Precarious Communities: Towards a Phenomenology of Extinction

  • Brett Buchanan
Part of the Contributions To Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 92)


“Precarious Communities: Towards a Phenomenology of Extinction” begins by criticizing modern ontological models of community as imprecise and dangerous, as they deny animals and other living beings ethical and communal value. The essay criticizes the idea that community is to be based solely around commonality, such as a shared language or physicality. The essay argues that such a model of community is not to be followed because it promotes a widespread “mode of exclusion” of all life that is not human. Instead, the essay proposes an ontological model of “hybrid communities” that is founded on the interdependence of earth’s species. It is argued that human societies have depended on a close relationship with animals and plants since their inception, just as have all other forms of life. The essay posits that animals exist in a phenomenal world that they impart significance to, just as humans do. In turn, the essay proposes the ethical and political value of life is found in the subject’s ability to form relationships and interact with others and its environment, rather than in a “metaphysical superiority.”

Finally, the essay asks that we recognize the inherent instability on which the interdependence of community is founded. The essay urges us to respect the unknowability of nature, cease our interference with its processes and restructure our model of community to reintegrate ourselves into the workings of our world. Failing to do so in the face of the massive extinction we have caused will lead to a double death of our world and ourselves.

Community means, consequently, that there is no singular being without another singular being, and that there is, therefore, what might be called, in a rather inappropriate idiom, an originary or ontological ‘sociality’ that in its principle extends far beyond the simple theme of man as a social being (the zoon politikon is secondary to this community). For, on the one hand, it is not obvious that the community of singularities is limited to ‘man’ and excludes, for example, the ‘animal’ (Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community).

The concept of community has had an important role in core environmental theories of the twentieth century. Early in the 1940s Aldo Leopold famously expanded the concept of community to include not just human beings but all things, organic and inorganic, as members belonging to the land. In a well known passage from “The Land Ethic,” Leopold writes “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. … The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land” (Leopold 1987, 203–204). His holistic, or ecocentric, stance is certainly one of the more inclusive with respect to who and what counts as members of a community, but it may well be that the broad range of his boundaries, though well intentioned and much admired, are simply too flexible and, as a result, too vague. Few would argue that all things (soils, waters, plants, animals, etc.) are members of a system of some kind, but “the community concept,” as Leopold entitles the section, is far from developed. Community, in other words, could be equally called “system,” “process,” “structure,” or just “land,” a term Leopold uses synonymously with community. In short, community is a quaint term here, more rhetorical than rigorous, and thus lacking sufficient depth.

A different source for the use of community comes from Arne Naess, one of the key founders of the deep ecology movement. Unlike Leopold, Naess uses the concept in a more conventional way in order to add a more explicit political dimension. In a 1979 essay, Naess proposed the concept of “mixed communities” in order to argue for the legitimacy of speaking about communities as comprising the more-than-human, in this case wild and domesticated animals (Naess 1979, 231–241). It was a strange and rather novel idea to imagine communities as comprising, as Naess did, bears, wolves, sheep, and humans. By limiting his notion of mixed communities to only human and nonhuman animals, Naess gives the concept of community a more intuitive tone, one that sounds closer to the usual anthropocentric understanding of community as traditionally limited to humans, and yet with a curious nonhuman inflection to it. If community with the soil, wind, and rock might be a bit difficult for humans to consider, the same is not as easily said about nonhuman animals. It is easier, is it not, to imagine community with other animal species, be they bears, dogs, cats, birds, or insects? For Naess, and the influence Spinoza provided him, the idea of mixed communities makes perfect sense inasmuch as the ethical and political value of lives are not to be found in a metaphysical purity of essence or abstractly deduced inherent worth, but rather in the ability of living beings to form meaningful relations, associations, and collectives with one another. The value of lives is neither instrumental nor intrinsic, but relational and symbiotic. Mixed communities are ethical communities in a Spinozist manner, that is to say, as ontologically configured via ethos, the habits, manners, relations, and behaviors of beings with and through their entanglements with other beings. The greater the relations forged, the more diverse, healthy, and, in Naess’s thought, “self-realized” a particular being becomes. This said, the concept of community is again more flirted with than concretely advanced.

Leopold and Naess offer but two examples of how community has come to play a role within environmental discourses, and it is within this vein that I believe the emergence of studies on multispecies communities can be situated.1 What I should like to do in this chapter is twofold. To start, I will further develop our understanding of communities as multispecied by reframing these earlier reflections of Leopold and Naess with respect to the more nuanced, albeit still problematic, theories of community within contemporary continental philosophy (e.g., those of Jean-Luc Nancy, Maurice Blanchot, and Roberto Esposito). My interest in multispecies communities, however, lies not only in further articulating how these relationships and entanglements contribute to alternative ontologies of nature. My interest extends, rather, to how this understanding of communal relations between species allows us to better address one of the great calamities of our time, namely the increasing prevalence of endangered and extinct species in our Anthropocenic era. Being aware of our local and global ecological crises, such as habitat loss, human population growth, and climate change, we must become equally sensitive to how multispecied communities are in peril. The threat and reality of species vanishing leaves us all, human and nonhuman alike, with looming danger of precarious communities. The Australia-based anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has recently captured the heart of the matter when she writes, “The animals and plants that are dying out are not so much vulnerable, endangered, or extinct species, but more significantly are vulnerable and dying members of the family” (Rose 2011, 3–4).

1 Multispecies Communities

An increasingly standard belief suggests that while multispecies communities exist all around, they only become conceptually possible – that is, acquire theoretical acceptance – when we consider animals as active agents in their own right. Without a move away from the mechanistic views that have, at least since Descartes, historically aligned animals with unfeeling, unthinking machines, the idea of community with and between animals would make no more sense than imagining communities between ‘objects’ like microwaves, pencils, and hand cream. This move, then, from an objective, Cartesian stance to a more subjective, agency-based view of the animal is crucial, and one that is due in large part to the ethological studies of Jakob von Uexküll in the early twentieth century.2 Uexküll’s importance, both within the biological sciences and for his reception by continental philosophy and the environmental humanities, is his idea that all animals have their own “umwelten,” that is, phenomenal, experiential worlds, through which their environments acquire and impart significance (von Uexküll 2010). Far from repeating the bland dogmatism of a cause-and-effect, mechanistic world wherein all spacetime is reduced to an objective neutrality, Uexküll recognizes the creative agency and subjective capacities of animal life. So rather than purely instinctual beings, we are asked to see animals as playful and spontaneous beings. Instead of passive and reactive creatures, we witness intentional beings who give, respond, and creatively alter their surroundings. And instead of a beastly nature devoid of feeling, communication, and sociality, we are invited to think about animals as bearers of meaning, teaching, and culture. Though Uexküll does not extend the notion of community (or any other similar term) to the animals he studies, there is no question that he opens the more-than-human world to the previously anthropocentric domains of subjectivity, signification, and symbiotic associations.

It is likely obvious why such a turn in our theoretical musings has come to be perceived as so radical. By re-envisaging the natural world as fundamentally grounded in forms of cross-species, intersubjective associations, Uexküll not only complicates the dichotomies between human and animal, and nature and culture, he does so in such a way that reconfigures world space as phenomenologically determined subjective places. While not all relations are deserving of the appellation “community,” the umwelten of animals are nonetheless conducive to what Neil Evernden has called a “biology of subjects” (Evernden 1985, 73–102, passim) and, more recently, what Eduardo Kohn refers to as “an ecology of selves” (Kohn 2007, 4). In short, subjecthood and/or selfhood is not the privileged domain of humans alone, but extends beyond the human as demonstrated when the phenomenal worlds of nonhuman subjects, indicative though not representative of different species, intertwine and entangle in ways that are significant to each. The concrete results of these entanglements3 always mean something different depending on the specific environmental contexts of the species and singular beings involved, for example, this spider and that fly, this tortoise and that hippopotamus, this dog and that human. From a more general philosophical perspective, however, such interactions give rise to cross- and multispecies couplings – that is, new ontological units of agency and connectivity – as related through many post-Uexküllian thinkers interested in ethological propositions (e.g., Merleau-Ponty 2004; Deleuze and Guattari 1987; Haraway 2008; Lestel 2007; Despret 2002).

From Uexküll, therefore, we acquire a sense of multispecies intersubjectivity, but it is far from clear that these associations produce any sense of community. One way to better introduce this concept is to briefly compare two different discourses on the subject, one from the biological sciences and one from the humanities. To begin, an immediate extension of Uexküll’s work on animal ethology is the field of community ecology that studies, as one standard textbook puts it, the “patterns and processes involving at least two species at a particular location” (Morin 2003, 6). Such a definition is much too vague to be of use here, but it is helpful to note that “community” applies to multispecies interactions as opposed to, say, population ecology that focuses on only one species within a certain location. Further, community ecology is differentiated from ecosystem ecology in so far as ecosystems are a broader category encompassing one or more communities together with abiotic processes (weather, streams, minerals, etc.), which is somewhat comparable to Leopold’s ecocentric position within environmental ethics. Such distinctions within ecology are of course debatable and, just as importantly, they do not necessarily defend the use of “community” to address multispecies – and, specifically, human-animal – relations.

The humanities and social sciences, by contrast, have offered more historically rigorous and nuanced accounts of community. Yet they are not without their faults, either. Whereas a biological definition of community might fail to secure a rich and meaningful notion of community (reductively, at least two species + one location = community ecology), they nevertheless accept animal life within their fold. A community, within their working definitions, is always already multispecied. The humanities, by contrast, have erred in the opposite direction, by traditionally sacrificing and excising animals from their notions of community in favour of greater narrative precision, at least within majoritarian Western traditions. Compelling legends, stories, and histories have been told of the rise and fall of communities, and they all extol the virtues of human accomplishments against the backdrop of our own mortality. While I don’t have the space to go over the extensive literature here, a compendium would highlight how (human) communities have been forged via some thing they have or share in common, including the absence of this shared thing. Nationality, religion, myth, ethnicity, language, sex, stories, diaspora, territory, and so on, have therefore all been the foci of community bonds insofar as they enact what Roberto Esposito calls the “assumption” of community, namely an appeal to some self-same property that belongs in common to all members (Esposito 2010). A shared language (e.g., Basque), geographical activity (e.g., Maritime fishing), minority status (e.g., Franco-Ontarian), or hobby (e.g., Edmonton Oilers fan), for instance, may be sufficient to unite and bond a certain population of peoples. This is not to say, however, that such simplistic understandings of community are not problematic, but merely to highlight the emphasis on a shared or common identity among the members.

Yet it is precisely this idea of commonality that has been taken as the historical and etymological origins of community that proves to be its ironic demise. Jean-Luc Nancy, for instance, has famously proclaimed “the gravest and most painful testimony of the modern world, the one that possibly involves all other testimonies to which this epoch must answer … is the testimony of the dissolution, the dislocation, or the conflagration of community” (Nancy 1991, 1). It’s a grand claim, but one that has been echoed through such thinkers as Maurice Blanchot (1998), Giorgio Agamben (1993), and Roberto Esposito (2010). For his part, Esposito works to deconstruct the dialectic that has taken community to stem from a common “property” (“an attribute, a definition, a predicate, that qualifies them as belonging to the same totality”) that alternates between including and excluding members, alienating and remembering them, losing and founding community (Esposito 2010, 2, 16).

One of the more significant developments to come out of this contemporary rethinking of community is a Heideggerian lineage, specifically how the rootedness of community, and its immanent dissolution, is based on the temporal exigency of human mortality. Death, to be more precise, and a sense of our human finitude, provides us both an insight into our singular existences (only I can die my own death, as Heidegger puts it) and is that which brings us together (that the Other also dies is something to which I, in my singular being, can nonetheless relate). Within the context of his earlier writings, and Being and Time in particular, Heidegger paid great attention to the existential phenomena of “being-with” others and “being-towards-death.” A simple way to think of these ‘existentials’ is that they both exemplify modes of relationality (to others, to death) and, as such, illustrate the ecstatic character of human existence to stand out from and position itself towards Otherness. The transcendent nature of human existence, therefore, can be seen as the foundation of community in this double sense: we can (i) stand out from ourselves (e.g., take another’s position, empathize) and, in so doing, exist not just singularly but communally, as well as (ii) realize our own mortality in being capable of anticipating our own deaths (the famous anxiety in the recognition that I will die) and, in so doing, appreciate the mortal lives of our neighbours. Maurice Blanchot hints at this Heideggerian (and Levinasian) heritage in his acknowledging of the role of death in the foundation of community:

To remain present in the proximity of another who by dying removes himself definitively, to take upon myself another’s death as the only death that concerns me, this is what puts me beside myself, this is the only separation that can open me, in its very possibility, to the Openness of a community. … That is what founds community. There could not be a community without the sharing of that first and last event which in everyone ceases to be able to be just that (birth, death) (Blanchot 1988, 9).

Similarly, and a bit more pointedly, Nancy writes

Sharing comes down to this: what community reveals to me, in presenting me my birth and my death, is my existence outside myself. Which does not mean my existence reinvested in or by community, as if community were another subject that would sublate me, in a dialectical or communal mode. Community does not sublate the finitude it exposes. Community itself, in sum, is nothing but this exposition (Nancy 1991, 26-27).

Community, in other words, is not a higher order (group, collective, council, totality) of finite members, but is itself the expression of finitude and mortality, taken, as I’ve suggested, within the boundaries of Heidegger’s existential analytic.
One repercussion of this trajectory, however, is the abandonment of community altogether, or, if not abandonment, at the very least its weakening (recall the epigraph where Nancy claims that this loss may be the signature of our modern age). The irony here, if one may call it such, is that community arises only at the limits of human life, in both its singularity and in the vestiges of mortality. It’s a rather dour picture, to be sure: we are fundamentally alone (singular, atomistic beings) and we die (mortal, finite beings). And this is the ironic or paradoxical portrait of community: a community for those who have nothing in common but their singularity and death; and even this isn’t really shared. This is an existential reason for the demise of community, to say nothing of the many potential politico-economic reasons. It is likely safe to say that community has always been an ephemeral phenomenon that is hard to pin down and adequately define, but here we witness its presence through absence, as a “nothing but,” as Nancy claims, like a question mark hovering between living beings:

Community is made of the interruption of singularities, or of the suspension that singularities are. Community is not the work of singular beings, nor can it claim them as its works, just as communication is not a work or even an operation of singular beings, for community is simply their being – their being suspended upon its limit (31, emphasis mine).

Community is thus hinted at through its very absence, as exemplified when Bataille famously writes of “the community of those who do not have a community” (Blanchot 1988, 1). Certainly, this provides for intriguing conceptions of community, one held together by the merest of traces.
But another repercussion, and one that is far more central to our present concerns, is the absence of the more-than-human world from these propositions. Though not excusable, it is one thing to exclude animals and plants from community on the basis of a perceived lack of affinity along the lines of nationality, religion, and/or ethnicity. It is quite another thing, however, to exclude them on the basis of mortality and death. Here again Heidegger’s influence is clearly apparent, for the basis of his contentious claim that animals are “poor in world” (Heidegger 1995, 177, passim) is in large part due to his belief that animals are unable to transcend their specific mode of being, one that includes an inability to die. Rather than dying, Heidegger declares in an equally contentious statement that animals merely “perish” (Heidegger 1999, 290–91), akin to fading away, because they have no sense of their death to come, which is a hallmark of one’s finitude (that is, recognizing one’s mortality is presumably what allows membership into the mortal club). The exclusion of nonhuman animals from being mortal and finite, and thus from the possibility of community, is precisely what keeps otherwise novel positions from shedding their humanist leanings. Take, for instance, the remarks of Alphonso Lingis in his book The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Lingis, whose writings are among the best and most imaginative in complicating the ontological boundaries between humans, animals, and plants, is at times susceptible in maintaining an exclusive divide in thinking through community when it comes to mortality. The thesis of his book calls for us, in a Levinasian vein, to ethically care for the Other for whom we may have nothing in common (“no racial kinship, no language, no religion, no economic interests”) (Lingis 1994, x). Such care comes on the back of a global kinship that sheds itself of “family resemblances” and other such claims to affinity based on likeness, similarity, sameness.

Beyond the effective recognition of kinship in the forms of society is something else: the brotherhood of individuals who possess or produce nothing in common, individuals destitute in their mortality. … To catch sight, beyond kinship, of this community in death, we should have to find ourselves, or put ourselves through imagination, in a situation at the farthest limits from kinship… (157).

But even here the farthest limits still suggest a kinship that is resolutely human, a kinship to the very ends of man. A community of mortals – “We know ourselves in our mortality” (159) – that look after our dying fellows, but one seemingly blind to our kinship, from birth to death, with other animals.4

We can see, therefore, that existential-phenomenological writings on community rely on (a) an undermining of community itself wherein community is a tenuous existence, if that, built not on the presence of common properties but on absence between members, and (b) that this absence is the mark of human finitude and mortality. A community is not an inclusive group or totality (which also means an exclusion and rejection), but an exposure through connectivity, and thus vulnerability, to otherness. This exposure and suspension of myself to the dying other, however, is consistently a human one, and thus we continue to find the resumption of a mode of exclusion, what Agamben has theorized as the sovereign work of the “anthropological machine,” namely that of the nonhuman (Agamben 2003; Smith , 2011b). These brief yet pointed remarks leave us with many questions. Why, for instance, must the death of the other remain the exclusive domain of humans? Cannot death and the dying, much like suffering and pain, be extended to the more-than-human world? If not, then death and the attribution of mortality is just another limit created to devise an ontological separation between humans and the more-than-human world, and one that, in this case, provides an ontological justification for the foundation of community. Would it not be just as possible, and more affirming, to witness how our human lives are intertwined, entangled, and meaningfully connected with the lives, and deaths, of animals and plants? Might this not be the basis for a richer, more substantial, and ultimately more accurate picture of community?

A clear response can be found in the rhetorical question that H. Peter Steeves asks of us, namely whether we can “imagine a human culture without animals in its midst. Can such a community be found in our world today, in our history, or even in our speculative future?” (Steeves 1998, 136). Dominique Lestel, for one, certainly believes that we cannot. Both a philosopher and an animal ethologist, Lestel has studied and reflected on animal behaviour around the world, out of which he has written a half dozen books, many of which develop his claim that humans have never lived alone inasmuch as they have always formed meaningful associations with animals and plants.5 He best expresses this through his concept of “hybrid communities,” which he defines as follows: “A human/animal hybrid community is an association of humans and animals, in a given culture, that constitutes a living space for one and the other through which they share interests, affects, and meaning” (Lestel 2004, 19). These hybrid communities have never been purely functional or utilitarian through which animals might be taken as mere means to an end (e.g., dogs for hunting, oxen for tilling, chickens for eating), but rather a true sharing of reciprocal interests through which animals are seen as ends in themselves and wherein all members are meaningfully affected. Within this purview, hybrid communities encompass the affective associations, meaningful relations, and transfer of sense that occur between species. Such close-knit ties between species have led Donna Haraway to claim that “we have never been human” because we have never lived, as humans, as if untouched by other nonhumans. Among other things, the undermining of “the human” underscores just how questionable “species” – as both a taxonomic category and as the living beings that comprise such classification – are. “Species, like the body,” Haraway contends, “are internally oxymoronic, full of their own others, full of messmates, of companions. Every species is a multispecies crowd” (Haraway 2008, 165).

It is likely for this reason that so much of the discussion surrounding community takes place around the very particular associations between individual members of species and not at the abstract, general level of species as such. After all, communities are not formed between species qua species (as though homo sapiens is in community with canis lupis familiaris, for example), but between and among particular members of different species. Close, embodied contact is key to the transfer of sense, for it is here, as embodied and entangled selves, that we create and form productive associations. Not to mention that such entanglements appeal to our most intuitive and immediate experiences of living with others. Steeves, for instance, has highlighted throughout his writings an experience with which most of us are familiar: from very early on, before birth even, we form natural associations with the more-than-human world in ways that are entirely innocent yet replete with meaning. Whether it is with a family dog, the birds outside the window, cricket noises echoing from the grass, or flies buzzing around the apartment, we are all connected with a more-than-human world that is not only accessible but full of significance from early infancy. Often it is the animal world that provides us with our first friends, and a life without any animal contact is surely the exception, much less thinkable. The ambient noises and movements provide the surrounding environment with a texture that awakens and captures our wonderment, and the animals of our environments, whether domesticated or wild, create an appeal that is at once mysterious and known, frightening and friendly, repellant and attractive. These associations and partnerships importantly shape who we become because they involve us before we consciously know it. The multispecies communities of which we are a part are therefore an aspect of what phenomenologists consider the life-world, a world that is pre-reflectively meaningful in our day-to-day lives. Merleau-Ponty, following the insights of Heidegger and Husserl, has thoughtfully demonstrated how the spaces we occupy are ontologically full of sense and meaning well before we begin to consider space as a mathematical, physical, and/or geographical abstraction. In other words, the life-world is always already richly multispecied and it is only our willed or habituated blindness that keeps us from seeing our communities as such. From Rousseau on, this has been the claim held against the imprisoning effects of civilized society; that it politically enslaves our freedom or, as I’m describing here, it unconsciously represses our natural being. With the guidance of a phenomenologically oriented outlook, we have only to open our eyes and become attentive to our pre-personal relations with active multispecied worlds.

What, then, is this notion of a multispecies community? These communities are not as loose as Leopold’s land ethic or Bruno Latour’s “collective” would have it, but they are not as restrictive as the majority of humanist traditions would have it either (Latour 2004). Unlike certain notions of “hybrid collectif,” admirable and influential in their own right, “hybrid communities” retain something of the autonomy and selfhood of the agents who form the community (Whatmore 2007). That is, we can certainly speak of a collection or collective of mutually interacting species, and, falling in line with the actor network theory of Latour, the inclusion of inorganic, textual, and technological objects too, but this would forsake the close familiarity and shared meaning that comes with belonging to a community. Where a hybrid collectif might lose the coherence of an agent amidst the network of relations (such as Deleuze and Guattari’s planes of immanence that transect and undermine the phenomenological body), hybrid multispecies communities maintain the agency of their singular beings even if they are now seen to become who they are via the meaningful entanglements they form (Lestel 2004; Despret 2016). The complicated transfers of sense are necessary reminders of the agents who become who they are, to borrow Nietzsche’s phrase, through these associations, particularly when the compositions of these communities are fragile.

2 Endangered Multispecies Communities

If we are to take the existence of multispecies communities seriously, as I believe we must, then this requires that we attune ourselves to the precariousness of their compositions. As I have briefly sketched out, “community” has become more recently characterized through connotations of lack, absence, and otherness than through property, identity, and sameness. Nowhere is this more evident than in Esposito’s etymological and historical attack on the origins of community formations. “The community,” he contends, “isn’t a mode of being, much less a ‘making’ of the individual subject. It isn’t the subject’s expansion or multiplication but its exposure to what interrupts the closing and turns it inside out: a dizziness, a syncope, a spasm in the continuity of the subject” (Esposito 2010, 7). Alternatively characterized as a syncope, hole, interruption, and/or suspension, community radiates vulnerability within its very being, a persistent and immanent threat to both its individual subjects and its ‘communal’ composition. Yet it is precisely this instability that calls for our attention, not in order to ‘remedy’ this fragility by somehow stabilizing, reifying, and/or mastering community through order and oversight (which would perform the double disservice of, on the one hand, simply prolonging the Enlightenment ideal of conquering nature and, on the other hand, running counter to the essence of community as an ambiguous and undecidable concept), but through witnessing its existence as precarious and allowing it to remain thus for the sake of itself. This, of course, may sound counter-intuitive, if not downright dangerous. Going down certain paths, such as an inactive quietism toward our worsening environmental conditions, displays an unforgivable irresponsibility that may expose our communal relations to threats that cannot be overcome. But this is hardly what is being asked. Rather it is this unpredictability, despite its hazards, that opens up a meaningful engagement with our surroundings and provides the prerequisite for an ethical stance toward our human and more-than-human others. Mick Smith has argued persuasively in defense of the open-endedness of an “ethics of place” that is built on such experiences as a “fellow feeling” and a practical sense for all life forms as equal members of a (multispecied) community (Smith 2001, 2011a, b, 23–44). Whether it be in a phenomenological, Heideggerian “letting be” of nature so as to let it show itself in its being, or in a more explicitly ethico-political critique of sovereignty in the guise of human dominion (political, scientific, economic, etc.), Smith calls for a similar suspension of intervention in the natural world so as to allow community to flourish: “To let be, then, is not necessarily to leave alone but to be in community with. To be in community with … is to strive to keep open the possibility of attending to what that being is in its (indefinable) essence and also to recognize an ability to respond to that being’s existence that can imply an ethical responsibility” (Smith 2011a, b, 108). The unknowability of what is to come demands our moral attention because it keeps us alert to the unforeseeable and from acting as though the future is a fait accompli. The unexpected, unknowable, or unrecognizeable, as Jacques Derrida has often put it, is the beginning of ethical response, and here the condition of community, inasmuch as it obligates thoughtful response rather than an instrumental, calculative reaction (Derrida 2009, 106 passim).6

The openness – and thus precariousness – of community is all the more pronounced when we consider the unprecedented rate at which animal and plant species are becoming extinct, extirpated, endangered, threatened, and/or of special-concern.7 Following from Uexküll’s insights into the intersubjective crossings of multispecies, we have only to realize that the loss of individual and collective members of any species, to say nothing of the species itself, will have an irretrievably negative effect on the symbiotic associations to which we all belong. Uexküll writes poetically of the natural world’s relations, such as the fly-likeness of spiders and the spider-like qualities of flies, likenesses that allow these different species to form very acute and significant relations with each other. From views such as this, the natural world is nothing but a complex entanglement of these associations between different species, species that depend on specific others, in terms of what might otherwise be captured in the catch-all concept of “biodiversity.” Both self-identity and life itself is made up of the other, of the other circumscribed within the same. Yet what happens when one’s partner(s) go missing? If we lose those through whom life is made meaningful and ‘whole’, we also lose ourselves, as anyone who has lost a significant other knows well. It is one thing to acknowledge such loss at the level of the individual, but it is quite another at the community level. Judith Butler has written quite convincingly on this subject, albeit in the context of a decidedly humanist look at war and violence. “Loss,” she writes, “has made a tenuous ‘we’ of us all. … We’re undone by each other” (Butler 2004, 20, 23). Surrounding 9/11 and the expansion of war in the Middle East, the more-than-human is never factored into Butler’s questions as to what lives count as real, as grievable, as worth protecting, or, therefore, into the contours of a political community built on the back of grief. At times Butler even recognizes that her writing may be taken as “a new basis for humanism” (Butler 2004, 42). It isn’t difficult, however, to map the more-than-human onto her argument for the need of heeding the vulnerability of our corporeal others inasmuch as “the body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency” (26). The strength of her claim comes when she states that vulnerability must be recognized in order to be real, for it is through recognition that the vulnerability of the other becomes realized as an ethical injunction and not a mere abstract fact. Without recognition, vulnerability of the other holds no immediate claim upon us, no more than the generally acknowledged though undetermined knowledge that suffering occurs around the world. Through an active recognition of the vulnerability of animal lives, however, we are capable of re-membering them as significant members of our communities, without whom our communities would cease to exist in any meaningful way.

Though it is difficult to think in the following terms, the threats posed to plant and animal species may well be the foundation of our community with them. “Disasters,” Deborah Bird Rose writes, “make and define multispecies communities of fate, both in faith and in dishonor. This is to say that an important way to define communities is not by national or ‘natural’ (species) boundaries, but by shared vulnerability and shared suffering” (Rose 2011, 91). Rose echoes the positions raised earlier concerning the unsettled state of community, as well as Butler’s reconstitution of vulnerability, though she does so with a more powerful lament for the dying. This can be heard through what she calls the “double death” of extinction. While death can be considered a necessary good in the cyclical terms of ecology (from death comes life), too much of it, as in the case of mass extinction in our Anthropocenic era, leaves the earth with little to no return; not a death that cycles back to life via decomposition, recycling, and so on, but a death that leads to permanent loss and irretrievable absence. A double death, then.

Species loss has always been a fact of evolutionary history, just as much as the creation of new species has been. But scientists today have found that species extinction is occurring at least three to five times higher than the “background” rate of one species every 4 years or so, and as much as 100 to 1000 times higher in critical ecological zones (Heise 2010; Rose and van Dooren). There are many uncertainties with such calculations (to name one, we simply don’t know the full extent of what is out there), but factoring in climate change alone it is believed that 15–37% of known species will be “committed to extinction” by the year 2050 (Thomas et al. 2004, 145–148). Estimates have figured that anywhere from 200 to 100,000 species are now going extinct every year, triggering many to claim that the Earth is entering a new wave – its sixth – of mass extinction. Here in Canada, a May 2015 report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) had 715 Canadian wildlife species considered at risk, with 15 extinct, 23 extirpated, 316 endangered, 167 threatened, and 205 of special concern.8 By comparison, COSEWIC’s 2006 findings had 500 Canadian wildlife species within these categories, demonstrating a dramatic rise in just 9 years (Venter et al. 2006, 1–8). Of all the causes to explain these numbers, habitat loss is found to be the overwhelming reason, factoring in 84% of Canada’s species at risk. Habitat loss, unlike natural causes (such as storms, droughts, narrow niches) and native species interactions (such as predators, pathogens), is a direct result of anthropogenic incursions into the more-than-human world, through urbanization, agriculture, tourism, transportation, and the like. This said, all causes, whether they are attributed to climate change, natural causes, overexploitation, or pollution, tie in to our ever-increasing human footprint. One fear, if I may put it thus, is that extinction is often preceded by “functional extinction” whereby a species is seen to be in such a precarious situation that its ability to recover is near impossible, so dire is its impact on its ecosystem (van Dooren and Rose 2012; Rose and van Dooren 2010).

Species extinction and endangerment has so far received a fraction of the attention that other major environmental threats have within the popular media, despite the fact that species extinction represents as great a concern as climate change, overpopulation, and habitat loss. The discussion on multispecies communities is surely well underway, yet there is so much more that needs to be said and done in order to properly and fully recognize the perils of species endangerment.9 Part of the task, I believe, is to re-member the animals now, not as an act of memory and mourning after the fact, though these too are important arts of noticing, but by re-constituting their membership within the communal places we live our lives. Recognizing that our communal lives are nothing without other species, and that more and more of these species are becoming threatened and endangered, places the special ontological reality of nature in jeopardy. As Rose has said, “if no stories are told, if all the violence goes unremarked, then we are thrust into the world of the doubly violated. … And if suffering does not matter, then it is difficult to assert that anything matters” (van Dooren and Rose 2012, 139). Everywhere complex entanglements are at risk and already unraveling, obligating us to be open to the precariousness of multispecies communities and our ability to respond. This is just the beginning of rethinking the concept of community and our responsibilities to endangered species.


  1. 1.

    I prefer the more recent term “multispecies communities” to Naess’s term of “mixed communities,” largely because Naess’s still has the ring of an anthropocentric community. One also comes across “transspecies” and “cross-species,” though both of these are found less commonly. See Kirksey and Helmreich (2010), Rose (2011), van Dooren and Rose (2012), Midgley (1998), and Acampora (1999).

  2. 2.

    Cf. Buchanan (2008).

  3. 3.

    “Entanglements” is a term used by Hugh Raffles, cited in Kohn (2007).

  4. 4.

    For a further mark of the persistence of Heidegger’s thought on community and death, see Brogan’s The Community of Those Who Are Going to Die. In particular: “I will argue in this chapter that Being and Time provides, in several essential respects, the appropriate philosophical basis for a contemporary, postmodern understanding of ethical relationships and political community. … My primary contention is that death as understood in Heidegger’s analysis, which indeed is the constitutive existential mark of Da-sein, is the precondition for a philosophy of community that remains faithful to the utter singularity and finitude of each of the members of the human community” (Brogan 2002, 237).

  5. 5.

    For an overview of Lestel’s contributions to philosophical ethology, see Chrulew et al. (2014), and Chrulew (2014).

  6. 6.

    As another means of approaching the vulnerability and precarity of our environmental relations, I highly recommend Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom At The End of The World (2015) and Alexis Shotwell’s Against Purity (2016). Both books appeared after this chapter was written, and both present wonderful means of considering how the “art of noticing” (Tsing) can help attune us to our always already imperfect worlds and how to live ethically “in compromised times” (Shotwell).

  7. 7.

    Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources uses “extinction” when the species no longer lives anywhere in the world, “extirpation” when the species no longer lives in the wild in a certain region, though it still lives elsewhere in the world, and “endangered” when the species still lives in the wild but faces imminent extirpation or endangerment. “Threatened” and “special-concern” are the two remaining classifications for species considered at risk.

  8. 8.
  9. 9.

    Two important works, among others, that have appeared since the time of this writing are Thom van Dooren’s Flight Ways (2014) and Rose et al.’s Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations (2017).


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Laurentian UniversitySudburyCanada

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