Editorial Profile: Kate Rigby

Posted on Jan 18, 2014 in Editorial Profiles | 0 comments


Kate Rigby is Professor of Environmental Humanities at Monash University, Australia. Her most recent books are Topographies of the sacred: The poetics of place in European Romanticism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004) and Ecocritical Theory: New European Perspectives (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2011 – edited with A. Goodbody).

Editors: We asked members of our Editorial Board/Team to provide a short reflection on a photograph of their choice that they felt says something important about or to the environmental humanities.

Disregarded deaths, devalued lives

Roo carcass and crossThroughout the month of November, 2008, as I made my daily trek from the historical research centre of the National Museum of Australia, where I was spending my weekday mornings, to the Canberra Hospital, where I spent most afternoons with my mother beside my horribly ailing father’s bedside, I passed the disintegrating carcass of a kangaroo, left to moulder beside the road where it had been struck. The research that I was conducting at the time concerned the environmental history of the Canberra area, and I had become fascinated by the ways in which the planners of Australia’s federal capital (my old home town, as it happens) had succeeded, as least in part, in realising Walter Burley Griffin’s vision of a city that was, as one of its strongest champions, Ken Taylor, puts it, not only in, but “of” the landscape (Canberra: City in the Landscape, Broadway: Halstead Press, 2006): Canberra’s geometrically-designed formal centre is aligned with the surrounding mountains and the river that once traversed the “Limestone Plains” (now dammed—or is that damned?—to create the lake), its ceremonial boulevards forever leading the gaze beyond the built environment, while the radiating suburbs are traversed by messy remnant bushland, perpetually interrupting the expansion of its tidy city streets. There is a downside, though, to Canberra’s “open space” plan: while the incorporation of ribbons of grassy woodland and unbuilt hillsides into the urban environment affords Canberrans the opportunity for regular encounters with native flora, fauna and granite outcrops, should they care to stray off the pavement, it also increases the risk of any bushfires that sweep down from those picturesque mountains being ferried to, and through, the doors of their homes (a risk much amplified in some areas by the commercial pine plantations that contributed to the devastation of several suburbs in the catastrophic firestorm of February 2003). The riskiness of this ecotopian town planning, though, is even greater for other-than-human Canberrans: the segmentation of their territory by roads spells deadly danger for the city’s wildlife, with kangaroos being the most commonly encountered casualties. What struck me about this one, though, was its proximity to a cross memorialising another kind of road fatality: evidently, a human one.

Each day I passed the decomposing roo, this juxtaposition of Christian Cross and animal carcass, which speaks so powerfully of the differential between the significance attributed to human and non-human deaths (and therefore lives) within the dominant culture, got to me more-and-more. Finally, I felt compelled to pull over and take this photo, which subsequently made its way into a presentation that I had been asked to give at a workshop organised by the ACT Planning and Land Authority on the role of culture and knowledge in Canberra’s future sustainability on December 1 that year. My point at the time was about speciesism and, more generally (and with reference to the work of my friend Val Plumwood, whose own death earlier that year I was still grieving), the prevalent reduction of the non-human world (even in Canberra) to a “background” against which the drama of human life—the only show in town that is generally held to really matter—is played out. “The daily spectacle of uncounted and unremarked animal road kill,” I observed, “has a brutalising effect on our ethical sensibility, continuously reinforcing the idea that the fate of non-human others is, or should be, a matter of complete indifference to us, even when we ourselves are the cause of their suffering and death” (full paper here). Today, though, I would want to make a couple of further points. Firstly, the restricted use of the Cross to honour exclusively the human dead, bears witness to the historical failure of most forms of organised Christianity to extend the revolutionary ethos of self-giving love proclaimed and modelled by Jesus of Nazareth (among others) to other-than-human beings (along with certain marginalised and oppressed groups of human others, in all too many times and places e.g. Jews, Moslems, “witches,” slaves, colonised peoples, queers…). Secondly, the vehicle that killed this kangaroo, no less than the one that I pulled over to snap its pathetic remains, fuelled as they were by the combustion of the fossilised remains of ancient animal life, were also contributing to those anthropogenic climatic changes that are not only set to escalate an already high extinction rate, but are already bringing death and suffering numberless animals, human and otherwise, through the increasing frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events as the heat wave that is estimated to have caused the demise of up to 100,000 fruit bats in early 2014. As Debbie Rose observes on her blog, “Lethal Heat,” we “don’t have respectful methods for dealing with all these dead bodies”; and “in the weeks [and, I would add, years] to come we will need to develop ways to honour the dead, to mourn their passing, to cherish the survivors, and to praise the carers” (full text here). What role, I wonder in much of my recent and current work, might religion (including emergent forms of ecospiritual Christianity), in concert with literature and the visual and dramatic arts, play in such practices of prophetic lamentation? Such practices of public mourning, which not only grieve the dead, but also prophetically critique the ills that have engendered their demise, could provide an impetus towards the undoing of existing socio-ecological injustices by energising actions of redress, renewal and transformation in the interests of the future flourishing of more-than-human life.

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