Category: Species Extinction

Note: This is the REVISED version  (June 23, 2020) of an essay written for an international cyber-conference on the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

How To Destroy Civilization: COVID-19 and the Exploitation of Animals and the Earth

Steve Best

“Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there in the beginning.”  ― Jean Baudrillard

  1. Apocalypse

Many past cultures have thought that they lived in apocalyptic times and expressed a foreboding sense of doom and ending. From the Book of Revelations to cyberpunk, apocalyptic visions have been a mainstay of human culture. In contemporary 21st century conditions, the signs of apocalypse are everywhere, from collapsing ice shelves in the Arctic to wildfires raging in California, Australia, and Brazil; from superstorms pummeling coastal towns and island communities to millions of refugees fleeing the ravages of drought, poverty, famine, and conflict; from lingering specters of nuclear annihilation and (bio)terrorist attacks to species extinction and runaway climate change. And now, on the heels of numerous recent viral outbreaks, we are witness to the scourge of a global pandemic inflicting suffering and death around the globe, a massive economic meltdown, and cities turned into ghost towns or petri dishes when not in flames over systemic racism and police brutality. All the while, authoritarianism rises, democracy wanes, and power concentrates into ever fewer hands, as promising signs of resistance emerge.

Whereas all past apocalyptic visions were rooted in fear, paranoia, fantasy, and superstition, visions of chaos and collapse today find grounding in mathematical projections and scientific facts. In our current era, apocalypse is an immanently unfolding objective reality that we are accelerating toward at breakneck speed. For the last 50 years or so, postmodern forms of culture and theory have articulated pronounced feelings of exhaustion and endings. We have heard much about the death of metanarratives; the end of history; the disappearance of the social; the demise of truth, reality, and the subject; and of course, the passing of postmodernism itself.[1] Postmodernism arises amidst paradigm shifts that register across the disciplines. but these changes barely scratched the surface of seismic changes unfolding in society and the objective world that had allegedly disappeared into the text or impenetrable fog of hyperreality. For what we are witnessing is not the end of modernism or modernity, but rather the immanent collapse of the expansionistic, growth-oriented enterprise we call civilization — the dominant institutional structures and ideologies that human beings have built over the last 10,000 years during the Holocene epoch.

Our present moment is so radically novel and extreme we have to think of it in geological, not merely historical terms, for we have created a new geological epoch — we are transitioning from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.[2] Humans have expanded their technological and world-altering prowess to such an extent they have disrupted every living system on the planet – most evidently in the emergence of a sixth (human-caused) mass extinction (right now, 150 species go extinct every day) and with the rise of fossil capitalism and its causal effect in global warming and climate change, thus creating  a radical break in the history of humanity and the earth itself. Since the 1970s, in just the last half-century, humans have reduced wild animal populations 60%, and within the next few decades we will obliterate an additional million plant and animal species.[3] To indicate the extent to which one species has usurped the planet on its unending path of destruction, humans have hitherto destroyed 83% of all wild animals and half of all plant species, such that 96% of all mammals on earth are now humans and their cattle.[4] Only 15% of the planet’s forests remain intact, the rest have been cut down, fragmented, and degraded, as grasslands and wetlands suffer a similar fate. Continue reading

The essay below is a draft prepared for a forthcoming volume edited by Natalie Khazaal and Núria Almiron, entitled, Like an Animal: Critical Animal Studies Approaches to Borders, Displacement, and Othering (Brill Publishers 2020).


The Costs of a Wall: The Impact of Pseudo-Security Policies on Communities, Wildlife, and Ecosystems

Steve Best

 As the world moves into the third decade of the twenty-first century, some of the most contentious global politics involve the issues of migration, refugees, borders, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia. These issues deeply affect Europe, for instance, and threaten to divide nations, pull apart the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and facilitate the rise of toxic nationalism and neo-fascism. There are also intense ideological and political struggles over these issues in the US, which is now possibly more divided than any time since the days of slavery and the civil war (Fredrick 2019). The question of whether to seal US borders from the flow of immigrants both illegal and legal has polarized the country, sharply splitting conservatives and liberals into warring camps. It was decisive in electing a notoriously racist and xenophobic president, Donald Trump, who has in turn inflamed and exploited fear of the Other for his own political agenda and to appeal to a white nationalist and Republican base.[1] A shocking mass murder targeting Latinx in El Paso Texas, in August 2019, put the issues of migration, borders, and race into stark relief.

The desperate and tragic migration of oppressed people throughout the world, involves not only a humanitarian crisis testing the moral resolve of developed nations, but also a calamity for wildlife and ecological systems. The most simplistic response to immigration is to seal borders, while never addressing the root causes of human movement. But barriers, fences, and walls not only thwart human traffic, they impede the natural flow of nonhuman animals and plants and directly affect their migration routes and reproduction.[2] This threatens the survival of nonhuman communities and contributes to the growing problems of habitat destruction and species extinction. This in turn affects human interests in crucial ways, and the erection of barriers along borders has a systemic impact on all communities of life – humans, animals, and ecosystems.

To a large degree, under the all-absolving rubric of “national security,” the US-Mexico border wall is being erected for the purpose of stopping our neighbors from seeking a better way of life, but it doesn’t even accomplish that.[3] While no deterrent to desperate people, the wall does impede animal migration and degrade the environment, becoming a contributing factor to the sixth great extinction crisis unfolding on the planet (Kolbert 2014). Already, the southern border wall has had a severe impact on wildlife and ecosystems and its proposed completion will be a death blow to numerous animal and plant species. While real in its effects, the wall also stands as a symbol of division and a totem to appease racism, white supremacism, and xenophobia, while draconian security policies, intensive surveillance, and policing of the borders create a vast migrant detention-industrial complex that commodifies human suffering.[4]

The wall is a pseudo-solution to much bigger problems than migration and security fears. US border policy for the last few decades – from Clinton to Trump – has been an unmitigated disaster for human beings, nonhuman animals, and the environment alike. Yet the border crisis usefully underscores the interconnectedness of interests among humans, animals, and the earth, in ways to which refugee/border studies are normally oblivious. To illustrate the full array of intersecting problems that arise with militarizing the border, I will discuss the impacts of building walls and barriers in areas such as the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the El Paso, Texas-Juarez, Mexico border. In contradistinction to the faulty model of “security” that has informed US policy for the last few decades, I contrast a more holistic and ecological model of security that emphasizes the crucial importance of flourishing wildlife and ecological systems to human societies. Against prevailing humanist biases that inform academic studies as well as the state and everyday life, I foreground the impact of security policies and the migrant-industrial complex on nonhuman animals and stress the rights of animals to lives and habitat free of human interference. We begin with relevant historical context.

Continue reading

Attached is the complete manuscript to the groundbreaking anthology I co-edited and introduced, Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth (AK Press: 2006). Read and disseminate widely. Hardcopies are available here.


Total Liberation In the Age of the Anthropocene And Climate Emergency

Steve Best[i]

The Global Crisis

I want to impress upon everyone just how serious the planetary crisis is at this moment in time, and what this likely means for the global struggle for animal liberation. We need to grasp the frightening novelty and uniqueness of the current era. There are two great facts with which we must reckon.

The Sixth Great Extinction Crisis

First, we are bringing about a sixth great extinction crisis: the last one 65 million years ago, caused by a huge asteroid strike in the Gulf of Mexico, which wiped out all the dinosaurs and 76% of all species. All the last 5 extinction events were caused by natural events, this one is being caused by human activity – by deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, road building, mining, poaching, overfishing, growth-based economies, and climate change. Now we are the asteroid striking the planet. But we keep smashing it, over and over again, with ever-greater force and accelerating speed, so that it never has a chance to recover, it just keeps reeling from our impact.

The roots of this extinction crisis go back 100,000 years ago, when humans migrated out of Africa to colonize every continent except Antarctica. Everywhere humans went species went extinct. From the marsupial lions and giant kangaroos of Australia the saber-toothed tigers and wooly mammoths in North America large, charismatic species died from causes attributable to human overhunting, not, as many argue, to climate change. After annihilating animal species, Homo sapiens turned on another Homo species, and likely slaughtered the Neanderthals within ten thousand years of first encountering them in Europe.

The past reveals our dark history of genocide, overkill, and boundless plunder, and we are now pushing countless other species to oblivion at an alarming rate. Since the 1970s, in just the last half-century, humans have reduced wild animal populations 60%, and within the next few decades we will obliterate an additional million plant and animal species. To indicate the extent to which one species has usurped the planet on its unending path of destruction, 96% of all mammals on earth are now humans and cattle.

It is not just the large charismatic animals such as the African elephant, the rhino, and whales who are threatened with extinction. Bees, ants, and beetles are vanishing eight times faster than mammals, birds or reptiles. Insect populations have declined by over 75% over the past 25 years. The “insect apocalypse” is enormously consequential as insects provide food sources for other animals such as birds, bats, reptiles, small mammals, and fish; they pollinate three-quarters of the world’s food crops; and they recycle wastes and replenish soils. Clearly, humans are systematically destroying the life support systems upon which they and other life forms depend. Clearly, our fates are intertwined, and what we do the animals, we do to ourselves. Because nature is in trouble, we are in trouble. The planetary ecosystem is breaking down.

A principle cause of extinction is a global meat-based agricultural system, which destroys habitats, consumes rainforests, creates monocultures, and spreads poisonous chemicals on land and sea. Climate change is another key driver of extinction, thereby linking the twin threats of species extinction and human-induced global warming. Continue reading

Wow, I knew if I lived long enough I would agree with Prince Charles on something, and it seems we agree that there is an implacable war against animals, a world war on a global scale, starkly evident in the high-tech poaching industry that is wiping out species such as rhinos and elephants before our eyes (see, for instance, my posts here and here). It seems we also agree that the human assault on other animals ought to be viewed as and treated as a war in which we defend animals from attack by any means necessary on this dying planet (see, for instance, my posts here and here). 

Nice to be in agreement with you on these points, Prince Charles. Now how about putting the UK’s armed forces in the service of wildlife under attack?


The Guardian, May 21, 2013

Princes Charles and Prince William

Prince Charles and Prince William examine confiscated items made from endangered animals at the conference.

Prince Charles has warned that criminal gangs are turning to animal poaching, an unprecedented slaughter of species that can only be stopped by waging war on the perpetrators, in the latest of a series of increasingly outspoken speeches about the environment.

Addressing a conference of conservationists at St James’s Palace in London, the Prince of Wales announced a meeting of heads of state to take place this autumn in London under government auspices to combat what he described as an emerging, militarised crisis.

“We face one of the most serious threats to wildlife ever, and we must treat it as a battle – because it is precisely that,” said Charles. “Organised bands of criminals are stealing and slaughtering elephants, rhinoceros and tigers, as well as large numbers of other species, in a way that has never been seen before. They are taking these animals, sometimes in unimaginably high numbers, using the weapons of war – assault rifles, silencers, night-vision equipment and helicopters.”

It is the second outspoken speech that Charles has made this month, at a time when he is taking on an increasing number of monarchical duties, after he told a group of forest scientists also at St James’s Palace that corporate lobbyists and climate change sceptics were turning the Earth into a “dying patient”. The Prince of Wales warned that iconic species – which could include rhinoceros, tigers, orangutans and others – could be extinct in the wild within a decade if efforts to protect them were not stepped up. “By urgent, I mean urgent,” he told the dignitaries, who included governmental and United Nations officials as well as NGOs and grassroots activists.

His son, the Duke of Cambridge, added to the plea: “My fear is that one of two things will stop the illegal trade: either we take action to stem the trade, or we will run out of the animals. There is no other outcome possible.”

Charles also stressed the need to deal with the demand for exotic species. In the past, much of the market for tiger parts, rhino horns and ivory was said to be driven by beliefs in traditional Chinese medicine, in which the rare animal parts were believed to have curative or aphrodisiac properties. But the prince dismissed such ideas, saying the trade was in fact about status symbols rather than belief systems. “The bulk of the intended use is no longer for products that can be classified as traditional medicines. Instead, many more people in rapidly growing economies are seeking exotic products that reflect their economic prosperity and status.”

The conference called for celebrities to publicise their outrage and opposition to the trade, and for young people in countries such as China to be educated to reject the demands of their parents for such status-fuelled goods.

 Steven Best

(This piece was originally written for my good friend Adam, and earlier published on his blog, OccupyEssays)

“I’d like to share with you a revelation I’ve had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague.” Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)

This essay tells a story. It is more than a little story, it is one of the biggest stories of all — the story of how humans evolved from one of the weakest to the most dangerous animal on the planet, from hunted to hunter, from vulnerable prey to top predator. This is the amazing saga of how one species became the first and only global species and in a very short time built a vast empire that has colonized the planet for need and greed, has created a new geological epoch – the human-dominated Anthropocene Era — and is threatening to bring down the planetary house.

Like all empires, the human empire rose, had glorious triumphs, but ultimately was a decadent and unsustainable colossus; and thus it also dies, ebbs, declines, and falls like the rest. But much more is at stake in this drama than an imperialist state and its colonies, for here we are talking about the entire species of Homo sapiens and its impact on biodiversity and the ecological dynamics of the planet as a whole.

 There is no scientific consensus to this story; there are, rather, a thousand narratives of the origins of Homo sapiens and the proper taxonomical tables and nomenclature. The prevailing cacophony of dispute arises partly for the empirical reasons (the science is uncertain and always changing), and also for political reasons (scientists, researchers, and historians have vested interests in challenging competing narratives and validating their own discoveries and narratives). Uncertainties aside, grasping the outlines of the human past are critical for understanding what kind of animal we are, illuminating the causes of current social and ecological crises, and creating viable future societies — if indeed such a project is still possible in a significant sense.

 Out of Africa and Out of Control

Our earliest ancestors evolved from an independent branch of the primate tree some 5-7 million years ago. Pressured by climate changes, they moved out of the Eastern and Southern forests of Africa and into the savannas where for various reasons they stood up on two legs and evolved into bipedal animals. These Australopithecines were 3 feet tall, hairy, ape-men — like apes in their relatively small brain size, and like humans in walking upright. After 2-3 million years, various australopithecine types evolved into diverse variations of the Homo genus, including species such as Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens sapiens (behaviorally modern, language-speaking humans). Along this dynamic, variegated evolutionary path, hominid brains grew increasingly large; their technologies and cultures became ever more sophisticated; and their populations continuously expanded in size and geographical reach as their ecological impact became more and more severe.

 There is no consensus on key questions, such as: What is the proper taxonomical language to characterize humans in relation to other primates? What alleged Homo types were true species rather than sub-species? What Homo species co-existed, and when? Did they evolve as one species in a linear fashion, as the “Out of Africa” thesis argues, or did various Homo types co-evolve and leave Africa at different times and in many migrations, as the “Multiregional” theory claims?[1]

 Whatever the diversity of human types and subsequent migration patterns, about 100,000 years ago (there is no consensus on this date either) Homo sapiens left the African continent to explore a vast, unknown world in which continents were conjoined by ice sheets. They migrated to Europe, Asia, Australia, Siberia, Indonesia, and into the Americas, establishing their empire throughout the globe. All the time multiplying, diversifying, and scattering across the continents, humans wasted no time in colonizing the world from north to south and from east to west.

Just one among tens of millions of existing animal species – many already dispatched to oblivion, thousands currently poised on the end, and thousands yet on the brink of extinction and some yet to be discovered – Homo sapiens has risen from humble mammalian and primate origins to become the most dominant, violent, predatory, and destructive animal on the planet. Nearly everywhere it journeyed and lived, Homo sapiens wrought social and ecological devastation, extinction crises, and chronic warfare.  Continue reading

A disturbing update from the front lines of the war on animals, with elephants and rhinos the principle targets, certainly in Africa, and headed rapidly for extinction. A new study described below confirms one’s fears that the inexplicable fetish for ivory, its high monetary value aside, still principally driven by Chinese market demand (the same country also in midst of revolutionary change in its views toward animals reflected in scores of liberations of cats and dogs headed for slaughter and rise in animal advocacy generally).

There is no measure too costly, no action too extreme, no coordinated effort too large to stop this escalating holocaust of  rhinos and elephants, It is clearly high time to defend these majestic animals by any means necessary by shutting down lines of demand and supply, through a ruthless counter-war on poachers, via draconian penalties for consumers and peddlers of ivory, through drone attacks on crime syndicates descending from helicopters for their unconscionable kill, and with crackdowns on state complacency or complicity anywhere in Africa and Asia.

This is a dramatic window into the sixth extinction crisis in the history of the planet unfolding before our eyes; may we do more than watch this continuing saga of rhinos and elephants dropped by guns and machetes until all are wiped off the continent, with nothing remaining of their millions of years of evolution but macabre carvings and statues and graveyards.

The articles linked below are well worth reading, and anyone who doubts the vicious and implacable greed and violence driving the war on elephants and rhinos should read through the valuable New York Times archives.


Jaymi Heimbuch, Tree Hugger, January 17, 2013

If you’ve been following ivory poaching in the news lately, you may be wondering if there is any hope at all for elephants.

Just yesterday, the Washington Post reported, “Custom officials seized 638 pieces of illegal elephant ivory estimated to be worth $1.2 million at Kenya’s main port, evidence of what wildlife officials described Wednesday as a growing threat to East Africa’s elephants.”

And just two weeks ago, on January 5, eleven elephants were killed in one massacre by a gang of poachers at Bisadi area of Tsavo East National Park.

The problem is vast and complex, but part of the reason for the growing crisis is the booming economy in China. As the BBC reports:

“China is the main buyer of ivory in the world,” said Dr Esmond Martin, a conservationist and researcher who has spent decades tracking the movement of illegal ivory around the world. He has recently returned from Nigeria, where he conducted a visual survey of ivory on sale in the city of Lagos. His findings are startling.Dr Martin and his colleagues counted more than 14,000 items of worked and raw ivory in one location, the Lekki Market in Lagos.

The last survey, conducted at the same market in 2002, counted about 4,000 items, representing a three-fold increase in a decade.

It is enough to make us wonder if there is any possibility of saving elephants as a species in the face of such rampant killing and rising demand for ivory. Save the Elephants, a prominent nonprofit working to bring attention to poaching issues and Africa’s elephants, just released a 14-year study of elephants in northern Kenya, concluding that adult elephants are more likely to be killed by humans than to die from natural causes.

Science Magazine reports,

“Clearly it is the most detailed and comprehensive demographic analysis undertaken for any elephant population, and perhaps any wildlife population, at least in Africa,” says Norman Owen-Smith, an ecologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. It provides a base “for modeling the potential impacts of increased poaching” on other African elephant populations, which are also suffering from illegal killing.

The study notes that in 2000, there were 38 males over 30 years old in the study population, but by 2011 there were just 12, with seven males maturing into that age group. That means only five of the original 38 males over 30 years old were still alive 11 years after the study began. And by the same year, 56% of the elephants found dead (and few elephant carcasses are actually found) had been poached.

The rise in poaching is not only a concern of conservationists, but also tour operators. The loss of elephants in Kenya means a loss of revenue for people running sight-seeing and safari tours. And the businesses are responding to events like the massacre in Tsavo East National Park. AllAfrica reported this week, “The umbrella body Kenya Association of Tour Operators wants a new wildlife bill to be drafted and the government to take major steps to address the poaching menace.”

After National Geographic’s impressive expose, Blood Ivory, a renewed attention has been brought to the serious issue of poaching, a problem on the rise and reaching a disturbing level of intensity as Save the Elephants has proven with their study.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Elephants have proven that they can recover their numbers if given a chance. The elephants studied by Save the Elephants experienced a small baby boom after the intense poaching of the 70s and 80s lessened.

However, the renewed pressure of poaching has stopped that rebuilding of numbers, and could have a long-term impact on the species, with the loss of important information passed down from older generations of elephants to younger generations, including where to find water, food, and other vital resources in a harsh landscape.

In a recent conversation with National Geographic, Iain Douglas-Hamilton notes that losing older elephants means the loss of the “memory bank” and a lower potential for survival for younger elephants:

Studies elsewhere in Africa show that families which lose large numbers of matriarchs do much less successfully in later life. They have a low survival rate. In the time of drought, for example, the really smart and experienced matriarchs may take their families to a completely different place, only because they’re experienced. Maybe they remember their mothers took them to a place like that when they were young. That means sometimes that they have to take a counterintuitive decision. Like maybe in a really drought-stricken area you’d have to go deeper into the worst area to get through to the other side. That’s actually happened in Tarangire, as reported in a study which showed that the really old matriarchs knew what to do. Young elephants tend to have a higher rate of survival if they have good leadership.

So, are elephants doomed? The fact is, there is hope. There is always hope. But unless something changes, and fast, to protect elephants from poaching, that hope is dying with the older generations of elephants.

The New York Times has created a landing page for all their stories on the ivory trade, making it easy to explore the issue.


Also see:

The Elephant Killing Fields

Vatican Stand on Religious Use of Ivory Would Help Slow Illegal Killings of Elephants

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