- Animal Activism and Environmentalism in an Age of Extinction
On June 19, 2015, a team of biologists, including Paul R. Ehrlich, author of the 1960s bestseller The Population Bomb (1968), published a brief study in [End Page 17] Science Advances on the future of life on the planet. Their forecast was dire: the world is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, a cataclysmic biotic collapse on par with the end of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Since 1900, more than 450 vertebrate species have disappeared, an extinction toll that will continue to increase over the next few centuries. “If the currently elevated extinction pace is allowed to continue,” they warn darkly, “humans will soon (in as little as three human lifetimes) be deprived of many biodiversity benefits” (read: the basic ecological conditions necessary to sustain life as we know it). And it is not like we can simply wait for things to improve: “On human time scales, this loss would be effectively permanent because in the aftermath of past mass extinctions, the living world took hundreds of thousands of years to rediversify.”1 As if that were not enough, the report’s authors blame human activity for the looming crisis. In their reckoning, global society has exploited the Earth’s living systems to the breaking point—and everyone, every thing, will pay the price.
Ehrlich and company are the latest in a long line of commentators to raise the specter of anthropogenic (human-induced) extinction. As journalist Sarah Kaplan points out, a 1998 poll of four-hundred scientists taken by the American Museum of Natural History found that “70 percent believe the Earth is in the midst of one of its fastest mass extinctions, one that threatens the existence of humans as well as the millions of species we rely on.”2 Since that time, warnings of global catastrophe have only gotten louder. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014), writer Elizabeth Kolbert predicts the current extinction event will “continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have—or have not—inherited the earth.”3 Recently, world leaders have also begun to raise alarms about the implications of environmental destruction. At the 2015 graduation of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Barack Obama called climate change a “serious threat to global security.”4 And just one day before the release of the Science Advances report, to the outrage of climate-change deniers and Earth exploiters worldwide, Pope Francis issued a more than one-hundred page encyclical condemning human destruction of the world’s ecosystems.5 Meanwhile, twenty-first century popular culture churns out apocalyptic visions of mass extinction and environmental collapse. Looking toward the future, films like John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009), David Michôd’s The Rover (2014), and Frank Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) paint a grim picture of a biosphere on the brink of destruction.
And yet, when confronted with the most important topic of our time—possibly of all time—the field of American Studies has largely responded with silence.6 In a recent article in American Quarterly, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson observes, “American studies, the academic discipline arguably most dedicated to progressive political engagement, social justice, and activism, has for the most part ignored climate change and the still-accelerating consumption of fossil fuels despite our awareness of the catastrophic environmental and human consequences.”7 Much the same can be said about American Studies’ engagement [End Page 18] with human-animal studies (HAS), an interdisciplinary field dedicated to understanding the complex relationships between human and nonhuman animals. Over the last two decades, HAS...