Lorenzo Veracini on the current relevance of catastrophic thought (and on the need to discard settler colonialism as a possible response to crisis)


Gerardo Ceballos, Paul Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo talk convincingly about ‘biological annihilation’ (‘Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines‘, Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, 2017). They don’t mince words and outline a catastrophe that is already happening. Winter is not coming, winter is already here: Earth is facing mass extinction and humans are responsible, even if these catastrophes are not necessarily unprecedented. The authors rehearse how extinctions are happening at a fierce rate (something that is already known), but offer important evidence on the geographic distribution of species. The range of populations is diminishing at an even faster rate. Species are becoming extinct, but the habitats, and the populations and their diversity and therefore the resilience and adaptability that they sustain are being annihilated at an exponential rate. In sum: ‘today’s planetary defaunation of vertebrates will itself promote cascading catastrophic effects on ecosystems, worsening the annihilation of nature’.

A focus on geography allows them to see things that a focus on species per se would not allow. Ceballos, Ehrlich and Dirzo focus on ‘range contraction (implying population extinctions)’, that is, on geography, populations, and on the relationship between the two, a relationship they find compromised. They note a ‘major contraction’, and conclude that the ‘range contractions and declines we document here imply a considerable loss of intraspecific genetic diversity’. ‘Imply’ is repeated and key: if range contraction is the problem globally, the implication is that range expansion may be the solution: new ranges, new populations, new places. This is a powerful, timely and very, very significant intervention. Settler colonialism as a mode of domination is about thinking about range expansion and specific populations. Settler colonial projects are always born in the perception of a coming catastrophe (catastrophic thought is catastrophic thought irrespective of whether a catastrophe is actually coming, like in this instance, or a result of paranoid anxiety). Settler colonial studies should pay attention.

This expansion includes humans. Ceballos, Ehrlich and Dirzo focus on ‘vertebrates’ (even though through vertebrates they then consider other animals and plants, which is the true meaning of husbandry, a typically human-centered ideology). This is the beginning of the argument. We (i.e., humans) can identify with vertebrates. But the coming catastrophe is ultimately a catastrophe for ‘civilization’:

Population extinctions today are orders of magnitude more frequent than species extinctions. Population extinctions, however, are a prelude to species extinctions, so Earth’s sixth mass extinction episode has proceeded further than most assume. The massive loss of populations is already damaging the services ecosystems provide to civilization.

‘Civilization’ is the end of the argument. Humans are at the beginning and at the end of the whole argument.

This is Ceballos, Ehrlich and Dirzo’s diagnosis:

The likelihood of this rapid defaunation lies in the proximate causes of population extinctions: habitat conversion, climate disruption, overexploitation, toxification, species invasions, disease, and (potentially) large-scale nuclear war—all tied to one another in complex patterns and usually reinforcing each other’s impacts. Much less frequently mentioned are, however, the ultimate drivers of those immediate causes of biotic destruction, namely, human overpopulation and continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich. These drivers, all of which trace to the fiction that perpetual growth can occur on a finite planet, are themselves increasing rapidly. Thus, we emphasize that the sixth mass extinction is already here and the window for effective action is very short, probably two or three decades at most. All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.

Again, ‘human life’ is the final concern. This is a compelling argument about ‘population range’ and ‘human life’ – that the populations Ceballos, Ehrlich and Dirzo focus on are not human is lost in an attempt to highlight connectedness. Settler colonialism as a political project is always about new collective life in a new range. I am becoming suspicious.

What does this evidence compel us to do? Ceballos, Ehrlich and Dirzo note that there is a ‘window for effective action’, but do not instruct us on what is to be actually done (perhaps Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences would not publish explicitly political calls to action). They do not say that we should reduce our range, that we should not settle elsewhere. As the ‘drivers’ are producing range contractions’, the drivers should be removed in order to promote range expansion. But if human populations are part of the picture, and Ceballos, Ehrlich and Dirzo insists we are or we may be, then, humans may also alter their range as a response to crisis. This is settler colonialism. I am suspicious.

%d bloggers like this: