Gene Ray

Loss, Love, and Mourning in the Time of Eco-Genocide


This was meant to be an essay exploring the idea of transformative emotion in the Anthropocene-Capitalocene-Chthulucene-Necrocene. I wanted to think about possible ways artists might work and play with feeling, in order to encourage people to open themselves, in more-than-rational ways, to the urgencies of an unprecedented situation. The essay was undertaken at the kind invitation of curator Katarina Stenbeck, in the context of a series of exhibitions, the first of which, Living in the End Times, has opened in Zagreb as I write this. I tried several times to begin the essay as intended, keeping to the neat parameters agreed upon. But I kept veering off, crossing over, in fact free-falling into the actual context of the topic, the immensity of a novel and alarming situation. I felt myself so deeply disturbed by so many different aspects of planetary meltdown that I was loath to leave anything out. Overwhelmed by what I exposed myself to, and also by the problems of reducing it to the manageable dimensions of an essay, I found myself, very often, wordless in a turmoil of the very emotions I wanted to think about and enlist in an analysis. Drawn through these everyday ordeals of sadness, fear, and anger, I was no longer sure if these feelings were shifting or passing, one into the other, or if they were mixing and recombining into something more complex. At some point I was no longer sure I could still claim to know, with clarity or coherence, just what a feeling or emotion may be. I kept getting caught between the view out the window and my own reflection in the glass. Is this just a failure of writerly self-discipline, a kind of scriptorial nervous breakdown or crisis, or is this wavering disorientation in some way an experience of the situation, a kind of message emanating from it, addressed, as it were, to me? I am undergoing something here that I feel obligated to interpret, share, mediate, and relay. Having begun with this confession or testimonial, where can I go with it, and how?

Now I know: I go and go on going back and forth. I find myself returned to a process-problem that I have written about before, that in fact I have never ceased writing about. This story, this particle of autobiography I began with, has all the marks, traces, and symptoms of mourning. I can do nothing more here, than to keep writing about that. Reoriented somewhat, this essay will have to be an attempt, from within a return that I feel bound to avow and accept, to rethink mourning in a globalized situation of accelerating eco-genocide and geno-ecocide.[1] I will try to say, again, what I think mourning is or can be, and, under the pressure of urgency, what I think mourning is or can be now, in a period of anthropogenic planetary meltdown. In doing so I hope still to honor, if more obliquely than first intended, my promise to speak of transformative emotions. For reflecting on the emotional turmoil that has been unsettling me, I must admit that these feelings of disturbance and pain have spurred and propelled my own critical reflections. I hold to this: such feelings are openings, even invitations, to ask what, why, and wherefrom, to attend to and query, to reach and palpate, eventually to wonder and meditate. As moments and messengers of mourning, feelings of disturbance and pain return us to our losses, our lost beloveds, our ghosts, our gone. These returns teach us that the gone are reachable but are never restored to us. We go to the gone and find them changed, and we return from them changed in turn. That no one escapes change is one lesson, perhaps the lesson, of time and death and love, too. For it will be impossible to speak of mourning without the courage to speak also of love. What is being lost today, and who is losing it? Who loves or is willing to love what is being lost? How do or can these questions connect? These, it seems to me, are the questions we should repose to ourselves now, to begin again; they are the questions we perhaps always begin with and also end with. The stakes in these questions are high, for the answers we give will ground any possible politics, any possible ethics. I have argued elsewhere that mourning is a collective imperative and not just an affair of solitary subjects. Working through the losses of history is a politicizing process that, unless it is arrested, carries mourners all the way to social causes, radical critique, and enactments of new subjective dispositions.[2] My intuition now, which I elaborate as an argument in what follows, is that mourning today will not be adequate, will not be radical enough, if it does not reground us and passionately re-entangle us in the whole planetary community of life. The urgency of what we are now living through compels this conclusion, and our feelings of disturbance and pain support it.


Right now, the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge.
– Donna Haraway[3]

The ecocidal and genocidal effects of climate chaos, global toxification, and extinction are increasingly present in everyday experience. And the major structural and systemic causes of planetary meltdown are today public knowledge despite the performances of disavowal propagated by corporate media.[4] Evidently, rescue from above is not to be expected. Locked within capitalist dogmas, the agencies of so-called global governance have been unwilling or unable to throttle down the entrenched fossil economy, let alone discuss radical social change. In the backrooms of power, “Keep it in the ground” remains unthinkable heresy. The neoliberal and neocolonial regimes of austerity, debt, and state terror continue to reflect the current assumptions and orientations of the oligarchic and technocratic classes that dominate the global economy and direct its enforcement. Fortunately, the response from below is more heartening. Awareness, understanding, and resistance are spreading. In urgency, emerging grassroots cultures of transition are challenging capitalist dogmas and rethinking and relinking local and global, traditional and contemporary. Impassioned dreaming of lifeways based on respect and mutuality feeds into and is fed by practical movements for social, environmental, and climate justice. Growing demands for food, water, and energy sovereignty are pushing back against state and market enclosures of commons. Groups and networks are struggling courageously to defend the life of local places and to block new expansions of the fossil economy. Globally, Indigenous groups such as Idle No More, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and La Via Campesina are playing leading roles in these struggles. And there have been important recent victories, such as the shutdown of the Keystone XL Pipeline and planned Cherry Point Coal Terminal in North America. The ongoing struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, centered on the encampment of “water protectors” at Standing Rock in North Dakota, has generated a momentous united front of Indigenous tribes and a growing network of environmental justice allies, including, in a very promising new development, Black Lives Matters.[5] The politicization of the consumption sphere, the reinvention and decolonization of everyday practices, and old school organizing and direct action are all in this mix.

At the same time, some ominous political trends must be acknowledged. In many countries, a racialized politics of fear, hatred, and resentment is also establishing itself, often and appallingly with official complicity, when not support. The demand of this politics is that the social givens remain the same, so that borders, identities, and lifestyle addictions can be secured and the future be predictable. In conditions of biospheric meltdown, such a program is sheer fantasy; no government and no nation-state, no matter how powerful by human standards, will be able to deliver it. The blame for non-delivery is already being shifted, in the most transparent ways, to the people made most vulnerable by anthropogenic eco-genocide: the human victims of natural-social disasters, resource grabs, and neocolonial invasions. Migration and the figure of the refugee, “human and not,” are haunting the present and will haunt the future. The favored racialized tropes of a permanent “war on terror” and “clash of civilizations” are adjusted to project angry waves of migrant “invasion” rolling in from the devastated post-neo-colonies. The racialized politics of fear, hatred, and resentment flirts with forms of neofascism, diverts public attention from the real threat of the neoliberal fossil economy, denies the glaring need for social reorganization, and fosters both genocide and ecocide. The refusal of this deceptive politics aligns with collective avowal of the real biospheric emergency. That these tired tropes of security have been successful in eliciting racist reflexes in so many nations of Europe and the global north is proof enough of a persisting inability, or refusal, to mourn.

Meanwhile, critically reflecting on these urgencies and emergences, scholars and researchers are enacting what may prove to be a revolution in academia. Anthropogenic planetary meltdown has exposed the inadequacies of traditional academic divisions of labor and has impelled a rapid transdisciplinary convergence of natural and social sciences with the humanities.[6] New critical and transdisciplinary research communities are coalescing, supported by the more-than-rational inquiries of artist-researchers and Indigenous scholars. At the crossroads of science studies, environmental humanities, and animal studies, the species supremacism of capitalist modernity has been called out and linked clearly to the racialized and gendered official myths and cultures of ongoing settler colonialism.[7] In closely related developments in jurisprudence, new challenges to anthropocentrism have been launched under the names of “earth law,” “wild law,” and “ecocide law”; inspired in part by the bold legal inscription of the “Rights of Mother Earth (Pachamama)” in Ecuador and Bolivia, these re-conceptions of law aim to extend rights and obligations of protection to whole communities of entangled human and more-than-human life, as well as the lands, skies, and waters those communities depend on.[8] Academic debates about the so-called “anthropocene” have generated strong critiques of the disavowals concealed in schemes for “green capitalism,” “eco-modernism,” and geo-engineering – all code words for continuing with “business as usual.”[9] The counter-terms proposed to capture the current period of globalized eco-genocide indicate how radical the critique of modernity has become: “capitalocene” (Andreas Malm, Jason Moore, Donna Haraway), “Chthulucene” (Haraway), “Ecozoic” (Eileen Crist), “Anthrobscene” (Jussi Parikka), and “Necrocene” (Justin McBrien), to name some of the most incisive.[10] Under the pressure of planetary meltdown, the cultural and intellectual ground for deep social change is being prepared. In this, traditional and Indigenous forms of knowing and experiencing, excluded for centuries by the dominant modernism, are as important as critical theory.[11] While anthropocentric modernism is under strong challenge today, it probably remains, for now, the default position among academics. However, the astonishing scale and speed at which new critical publications and reflections are now appearing, as well as their rapid dissemination through universities and the art world, suggest that a long-prepared paradigm shift is underway. This is far more than fad. The universities and research funding institutions, still blindly pursuing the economizing structural adjustments demanded by bankrupt neoliberal dogmas, have begun to notice these immense intellectual reorganizations and ethico-political shifts. But they have not fully registered that such shifts entail a deep reorganization of the whole field of knowledge production, let alone shown any resolution to undertake such reorganizations. But they will have to, like it or not. Now perhaps more than ever, academia, including the law schools, is a major site of a struggle that is growing and spreading. Given the vested interests opposed to intellectual and legal change, and the willingness of those interests to use their material power to act on their opposition, “struggle” is the appropriate word here.


There would be much more to add to this cursory sketch of the present cosmopolitical context. A fuller account would register the contemporary systems of social control and discuss the new mutations, under an unvarying logic of accumulation, of the “culture industry,” “society of the spectacle,” and what James Der Derian has named the “MIME-Net” (Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network).[12] It would elaborate the fundamental role of state terror in forcing the global social process on all those who dare to refuse it, but most emphatically on those in the sacrifice zones of the neo-colonies. As WMD arsenals loom in the background, enforcement is accomplished through a combination of “shock and awe” ferocity on a massive scale, assassination and dirty war disappearings by special forces and terminator drones, torture and torture-by-proxy in far-flung detention and interrogation camps, and the techno-novelties of panoptic global surveillance and cyberwar. A fuller account would at least note in passing how the repressed returns, how these neocolonial wars are again brought home, today among other ways through a lethal militarization of police forces. In the USA, where urban and even small town police are now mimicking occupying military forces in behavior as well as equipment, this trend has armed to excess a persistent overt and covert law enforcement culture of panicked white supremacism, resulting in an utterly shocking, seemingly unending, but now fully documented and mediatized, series of police murders of young black men.[13] A fuller account would clarify how this enforcement function of terror, demonstrated continuously and internalized subjectively, works together with material compensations, painkillers, and addictions: the treasured cultures of enjoyment of our over-consuming American-Western-northern way of life. And a fuller account would have to discuss the problem of modernity as such, in its connections to capitalism, science, technology, and the myths of progress, but also to the racialized and gendered processes of ongoing settler colonialism.

These indications, if still far from comprehensive or exhaustive, will at least get us started. With regard to mourning, considered as a collective and politicizing imperative, the account sketched above makes clear that the damage and loss being inflicted today did not begin this morning. Genocide and ecocide have long histories that capitalist modernity has knotted together into a planetary process of eco-genocide driven by a convergence of logics of domination. These social logics are nameable, their workings have been exposed and analyzed by multitudes of critics: capital accumulation, patriarchy, heterosexuality, racism, white supremacism, and anthropocentric species-supremacism. Sometimes acknowledged, usually secreted and naturalized, they are the allied master logics of modernity.[14] The logic of capitalist accumulation, with its relentless valorization and commodification of everything and everyone, is contemporaneous with the rise of banking, the joint stock company or corporation, the plantation, settler colonialism, modern science and the nation-state – the real pillars of all that has come to be known as modernity.[15] The other logics are premodern and have been famously traced, by Theodor Adorno and Jacques Derrida among others, to ancient Greece and the Abrahamic religions of the book. But they were absorbed into the values, identities, and intellectual cultures of modern Europe and rearticulated as the dogmas of a manifest destiny the scale, scope, and terminal destination of which only now becomes unmistakably clear. A politicized project of mourning oriented toward changing the social logics that are driving eco-genocide and geno-ecocide today cannot avoid or disavow the genocides and ecocides of history. Minimally, such a project would need to work through the crimes of invasion, enslavement, displacement, cultural genocide, enclosure, extraction, and theft constituting “so-called” but still ongoing “original accumulation,” for the power and privilege of Europe and the global north today was built on this foundation of terror.[16] Maximally, such a project would need to go back further, and avow and mourn the wave of anthropogenic extinctions that wiped out the megafauna and many community companion species in the late Pleistocene, 50,000–35,000 years ago: 29% of all species in Europe, 73% in North America, 94% in Australia.[17] The skies, the waters, the lands are, truly, alive and vibrant with the presence-absence of ghosts, human and more-than-human.[18] We can sense, invoke, and avow these disappeared presences through a work of impassioned remembrance and retrospective witnessing. There may be other ways to commune with this multispecies community, but mourning is one. To spend time with any of these ghosts, to bother ourselves, to find the respect and courtesy to learn their stories and ponder the lessons, is to be changed. I am heartened to know that many, many people are working on this, across the academic disciplines and far beyond, to do the research and perform the recoveries necessary to make these encounters generally possible.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada.

In this mourning work in process, in this interminable task, the ghost remains that which gives one the most to think about – and to do.
– Jacques Derrida[19]

Mourning, as rethought by Freud and other psychoanalytic theorists, is the process by which a subject learns to cope with traumatic loss, accept change, and return to an active engagement with life. Following the loss of a love object (that is, a person, thing, or even idea, identity, or fantasy in which libido has been strongly invested), the mourner painfully comes to understand that this beloved is truly gone, beyond any possible restoration. In Freud’s most famous account, the mourner, with reflection and hard-earned understanding, is eventually able to withdraw libido from the lost love object and to reinvest it in new love objects. Mourning aims at and ends in a return to life. The psychoanalytic account is, at bottom, a story, a narrative structure abounding with metaphors and metonyms. The protagonist of the empirico-speculative fiction or myth undergoes damage and trauma, shape-shifts into various psychic organs and agencies, and embarks on an odyssey of healing and reflection that ends in return. The scientific ambitions of psychoanalysis, and the controversies around those ambitions, do not concern me here. I accept the basic “truth” of this story without needing to grant any part or term of it the status of secured, indubitable scientific knowledge.[20] The story is “true” not because it corresponds, in positivist security, to how the subject’s psychic organism actually is and factually performs, but because, rather and more openly, experience confirms that the movement described is a possibility. But even if this plot holds up, does mourning end, can it ever truly “succeed,” as Freud would have it in Mourning and Melancholia? Does the return to life and new loves necessarily entail the “writing off” of the lost beloved, through a withdrawal of love-libido that leaves the lost unloved and in effect disappears the beloved a second time?

Derrida, refusing this aspect of Freud’s account, offers a challenging alternative understanding of mourning. In the essays collected in The Work of Mourning, Derrida reflects on what it would mean to mourn a dead friend.[21] The aim of such mourning, he asserts, could not be to arrive at some final goodbye. Instead, the mourner aims to keep the lost friend present even in her absence, through a practice of remembrance, of attention and attending. Inflecting Levinas, Derrida proposes that the mourner returns himself to the gaze of the lost friend, through a practice of embodiment “between introjection and incorporation.”[22] This willingly endured gaze places the mourner under a kind of unconditional imperative or obligation to remember. This obligation is impossible, in that it cannot be honored continuously, in every moment of a necessarily conditioned and situated life. But the pressure of this unconditional, like the pressure of the other tropes of ethico-political impossibles Derrida has elaborated (an unconditional hospitality, an aneconomic gift, an undeconstructable justice) creates the opening for a situated experience of aporia, which for Derrida is the condition of just ethico-political decisions. Mourning as the assumption of this impossible responsibility of remembrance, in the conserved and sustained gaze of the gone friend, would be, would have to be, interminable.

This re-conception of mourning seems to emphasize the singularity of the friend and the mourner’s intimate memory of her face and gaze. Clearly, mourning can be a work of remembrance, of one person undertaken by another, that affirms the survival of a relation of friendship or love. But would it be possible to mourn the loss of a stranger, as well as a friend? Can one “lose” a stranger? And strangers, in the plural? And would it be possible to mourn collectively, rather than as a single mourning individual? In Specters of Marx, Derrida affirms all four possibilities. To “learn to live,” he argues there, means: “to learn to live with ghosts, in the upkeep, the conversation, the company, or the companionship, in the commerce without commerce of ghosts.”[23] Close critical reading of an inherited tradition of white supremacism, for example, would be a practice of living with ghosts, of mourning as responsibility. But Derrida underscores the political dimension of this “hauntology” by insisting on its proximity to justice and the interminable work of enacting justice through practical decisions and performances: “To live otherwise, and better. No, not better, but more justly. But with them… And this being-with specters would also be, not only but also, a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations.”[24] The aim of realizing justice, as far as possible but always under the spurring pressure of an unconditional justice that demands more, is a collective task or project. Mourning as an infinite responsibility to the gone can now be seen more clearly as part of a more general, collective reach for justice, beyond all the established and conditioned givens. Derrida affirms this reading when he expands the community of ghosts; no justice, he contends, without responsibility “[…] before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism.”[25] Finally, we would need to expand this ghostly community even more, to take into account what Derrida, in The Animal That Therefore I Am, calls “the waging of a kind of species war,” “a war without mercy against the animal in the form of a pax humana.”[26]


With regard to the crucial link between loss and love, environmental philosopher and anthropologist Thom van Dooren has reflected helpfully on the processes by which we may come to recognize and feel a stake in the disappearance of human and more-than-human strangers. Discussing the observed mourning rituals of crows, including the ‘Alala or Hawaiian crow last seen in the wild in 2002, van Dooren suggests that grief on the edge of extinction points us to “a particular kind of shared world or shared life.”[27] He goes on: “This possibility, this way of being with others, is a complex biosocial achievement, requiring the coming together of evolutionary histories and emotional and cognitive competencies to produce embodied subjects who are unavoidably emotionally entangled with one another. It is only inside these particular biosocial configurations that the passing of another out of the world can be experienced and felt as a genuine loss. But loss is not experienced in the face of all change or even death. It is not enough for two such beings to have lived alongside each other, in proximity to each other; rather, they must also in some way have become at stake in each other, bound up with what matters to each other. In other words, they must in some sense, more or less consciously, have come to inhabit a meaningfully shared world.”[28]

Grief and mourning, van Dooren concludes, borrowing a phrase from Vinciane Despret, is a “a very particular process of ‘learning to be affected’.”[29] Indifference to the fate of others is also a learned biosocial behavior. Clearly, modernity has taught and rewarded such indifference. But now, as the edges of extinction loom so visibly, is it time to relearn how disappearing others can matter and become important to us? In this sense, mourning would be a process of learning to understand, and love, more.

Here, then, is the conception of mourning I return to: a politicized, struggle-oriented collective project that supports practical responses to the eco-genocide of the present by working through the eco-genocides of the past. This means working to understand how history continues to form and shape the present and future, and to track terror and domination back to their social logics, to the rules, hierarchies, constructed divisions of labor, dogmas, myths, and fantasies that drive and underwrite them. It means learning and thinking against the dominant histories and philosophies that merely affirm the placeholders of power and naturalize their dominance. The work of mourning estranges the mourner from all easy identifications with the victors of history, their triumphal public spectacles, and their “facts on the ground.” What begins with feelings of disturbance and pain in the experience or witnessing of injustice continues through critical reflection. Collective and interminable, this mourning work of critical reflection remains in mutual mediation with the mourner’s emotions. Learning more may generate more moments of sadness, fear, or anger. But it also inspires, I will dare to say, feelings of empathy, admiration, affective entanglement, and, yes, love. It is not necessary to assert any single, only acceptable understanding of this term, “love”; we know it, all of us, by feeling it, by receiving and giving it. The deeper this work of mourning goes, I am sure, the more love the mourner discovers. The sense of community, of responsibility and obligation to those who are loved, expands – finally to encompass all the entangled communities of life on earth. The relations of kinship held sacred in many Indigenous traditions (Mitakuye Oyasin, in the Lakota language: “all my relations” or “we are all related”), for example, would be one possible form of an ethico-political community expanded to include all forms of life, respected and valued in relations of mutuality. Donna Haraway’s calls for “making kin” and “kinnovation” are a contemporary reworking of this Indigenous ethical perspective [30]

Avowing love and commitment to the whole community of life does not mean a collapse into undifferentiating universalism or ethico-political relativism.[31] Rather, a perspective has been gained from which struggles against eco-genocide are understood as struggles to defend the biospheric conditions of all life, and from which all local struggles for justice can be grasped, simultaneously, in their planetary context. This would be my understanding of the term “cosmopolitics.” In a cosmopolitical perspective, subject position emphatically matters. Back to the questions: What is being lost, and who is losing it? Clearly, those on the receiving end of state terror or environmental injustice have urgent traumas and losses to mourn and are obviously in a different position from those who, in whatever degrees of implicatedness, can only approach those traumas and losses in heavily mediated ways. The distinctions between subject positions with regard to specific acts or episodes of violent injustice – victim, perpetrator, bystander, collaborator, beneficiary, resister, latecomer – as well as other socially constructed identities, whether elective or imposed, are crucially important. “Acts of mourning can only begin from within the historical specificity of such positions and the borders between them. But the movement of mourning should not seize up in exaltation of such borders.”[32] Working through the damage being inflicted in the present by a global social process become automaton of eco-genocide entails understanding this damage in its full relations to the damage inflicted in the past and the damage already programmed for the future. This is a massive work of mourning in which everyone can participate and to which everyone can contribute, provided they are willing to learn and change. A triple movement of research, remembrance, and change is involved. First, and most urgently, such mourning remembers and seeks to respond to those now most exposed to eco-genocide, whether they be friends, strangers, lovers, family, companions, or anonymous unknowns, and mourns those victims among them, “human and not,” who were not rescued in their dire need, who did not find, or were not given, refuge. Second, it remembers and continues to reflect on the victims of past ecocide and genocide, whose cultures, communities, ecological assemblages, and lifeways were shattered or disappeared and whose voices have been silenced and experiences excluded from the dominant histories. Third, it takes seriously the self-flattering myths and fantasies of capitalist modernity, from techno-meliorism and militarist-megalomania all the way to white supremacism and species supremacism, and remembers the need to mourn any narcissistic wounds endured by those struggling to critique, deconstruct, and detach themselves from those myths and fantasies. To lose a deeply held sense of identity and position, even if lethally fantasmatic, is also traumatic. Our present positionality indicates our respective points of entry into these processes. But eventually, unless arrested or deflected, these movements converge. The responsibilities of membership in the full community of life supply the pressure of an unconditional that guides but also spurs the conditioned decisions of situated living. I return to some of these points below.


A true cosmopolitics requires us to expand the scope of obligations.
– Vinciane Despret and Michel Meuret[33]

I am certainly not the first or only writer to inscribe the work of responding to eco-genocide within the practices and processes of politicized mourning. Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing, two of the most inspiring thinkers of communities as multispecies entanglements, have both underscored the necessity of mourning the irreversible losses that already characterize the ruins of capitalist modernity.[34] And what for me are the most profound and moving reflections on the loss of more-than-human lifeways are coming from the admirable work of Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, Eben Kirksey, and others in the Extinction Studies Working Group.[35] The sheer reduction of wild mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, and fish populations, estimated to be 58% between 1970 and 2012, and likely to reach 67% by 2020, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2016, is deeply shocking.[36] Imagine how traumatic it would be for surviving individuals and families, if any human community were reduced by more than half in barely more than four decades. (And not forgetting either that in the first decades of the European invasion of the Western Hemisphere, many Indigenous peoples suffered even greater population losses.) Even more distressing than this loss of wildlife abundance are the rates of anthropogenic species extinction, estimated now to be around 100 species lost per day.[37] How far will this Sixth Mass Extinction go? No one can say, but I doubt anyone sensitive to this trauma and its implications will dispute that it has already gone far too far. The loss of any is a loss to all: this is the lesson that we, as planetary collectivity, have still to learn. It is not in anyone’s power to stop this ecocidal destruction of communities and hemorrhaging of life immediately, today or tomorrow. Stopping it would entail the radical change of social logics I have been invoking, and that change requires active resistance but also the hard work of mourning, in the sense I have indicated. There are no magic bullets or short cuts.

In a recent text written for the Extinction Studies Working Group website, van Dooren and Rose emphasize that mourning aims at change and transformation. In a 2013 TEDx talk advocating “de-extinction”, Stewart Brand dismissed the work of mourning as a waste of time: “Sorrow, anger, mourning? Don’t mourn, organize.” Disturbed by Brand’s construction of an opposition between mourning and activism, van Dooren and Rose retort: “Buried within Brand’s suggestion is a deep misunderstanding about the nature of mourning. We don’t mourn for the fun of it, or to avoid doing something about a loss…. [Rather,] mourning is a process of learning and transformation to accommodate a changed reality. Mourning is about dwelling with a loss and so coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed, and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here. In this context, genuine mourning should open us into an awareness of our dependence on and relationships with those countless others being driven over the edge of extinction.”[38] Indeed, given the interminable character of this project, mourning is neither an alternative nor a prerequisite to practical decisions and actions. It can rather be understood as the supporting work of embodied and critical-intellectual change that empowers subjects and communities to respond within the entangling givens of difficult situations.

In this regard, I believe it is also crucial to learn from Indigenous peoples who have survived and coped 500 years of geno-ecocidal settler colonialism. On the topics of grief and resilience, many Indigenous writers are generously sharing their knowledge and experience. Writing of his time with the water protectors at Standing Rock, Irish-Cherokee scholar and activist Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) recounts: “At the [Veterans for Peace] meeting, a Standing Rock man who had been on the scene since the group of youth ran 500 miles from Omaha in late April to stop the pipeline, began speaking about the many treaties being broken by the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and of President Obama’s useless request that the company “voluntarily” cease operations. Heads shook in disgust as he spoke, but tears flowed when he told of how the poisoned prairie dogs in the path of the pipeline led to the tragic deaths of the eagles who feed upon them and to at least seven buffalo who grazed from grasses in the poisoned dirt.”[39] The tears that flowed testify to the love for more-than-human community members and the land, skies, and waters they know as home. There is no conflict at all between these expressions of grief and mourning and organized ethico-political action.

Potawatomi biologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer elaborates this point in the context of a discussion of extinction and loss in relation to love of place: “I think it’s easy to feel despair when you do pay attention to the living world and see all of those losses. But despair is a way of accepting powerlessness, and I think that we have to engage hope. And one of the links I think between despair and engaging hope and moving forward is actually grief – to look at those wounds of the world and really feel them. Native peoples with their great history of loss on Turtle Island are cultures which are familiar with the grief of loss of that living world. But that grief opens the door to healing. I think you have to really feel it in order to recognize how much you would miss what you love when it is gone. And we take so much for granted, and we don’t miss it until we don’t have it any more. But to really feel that grief, to feel the love that you have for a place, I think can also impel hope.”[40] Here, then, is an allied conception of mourning, with slightly different accents. Kimmerer’s story of spiritual development emplots a movement from loss and despair to grief, to hope and ethico-political empowerment. Love of place and its more-than-human life is the impelling and energizing constant.

Native Americans march to a sacred site on Sunday that they say was disturbed by bulldozers working on the Dakota Access Pipeline, near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux tribe's protest.

What drives this hatred is impossible for me to understand.
– Linda Hogan[41]

Growing awareness of climate chaos, toxification, and extinction is certainly stirring emotions, even if there is no single, uniform emotional response to these urgencies. Nor does there need to be. We all feel from the conditioned positions we find ourselves in. We all begin somewhere, in some particular and localized entanglement of relations and identities that mediates our exposures and emotions. To some degree, we learn to feel – or at least, to feel more. We may seek out helpers and teachers in this learning process, but it cannot be imposed or coerced. No one can be forced to love or mourn. Mourning, by all accounts, requires a willingness to acknowledge change and to respond by changing: this is what every mourner has to bring and keep bringing to the process. But feelings can certainly be shared, and this in itself can be a helpful and empowering experience. Cultural critic and activist Brian Holmes, sharing the feelings he experienced at the 2016 Anthropocene Campus at the House of World Cultures in Berlin, writes: “I felt the combination of a shared sense of awakening and a tremendous sadness. It was so strong that I felt it as something obvious, present, omnipresent, like a tidal wave. Then after it left me I realized this was probably something almost ineffable, something that had suddenly become intimate and mute, something that would be almost impossible to communicate and at a certain point, impossible to really remember. The cause of this feeling was just that we were 300 people all concentrating at least to some degree on things that overwhelm us – and knowing that we were far, far, far from the first to do this and feel this way.”[42]

But if feelings, and especially painful feelings of disturbance, are crucial to the coping and mourning of eco-genocide, it must be acknowledged that feelings are routinely manipulated today by the industrialized, spectacularized, and hyper-mediatized cultures of social control. The vividly imagined possibility of our collapse into planetary ruination was already, long ago, converted into the cultural merchandise of Hollywood thrillers, pulp fictions, and computer games. And the generalized terror and anxiety that these entertainments foster and leave behind become available for a racist and scapegoating politics of fear and hatred.[43] This would be yet another conception of mourning: the work of distinguishing between transformative emotion, which I have been suggesting is always at bottom a form of love, on the one side, and the exploitation of feeling, on the other. Exactly here, I am sure, art can make important contributions. Experienced with more-than-rational forms of understanding, critical and decolonizing artists are skilled at parsing emotional charges and exposing the workings of manipulative feeling. And artists also teach us that working-through and playing-through can be allied practices. These points, I think, are what Brian Holmes is pointing to, in his invocation of the artist, within a warning that there are dangers, too, in any public “call to feel” the pain of eco-genocide: “But emotion is also a performance, especially in the USA. Even when we succeed in making the ceremonies we still don’t have them. At the very least the whole situation demands that one become an artist. In order to be able to express, maintain and act on a tragic sense of solidarity that continually slips away.”[44]

As Holmes suggests, the public performance of emotion is predestined for the manipulating circuits of spectacle. A pertinent example of this process of capture is the memory industry, which, just as Adorno feared, has shamelessly commodified and instrumentalized the remembrance of genocide. As the ice melts and sea levels rise today, and as plastic soup gathers in gyres, we are also awash in the cultural flotsam of pseudo-remembrance. The distinguishing of transformative from exploitative emotion would go hand in hand with the rescue of critical counter-memory from an extractive plunder of history that merely serves what Adorno called the “ever-new return of the always-the same.” Certainly there are ways of realizing these aims by means of art.

Indeed it seems that feeling will either spur and re-energize a collective work-play of politicized mourning, or else will be enlisted in a desperate attempt to deny and defer change, to keep the eco-genocide machines of modernity running at full speed. I have tried to show that feelings of pain and disturbance, avoided like the plague in our dominant modernist culture, can in this context be welcomed as openings to mourning and reflection. And I have indicated how a critical project of mourning responds to the knotting of ecocide and genocide today with an expansion of responsibility and a new return to the old conviction that we all, “human and not,” are entangled in love, kinship, and community. Hour by hour today, what Marx called the “automatic subject” of our dominating social process is reducing biodiversity and altering the course of evolution. As Thom van Dooren notes, we are making war on the community of life that reorganized and regenerated in the aftermath of the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction, 66 million years ago: “This is the community of life that produced our own species, the community to which we belong. It is not a static, atemporal ecology, but an infinitely complex set of entangled flight ways – countless generations of all kinds holding themselves and each other in the world.”[45] To feel and embody the living connection that energizes this expanded community, and to be moved by its globalized destruction, is to awaken our powers of rescue and self-rescue. Multispecies communities and commoning, and more-than-human cities of refuge and refugia: these, from below, are the passwords and love letters of the day.



[1] The evidence justifying my use of the terms “genocide” and “ecocide” is both overwhelming and easily accessible. Some, but by no means all, of that evidence will be cited in the text. I do not consider these terms either solely juridical concepts or mere metaphors. I believe the range of reference and meanings established in common language usage suffices, and is more helpful in discussing and understanding the systemic problem than are strictly legal or quantifying definitions calibrated to more restricted contexts and problems. I use the terms “eco-genocide” and “geno-ecocide” to emphasize how these lethal and destructive processes have become tightly knotted together in capitalist modernity. The ethico-political “truth” and “untruth” at stake in all these terms is emphatically not the good old correspondence theory of positivism and analytic philosophy.

[2] Gene Ray, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 2011); and “Hits: From Trauma and the Sublime to Radical Critique,” Third Text 97, vol. 23, issue 2 (March 2009).

[3] Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015), p. 160.

[4] Science studies has illuminated how this science-based public “knowledge” is constructed; on this, see note 19, below. The scientific consensus about the anthropogenic causes of global warming (hence climate chaos), toxification, and species extinction is overwhelming, and knowledge about this consensus is now well established, despite denialist campaigns, in the globalized public spheres.

[5] See Kelly Hayes, “Where Movements Meet: Black Lives Matter Organizers Visit #NoDAPL,” Truthout, 2 September 2016, online at (accessed 24 October 2016). For context, see Sarah van Gelder, “The Big Difference at Standing Rock is Native Leadership All Around,” Truthout, 13 September 2016, online at (accessed 24 October 2016).

[6] In short, the anthropocene thesis posits a new condition of mutually-shaping relations between social and biophysical systems on a planetary scale. Therefore, neither natural nor social sciences alone can grasp these relations. Moreover, since the ethical and political implications touch deeply-held cultural values and identities, the humanities cannot be excluded from research into the anthropocene situation. The research communities of science studies, environmental humanities, and animal studies, for example, are constituted by strongly transdisciplinary practices and perspectives aiming to synthesize and critically reflect on emerging knowledge. Today interdisciplinarity is a necessary condition of self-reflexivity in research (that is, the fullest possible awareness of researchers’ own positions within the field of knowledge production and the ways in which those positions are implicated in social and political processes). This may always have been true but only now becomes inescapable.

[7] See, in addition to other texts cited in these notes, the essays in Katherine Gibson, Deborah Bird Rose & Ruth Fincher, eds., Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene (Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books 2015); and Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, eds., Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015).

[8] On wild law, see Cormac Cullinan, Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011). On earth law, see online: (accessed 24 October 2016). On ecocide law, see online: (accessed 24 October 2016). For an introduction to Pachamama and the rights of nature, see online: (accessed 24 October 2016).

[9] See, among numerous helpful publications, Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014); Clive Hamilton, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013); and Isabella Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, trans. Andrew Goffey (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015).

[10] See Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative,” The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (April 2014): 62–69; Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” op. cit.; Jussi Parikka, The Anthrobscene (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, n.d.); and the essays collected in Jason W. Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (Oakland: PM Press, 2016).

[11] Among many discussions of the need for an alliance between critical theory and Indigenous knowledge, see Sandy Grande, Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought, Tenth Anniversary Edition (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); Jessica L. Horton and Janet Catherine Berlo, “Beyond the Mirror,” Third Text, vol. 27, no. 120 (January 2013):17-28; the essays in Gibson, Rose & Fincher, eds. Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene, op. cit.; Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011); and Gene Ray, “Writing the Ecocide-Genocide Knot: Indigenous Knowledge and Critical Theory in the Endgame,” South, a State of Mind #7 [documenta 14 #3], forthcoming, October 2016.

[12] James Der Darian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (Boulder: Westview Press, 2001). Despite new and accelerating technologies, the classic twentieth-century concepts of “culture industry” and “society of spectacle,” famously elaborated by Adorno and Debord, respectively, remain disturbingly relevant today.

[13] The Guardian (UK) now maintains a database of police killings in the USA, online at (accessed on 24 October 2016). See also the “Platform” of the Movement for Black Lives, online at (accessed on 24 October 2016). Although ignored by corporate mass media, Native Americans are being killed by police in the USA at a higher rate than any other group; see Stephanie Woodard, “The Police Killings that No One Is Talking About,” In These Times, 17 October 2016, online at (accessed 24 October 2016).

[14] To avoid confusion with a too facile and reductive economism: to say that these are “master logics” is to emphasize that in the globalized social force field, these logics have, so far, dominated competing and alternative logics. In the general historical pattern, rivals are enclosed, invaded, and absorbed. Evidently, the aim is exterminationist: the displacement and replacement of other lifeway logics in modernity mirrors the cultural genocide aimed at in settler colonialism. To escape this fate and survive, peoples who organize themselves differently are forced to retreat, evade, defend, and resist the dominant logics and their multiple agencies. But from this it does not follow that all alternative social logics, values, cultures, and lifeways have disappeared or been driven into actual extinction. I take it for obvious both that alternatives do continue to survive and to struggle against these dominant logics, and that their ongoing survival is crucial for cultural and biological diversity and for eventual pathways to radically different social logics on a planetary scale. Moreover, this is the endgame: today the joker or trickster has arrived with the news that capitalist modernity and its master logics are unsustainable and omnicidal. With regard to the earth’s non-human bio-chemical-physical processes and agencies, the human mastery claimed in these master logics is mere wish and pretense. In eco-geological time, as in the old myths, excess and overreach are brief flashes of ruin. Life will reorganize from whatever survives, but in the meantime ethics and politics, calibrated to humanist generational temporalities, are the practices we inherit and work to expand.

[15] For a concise and trenchant discussion of the importance of the European colonial plantation as proto-factory and model for industrial modernization, see Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), pp. 38-39: “In their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sugarcane plantations in Brazil, for example, Portuguese planters stumbled on a formula for smooth expansion. They crafted self-contained, interchangeable project elements, as follows: exterminate local people and plants; prepare now-empty, unclaimed land; and bring in exotic and isolated labor and crops for production. This landscape of scalability became an inspiration for later industrialization and modernization.”

[16] Marx famously analyzes die sogennante ursprüngliche Akkumulation in part eight of Capital, volume one. The standard translation by Ben Fowkes (“primitive accumulation”) is unfortunately misleading. More importantly, the theorists of Midnight Notes Collective showed during the heyday of neoliberalism that the processes Marx described are not simply a “prehistory of capitalism,” but continue even now as the attempted violent enclosure of all remaining commons. See Midnight Notes Collective, “The New Enclosures,” Midnight Notes 10 (1990) and reprinted in The Commoner, No. 2 (September 2001).

[17] Ashley Dawson, Extinction: A Radical History (New York: OR Books, 2016), p. 23.

[18] I borrow the wonderful phrase “more-than-human” from David Abram, who convinced me of its virtues in Geneva in 2015. Abram uses the even more resonant phrase “more-than-human matrix” in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Vintage, 2010), p. 7.

[19] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 98.

[20] For that matter, the forms and status of scientific knowledge have been downgraded radically since Descartes’ meditations on method. Unknowables haunt the old claims to certain, value-neutral knowledge of the world. The borders between matter and energy, like those between species, are insecure and cannot be policed. Despite awesome techno-powers of measurement and operation, exactitude turns out to be relative, epistemologically speaking; what is certain is that the results always carry ethical and political implications and often enough dilemmas. The sophisticated predictions of climate science and conservation biology, for example, are produced by a massive, distributed work of modeling based on estimates, probabilities, and linear extrapolations. What emerges out of this process of collaboration and peer-review is not the security of certain knowledge, but rather consensus about probabilities. Nevertheless, while the details are still debated, the phenomena of climate change and species extinction are firmly believed in, and with excellent justification. The conceptual distinctions between the Freudian conscious and unconscious generate all kinds of border troubles and anxieties as well, which is not to say that we must renounce them. The powerful opening pages of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment had already, in 1944, observed that, in the very rigor of its disenchantments, scientific enlightenment reverts to myth. These critics argued (like Paul Feyerabend after them) that the element of belief persists in every interpretation of data: faith and social values are constitutive of scientific knowledge. The facta bruta are finally knowable only as social facts, and under the dominating pressures of modernist myths, the social contract threatens to become a suicide pact. For more textual and visual reflection on this theme, see Iain Boal and Gene Ray, “Through the Lens, Darkly,” in John O’Brian, ed., Camera Atomica (London: Black Dog Publishing and Art Gallery of Ontario, 2015). I thank Aurélien Gamboni for an incisive reading and comments on this note.

[21] Derrida, The Work of Mourning, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[22] Derrida, Specters of Marx, op. cit., p. 97.

[23] Ibid., p. xviii.

[24] Ibid., pp. xviii-xix. And p. 54: “Inheritance is never a given, it is always a task.”

[25] Ibid., p. xix.

[26] Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, ed. Marie-Louise Mallet and trans. David Wills (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp.101 and 102.

[27] Thom van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), p.139.

[28] Ibid., pp. 139-140.

[29] Ibid., p. 140.

[30] See Haraway’s much-awaited Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016). Edward O. Wilson’s famous biophilia thesis would be another version of interspecies love and entanglement that flares up into visibility only in the emergency of its threatened disappearance and extinction. On the same theme, see Shierry Weber Nicholsen, The Love of Nature and the End of the World: The Unspoken Dimensions of Environmental Concern (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), and Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, op. cit.

[31] I use the term “community of life” here, as I believe Thom van Dooren does, to give ethico-political inflection to the planetary sum of unstable ecological assemblages (multispecies and abiotic) exposed to anthropogenic disturbance and destruction – and not forgetting, either, the entanglement lessons of Lynn Margulis, read by Haraway and Tsing: we are all, each of us, already, multispecies communities. Our bodies are, right down to our cells and DNA, endosymbiotic assemblages of bacteria, retroviruses, and genes. In other words, commoning is what we are, as well as what we do.

[32] Ray, Terror and the Sublime, op. cit., p. 2.

[33] Vinciane Despret and Michel Meuret, “Cosmoecological Sheep and the Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet,” Environmental Humanities, Special Issue on Multispecies Studies, eds. Thom van Dooren, Ursula Münster, Eben Kirksey, Deborah Bird Rose, Matthew Chrulew, and Anna Tsing, vol. 8, issue 1 (May 2016), p. 26.

[34] See Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, op. cit., and Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, op. cit.

[35] Online at: (accessed on 24 October 2006).

[36] WWF, Living Planet Report 2016: Risk and Resilience in a New Era (Gland, Switzerland: WWF, 2016), p. 12. Online at: (accessed on 27 October 2006).

[37] Franz J. Broswimmer, Ecocide: A Short History of the Mass Extinction of Species (New York, Pluto, 2002), p. 1, cited in Dawson, Extinction, op. cit., p. 9.

[38] Thom van Dooren and Deborah Rose, “Keeping Faith with Death: Mourning and De-extinction,” (10 November 2013), online at: (accessed on 24 October 2016).

[39] Four Arrows, “Is Standing Rock the Oil Industry’s Last Stand? It’s Up to Us to Make It So,” Truthout, 17 October 2016, online at: (accessed 24 October 2016).

[40] “Conversations around the Green Fire: Robin Wall Kimmerer,” 27 January 2015, online at: (accessed on 24 October 2016).

[41] Linda Hogan, “Why We Are Singing for Water at Standing Rock, in front of Men with Guns and Surveillance Helicopters,” Truthout, 7 October 2016, online at: (accessed on 24 October 2016).

[42] Brian Holmes, personal email correspondence, 7 May 2016.

[43] This would be the “bad” catastrophism critiqued in Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, and James Davis, eds., Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012). That said, I have tried to show here why avowing catastrophe or emergency is not always or automatically politically counterproductive, as many activists and organizers assert; for me, such avowals mark necessary moments of politicized mourning.

[44] Brian Holmes, personal email correspondence, 7 May 2016.

[45] Van Dooren, Flight Ways, op. cit. 42.