‘Flight Ways’ by Thom van Dooren reviewed

Flight WaysBen Garlick and I were asked to review Thom van Dooren‘s lovely book, Flight ways: Life and loss at the edge of extinction, for Progress in Human Geography. Here’s the uncorrected, pre-proof text.


We live in an era of great loss. A growing number of creatures and species hover between life and oblivion, and if trends continue the world will soon grow quieter in their absence. Van Dooren situates his work in the ‘shadow’ of this period of great loss. Taking his cue from Donna Haraway and Deborah Bird Rose, he understands species as storied ‘life ways’ unfolding amid embodied, situated ‘ways of life’, rather than as natural kinds. Creatures, he argues, are less representatives of than participants in their species story. Flight Ways keeps one eye on deep, evolutionary time, and the other on the work of the living, whose labour holds together the long chains of intergenerational species being. Since species are knotted ways of life, it follows that extinction is not some singular event but the slow unravelling of a particular geographically assembled ecology, as the work and relationships necessary to continue the species become harder to sustain. This is established in chapter one, where we learn how consumer plastics floating in the Pacific garbage patch clog up albatross digestive systems. These plastics – along with DDT, PCBs and the toll of death levied by fishing by-catch – disrupt the vital work of rearing the next generation of birds. This is Flight Ways’ central thesis: extinction is far from an acute event (the asteroid sealing the fate of the dinosaurs); extinction is more often a drawn-out process, a ‘slow unravelling of intimately entangled ways of life’ (p. 12).

The book contains five extinction stories of varied length and depth. Each draws on field visits, natural history, ethology, and biophilosophy. We meet crows that mourn their partner’s passing with an ‘inconsolable moaning’ (p. 125). We meet Sydney’s urban penguins: little birds so faithful to their remembered breeding grounds that, stubbornly, they return each year to brave roads, dogs and concrete sprawl, even as their colony dwindles towards local extinction. The longest and (as the empirically richest) most successful chapter tells the story of North America’s whooping cranes. Van Dooren exposes the violence inherent in conservation efforts to ‘hold space open’ for this endangered species: the violence of imprinting, artificial insemination, the sacrifices made by conservationists, and the violence of birds reduced to sperm and egg factories. We see how acting to ‘dull the edge’ of extinction for some usually entails harm for others.

The author stresses that ‘flight ways’ do not denote a generalised, holistic web of life, but historically and geographically situated knots of relating. This comes through most forcefully in the chapter on vultures. India has lost 97% of its Gyps vultures, largely due to the vulture-toxic antibiotic (diclofenac) used in rural areas to prolong the productivity of cattle, which is ingested by scavengers feeding on the carcasses of dead animals. The resulting disease and increase in rabid dog populations is felt hardest by the poorest in society, who become drawn into ‘amplified patterns of death and suffering’ (p. 58). Not all are bound up equally with other species, and this chapter proposes that we might think politically about just who is most at risk when life ways begin to unravel.

Yet at the same time as being grounded in specific lives, Flight Ways – like much work in the environmental humanities and ecocriticism – often invokes an abstract, universal ‘we’: extinction ‘remakes us’ (p. 5); if ‘we’ learn more about nonhuman place-making it might provide more space for ‘species’ (p. 85); ‘our responsibility for a shared world’ (p. 147); crows can remind us that if ‘we’ mourn we do not so alone (p. 143). The ‘we’ here seems not to refer to a pre-existing human community, but to want to call into existence a new form of Anthropocene species being. While many geographers remain skeptical of invocations of the universal human for the way they efface political difference, there might yet be some use for a human ‘we’ that emerges out of an epoch defined by great loss.

But if so then there needs to be much greater clarity about how this community comes about and how it relates to particular knots of humans and other creatures. Is a new ‘we’ formed among all those who read Flight Ways or similar books? By those who are caught up in painful, unravelling ways of life? Are conservationists involved, or do they cleave to the old stories of wild Nature? Such questions require detailed empirical investigation as well as artful eco-writing; too much is hidden, we fear, by tacking quickly between particular human knottings and a universal ‘we’.

Flight Ways parallels work in animal and more-than-human geographies (we say ‘parallels’ because the book doesn’t really engage with any of the rich geographic scholarship on nonhumans). This is unsurprising since the environmental humanities and covalent parts of geography both ply the winds of post-naturalism. Geographers will not be surprised by the book’s familiar conceptual arguments: overlapping circuits of care and violence, the entanglement of human and nonhuman lives, the idea that animals ‘story’ the earth. But the overlap shows the exciting potential for geographers working at the entangled fringes of the human to draw from the interdisciplinary project of environmental humanities, and vice versa.

Van Dooren writes appealing and uncluttered prose; we found Flight Ways both moving and profound. The book’s argument – that extinction is a slow unravelling of entangled lives – is compelling, novel, and important. Academic studies of the nonhuman too often get caught up by their own cleverness. Van Dooren, by contrast, has written a book that appeals to the heart as well as the mind and, we might hope, to the soul of the human to come.

Ben Garlick & Franklin Ginn, Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh



Fossil free

via http://theconversation.com/hit-fossil-fuel-firms-where-it-hurts-and-support-divestment-33129

My piece on the inspiring rise of the fossil fuel divestment campaign!

Fossil fuel companies use their economic clout to sow doubt about climate science. They lobby for generous subsidies and flout indigenous rights. They commission toys and sponsor art at the Tate, the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company and other cultural institutions to normalise the presence of big oil in our everyday lives … The divestment movement confronts the core logic – license, extract, profit – of fossil fuel companies. One key tactic to make it harder for companies to extract carbon is to erode their political legitimacy.

The Word for World is Forest

Ursula Le Guin is a goddess; her work, the antidote to dumb, techno-imperialist science fiction.

I’ve just finished The Word for World is Forest, published in 1976. While less well known than the sublime Left Hand of Darkness (1969) or the epic The Dispossessed (1974), it has all the characteristics that make her writing so compelling. Even if it suffers from two big flaws…


The setting: Earth, we learn, is a barren, treeless wasteland. Humans have set up a military-industrial colony on a vast ocean- and forest-covered world, which they have dubbed ‘New Tahiti’. (Yes, it’s a bit like James Cameron’s Avatar, but without body transfer, blue aliens, Sigorney Weaver, or those silly flying critters).

The colonists want the planet’s priceless trees; they have enslaved some of the indigenous humanoids to help them. Driven to desperation, the indigenous people eventually rise up and wage a guerrilla war.

The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin’s more allegorical works: the Vietnam parallels are obvious. In a lesser writer this would mean you could stuff the book in its pigeon hole and forget about it. Not so with Ursula! While allegorical, the commentary is not laboured. Le Guin’s work, while always of its time, usually transcends its time too.

Durburow-UKL-SigmaTauDelta2013_300x323Her prose is disarming: prosaic, yet moving; precise, yet ethereal. Her feminism is consistent, political, anti-essentialist – a far cry from Margaret Atwood’s more recent, compromised concoctions (more on that soon!). Thematically, Le Guin worries away at the prospects for trans-species friendship, for fleeting but real connection across a gulf of difference. In this book a friendship, at once insubstantial and capable of transcending death, emerges between the indigenous humanoid, Selver, and the human coloniser-scientist, Lyubov.

Lyubov is one of the colony’s ‘speshes’ (silly neologisms are one of the book’s forgivable of-its-era minor weaknesses), specialist scientists sent to learn about the indigenous people and their planet’s ecology. Lyubov is no detached, objective scientist however. He forms a friendship with his alien informant. He is aware of the political umbrella safeguarding his work space, and of his own meagre political capital. Alone, isolated amid military and company men, he breaks down in tears at a meeting where the future of the indigenous inhabitants is being debated.

Lyubov is an admirable scientist: meticulous, curious, polite, but also engaged, emotional, caring, angry and passionate. He shows science transcended the strictures of personal objectivity, willing to lay bare the ethical and personal investments required to make knowledge. He is the ‘good guy’ if you hadn’t guessed.

Lyubov explained to Selver why the humans had come. Selver, as far as he is able, recounts this explanation to his kin.

“He [Lyubov] said they had come from another place which is not the forest; the trees there are all cut down; it has a sun, not our sun, which is a star. All this, as you can see, wasn’t clear to me … It does not matter much. It is clear that they want our forest for themselves. They are twice our stature, they have weapons that outshoot ours by far, and firethrowers, and flying ships … They have left their roots behind them, perhaps, in this other forest from which they came, this forest with no trees.” (p56)

Like all the planet’s indigenous people, Selver hasn’t experienced violence until the human colonists arrive. Le Guin errs here: she gives the planet’s people no history or politics; they exist in a dream-state of innocent balance with their dark forests until the humans show up. It is borderline unforgivable, really: an anachronistic throwback to 1960s noble-indigenous-living-in-harmony type guff. This is Big Flaw No.1. Her other books don’t reproduce this mistake.

1st Edition cover - inexplicable since the indigenous people are described as simian and fur-covered (above), not green nymphs     276767

1st Edition (left) and later edition cover. The indigenous people are described as simian and fur-covered (right), not green nymphs (left)

Early in the book we learn that the arrogant military administrator, Davidson, raped and killed Selver’s wife. Davidson is very clearly the bad guy. Lyubov = good, Davidson = bad. This is Big Flaw No.2: in-your-face moral ciphers. The book reminded me of another forest-world fiction, Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon. The good/evil dynamic in this Le Guin novel really is alarmingly similar to the fight for Charlie Sheen’s tortured middle class soul between the evil Barnes and good soldier Elias.

The more I think about it the stronger the parallels. Did Stone read this book?

Lyubov vs. Davidson / Elias vs. Barnes

In Platoon, as Sheen flies away in the chopper he realises that evil Barnes and good Elias will forever wage war in his soul, and that he is a “child born of those two fathers”.

The outro in The Word for World is Forest has Selver reflecting that both Davidson and Lybov will haunt his world forever, even if the humans were to leave. For once one has learnt killing, one cannot forget it:

“’Sometimes a god comes,’ Selver said. ‘He brings a new way to do things, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death … There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.’”

The humans arrived and from them Selver’s kin learned violence, aggression and authority. Yet some hope – even if ultimately dwarfed by violence – lies in the trans-species friendship between Selver and Lyubov.

At once an anti-colonial polemic, a plea for respecting difference and a dirge for lost innocence, The Word for World is Forest might not be Le Guin’s best work. But that still puts it in the science fiction top 10. Because Le Guin is a goddess.