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What Does It Mean to Care in a Time of Extinction?

SEI researchers Thom van Dooren, Sophie Chao and Danielle Celermajer contribute to a new essay collection: “Multispecies Care in the Sixth Extinction”, published last week in the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s Theorizing the Contemporary series.

Image by Jess Bailey, via Unsplash

What does it mean to care for other living beings – animal, plant, fungi, bacteria, perhaps even viruses – in this time of extinctions? While disappearing species struggle to get a headline alongside the pressing challenges of a global pandemic, growing political extremism, climate change, and more, the fact remains that all around us a relentless process of diminishment moves steadily along, stripping away the diverse multispecies heritage of this living planet. We are either already within, or fast approaching, Earth’s sixth mass extinction event.

Of course, this loss of species life is in no way separable from the other crises of our time. The emergence of COVID-19, as with other zoonoses, is intimately tied to dysfunctional, largely exploitative, relationships between human communities and their environments. Meanwhile, climate change is already emerging as a dramatic new engine of extinction: while the Brambles Cay Melomys might be the first declared ‘climate change induced extinction’, countless other species are seeing their habitats and ways of life transformed in ways that will make ongoing life simply impossible.

“Countless species are seeing their habitats and ways of life transformed in ways that will make ongoing life simply impossible.”

But the connections between the multiple crises of our time run much deeper than this. In this Anthropocene epoch, we are increasingly being called to recognise that what we have called ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ issues or challenges are inherently and inextricably entangled.

Historical and ongoing processes of colonisation, militarisation, globalisation, and more, are also core parts of our current period of biodiversity loss. The particular practices and technologies of exploitation and extraction at the heart of these projects have left incredible wreckage in their wake; at the same time, the ideologies and political and economic systems that have fostered and enabled them have worked to ‘authorise’ the exploitation and annihilation of diverse humans and nonhumans, usually in the name of some ‘greater good’ like growth, progress, or security.

It is these complex folds of life and death that the interdisciplinary field of ‘multispecies studies’ has sought to analyse and explore. But it has done so in a very particular way, grounded in close attention to the intimate particularities of other species’ and their modes of life, of meaning making, and relating. In this way, scholars in this area have aimed to ask: how might processes as diverse as colonisation and extraction, extinction and climate change, might be seen anew—and perhaps redone—by attending seriously to the histories, agencies, subjectivities, and more of a diversity of nonhuman entities? How are our lives and possibilities inescapably crafted in company with one another?

“How might processes as diverse as colonisation and extraction, extinction and climate change, might be seen anew—and perhaps redone—by attending seriously to the histories, agencies, subjectivities, and more of a diversity of nonhuman entities? How are our lives and possibilities inescapably crafted in company with one another?”

At the heart of this scholarship is the conviction that widening the frame to include close attention to nonhumans in this way is anything but a distraction from the core issues. Rather, it provides new insights into the human condition and its varied possibilities (which are always already more-than-human achievements), while also enabling us to better respond, to live up to, our obligations to a diversity of other beings.

This is the context that inspires and frames the publication of a new collection of short essays: “Multispecies Care in the Sixth Extinction”, published last week in the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s Theorizing the Contemporary series.

This collection, edited by Ursula Münster (Oslo), Thom van Dooren (Sydney/Oslo), Sara Asu Schroer (Oslo), and Hugo Reinert (Oslo), takes up and explores the place of care in multispecies worlds. Taking the Sixth Extinction and its crises—of health, climate, agriculture, economy, democracy, and more—as a point of departure, the essays in this series gather diverse ethnographic stories of multispecies care to ask, how does care take form as, in, and through multispecies relations? What are the limitations and hazards of caring for nonhumans in contexts of loss and degradation? What is the potential of caring beyond the human for opening up (or disclosing) knowledge about other world-making practices and the possible ecological futures they may enable?

This collection emerges out of two events held in 2019: “The Arts of Coexistence” conference at the University of Oslo in May and the “Multispecies Justice” symposium at the University of Sydney in June. This latter symposium was part of the ongoing work of the Sydney Environment Institutes Multispecies Justice Collective (initially funded by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences as one of six FutureFix themes).

“Multispecies Care in the Sixth Extinction” features essays by SEI researchers Sophie Chao, Thom van Dooren and Deputy Director Danielle Celermajer, and is available online, through the Society for Cultural Anthropology.