By Jamie Wang
Among various de-extinction efforts, a recent excitement comes from the prospect of bringing back the woolly mammoth following the US startup company Colossal’s successful seed funding of $15 million. The plan is then to genetically edit the currently endangered Asian elephants through inserting the DNA sequences of mammoths, creating a cold-resistant elephant-mammoth. It is hoped that these hybrid creatures may be deployed to the Arctic tundra to slow down the melting of the permafrost.
Elsewhere, other kinds of technological sustainable solutions to guard or prepare the future are equally flourishing, from strong capital injection into vertical farms to surging interests in closed containment aquacultural system and land-based fish farming that seek to isolate fish from polluted external environments. High-rise and indoor controlled farming are increasingly positioned as the future of food production.
There have been ongoing debates surrounding the de-extinction of the mammoth: whether or not it is ethical or how realistic the proposal is. Adding onto these complex concerns, my interest lies in a particular, alluring future enacted by this kind of technocratic project. In this future imaginary, with the right financial resources and technologies, things are always controllable, including resurrecting the long-gone animals and intervening in the pace of climate change. Interestingly, the ethos of control that underpins a mammoth’s future also animates the other projects mentioned above that actively seek separation from the environment as potential ways to safeguard some humans. What kind of human-animal-environment dynamics do these practices encourage, or background?
In these future-making projects, genetically enabled creatures are put forward as possible means to benefit the environment while fish traverse between floors through tubes in high rise buildings to avoid algae blooms that cause mass fish kills. Likewise, vertical and controlled farms have been imagined as plant factories, in which the growing condition is meticulously controlled, from temperature, to humidity, to airflow, and to carbon dioxide, to ensure maximum productivity and stability. The produce of these farms is promoted free of pesticide, chemical and even dirt. Facing unprecedented extreme weather events and radical environmental issues, a sense of and actual losing control is accompanied by a growing desire to hyper-control and to develop ways of sheltering from the climate change uncertainty, from conjuring the cold-resistant elephant-mammoth to growing climate-resistant food.
At the same time, some of these purportedly sustainable or reparative work may contribute to or exacerbate the issues they seek to resolve. For example, there could be “unintended damaging consequences” of reintroducing hybrid mammoths to the Arctic. In a recent article, some researchers have questioned the supposed benefits of controlled environment agriculture, from their high energy consumption from using LED lights to limited nutrients due to the small range of the produce these types of farms commonly offer.
Amidst the ongoing naturecultural loss and the crumbling a multiplicity of ecological worlds, these projects strangely become a manifestation of control, rendering a kind of reassurance and an illusion of the capacity to persist without serious engagement with the current emergencies of the Anthropocene. Understood like this it becomes clear that these modes of futuring may further obscure some pressing and deep-rooted issues of the present, even unwittingly, such as the relentless pursuit of continuous development for capital accumulation or intensive farming that has caused the loss of many kinds.
What enables and is enabled by the imagining of a singular, narrowing controllable future is also a radically reduced thinking of and with webs of more-than-human relations. Consider the plants that grow in a vertical, soilless, and indoor environment. Suspended from the ground, they no longer nourish and are nourished by soil as well as a multitude of other organisms. Here, which future and relations have been foreclosed or disconnected? What kind of world would these elephant-mammoth hybrids inhabit as they labour away in the Arctic? How might these de-extinction and rewilding work help the conservation of disappearing Asian elephants? In this context, the complexity and relationality of life and death, loss and resurrection in intra-related worlds have been envisioned as an assemblage of genetic codes and technological controlled measures.
To be clear, my intention is not to denounce techno-mediated solutions. Indeed some offer exciting prospects and others could address some dire issues including food shortage in many regions. The point is that the vision of us consuming fish raised in the deep-sea containers or vegetables from the sky along with hybrid elephants restoring the Arctic in the background manifests a troubling way in which some modes of restoring or sustaining may ultimately become a kind of decoupling work that further pushes some humans away from their ecological surroundings, creating an increasingly lonelier place. Much more work is needed to attend to the social-cultural and ecological implications of these technological solutions. In this way, the imaginary of, or funding to a mammoth’s future may be shifted to a more relational, capacious and mammoth future with more-than-human worlds.
Jamie Wang is a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre Writing fellow and a research affiliate at the University of Sydney, and an editor of the journal Feminist Review. Currently, she is a visiting researcher in the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. Jamie holds a PhD in Environmental Humanities and Cultural Studies from the University of Sydney. Her interdisciplinary research is at the intersections of environmental humanities, urban imaginings, feminist STS and more-than-human studies in the context of climate change and environmental injustice. Jamie is also a writer and poet.