Review of Jamie Lorimer, Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 284 pages, $25.00.
Reviewed by Gregory Hollin and Eva Giraud
Jamie Lorimer’s book Wildlife in the Anthropocene considers possible forms of conservation and multi-species engagement during the Anthropocene, a geological epoch where all corners of the Earth are entangled with human action and the possibility of a Nature ‘out there’ recedes into the distance. Lorimer, drawing upon posthumanism, new materialism and more-than-human geographies, addresses his topic through detailed and lucid engagement with empirical material and makes a strong argument that future conservation work must move away from a ‘national park’ model and embrace openness, experimentation, and risk. While Wildlife moves towards manifesto in this regard it does not adopt its own principles, rejecting a prefigurative form for a more conventional approach, and thus leaves open the question of how we should act and intervene amongst the capitalist ruins of the Anthropocene.
Anthropocene, multispecies, wildlife, conservation, cosmopolitics, biopolitics, more-than-human geographies
In his paper what was life? Stefan Helmreich suggests that a range of contemporary scientific pursuits ensure that ‘life’ has moved ‘out of the domain of the given into the contingent, into quotation marks, appearing not as a thing-in-itself but as something in the making…’ (2011: 674). Continuing in this line of scholarship, and perhaps going perhaps one step further, Jamie Lorimer, associate professor in human geography at the University of Oxford, argues that we are ‘after Nature’ and that forms of conservation must radically change in order to reflect this.
Lorimer means something quite particular when making this claim that we are ‘after Nature’. Specifically, he argues that Nature has traditionally been understood as being ‘out there’ beyond the influence of human hands. Conservation attempts, which are the specific focus of Wildlife, have reflected this and sought to ‘preserve a fixed Nature from modern, urban, and industrial Society by enclosing it in National Parks’ (2015: 5). Lorimer notes that these projects have been hugely successful (2015: 162) but, in the Anthropocene, are now destined for failure. Despite related thinkers (notably Haraway, 2014) noting the ambivalences of the term, Lorimer maintains the concept of the Anthropocene; a proposed geological epoch denoting the fact that, since the industrial revolution, human activities have marked both the face of the Earth and its breath, landmass and eco-system alike. As global environmental changes accelerate, the idea that we can cordon off a particular space and keep it ‘out there’, outside of human influence, becomes unthinkable. Lorimer’s book is written in response to this shift, ‘part critique, part manifesto’ (2015: 6), a diagnosis of the problem and a more-or-less tentative proposal for a solution. In a great deal of this project Lorimer is overwhelmingly successful but, as we discuss below, there remains scope for future empirical and theoretical work.
As noted above, the majority of Wildlife is concerned with a series of case studies detailing forms of conservation work being undertaken within the Anthropocene. Lorimer analyses these practices with reference to a wide body of theory – Deleuze, Foucault, Haraway, Stengers, and Whatmore, in particular, are brought to the fore – and, generally speaking, weaves together this theory with empirical material in a way which enlivens both. Indeed, Lorimer’s overall thesis can perhaps best be understood via a juxtaposition of two case studies through which both the conceptual and practical stakes in his argument are elucidated; the conservation of corncrakes in the Hebrides, a project premised on the Nature we’re now after, and the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, a project which offers a future vision for conservation.
For Lorimer, corncrake conservation is of importance for two core reasons. Firstly, the project is concerned with preserving a particular species within a particular cordoned off and protected area. Corncrake conservation is thus an example of the conventional approach to conservation as practiced within the United Kingdom and based on a Nature ‘out there’. This is ‘biodiversity conservation’, an ‘archetypical biopolitical practice’ (2015: 58) in the Foucauldian sense, wherein populations of ‘Corncrakes, crofters, and their ecologies had to be governed to perform to the optimal model scenario’ (2015: 90). Despite the broader critique, Lorimer takes time to note that this governance has been a broadly successful enterprise and ‘For the first time UK corncrakes have been aggregated as a quantifiable, dynamic, and knowable population of a species that can be made subject to rational management’ (2015: 93). It is also, as Lorimer shows, a practice dependent upon far more than abstract, rational counting and is, in addition, reliant upon:
…the ecological, corporeal, cultural, and institutional constraints that characterize the assemblage of UK nature conservation. It is dependent upon the material possibilities for field science, historic data, the real estate of nature reserves, and the resources of NGOs. (2015: 75).
Here, as elsewhere in the book, Lorimer is drawing upon his own work on ‘nonhuman charisma’ (e.g. Lorimer, 2007) and ‘affective logics’ (e.g. Lorimer, 2008; Lorimer, 2010), in order to provide a fuller understanding of biopolitical practice.
Secondly, corncrakes aptly demonstrate the futility of this traditional form of conservation and they do so for two reasons; firstly, following Latour (1993), Lorimer argues that the act of preserving a Nature ‘out there’ is oxymoronic; the act of preserving ensures that the corncrake’s habitat is ‘…dependent on the very technologies they purport to absent’ (2015: 25). More pressingly, in the Anthropocene it is impossible to stabilise nature to the extent that we can guarantee that corncrakes will always be able to flourish in this space provided for them in the Hebrides; the past, quite simply, cannot be returned to.
Against corncrake conservation, Lorimer considers the Oostvaardersplassen – a remarkable site and a source of true ethnographic gold. Conservation at the Oostvaardersplassen is geared not towards the protection of a particular flagship species but is instead oriented towards ‘ecological processes that are absent from contemporary landscapes – especially predation, grazing, succession, dispersion, and decomposition’ (2015: 100). This, Lorimer suggests, is a fundamentally experimental space where there is a ceding of control and the intent is not to restore a known and predictable world but, instead, to be open to a surprising new one populated by animals behaving in strange ways in unexpected places. This is a form of space which is not so much bio-political as cosmo-political and it embodies – not entirely, but significantly – the ideal that Isabelle Stengers (2010, 2011) and others (e.g. Hinchliffe et al, 2005; Haraway, 2008) have called for when acting in more-than-human worlds. It is also, suggests Lorimer, a space much better able to cope with the Anthropocene for it enacts a nature which relies neither on human absence nor timeless stability. It is this comparison between biopolitical and cosmopolitical modes of conservation which animates Wildlife and the case studies within it; avante-garde cinema and urban brownfield ecology are applauded for their openness to change, surprise, and risk while various modes of eco-tourism and, er, Dumbo are given reasonably (although always generously) short shrift for fitting into existing, safe, and stable narratives provided by humanistic and neo-liberal thought.
So Lorimer’s flag is firmly planted in the ‘multispecies commons’ rather than the national park and this is clearly the moment where Wildlife moves from critique to manifesto. This is not to say that this manifesto is not nuanced nor that the problems and ethical tensions it foregrounds are ignored. In particular, Lorimer raises two issues with cosmopolitically-oriented conservation. Firstly, it is noted that ‘fungible, laissez-faire neoliberal natures and fluid, self-willed ecologies are ontologically not that different’, and there ‘is a real risk that rewilding [as in the Oostvaardersplassen], with its purportedly open-ended ecology of surprises, could inadvertently play into the hands of those who would like to see them removed’ (2015: 117). This, it seems to us, is an important point and one that has yet to receive the attention it deserves across the diverse contexts within which cosmopolitical solutions have been proposed. Secondly, Lorimer notes that: ‘In an epoch of accelerated extinction, the future looks bleak for the vast majority of forms of life not blessed by charisma, adaptive enough to go feral, or productive enough to be domesticated’ (2015: 76). Thus the pace of change in the Anthropocene may simply be too great for the majority of organisms, something which Lorimer nicely demonstrates through a discussion of stag-beetles:
Unlike synanthropic species like bedbugs, termites, pigeons, and rats, which flourish within the mobilities of contemporary urban life, stag beetles require slowness and consistency to complete their life cycle. They are out of sync with the creative destruction of the city. (2015: 167)
Accordingly, ‘openness’ is never truly open and ‘trajectories towards homogeneity’ (2015: 169) are averted through very deliberate interventions. It is for this reason that, borrowing a phrase from Emma Marris (2011), Lorimer suggests we think of the new nature-after-Nature as a ‘rambunctious garden’; surprising, lively, out of control, and yet still in need of a degree of guidance and stewardship.
And, unfortunately, it is here that Wildlife finally falls down, for there is very little suggestion as to what this stewardship – the pruning, if you will – might look like. Lorimer argues that ‘thinking like an elephant, an insect, or even a molecule – can help attune to the diverse ways in which nonhuman life inhabits the novel ecosystems of an Anthropocene planet’ (2015: 176) but, if these acts might give us an idea as to the viable tools needed to prune in the future, then Wildlife is in no sense prefigurative: Every chapter of the book is based upon one or more papers published in well-established academic outlets; the theory used is deftly handled and wide ranging but, broadly speaking, returns to the usual suspects and; while Lorimer’s prose is never less than clear, it is also entirely typical of academic research. Here, at least, Flight Ways (2014) – recently published by Thom van Dooren and covering similar topics – has the edge for, while van Dooren’s ‘ethics of storytelling’ is perhaps less ambitious, it is certainly evident in both theory and practice. Thus, how exactly we might live and intervene ‘amongst the ruins’ (Tsing 2015) is, we think, still in urgent need of address.
Haraway D (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Haraway D (2014) Anthropocence, capitalocene, chthulucene: Staying with the trouble. Talk (online) available from: https://vimeo.com/97663518 (accessed 10th April 2015).
Helmreich S (2011) What was life? Answers from three limit biologies. Critical Inquiry. 37(4): 671-696.
Hinchliffe S, Kearnes MB, Degen M and Whatmore S (2005) Urban wild things: a cosmopolitical experiment Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(5): 643–658.
Latour B (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Lorimer J (2007) Nonhuman charisma. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 25(5): 911-932.
Lorimer J (2008) Counting corncrakes: the affective science of the UK corncrake census. Social Studies of Science, 38(3): 377-405.
Lorimer J (2010) Moving image methodologies for more-than-human geographies. Cultural Geographies, 17(2): 237-258.
Marris, E (2011) Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-wild Wild. New York: Bloomsbury.
Stengers I (2010) Cosmopolitics I. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Stengers I (2011) Cosmopolitics II. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Tsing, AL (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press
van Dooren T (2014) Flight Ways. New York: Columbia.
Further reading list
Candea M (2013) Habituating meerkats and redescribing animal behaviour science. Theory, Culture & Society 30(7-8):105–128.
Clark N and Yusoff K (in press) Special issue: Geosocial formations in the Anthropocene. Theory, Culture & Society.
Despret V (2013) Responding bodies and partial affinities in human-animal worlds. Theory, Culture & Society 30(7-8): 51–76.
Despret V (2004) The body we care for: Figures of anthropo-zoo-genesis. Body & Society 10(2-3): 111–134.
Gane N (2006) When we have never been human what is to be done? Interview with Donna Haraway. Theory, Culture & Society 23(7-8): 135-158.
Giraud E & Hollin GJ (2016) Care, laboratory beagles and affective utopia. Theory, Culture & Society. Epub ahead of print, 13 January 2016. DOI: 10.1177/0263276415619685
Latimer J Miele M (2013) Naturecultures? Science, affect and the non-human. Theory, Culture & Society 30(7-8): 5–31.
Van Dooren T (2016) Authentic crows: Identity, captivity and emergent forms of life. Theory, Culture & Society 33(2): 29-52.
Whatmore S (2013) Earthly powers and affective environments: An ontological politics of flood risk. Theory, Culture & Society 30(7-8): 33-50.
Yusoff K (2016) Anthropogenesis: Origins and endings in the anthropocene. Theory, Culture & Society 33(2): 3-28.
Greg Hollin is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds. His work is broadly concerned with the sociology of science and medicine. [email protected]
Eva Giraud is a lecturer in Media, Communication and Culture at Keele University. Her work explores tensions between activism, new materialism(s) and environmental politics. [email protected]