Making amidst extinction: a call for creative practices

Centre for Environmental Humanities, University of Bristol & online, November 2, 2023

How to engage in world making across species? How to work toward world making that enhances the lives of others? And how to do all this in the time of extinctions, knowing, as we must, that we are living amidst the ruination of others?

—Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (2011)

Growing awareness of massive biotic diminishment and the accompanying large-scale loss of biological and cultural diversity has led to a surge in academic interest into what has become known as the sixth mass extinction. Centred around the emergent field of critical extinction studies, this concern seeks to establish ‘an interdisciplinary, biocultural approach that can attend to the plural phenomena and entangled significance of extinction’.[i] Broadly speaking, this field comprises humanities and social sciences (including but certainly not limited to the academic fields of ecocriticism, human geography, environmental history and philosophy, cultural studies, and multispecies anthropology) and researches the ways in which the sixth extinction is perceived, experienced, and narrated among different communities and individuals. Defining an expressive mode for this work, Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren write that storytelling ‘is one of the great arts of witness, and in these difficult times telling lively stories is a deeply committed project, one of engaging with the multitudes of others in their noisy, fleshy living and dying’.[ii] Stories, in their most generous interpretation, Rose writes, ‘have the potential to promote understandings of embodied, relational, contingent ethics’ and can ‘pull readers into ethical proximity’.[iii] This raises the following questions: who is able to join this deeply committed project of telling stories, and what kind of stories are told? Dealing with unprecedented loss, the stories currently told are often driven by a strong elegiac impulse.[iv] As the Australian poet John Kinsella writes in response to the extinction of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle: ‘What family / will post your obituary — trapped / in descriptors and comparatives, analogies / and desperate metaphors?’[v] But there are many ways to tell stories, and these are certainly not limited to the spoken and written word.

Auk eggs installation at the Kelp Store, Papa Westray. Photograph is copyright Milo Newman, 2022
Auk eggs installation, Kelp Store, Papa Westray. Photograph © Milo Newman, 2022

In this light, this call for creative practices aims to gather together myriad other modes of expression concerned with extinction and the ways in which biocultural loss affects more-than-human communities. In doing so it seeks to explore alternate modes of telling these extinction stories beyond the elegiac, and beyond the confines of the academic journal or book. Our interest in creative practices here is a broad one, encompassing a range of different mediums, approaches, and forms of creativity. It is about art-making as a process, not just as an outcome; a way for practitioners, researchers, or academics to explore different ways of knowing. Our concern is therefore with the doings of art. We want to explore what ‘“work” art does in the world’ in context of extinction, what it can set in motion.[vi] We think that art does far more here than simply help promote understanding, foster engagement or raise awareness. Instead, we want to explore how (or if!) a plurality of individual creative responses expressing personal emotional, ethical, poetic, critical, and many other reactions to biocultural loss are quietly (or even loudly) involved in the production of new worlds, knowledges, and subjectivities.[vii] To help us explore these ideas we invite contributions from artists, writers, activists, and academics (both individuals and collectives) that seek to make connections between creative practices and biotic diminishment, biodiversity loss, or extinction. While the symposium itself focuses on creative practice, other reflections on extinction are also welcome. We hope to publish some of the work resulting from this event at a later stage. Proposals may include:

  • Written texts, both fiction and nonfiction (4500–5000 words)
  • Poetry (up to five poems)
  • Artworks
  • Film
  • Performance
  • Artistic interventions/reflections/provocations (3500-4000 words)

The symposium will be hybrid. Registration is free; lunch (vegan only) will be provided. Please let us know if you have any allergies.

Please submit abstracts and/or short proposals (300 words, with accompanying images—max. 3—as necessary) to and by 31 August, 2023. While work is welcome in any language, we ask that the presentations and abstracts are in English. Please include a short bio for each contributor. Selected contributors will be notified by September 15, 2023.

This event is generously supported by the Bristol Centre for Environmental Humanities.

[i] Matthew Chrulew and Rick De Vos, ‘Extinction: Stories of Unravelling and Reworlding’, Cultural Studies Review 25.1 (2019): 23–28, 24.

[ii] Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Lively Ethography: Storying Animist Worlds’, Environmental Humanities 8.1 (2016): 77–94, 91.

[iii] Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Slowly ~ Writing into the Anthropocene’, TEXT 20 (2013): 1–14.

[iv] Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[v] John Kinsella, ‘Not the Postage Stamp of the Christmas Island Pipistrelle!’, Red Room Poetry (2020).

[vi] Harriet Hawkins, For Creative Geographies: Geography, Visual Arts and the Making of Worlds (Milton Park & New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 6.

[vii] Simon O’Sullivan, Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought beyond Representation (London: Palgrave, 2009).

Studying the Environmental Humanities: Animal Planet

This is a post in our series highlighting the units that comprise the MA Environmental Humanities, taught by members of the Centre. This post introduces Animal Planet, taught by Dr Michael Malay.

‘How did different societies think about animals?’, ‘What is it like to be bat?’, ‘And how might we live more skilfully alongside our animal neighbours?’ These are some of the questions we have been thinking about this year, as part of the English department’s Animal Planet module. Established in 2016, the unit is taught by lecturers from across the department, and our specialisms cover a range of interests and periods – from medieval bestiaries and allegorical texts, to Romantic and Victorian representations of animal life. The unit thus considers a broad sweep of human history, a perspective that allows us to explore major developments regarding human relations with animals. At the same time, it also explores how animals have moved and inspired – and sometimes terrified and bewildered – writers from particular periods, by offering close readings of their work and the work of their contemporaries.

Our current relations with animals, it probably goes without saying, are often deeply exploitive and highly instrumentalised. Part of the aim of this course, then, is to develop a critical perspective of human-animal relations, by way of giving students a better understanding of the assumptions and underlying ideas that have marked animals off as ‘other’ or ‘lesser’. In one of our seminars, for example, we read J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, a novella which powerfully challenges the historical exclusion of animals from circles of care and compassion; and, in another seminar, we read essays by Mary Midgley and Cora Diamond, in order to think about the particular cultural and philosophical ideas that have induced us to see animals in a particular way. During the year, we also read other classic texts in the field of ‘animal studies’, including Hermann Melville’s Moby-Dick, and try to answer some fundamental questions such as: ‘what would a truly ethical relationship with animals look like?’ and ‘is it possible to represent them in a way that doesn’t distort the singularity of their lives?’

Animal Planet is now part of the MA Environmental Humanities, and we are looking forward to welcoming new students to the course.

A painting of a bison from the Altamira cave

A bison from the Altamira cave / janeb13 on Pixabay

We spoke to the unit convenor, Dr Michael Malay about what he is looking forward to when teaching Animal Planet next year:

What excites you most about this unit?

The breadth of this course is a little dizzying – students start with medieval bestiaries and end with recent work in British nature writing. And yet what stops this course from being a general (and perhaps even bland) survey, is the fact that our tutors are specialists in their field, which means that students go into real depth with each seminar. In one seminar, for example, students are asked to imaginatively enter the lives of other animals – and are guided in this task by the writer Dr Mimi Thebo, whose fascinating novel, Dreaming the Bear, is one of our set texts. Or, in another seminar on ‘Victorian representations of animals’, students are taught by someone who is writing a book about the appearance of bees in Victorian novels and poems. So, in addition to breadth, the unit does a good job of engaging with particularity – and I think it’s this combination of historical comprehensiveness and aesthetic depth that makes this course so distinctive.

Dr Michael Malay

How does this unit speak to your research?

I’ve recently completed a book called Late Light, which is about the lives of ‘unloved’ animals that are also endangered. In the course of writing this book, I was also regularly teaching on Animal Planet, and there were moments when, after a seminar with students, I would have a new idea about the book – or a different sense of how I might approach the writing. For instance, there’s a fascinating passage from The Lives of Animals, in which J. M Coetzee’s protagonist says that poets return the ‘living, electric being’ to language, and that’s always fascinated me, as well as spurred me on in terms of my research. How can scholars who write about animals make their language come alive – so that their ‘subjects’ are released rather than trapped in language – and how might this consideration enhance or enrich the kind of scholarship that we produce?

If you were recommending one thing to read, watch, listen to or do ahead of studying this course, what would it be?

J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals. Hands down one of the best things I’ve read about literature, philosophy and animal life.

Animal Planet is an optional course on our new MA in Environmental Humanities. You can find out more about the programme here.

Life within the viral cloud

This post is reblogged from Milo Newman‘s blog, Mourning Auks: exploring creative articulations of ecological loss. Milo is a third-year PhD student in the School of Geographical Sciences.

The post details a period of artwork production and fieldwork on the island of Papay in Orkney, forming part of a PhD project exploring bird extinction through creative practice.

(C) Milo Newman

Time passes, washing over the island in a cycle of near continuous day. The Earth spins, and the sun is drawn down into a brief dusk, pulling light into the sea and lower sky. My plaster eggs, held in their pinhole cameras, collect all this illuminance onto their surfaces. Occasionally the haar drifts in, a sea fog borne by the wind. Moisture condensed over the coldness of the North Sea clags over the island. Distance collapses to a world of immediacy, to sequences of greys and eerie silhouettes. The experience of this light also gathers onto the eggshells.

On mornings when the haar is absent and the Holm is visible I often walk down to the beach and scan its distant shore with my binoculars, counting the pinhole cameras, and checking if they still look secure. Over the course of these repeated inspections I realise that the eggs are perhaps not recording a period of former care as I had imagined. Rather, they are collecting a durational space—one of reflection, or meditation perhaps, on the collapse of avian becoming (Rose, 2012; Rose et al., 2017; van Dooren, 2014) that is quite visibly occurring here.

As the most perceptible sign of this dull slide towards extinction (again see van Dooren, 2014), it’s been impossible not to keep thinking about the H5N1 influenza virus. Though just one of many pressures impacting the seabirds here and driving their decline, it is by far the most noticeable. The morbidity is devastating. Even though I am here researching such exterminating processes there are days when I find it too overwhelming—when I can’t bear to see any more sick, dead, and dying birds. Avian lives are precarious at the best of times, but the far-reaching ripples of anthropogenic activity, (including H5N1, which emerged in the virus laboratory that is industrial-scale poultry farming) mean that recovery from such mass mortality becomes harder and harder.

The forty-four day photographic exposure I’m recording to mimic the incubation of the extinct auks has been marked by this experience of death. On my walks I see the corpses of birds everywhere. Gannets protrude from the sand, half buried. Sometimes just the tops of their heads protrude, the feathers moving slightly as the wind scrapes the ground, rippling the beach away into streams of matter. Still other birds lie discarded amongst the seaweed on the tideline; guillemots, fulmars. Tattered feathers are strewn throughout. On another day I am invited to come and collect the dead bonxies (great skuas) that litter North Hill. There is a concern that this might spread disease by transferring the virus around on boots and clothes, and also a deeper anxiety that contact (albeit brief) risks giving the virus the opportunity to mutate and jump species. However, these apprehensions are countered by the fact that doing nothing also risks allowing the virus to spread. By leaving deceased birds to decay they are often scavenged, and can contaminate bodies of water. We use litter pickers to collect the carcases, lifting them around their necks and dumping them into binbags. It is depressing work. Many look to have died in anguish; their wings contorted and their heads pushed hard into the soft ground. Over the course of the afternoon we gather the bodies of a third of Papay’s breeding population.

I find myself thinking through the space of the island, and how it has been changed by all this death. Or rather, not how it has changed, but what falsities have been revealed in how space is predominantly conceptualised. I remember whilst gathering the dead bonxies looking up and catching sight of the trig point beneath the clouds on the summit of North Hill. Providing a fixed position from which triangulation can occur, these pillars allow land to be abstracted into grids, and accurately mapped. But to be amidst this unravelling ecosystem is to feel unmoored from the certainties such spatial imaginings promise. The island is not a space of fixity, but one of flux. Its moods change with the weather fronts that pass so rapidly overhead. Further, its small size does not equate to simplicity—it is a locus of complexity, where drifts of matter and lives snag and are held for various lengths of time. Deeply entangled ecologies bloom over evolutionary time. Their being, again, is not fixed, but fluctuates and transforms. Worlds are co-shaped; ways of being are re-negotiated in every moment between organisms themselves, and with a world that changes around them. The character of space gathers, coheres, and transforms through relations.

The idea of the island as a place with fixed boundaries also begins to break down. On a simple level, its erosion is an ongoing process. The coastlines change shape almost daily; the sandy eastern shore especially so. But the island also reveals a deeper porosity. This is perhaps made most visible through the H5N1 virus itself. Celia Lowe (2010) writes how viruses, rather than existing as well-bounded organisms are quasi-species that form and enact their identities with others. The virus blurs the boundaries between bodies, between species. As she puts it, multiple ways of being are:

 ‘transformed amid encounters among viruses[:] the immune systems of animal hosts, and the human institutions that struggle to reckon with the specter of a terrifying pandemic. One can think, then, of [the space of the virus as] “multispecies clouds,” collections of species transforming together in both ordinary and surprising ways.’ (Ibid., 626)

I find I have begun to draw imaginative connections between these viral clouds, and the haar that at times glides in and envelops the island. The viral cloud is transformational. It affects and alters my being, even if infection is avoided. Indeed, it is impossible not to be pulled apart emotionally whilst witnessing the individual suffering of so many birds.

The melancholy fact is that we exist in a world of change, and live long enough to notice long-term declines. We might remember the abundance of the past and compare that memory to how things are now, and wish to return. I often fear this is an impossibility. We might also find solace in the promise of deep, evolutionary futures; with the prospect that at some point life’s richness will repair itself. But, this argument disavows the beauty that still surrounds us amidst these unravelling worlds, and leads towards the easy options of acceptance and inaction. Just as the haar collapses distances, the viral cloud holds us in the present, and in proximity with intense vulnerability.

(C) Milo Newman

Some days it feels like enough research just to walk out amidst the blurred, rain-filled light onto the hill and watch the remaining skuas wheeling over the darkened ground of their territories, white flashing from their wings. As I sit in the midst of such relation, I feel that we should not quietly accept the injustices that ripple into this shared realm.


LOWE, C. 2010. VIRAL CLOUDS: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia. Cultural Anthropology, 25, 625-649.

ROSE, D. B. 2012. Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time. Environmental Philosophy, 9, 127-140.

ROSE, D. B., VAN DOOREN, T. & CHRULEW, M. 2017. Introduction: Telling Extinction Stories. In: DEBORAH BIRD ROSE, T. V. D. A. M. C. (ed.) Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations. New York: Columbia University Press.

VAN DOOREN, T. 2014. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, New York, Columbia University Press.


Read the original post on Milo’s website.

PGR Multispecies reading group

The CEH has an active and welcoming PGR reading group, that begins its 2022-23 programme this week on Wednesday 13 October.

The group will be discussing some texts that introduce multispecies ways of thinking. It is convened by Eline Tabak, a PhD researcher and CEH member.

Full details, including how to contact Eline, can be found on our PGR reading group page.

The Temporalities of a Rotting Rat

Dr Alice Would (University of Bristol) discusses the temporalities of taxidermy following an encounter with a rotting rat, which is pictured below.

In January 2022, I received an email from my former PhD supervisor, the environmental historian Peter Coates, asking what I wanted to do with my attempt at taxidermy. This was a white rat, or rather, ‘now very sorry looking Mr Rat.’ Peter was packing up his office ahead of retirement when he rediscovered the rat’s bodily remains inside a plastic bag. We had taken a taxidermy course together in 2018; I was researching the processes and materialities of Victorian taxidermy and we thought it would be a useful exercise to trial practice-informed historical research. As I reflected in an essay for Environmental History Now, my own embodied experience was inextricable from my practice.[i] I was a knot of nerves, my ethics were challenged, and my fingers wouldn’t do what I asked of them – the coordination needed for taxidermy is considerable.

The Rat in 2018

I learned how taxidermy has always been a multisensory confrontation and discovered a great deal about the technicalities of Victorian practice: de-fleshing, looping wires, and cupping stuffing in the palm of the hand so that it sits within the animal skin as flesh would. However, and perhaps most significantly, I also encountered the barriers standing in the way of embodying a Victorian taxidermist. My practice was very much of the present, and I took my own worries, preconceptions, intentions, and lack of skill with me when I met with the rat’s skin. These feelings stayed with me: I was unsettled by the experience, and the way the smell of death clung to my fingers, and I therefore continued to keep a purposeful distance between myself and the rat and this is how he ended up residing in Peter’s office. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Rat was packed away in a bag on a high shelf.

Over the course of my research, I kept coming across the processes of decay within the writing of hunters and taxidermists, and, consequently, rot, epidermic breakdown, and time became central themes, winding their way through my thesis. Everywhere I looked, from diary entries about skinning and preparing specimens within the colonial hunting grounds of East Africa, to museum records from both the turn of the twentieth century and the present day, I found descriptions of animal specimens hosting insects and bacteria. The British hunter Charles Peel noted how obsessively he watched-over his animal skins when travelling and shooting in the British Protectorate of Somaliland in the 1880s as ‘the ravages made by a little grub-beetle were terrible.’[ii]

Roughly a hundred years later, a curator at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, Devon (the museum Peel donated many of his specimens to), similarly described the ‘ravages’ of so-called museum pests, and their specific effects on the taxidermy within the Peel collection.[iii] I was struck by the entropy revealed in such statements. Taxidermy is always undertaken in an attempt to preserve an animal in time and body, and it is often conceptualised as ‘freezing’ the animal, and yet these sources also spoke of an accelerated disintegration, and of the circling processes by which death supports life. Consequently, I reflected on the ways in which time is embodied, and how the histories and temporalities of hunting and taxidermy might contribute to our thinking on the Anthropocene.

Somehow, though, it was still a shock when my rat rotted, despite my clear lack of skill when putting him together; it isn’t often that we encounter decay in our sanitised present.[iv] A week or so after he emailed, I met Peter to find out for myself what ‘very sorry looking’ looked like. It was the first time I had been into his office since the pandemic introduced us all to an abrupt new experience of time. The rat was both hardened and crumpling, a fading white-yellow body just visible within the sweaty plastic. Moths the colour of sand traversed the skin surface, I could make out clutches of eggs clinging to the places where hair had once grown. I was disgusted, but it also felt like a fitting end to my PhD and this period of thinking about lively death in the past. The rat was a tiny living landscape within the wider ecosystem of Peter’s office with its books, papers and maps, animal skulls, lumps of wood, tea caddies and view of nesting squirrels.

The rotting Rat in 2022

The question remained of what to do with these disconcerting animal remains, and we decided to dispose of the rat. Whilst I felt a little compelled to see this temporal process through to the bitter end, neither of us could stomach the practicalities. The rat confirmed my thinking that, as environmental historians, we should endeavour to follow the traces of liveliness when they are offered up by our sources. Even within the most unpromising of case studies, for instance the tales of extraction, extinction and death that are central to museum collection, environmental actors were not necessarily entirely deadened and silenced. They were sites of multispecies exchange, and often continued to play a role in shaping peoples’ emotions and actions – and their experience of time.

Dr Alice Would is a lecturer in Imperial and Environmental History at the University of Bristol. She completed her PhD on the taxidermy trade in the long nineteenth century in Britain and empire in 2021.

[i] Alice Would, ‘Sensing Taxidermy in the Present’, Environmental History Now (2019)

[ii]  Charles Peel, Somaliland: Being an Account of Two Expeditions into the Far Interior, Together with a Complete List of Every Animal and Bird Known to Inhabit that Country, and a List of the Reptiles Collected by the Author (London: F. E. Robinson & Co, 1900), 118-9.

[iii] Letter to the Oxford Theatre, 2 May 1996, RAMM Archive.

[iv] For more on rot see: Caitlin DeSilvey, Curated Decay (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Jamie Lorimer, ‘Rot’, Environmental Humanities, 8 (2016), 235–39.

Layers of the Landscape: Perception and Shared Experience on a trip to the Brecon Beacons

Dr Richard Stone, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History (University of Bristol), reflects on the recent CEH field trip to the Brecon Beacons.

If there was one thing the Centre for Environmental Humanities field trip to the Brecon Beacons in July 2022 brought home to me, it’s how each of us perceives the landscape in a different way, and how in turn our perception is shaped by interaction with each other. 

The Dipper which flew up the river alongside the Blaen y Glyn waterfall trail is a perfect example of this.  After 25 years of birdwatching, I took one look at the river valley and was expecting to see dippers there.  It was a perfect habitat, with clean fast running water and not too much disturbance.  I heard the call before I saw the bird, and was able to turn and point it out to others in the party before the portly little dart flashed round the bend and out of sight.  The shape, sound, and behaviour of Dippers are all logged in my mind, so this brief glimpse was enough for me to know what I was looking at, to be aware of this aspect of the landscape.  To me, this was a Dipper valley. 

Photograph (C) Richard Stone

Perhaps most who walk that way, however, would not encounter the Dipper.  Their ears might register its call, and eyes observe a bird shape fly past, but it would not break the surface of their consciousness.  It was my knowledge of the Dipper and its behaviour, and the fact that I am always scanning the landscape for birds that bought it to the attention of the rest of the group, and meant that they too saw a Dipper and learned a little of its story. 

Each of us views a landscape in a different way, and in turn draws out different features.  Many of our group were wild swimmers, assessing the river not for its potential birdlife, but for pools which might be deep, clear, and accessible enough to bathe.  While they did not pull me into the water and fully into their world, through sharing a walk with them I too learned to view the landscape through a different lens, and to see a layer of its nature which would normally pass me by.  To me, this was now also a swimmers’ river. 

Photograph (C) Richard Stone

I learned most about the way a landscape can be read, however, from our guide Paul as we walked from the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre.  The way he recognised and understood the plants of the bogs and moor was perhaps similar to the way I was seeing their birds.  But it was the way he could point to a parcel of land or a clump of trees and tell its story that really hit me, explaining what had shaped it from deep geological time up to what he himself had witnessed over the last twenty years.  He knew why that patch of trees was there, and how it would dry out the bog over the next 500 or so years.  And he knew that the patch of lighter green at the edge of the wet ground was where the peat cutters had turned their carts in the nineteenth century.  Clearly some of this was knowledge and training as an environmental scientist, but there was something else there too.  This was the kind of seeing, the kind of knowing, which can only be obtained by spending decades observing, shaping, and living with a single place.  It was a privilege to be granted a glimpse of Paul’s Brecon Beacons. 

Follow Richard on twitter @Dr_RGStone

Ties to the Land – Amina Khan

Reblogged from the Pen and the Plough

Amina Khan visits Willowbrook Farm in Oxfordshire to find out more about the UK’s first Halal and Tayib farm and the Radwan family’s approach to sustainable farming.

‘Those who take agriculture seriously enough and study it long enough will come to issues that will have to be recognised as religious’, writes the farmer and writer Wendell Berry in his foreword to Lord Northbourne’s Of the Land and the Spirit. A leading figure in the organic farming movement and a prolific writer on comparative religion, Lord Northbourne coined the term ‘organic farming’ in his book Look to the Land. In this forgotten classic of organic farming, written twenty-two years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, he warned against what he called ‘chemical farming’ and lamented at how ‘soil fertility was being mined.’ His writing went on to influence Thomas Merton, E. F. Schumacher and Wendell Berry, amongst others.

Read more on the Pen and the Plough

Two further events: cuteness and ghosts!

News has come our way of two interesting environmental humanities events on creative responses to cuteness and gothic shorelines.

Aww-struck: creative and critical approaches to cuteness is a seminar and exhibition hosted by the University of Birmingham and Royal Holloway, University of London, taking place on 21 May.

The call for papers closes on 29 March. Download the call here.

Haunted Shores: Coastlands, Coastal Waters and the Littoral Gothic Symposium will be hosted by the Haunted Shores Research Network on 26 March. The conference features more than thirty presentations on topics closely connected with the environmental humanities.

Registration is via a webform here.

“Between the Insect Hordes and Ourselves”: Imaginaries of Insect Declines from the 1960s Onwards

Eline D. Tabak, PhD researcher in English (Bristol) and Environmental Humanities (BSU), introduces her SWW DTP-funded project.

‘According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.’ You might recognise these words as the opening from the animated film Bee Movie (2007). The film is as known for its memes as its compulsive heteronormativity. If you are unaware: not only are there many happy nuclear bee families, the star of the film, Barry, is a male worker bee. On top of that, the human woman with whom Barry takes on the honey industry and fights for equal bee rights appears to develop some warm feelings for him. Needless to say, Bee Movie is fun but not a cinematographic masterpiece.

A still from Bee Movie (2007), directed by Simon J. Smith and Steven Hickner

Jokes aside, the 2007 film is a good indicator of an influx of documentaries, memoirs, novels, and poetry collections starring the Western or European honeybee. Perhaps I’m being too critical here. This influx does excite me in a way, as it shows that insect life and decline has become part of a broader conversation. But, with this awareness of insect decline in our cultural imagination comes a sting in the tale. In this case, the sting is an almost obsessive focus on the European honeybee in an age of overall insect decline and what Elizabeth Kolbert (2014) popularised as the sixth extinction. There are thousands of known species of bees all over the world—not to mention other bugs—and yet a select group of people continue to talk, write, film, draw and campaign for the European honeybee. (Are you familiar with the concept of bee-washing?)

In response to these stories, I started thinking about the following: why is there so much creative work on the honeybee? Insects make up the most biodiverse and largest class of described (and estimated) species in the animal kingdom. And while many of these—not all—are indeed facing decline or even extinction, the European honeybee is not one of them.

What started out as a general interest, quickly evolved—metamorphosed!—into my doctoral project on insect decline. Inspired by Ursula Heise’s (2016) work on the cultural side of extinction, I started asking the following: what kind of narratives do people create when talking about insect decline, and how do they tie in with other and older insect stories, our broader cultural memory? Is there an explanation to be found for this honeybee hyperfocus when it comes to narratives of insect decline? Thinking about these questions, I kept returning to Donna Haraway, who wrote that ‘it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with … It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.’ (12) Haraway’s keen (if not overcited) observation also applies to the case of insect decline. When looking at creative storytelling—of which there is a lot—we’re not just considering entertainment or aesthetics. Even with something as seemingly banal as Bee Movie, it does matter what stories we tell to tell the story of insect decline. So why do people contribute to this, for lack of a better word, honeybee extravaganza?

An assortment of contemporary honeybee stories

My project become more than a chance to get deep into the problem with honeybees and other charismatic microfauna. Thinking about tiny critters (instead of charismatic megafauna) created the opportunity to engage with and tease out some of the broader questions in the fields of critical animal and extinction studies. Between all the reading and writing and talking and plotting out of the work that needs to be done, theories and ideas and random shower thoughts keep falling into place, and I have a red thread or two running through the different chapters of my thesis. Watch this space.

For now, I do want to say that one of the more rewarding elements of my research so far has been the deep dive into care ethics. My understanding of the concept has both expanded and gained new focus, and my deep dive into care and conservation has opened my eyes to the possibility of care as a violent practice (Salazar Parreñas 2018). One of my current challenges is to see how care, understood as ‘a vital affective state, an ethical obligation and a practical labour’ (Puig de la Bellacasa), is reflected in the poetics of insect decline. What does a poetics of care look like when we let ourselves become subject to, as Haraway (2008) phrased it, the ‘unsettling obligation of curiosity, which requires knowing more at the end of the day than at the beginning’ (36). What happens when we allow ourselves to pay careful attention to the other-than-human life around us and start to care?

Assorted Coleoptera in the University of Texas Insect Collection

Another thread is that of the different (temporal and spatial) scales of extinction and the limits of our empathy for other-than-human animals. As Ursula Heise (2016) and Dolly Jørgensen (2019) so effectively argue in their monographs on the topic, extinctions come to matter once they reflect upon our own (human) pasts, presents, and futures and we can emotionally engage with them. And like these different pasts, presents, and futures, extinction isn’t singular. It is easy—and to a certain extent even useful—to put it all under the label of the sixth extinction. Still, I am increasingly convinced that such labels obscure the differences and intricacies people need to be aware of in the face of the sixth extinction—or rather, extinctions.

There are local extinctions, global extinctions, extinctions completely missed or forgotten (by human eyes), even desired extinctions. Communities respond to and engage with different species and local and global extinctions in different ways. Especially when something tricky like shifting baseline syndrome ensures that some communities aren’t aware of local extinctions or declines in the first place, while passionate campaigns for charismatic megafauna put certain species on the global agenda and in the public eye. I’m not saying this is always a bad thing (I’m just as passionate about the survival of the Malayan and Sumatran tiger as the next person).

I am, however, saying that it is worth researching how attention and care are directed and, ideally, can be redirected in times of need. And insects—in all their creeping and crawling diversity, with important ecosystem functions such as pollination, prey, and waste disposal—have turned out to be an excellent group to consider these questions.

You can follow Eline on twitter @elinetabak and see more of her writing and work at


Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.

—. When Species Meet. U of Minneapolis P, 2008.

Heise, Ursula K. Imagining Extinctions: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species. U of Chicago P, 2016.

Jørgensen, Dolly. Recovering Lost Species in the Modern Age: Histories of Longing and Belonging. MIT Press, 2019.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. U of Minnesota P, 2017. Salazar Parreñas, Juno. Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation. Duke UP, 2018

Thinking with salmon about ecological ruin, ontology, and decoloniality

Austin Read, a PhD candidate in human geography at the University of Bristol, introduces his project on ontology, decoloniality and salmon.

Salmon anatomical plate drawing. Source: University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections (Sp Coll RQ 271)

If you carried out a survey of what people think is the most important thing that we can do to stem the tide of ecological ruin sweeping the planet, challenging Euro-Modern ontologies of nature (beliefs and ideas about reality, or ‘nature’s nature’) probably wouldn’t emerge as a number one priority on the list. In a time of crisis, where time literally feels like it’s running out and the apocalypse is already here for some people, carrying out this kind of philosophical reflection might feel like ineffective political strategy. Yet a challenging of our assumptions about ontology is precisely what a growing chorus of theorists and activists are calling for. For my PhD project, I want to examine how heeding these calls might allow us to better understand the nature of the ecological crisis we are facing.  

Specifically, my project is building upon decolonial scholarship and activism that emphasises the role that the politics of ontology has played in bringing about intertwined social and environmental injustices. Within the history of Western philosophy, the study of ontology has mostly consisted of making assessments of the reality of the world. Decolonial theorists such as Arturo Escobar, Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser have challenged these dominant philosophies of ontology by destabilising the very idea that we live in a singular world or universe. Instead, these thinkers have argued we live in a world of many worlds they call the pluriverse, in which there exists multipleradically different ontologies. Decolonial theorists have documented the political currents of power that exist between pluriversal worlds, diagnosing Euro-Modern ontologies as predicated upon a dominance of culture over nature and therefore ecologically ruinous, as well as violent and colonising, supressing any ontology that does not align with its firmly held principles of rationality and individualism. In this sense, for proponents of the pluriverse, environmental justice begins with a dismantling of the systems of power through which Euro-Modern ontologies have violently dominated others.

Decolonial activism and scholarship has emerged primarily from Latin American and Indigenous geographies, and as such most of the literature examines thought coming from these worlds. However, I am intrigued by Escobar’s (2020) suggestion that it is possible to bring about decolonial and ‘nondominant’ Wests – that another Europe is possible. To think about how insurrectional decolonial ontologies of nature might arise from within Europe, I’m turning to a perhaps surprising companion: the salmon.

A salmon farm near Bergen, Norway. Marius Ltu/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Salmon are playing a complex role in the theatre of contemporary Anthropocene politics. An enchanting creature that travels thousands of miles using ancestral memory as its guide home, salmon ways of life are becoming increasingly threatened as rivers and oceans are warped by the toxic infrastructure of modernity. Activists, scientists, Indigenous communities, fishers and nature-lovers have all documented the alarming rate at which wild salmon and other water-dwelling creatures are being threatened with extinction. As salmon are simultaneously caught by trawlers, domesticated in industrial salmon farms, bred in hatchery pens to boost depleted wild stock and subject to increasingly stringent conservation laws, they sink deeper and deeper within the folds of Euro-Modern logics.

However, as well as being indicators of the logics of modernity, salmon are also sources of hope. Fisheries have been highlighted as some of the most hopeful sites for fostering nondominant ontologies of nature within Europe. Salmon have swum in European rivers and oceans for millennia, meaning there are deep historical cultures of angling and caring for salmon that we might turn to as examples in the struggle to bring about fair and just ecological relations. Elsewhere, efforts to articulate alternative communal economic arrangements and relocalize food have found fisheries to be potent and generative sites of experimentation (see, for example Elinor Ostrom’s influential work on the commons).

For my PhD project, I am proposing that we let salmon, the injustice they materialise and the hope they symbolise, act as a guide. Following salmon in the UK and across Europe, both as they emerge in present material entanglements and in historic flows, leads us to a dizzying array of political ecologies of extraction and conservation in which we find unfolding conflicts over use, meaning and access to salmon. It’s my suggestion that a detailed study of these political ecologies and the different queer and historic ontologies emerging within them could serve, in its own small way, as a crystallising political narrative for bringing about environmental and social justice. As Environmental Humanities scholars have shown, bringing about environmental justice will not just be about new technoscientific technologies or acts passed in parliament: it will be, in part, about what kinds of stories we tell. I say let us listen to the stories of the salmon: stories of ancestral struggle in the face of the ever-encroaching logics of modernity, stories of resistance in the face of power and domination, so that we might have a better understanding of the problem we must ourselves struggle against.

You can follow Austin on Twitter @austin_jread