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ildfires, dispossession, melting glaciers, drone strikes, heating climate, police murders, rising seas, tear gas, extreme weather, desecration, coral bleaching, counterinsurgency, species extinctions, poverty, a global pandemic—our planet evidently stands at a perilous juncture.
Recognizing these crossroads, several contemporary grassroots movements strive to reorganize our conditions to forge a different sort of future. For example, the Sunrise Movement organizes young people to advocate for policies and programs that address the climate crisis, and many local “hubs” (chapters) support campaigns to defund the police. They address the uneven harms imposed by environmental crisis while working to transfer resources and power back into the hands of everyday people. In addition, Indigenous-led movements, including those protecting Standing Rock and Mauna Kea, expose the violence of fossil fuel extraction, desecration, and settler colonialism at the expense of human and more-than-human relatives. These movements put forth Indigenous worldmaking that upholds water as life and kapu aloha (commitment to nonviolence based on love) as the bases of ancestral relations and mutual responsibility between people, our life sources, and the places that constitute our ecological worlds. These powerful movements expose how ongoing wars against communities of color and Indigenous peoples disrupt lifeways and concentrate power among the ruling political and economic elites. Environmental problems are indeed embedded in existing sociopolitical structures, and it is only through tackling both that we can open pathways that lead us from the present crisis.
Offering a significant scholarly contribution to inform our efforts amid this ecologically charged moment, Jairus Grove’s Savage Ecologies: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World begins with the striking provocation that our species must choose between war or survival. Grove approaches war as a way of being and an ecology, meaning the relational and complex web of systems that make our world. Here police enforcement against domestic populations and conflict between nation-states bleed into each other, disrupting lifeways and destroying ecosystems. This book develops a noteworthy development in critical studies of the environment and war, a field that has so far yielded a surprising paucity of scholarship despite the urgency of this issue (Gilbert 2012, Laduke 2013, Marzec 2015, Ybarra 2018 are some notable exceptions). The book argues that the fatalistic machinations of war currently drive “the constitutive fabric of planetary relations” to the great peril of us all (61).
Grove’s encompassing definition of war aligns with Fanon’s conceptualization of “atmospheric violence” and Deborah Cowen and Emily Gilbert’s (2007) characterization of war as a foundational system that structures states, society, space, and politics. A robust and growing body of recent scholarship similarly expands our understanding of the reciprocal and mutually reinforcing relationships between prisons, policing, and militarism (for example, see Gilmore 2009, Singh 2019, and Schrader 2019). Grove’s particular contribution argues that rather than collateral damage to this widespread harm, the destruction of the natural world stands as a central component of this violence; war functions in and through the environment. Industrialized warfare, prisons, policing, military occupation, extraction, racism, colonialism, capitalism, and misogyny all rupture and deform social and ecological landscapes and serve as a foundational feature of their destructive capacities. Here militarism and environmental destruction are synonymous, engendering a “war ecology” (60). Grove unpacks how geopolitics serves as war’s “organizational matrix” that selectively promotes particularly lifeworlds through lethal force wielded by the destructive power plays of nation-states. (3-5) Grove refers to both war and geopolitics as an “ecology of annihilation” (67), a savage ecology.
His dense and compelling musings sometimes read as free-associative, and at times I found myself searching for a political program or narrative thread. As I jotted in the margins, I scribbled mid-book, “wow! this is really nihilistic!” Yet as I continued to read, I began to realize that the unwieldiness and pessimism reveal the type of creativity that Grove intends to instigate, what he characterizes as a wild humanity that embraces experimentation. As Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk embrace technocratic, multiplanetary solutions to our crisis without challenging the violently extractive tendencies of late capitalism that, if left unchecked, will put an end to life as we know it, Grove dwells on the direness of Earth’s predicament. He approaches the present calamity as an opportunity to devise new forms of life and affirm a steadfast commitment to the planet we call home. Offering an alternative to the rote pollyannaish liberalism of International Relations, Grove doesn’t shy away from the “seething doom of our current predicament” (21). This realism and acceptance—not nihilism—engenders catharsis rather than paralysis. Grove helps us understand that our goal is not to put an end to war, but rather engage in exactly what the Standing Rock, Mauna Kea, and youth-led climate justice movements are already doing: forging and finding “becomings” germinating within our messy circumstances.
Those who are reading this forum and/or engaged in the aforementioned movements understand that environmental and climate justice efforts must account for the living legacies of racism and colonialism that shape the Earth’s surface. Here Grove conceptualizes the “Eurocene” to trace global modes of modern warfare to colonial practices that originated in Europe and ultimately resulted in what many refer to as the Anthropocene. Chapter 3 traces how the rise of rifles and bayonets in the 17th through 18th centuries and the expansion of warfare and militaries in the 19th led to Europe’s genocidal colonization of the Americas. This advanced an “ecological counterinsurgency” against Indigenous lifeways rooted in interdependence with the natural world. This history powerfully bolsters his argument regarding the entanglement of political, martial, geopolitical, and biological worlds. His conceptualization of Eurocene, as “a five-hundred-year-project of violent terraforming and atmospheric engineering,” offers an explanatory device for the racism and colonialism endemic to ecological devastation.
Yet, as I read, I found myself pondering the role of nation-states that are not founded by white people in advancing environmental destruction through warfare? China’s power sector emits twice the carbon emissions of the European Union, based on those counted under the emissions trading system. Over the span of writing this piece, Punjabi farmers have been fighting to preserve land and livelihoods amid climate change and Narendra Modi’s emergency orders to eliminate guaranteed pricing for small farms that will lead to the corporatization of agriculture. How can we make sense of the environmental implications of the recent rise of “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics?” (Prashad 2014, 166). Vijay Prashad (2014) offers a history of capitalist development among BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) that accounts for the decline of the radicalism of the Third World that sought to counter western imperialism. While the Eurocene could certainly fit within and possibly expand our understand of this picture, it’s urgent for future research to elaborate on how racism and colonialism imbricate with the internationalized and undeniably crisis-laden military-capitalist order of today.
Offering some hints, Grove’s engagement with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and W. E. B. Du Bois underscores the centrality of Indigenous extermination and the global color line to “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” in other words, the racism that defines planetary crisis (Gilmore 2007, 28). Yet the one missed opportunity of this book is a more extensive and in-depth exchange between the thinkers that inform Grove’s background in political theory–Foucault, Agamben, Deleuze and Guatarri, Agamben, Negri, Schmitt, Clausewitz—and the critical contributions of contemporary scholars of race, colonialism, settler colonialism, and gender. This very dialogue could advance an analysis of how resistance movements place firm limits on the ecologies of annihilation that Grove so nicely theorizes.
And does war only promote an ecology of annihilation? Grove emphasizes how the bio-geo-political inflicts harm and destruction, yet his characterization of war as a “form of life” could also apply to the military’s engagement in conservation activities. Shiloh Krupar (2013) uncovers how the US military’s ecosystem preservation and management programs mask and perpetuate the unsustainability of war, even as it continues to destroy ecosystems and lifeways. My own research has uncovered how measures for environmental protection also advance criminalization and dispossession through acts of enclosure (Mei-Singh 2016). Such initiatives approach humans and the environment as inherently incompatible, denying the sustainable resource stewardship that people living intimately with the natural world have practiced for generations. The political-martial-bio-geo-political is not always directly devastating. It often hides behind the façade of preservation and care, a velveteen surface wrapped around an iron fist.
Savage Ecologies is ambitious if not epic. As a whole, it invites rich and generative ponderings of our shared predicament as the planet reaches a boiling point. While it does not offer us the satisfaction of a clear path forward, that is exactly the point. There is no way “out” of this crisis. We must recognize the direness of our predicament and mourn the death that surrounds it. Then we can tap into life that remains, a rich reservoir for even more wild becomings.
Cowen, D., & Gilbert, E. (Eds.). (2007). The Politics of War, Citizenship, Territory. In War, Citizenship, Territory (1 edition, pp. 1–32). Routledge.
Fanon, F. (2005). The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press.
Gilbert, E. (2012). The Militarization of Climate Change. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 11(1), 1–14.
Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (1st ed.). University of California Press.
Gilmore, R. W. (2009). Race, Prisons and War: Scenes from the History of U.S. Violence. Socialist Register.
Krupar, S. R. (2013). Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste (1st edition). Univ Of Minnesota Press.
LaDuke, W., & Cruz, S. A. (2013). The Militarization of Indian Country. MSU Press.
Marzec, R. P. (2015). Militarizing the Environment (1 edition). Univ Of Minnesota Press.
Mei-Singh, L. (2016). Carceral Conservationism: Contested Landscapes and Technologies of Dispossession at Ka’ena Point, Hawai’i. American Quarterly, 68(3), 695–721.
Prashad, V. (2014). The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. Verso.
Schrader. (2019). Badges without Borders (First edition). University of California Press.
Singh, N. P. (2019). Race and America’s Long War (First edition). University of California Press.
Ybarra, M. (2018). Green Wars: Conservation and Decolonization in the Maya Forest. Univ of California Press.
Laurel Mei-Singh is Assistant Professor of Geography and Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin