On The Politics Of Extinction

Researcher Sam Widin shares the value of environmental storytelling as a way to situate multispecies relationships in a world overloading us with data.

A palm cockatoo, by Vaclav Matous. Image via Shutterstock ID:1652981359.

Could you give us an overview of your background?

I studied at UNSW, doing a double major in history and environmental humanities, and then honours in the environmental humanities. My honours thesis looked at the recreational hunting of pigs in Australia, and the very well defined subculture which surrounds it. I was particularly interested in the subcultural iconography, in which the pig has become a complex figure, both loved and reviled. Since then I’ve tutored at UNSW, and had a few research assistant jobs here at USYD, one of which has been helping Thom van Dooren out with The Living Archive. It is a website for people from around Oceania to use narrative and storytelling to address species extinctions or losses of place they or their more-than-human communities may be experiencing. It’s been a rewarding process, and is coming along well, we’ve been able to publish stories from young people, scientists, poets, artists and of course people from within the humanities.

What is your current research, and your PhD project, focussing on?

My PhD is forming around the palm cockatoo, a very large and intelligent parrot which lives in Cape York, New Guinea and throughout the Torres Strait. Specifically I’m looking at the Cape York population, which differs from the other subspecies groups through some unique, perhaps ritualised behaviours which make up their mating and pair bonding performances. I want to use this bird as an anchor point from which to explore the radical diversity of ways of knowing and relating to these birds, whether they be those of corporations, local communities, conservationists, or various biologists. Who these parrots are, and what or who they represent will likely mean dramatically different things to Indigenous people than it will to non-Indigenous behavioural ecologists, bauxite miners, or environmental historians. I’m interested in how different knowledges of birds and their environments are produced, whether it be in the context of 19th century ornithology (as a branch of colonial science), modern research into parrot ethology, or any other knowledge making project.

I think quite a lot of multispecies work utilises relevant histories in brief engagements, as a means of providing their topics, or case studies with a bit of context. I want to pay close attention to the bird’s history, its evolutionary past and the environmental transformations the species may have experienced and witnessed over the past two centuries. I’ll do this in the hope that these histories can provide more than context. In other words I am trying to approach what is clearly a multispecies ethnography, as a historian. To explore that space, and figure out what contributions a historically attentive approach might provide, is definitely part of the methodological agenda.

What is the value of environmental storytelling in such a rapidly changing world?

I think its main value is as a sense making tool. The overload of information and statistical data regarding the speed and range of environmental change and breakdown can be very alienating. A recent example being the widely shared claim that the world’s oceans are absorbing, in terms of solar radiation, the energy equivalent of 10 atomic bombs every second. I think there is an interesting point at which highly specific information such as this ends up being quite abstract and alienating. It comes to us completely removed from any social context, and therefore it doesn’t really help us understand the planetary situation any better, it doesn’t help us advance or consolidate our politics. I don’t think anyone knows how to respond to this information, which raises questions about why we insist on discussing global heating in this kind of way. Proponents of a narrative approach would argue stories have the ability to ground us, to act as an anchor between people, places and difficult information. Especially in the case of environmental storytelling, a well-informed narrative can generate situated knowledges, which might lay out who exactly is part of the story and with what consequences.

“There is an interesting point at which highly specific information ends up being quite abstract and alienating. […] I don’t think anyone knows how to respond, which raises questions about why we insist on discussing global heating in this kind of way. [S]tories have the ability to ground us, to act as an anchor between people, places and difficult information.”

How do the politics of endangerment and extinction play out within your research?

While palm cockatoos in general are not considered endangered, the isolated population in the Cape is quite small, around 2 or 3 thousand individuals, and this population is in steep decline. So if this species of parrot is not considered a high risk of extinction, but a distinct subpopulation, with a distinct history and ‘mode of existence’ is, then that raises serious questions about how we think about both of the concepts ‘species’ and ‘extinction’. If the Cape population dies out (due to habitat loss to bauxite mining and pastoralism, and also worsening bushfires and cyclones), then while a conventional extinction event might not have taken place, it is clear that a distinct lineage, with a unique way of living in the world would have vanished.

What are the most important lessons you have learned from the more than human world, in witnessing and communicating these extinctions and survivals?

I think the most important lesson has been in how we humans are constituted by the non-human. At one point in my honours research I was looking at people who train dogs for really violent forms of hunting. In this case I expected to observe hunting dogs which were controlled absolutely by their owners, as the human has many ways to exert that power, cages, collars, feeding, ect. But even in this case, I realised (with the help of others) that the man I was interviewing had been transformed dramatically through his close relations to the dogs: his gait, posture and senses had been altered through this lifelong engagement, or work, with dogs. He was very aware of this, of course, as he had made some of these alterations consciously, he had allowed the dogs to transform him so he could better carry out his work. This case does not relate to extinction, but for me it was a clarifying moment, to accept that regardless of how unequal, exploitative or cruel a given relationship may be, non-humans have the potential to influence us back, to make demands upon us and change us in meaningful ways which commonly go unnoticed. It reminds me of how much work there is to be done.

“Regardless of how unequal, exploitative or cruel a given relationship may be, non-humans have the potential to influence us back.”

Sam Widin is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. He has worked as a tutor in the Environmental Humanities at UNSW, and a number of research assistant positions at USyd. His work focuses on extinction, multispecies studies and environmental history. His PhD is looking at the small and declining population of palm cockatoos in the Cape York Peninsula. Sam collaborates with Thom van Dooren on The Living Archive: Extinction Stories from Oceania. In 2017 he received first class honours in the Environmental Humanities at UNSW.