Mass Extinction

Indigenous Visions

Professor Audra Mitchell
Wilfrid Laurier University


The earth is experiencing a sharp increase in extinctions, which may produce a ‘sixth mass extinction event’ in just a few centuries. Mass Extinction: Indigenous Visions will engage with indigenous communities from around the world to develop a pluralistic conceptual framework for responding to this crisis. It aims to criticize, decolonize and pluralize existing conceptions of extinction and mass extinction, which draw solely on Western secular scientific ontology. Furthermore, it will contribute to creating a global-ethical framework for addressing the ontological and ethical dimensions of the unfolding extinction crisis. Many existing strategies aimed at mobilizing indigenous or ‘traditional’ ecology instrumentalize indigenous knowledge to scientific programs of management (e.g. conservation, seed and gene banks, synthetic biology). In contrast, this project will rebuild conceptions of (mass) extinction by drawing on indigenous ontologies from a number of regions: the circumpolar Arctic; North America; Hawai’i; Aotearoa New Zealand; southeast Asia; and Madagascar. It will bring together a group of leading indigenous and nonindigenous scholars with expertise across several fields: indigenous studies; anthropology; philosophy; science and technology studies; history; education; global ethics; and global governance. These approaches will be integrated to create an innovative , bespoke methodology for fostering rich dialogues about the global extinction crisis with diverse indigenous communities. During the proposed residential, the network will create the basis for a 5-7 year collaborative project, including a comprehensive methodology, research design, theoretical framework and research agenda. This research programme will further the goals of the ISRF by inaugurating an innovative, timely research agenda whose ‘blue-sky’, experimental approach and interdisciplinarity place it outside the remit of most funding bodies at this developmental stage. It will develop concrete responses to a set of profound reallife problems – not only the potential extinction of most currently-existing life forms, but also the global marginalization of indigenous peoples.

The Research Idea

The Earth is in the midst of a rapid, global acceleration of extinctions that may produce a sixth mass extinction event, defined as the elimination of 75% of existing species within a few centuries (Barnosky et al 2011; Ceballos et al 2015). In academic and public discourses, the concept of ‘extinction’ is discussed solely in the logic and language of Western secular science. Not only does this approach exclude alternative worldviews, but it also entrenches several limiting assumptions. For instance, it insists on sharp divisions between living/dead, human/nonhuman and organic/inorganic that clash with the deeply relational nature of planetary life (see Povinelli 2014). Moreover, these discourses present techno-scientific management (e.g. conservation; the creation of seed and gene banks; synthetic biology and even de-extinction) as the only feasible means of response. They are also increasingly dominated by financial accounts of the ‘value’ of life on earth (Sullivan 2013) that crowd out other registers of meaning and value. This project starts from a radically different basis: indigenous ontologies from several regions. Although each indigenous ontology is unique, many share ‘family resemblances’ such as: a fluid conception of the boundaries of the ‘human’; deeply relational worldviews; and alternative accounts of the meaning and importance of ecosystems that cannot be reduced to ‘value’. Re-thinking the concepts of ‘extinction’ and ‘mass’ extinction from across a range of indigenous ontologies can provide richer, more pluralistic accounts of ‘extinction’, ‘mass extinction’ and possible responses to the global extinction crisis.


Discourses of mass extinction are dominated by biological and ecological accounts focused on quantifying and predicting future patterns of species or biodiversity loss (e.g. Ceballos at al 2015; WWF 2014; CBD 2014; Régnier et al 2015; Barnosky et al 2011; Wake et al 2008; Wilson 1989; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1981). Some approaches within this field focus on the value of biodiversity to humans (Norton, 2008), which is increasingly calculated in economic terms (De Groot et al 2010; for critiques, see Sullivan 2013; Adams 2010; McAfee 1998). Each of these approaches entrenches an understanding of extinction as the loss of resources for human use, and is focused on proposing strategies for the scientific management of species. Recent work in the environmental humanities has examined how extinction is entwined with human subjectivity, collective history, social practices and cosmology (see Colebrook 2014; Morton 2013; Yusoff 2011; Heise 2010; Haraway 2008). These approaches challenge several tenets of Western secular scientific rationality – for instance, stark divisions between human/nonhuman – yet they remain grounded in an exclusively Western secular ontology. Meanwhile, anthropologies of extinction (Rose 2011; Sodikoff 2012; Van Dooren 2014) attend to indigenous ontology, but focus only on the relations between particular, localized species and communities. In contrast, the aim of this project is to address the global extinction crisis. Finally, conservation strategies focused on the use of ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ (TEK) seek to include indigenous knowledge in policy-making related to conservation. However, they tend to taxonomize, instrumentalize and fragment indigenous knowledge (Cruikshank, 2004), entrenching dominant Western secular scientific logics.

The Focus

The current global extinction crisis could affect the future not only of humans, but potentially of most forms of life on Earth. There are huge implications for human well-being: large-scale extinctions threaten food sources, economic stability and the cultural integrity of human groups. The destruction of life forms on this scale would also rupture unique, multispecies worlds and sever evolutionary processes that lend earthly life its richness and differentiation (Grosz 2011). This project takes a fresh approach by (a) framing the global extinction crisis as an issue of ontological and ethical (not just ‘scientific’) concern; and (b) drawing on indigenous cosmology, which has not been brought to bear in a robust way on these issues. Through this strategy, the project will offer new frameworks for comprehending and responding to mass extinction, which can influence governments, international organizations, NGOs and communities around the world. To this end, the project will foster respectful engagements with indigenous communities from several regions: the circumpolar Arctic, North America, Hawai’i, Madagascar, southeast Asia, Amazonia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Through these engagements, it will identify alternative ways of conceptualizing extinction/mass extinction; diverse accounts of its ontological and ethical implications; and concrete modalities of collective response.

Theoretical Novelty

This project will develop radically new frameworks for conceptualizing the global extinction crisis as a problem of ethics and ontology; there is currently no such framework available. Its primary aims are to elicit insight from indigenous communities and ontologies in order to construct a pluralistic account of what (mass) extinction is, what is at stake and how diverse communities might respond to it. Instead of appropriating indigenous knowledge to legitimate dominant scientific and policy narratives, this project will (re)construct alternative accounts of extinction on the basis of diverse indigenous ontologies. Crucially, much of the conceptual novelty that is expected to emerge from this project cannot be predicted in advance. For instance, it is expected that the term ‘extinction’ may not fit within many indigenous cosmologies and that alternative conceptions will emerge from discussions. This project is also conceptually innovative in that it seeks to draw across a range of philosophical currents that challenge dominant Western secular accounts of human/nonhuman, nature/culture and living/nonliving. To this end, builds on an emerging body of work that fuses indigenous philosophy and ontology with science and technology studies, feminism, (Tallbear 2011; Todd 2014), queer theory, posthumanism and new materialism. The project is also overtly decolonial, critiquing the intersections of the techno-scientific and managerial governance of ecosystems and genetic material (Goldberg-Hiller and Silva 2015; Tallbear 2013). Moreover, rather than focusing solely on ‘traditional’ knowledge, the project will draw on contemporary indigenous philosophy and practice as crucial sources of insight and foresight for addressing the global extinction crisis.


Although the residential research period will not include primary research, it will produce the basis for a 5-year project that will include substantial field research. To this end, several days of the residential will be devoted to developing a methodological framework for engaging in discussions of the global extinction crisis across diverse indigenous communities. The project will be carried out by an interdisciplinary team of researchers who are embedded with indigenous communities in several regions. They work in and across several fields: indigenous studies, science and technology studies, anthropology, history (including archival research), philosophy, the environmental humanities, global governance and ethics. One of the major goals of the residential will be to integrate methodological lenses and tools from across these fields to create an over-arching framework to guide the project. Over three days of the residential, the team will share methodologies and approaches, develop an interdisciplinary methodological framework, and formulate a research design that reflects this framework. This period of methodological work will include a mini-workshop with one or more invited speakers who have expertise in methodologies for studying indigenous nature-cultures (e.g. Tim Ingold and/or Noel Castree).

Work Plan

This period of residential research will produce three major outcomes:

  1. A research agenda/theoretical framework that grounds the broader project. This will be written up as an article for a peer-reviewed journal.
  2. A methodological framework and comprehensive research design for the broader project.
  3. An outline for a large-scale funding proposal to be submitted to funding bodies such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s ‘Insight’ and/or ‘Partnership’ schemes.


Directly following the residential, the PI, RA and other contributors will produce one or more co-authored papers setting out our research agenda, theoretical framework and/or methodological approaches. In the longer term, the residential will provide the basis for developing a 5-year collaborative research project based on the frameworks developed in the residential. Within three months of the residential, the group will submit a proposal to a relevant funder. Targets include the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Insight Grants (up to $400 000, deadline November 2016) or Partnership grants (up to $2.5 million, deadline February, 2017) to fund this large project. Other funding bodies and grant schemes will be identified and approached as appropriate. Assuming that the team is successful in attaining funding, the project will involve at least three years of fieldwork, plenary sessions (including delegates from the indigenous communities in which the team will work) and the development of a serious of academic articles, monographs and policyrelevant publications.


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Ceballos, Geraldo, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, Robert M. Pringle, Todd M. Palmer, 2015. “Accelerated Modern Human-Induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction” Environmental Sciences [Early View].

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  • Professor Genese Sodikoff Rutgers University, Newark
  • Professor Makere Stewart-Harawira University of Alberta
  • June Rubis University of Oxford
  • Dr Noah Theriault University of Oklahoma
  • Dr Zoe Todd Carleton University
  • Dr Sarah Wright University of Newcastle