Eco(Ideo)logy: Endangered Species, Environmentalism, and the Trauma of Existence
I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around our troubled relationship with nonhuman animals for quite some time now. On the one hand, this relationship appears crystal clear: when it comes down to brass tacks, nonhuman animals are a commodity, a tool, an object to admire or fear, but hardly ever a subject with comparable “rights” as human animals. Sure we can drum up a few exceptions to this like our beloved and ever-faithful canines, our lackadaisical and snarky felines, or any other of those so-called “companion animals” that share a place in our hearts and homes. What’s not so clear, to me at least, is the political, socio-cultural, and emotional clout that we often assign to certain “endangered” species populations while the condition of other more abundant species is met with apathy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of giving consideration to declining species populations. So, yes, maybe we should pay attention to the plight of the Salt Creek tiger beetle, and sure, most seem on board to protect the adorable orang from the nefarious palm oil companies. Might such environmental stewardship, however, contribute to a potentially dangerous ideology of ecology?
I can’t help but recall Slavoj Žižek’s discussion about trash from Examined Life (2008). He explains that ecology can be an instructive example of ideology today. Žižek remarks that one of the reasons that it’s tough for most people to think about their own environmental impact stems from the fact that human waste is quickly taken out of sight. We talk about pollution, but when we step outside, we often don’t see or smell giant piles of garbage or fecal matter in the street. Therefore, ecology -- and nature for that matter-- become decontextualized. Stuart Hall also adds an important caveat to ideology in general when he writes, “the hope of every ideology is to naturalize itself out of History into Nature, and thus to become invisible, to operate unconsciously” (qtd. in Outka 2). That “thing” or “concept” or whatever becomes normal, “natural.” So why then does this ideology of ecology, or what I’m calling - eco(ideo)logy, give more weight to those species labeled threatened or endangered and less to those of abundance? And what happens to us when a species finally does go extinct?
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 gives one answer to the first question. The Act states that these endangered or threatened species “are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people,” and “the United States has pledged itself as a sovereign state in the international community to conserve...various species” (ESA, Sec.2). The language of the ESA reaffirms (if there was any doubt) that the human remains always at the center of such “eco”-driven pursuits. Well, the United States is “sovereign” after all. Looking at the World Wildlife Fund’s website, the top five most critically endangered species are the Amur Leopard, Black Rhino, Bornean Orangutan, and Cross River Gorilla (“Species List”). Then, under this rhetoric: Rhinos and Gorillas hold a value because, let’s be honest, zoos would be pretty dull if these creatures vanished.
Most individuals in the continental U.S. don’t have the funds to go and see these magnificent “educational” or “recreational” creatures in the wild (unless, of course, you’re a dentist with too much money and not enough sense). If you’re like most people, the rare and endangered can be seen either on television or at your local zoo. Both of these methods, however, are carefully crafted for the human pleasure, edification, and consumption, and both curate (to varying degrees) the illusion of the “wild” encounter but in a safe, climate controlled environment. We want to preserve and conserve other species, but we will not sacrifice human safety (e.g. Harambe); therefore, we are not the animal that therefore they are (and do not follow).
Over abundance, on the other hand, has caused humans to kill certain species on a shocking scale. Just think about the passenger pigeon that once numbered between three and five billion in America at the beginning of European settlement or the Bison which numbered around 27 million at the start of the nineteenth century. By 1914 the last passenger pigeon, Martha, died in a Cincinnati Zoological Garden, and by 1890 there were only about 1000 bison left in North America. The bison barely survived, but the pigeons were not so fortunate. Moral: we like to shoot stuff.
Fun Fact of the Day: According to our good friends at Britannica the most abundant species, as a whole, are mammals, and the most abundant mammal is human at over seven billion. Homo sapiens are closely followed by “the brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) and house mouse (Mus domesticus), whose evolutionary histories and distribution are closely tied to our own” (Pallardy).
Eco(Ideo)logy attempts to deny its own anthropocentric “nature” (as does deep ecology). In being stewards of the environment as John Muir encourages us to be, we all too often are buying into the illusion that our good deeds are in large part altruistic, rather than a decontextualized and anthropocentric act. It is my suspicion that it is not necessarily pleasure or education or recreation or altruism which drives our need for preservation and conservation. Instead, it might be that when our own anthropogenic impact has irreversible ecological damage, such as in the extinction of a species, this is a moment in which this eco(ideo)logy momentarily reveals itself. In this Age of the Anthropocene, we tend to position ourselves as essentially responsible for everything. We are balancer of tides; the master of moon; the arbiter of nature; and this seems embedded in the ideology of ecology. Yet when this anthropocentric responsibility fails, the effect is trauma.
In order to circumvent this environmental trauma, we feel compelled to preserve a healthy, but manageable population of a particular species -- a balance. (Again, my mind is drawn to the simulacrum of the zoo – which each exhibit framed as the reproduction of the species “native” habitat.) It seems strange, and evidence of a potential trauma, that we feel the need to intervene, to impose the semblance of control. So we figure out which species are “native” and which are “nonnative”; we set a limit on the number of whitetail deer that an individual (with the proper paperwork) can kill per season; and we protect those species whose numbers are dwindling. However, might it not be helpful to experience the extinction of the Black Rhino or Amur Leopard in order to break through the facade of ecology, the false precept that humans can control, tame, and/or live in harmony with nature?
Let me clarify that I am not promoting the idea that we should kill nonhuman animals (endangered or otherwise). What I’m saying is that “allowing” such moments to occur might be helpful toward coming to terms with our own immensely devastating ecological impact. This is an impact that exceeds the environmental offset of buying a hybrid car or bringing your own canvas bags to the grocery store. To go back to Žižek’s trash example, if the 254 million tons of trash that Americans produce every year was left to rot in the streets, might we be more aware of just how much we throw away? Perhaps. As Rob Nixon has brilliantly identified, there are kinds of “slow violence” which remain difficult to recognize because they occur on such a small scale over a long period of time. The current ideology of ecology seems, to me at least, to contribute to a kind of slow violence. By simply existing as a human being, in a herd seven billion strong, you will contribute to ecological damage, and being continually confronted with this might cause greater systemic change than current casual ecological awareness. Seeing value in the extinction of a species is not a carte blanche pass for intentional carelessness or ecological deafness. Instead, it may be the first step to suture the trauma from simply being alive.
 For More on the subject of “companion species,” see Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet (2007) and Margo DeMello’s “Chapter 8: The Pet Animal” in Animals and Society (2012).
"Endangered Species Act (1973)." Encyclopedia of United States Indian Policy and Law (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
Outka, Paul. Race and Nature: From Transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011.
Pallardy, Richard. "The Most Numerous Organisms in the World." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web.
"Species List." WorldWildlife.org. World Wildlife Fund, n.d. Web.
Žižek, Slavoj. Examined Life. Directed by Astra Taylor. Zeitgeist Films, 2008.