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Care and responsibility

In this video, Thom van Dooren draws on different conservation efforts to question ways in which we generate and sustain visions for the future.
In a single room tucked away on the main Honolulu campus of the University of Hawaii, a group of dedicated people have set up an ark– a place of last refuge– for some of the island’s many highly endangered tree snails. The ark isn’t a particularly fancy affair. It’s just a small space comprised of about six environmental chambers that look quite a lot like old refrigerators. These units allow staff to control daily temperature, light, and rain cycles, to provide ideal conditions for their slimy inhabitants. Inside each unit are a whole lot of small terrariums. like the kind you might keep a pet fish or rat in. These ones, however, are home to a variety of local snails.
And have been filled with ohia, and the other local vegetation, that they would ordinarily live amongst. In little over 1,000 years, Hawaii’s tree snails have gone from having no significant predators at all into an environment with numerous overlapping threats. Not only are the forests they live in disappearing, but a host of new predators are devouring them, including rats, chameleons, even a species of larger, carnivorous snail. While some species now hang on in this small ark, they’re a tiny fraction of the island’s original diversity. With an estimated 75% of the more than 700 named species already having been lost. When I visited the ark in 2013, professor Mike Hadfield– its founder– explained to me in the following words.
He said, this is a last ditch effort to save snails that would certainly have been devoured by alien predators in the immediate future. And so although underwritten by intense processes of loss, this snail ark represents an important site for the production and maintenance of hope. It contains within it the possibility that some time in the future, after the wreckage is cleared, at least some future might be possible for these species. We might understand this project as an example of what my colleague Eben Kirksey has called modest forms of biocultural hope.
In contrast to big, vague hopes for some change that will set everything to rights in one fell swoop– a utopian vision the will likely never arrive, and if it did wouldn’t be quite right anyway– Kirksey emphasises the need for more grounded and modest hopeful projects engaged in practical and concrete acts of care for the ongoing biological and cultural richness of our world. This snail ark is one such project. Here hope takes the form of the daily acts of care that sustain living beings, and through them the future their species.
It takes the form of the maintenance of environmental chambers, the cleaning of terrariums, the careful counting of individuals that helps to ensure the good mortality records and the early detection of any potential problems. Beyond this basic life support, staff and students are also engaged in larger efforts to better understand the causes of snail decline in the island’s forests, and ultimately to get them back out into the world. This is an intensely grounded and practical form of hope, working to imagine and craft better futures. But even here, hope is not always what it seems. Amongst the many endangered snails that I saw on my visit to the ark, one in particular stood out, Achatinella apexfulva.
A single snail in a terrarium all on its own. On its own because this tiny being is now thought to be all that’s left of its species. Despite over a decade of searching in the wild, scientists have been unable to locate any more. Hope mingles with loss in palpable ways in an interaction like this. We’re compelled to hope and care, and yet we must also acknowledge the hopelessness of the situation. Sadly, it seems that many of the ark’s other snail species are also in a very bad way. Hope is often associated with the affirmation of life, the refusal to give up. And consequently the absence of hope is associated with despair. But sometimes hope isn’t what’s needed.
Instead it becomes a form of denial. Rather than preventing extinction, what has arguably being delayed in this case is simply the recognition of extinction. The recognition that this species, and others like it, have already been lost. In delaying this recognition and holding onto hope, these kinds of banking projects– whatever their intentions– can play an important role in undermining our imaginative and moral capacity to perceive the pressing crisis of the current mass extinction event, laundering what biologists call our extinction debt. At the same time, these collections can be opportunistically used as an excuse to delay wider conservation action, resting in the comfort that we have a secure “backup” of the island’s snails as we clear their forests.
This surely is not the intention of the many committed individuals who dedicate so much of their lives to the snail ark, and to other biodiversity banking initiatives. But in dark times, the lure of hope as a form of denial or distraction can be very strong. In this context, the ongoing call in the environmental movement to focus on hope and hopeful narratives becomes somewhat worrying. Increasingly we’re told that good news stories instead of doom and gloom are what’s needed to compel people to appropriate action. But vague and general hope is not always helpful. Instead, what’s needed is a critical lens on, and more attention towards, what it is that we’re specifically hoping and working towards.
What should we be hoping for in these times of incredible loss? And are we able to hope responsibly, perhaps care-fully? There are no utopias here. Instead, I see this kind of hope as a practise of active and grounded care for the future. To care for another, to care for a possible world, is to become emotionally and ethically entangled, and consequently to get involved in whatever practical ways that we can. In addition, it requires the development of a deep, critical, and contextual knowledge that asks about the dangers that lie hidden in what we hope may yet come to pass.
I don’t think this means we should give up on the snails in the ark, or the countless other species clinging to existence in similar facilities around the world. But I do think there’s room to reimagine what these facilities do and how they do it, to make more visible their limitations and dangers. While in times like these we certainly need all of the conservation efforts that we can muster, it remains vital that we pay careful attention to the means by which particular approaches generate and sustain their visions for the future. For at least some species, the time for hopefulness about a return to the wider world has passed.
It’s time for us to acknowledge, to take responsibility and care for, other kinds of futures.
In this video, Thom van Dooren reflects on his research into the ethical, cultural and political issues that arise in the context of species extinctions. Thom describes the responsibilities and obligations involved in conservation efforts and questions utopian narratives for generating and sustaining visions for the future.
The figure that illustrates his argument is a snail “ark” in Honolulu, a captive breeding program for endangered snails that Thom visited for his research.
Thom asks:
What should we be hoping for in these times of incredible loss? Are we able to hope responsibly, perhaps care-fully?
Rather than focussing on utopian environmental narratives, or vague and general forms of hope, Thom proposes that we must engage in practical and concrete modes of care and responsibility for possible worlds. He states:
To care for another, to care for a possible world, is to become emotionally and ethically entangled and consequently to get involved in whatever practical ways that we can. In addition, it requires the development of a deep critical and contextual knowledge that asks about the dangers that lie hidden in what we hope may yet come to pass.

What do you think?

  • What (or whose) values are at play in the issue of snail conservation?
  • What types of knowledge result from viewing this issue through an EH lens?


  1. Eben Kirksey, “Hope” (in the Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities) Environmental Humanities 5 (2014).
  2. Thom van Dooren, “The Last Snail: Loss, Hope and Care for the Future,” in Land & Animal & Nonanimal, eds. Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin (Berlin: Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2015): 1-14.
  3. Thom van Dooren, “Care” (in the Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities) Environmental Humanities 5 (2014).
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