Tag Archives: Hawaiian monk seals

Hope is the Way of the World

‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’. I had thought it was another great Shakespeare quote, but it turns out to come from Alexander Pope. I have experienced this, almost everyone has. Often there seems to be no particular reason for it. Nor is there any privileged species. Unexpectedly, pervasively, hope bubbles up all over the place. Hope is life’s desire for more life. It is the loom on which fabric of life is woven.

baby birds

Hope is connected to the fact that the arrow of time only moves in one direction, at least for us. This may not be the case for certain sub-atomic entities (if that’s the right word), but for all of us macro-creatures, time is a one-way process. No one knows what the future holds, exactly. Everyone has to act on their best judgement. We humans have ethics and principles to guide us, and we can make thoughtful projections, but there’s always uncertainty. Such is life – risky. Every new life is an embodiment of hope.

I was twice drawn to think about hope recently. In both cases the context was extinction. First came the report that the Federal Government has placed forty-nine more species on the threatened species list. Included in this reassessment is the up-grading of a number of species to ‘critically endangered’. The primary cause of all this peril is land clearing. As is well known, land clearing has been part of Australian settler culture right from the beginning. For some people, clearing has become densely entangled with their sense of personal freedom to the point where it seems that the greater good has no claim upon them. The ‘right’ to eradicate biotic communities is spurious of course; there is no such inalienable right. Indeed, there are many excellent reasons why flourishing ecosystems should not be transformed into narcissistic mirrors of human supremacy.

Swift parrot in Canberra, Leo (CC)
Swift parrot in Canberra, Leo (CC)

The larger issue is that the language of individual rights provides a mask for industrial plunder. And in a powerful twist of narcissistic thinking, industries like forestry and coal represent themselves as if the greater good has no claim on them because they already encompass it.

Just at the moment  the case of the swift parrot looms large. Habitat for this critically endangered bird has been and continues to be under threat from clearing on the mainland and from forestry in critical breeding areas in Tasmania. These parrots nest in tree hollows, and it takes a hundred years at the least for deep hollows to form. The recovery plan for this marvellous bird does not actually specify the extent to which its habitat must be protected.

Forestry Tasmania, Cowirrie (CC)
Forestry Tasmania, Cowirrie (CC)

This is just one example among very many, and it shows a wilful, heart-breaking, infuriating lack of action by government. A recent report co-authored by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Birdlife Australia, and Environmental Justice Australia found that ‘successive governments have avoided their responsibility to protect threatened species habitat and have instead entrenched the process of extinction.

The authors make the important point that while governments are shirking their responsibilities, the situation by no means impossible. Actually, ‘… extinction is far from inevitable for the vast majority of threatened species in Australia. Extinction is the result of the decisions made by successive governments to ignore their own scientific advisers, and to neglect their obligation under our environmental laws to protect the ongoing evolution of life on the Australian continent.’

Swift parrot, Tasmania, Lizardstomp (CC)
Swift parrot, Tasmania, Lizardstomp (CC)

It is tempting to launch into a rave about the pathetic state of politics in most of the world today, but I think we all know this. Frustration is widespread, and its causes are well understood. The current state of political inaction induces a sense of hopelessness in the face of both the terrible injustices inflicted in social and ecological spheres and the politicians’ refusal to fulfil the democratic contract.

Let’s go back to swift parrots (Lathamus discolor). Parrots are an ancient family. They originated in here in Australia. Tim Low invites us to think of Cretaceous forests with ‘birds flitting past dinosaurs to lap at scarlet and orange sprays’ of flowers. Swift parrots are ‘rich patch nomads’; they roam widely in search of sugar ‘hot spots’, and they are great pollinators. They live mutualistically with the ‘bird-adapted’ trees of Australia which they pollinate. They are intelligent creatures with extensive repertoires of communication and play; for millennia they were the most intelligent species on Earth. In case you were wondering, birds experience pain and misery.

The long history of parrots and trees in Australia is not just a matter of chance. Parrots nurture and teach their young. Their continuity is an intergenerational achievement. Thom van Dooren writes: ‘Approached with attentiveness to evolutionary history and a focus on the complex and difficult emergence of each new generation, it is clear that this thing we call a “species” is an incredible achievement.’ He is inviting us to recognise and appreciate ‘the immensity of … intergenerational work: the skill, commitment, cooperation, and hard work, alongside serendipity,’ that go into the succession of generations.

Thinking up-close with swift parrots, and trees, and indeed with many living creatures, calls us to remember that every loss of a new generation, every future that is extinguished, is an act of brutality that destroys hope. Not mine, or yours, necessarily, but the hopes of others.

Corellas in tree hollow, Francisco Martins (CC)
Corellas in tree hollow, Francisco Martins (CC)

This brings me to my second stimulus in thinking about hope. Last week I was asked to participate in a forum in New York on the question of ‘Hope in a Time of Extinction’. I decided not to Skype in; I am definitely not at my best at two in the morning. Instead, I wrote a short piece to share with the group. With a few amendments, here is my offering:


I couldn’t have it imagined it – couldn’t have imagined when I was a child that there would come a day when I would think and write about extinction because I was living in a time when much of what I loved in the world was being trashed. We live with the unimaginable, and for writers there are many pitfalls. Some people have from time to time dealt with trying to write about the unimaginable by stretching language to try to force it beyond itself. Often the result is fairly incomprehensible. In our time we need a wide net of fully comprehensible words, but then we hit temptations in the form of trying to make big issues smaller. I am thinking, for example, of the temptation to make it easy (how to save the planet in ten easy steps); to naturalise issues (there have been other extinctions, nature survives); to count and quibble (we have lots of DNA kept safe for the future); to produce justifications (there are cures for cancer out there that we haven’t discovered yet); to engage in triage (we can’t save everything, bad luck for the ones that aren’t cute); the list goes on.

Worst of all, though, is the temptation to give up and say nothing. When I think of silence I think (inevitably) of Emmanuel Levinas and his great words about how we are called into ethics by others. He said: ‘the face is the other before death, looking through and exposing death. … [T]he face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus the face says to me: “you shall not kill”’.

These words strike right to the heart of hope and love in this time of extinction.  The call ’do not abandon’ is precisely where we are today in relation to all the species at the edge of the abyss. And Levinas adds the terrible reminder that to abandon others is as if to become an accomplice in death.

Flying-fox orphan, Paislie Hadley (CC)
Flying-fox orphan, Paislie Hadley (CC)

We are asked to consider the possibility that a great deal of death is going to happen without our being able to do enough. And probably all that we do can never be enough within the parameters of this massive deathscape. And still we are called. This ethical call is in the present, and it is not necessarily about changing the future. ’Do not abandon’: do not kill the hope in the eyes of those who suffer and those who are dying, and those who are at the edge.

To such encounters we humans bring a hope that is refined by focussing on the present. I learned a lot about this kind of intersubjective, ethical practice in the research I have been carrying out with wildlife volunteers. Consider the people who work with critically endangered monk seals in Hawai’i.  Most of them were deeply dedicated; they loved the work they did, loved the monk seals they protected, and loved the beaches where their lives and monk seals’ lives intersected. They were well aware that monk seals are the most critically endangered marine mammal and that the prognosis for survival is not good.

Monk seal, protected at Waikiki Beach
Monk seal, protected at Waikiki Beach

And yet for the most part they refused to explain their commitment in terms of probabilities. They did not do calculations; there was no cost-benefit analysis; there was no pivot by which species survival became the measure of the meaningfulness of action today. In fact, they rarely talked about the future. No, they were out there every day patrolling the beaches and, as necessary, protecting monk seals because they understood how risky life has become for them, and they would not stand by and do nothing.

This is not a warm or cozy image of hope; I am drawn to the indomitable strength of it. I admired the volunteers for their refusal to treat monk seals as if they were objects of management. Or as if they were in any way pathetic. In my words (not theirs), they refused to abandon monk seals as subjects in their own right by objectifying or babying them. Most of all, the volunteers showed a way into multispecies hope.

Humans set aside their own hopes, and worked to honour the hopefulness of others.

One final thing: along with hope, perhaps it is good in this time of extinction to think of something along the lines of moral support. It will almost certainly be the case that much of what we do as activists will not succeed in turning around the extinction cascades now in process. Too much has happened, and the human situation is not good either. The greedy, powerful, destructive, devourers of Earth are very much on the rampage.

Monk seal mum and pup, Kaua'i
Monk seal mum and pup, Kaua’i

Moral support: perhaps this is what hope is when it is shared in multispecies contexts. It supports the very possibility of hopefulness. And hope is here, all around us. Creatures want to live. The Earth itself wants life, wants diversity, wants synergies, symbioses, mutualisms, energy flows. It is all risky. Hope is the way of Earth.

Every moment in which we refuse to abandon others, and refuse to bow down to power, and refuse to speak the language of cost-benefit in the context of mass-death, every such moment is an alignment with the force and power of Earth’s desire for diversity, its hopefulness. We are not alone.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016



I drew on research in the U.S. because I was addressing an audience in New York. Similar things could be said about volunteers here in Australia, and I will soon be taking up analysis of some of their excellent work.

The report discussed in this essay is: ‘Recovery Planning: Restoring Life to our threatened species’, Authored by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Birdlife Australia, and Environmental Justice Australia (read here). Information on the government’s recent listing of endangered species comes from The Guardian (read here).

The quotes and other information from Tim Low are taken from his excellent book Where Song Began. Quotes from my friend and colleague Thom van Dooren come from Flight Ways, a wonderful recent book on extinctions and ethics. To learn more about Thom’s fascinating work, visit his website.

Land clearing comes up regularly in these essays, see for example ‘So Many Faces’.

The Levinas quote is from the book Face to Face with Levinas, edited by Richard Cohen.

Thanks to the Left Forum for inviting me to participate on the subject of Hope in a Time of Extinction.

Empathy & Monk Seals

I’m packing my bags again, this time for an overnight flight Honolulu and then on to Kaua’i. Hawaiian monk seals and albatrosses occupy my mind, and I can’t wait to be back on headlands with albatross chicks, and on beaches near monk seal pups and mums (if lucky!).

RK13 and pup
RK13 and pup

There has been some good talk on the radio recently about how we humans really need to develop our capacity for empathy towards each other (listen here). I agree. And at the same time, I have to say that we need greater empathy toward all creatures, not just the human ones. Along these lines, some of the most interesting science findings in recent years are those showing that many nonhuman animals experience and act on empathy.

Frans de Waal is the leading figure here. In his great condensation of a lifetime of research, ‘Putting the altruism back into altruism’, he writes that ‘empathy allows one to quickly and automatically relate to the emotional states of others’. His research shows that empathy is widespread across mammals and birds (and there is other new research to show that something like empathy exists among plants as well). As a scientist, he is clear that there must be an evolutionary advantage to empathy, and he deduces that for social animals the capacity for empathy is integral to rearing new generations, and to sustaining social relations amongst adults (read here).

Across species, empathy works in beautifully complicated and captivating ways. We are empathetic creatures ‘by nature’, but we can also reject our own experience. The great author Coetzee brings out this point in his difficult and challenging book Disgrace. His central character is a rather desiccated, self-centred man named David Lurie. The book concerns his fall into disgrace, and it follows this descent in  numerous contexts one of which concerns animals. David ends up working at an animal refuge (for dogs especially) which functions primarily as a euthanasia centre.

He found that the more time he spent with the dogs, the greater became his capacity to experience anguish on their behalf. The more he brought them into the death room, the more committed he became to a world in which this kind of disposal would not be necessary. Dogs were humanising him, and to his disgrace he refused all fundamental changes. Empathy, this wonderful book tells us, has the capacity to be life transforming, but it is a two-way process:

We can be called into empathy, but we have to respond.

Thoughts of empathy were at the front of my thinking because on a previous trip to Hawaii I had the opportunity to be close to a mother monk seal and her pup. Hawaiian monk seals are critically endangered, probably the most vulnerable of all marine mammals. From a species point of view, mothers and pups are incredibly precious.

RK13 had given birth to numerous pups – she was an experienced mother. Usually she hauled out on beaches on the island of Kaua’i until almost time to give birth, and then she would go elsewhere. The year I was there was different. Not long before giving birth she had been bitten by a shark (she may be losing sight in one eye). She had gone into the canal for protection, and she did not eat much while she recovered from her wounds. The result was that she didn’t travel to a far away beach to give birth, and she wasn’t in top condition. Her pup was a healthy little fellow and he grew like mad while drinking her rich, nourishing milk.  Monk seal mums do not feed themselves while nursing their young, so it is a question of timing: will the mother’s reserves last long enough to enable the pup to achieve independence? In the case of RK13 this was a real worry because of her recent history. It all seems to have turned out fine, but when I saw the two of them it was clearly evident that this was a mum who had gone through a lot. Her backbone and vertebrae were startlingly visible, as was one shark scar.

Hawaiian Monk Seal RK13 and pup
Hawaiian Monk Seal RK13 and pup

What really struck me, though, was the sudden empathy I felt with her desire to wean the little pup. We tend to think of empathy in relation to suffering, or to the admirable qualities of fairness, helpfulness, generosity, and so on. But being with other mothers reminds one that there is also the empathy one feels with irritability and grumpiness. Seeing RK13 trying to gain some respite from the demanding little pup was a great lesson in the shared experiences of mammalian life. Mother love and the fierce commitment to nurturing   eventually bump up against the fact that young have to be weaned. Rarely do youngsters welcome this change of life!

I made a little home video of RK13 and her pup (view here). You can see her starved condition along with the plump vibrancy of her healthy little pup. And you can see her intensely mammalian-mother desire just to have some peace and quiet!

More to follow ….

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)


Recent work on the need for empathy is the driving passion of Dr Roman Krznaric and can be followed up on his website:  http://www.romankrznaric.com/empathy-a-handbook-for-revolution

What’s In A Whale?

One wouldn’t know this without having been there, but apparently ‘the stomach juices of a whale are unbelievably foul’. I gained this gem of information while reading a delightful book: The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species. Written by the charismatic marine biologist Terrie Williams, it is inspired by her love of marine mammals, and her wide experience of them through close encounters, most especially her encounter with a young Hawaiian monk seal. Williams is a terrific story-teller, and she takes up a range of issues that affect not only monk seals but all marine mammals.

Hawaiian monk seals, mother and pup, Kaua'i
Hawaiian monk seals, mother and pup, Kaua’i

One story tells of taking part in the necropsy (an autopsy performed on an animal) of a whale that had washed up dead on a beach directly in front of a resort hotel on the near-paradisiacal island of Kaua’i in the main Hawaiian islands. The big scientific question was: how did it die? (The logistical question was how to get it off the beach and safely ensconced in an appropriate burial site.) Williams was part of the investigative team, all of whom ‘dreaded the oils and acids that would permeate our skin and clothing for weeks in spite of numerous washings and bleachings’.

Williams got the task of going into the whale’s belly to extract the contents, and she managed to bring out the cause of death. As she tells the story: ‘At first it looked like the partially digested tentacles of an octopus, and then some type of elongate brown worms. The veterinarian … took a piece of dried cane stalk and began to probe the brown ball…. The mystery unravelled with his probing. What I had grabbed was not biological at all: it was man-made. The long tentacles turned out to be rope. I had extracted rope and nylon-filament twine from the stomach of the young whale. There were yards and yards of fishermen’s netting. It was the kind of netting thrown into the oceans to drift aimlessly on currents to catch squid until the owner retrieved it a later date.’ The young whale had gone after squid and had got the whole mess.

The whole mess, drifting the seas through lethal negligence, had killed him.

This wretched story plays out again and again amongst marine mammals and other creatures including pelagic birds – they become entangled and strangled, they eat and die, they think they are ingesting food whereas actually they are ingesting death.

Monk seal rescue. Photo: NOAA/Yoshinaga
Monk seal rescue.
Photo: NOAA/Yoshinaga

Williams tells another side to the story of what goes on in the gut of a whale. This is a story of faeces. Both whales and seals, along with other marine mammals, shit in the sea. If these deposits were on land, we would call them manure, and like manure they are fertilizers. In the ocean, marine mammal manure provides nourishment for phytoplankton. These drifting plants provide food for zooplankton, and they are food for small fish; small ones are food for larger fish, and so on along the nutrient webs. The whole oceanic ecosystem is fertilized by marine mammal manure.

Furthermore, phytoplankton consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. According to one report, about half the world’s oxygen in produced by phytoplanktons. Their health enables the health of the oceans and the health of planet. Keeping them well fertilized seems like very good sense.

These thoughts were fresh in my mind when I read for the first time about the annual slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands. The article is put out by ‘Campaign Whale’. It came to my eyes just a few days ago, and I actually couldn’t quite grasp that I was seeing the bloody froth of a hands-on massacre.

A human has about five litres of blood in their body. A dolphin has about twice as much, perhaps ten litres. A pilot whale is large compared to a dolphin, and small compared to a big whale. It has perhaps 100+ litres of blood. Like all sea mammals, the blood has high levels of oxygen, making the muscles almost black and the blood itself,  when it flows from the body, is an unearthly crimson. The photos of the slaughter show waters that are so intensely red that it is difficult at first to take in the fact that this is blood.

When a pod is in the area the islanders send word around to get the boats out. They drive the pod into a bay where the whales are beached. People wade in amongst the whales, striking them with steel hooks and cutting their throats. The water churns a brilliant crimson, and both whales and humans are washed in blood.

The Faroe Islanders who support this slaughter say that it is a cultural tradition and is integral to their identity. The health experts say that whale meat, particularly the organs, have high levels of mercury and other heavy metals, along with a range of other toxins including PBC’s.

Pilot whale Wikipedia
Pilot whale

The ‘Campaign Whale’ people say that the slaughter is unacceptably cruel, and that the Faroe Islanders no longer need the whales for subsistence. They note the well-documented fact that marine mammals are experiencing a great many threats to survival: ‘climate change, toxins, over-fishing, entanglement, hunting, ship strikes, disturbance from oil and gas extraction seismic surveys, boat traffic, and lethal military sonar.’ Every slaughter adds to the burden of this larger multi-pronged lethality.

It is fair to say that the visibility of the Faroe Islanders’ slaughter makes them an easy target for public criticism. Much of the suffering and premature death in the oceans has a human origin, but most of it takes place far from human eyes. The problems are known, and are much larger than any quick fix can address. Some of the problems are entangled in political and military objectives that seem close to unstoppable. A recent news report describes the US Navy’s plans to increase its sonar testing. The Navy’s own estimate of impact tells an awful story: ‘The Navy estimates that its activities could inadvertently kill 186 whales and dolphins off the East Coast and 155 off Hawaii and Southern California, mostly from explosives. It calculates more than 11,000 serious injuries off the East Coast and 2,000 off Hawaii and Southern California, along with nearly 2 million minor injuries, such as temporary hearing loss, off each coast.’ Dr Reese Halter, also known as the Earth Doctor, spoke scathingly about the Navy’s decision in a recent ABC radio broadcast.

Numbers matter, but at the heart of these issues are individual lives and the lives of species. Pilot whales are among the largest of the group of oceanic dolphins, the only larger species being orcas. Like every creature on earth, the more one knows about them, the more fascinating they become. Pilot whales live and travel in family groups (pods) that have a matrilineal structure. Both sons and daughters stay in their mother’s pod. Pods congregate at times and the whales mate outside of their own group, returning to it for everyday life. Within the pod there are individuals with personalities and roles, including nursing females and hungry calves. Babies are nursed for three years or more, creating strong mother-child bonds. Unusually among marine mammals, females go through menopause. They stay with the pod and continue to lactate, and thus continue to care for dependent young even though they are not themselves giving birth. Each pod seems to have a unique mode of communication, and members show strong levels of responsibility for each other.

The Faroe Islanders’ impact is small when weighed against the whole suite of problems. And yet it is exactly because it is visible and stoppable that it must stop. I am not dismissive of cultural traditions. On the contrary, I am full of respect for their continuity and adaptability. A living tradition, like any living thing, must change and adapt in order to survive. An inflexible tradition is a dead one, and human-whale relationships do not have to be based on killing.

Whale killing is a community ritual whereby humans and whales meet at the oceanic threshold of the human community. Once it was necessary for human survival, and most probably it involved gratitude and respect. A new incarnation of an old ritual would articulate encounter, gratitude and respect in a mode of peace. The Faroe Islanders could drive a pod into harbour and hold them there for a brief ceremony of honour and blessing. The concluding ritual of farewell would see the whales swimming back out to their oceanic homeland, their bodies intact and their minds at peace in their own lifeworld.

We will never know the inner lives of whales, and that is as it should be. As the great writer Henry Beston wrote: ‘They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

Unlike Terrie Williams who got inside a whale’s body, we can’t get inside a whale’s mind. But while the mind of a whale is forever mysterious, we know that whales do inhabit worlds of meaning articulated through the mind. Within those minds are histories, geographies, families, generations, languages, stories and (for some) songs. There is determination and desire, nurturance and protection. There is a history of oceans writ out in the lives of its creatures, and the future of oceans is there too.

The time for killing traditions is over. The time for cherishing earth creatures is upon us in full measure.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Maldivian Pilot Whales, Sindhi, Creative Commons
Maldivian Pilot Whales, Sindhi, Creative Commons


The information on pilot whales is summarised from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilot_whale)

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.