeding can produce individuals who can help sustain in-situ populations as individuals are released from zoos and sent into the ‘wild’, thus enabling on-going generations of wild populations who would not be able to sustain themselves without zoo in-put.

And what of the individuals who are released? Matt Chrulew’s insightful presentation on the golden lion tamarin monkeys documented a tough story of the release of creatures who simply did not know how to live in the forest. Many of them lost their lives in dreadful ways, starving to death, for existence. This experience has led to much better efforts to prepare animals in human care for life in the ‘real world’.

Golden lion tamarin Wikimedia commons Adrian Pingstone
Golden lion tamarin
Wikimedia commons
Adrian Pingstone

Once again we were facing stories involving human manipulation of the lives of other creatures, and once again our thoughts took a u-turn.  Many of us wondered about this strange creature known as the human. We destroy so wantonly, and we take such extraordinary, indeed at times ruthless, measures to conserve.

Both in-situ and ex-situ contexts raise on-going questions about animal life when creatures are removed from their unique way of inhabiting their own worlds of meaning, or when the world within which they have evolved no longer exists. This question is vividly present in zoos, and is increasingly present in ‘the wild’ as well. Think for example of the great migratory animals who can no longer travel as they used to do because most of their range has been taken over by humans.

Joshua Schuster gave an excellent and disturbing presentation on the imagery surrounding the near-eradication of the American bison. Working with utterly harrowing paintings, etchings and photos, he documented the carnage that resulted from efforts to eradicate the buffalo and thereby also to destroy the way of life of Native Americans whose lives were entangled with the buffalo. The assault on the buffalo was an assault on the spiritual, cultural and survival relationships between the peoples and the bison. Within the period 1860-1900, roughly, the massive bison population was reduced to a few hundred individuals. I had to lower my eyes from many of the images, and I thought of the opening pages of Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Lear begins with the chilling words of Plenty Coup: ‘when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.’ Buffy Sainte-Marie’s haunting song ‘Now that the buffalo’s gone’ enveloped my mind, and seemed to seep into the room, pulling our gaze outward to the landscape around us, once a toxic ‘moonscape’ thanks to mining,  and  now slowly recuperating from the depredations of commodity plunder.

I thought too of the buffalo now confined to Yellowstone National Park. Some of them leave the borders of the park to forage at lower altitudes during the winter months when snow covers the ground. Once outside the boundaries of the park, local ranchers shoot them. It has come to this, then, that the great migrations of millions of creatures, across hundreds or thousands of miles, are reduced to small populations living in reserved areas where they can be visited by tourists and on ranches where they can be turned into meat. Their lives are suspended in something of a holding pattern between in-situ and ex-situ: a limbo of existence that strikes a compromise between the humans who want to extirpate them, the humans who try to help them remain alive and free in the world, and the humans who want to ‘farm’ them.

Bison Wikimedia commons Marcin Klapczynski
Wikimedia commons Marcin Klapczynski

One question that kept coming around involved the fact that because this mass extinction event is being caused by humans, we have responsibilities to seek to avert all this death. At any rate, this was certainly a consensus view at this symposium. But what does it mean to avert all this death? Is it good enough just to store tissue samples? Is there a responsibility to sustain habitats so that animals and plants can go on living their lives apart from humans? Is it enough that they are alive in the wild, or should conservation accomplish more?  What about climate change? Should humans be helping animals and plants to adapt to climate change, and what would that mean?

The fact that ‘humans’ (which actually means ‘some humans and their institutions of wealth and power’) are responsible means that many of the issues are actually mostly about humans. What about humans who hate certain animals and want to eradicate them? My own presentation dealt with the recent legislation in the Australian state of Queensland that allows farmers legally to shoot flying-foxes, two species of which are threatened with extinction. The Queensland government had to exempt flying-foxes from the anti-cruelty legislation in order to do this (see my earlier post ‘Zombie Politics’). Along with the violence against flying-foxes, itself part of a much wider field of violence against nature, there is also political struggle. Some people actually do not want to participate in an ethics of care and protection, or at least not if it might cause them any inconvenience.

Eileen Crist’s presentation pulled together a lot of these ideas. She began by discussing everyday concepts of freedom – the right to expand human horizons, to increase mobility and opportunity, and to have choices. Her point was that in the world today the activities that are taken to be indicative of human freedom are achieved at the expense of the lives and well-being of other species. One of her most confronting  examples was roads – something we all take for granted, and use all the time. We have perhaps become somewhat inured to the shocking deaths we see all the time on roads, but of course we only ever see a minute fraction of the death. According to Crist, there are one million animal road deaths in the USA every day, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Roads fragment habitats, they cut across animal travel routes, and they open ever more areas for development. Given our current social and economic way of life they are necessary and inevitable, but for animals they are ‘catastrophic’. It is not that everyone who travels (or consumes goods that have travelled) sets out to ruin the lives of others; it is actually much worse. Everyone who travels (or consumes goods that have travelled), is inevitably bound up with and complicit in the ruination of the lives of others.

Habitat fragmentation is part of vast processes of break-up across many, many domains. At the symposium we heard about it in terms of landscapes and populations, and also in terms of legislation that is piecemeal, and in terms of political objectives that are short term and that marginalise the interests of the animals whose lives are being manipulated. I recently published an article on slow writing discussing fragmentation with  the term ‘unmaking’.  I said that unmaking is going on all around us these days; it is not only over there in other places, other lives, other creatures and communities; it is here amongst us, fragmenting our jobs, our lives, our communities. We are participants both in unmaking and in being unmade.

Mick Smith’s presentation explicitly and elegantly analysed the unmaking of communities through neo-liberal ideology and action, most famously signalled by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her 1987 statement that ‘there is no such thing as society’. To counter this reductionist politics, Smith drew on the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy in relation to community. Sustaining his analysis across Darwin, Haeckel, and more recent continental philosophy, Mick extended Nancy’s work on community to offer an account of ecological community that can include humans and nonhumans. He worked with Derrida’s analysis of touch to ground our being together-in-proximity and to show that community entails our capacity to be touched both by our being with others, and by our awareness of their passing.

The day I got back to Australia I read: ‘Climate policy is the central battleground of 21st century politics’. In this time of trouble, as Margaret Attwood reminded us, we who are so concerned about these issues need to be able to tell convincing stories to more and more people. A story does not have to be long to have impact, she pointed out, and she told one of the shortest, scariest stories I have ever heard: kill the ocean, and there will be no oxygen.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)


Can Animism Help Revitalise the Commons?

Wesleyan University,  Long Lane Farm Herb Spiral

Wesleyan University,
Long Lane Farm Herb Spiral

My travels in North America have included a fantastic visit to Wesleyan University in Connecticut where I was hosted by the College of the Environment. My colleague and main host was Gillian Goslinga who has carried out inspiring research in India and writes fascinating articles about communities that include humans, non-humans and spirits. Lori Gruen is another key figure in the Wesleyan community, and a thinker who is leading research and action in the field of human-animal studies and multispecies ethnography.  The College of Environment’s  visiting professor this year is Frederique Apffel-Marglin, whose work on local and indigenous knowledge in the face of development has helped me articulate a number of key ideas  over the course of nearly two decades. She has put her ethics and politics into practice as the founder-director of the inspirational Sachamama Institute in Peru. My curiosity and desire were totally captivated by her news of a week-long workshop she and colleagues are running in December on ‘Tantric Ecologies’. How I would love to be  part of that!!

If you have had the opportunity to hang out with inspiring people, you’ll have a good idea of what a buzz I gained from this experience. Perhaps one of the most wonderful aspects of my visit was the opportunity to learn about the student farm. A future blog will discuss Long Lane Farm in much greater detail – stay tuned!

The specific invitation that brought me to Wesleyan was the opportunity to give a keynote speech in the series organised by the College of Environment, under the heading ‘Where Are Earth Are We Going?’ With that stimulating question in mind, and in dialogue with their theme for this year – ‘Re-Envisioning  the Commons’ – I offered a speech on ‘Kinship with Nature in this Time of Loss: Can Animism Help Revitalise the Commons?’ They have very kindly posted it on the web, so here it is.

Frédérique’s brilliant speech ‘Re-imagining the Commons: Natural Resource Management or Biocultural Generation? is also online.

Keeping Faith With Death

This speech was presented by Thom van Dooren on behalf of both Thom and me.

The audience: The Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales

The conference theme: Dangerous Ideas in Zoology

Date and Place: 2 November 2013, Australian Museum

Hawaiian Monk Seals, Kaua'i, 2012
Hawaiian Monk Seals, Kaua’i, 2012

For roughly the past five years, our combined research has focused on extinction. Drawing on the resources of the humanities – in particular philosophy and ethnographic work with local communities – we’ve explored what this particular form of mass death means for those caught up in it. How does extinction undermine various lives and livelihoods? How are funerary practices and indigenous forms of multispecies kinship challenged and unravelled by disappearing animals and plants? Why do some people dedicate their lives to conservation – what principles guide and motivate them – and why do others care so little?

Importantly, however, our work has not simply focused on the ‘human dimensions’ of extinction. Instead, we have sought to challenge any neat separation between the ‘natural’ and the ‘cultural’. Our research has explicitly drawn the humanities into conversation with biology, ecology and ethology to explore entangled communities of humans and nonhumans – to explore how diverse ways of life are being transformed at the edge of extinction.

As philosophers and anthropologists, one of our central concerns has been exploring what it might mean to develop an ethical relationship with extinction in our current period of anthropogenic mass extinciton. In this context, we have been particularly intrigued, and more than a little alarmed, by the growing interest that has surrounded so-called “de-extinction” projects. 

Over the last few decades, but with increased intensity in the last few years, a range of technologies and approaches have begun coalescing under the banner of ‘de-extinction’. Often framed in terms of atonement for past sins committed by a collective ‘humanity’, these de-extinction approaches range from the relatively low-tech programs of back-breeding that produced Heck cattle, through to the new possibilities opened up by interspecies somatic cell nuclear transfer and allele replacement techniques. While successes to date have been incredibly limited, the enthusiasm that surrounds the promise of something to come has proven to be highly contagious in some sectors.

A central part of what concerns us about these projects was succinctly captured by environmentalist Stewart Brand – now a leading de-extinction advocate – in his March 2013 TED talk. After listing a range of iconic species driven to extinction by humans in the past couple of hundred years, he posed the question of how this history makes us feel, and how it is that we ought to orient ourselves in relation to it.

In his words: “Sorrow, anger, mourning? Don’t mourn, organize” (3:25).

There is something disturbing about this response to extinction. Extinction, of course, is both an historical and an ongoing phenonenon, but importantly, it is also one that is firmly grounded in a wide range of complex cultural, religious, economic and technological practices and systems. Brand’s commitment to practical action, to moving forward, is perhaps not in itself problematic, but when it is presented as an alternative to a meaningful and empathetic engagement, something is wrong.

Buried within Brand’s suggestion is a deep misunderstanding about the nature of mourning. We don’t mourn for the fun of it, or to avoid doing something about a loss. Rather, as many psychologists and philosophers have insisted, processes of individual and collective mourning do important work in allowing us to learn from and ‘work through’ experiences of loss. In philosopher and counselor Thomas Attig’s terms, grieving is a process of ‘relearning the world’. For Attig:

As we grieve, we appropriate new understandings of the world and ourselves within it. We also become different in the light of the loss as we assume a new orientation to the world. [107-8]

In short, mourning is a process of learning and transformation to accommodate a changed reality. Mourning is about dwelling with a loss and so coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed, and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here. In this context, genuine mourning should open us into an awareness of our dependence on and relationships with those countless others being driven over the edge of extinction.

In short, dwelling with extinction in this way – taking it seriously, not rushing to overcome it – might be the more important political and ethical work for our time. In contrast, Brand’s response seems to us to buy into what the philosopher Daniel Innerarity has called “false motion”. Here, the bright promise of new technologies, of doing something, undermines the genuine reflection needed to get somewhere better – not just different. In this context, Innerarity argues that we are living in a political time in which a perceived forward motion often “conceals an incapacity to confront needed reforms and to shape our collective future”(The Future and its Enemies p.5).

The reality, however, is that there is no avoiding the necessity of the difficult cultural work of reflection and mourning. This work is not opposed to practical action, rather it is the foundation of any sustainable and informed response.

It is precisely this kind of reflection that leaves us with a healthy sense of cynicism in relation to Stewart Brand’s vision of the world and the possible place of resurrected species within it.

Take, for example, his concluding remark in this same TED lecture: “some species that we killed off completely we could consider bringing back to a world that misses them.”

But where is this world? In our research we have encountered many individuals and even small communities of people who miss extinct species. We would also be the first to agree that a plant species might ‘miss’ its extinct pollinators in a non-trivial sense that should be acknowledged. But to rush from here to a “world that misses them” is to move too far too quickly, and in so doing to brush over all of the difficult work of living well with others.

The history of endangered species conservation over the past few decades is one of a slow awareness of the need to work with local people – to take seriously their values, livelihoods and cultural formations. And yet, all this hard earned history seems to have been immediately forgotten when the possibility of a resurrected mammoth entered the room. Where would returned mammoths go? What about passenger pigeons? Once present in flocks of hundreds of millions of birds, which part of the contemporary United States will play host to these animals? How quickly will they be declared pests and targeted for ‘control’ or eradication? Closer to home, what sense does it make to dream of returning the thylacine when we cannot even ask people to make room for dingoes? How have the sheep farmers that once played a pivotal role in the extinction of the thylacine in Tasmania so changed their ways that this resurrection will be a success? Or are we resurrecting species for a future life in a theme park, or perhaps as pets – animals whose primary purpose is to serve as living testimony to the human techno-triumph of having brought them into being.

In short, while there might be some viable candidates for de-extinction, any realistic and responsible application of these technologies would need to take the broader cultural and economic context far more seriously than is currently the case. These are entangled human and nonhuman communities of life that need to be considered in all of their evolving complexity.

Taking this complexity seriously reminds us that many people do not miss these extinct species. Many people do not or will not welcome them back into their lives or environments.

The spate of recent monk seal killings in Hawaii is just one example from our current research. Here, an iconic charismatic mammal that is highly endangered is frequently targeted by locals – shot or beaten to death – and left on the beach. In the same island chain we have also been researching efforts to release captive bred Hawaiian crows (‘alalā), a species now extinct in the wild. Here too, local responses are deeply mixed – many supporting conservation but many others seeing it as an intrusion into local lives and landscapes. This is so much the case that conservationists fear that released birds may be targeted by local hunters unhappy about changing forest management.

What we see here is an all too familiar dynamic. As Jon Mooallem has noted with specific reference to the US, but the same could be said of many other places, “We live in … an age, with extraordinary empathy for endangered species. We also live at a time when alarming numbers of protected animals are being shot in the head, cudgeled to death or worse.”

The reasons behind these violent responses are always complex, but in more than a few cases – as Mooallem notes – it is the ‘success’ of conservation that is giving rise to these frictions. Species once at the edge of extinction have been restored and, in his words:  “[w]e suddenly remember why many of us didn’t want them around in the first place.” Wolves, sandhill cranes, sea otters, monk seals… the list goes on. “These animals can feel like illegitimate parts of the landscape to people who, for generations, have lived without any of them around — for whom their absence seems, in a word, natural.”

Of course, the difficulty we have convincing people that they should make room for a monk seal or a crow that has been missing from the forest for 10 years will pale in comparison to the suggestion that they ought to accommodate a carnivore like the thylacine or immense flocks of passenger pigeons.

In this complex context, we do not need the promise of a new techno-fix that allows us to reverse the unimaginable. Rather, what is needed is the kind of difficult reflection and discussion that forces us – as individuals and cultures – to dwell with our actions and their consequences, and in so doing – maybe, just maybe – begin to wind back the current rate of extinctions.

Bringing back a few species, through painful and fraught procedures that arguably have a very low chance of meaningful longterm success, whilst at the same time continuing to carry on the widespread destruction of living systems on this planet, is both monumental folly and cruelty. In an important sense, we are not yet ready for de-extinction – if indeed we ever will be.

Instead, what the current time demands is a genuine reckoning with ourselves as the agents of mass extinction.  In short, we need to mourn, to spend a little time with the dead; to keep faith with death and in so doing to own up to the reality of the world that we are ushering in.