Extinction and the End of Futures

History & Theory 61, no. 2 (2022): 209-218.

Extinction, in biological terms, is the end of an evolutionary line, a potential future cutoff. It involves a transition between the historical past in which a species was biologically alive and a future in which it isn’t, a transition from extant to extinct. In this contribution to the “Historical Futures” series, I examine two aspects of extinction histories: transition and anticipation. First, I argue that scholars need to understand extinction as a process with a prolonged and even possibly reversible transition between extant and extinct rather than a definitive end point. Second, I analyze conservation as a practice of anticipatory extinction that tries to create futures for extant species. Extinction, as a nonlinear process, demands that we consider the coterminous past, present, and future. The end of futures for a species requires rethinking how we conceptualize historical (future) endings under times of rapid environmental change.

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