Introducing the "Global Animal": An Insomniac's Recourse in the Anthropocene

By Ball, Karyn; Haynes, Melissa | English Studies in Canada, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Introducing the "Global Animal": An Insomniac's Recourse in the Anthropocene


Ball, Karyn, Haynes, Melissa, English Studies in Canada


WE HAVE BEEN LOSING SLEEP OVER BEES. Every day a new headline delivers dire news about a massive die-off of honey bees: almost 20 percent--over two-hundred-thousand colonies--of Canada's honey bees died last winter (Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists). Thirty percent or more of American bee colonies have died almost every year since 2006--an estimated loss of ten million U.S. bee hives (United States Department of Agriculture). This alarming phenomenon, colony collapse disorder (CCD), is also transpiring in China and Japan, and recently reported losses in Egypt indicate that the situation extends to Africa as well (United Nations Environment Programme Global Bee 5). The proliferation of hive collapses is especially alarming since only 100 species of plants make up 90 percent of the global food supply and, of these, seventy-one are bee-pollinated (UNEP Global Bee 1).

Although bees have always served as crucial ecological agents on a planetary scale, their global status comes to the fore only with harbingers of their dire fate--and ours by extension. This angst saturates a recent Time report that speculates that "in a world where up to 100,000 species go extinct each year, the vanishing honeybee could be the herald of a permanently diminished planet" (Walsh). The Time cover featuring an enlarged image of a bee almost seems to honour the insect as an "animal of the year." As a synecdoche of catastrophe through mass extinction, Time reintroduces the bee as a global animal, a figure emblematic of planetary life at risk.

Time's rhetorical move is not uncommon in CCD reports. The UNEP report on colony collapse begins with an invocation of mass extinction: "Current evidence demonstrates that a sixth major extinction of biological diversity event is underway. The Earth is losing between one and ten percent of its biodiversity per decade, mostly due to habitat loss, pest invasion, pollution, over-harvesting and disease" (Global Bee 1). In more popular narratives of colony collapse, Einstein is quoted (erroneously) as having predicted that "if bees were to disappear from the globe, mankind would have only four years left to live" ("Einstein on Bees"). The tragic prospect of mass bee death generates hysteria or melancholy about threats to the diversity of global life.

In the past decade, Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart has provided film audiences with two conspicuous examples of how endangered animals magnetize anxieties about our futurity. In Sharkwater, Stewart endeavours to transform the shark from an object of terror into a global animal that we not only should but must venerate and protect. The 2007 documentary conveys a clash between modern speeds and evolutionary slowness through the history of the shark itself--an ancient, uncanny, and dreaded species massacred, directly, for fins and, indirectly, by oceanic changes. Stewart's 2012 film Revolution is an explicit attempt to capture the scale of that temporal conflict. Revolution's trailer begins with a voiceover as Stewart explains: "I set out to make a film to save sharks. And I'm in way over my head. We have a decision to make, and we don't have much time. This is no longer just about saving the oceans. It's about saving ourselves." The trailer also evokes deep temporalities in order to pressure our sense of time running out: "If we're gonna survive, we've got to go back to the beginning: 3.5 million years ago," the film proclaims, as if to suggest that this regression would somehow stave off a repetition of the "last time the oceans went down ... 65 million years ago."

Revolution bursts with images of richly varied animal life in radiant colour and frenetic, multi-directional motion, as if the filmmakers feel rushed to catalogue the whole of species life before it disappears. These documentaries make saving species--and the world--their explicit aim. Stewart persuasively deploys threatened animality to connect our "time is running out" fears to an impassioned yet vague call to participate in a project of salvation (the latter part of the film calls for increased activism, particularly political involvement by youth, in somewhat more specific terms). …

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