Only Human discussion with Thom Van Dooren, 16 November, Glasgow

The chapter on albatrosses ends with the following challenge,

As nesting birds quietly ignored my close presence, I reflected that perhaps what is most tragic about the current situation is not the “failure” of albatrosses to adjust or adapt to new threats and an altered environment: intensive long-line fishing or brightly colored plastics that look like food.  Rather, what is most tragic is another failure to adapt.  Our own failure – in which some societies and some people are far more complicit than others – to come to terms with our own relatively new capacity to systematically alter environments in a way that undermines possibilities of life for other living beings and, ultimately, for ourselves.  Perhaps it is we who have not yet “evolved” into the kinds of beings worthy of our own inheritances. (p.43)

Van Dooren’s Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction constantly questions human exceptionalism.  One of the tropes of modern urbanisms and contextual or social arts practices is ‘place-making,’ perhaps something we might assume to be uniquely human until we read of the Little Penguins inhabiting New South Wales, Australia.  Van Dooren challenges the way we use the word ‘habitat’ when talking about other species’ places where we use the word ‘home’ for our own (p.80),

It is precisely this inability or unwillingness to recognize penguins’ relationships with local places as significant – as meaningful and vital – that enables us to so blithely evict them from a shoreline.  In this context, what has been usurped is not a home, not a meaningful and important place, but a piece of interchangeable “habitat.”  And so the inability or refusal to recognize how penguins relate to particular places undermines the significance of their relationships to these places and, in so doing undermines the importance of the claim that they make on them.  But penguins do not occupy “habitats.” Rather, they inhabit experiential worlds in which a burrow might meaningfully be understood as a “home.”

Please come and talk about extinction and human exceptionalism on Sunday 16 November at 12.30 in the James Arnott Theatre, Gilmorehill, University of Glasgow – part of the Only Human? Glasgow programme.

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