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Death of the Disregarded in the Time of Extinction: The Ecological Humanities and Unloved Others


Deborah Bird Rose

Deborah Bird Rose is Professor of Social Inclusion in the Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, Macquarie University, Sydney. Her work focuses on entwined social and ecological justice in this time of climate change, and is based on her long-term research with Aboriginal people in Australia.

Thom van Dooren

Thom van Dooren is an environmental anthropologist/philosopher whose research interests lie in human relationships with plants, animals and nature more broadly. He is currently a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney. He completed his PhD in the Fenner School of Environment, Australian National University.

An elderly woman and a young man are sitting in red chairs on a stage in discussion.
Deborah Bird Rose (left) and Thom van Dooren (right)


In the ecological humanities Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren write against the nature-culture, human-animal binaries that have had such a profound influence in Western thought and action. They work in the shadow of extinction, exploring the entangled lives and deaths of plants and animals, including humans. Drawing out the idea that people save what they love, Deborah and Thom ask about those who are unloved and disregarded. Their aim is to enliven people’s moral engagements with cascades of loss in this time of extinctions.

Death of the Disregarded

Hear Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren in discussion. Drawing out the idea that people save what they love, Deborah and Thom ask about those who are unloved and disregarded.
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Presenters: Deborah Rose, Professor in the Centre for Research on Social Inclusion, Macquarie Universityand Thom van Dooren Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology

TOM GRIFFITHS: Welcome back ladies and gentlemen. I'm going to be chairing this next session, which involves Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren. We've been talking today about the bringing together of science and humanities, and it is of course 50 years since CP Snow delivered his famous lecture about the two cultures. So it's very appropriate that we investigate and explore the benefits of bringing those two cultures together today.

And this phrase that we'll be talking about in this session, the ecological humanities, is really a coming together of scientific ideas and bring it into the heart of humanities - bringing humanities' perspectives into scientific understandings.

And the ecological humanities is a field that really, in many ways, has reached definition through conversations that began amongst scholars in Canberra, very much led by Deborah Rose, who has, until last year, been based at the Fenner School here in the ANU, and is now a Professor in the Centre for Research on Social Inclusion at Macquarie University.

Debbie is an anthropologist, philosopher, and historian. You'll almost certainly know her wonderful series of books, Dingo Makes us Human, Hidden Histories, Nourishing Terrains, Reports from a Wild Country and so on. Books which really draw on her deep and sustained research into Aboriginal Australia. There's a book on the way now called Wild Dog Dreaming, and she and Thom have together edited the ecological humanities corner of The Australian Humanities Review. It's well worth chasing that online, for these kinds of conversations.

Thom van Dooren is an environmental anthropologist and philosopher. He completed his PhD in the Fenner School here. He's now a Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Together, Debbie and Thom are working on a book, the title of which we've given to this session, the title being: Unloved Others: Death of the Disregarded in the Time of Extinctions. And so they're both investigating, in a scholarly and profound way, the meaning of extinction, and asking that question of a more-than-human world.

So Debbie and Thom, thank you.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: Thanks Tom. We were invited to talk with you about the book that we're putting together, Unloved Others. We felt that rather than talk about it in the abstract, we'd talk from within the book. So, Thom's going to talk to his chapter, and I'm going to talk to my chapter.

But I just wanted to start by saying a few words about the work we're doing together around what we're now calling Critical Extinction Studies. In the ecological humanities we're aiming to work across — and, in fact, really demolish and nullify — the nature-culture binary that has been such a profound influence in Western thought and action for so long, and that we now understand to be a huge part of why we're in the mess we're in.

Part of that nature-culture divide is the divide around humans and animals. It's been another foundational pillar of Western thought, of how and why we humans aren't animals like the rest of them.

Critical Animal Studies wants to do away with that binary. Not to do away with difference per se, but to ask: what do we share? How are we different? Are our lives entangled? What does it mean to be one species amongst many, rather than the sole, or superior, species over and above all the others?

Bringing that kind of Critical Animal Studies thinking into questions of extinction - what does it mean to be a member of the species that is now causing this huge cascade of extinctions on earth? What ethics and obligations does that call from us? What does it ask us to rethink about who we are, and how we fit?

We've both gotten a lot of inspiration from the great conservation biologist Michael Soulé, who is worried sick about extinctions, as any thinking conservation biologist is, I'm sure. He says: people save what they love. And he's so despairing over whether we can love enough to save enough. My book, Wild Dog Dreaming, is subtitled Love and Extinction. But as Thom and I got talking about how people save what they love, it obviously then brought forth the question: what about all the unloved others out there?

THOM VAN DOOREN: That's actually the title of our edited book for which this is the subtitle. It basically takes a series of case studies, and has 13 chapters of creatures that are not charismatic, I guess. And so often don't get a lot of the attention, either from conservation work, or in the media, or in the popular imagination. There are 13 contributors from around the world; we have a lot of really wonderful people on board. To name a few, Donna Haraway, and Anna Tsing from the University of California in Santa Cruz, and James Hatley, who Deb will mention in a moment. So, a range of philosophers and historians.

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: A couple of people here today — Kate Rigby, Jess Weir.

THOM VAN DOOREN: Yes, that's true. That book will hopefully be out sometime soon. Were you going to say something about James Hatley?

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: No, let's just plow on.

THOM VAN DOOREN: Maybe I'll just talk about the vultures now. As you can see from the name of the session, we've been asked to talk specifically around those themes of the unloved and the disregarded. In my work on Asian vultures in India, people often recount to me having seen huge numbers of vultures along the banks of rivers in India, for example, feeding on the dead floating by, whether they be cattle, or people, or whatever bodies float by in the river.

That's something I've actually never seen, although I can imagine it. But as the years go by, that's something that I, and anyone else that hasn't seen it, is increasingly less like to see. Quite simply, I suppose, because the vultures are all dying.

In the past two decades, the populations of vultures in India have plummeted. Now, they estimate that between 97–99 per cent of all the vultures in India are gone. Basically, they've been poisoned by an anti-inflammatory drug that's given to cattle.

When the cattle die, the vultures consume them, and that anti-inflammatory, Diclofenac, causes kidney failure and eventually death for vultures in quite a painful way. A lot of my earlier work's been on ethics of pain, and the experience of pain, for vultures and others, in these processes of extinction.

Today, I'm going to focus a little more relationally on some broader issues around what it means to be unloved and disregarded. Obviously, both those categories — the disregarded and the unloved — are complicated.

While we might talk about vultures, for example, as being not very charismatic, and lots of people talk about Indian conservation as tiger-centric. For obvious reasons, I guess, the tigers get a lot of the attention, a lot of the money. We shouldn't forget that there are lots of people in India who do love vultures.

There are lots of people who love all of these unloved species, and who dedicate a lot of time and attention to them. But that doesn't change the fact that, for example, in India it was very difficult for a long time to get the Indian government involved and concerned about the death of all these vultures.

I'll give you a little bit of background, quickly. India's a country, as many of you would probably know, that has quite a strange and interesting relationship with cattle. It's a country that has more cattle than any other, except possibly China. I suppose there's a bit of to-ing and fro-ing as they both go back and forth about which one has the greatest number of cattle in the world. Either way, they both have an awful lot.

But the thing that's interesting about India is that very few of them actually get eaten. For various religious reasons a lot of them are skinned, but most of them end up in cattle dumps, or on the edges of villages. It's traditionally been the vultures that have been relied upon to take care of them; take care of an estimated five to ten million cow, camel and buffalo carcasses every year.

I have a lovely quote here from Susan McGrath from the Smithsonian magazine, which I think captures some of this. She says: 'As many as 100 vultures may feed on a single cow carcass, stripping it clean in 30 minutes. 2000, 3000, even 10,000 vultures swarmed the larger dumps in the early 1990s, the huge birds lapping at carcasses with their leathery tongues, thrusting their narrow heads neck deep to reach internal organs, tussling over choice goblets of meat.' It's quite a scene, I guess.

As you can tell from that little quote, it takes many vultures to clean a carcass, and they're not always good sharers, but they are highly sociable and communal creatures. They're often living in colonies of 20 or 30 birds, sometimes up to 100 birds, building nests in trees and on cliff edges, hanging out as close as they can to dumps and slaughterhouses, building nests that they line with wool, skin, dung, and rubbish.

So they have quite a proclivity for the macabre, if you like, which has earned them a bad reputation in a lot of countries around the world. I know they pop up in Disney films, and all over the place, always in the villain role. I guess they're sort of dark creatures, and they don't get a lot of attention from... Their conservation efforts haven't captured the public imagination, I suppose. [laughter]

Nonetheless, the roles they play in ecosystems are vitally important. And this is part of the tension that we're so interested in, that even these creatures that are unloved in so many ways are so important. In the past, vultures have helped to contain the spread of disease from rotting carcasses, by quickly and completely consuming them.

In their absence, though, these five to ten million animal carcasses have made room for explosions in populations of stray dogs, rats, and other fast breeding scavengers. It's estimated that in the last decade or so, there's been a 30 per cent increase in the number of stray dogs in India.

That increase in dog populations brings a lot of problems that I'll talk about in just a second, briefly. But also, the rotting carcasses that aren't cleaned anywhere near as completely, or as quickly as they once were by the vultures, who are very efficient, have led to other problems, like the spread of anthrax, which I won't get into.

But just to focus on the increase in dog populations for a moment — just to give you one example — increases in dog attacks on people in India, but also increasing the spread of rabies, which is endemic in India. India has 60 per cent of the world's rabies deaths: it's between 25,000–30,000 deaths a year. One death every 30 minutes, basically. And with the extra 30 per cent in the wild dog population, obviously there are grave fears that those numbers will increase.

But just to try and stretch out the unloved, and the disregarded, to try and focus on how that might extend beyond the vultures. What I'm doing in some work at the moment is focusing on how these knock-on effects — things like anthrax, and rabies, and dog attacks — the burden of those things usually falls disproportionately on the poor. So they're kind of an additional disregarded category, if you like, that comes with the vultures in some way.

87.6 per cent of rabies deaths in India are in the low socio-economic groups. Most of them adult men, which introduces a further pressure on families, without fathers and people to earn wages, in some cases. And there are all sorts of flow-on problems associated with the fact that it's primarily poor people, in that education programs haven't worked. Only 20 per cent of people get the anti-rabies treatment, and only 20 per cent of that 20 per cent get the full treatment of drugs. And all these factors are compounded by the fact that we're dealing with people in the poorer socio-economic groups.

Those aren't all of the diverse impacts of the death of vultures on the ecosystems in India. But I think they're so interesting because they show the way in which humans are, as Deb was talking about a moment ago, embedded in ecosystems and dependent on services, if you like, that ecosystems provide. And how, when those relationships are unmade, if you like, and some creature, some species, disappears, there's this ripple of further impacts which draws humans in, and draws the poor in, in a disproportionate way.

I'll wrap up there, but I wanted to finish with the, I think, really important point that this disproportionate impact on the poor is a very common occurrence. The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, for example, points out that the burden of environmental change, the burden of ecosystem diminishment, always falls — or very, very often falls — on poorer socio-economic groups, who aren't buffered, if you like, by a stronger position in the markets. Who aren't buffered by technology, and who are so immediately dependent on ecosystems and species that are, all too often, disappearing and dying around us, at the moment. Thank you. [applause]

DEBORAH BIRD ROSE: As you've heard, I moved to Sydney not too long ago, and I'm not a city person. If I had had a choice out of places I would least like to live, Sydney probably would have been pretty near the top of the list. I found it very stressful, and it's been quite a challenge to try to make peace with the fact that I live there. A sort of turning point for me was when the Grevillea Robusta in the neighbour's garden flowered, and the flying foxes came swooping in. For about two weeks, the night was just busy all night long with flying foxes. In a way, they kind of humanised Sydney for me, and made it possible to feel like that was a place I could live. I was just incredibly grateful to them, and I decided that I wanted to... Well, what can I do? I'm a writer, I'll write a paper about flying foxes.

I'm really interested in animals who are both loved and hated. My book, Wild Dog Dreaming, looks at dingoes, who are an endangered and protected species, and also are classed as vermin, and can be shot and poisoned and everything.

The same is true with the grey headed flying fox in New South Wales. It's a protected species, and then every year the New South Wales Parks and Wildlife Service issues licenses to kill. Far more people kill than are actually licensed, and nobody's ever brought to court over that.

It's that entangled site of being both endangered and vilified, protected and killed, that I find really fascinating. Part of the fascination is that it means that if one can have an impact, things could change. It doesn't have to go the way it's going.

The thing that completely fascinated me when I started doing some deeper research... I knew a lot of stories about flying foxes from my research with Aboriginal people. When I got into the other literature, the scientific literature in particular, and the historical literature, to discover that actually, the kinds of events that we think of as so paradigmatic of contemporary modernity are all events and processes that flying foxes have experienced exactly the way humans have.

It was one of those moments when I realised that this human-animal division just isn't there when we think about what is the modern world, what are some of the big characteristics of the modern world. Flying foxes have experienced warfare; they have experienced man-made mass death. They have experienced famine, urbanisation, new emerging diseases, climate change, biosecurity. As well, they've experienced conservation, and a lot of NGO impact. It was those kinds of issues that I wanted to explore in this paper, to tell a story of modernity through a flying fox experience.

I'm not going to tell that story here, but there's just a couple of points I'd like to bring out. One is that flying foxes are co-evolved with the Myrtaceae family, which includes all the eucalypts and melaleucas who are some of their great foods. So they're co-evolved with them. There are also some smaller ones that are co-evolved with rainforests. They're a keystone species. They're long-range pollinators and seed dispersers. And if the flying foxes go, rain forests will almost certainly go.

If flying foxes go, all types of eucalypts and melaleucas, that are increasingly fragmented through habitat destruction, will be less and less capable of sustaining their gene pool. And less and less capable of making the rapid adaptations that they will surely need to cope with climate change. So, there is a whole bunch of other creatures here who are part of the flying fox story.

Well, their favourite foods are eucalypts and other Myrtaceae. And because they're losing their foods, because of all the habitat clearance, they go for orchards. And it's the orchardists who are allowed to kill them whenever they want. And they've done some really extraordinary things including the now illegal electrocution grids that really did terrible things to flying foxes.

I have a section on genocide and speciocide. Or genocide and pteropus-cide, as actually some biologists are terming it. Pteropus is the Latin term and pteropus-cide is the targeted, man-made, mass-death, murder of flying foxes.

And I've felt that in treating human and non-human deaths as separable and different kinds of events, we actually miss the fact that in the anthropocene, the deathscapes, that we are witnessing aren't confined to any one particular species. As Tom was saying: 'they ripple, they spread and we're all implicated in them'.

These really neat conservation biologists who are working with flying foxes talk about a black hole of death. So, you've got the orchard, and you've got the flying foxes coming to eat, and you've got the orchardists killing them. And when those flying foxes are all dead and or dispersed, here's the orchard and more flying foxes come. And then they get killed. And more come. So it's become this black hole where more and more and more flying foxes get killed.

And then I think the point that wants to be drawn... The people working with flying foxes stop here, but the point that wants to be drawn is that this black hole does not orient itself to say, 'I will only consume flying foxes'.

This is a kind of death vortex that keeps dragging. It drags in flying foxes. It drags in those who are implicated within flying foxes. So, as flying foxes are wiped out, as I've said, the rain forests will go. And the electrocution grids were made illegal on the grounds that the flying foxes were essential to the future of the Daintree and other rainforests.

The black hole of death doesn't exempt humans either. The more direct way in which humans are implicated is that three new diseases have appeared in flying fox populations. One of which is the lyssa-virus that's closely related to rabies that Tom was talking about.

These diseases have appeared because the flying foxes are under such stress. The more stress they're under the more prevalent the disease becomes. At the same time, the more stress they're under, the more people like me and others who want to assist flying foxes are exposed to the lyssa-virus and other viruses.

Obviously the smart thing to do would be to stop stressing flying foxes. But the public health response thus far has been to try to say don't ever have anything to do with flying foxes, declare flying foxes a no-go zone, which in fact would add to the distress.

And I close this paper with the words of one of the Aboriginal women I've worked with for a long time in the north. A couple of years ago, when I was there for a visit, she took me by the hand and said, 'Come on down to the river. Let's have a little chat', that we would always do. She would just tell me about what was happening and everything. And on this occasion she was really, really upset. She said, 'You're not going to believe what that white fellow done do this time'. They came through all the communities and they told everybody, 'You can't touch flying fox anymore. You can't eat them, you can't hunt them, you can't touch them. They've got disease that might make you sick. Don't have anything to do with them.'

This young woman is a flying fox woman herself and she said she just wouldn't wear it. She said, 'We don't listen to them. We don't listen to them'. She said, 'Those flying fox, they've been here forever just like us. We're not worried'. She said, 'They're family'. And I think, to me, that's one of the most important lessons or ideas that comes out of the work we're doing, is how we're all co-implicated in what's happening right here on Earth today.

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