In his new book, NIU anthropologist Mark Schuller tackles a frightening prospect that seems all too relevant in these turbulent times: Is the human species headed toward extinction?
Set for publication Friday (Jan. 15), “Humanity’s Last Stand: Confronting Global Catastrophe” dares to ask this and other provocative questions, exploring the interconnections between climate change, global capitalism, xenophobia and white supremacy.
“Humanity’s Last Stand” is a call “to elevate our thinking to the species level,” writes former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney in the book’s foreword.
Schuller’s work surveys the struggles of disenfranchised peoples across the globe, from frontline communities affected by climate change, to #BlackLivesMatter activists, to Indigenous water protectors, to migrant communities facing increasing hostility. Across all these spectrums, he argues that we must develop radical empathy, requiring that we move beyond simply identifying ourselves as “allies” in movements for the betterment of our planet and start acting as “accomplices.”
Bringing together the insights of anthropologists and activists from many cultures, the NIU professor’s timely study ultimately points to establishing a more inclusive vision of humanity before it’s too late.
The title of your book, “Humanity’s Last Stand,” creates an apocalyptic image. Is humanity truly headed toward extinction?
Seen from an anthropological view, as a species, the warning signs are clear. This is the mandate of the Anthropocene: Ever more species are becoming extinct, including our closest relatives, primates. As the creators of this catastrophe, we can turn this around but only by taking deadly seriously the existential threats of climate change, proliferating warfare, xenophobia and racism.
What are the biggest threats to humanity, in your opinion?
We cannot continue to treat the planet as something to consume. Increasingly deadly droughts, wildfires and hurricanes are violent warnings that our global economic system is unsustainable. Over the course of our species’ history, humanity survived climate change and major catastrophes by migration—so putting up barriers only hastens our demise. White supremacy and racism, as products of capitalism built on plantation slavery and Indigenous genocide, keep us divided.
What prompted you to write this book?
In a single year, 2017, we saw four deadly Category 4 hurricanes following terrifying and proto-Fascist attacks on immigrants in the U.S. and the rise of alt-right white nationalists, out in the open and emboldened. I saw my students, colleagues and friends increasingly terrorized, and “allies” spinning our wheels playing “whack-a-mole” and being demoralized and ineffective.
The book explores interconnections between disparate topics such as climate change, global capitalism, xenophobia and white supremacy. How and why do you make these connections?
Capitalism was founded on plantation slavery, following Indigenous genocide. Capitalism requires growth at all costs; global capitalism entails colonial expropriation. Resources are taken from colonized peoples to enrich an increasingly small group, which builds literal walls, as well as walls of racism and nationalism, protecting its privilege. Following abolition, fossil fuels replaced slaves’ blood, sweat and tears, heating up the planet.
Your book unearths how capitalism was born from plantation slavery and the slaughter of Indigenous people. Can you briefly summarize here?
Following Columbus’s voyage, Western European powers fought over the “New World,” declared “terra nullius” (empty land) by the pope in 1493, after the Church’s 1452 blessing of slavery. Within a generation of contact, Indigenous people were literally decimated. As Eric Williams demonstrated 80 years ago, African slavery in the Caribbean provided the infusion of capital to fuel the industrial revolution.
You argue that we must develop “radical empathy.” What is that?
Radical empathy is moving beyond individuals, seeing the connections between people woven together by our global economic system. It is seeing how our own way of life may be out of step with humanity, possibly contributing to others’ oppression, and therefore may need to change. Seeing these connections forces us to move beyond identifying as “allies” into being “accomplices.”
2020 alone saw a global pandemic, escalating tensions among races and nations, and terrible U.S. storms and wildfires. Is there hope for humanity?
Yes, if we act. Now. We must learn and apply urgent lessons. In humanity’s ugliest hours, we have demonstrated our capacity for love, solidarity and justice, whether harboring enslaved people fleeing to freedom, Jews facing extermination, or undocumented people facing deportation. Following revolutionary BIPOC movements rooted in self-help, collectivism and linking activism with production, we can build alternatives.
How is it helpful to cultivate an “anthropological imagination”?
Cultivating an anthropological imagination shows us that struggles for justice “here” are already connected to struggles “there.” It highlights the connections we already have, despite the fog of ideology that keeps us feeling isolated. It provides a platform for a solidarity politics, finding appropriate ways to unravel the threads of inhumanity from where we are, acknowledging and then dismantling privilege.
At the individual level, what can we do to save our species?
Have an anthropological imagination, see us as connected. We need to see the human beings behind our food, shelter, electricity and consumer goods. That’s the first step in building a bottom-up platform for making necessary global changes. We will never muster the courage or will while we continue to dehumanize other people and their problems and ignore the consequences of our unsustainable consumption.
Media Contact: Tom Parisi