On Plant and Animal Extinctions

by Alan Sondheim

Panel notes on plant and animal extinctions, revised:

Notes for a panel talk at the Hastac Conference in Toronto, at the end of April; my proposal was as follows –

“I’d like to do a full talk, dealing with What is to be Done, with issues of animal and plant extinctions, with degrees of hopelessness, with the mass Permian extinction, with images of escape in Second Life and elsewhere, with the damnation of technophilia and Google Glasses. I would talk from notes and project, not read a paper (I never write papers to read), but could turn the notes in later of course. This is a theme I’ve been harping on more and more – how to deal with absolute despair and the despair of the absolute.”

– This is where I’m at now; newer comments are in brackets. I’m taking on too much here; I feel that my view of the world is personally colored by the effects of ageism and its accompanying deinstitutionalization (a terrible word!). I hope this is still of interest, and that the comments make sense to you. And I particularly want to thank the people who have taken time to reply to me; I’m glad there’s still optimism out there!)


a. I am no expert in plant and animal extinctions; things seem complex on the level of the species, and here I deeply find myself at a loss; there are too many contradictory statistics for a layperson to disentangle, not the least of which is the definition of ‘species’ (for example, there are subspecies, morphs, etc.), and species’ interrelationships.

a.1. I am also no expert in bio-ethics or ethics in general. I do believe that the habitus, biome, communality, are more important than individual saves which take on symbolic status and often lead nowhere. (On the other hand, as Jon Marshall points out, symbolic action is at least a first step.) I don’t believe in instrumentalist arguments, that the natural should be saved by virtue of its use-value (say, for ‘new medications’); I don’t think any functionalist reason plays out in the long run. I think species should be saved because _they are there._ [I recognize the logical fallacy in this, but that isn’t the point. I also recognize that the world was never, and never will be, pristine – that it has always been morally and ethically problematic from the viewpoint of any positioning of good or evil. I worry about the loss of the fecundity of the world, the amazing diversity of ecological niches – everything will be the poorer, for example, when the coral reefs disappear. Perhaps some of the anguish about extinction originates with this knowledge, that species, including ourselves, are useless, that intrinsic value is local and has no other foundation than personal taste or desire. Spirituality clearly makes a difference in this situation, but, at least for me, spirituality is always suspect and hardly foundation; it just throws imminence into immanence. So this is a weak point of my thinking, but that’s also a weak point among the human project – just as there may be no first cause, there may be no fundamental value that might function as surrogate or catalyst.]

a.1.a. The problem with symbolic value is that the most attractive or cute species (in terms of human perception) are often the ones that are saved and considered valuable, while other species that are less appealing are left by the wayside. [It is also very unclear that species can be saved in isolation, i.e. without their habitus, their biome. One major problem here is that of territoriality and the neurosis that ensues by salvaging a small population and placing them in save but relatively small ‘foreign’ havens. A second problem, hardly considered in the past, is that animals
have culture ‘all the way down,’ and isolated individuals, as with human animals, can’t carry the weight of communal knowledge.]

b. There are three economies: political, financial, attention; each of these vies in terms of saving species or biomes. [What are the politics for example of bushmeat? What might replace the economic or other gains of poaching? And what species do we deem ‘deserving’ of attention? Eliminating the criterion of attractiveness doesn’t solve this problem, since there is literally no way humans can pay attention to every species, every biome, etc. Just as there’s an economy of attention on the Net, there are economies of attention within the ‘real’ world – this is where
Drew Leder’s work on ‘the absent body’ comes into play.]

c. Every species has an equally lengthy holarchic history (including bacteria, mitochondria, etc.); each history is a sign and organism resonant with the origin of life itself. [This is important; there are no ‘primitive’ species just as there are no ‘primitive’ peoples. There are some characteristics of contemporary species that can be traced farther back than others, and these could be labeled ‘primitive’ – but given, for example, the recent discovery of relatively advanced brains in early animals, even this classification is suspect. Everything that survives in an oddly temporal sense is equivalent to everything else that survives. The issue actually transforms to those species which might be considered ‘generalist’ and those which live within specific (and often somewhat isolated) niches; the latter are of course much more at risk.]

d. Each organism has its own world-view, Umwelt, Weltanschauung. Each is alterity and project to every other. Each possesses individual and communal culture. Each participates in negation and learning. [Heinz von Foerster spoke of life entailing negation, and negation as fundamental: turn away from something. And turning-away is also a sign of culture; further, what one turns away from is dependent on the niches an organism can survive in – different niches have different dangers.]

e. Each is driven to extinction by the other. Each other collapses into either grotesque anomaly (asteroid, volcano) or the human, somewhere along the line. [This isn’t entirely true; communality and altruism occur inter- and intra-species. But species do have life-spams; ironically of course we know only the life-spans of species which have already gone extinct, and it’s difficult to generalize. (However statistical generalizations do exist.) The same is true of our own deaths, and just as mourning the death of a friend or relative is an anguish which is irretrievable in terms of its object, so mourning the disappearance of a species is similar (even if individuals of that species may be brought back into existence, the culture is gone). Most of us don’t mourn extinctions in the same way, but there is, I believe, a sense of anguish at the heart of these as well.]

f. Each is a projection and introjection of the world; each is immersive, each is entangled, abject, somewhat definable. [Each species is in dialog with the rest of the world, which is also within each individual, just as humans are fecund with bacteria and other micro-organisms, even within thecell itself. So to talk of projecting _into_ the world, or introjecting _from_ the world is more than a gross over-simplification; for this reason I tend to use the neologism ‘jectivity’ to imply holarchic connectivities between what _might_ be labeled an individual and its internality, and what _might_ be labeled an external world. For this reason, I see crude parallels between thinking through species and organisms, and the philosophy of quantum mechanics; I’m not arguing for another pseudo-model from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, so much as thinking about all varieties of entanglements, including Feynman diagrams, virtual particle, tunneling, and so forth. Think of the world, not as mind, but as fermenting, for example.]

g. The extinction of any species is a permanent and irrevocable loss; the death of any individual is the same. Histories condense and disperse, homes disappear, the world flattens. [New histories arise, new mementos, memories, languages, technologies, storage mechanisms. Increased population, global warming, and other uncomfortable signs, however, all point towards a diminution in richness; species are disappearing for example faster than new ones are appearing. The biomass of the world may remain somewhat constant, given that decay species and micro-organisms within rock-strata and beneath the ocean floor remain the same in volume, but the variety is collapsing; the anthropocene is being compared to the Permian extinction in this regard. See below and above.]

h. Our era is not a repetition, say, of the Permian extinctions; it is other, it is slaughter, and it brings pain from one species to many. The death of an adult reproducer is the death of offspring, who may or may not have already made their way into the world. [It is slaughter, even legacy slaughter, in many cases legacy hunting. It causes enormous pain; in addition the narrowing or elimination of habitats, the increase in pollutants, etc. – all take their unnatural toll, as does the development and use of genetically-modified plants. As populations increase, we are turning the world into our own infertile image. There’s no doubt that the very wealthy will survive and even benefit from all of this; increasingly enclaved, they’re safe for the foreseeable future – literally foreseeable, for one or two generations at best.]

i. Our language betrays us: there are no weeds, no vermin. We define the world in terms of our desires and their negations. [This has always bothered me, this division into useful and useless, ornamental and pest, etc. It governs our vision of ‘wilderness,’ such as it is, as well as what sure and should not be allowed to survive in urban areas.]

j. We are defined by our slaughters. We are hopeless, driven to the deaths of others, driving species, herds, hordes, before us. Ultimately, we may be headed towards total annihilation. This is not deliberate; we’re not all hunters for example. But we’re a species in bloom, and that, along with the increasing need for food, is taking its toll. [This is nothing more than a _cris de coeur_ – it’s where anguish begins and refuses to disappear. Not all of us are driven to killing of course, but the tendency is in that direction – killing need not be advertent.]

k. What is to be done? I’m surprised how few artists are concerned about the environment – other than creating networks and new forms of nodes and dwellings within it. How few media artists even bother with PETA for example, or conservation. How many artists, driven by teleology, are always already on the hunt for new forms of mappings, new modes of data analytics. How we abjure responsibility, disconnect radically. How we favor the human over other species. [I have no idea about the truth of this; what I’m writing here is only from personal, not broader, experience
or knowledge. Certainly the ‘next greatest thing’ dominates our thinking, as do Facebook proverbs, Twitter’s 140, or Wired magazine’s “Forget all you know about {x}” – every innovation is yet another revolution. We are in love with our technophilia, and we see technological answers to just about everything, from energy to death to the reconstitution of the natural world. The empirical or concrete muck of the real is another matter altogether, and it’s this disassociation that seems to me, ensures that the extinction catastrophe will continue.]

l. Certainly the digital, even augmented reality or Google Glass, creates distance between ourselves and the world around us; what’s added are bits. This distancing, which is both clever and fast-forward technology-driven, may be more part of the problem than the solution. I think of ‘Internet hunting’ for example, tv/video programs like Survivor or The Great Race (both of which can only damage pristine environments), etc.; on the other hand, bird-, nest- and waterhole-watches might well serve to awaken people’s consciousness. [This is yet only more of the same. I don’t think
that more theoretical analysis will do very much; what’s needed is concrete action, working with government and organizations like Nature Conservancy. Consciousness has to be raised, primarily with K-12 – and it’s in this area, in public schooling, that we’re failing the most, with emphasis placed on the damnation of teachers, continual testing, limited play, limited time for the old ‘natural sciences,’ limited monies for art or music, limited monies for special ed. and even physical ed. in some cases, and so forth. There’s too much emphasis placed on STEM – most of which is, of course, testable in a way that art and the softer sciences may not be – and too little emphasis placed on play, revamping the schools, calling on teachers as resources instead of demons and so forth. It’s disenheartening, and it is, I think, the future. Instead of raising consciousness or bringing up difficult questions of ethics, we’re preparing workforces with even greater disconnect between ongoing slaughter and technology.]

m. How do we handle this on a personal level? If we’re driven to catatonia, we’re doomed. I haven’t been able to accept the Buddhist account of suffering and enlightenment; the result is an almost constant state of anguish, that is to say a condition that is a combination of Lyotard’s differend, a sense of helplessness, and a sense of the destruction of worlds. [And I have to end here; I could write out the usual calls to action, but I doubt, given our inertia, that it would make any difference at all. And I have no idea if my analysis or prognoses are correct; in spite of my reading and amateurish naturalism, I’m ignorant. The best I can do is call attention to the problem, which, as I’ve been told repeatedly by people, is really no problem at all, but the natural order of things. That I can’t buy, and the dialog breaks off here.]


From an email exchange (and thanks to everyone who wrote in) –

“[…] I hate the idea of a ‘posthuman’ critique of mass extinctions: such extinctions are slaughter, painful, abject, and ‘critique’ seems almost obscene in relation to them. To me it doesn’t matter if ‘extinction’ is politically loaded: it carries as much of an absolute truth as possible about the world; when a species is gone, it’s _gone,_ and its entire lineage is _gone_; there is no recourse, no politics, nothing to return it, in spite of Wired and other sources yammering about resuscitation through DNA. You don’t have enough of a community to sustain gene variability. It’s death. It’s absolute death. It’s Kurtz’s Horror.”

From a second exchange:

“Diversity won’t reassert itself in denuded and polluted areas. I talked to Azure about this; she has a master’s degree in environmental conservation education, and reiterated what I said but more strongly – that the news is all bad. Yes, something will emerge millions of years from now, just as something emerged after the Permian extinction. But past extinctions weren’t the result of a supposedly moral or ethical species; they were the result of asteroids or volcanic eruptions (and I suspect in some cases viruses or prions, but I may well be wrong about this). This is the first time another species – wildly out of control and in bloom – has wreaked this kind of devastation. And it’s the first time it’s happened so quickly; species are disappearing at the rate of several per hour. Most of them aren’t even tracked or understood yet, but that’s not the point; the point is the slaughter and the pollution – for example the micro-plastic spheres in cosmetics that run up the food chain, or the floating islands of plastic trash in the oceans, or the particulate matter pollution in our part of NYC, or the Appalachian rivers running like orange soda (result from mine pollution), or the exponential increase in global warming, etc. etc. There’s so much data; I get it daily, and not from ‘leftist’ sources for that matter. And the data isn’t only about elephants and rhinos and polar bears; it’s about birds you and I probably haven’t heard of before, alpine biomes collapsing, the rapid disappearing of Madagascar lemurs and other flora and fauna, the lack of young saguaro cacti in the US south-west, disappearing bees, Monarch butterflies down 61% in just the last year, the hemlocks disappearing because of invasive species, the Everglades down to less than 1% of their previous flora and fauna, the results of the Yellow River damming, the 100 million or so sharks killed yearly for shark-fin soup and because they’re ‘dangerous,’ the elimination of wolves everywhere in the continental US, the massacre/disappearance of native bats here, Hawaiian birds, the disease killing off the Tasmanian Devils, as well as the rapid increase of desertification world-wide, the release of methane from Siberian and Canadian permafrost which is speeding up global warming, the almost complete extinction now of bonobo, gorillas, chimps, and other primates in the world – and so forth. DDT’s banned in the US but not in large parts of the world where it continues to devastate. Disasters like BP in the Gulf are increasingly common. There’s debates among ecologists whether it’s worthwhile to even try to save the coral reefs because the money might better to to other ecologically easier dealt problems, and because the reefs are going to disappear anyway. This is just the recent stuff that comes to mind; I can send you sources if you want. And it’s not balanced by wonderful fecund ecosystems opening up or cornucopias of new species; it’s not balanced by anything. Not only are tropical rainforests disappearing at record rates, but the southern Appalachians are being devastated by mountain-topping; as of five years ago, 423 mountains were already topped – and this used to be, behind the rain-forests, the second-most ecologically diverse region in the world because of the holler system. You can be, anyone can be, optimistic or not of course, but the data is uniformly negative, except for extremely small victories – for example in the US we point to whooping cranes and the Californian condor, but so many other not so magnificent bird species are already extinct or going so, here. I should add that my brother’s also helped me with this stuff; he does satellite and anti-bushmeat stuff in Asia (he’s a satellite expert) and my nephew was involved in saving the last stand of large first-growth cypress in Victoria Island (Carmanah); all around the area there’s clear-cutting. I remember when I was in Tasmania, I met the Greens down there, and they were able to stop the damming of the river in the SW (think it was the Franklin?) – to save the wilderness; they did it by blowing up the construction equipment. The dam was going to be used for hydro which was already plentiful. The action worked, but it’s a small victory as a lot of Tasmanian flora/fauna are still under the gun. I remember the stink of the paper mill in the NW of the island, owned by coke, and busy cutting down as much Huon pine as could be got hold of. In my area of NE Pennsylvania, the woods are over-run by deer, they’ve no natural enemies since the bears are hunted down, the wolves has disappeared, I haven’t heard of foxes there for years. I’d say more about plants, but other than disappearing hemlock, birch, and elm, I really don’t know the details, although quaking Aspen in the west seem under siege now. With global warming, what insects and disease doesn’t get, the fires will.

Sorry about this; this is what I think about all the time, what I live with, which might be overly dramatic, neurotic, and stupid, but it’s ongoing. I asked Azure if NYC had anything to do with it, and she said no, it’s what she learned daily at NYU -”


alanAlan Sondheim was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; he lives with his partner, Azure Carter, in Brooklyn NY. He holds a B.A. and M.A. from Brown University in English. A new-media artist, writer, and theorist, he has exhibited, performed and lectured widely.

2 thoughts on “On Plant and Animal Extinctions

  1. Alan Sondheim, I love what you wrote here and that you wrote it. Wish that I had more time to comment other than this, except to say that I wrote something of vital importance to my psyche at this link, if you wish to read the short piece: http://bit.ly/NB7dxS

    kind regards, Donna

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