Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction

appIn celebration of the recently released cover for my new book, I’ve posted a little description of it here. The book is forthcoming with Columbia University Press in early to mid 2014.

This book explores some of the many ethical and broader philosophical issues that arise in this ‘time of extinctions’. Through an exploration of five case studies of endangered birds, it works to develop a fuller sense of the significance of extinction: what is really lost when an evolutionary lineage, a way of life, disappears? What does this loss mean within the particular entangled multispecies community that it occurs – a community of humans and nonhumans, of the living and the dead? How might we think through the complex place of human life at this time: simultaneously the cause of these extinctions, an agent of conservation, and organisms, like any other, exposed to the precariousness of changing environments?

The particular approach to these questions taken up in this book is grounded in a ‘lively storytelling’ that draws philosophy and ethnographic work into conversation with biology, ecology and ethology (an approach being collaboratively developed with Deborah Rose and Matt Chrulew). In so doing, each chapter aims to provide a thick, fleshy, account of the intimate particularities of a bird and its entanglements: how they hunt or reproduce, how they take care of their young or grieve for their dead, how they make themselves at home in the vast Pacific Ocean or along an urban coastline.

Ultimately, this approach to writing aims to draw readers into a greater understanding of the significance of extinction while also exploring our own responsibility to help to hold open a place in the world for these disappearing others.

Black-footed Albatross (Photo Credit: Seabamirum)

Chapter One, explores the plight of the Black-footed and Laysan albatrosses of Midway Atoll in the remote North Pacific Ocean (Phoebastria nigripes and P. immutabilis). The chapter takes up this topic through a focus on the difficult work of fledging albatrosses (i.e. raising them until they are ready for flight): the creation of a solid pair bond between breeding birds, the laying and incubating of eggs, the months of movement back and forth between land and sea in search of food to satisfy hungry young chicks. Through this account, the chapter proposes a particular understanding of what a species is; an understanding that focuses on the investment of time, energy and labour that is required to keep successive generations in the world. In this context, species are incredible ‘achievements’: intergenerational lineages stretched across millions of years of evolutionary history.

In our current time, however, the circulating waste of human societies threatens the continuity of albatross species, harming and killing breeding birds and their young. In this context, the chapter focuses on the diverse temporalities enfolded at this site of encounter. Here the daily lives of birds – and ultimately the future of their species too – come into contact with persistent pollutants and seemingly immortal plastics. Ultimately, the chapter explores some of the ways in which the difficult task of taking seriously these vastly different temporal horizons and their overlaps and intersections, provides us with a fuller sense of the immensity of what is lost in extinction, while at the same time drawing us into new and deeper responsibilities for our living world.

Indian White-backed Vulture (Photo Credit: Lip Kee)

Chapter Two, focuses on some of the contemporary entanglements of vultures (genus Gyps), people, cattle and others in India, with a particular focus on the way in which lives and livelihoods are made possible inside interactions in a more-than-human world. In the context of Indian vultures, however, this situation is made more complex by the fact that they are rapidly approaching extinction. When vultures are no longer around to take up the relationships that they once did, many other lives are made difficult or impossible – with poor and rural communities very often bearing the majority of the human burden. In this context, this chapter explores some of the inequities of exposure to suffering that emerge inside relationships of multispecies dependency, a topic that can only take on increasing importance as we move ever more deeply into the current period of mass extinction and a time of greater climatic and environmental change.

Chapter Three, takes up the story of a tiny colony of penguins that make their home just inside the mouth of one of Australia’s busiest harbours, Sydney Harbour. Members of the world’s smallest penguin species, these Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor) stand roughly 30cm tall and weigh around 1kg. They are also one of the last penguin colonies left on the Australian mainland, and the last in the state of New South Wales (NSW), the others having been wiped out since European settlement. For roughly eight months of each year these penguins return to this busiest of harbours, coming ashore at various places to lay eggs and fledge young. Increasingly, however, their burrows are being lost to them through urban development and its accompanying patterns of light, noise and disturbance (in particular, predations by domestic dogs). This chapter explores the nature of these penguins’ attachment to their specific breeding places; called ‘philopatry’ or ‘site fidelity’. Despite ongoing changes and increased danger, year after year they return. The chapter argues for an understanding of these as ‘storied-places’, invested with history and meaning for penguins. Consequently, it explores the ethical significance of destroying places that penguins (and others) are in an important sense tied to, drawn to return to each year to breed. The chapter asks: what kinds of ethical obligations might be opened up by a new sensitivity to the storying and place-making practices of penguins and other nonhumans?

Whooping Crane (Photo credit: Ryan Hagerty/USFWS)

Chapter Four is focused on one of North America’s longest running conservation programs, that of the iconic whooping crane (Grus americana). For more than 40 years, conservationists in the USA and Canada have worked to protect these birds and their wintering and summering grounds. On many levels this is a story of care and success in which conservationists have managed to pull the species back from the edge of extinction; from fewer than 20 birds in the early 20th century to roughly 600 today. This chapter takes up this conservation story through a close focus on the elaborate captive breeding and release program that for some young birds culminates in the use of ultra-light aircraft to teach them a new migratory route. My particular interest is in the strange juxtaposition of care and violence that lies at the heart of this program, and the ethical dimensions of the human/crane relationships that are being established here. Who suffers and who dies so that new populations of this species might make their way back into the world? On what grounds are the lives of some beings sacrificed for the sake of others, and might a concerted effort to inhabit and examine these complex and difficult situations – ‘staying with the trouble’ (Haraway) – provide an opening into a more ethical mode of conservation?

The final chapter returns us to the heart of the Pacific Ocean, this time with a focus on the only endemic corvid species, the Hawaiian crow (Corvus hawaiiensis). In 2002, the last free living crow died. As forest dwelling fruit-specialists, these crows have been significantly affected by the degradation of local forests, as well as increased predation and introduced diseases. This chapter takes as its focus the limited ethological literature on the ways in which crows (and corvids more generally) respond to the deaths of others of their kind. Much of the history of western thought has utilised animals’ understandings and responses to death to construct a dualism between ‘the human’ and ‘the animal’. This dualistic thinking is at the core of a human exceptionalism that holds us apart from the rest of the world, and as such contributes to our inability to be affected by the incredible loss of the period of species extinctions in which we are currently living, and so to mourn the ongoing deaths of species. In contrast to this tradition, this chapter explores some of the ways in which taking crow grief seriously might, in fact, work to undermine human exceptionalism: in particular, by highlighting both a deep evolutionary continuity between humans and other social animals, and our ecological entanglement in a more-than-human world. In this way, telling stories about grieving crows might itself become an act of mourning extinctions. This would be a mode of mourning that does not announce the uniqueness of the human, but rather works to undo exceptionalism, drawing us into company with crows and others to grieve for the loss of a world that includes us, to grieve the countless deaths that constitute this time of extinctions.