Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World by Jairus Grove

Introduction by
Emily Gilbert

Savage Ecology decenters and recenters humans and technology in an era of unending war.

I

n Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World, Jairus Grove draws attention to the “sheer magnitude” of the crises facing the planet (11). In one of the clearest articulations of his objective, Grove writes that “the book is about trying to simultaneously decenter the human from international relations and politicize the making of the current global political order” (139). To accomplish his first objective, he attends to the sociotechnical assemblages that are constitutive of the current era, and thus decenters the human. His second objective, politicizing the global, is realized through reframing the Anthropocene in terms of the Eurocene, as a way of insisting that current environmental and other violences are not the responsibility of all humans—as a term such as ‘Anthropocene’ seems to suggest—but rather attributable to five-hundred years of European capitalism, colonialism, and geopolitical intervention. This tension between decentering and recentering, which both foregrounds the violence of human geopolitical formations (Europe) while also seeking to de-emphasize human arrogance, ripples throughout the book.

For Grove, the stakes of this analysis are high. Not only is warfare the pervasive mode of the contemporary moment, but he diagnoses an ecological war of selection underway, or what he calls a ‘savage ecology,’ that is targeting “all the things that make a difference” (10). One of the dangers of the unfolding wars, and a point that Grove returns to time-and-time again, is that two core strategies of warfare—annihilation and exhaustion—are working to erase life forms and other ways of life in their wake. Grove’s apocalyptic vision has nothing positive to say about what this homogenization portends for the future.  

In making his arguments, Grove ranges across a dizzying array of theories and examples—dizzying in its multiple senses of causing one to feel both ‘amazed’ and/or ‘confused.’ The first section of the book lays out the theoretical foundations and framings of what is to come. Its three chapters seek to push away from Foucauldian discourse theory, which is judged insufficient to the task of taking on new ontological formations, not least because it perpetuates a binary separation of human and nonhuman. Instead, a wide range of interlocutors are invoked, too many to count, but ranging from Deleuze and Guattari to the new materialists and beyond. In these highly contemplative and expansive chapters, one guiding structure is the authorial voice, with its insistent quips and queries. It is almost as if Grove is narrating his account while sitting right beside us. We feel him spit out his “disgust” at “watching the beneficiaries of the Eurocene going back to the all-you-can eat genocide buffet” (224), and we wince at the pain of his pounding migrane for which he ingests Sumatriptan (170).

The second part of the book, “Operational Spaces,” touches down in more focused ways: thematically grounded and empirical focused. The themes are bombs, blood, and brains. With respect to each, he draws upon the trope of ‘assemblage’ to interrogate their sociotechnical dimensions, and how they feed the desire for total control, but also where openings might lie. In Grove’s telling, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are assemblages that are “aware” of their environments, and hence aleatory and creative. Blood and blood transfusions, which have been mobilized to enact racial differentiation are nonetheless “an assemblage that denies essence or formula while being predictable and consistent” (141). Brains are hacked or weaponized in an indifference to life that is carried out in its name. Across each of these tropes we see how war and warfare are pervasive. A final chapter in this second part, takes to task the ways that the future has been imagined by ecomodernists, Marxists and militarists, each of which, he argues, aspires to smooth homogenization, a future that Grove refutes.  

Taken together, the first two parts of Savage Ecology expose the failures of the technological fixes that have been attempted, and the paucity of future imaginaries that have been proposed. The third, and final part of the book, is animated by Grove’s imploration for us to confront our current reality and future possibility with a degree of technological skepticism, but not necessarily by repudiating technology. Alternative ways of life are envisioned that might escape the human tendency to war and homogenization. This might mean something like an embrace of Artificial Intelligence, or of “freaks”—those incongruous life forms already among us. To do so requires a feral reason that can tackle the realities of apocalypse but is open to other forms of cyborg-like becoming—becomings who can live in dignity in the future. 

In the responses to Savage Ecology that follow, a number of Grove’s provocations are engaged with, while other lines of flight are identified. Laurel Mei-Singh reflects on the cathartic opportunities created by Grove’s “realism and acceptance,” while also reminding us of the grassroots political movements already agitating for alternative futures, grounded in an understanding of mutual responsibilities between humans and the nonhuman, as with Indigenous communities. Alison Howell and Melanie Richter-Montpetit suggest that the book’s ambitious experimental approach can be leveraged to bring new materialist approaches to critique geopolitics, while also pointing to some of the critiques that have been directed to these literatures, particularly from Indigenous perspectives. Arun Saldanha sees Grove’s apocalyptic pessimism as an antidote to the liberal humanism that is the progeny of the Eurocene, while also calling for more engagement with sources authored by those who are not inheritors to this project. Finally, Gerard Toal questions whether geopolitics is the ‘superpower villan’ that Grove imagines, and pushes for a re-centering of the ‘geo’ in geopolitics—that is, of the ways that life is bounded to the Earth. Taken together, these authors raise other questions that could be asked, while also pointing to a wide range of other literatures and forms of engagement that are doing the work that is needed to respond to these violent crises, including Indigenous research, critical race theory, and Black scholarship, particularly that of the resurgent Black radical traditional and Black feminism. This not simply a question of a different citational practice—although that in itself is important—but a demand that we consider what other futures are already being imagined and realized, as well as the work that these alternatives have required. 

Questions regarding the Eurocene as a concept are also introduced. Are all Europeans equally complicit in the Eurocene? This point is raised by Saldanha, while Mei-Singh wonders whether the concept can be wielded to analyze or understand the ecological impact of non-European countries in the present, such as China and India. This point is underscored by Howell and Richter-Montpetit, as they point towards other genealogies and other futures. From a different angle, Gerard Toal queries whether the Eurocene is sufficient to account for the role of the Earth itself in the apocalyptic present. Indeed, Toal asks us to consider “how the geo-Earth bosses human-politics.” What other ways, he asks, are there of thinking through nonhuman life—animate and inanimate—and its agency? 

Savage Ecology alerts us both to the crises in the present, and to potential future apocalypse. Where does this leave us? Grove warns us that “Hope is a form of extortion. We are being told that it is our obligation to bear the weight of making things better while being chided that the failure of our efforts is the result of not believing in the possibility of real change” (25). And yet, ironically, and perhaps more hopefully, he also proclaims that “the end of the world is never the end of everything” (11). Does this leave us stuck in a chasm between a rock and a hard place? Perhaps. But while, as Grove acknowledges, ideas will only get us so far in the struggles ahead, they are crucial for coming to terms with the abyss that Savage Ecology maps so viscerally and imagining otherwise. 

Emily Gilbert is Professor at the University of Toronto, cross-appointed between the Canadian Studies program and the Department of Geography & Planning, and an editor at Security Dialogue.

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