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The Climate Catastrophe Cannot Be Reversed Within the Capitalist Culture

We face a clear choice: radical political transformation or deepening mass extinction.

Two elephants graze for food in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. Twenty-five thousand African elephants were slaughtered for their ivory in 2011 alone. (Photo: Adrian Maidment)

Did you know that the Earth loses about one hundred species every day? In Extinction: A Radical History, Ashley Dawson ties together history, science and political theory to explain the impact of humans and capitalism on the world’s ecosystems. Get your copy of this book by making a tax-deductible donation to Truthout!

The following is the introduction to Extinction: A Radical History.

His face was hacked off. Left prostrate in the red dust, to be preyed on by vultures, his body remained intact except for the obscene hole where his magnificent six foot long tusks used to be. Satao was a so-called tusker, an African elephant with a rare genetic strain that produced tusks so long that they dangled to the ground, making him a prime attraction in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park.

These beautiful tusks also made him particularly valuable to ivory poachers, who felled him with poison arrows, carved off his face to get at his tusks, and left his carcass for the flies. The grisly death of Satao, one of Africa’s largest elephants, is part of a violent wave of poaching that is sweeping the continent today. In 2011, twenty-five thousand African elephants were slaughtered for their ivory. An additional forty-five thousand have been killed since that time. If the present rate of slaughter continues, one of the two species of African elephants, the forest elephant, whose numbers have declined by 60 percent since 2002, is likely to be gone from Africa within a decade.

The image of Satao lying faceless in the dust is a haunting one. While the elephant as a species will probably not go extinct (since some individuals are likely to be kept alive in game reserves and zoos), the decimation of their numbers in the wild reminds us of a broader tide of extinction, the sixth mass extinction Earth has witnessed. Only tens of thousands of years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch, Earth was home to an immense variety of spectacular, large animals. From wooly mammoths to saber-toothed cats to lesser-known but equally exotic animals like giant ground sloths and car-sized glyptodonts, megafauna roamed the world freely. Today, almost all of these large animals are extinct: killed, most of the evidence suggests, by human beings. As they spread across the planet, Homo sapiens decimated populations of megafauna everywhere they went. Humanity essentially ate its way down the food chain when wiping out biodiversity. Africa, our ancestral home, is virtually alone in harboring some remnants of the Pleistocene biodiversity. In the grisly death of Satao and his fellow elephants, we are witnessing the final destruction of the world’s remaining megafauna, the endgame of an epoch of epic defaunation or animal slaughter.

But it is not just charismatic megafauna like elephants, rhinos, tigers, and pandas that are being pushed to the brink of extinction. Humanity lives amid, and is the cause of, a massive decimation of global biodiversity. From humble invertebrates like beetles and butterflies to various terrestrial vertebrate populations like bats and birds, species are going extinct in record numbers. For example, since 1500, 322 species of land-based vertebrates have disappeared, and the remaining populations show an average 25 percent decline in abundance around the world. Invertebrate populations are similarly threatened. Researchers generally agree that the current extinction rate is nothing short of catastrophic, clocking in between one thousand and ten thousand times the rate before human beings began to exert a significant pressure on the environment. The Earth is losing about a hundred species a day. In addition to this tidal wave of extinction, which conservation biologists predict will eliminate up to 50 percent of currently existing animal and plant species, the abundance of species in local areas is declining precipitously, threatening the functioning of entire ecosystems. This mass extinction is thus an under acknowledged form — and cause — of the contemporary environmental crisis.

Although this wave of mass extinction is global, the vast majority of species destruction is concentrated in a small number of geographical hotspots. This is because biodiversity is unevenly distributed. On land, tropical rainforests are the primary nursery of biodiversity. Although they cover only 6 percent of the Earth’s surface, their terrestrial and aquatic habitats harbor more than half the known species on the planet. As E.O. Wilson puts it, the tropics are the leading abattoir of extinction, their great verdant expanses chopped up into quickly dwindling fragments, their plant and animal species struggling to adapt to habitat destruction, invasive species, over harvesting, and, increasingly, anthropogenic climate change. From the great Amazon basin, to the rainforests of West and Central Africa, to the jungles of Indonesia, Malaysia, and other parts of Southeast Asia, human beings are eliminating the homes of millions of species. In doing so, we are not only condemning vast numbers of species (the great majority of them still unidentified) to extinction, but we are also imperiling our own tenure on this planet.

(Image: OR Books)(Image: OR Books)With the publication of accessible works of science journalism such as Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, the word has begun to get out about the dire plight of the planet’s flora and fauna. Kolbert’s book takes readers on a terrifying tour, interviewing botanists who follow the tree line as it vaults up the side of mountains in the Andes and marine botanists who track the acidification of the oceans. The current wave of extinction, she explains, follows five previous mass extinction events that have devastated the planet over the last half billion years. This wave is predicted to be the worst catastrophe for life on Earth since the asteroid impact that destroyed the dinosaurs. Reflecting on this melancholy reality, humanities scholars have begun to write about “cultures of extinction.” In response to such increasing concern, the Obama administration recently set up an interagency task force on wildlife trafficking, and has begun to discuss the trade networks linking the slaughter of elephants and rhinos to guerrilla groups and crime syndicates such as the Janjaweed and al-Shabab, which are using the high profits from the illicit wildlife market to fund their operations.

All too often, however, initiatives such as Obama’s result in a “war on poachers” that ignores the underlying structural causes that are driving habitat destruction and overharvesting of animals. The planet’s biodiversity hotspots, after all, are located in what Christian Parenti calls the “tropics of chaos.” In the planet’s tropical latitudes, Parenti identifies a catastrophic convergence, a supremely destructive alignment of three factors: 1.) militarization and ethnic fragmentation related to the legacy of the Cold War in postcolonial nations; 2.) state failure and civil discord linked to the structural adjustment policies imposed on the global South by institutions like the World Bank in the name of debt repayment since the 1980s; and 3.) climate change-fueled environmental stresses such as desertification. Parenti writes at length on the impact of this catastrophic convergence on postcolonial people and states, but the picture he provides of the stresses affecting the global South is incomplete without a consideration of the relations between humanity and the natural world in its fullest sense. We cannot understand the catastrophic convergence, that is, without discussing the decimation of biodiversity currently unfolding in the global South. Nor, conversely, can we understand extinction without an analysis of the exploitation and violence to which postcolonial nations have been subjected.

Extinction is the product of a global attack on the commons: the great trove of air, water, plants, and collectively created cultural forms such as language that have been traditionally regarded as the inheritance of humanity as a whole. Nature, the wonderfully abundant and diverse wild life of the world, is essentially a free pool of goods and labor that capital can draw on. As critics such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued, aggressive policies of trade liberalization in recent decades have been predicated on privatizing the commons — transforming ideas, information, species of plants and animals, and even DNA into private property. Suddenly, things like seeds, once freely traded by peasant farmers the world over, have become scarce commodities, and are even being bred by agribusiness corporations to be sterile after one generation, a product farmers in the global South have aptly nicknamed “suicide seeds.” The destruction of global biodiversity needs to be framed, in other words, as a great, and perhaps ultimate, attack on the planet’s common wealth. Indeed, extinction needs to be seen, along with climate change, as the leading edge of contemporary capitalism’s contradictions.

Capital must expand at an ever-increasing rate or go into crisis, generating declining asset values for the owners of stocks and property, as well as factory closures, mass unemployment, and political unrest. As capitalism expands, however, it commodifies more and more of the planet, stripping the world of its diversity and fecundity — think about those suicide seeds. If capital’s inherent tendency to create what Vandana Shiva calls “monocultures of the mind” once generated many local environmental crises, this insatiable maw is now consuming entire ecosystems, thereby threatening the planetary environment as a whole. There are at present no effective institutions to deal with the “cancerous degradation” of the global environment that David Harvey argues is brought about by capital’s need for continuous exponential growth. And yet capital of course depends on continuous commodification of this environment to sustain its growth. The catastrophic rate of extinction today and the broader decline of biodiversity thus represent a direct threat to the reproduction of capital. Indeed, there is no clearer example of the tendency of capital accumulation to destroy its own conditions of reproduction than the sixth extinction. As the rate of speciation — the evolution of new species — drops further and further behind the rate of extinction, the specter of capital’s depletion and even annihilation of the biological foundation on which it depends becomes increasingly apparent.

Extinction: A Radical History is intended as a primer on extinction for activists, scientists, and cultural studies scholars alike, as well as for members of the general public looking to understand one of the great but all too often overlooked events of our time. Extinction is both a material reality and a cultural discourse that shapes popular perceptions of the world, one that often legitimates an inegalitarian social order. In order to respond adequately to this planetary crisis, we need to transgress the boundaries that tend to keep science, environmentalism, and radical politics separate. Indeed, extinction cannot be understood in isolation from a critique of capitalism and imperialism. Extinction: A Radical History begins with a discussion of the notion of the Anthropocene, using this term not simply to ask fundamental questions about when the sixth wave of mass extinctions began, but also about whom exactly is responsible for extinction. The second section outlines the different facets of extinction that are products of capitalism, from early modern forms of defaunation such as fur hunting to the episodes of mass slaughter such as whaling that arose in tandem with the industrial revolution. This section also discusses forms of collateral ecocide such as coral bleaching and extinction related to invasive species, as well as forms of ecological warfare such as the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the polluting of the Niger Delta. The third section of Extinction: A Radical History looks at disaster biocapitalism : the variety of political, economic, and environmental responses by capital to the extinction crisis.

This section highlights not just the glaring failure of efforts to address extinction within a capitalist framework, but also the increasing trend to open a new round of accumulation using synthetic biology to address the crisis. Finally, the section on radical conservation explores various anti-capitalist solutions to the extinction crisis, approaches grounded in social and environmental justice.

The specter of extinction haunts the popular imagination today. Contemporary culture is filled with depictions of zombies, plagues, and other spectacular representations of ecological catastrophe. For those who inhabit the wealthy nations of the global North, such representations are portents of a terrifying world to come. But for the billions of people around the world whom Ranajit Guha and Juan Martinez-Alier call “ecosystem people,” whose fate is intimately intertwined with the planet’s flora and fauna, the question of extinction relates directly to their own present and future survival. The butchering of an elephant such as Satao may enrich a few poachers, but it dramatically impoverishes the ecosystem he inhabited. We are only just beginning to understand the impact of the liquidation of large wildlife like elephants on the habitats they inhabit, but it is becoming clear that such holes punctured in the web of life have a dramatic cascading effect. As millions of species are snuffed out, the biodiversity that supports the planetary ecosystem as we and our ancestors have known it is imperiled. This catastrophe cannot be stemmed — let alone reversed — within the present capitalist culture. We face a clear choice: radical political transformation or deepening mass extinction.

Copyright (2016) by Ashley Dawson. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, OR Books.