Extinction: A Radical History of Catastrophe

Extinction: A Radical History of Catastrophe

By US Fish & Wildlife Service under a Creative Commons license

Ashley Dawson is Professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and at the College of Staten Island/CUNY. Born in South Africa, he is a scholar of postcolonial studies and an activist in the movement for climate justice. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Extinction: A Radical History (O/R Books).

These are some of his memories of Blue Mountain Center: “Morning walks to the seaplane hangar, quiet and immensely productive days, amazing kayaking excursions, wonderful exchanges around the big dinner table over incredible food, intensely exciting presentations of works-in-progress by residents, and, finally, the daily evening swim across the lake and back with a small company of often blue-skinned friends.”


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.[1] 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. One of Africa’s largest elephants, Satao’s grisly death 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.[2] 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 sixty 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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. Since 1500, 322 species of land-based vertebrates have disappeared, for example, and the remaining populations show an average 25% decline in abundance around the world.[6] 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.[7]


The Earth is losing about a hundred species a day.[8] In addition to this tidal wave of extinction, which conservation biologists predict will eliminate up to 50% of currently existing animal and plant species,[9] the abundance of species in local areas is declining precipitously, threatening the functioning of entire ecosystems.[10] 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% of the Earth’s surface, their terrestrial and aquatic habitats harbor more than half the known species on the planet.[11] 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, overharvesting, and, increasingly, anthropogenic climate change.[12] 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.

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 has devastated the planet over the last half billion years.

This one 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.”[13] 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, who are using the high profits from the illicit wildlife market to fund their operations.[14]

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.[15] The planet’s biodiversity hotspots, after all, are located in what Christian Parenti calls the “tropics of chaos.”[16] 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 of 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20] 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, and thereby threatening the planetary environment as a whole.[21]

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.[22] 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.


[1] Christine Dell’Amore, “Beloved African Elephant Killed for Ivory,” National Geographic (16 June 2014), Accessed 5 August 2014, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140616-elephants-tusker-satao-poachers-killed-animals-africa-science/. See also Brian Christy, “Blood Ivory,” National Geographic (October 2012), Accessed 5 August 2014, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/10/ivory/christy-text.

[2] Elizabeth Kolbert, “Save the Elephants,” New Yorker (7 July 2014), Accessed 5 August 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/07/07/save-the-elephants.

[3] Sacha Vignieri, “Vanishing Fauna,” Science 345.6195 (25 July 2014): 393-395.

[4] Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life (New York: Knopf, 2004), 92.

[5] Rudolfo Dirzo, “Defaunation in the Anthropocene,” Science 345.6195 (25 July 2014): 401-406.

[6] Dirzo, 401.

[7] Wilson, 99.

[8] Franz J. Broswimmer, Ecocide: A Short History of the Mass Extinction of Species (New York: Pluto, 2002), 1.

[9] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014), 167.

[10] Dirzo, 401.

[11] Wilson, 59.

[12] Wilson, 59.

[13] See, for example, Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), Ursula Heise, “Lost Dogs, Last Birds, and Listed Species: Cultures of Extinction,” Configurations 18.1-2 (Winter 2010), 49-72 and Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

[14] Justin S. Brashares et al., “Wildlife Decline and Social Conflict,” Science 345.6195 (25 July 2014): 377.

[15] See Brashares et al. for a critique of the “war on poachers,” although they rather characteristically do not link this militarized response to poaching to the broader politics of violence that characterizes the “war on terror.”

[16] Christian Parenti, Tropics of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2012).

[17] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), viii.

[18] Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply (Boston, MA: South End Press, 2000).

[19] James O’Connor, Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 166.

[20] David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 222.

[21] Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind: Biodiversity, Biotechnology, and Agriculture (New Delhi: Zed Press, 1993).

[22] Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions, 254.