Mourning the Dodo: On Significant Otherness in the Anthropocene — Part 2


Pictured here is a “grolar,” one of the many arctic hybrids that are part of the “sexual revolution” going on in the Arctic due to climate change.

In my post last week I wrote about the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (MEMO) currently under construction on the Isle of Portland off the southern coast of England.  This conceptually sophisticated project, led by the architectural firm of David Adjaye, offers a thoughtful means of linking local, global, and planetary histories of the extinction crisis while drawing attention to the fight to preserve the earth’s biodiversity.  As I noted last time, I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea of extending private grieving and collective mourning to include non-human earthly companions that have gone extinct or are gravely endangered.  But I’m uneasy about the MEMO project’s aspirations to becoming a world heritage site that rivals St. Paul’s Cathedral and other historical landmarks.  Such a stone monument seems like an odd nineteenth-century relic in a digital, networked world.

But also, as my colleague Lisa Sideris of Indiana University noted in her response to my post last week, one wonders if such big mythical stories of human achievement may have gotten us into the trouble we now face, rather than helping to adapt more humbly to the challenges of inhabiting the Anthropocene.  By congealing the complexities of the extinction crisis into bas-reliefs of four indicator species, the project favors a cosmic history of humankind driven by anthropological constants, rather than stories about the local landscapes created by often marginalized human communities and threatened plants and animals upon which they both depend and exploit.  The MEMO education center’s core species stories, we learn from the project’s prospectus, will “bear witness to exactly the same threats (my emphasis) now faced by endangered species and those who seek to conserve them”: the dodo tells the story of invasive species; the Bali tiger of habitat loss; the passenger pigeon, of overharvesting; and the golden toad, climate change. It will also include stories of “hopeful conservation solutions” to biodiversity loss, including the reintroduction of Przewalski’s horse to the Mongolian steppe in the 1990s.

My uneasiness about a centralized extinction memorial stems mostly from what I’ve learned about such monuments in the context of German Studies, my field of origin.  The experience of two world wars, the atrocities of Nazi Germany, and the collapse of communism thrust Berlin and other cities into the forefront of contentious debates about public memorials after 1989.  In his 1993 study of Holocaust memorials, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, for example, James Young noted that centralized memorials usually fail to heal the psychological wounds of warfare or the trauma of mass murder.[1]  As Young demonstrates using a series of case studies, contentious debates that go on before a memorial is emplaced are where the gritty textures of memory become evident.  Acrimonious exchanges over the siting, content, interpretive strategies, and aesthetic form of memorials expose contentious and often suppressed collective memories about the causes and consequences of traumatic events, the identification of perpetrators and victims, and the possibilities of reconciliation or restitution.  For Young, it’s the pre-construction debates, rather than the finished product, which generate the most productive memory work—and it’s in this spirit that I offer a few observations about MEMO, where I fear a form of catch-all perpetration threatens to sideline more uncomfortable accounts of how and why species become extinct, and what we might do to stem that loss.

Let me begin with the controversy surrounding former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s commissioning of an enlarged copy of socialist sculptor Käthe Kollwitz’s 1937-38 Pietà to her dead son and placing it at the Royal Guard House (Neue Wache) on Unter den Linden as a “central monument to the victims of war and dictatorship” to illustrate the fraught nature of memorialization.  Critics of Kohl’s plan argued that the enlargement of what Kollwitz intended as a small and private memorial to her son did violence to the aesthetic integrity, symbolic meaning, and political convictions of Kollwitz.  They also charged Kohl with lumping together “victims of war and dictatorship,” thus blurring the line between victims and perpetrators of violence.[2]  Victims of war and dictatorship included European Jews to be sure, but it also seemed to encompass non-Jewish Germans who had survived Allied bombing campaigns, or were expelled from Eastern Europe after the war—even though many had benefited from their privileged place in the regime’s racist “people’s community” before 1943.  Other members of this shared community of suffering included East Germans, maybe non-Germans who had lived under fascist dictatorships abroad, perhaps anyone who had experienced “man’s inhumanity to man.” Such catch-all victimization, critics contended, tended to elide uncomfortable questions about the deeper history of German and European anti-Semitism and racism, the specific goals of the German perpetrators of war and the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s, the experience of other religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities targeted for annihilation, and the complicity of ordinary Germans in the crimes of the Third Reich. At the same time, the timing of Kohl’s decision and the siting of the monument in Central Berlin along the former sectoral boundary seemed to invite East Germans to share in a can-do reunification project that saw their forty-year experiment with state socialism as merely an unfortunate by-product of the Cold War and Soviet imperialism.

One can see from the Berlin example that central memorials often unleash unintended controversy when they elide complex and uncomfortable explanations for mass killing–even when the goal is to prevent such atrocities from occurring again.  The MEMO design team’s distillation of the causes of the Sixth Extinction to four key processes offers scientific understanding of the crisis, but the processes appear rather anonymous and inexorable, disconnected from culturally and social specific settings, choices, and emotional engagements that might prevent future losses.  The dodo and the passenger pigeon, representing the problems of invasive species and overharvesting, respectively, have long served as keystone species in the global memory of extinction, indicative of the reckless indifference of European colonizers and settler communities in unfamiliar environments. And yet nowhere does the memorial as currently conceived link the endangerment of species to the grossly uneven power within the human species to shape the distribution of life or evade the consequences of ecological loss.  Which species might symbolize the complex ways in which today’s neo-liberal forms of enclosure in the name of development—which include land grabs for eco-tourist resorts in East Africa or timber plantations in Indonesia—force small communities to “overharvest” local species for distant markets? What role will local people play in the conservation success stories dominated largely by white male scientists, who Dan Brockington refers to as “celebrity conservationists”?[3]  How will the designers treat “conservation refugees” such as East Africa’s pastoralists, whose ancestral lands have been gazetted as national parks since the late 1950s and who now see international conservation NGOs as potential enemies of human rights?[4] How will the organizers grapple, too, with stories of rural people who have neither endorsed nor welcomed the re-introduction of mammalian predators, such as the gray wolves or panthers regularly poisoned or shot in the Western and Midwestern regions of the United States? Should we toll the bell, too, for those domesticated species kept in factory farms, whose forced reproduction for distant meat markets entangles them in deforestation and habitat loss and ensures them a short life and mechanized death?

Beginning the story in England, the major player in the colonialist extinction catastrophe, is fitting, but I wonder if we might push the local story beyond Robert Hooke’s discovery of fossils in Dorset.  What if, instead of funding a whole new memorial in a rather remote location, the Duke of Edinburgh used part of his MEMO gift to expand interpretation at the existing Iron Bridge Gorge Museum west of Birmingham?  The Severn Valley is already a UNESCO World Heritage Site that tells the story of the early industrial revolution.  Such an interpretive expansion could include the role of the steam engine in climate change—a major driver of extinction.  For it was James Watts’ labor-saving device that enabled capitalists to use profits extracted from enslaved laborers in the Americas to de-skill artisan handworkers at home and ignite the subterranean coal deposits that have sharply increased atmospheric carbon concentrations since the mid-nineteenth century. Visitors could ponder how a cadre of male capitalists in northwestern Europe created the preconditions for a process of “climate change” that is now usually seen as a lamentable byproduct of affluence among all of us.[5]  And what about the thousands of fossils that remain in storage at dying natural history museums across Europe and the United States—what might $43 million do to revamp existing local collections to tell a story of threatened species in people’s backyards? We faced this dilemma at my own university’s McKissick Museum, where we dusted off the fossil collections to tell a story about collecting called Natural Curiosity.

The Memorial Observatory’s emphasis on an elegiac depiction of species loss may seem fitting at the planetary scale, but as Ursula Heise notes in her book Nach der Natur [After Nature], such lamentation over the “Death of Nature” replays anxieties about modernization that can foreclose attention to the unintended consequences and deep ironies of the Anthropocene.[6] Colonialism and conservation are deeply intertwined, for example; the dodo’s demise drew Europeans attention to the potential rapid deterioration of island ecologies across their empires, and led to calls for forest and game reserves.[7]  How does the elegiac mode aid us in grappling with the unanticipated sexual revolution going on in the arctic in response to climate change—with grizzly bears expanding their range able to mate with polar bears, creating genetic hybrids known as “grolars” (see the photo at the top).  Should these be “freaks” be eradicated for the sake of genetic purity, or should we, as Bruno Latour argues, “love our monsters” in the Anthropocene? And perhaps the dodo is not-yet-dead. Stewart Brand’s recent TED talk on the “Dawn of De-Extinction“—a proposal to use manipulation of DNA fragments to bring back the dodo and re-populate it along with a host of other iconic species—is only the latest in a host of proposals for engineering a “Good Anthropocene” of geo-engineered climate and genetic manipulation.  Big stone edifices don’t usually invite us to reflect on complex local stories filled with irony, contradiction, and unintended consequences.  I like to imagine what might happen if we took some of the oddly shaped and unused fragments of limestone at the MEMO site and watched as they skipped unpredictably across the sea or rolled down the cliffs at varying speeds, colliding with one another and creating new patterns, new possibilities.  Perhaps MEMO can still help us find more creative ways to inhabit a vulnerable, multi-specied world in which extinctions need not be inevitable and the currents of life remain inherently unpredictable.


[1] James Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
[2] Stephen Kinzer, “Berlin Journal; The War Memorial: To Embrace the Guilty, Too?,” New York Times, 15 November, 1993. Available at: [Accessed 25 January 2016]
[3] Dan Brockington, Celebrity and the Environment: Fame, Wealth, and Power in Conservation (New York: Zed Books, 2009).
[4] Mark Dowie, Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009).
[5] Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities, vol. 6 (2015): 159-165.
[6] Ursula Heise, Nach der Natur: Das Artensterben und die moderne Kultur (Suhrkamp, 2010).
[7] Richard Grove, Green Imperialism : Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Orgins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, Studies in Environment and History (Cambridge ; Cambridge University Press, 1995).

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