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)


2 thoughts on “Thinking Extinction in Sudbury Ontario

  1. Hi Deborah,
    As someone who very much wanted to attend this symposium but was unable to make it up to Sudbury, your wonderful summaries of several of the talks were a fascinating and helpful read. It’s incredibly disheartening to think of the disjunct between the issues and concerns raised in the presentations, and the current state of political action on climate change as evidenced by the UNFCCC CoP 19 going on in parallel to – but worlds apart from! – the Extinction Symposium. Also I just want to say I had the chance to hear you speak at York University a little before the symposium. Such an interesting and provocative talk. So thank you twice over!

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