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Decolonizing Extinction, by Juno Salazar Parreñas, is a powerful, thought-provoking, and touching account of the quotidian nature of mass extinction. As a colleague of Juno’s at Ohio State, I read parts of the book and talked about it with her as she was writing it. Reading the published version, I still found it fresh, interesting, and surprising. Even more, I found it both heartbreaking and lovely. I think this affective response is the central argument of the book. Allowing ourselves to be heartbroken demands always-risky connection that creates possibilities not only for conservation but for living respectfully in this era of environmental transformation and harm—the era these days called the Anthropocene.
Focusing on endangered orangutans in Sarawak, Malaysia, the book provides a very close, ethnographic account of the rehabilitation center, a site of conservation quite different from zoos or protected areas. Instead, the rehab center is a place where individuals (wage workers and volunteers, from Sarawak and from away, Indigenous, Malaysian, and from the West) care for other individuals (orangutans and other species, and sometimes each other). The logic of the rehab center is that it is not enough to nurture and foster bodies and genes; it is necessary to foster something ‘wild’ and ‘autonomous,’ something ‘free.’ The hope—although perhaps not the reality—is that these individual orangutans will be ‘rehabilitated.’ Exploring in detail the intertwining of the lives of the care workers (especially the indigenous wage workers) and those cared for (especially the orangutans), Juno demonstrates the impossibility of rehabilitation as imagined.
I loved the book as an ethnography. The writing style, and use of ethnographic detail are stunning: thick description at its best! As an ethnography, Decolonizing Extinction is quite traditional in some ways: Harvard-trained anthropologist goes to Malaysia to do an in-depth study of indigenous people and nature. Yet Juno turns the genre inside out with her focus and argument for decolonizing extinction.
Crucially, as an ethnography, this is not a story about populations (of orangutans or indigenous people) as the fundamental unit of both conservation and development, but about individuals: named people and orangutans, their stories, and their relations with each other. This approach is clearly part of Juno’s decolonial argument. She responds to the colonial history of dehumanizing colonial subjects by comparing them to animals not by establishing greater distance between people and animals (which only furthers colonial tropes) but by recognizing multiple sorts of connection and mutuality.
Ethnography here is not just a method; it is an ethical, intellectual, and decolonial-political point. A main thread of the book is to ask how we (as humans, and as living beings) live in times of mass extinction. Juno argues that we exist as individuals, not populations, and by giving us stories of individuals, we come to care and feel the heartbreak. This is the space of possibility for Juno: we live with mass extinction by making ourselves mutually, yet always unequally, vulnerable to each other. Caring about and caring for, knowing that to care is also to lose. We are living in times of mass loss, and must come to terms with that.
Decolonizing Extinction analyzes multiple forms of violence, injury, pain, and death. In part this is about recognizing and naming colonial domination and its ongoingness: the rehab centers where Juno worked are themselves sites of colonial-era manors and forestry projects; the orangutans are individually harmed and collectively endangered because of deforestation, oil palm plantations, dams, toxic haze, and so on; and the workers need waged jobs because they, too, have been dispossessed of land and livelihood, often through the very same processes. It is in response to this coloniality that Juno calls for decolonizing.
But this isn’t just about the colonial-as-context and the fast/slow violence of dispossession. It is also about the violence inherent in the rehab center itself. And this is where things get trickier. The goal of rehabilitation requires that the orangutans not become attached to their human caretakers—even as they are dependent on them entirely (especially as babies, when they are learning who and how to be!). As we are shown through the book, caretaking—keeping wild—requires human violence: hitting with sticks, throwing water, and so forth, to prevent the animals from trusting people too much. But—and here is one aspect of the mutuality—the threat of violence (of injury and pain) is two-way: the orangutans can and do harm their caretakers, especially longtime workers. Humans and orangutans share a mutual, unequal vulnerability.
Juno also highlights the violence of forced copulation among the orangutans, and the difficulty in parsing and knowing what to do about it. In many ways this is the heart of the book. Orangutans “naturally” have what we perceive to be a violent reproductive strategy, in which large, dominant males force themselves on females. In the rehab center, such behavior was common, hard to watch, and led to injury, even death, of females. Yet forced copulation wasn’t stopped, for two reasons. One is that it was seen as “natural” behavior—but Juno points out that the rehab center can hardly be seen as “natural” conditions, in that the center comprises a small area that houses many orangutans (who are evolutionarily solitary animals and encounter each other only very rarely in the wild), and this small area is made smaller because orangutans need to feed at a set of shared platforms. The rehab center produces so much more orangutan-orangutan contact, and females cannot escape: they are made more vulnerable by virtue of their supposed protection. The other reason is that forced copulation was seen to serve the goals of conservation: increase reproduction, even at great cost to the individuals. This was given as justification for not intervening in violent sexual encounters, even when the females being forced to copulate were juvenile (not yet reproductive) and/or were killed (no longer reproductive).
I say this is the heart of the book because it is where Juno most pointedly asks about other possibilities for conservation—that is, for living and dying in an era of mass extinction. Certainly Juno calls for stopping the activities that create dispossession and extinction in the first place. But at heart the book asks a different set of questions: Can we imagine a conservation (as it were) that is not about reproduction and extending the life of a species, but is instead about finding ways to honor these animals (and ourselves) in their death? To abide by them? To care and to lose? Can we be with the extinctions that we are causing without responding by imposing more dominating violence? Juno offers the hospice as a (partial and problematic) metaphor: instead of intervening to prevent dying, hospice is about intervening to make dying more comfortable and less awful, and to say goodbye. Be forewarned: the book is a tear-jerker.
Juno is not the first to write about conservation as violence, as a biopolitical practice of choosing who will suffer and die so that others can live. But Juno’s focus on violence and death is less about who dies in the name of life, than it is about living with mass death. In the face of that, how can we move from domination to a world that might, in the end, be no less harmful, yet much more compassionate? This book shows clearly that even as extinction is a problem of coloniality, stopping it is too.
In this context, Juno presents the rehab center not as a return to freedom but rather as a form of “arrested autonomy” for both indigenous workers and animals. At the same time, it is the rehab center that brings people and animals together in new ways that foster the sort of shared, mutual vulnerability that she sees as so important for developing new, decolonial responses to extinction. Such mutual vulnerability even disrupts the very colonial engagement of “voluntourists” (the mainly white women from Europe who pay to work for weeks or months in these centers), who, through this vulnerability, engage new ways of being. The rehab center will never be full freedom, autonomy, or non-death. But, the possibility of mutual harm also keeps the rehab center from becoming the zoo, with the animals safely in cages and people as masters. Instead, the rehab center is fraught and sad, requiring connection and rejection. Decoloniality, for Juno, is about living with that, as awful as it feels. This is the “work of care”—from the book’s title—which is perhaps all we have.