On Extinction and Capitalism

Extinction by Ashley Dawson

UNLESS YOU’VE DELIBERATELY ignored the accelerating drumbeat of headlines, reports, and nonfiction books that have appeared over the past decade, you’re at least vaguely aware that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet, in which 25 to 40 percent of all species are expected to disappear by 2050. Because extinction is generally a silent, invisible process, we are rarely forced to confront its inherent tragedy and the potentially vast ecological ripples of even a single species’ eradication. When we do, we wonder how we can possibly intervene, individually or collectively. While conservation efforts have widespread support and can boast a few modest (and temporary) victories, they have been overwhelmed by the ongoing wave of anthropogenic annihilation.

Which leads to the question that Ashley Dawson’s slim and forceful book, Extinction: A Radical History, aims to answer: how can we stem the tide? By identifying capitalism as the primary culprit, and placing the current mass extinction in the context of ongoing struggles for social and environmental justice, Dawson points the way toward appropriate forms of conservation for an era of devastating loss.

Why has half the planet’s wildlife disappeared over the last 40 years? Why are we losing approximately 100 species every day? The answer, Dawson argues, lies not in the proximate drivers of extinction (deforestation, habitat fragmentation, poaching, overfishing, and climate change) but in the nature of capitalism itself. Whereas recent popular works on extinction (such as Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History) and climate change (such as Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate) have shied away from calling for an explicitly anticapitalist environmental politics, Extinction makes a compelling case for its urgent necessity. It does so through an “etiology of the present catastrophe” that combines deft historical synthesis with a careful attention to economic and racial inequality and the legacies of imperialism. Because of its demand for ceaseless expansion and its emphasis on anthropocentric utility as the sole criterion of value, capitalism tends to degrade the conditions of its own material reproduction. In this light, the exploitative features of modern capitalism become “particularly starkly evident when seen through the lens of extinction.”

This argument is far from new, but it is buttressed by a valuable — if somewhat compressed and sweeping — historical perspective. Dawson’s training in postcolonial literature makes him keenly aware of the importance of cultural narratives, and he begins with one of the oldest surviving human stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which he reads as a legitimizing myth of the deforestation practiced by the ancient Sumerian city-state of Uruk. Population pressures and unsustainable agricultural practices had disastrous consequences for Uruk and the region: the surrounding forest and its creatures, which the god Humbaba had protected, were transformed into desert remarkably quickly. Dawson follows this narrative up to the present day, describing the shifting cultural norms regarding animals and nature from ancient Rome through European colonization.

Colonialism had dramatic environmental consequences that scholars have only recently appreciated: colonists transported countless invasive species, forced indigenous peoples into integration in destructive market economies (such as the fur trade), and decimated native cultures that were efficient environmental managers. In addition, Europeans carried with them and attempted to impose cultural beliefs that inspired and permitted their conquest. The ideology of dominating and mastering a passive (feminine) nature was “intended to justify European expropriation of indigenous people and their land” but also “established an exploitative attitude toward flora and fauna” that continues to the present day.

Echoing many scholars in the environmental humanities, Dawson argues that much of the proliferating discourse on the Anthropocene (the current era in which humans act as a geologic force) falsely portrays a monolithic “humanity” as a natural architect of mass extinction. It thereby elides the culpability of modern forms of capital accumulation, which were constructed by and primarily benefited wealthy white Northerners. Dawson rightly refuses to see a propensity for environmental degradation as a core element of human nature (if such a thing can be said to exist), noting that cultures and practices of relative sustainability were developed and maintained by indigenous peoples and inhabitants of the global South for millennia. Since our diagnosis of the causes of the contemporary mass extinction necessarily frames our response to it, the question of whether contemporary rapacity equals that of prehistoric homo sapiens sapiens is critical. Dawson points out that this equivalence is not only “historically inaccurate” but “politically disempowering.”

What, then, is to be done? Existing and emerging responses to species extinction, Dawson argues, are not only insufficient but might actually exacerbate the problem. Traditional conservation practices — often focused on “saving” charismatic megafauna such as elephants, polar bears, and whales — may be noble endeavors, but they constitute a “paltry bandage over a gaping wound,” a claim that even their fiercest defenders would have to concede. Two novel strategies have attracted a great deal of attention, support, and funding: “rewilding,” which reintroduces key species into large tracts of new wilderness, and “de-extinction,” which proposes to resuscitatate vanished species through genetic engineering. While Dawson finds the former practice relatively harmless, he offers a scathing attack on the latter. De-extinction is potentially disastrous ecologically, he claims, because resuscitated wooly mammoths and passenger pigeons would not only hasten the demise of other species but could themselves suffer and disappear a second time. More broadly, such a Jurassic Park approach constitutes a form of “neoliberal disaster biocapitalism,” in which mass extinction becomes an opportunity for new forms of property, accumulation, and control. (As McKenzie Funk showed in his book Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming, climate change presents similar opportunities for eco-profiteering.) Not only are traditional conservation practices, along with rewilding and de-extinction, destined to fail, they offer the false hope that there there are solutions short of fundamental geopolitical transformation.

What must be constructed instead, Dawson forcefully argues, is a form of “radical conservation.” This would require recognizing that “the extinction crisis is at once an environmental issue and a social justice issue, one that is linked to long histories of capitalist domination over specific people, animals, and plants.” Dawson’s prescriptions build on initiatives from the global climate justice movement, including the adoption of “degrowth” (minimizing economic growth and consumption), the seizing of assets of major fossil-fuel corporations, and a “Robin Hood” tax on financial transactions, which would fund renewable energy generation, technology transfer to vulnerable nations, and compensation for eco-victims. It is here that Extinction disappoints in its brevity: a fuller explanation of these measures would have offered a useful contribution to the emerging literature on environmental politics in the Anthropocene. Moreover, Dawson is surprisingly nonspecific about the fate of threatened species beyond an abiding faith in the wisdom of the “people of the global South” that might not ultimately be rewarded. Of course, one might also argue that the radical measures Dawson advocates are currently political nonstarters; however, as he notes, “we cannot let the present state of affairs determine our horizon of hope and sense of possibility.”

Indeed, the goal of Extinction is to expand our horizons of possibility. Dawson’s raw and sometimes polemical language reflects an emotionally honest response to the incredible violence of species extinction and climate change, as well as a desire to inspire appropriate collective action. While its candor may remind readers of recent eco-apocalyptic meditations (such as Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene), Extinction provides an implicit rebuke to their contention that “we’re fucked” and can only accommodate ourselves — philosophically, culturally, psychologically — to a now-inevitable collapse. Though undeniably cathartic, such potentially self-fulfilling claims hide more than they reveal. In particular, they obfuscate historical and present responsibilities for contemporary environmental crises, the buffer provided by wealth, power, and privilege (for nations and individuals), and our ability to mitigate and adapt to whatever changes lie in store.

Extinction — and the environmental justice movement that inspires it — seeks to shift our perspective from the beneficiaries of “civilization” to the human and nonhuman victims of its exploitation and ecological destruction. For the millions of species that face extinction, and the billions of comparatively innocent poor and/or indigenous people that suffer from the destabilization and decline of life-supporting ecosystems, radical sociopolitical movements have the potential to slow the dual crises of mass extinction and global climate change. From such a perspective, the question of whether the emergence of an effective anticapitalist environmental politics is “realistic” or “practical” is irrelevant. It is essential. Though thinkers such as Christian Parenti have questioned the value of calling for an unlikely revolution given the “compressed timeframe” of climate change, such demands — and the movements they inspire — can also succeed by advancing alternative perspectives, highlighting neglected issues, and exerting political pressure that can influence public policy and the direction (and speed) of technological development.

Extinction is intended as a primer, and it builds on and points readers toward more detailed and nuanced treatments. On the affective dimensions of extinction, readers might consult Thomas van Dooren’s elegant Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, which demonstrates the entanglement and mutual constitution of humans and nonhumans through six heartbreaking stories of avian extinction. On the historical and current relationship between capitalism and that thing we call “the environment,” Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital seems poised to become a foundational text, synthesizing environmentalist and Marxist perspectives to argue that capitalism has always been a fundamentally ecological project. Sadly, these and many other innovative and important works in the environmental humanities are aimed primarily at academic readers. Extinction: A Radical History makes a case for being the most accessible and politically engaged examination of the current mass extinction, and is therefore a welcome contribution to the growing literature on this slow-motion calamity.


Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is assistant professor of social sciences (environmental studies) at Yale-NUS College. He is the author of Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

LARB Contributor

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is assistant professor of social sciences (environmental studies) at Yale-NUS College, where he teaches about energy, environmental politics, climate change, and literature. He is the author of Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and the founder of the “Fossilized in Houston” climate-art campaign.


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