A RADICAL HISTORY
“Ashley Dawson’s slim and forceful book … makes a case for being the most accessible and politically engaged examination of the current mass extinction … a welcome contribution to the growing literature on this slow-motion calamity.” —Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Yale University, in the Los Angeles Review of Books
“Dawson's searing report on species loss will sober up anyone who has drunk the Kool-Aid of green capitalism. For a bonus, readers will learn a lot from his far-sighted, prehistoric survey of extinction.” —Andrew Ross, author of Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal
“Dawson has summed up the threat to our fellow species on Earth with clarity, urgency and the finest reasoning available within the environmental justice literature. He explains how capital's appropriation of nature cannot be 'offset,' nor solutions found in financialization. Fusing social and ecological challenges to power is the only way forward, and here is a long-awaited, elegant and comprehensive expression of why the time is right to make these links.”
—Patrick Bond, Professor of Political Economy, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg,
and author of Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis Above, Movement Below
“A succinct and moving account of the co-evolution of capitalism, imperialism, and climate change. Dawson demonstrates not only how capitalism created climate change but also why the former must be challenged in order to halt the latter. Offering not only critique but also solutions, this rousing book is a great tool for anti-capitalists, climate change activists, and those still making sense of the intrinsic connections between the two.”
—Jasbir Puar, Associate Professor, Graduate Program Director Women's and
Gender Studies, Rutgers University, author of Terrorist Assemblages
“Historically grounded, densely researched, fluidly written, Ashley Dawson’s book on extinction is a powerful and painful exploration of human civilization's environmental irrationalities. Yet Dawson does not see annihilation as inevitable and he even points towards an alternate path.”
—Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change
and the New Geography of Violence
Print + E-book: $20/£16
Some thousands of years ago, the world was home to an immense variety of large mammals. From wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers to giant ground sloths and armadillos the size of automobiles, these spectacular creatures roamed freely. Then human beings arrived. Devouring their way down the food chain as they spread across the planet, they began a process of voracious extinction that has continued to the present.
Headlines today are made by the existential threat confronting remaining large animals such as rhinos and pandas. But the devastation summoned by humans extends to humbler realms of creatures including beetles, bats and butterflies. Researchers generally agree that the current extinction rate is nothing short of catastrophic. Currently the earth is losing about a hundred species every day.
This relentless extinction, Ashley Dawson contends in a primer that combines vast scope with elegant precision, is the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole.
This attack has its genesis in the need for capital to expand relentlessly into all spheres of life. Extinction, Dawson argues, cannot be understood in isolation from a critique of our economic system. To achieve this we need to transgress the boundaries between science, environmentalism and radical politics. Extinction: A Radical History performs this task with both brio and brilliance.
Publication July 2016 • 132 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-682190-40-1 • E-book 978-1-682190-41-8
Ashley Dawson is a professor of English at CUNY, New York City. He is the author of Mongrel Nation and The Routledge Concise History of Twentieth-Century British Literature, as well as a short story in the anthology Staten Island Noir.
The people of Rome were kept obedient to imperial rule not just by subsidized grain, but also by a combination of bread and circuses. In the latter, the class of slaves whose labor sustained the Empire was forced into gladiatorial matches to the death. They were joined in these bloody spectacles by wild animals brought from the farthest corners of the empire to die in combat with humans and with one another. Lions, leopards, bears, elephants, rhinos, hippos, and other animals were transported great distances to be tortured and killed in public arenas like the Colosseum, until no more such wildlife could be found even in the farthest reaches of the empire. The scale of the slaughter was monumental. When Emperor Titus dedicated the Colosseum, for example, 9,000 animals were killed in a three-month series of gladiatorial games. While there is no evidence that the Romans drove any species to complete extinction, they did decimate or destroy numerous animal populations in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Indeed, the Roman Empire was probably responsible for the greatest annihilation of large animals since the Pleistocene megafauna mass extinction. As was true of the Sumerians, Rome annihilated most of the large animals it could get its hands on and reduced most of the lands it conquered to desert.
To justify this carnage of wildlife, Roman attitudes towards the natural world shifted markedly. During the early days of the Republic, Romans regarded the Mediterranean landscape as the sacred space of nature deities such as Apollo, god of the sun, Ceres, goddess of agriculture, and Neptune, god of freshwater and the sea. As Rome expanded, however, these religious beliefs became largely hollow rituals, disconnected from natural processes. During the high days of the empire, Stoic and Epicurean philosophies that legitimated the status-driven debauchery of the Roman upper classes prevailed. Orgies of conspicuous consumption, in which the wealthy would eat until they vomited, only to begin eating again, became common. By the time Christianity became the official state religion of Rome in the late 4th century, there was little to differentiate Roman philosophy from the dominant attitude of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, in whose creation myth God grants human beings absolute dominion over the world he has made. Humanity, the Bible and Christian tradition held, was placed apart from nature by God, gifted with an immortal soul and a capacity for rational thought that legitimated the transformation of the natural world in the pursuit of human self-interest.
This orientation toward nature could not be sustained indefinitely. The spices and other luxury foods consumed by the dissolute Roman elite in their banquets had to be imported at great expense from locations as distant as India. The more exotic the food, the better; as recorded in the Apicius, a cookbook for elite Roman feasts, items such as thrushes and other songbirds, wild boars, raw oysters, and even flamingo were on the menu at elite banquets. Rome could not export enough goods to pay for these luxury imports, and was increasingly forced to pay with scarce gold and silver. Severe economic crises crippled the empire, forcing emperors after Augustus to end the customary distribution of free food to plebeians and to institute taxes on Roman citizens. The empire collected the funds it needed to subsidize military campaigns mainly collected from farmers, who consequently could not afford to invest in the production of crops and fell increasingly into debt. Environmental degradation intensified, and the empire found itself unable to produce the food surplus on which its reproduction depended. Ultimately, Rome was no longer able to pay its large and far-flung standing armies, and, after a turbulent 500-year existence, the overextended empire fell to the invading barbarian hordes of the north. Rome today is ironically remembered mainly for environmentally destructive achievements such as the Colosseum, suggesting that subsequent cultures learned remarkably little from the unsustainable dominion and ultimate eclipse of the empire.