Introduction: Multispecies Care in the Sixth Extinction

From the Series: Multispecies Care in the Sixth Extinction

Photo by Felix Remter.

At the time of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached almost every part of the globe. The rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus reminds us, once more, of the porous boundaries between species and the social and ecological disasters of growth-driven capitalism. Human dependency on diverse ways of life for collaborative survival is more obvious than ever. This collection of essays explores the ambivalences of caring for other living beings in what some are calling the Sixth Extinction (Barnosky 2011; Kolbert 2014). Multiple anthropogenic crises—of health, climate, agriculture, economy, democracy, and more—have brought forth an unprecedented decline of life forms and ways of life. Species and population extinctions have occurred in the past, with extensive loss of biodiversity occurring five times in the deep geological past. Yet, the current “sixth extinction wave” (Ceballos and Ehrlich 2002) may prove to be the most rapid and devastating.

Taking the Sixth Extinction and its crises as a point of departure, the essays in this series gather diverse ethnographic stories of multispecies care to ask, How does care take form as, in, and through multispecies relations? What are the limitations and hazards of caring for nonhumans in contexts of loss and degradation? What is the potential of caring beyond the human for opening up (or disclosing) knowledge about other world-making practices and the possible ecological futures they may enable? Listening to these stories seems pertinent amid the chorus of other, often louder, voices that prophesize apocalypse and the doom of the world as we know it—or, conversely, that pronounce their unshakeable faith in solutions, in the “techno-fix” that will repair all damage through novel and ever advancing innovation.

Over roughly the past decade, scholarship in anthropology, feminist science and technology studies, and the environmental humanities has moved beyond romantic endorsements of care to attend to its many ambivalences and compromises: what Aryn Martin, Natasha Myers, and Ana Viseu (2015, 3) have referred to as “care’s darker side: its lack of innocence and the violence committed in its name” (see also Mol 2008, Puig de la Bellacasa 2010, 2017). In contexts such as health care (Mol 2008), aging (Buch 2015), domestic labor (Thelen 2015), and conservation (van Dooren 2014; Parreñas 2018), scholars have queried what care means and does, and for whom, in specific times and places. Beyond concrete acts or sites of care, this work has also often sought to interrogate the broader dynamics of power, understanding, and resource use that shape which modes of life and being are fostered, are rendered worthy of and legible to dominant regimes of care, and which are abandoned or disavowed (Martin, Myers, and Viseu 2015; Murphy 2015).

Drawing on these debates, and taking up Joan Tronto’s (1993, 103) understanding of caring “as a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible,” this series explores the place of care beyond the human in our current moment of mass extinction and ecological crisis. Our contributions emphasize that whatever else it may be, caring is always, unavoidably, a work of worlding: a practice that, as Manuel Tironi and Israel Rodríguez-Giralt (2017, 92) note, carries worlds with it.

Perhaps the most foundational question is what it means for people to care for other living beings: from bonsai plants (Lu, this series) to whole species of endangered snails (van Dooren, this series), from riparian ecosystems (Dewan, this series) to vague and shifting categories of life like “wild crop relatives” (Laboissière, this series). Each of these cases opens up specific challenges and possibilities. For example, as Felix Remter (this series) asks, is it the singular bee or the hive that is the more appropriate locus of care—and how might this shift in different situations and with what consequences? Such inquiries address the important question of which entities are being cared for and by whom, troubling the dominant rhetorical and policy discourses that position care work as something obvious or common sense to explore its profound ambivalences (e.g., Sims, this series; Celermajer and Wallach, this series). In several of the contributions, questions of care are worked out through practices of attachment and detachment, as in Marisol de la Cadena and Santiago Martínez-Medina's (this series) exploration of approaches to killing that might be “eventfully social or eventless and alienating.”

Paying attention to the histories and the different agencies of human and nonhuman beings in particular places reveals diverse, situated, and often conflicting practices of care. In her discussion of oil palm in Indonesia, Sophie Chao (this series) shows how histories and ongoing realities of colonization and capitalist extraction shape divergent practices of cultivation and care; but so too do the particular propensities of the plants themselves. Or, as Daniel Münster and Ursula Münster (this series) ask, how do the particular metabolisms of specific breeds of cows, and efforts to care for them, affect the well-being of people, livestock, and wildlife in capitalist agricultural landscapes in India? What does it mean to care not only for, but with—or even against—particular nonhuman others?

Asking these questions in any serious way draws us into the challenging terrain of interrogating not just the care for nonhuman life, but also the cares of nonhuman life. What do mosquitoes, orangutans, or rivers care for? What—if anything—matters to them, and why? How do they articulate and work toward their cares? And perhaps most puzzlingly of all, how can we know for sure? In this light, Matthew Chrulew (this series) argues that we are required to cultivate new competencies for seeing and understanding how living beings make sense of their worlds, perhaps even to develop new modes of human/animal intercultural co-becoming. And, in another context, Sara Asu Schroer (this series) wonders how intensive care for a species of endangered falcons comes to shape their world-making abilities—and through this, the future possibilities of human-falcon coexistence.

Ultimately, the essays in this series do not aim to give universal answers. Rather, by exploring the ambivalences of particular sites and practices of multispecies care in human dominated worlds, the contributions interrogate some of the many challenges and possibilities for living well and dying well in the Sixth Extinction. The hope that animates our collection is that this kind of attentiveness to the stories of particular lives, relationships, and multispecies communities—and to the cares that sustain but sometimes also threaten them—may lead to new, richer, and more careful possibilities for earthly coexistence.


This collection emerges from two events: “The Arts of Coexistence” conference (University of Oslo, May 2019) and the “Multispecies Justice” symposium (University of Sydney, June 2019).


Barnosky, Anthony D., Nicholas Matzke, Susumu Tomiya, Guinevere O. U. Wogan, Brian Swartz, Tiago B. Quental, Charles Marshall, et al. 2011. “Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?Nature 471, no. 7336: 51–57.

Buch, Elana D. 2015. “Anthropology of Aging and Care.” Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 277–93.

Ceballos, Gerardo, and Paul Ehrlich. 2002. “Mammal Population Losses and the Extinction Crisis.” Science 296, no. 5669: 904–7.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. 2014. The Sixth Extinction. An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt.

Martin, Aryn, Natasha Myers, and Ana Viseu. 2015. “The Politics of Care in Technoscience.” Social Studies of Science 45, no. 5: 625–41.

Mol, Annemarie. 2008. The Logic of Care: Health and the Problem of Patient Choice. New York: Routledge.

Murphy, Michelle. 2015. “Unsettling Care: Troubling Transnational Itineraries of Care in Feminist Health Practices.” Social Studies of Science 45, no. 5: 717–37.

Parreñas, Juno Salazar. 2018. Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2010. “Ethical Doings in Naturecultures.” Ethics, Place and Environment 13, no. 2: 151–69.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Thelen, Tatjana. 2015. “Care as Social Organization: Creating, Maintaining and Dissolving Significant Relations.” Anthropological Theory 15, no. 4: 497–515.

Tironi, Manuel, and Israel Rodríguez-Giralt. 2017. “Healing, Knowing, Enduring: Care and Politics in Damaged Worlds.” Sociological Review 65, no. 2: 89–109.

Tronto, Joan. 1993. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge.

van Dooren, Thom. 2014. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. New York: Columbia University Press.