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ast year The Guardian generated a simple graphic (Carrington 2018) based on a new model of life on earth published by a team of systems biologists (Bar-On et al 2018). The graphic shows three figures sketched in light blue against a white background: a gigantic cow towering over a medium-sized, faceless human to its left, both of them facing the viewer while dwarfing a miniature rhinoceros to the right of the cow’s hooves, caught in motion as if about to scamper off the right-hand side of the page. The figure’s heading explains the not-to-scale sizes: “Of all the mammals on Earth… 60 percent are livestock… 36 percent are humans… 4 percent are wild mammals.” Now, read that eco-crisis trifecta of numbers again and try to make sense of it. I am obsessed with these numbers. I show them in courses and talks; I reference them in papers and book reviews (case in point). But I can’t get my head around them. The numbers represent an impossibly profound transformation in the composition of life on earth, one that a graphic of three abstracted, cartoon-ish figures can only do so much to illustrate. One way of looking at the world these numbers represent is as a world of what Tony Weis (2018) describes as “ghosts and things,” where thanks to defaunation and ballooning industrial livestock production, the vast majority of animals now alive on earth are commodified. But what does this transformation actually look like closer to the ground? What if we zoom all the way into a 6.5 square kilometer nature reserve in Borneo that houses a wildlife centre and a couple dozen-plus orangutans?
Juno Parreñas does exactly this in her brilliant book, Decolonizing Extinction. Based on more than a year of meticulous, shrewd observation at two wildlife rehabilitation centres in Sarawak, Parreñas gives us an intimate and embodied glimpse into one way this transformation is unfolding: in an anxious scramble to prevent orangutan extinction in two postage-stamp sized, dubious refugia, while leaving all the structures causing that extinction intact. We see how this narrow last-ditch effort places a hefty and gendered burden on the remaining orangutans of their species and those humans who care for them – many of whom have been dispossessed and displaced by the same processes driving orangutan extinction, like the conversion of forests to palm plantations, and large-scale hydro dam development (see chapter 4). Another way of looking at this world of reordered life comes into sight here, as one “full of refugees, human and not, without refuge” (Haraway 2015, p 160). The wildlife centres try to provide refuge but are circumscribed in painful ways – by everything from being squeezed between a city, a cleared sand mine, a cement factory and a hospital, in the case of the Batu Wildlife Centre (see map on p 5), to the devaluing of feminized care work at the centres – work described by the male volunteer coordinator as “the easiest job in the world” (p 150 and see chapter 5).
Parreñas’s equal attention to “refugees, human and not” in the book is exemplary. It’s regrettably still rare for animal studies scholarship to attend to humans and non-humans with matched levels of care and thoughtfulness, let alone to dwell on the nuanced interstices of shared vulnerability, without letting anyone off the hook. One of many reasons I love Decolonizing Extinction is that it excels in these tricky in-between places: in meetings between species, between temporalities, between bodies, between genders, between sexes, and across divergent positions within colonial histories and presents. Parreñas tracks meetings across difference with the best kind of ethnographic sensitivity: she is conscious of how longer histories and broader political economies shape encounters and their conditions of possibility, but she never seems to decide in advance who is at the reigns in these encounters, or who will benefit and who will lose out. We are taken into a world of dynamic, embodied intra- and inter-species power relations in a place that exists because of dams and plantation agriculture, because of colonialism and mainstream conservation, because of a global volunteer industry of individuals willing to pay to conduct manual labour, and because of what Parreñas calls the “moral weight of extinction” (11).
This moral weight to extinction has not, as Parreñas notes in her introduction, driven a reduction in plantation-style agriculture, or curbed fossil fuel burning. Instead, it has propelled direct, violent, gendered interventions into orangutan life and especially reproduction. At the wildlife centres, Parreñas meets many orangutans whose “rescue” “inflicts new forms of violence”, even, possibly, “a life worse than death” (p 84). The female orangutans bear the brunt of this violence, although not exclusively. The wildlife centres host more orangutans per hectare than would be found in an open forest. Females are therefore exposed to closer, less protected, and more frequent meetings with male orangutans. Injuries, early pregnancies, and even deaths result – and the reproductive imperative to which endangered species are tethered means that no humans intervene to prevent these violent couplings. These are hard parts of the book to read. They are vivid manifestations of the stranglehold that biopolitics has on conservation, and how this licenses violence to individuals in service of the population or species – a theme that is well-documented in animal studies, including exemplary work by Krithika Srinivasan (2014), who is also in this review forum. Parreñas adds to this work a focus on gender, and a challenging rejoinder to scholars and conservationists: to let go of the attempt to end extinction. I’d like to engage with this rejoinder in the second half of this review.
The title of Parreñas’s book, Decolonizing Extinction, is her primary goal. In her introduction she explains what decolonizing extinction means to her. She writes:
decolonizing extinction is not an attempt to try to stop it. Rather, the question and challenge of decolonizing extinction is its experimentation with other responses and other senses of responsibility than what usually inspires us when we want to do something – anything – to stop what might be inevitable. The challenge of decolonizing extinction, then, is not to end extinction but to consider how else it might unfold for those who will perish and for those who will survive (9).
It is not surprising in a way that Parreñas ends up here, advocating letting go of the attempt to stop extinction. Her book is full of examples of the costs of conservationists’ interventions in the name of stopping extinction. Still, it is a challenging message. While reading, I wrote in the margins of the above block quoted passage: “Oof.” It is hard to imagine not attempting to try to stop extinction – anthropogenic extinction anyway, and this is what Parreñas’s book is about. Orangutans are not going extinct because tectonic plates are shifting or volcanoes are changing the climate. They are going extinct because of an unearthly siphoning off of socio-ecological wealth, converted to capital – forests to timber, sand to concrete, diverse ecologies to palm plantations – that mostly lines just a few pockets even more thickly. It is no news flash to anyone, Parreñas least of all, that structures like capitalism, colonialism, and the liberal state are driving orangutan extinction, driving the transformation of life on earth, producing homogenized, diminished ecologies represented by the lopsidedly giant cow and the diminutive rhino. I chafe a bit against the project of experimenting about how to more gently inhabit this reordered world. It seems to exempt the structures that created that world from reckoning and reparations.
Parreñas is above all, to me, urging for multispecies care that goes beyond “care for mere survival alone” (143). How, she asks in the final paragraph of the book, might we “make conservation interventions” that are “less enamored with the proliferation of new life and… more concerned with the process of dying well?” (188). I am onside. Resisting extinction by gripping ever more tightly to life translates into lives that may not be worth living. But what does dying well mean, exactly? Does dying well include drowning during the flood of a reservoir for a large-scale dam? Starving to death? “How well we die”, Parreñas writes, “depends on others,” and on “knowing the porous fragility of our bodies and our vulnerability to each other”: we all die, “everybody we know will pass away” (185). What if, she asks, “human caretakers no longer espouse isolated autonomy, but rather interconnected vulnerability?” (185). I don’t know if autonomy and vulnerability need to be posed as one or the other. For orangutans to die well depends too, I think, on having some space; on humans returning orangutans’ share of land and repairing the conditions orangutans need to subsist and reproduce themselves – this is what autonomy means to me. And if returning the land sounds unlikely to happen – won’t the horizon of possibility recede even further if we stop saying it?
Isn’t there a way to try to stop anthropogenic extinction and not impose a “burden of survival” (13) on what Joshua Schuster (2014) calls the “last animals,” who become subjects of a suffocating kind of attention from conservationists and others? Can we loosen conservation’s biopolitical clamp around those last animals, and acknowledge our mutual vulnerability, but still resist extinction, defaunation, at its structural roots? What existing movements and theories are already doing this? One question I am left with after reading Decolonizing Extinction is: are decolonial movements resisting extinction and enacting less biopolitically-laden relations with wild animals? If so, how? The colonial and decolonial context with which I am more familiar – Canada, where I live as a settler – is much different than Malaysia. But in this place, varied Indigenous scholarship and movements suggest many longstanding, ongoing decolonial strategies along these lines (Belcourt 2015; Arnaquq-Baril 2016; Nîkanêse Wah tzee Stewardship Society 2018; Willson 2018; von der Porten, Corntassel and Mucina 2019).
One of my all-time favourite essays (and another frequently assigned reading in my courses), is “Being Prey,” by the eco-feminist Val Plumwood. In it, she narrates a harrowing real-life, near-death encounter with a crocodile while canoeing solo in northern Australia. As the crocodile plunges Plumwood underwater in a terrifying series of “death rolls”, she confronts “a world no longer my own”, one in which she is prey; she experiences “a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat.” This flips the usual script. Most of us act, Plumwood says, “as if we live in a separate realm of culture in which we are never food, while other animals inhabit a different world of nature in which they are no more than food, and their lives can be utterly distorted in the service of this end.” This encounter might have prompted Plumwood to let go of the idea she repeated during her attack – “I am more than just food!” – and arrive at a place where all of us, human and not, are just food. But instead, she says: “reflection has persuaded me that not just humans but any creature can make the same claim to be more than just food. We are edible, but we are also much more than edible.” I wonder if the recognition of being edible is somewhat akin to the recognition of shared vulnerability that many animal studies scholars are advocating. If so – and I hope I’m not stretching Plumwood too far here – we might say orangutans, crocodiles, cows, rhinos and other life forms are, like humans, vulnerable but also more than just vulnerable; they are complex beings who deserve good deaths and lives worth living.