Humans started drawing animals the moment they started killing them. The earliest recorded artworks – paintings on the cave walls of Lascaux in southern France – are from the palaeolithic era, about 20,000 years ago. This was when they "developed weapons to hunt big game" and "sophisticated forms of hunting". It was the first mass extinction caused by human activity.
The Lascaux paintings show the slaughter that was happening outside the cave walls: stampedes of stags, bison, mammoths and lions being felled by arrow-wielding stick figures. The way they're depicted is haunting in its realism, almost sacred. Even though our ancestors were starting to kill animals en masse, they painted them with a kind of trembling reverence.
Ashley Dawson's new book, Extinction: A Radical History , puts the cave paintings in a wider context of animal extinction, but begins with a more current image: an elephant's face that's been "hacked off" and left in the red dust, an "obscene hole" where its tusks used to be. The reverence of cave paintings is ancient history.
The elephant was named Satao and had "rare genetic strain that produced tusks so long that they dangled to the ground" – in other words, he was a valuable commodity. The grotesque scene of his poaching in a Kenyan National Park in 2014 is where Dawson begins his argument for an anti-capitalist approach to the "tidal wave of extinction" washing across the planet.
Earth is losing a hundred species a day, and researchers agree this is "nothing short of catastrophic". But Dawson doesn't treat extinction as an inevitable consequence of some innate human selfishness or a series of discrete events linked to a few poachers – he thinks it's a necessary feature of contemporary capitalism. This is about the systems and ideologies that allow land to be dispossessed and handed over to capital. He argues that the only way to understand and stop it is with an anti-capitalist environmentalism – what he calls "radical conservation".
I spoke to Ashley about what radical conversation means, and and why he thinks it's what is needed to save planet earth and our animal friends.
VICE: What motivated you to write this book?
Ashley Dawson: The specific thing was reading The Sixth Extinction by the American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. It's an important book because it seems that the extinction crisis has dropped out of public awareness – it's been eclipsed a bit by the climate change crisis. For instance, in Naomi Klein's book This Changes Everything, she only refers to extinction on one page. I mean obviously she's talking around the subject but she doesn't really discuss the disappearance of 50 percent of flora and faunae on the planet over the last 50 years and the implications for human populations.
It's really important to bring these issues back to the forefront and I think Elizabeth Kolbert's book is doing that. But, at the same time, she's a liberal: so she gives a great overview of the crisis but when you get the final chapter there's a couple of sentences where she says something like, "If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can think about a poacher in Africa with a machete or a logger in the Amazon with a chainsaw or you, dear reader, sitting there with a book in your lap." I read that sentence and I was like, "What the hell?" To suggest that these people are commensurate in terms of their weight in the planet or in terms of the history of capitalism and empire that they benefit from is ridiculous.
The book charts the history of animal extinction at human hands from ancient societies to today. But you suggest that things are different now to when we were killing mammoths with spears.
I write about the extinction of megafaunae that happened in the late-pleistocene era, which seems to have been the product of homo sapiens. So on some sort of level, humanity, as a species, is responsible. I acknowledge that by showing how ancient empires like Rome denuded large landscapes of northern Africa, but also wanted to be very clear: it's industrial capitalism that is taking these events – which were in many ways local and affecting one part of the ecosystem – and making them global and pushing it to the point where we're decimating the vast majority of life on the planet.
You describe neoliberalism, which is often thought of as an assault on the working class and social democratic institutions, as "an assault on the commons". Do you think that's a better way to describe it?
I'm sure you've heard about what's happening in Flint, Michigan right now: a special authority was put in place to take over the city and destroy any kind of democratic governance [over the] water supply... [This] pushed Flint to switch from sourcing its public water supply from Detroit, which has relatively clean water, to the contaminated Flint River, the site of decades of toxic dumping by GM and other auto manufacturers. The toxic water from the Flint River corroded old lead pipes in Flint, leading to spiralling levels of lead poisoning among the city's children, as well as a host of other health problems.
This is something that's happening throughout the United States and so-called advanced capitalist countries. So, yeah, I would say this neoliberal means of governance is very much an assault not just on class issues and institutions but on access to air, water – the most basic elements of the commons.
You critique solutions that you see as bad or inadequate. One of these criticisms is of "re-wilding", where predators that were once thought of as a threat are re-introduced in order to benefit the whole ecosystem.
I think re-wilding offers people hope in a hopeless time. As global negotiations around climate change seem more and more deadlocked, something like re-wilding seems very exciting. I talk about the way it tries to wind time backwards, and there is something redemptive about that.
But there are problems: how far are we going to wind time backwards by reintroducing these keystone species? Do we want to go to the moment before Europeans arrived in a place like America? Well, there are problems with that because there were already people there who maintained the land in a certain way – it wasn't "pristine" in the way settler-colonials envisaged it.
My real foundational critique is a pretty basic one. A lot of the celebrations of re-wilding are about bringing back areas in the global north while the decimation of so-called biodiversity hotspots in the global south pick up speed. What's the point of working on a place like Oostvaardersplassen in Holland – where the Dutch government's trying to re-introduce this ancient version of oxen – while the governments of the global north are unwilling to protect much more important areas in the south?
Then there's "de-extinction" which does the same but using genetic engineering to resurrect (and patent) extinct species. You write that it "relies on the commodification of nature".
There are people doing this out of good will: scientists and entrepreneurs like Stuart Brand, the person behind the "Revive & Restore" foundation in California. I think they mean well. But what I'm trying to do is situate these efforts within a broader political and economic moment. We're on the cusp of all these amazing new uses of genetic engineering that bring up really serious ethical and social justice questions but, for me, the question is the way in which these genetic engineering processes get normalised.
The UK's been at the lead of some of this stuff. The Francis Crick Institute got the go-ahead on the 1st of February to start doing research on human embryos using this new genome editing technology called CRISPR. That's goes against international paradigms for not engaging in the manipulation of heritable genomic data. So we're transgressing all sorts of boundaries right now and it's important to have a conversation around that.
Are there any examples of this technology being put to good ends?
Last week I was at Princeton and I spoke to a scientist from MIT. He's one of a few people who are trying to use CRISPR technology to genetically engineer the extinction of the Anopheles mosquito, which is responsible for carrying malaria, Dengue fever, Zika and lot of horrible viruses and diseases.
I'm still trying to figure out where I stand on that. Over 700,000 people die every year of malaria, mostly in poor and vulnerable populations. So if you can do something to eradicate the disease perhaps it's OK. But then what about the ecological niche the mosquito fills? What about how the use of these technologies could be proliferated?
Some people think this technology, CRISPR, is so dangerous it should be treated like nuclear technology – that it shouldn't be widely available. The problem with scientists is they often don't look at the broader political-economic questions. The reason Zika has gotten so much traction in a place like Brazil is because as deforestation happens, you get human populations in closer proximity to wild species of various different kinds, some of which function as disease vectors. So the prevalence of the disease in certain areas is connected to resource extraction, which is, in turn, coming from corporations that the governments like the United States are supporting.
Extinction: A Radical History is published by OR Books.
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