This article was written on 15 May 2013, and is filled under New Ecologies.

Keystone Species

Claire Pentecost,  "Proposal for a New American Agriculture"  vermicomposted cotton flag. 9' x 5'

Claire Pentecost,
“Proposal for a New American Agriculture”
vermicomposted cotton flag. 9′ x 5′

As an apology for the push of The Nature Conservancy to form partnerships with major corporations, director Peter Kareiva recently made a statement that provoked several heated, high-profile conversations: “If one considers the planet earth and asks what are the keystone species for our global ecology, it is hard to conclude anything but major corporations.”

If Kareiva was trying to win over environmentalists to his cause, he could have perhaps chosen an ecological concept less evocative of big oil than “keystone species.”  Or could he have?  Is there any getting away from the reprogramming of reference in what has been called the petroleum space-time continuum? Put differently: can we extract ourselves from oil?  A slim insert tucked into the rear pocket of Petrochemical America, by photographer Richard Misrach and landscape architect Kate Orff, offers a post-petrochemical vocabulary.  But, as Richard Misrach’s accompanying images of environmental degradation suggest, a post-petrochemical culture will also involve knocking out major petrochemical corporations from their role as keystone species.



The concept of a keystone species refers to those species whose loss would precipitate further extinctions, and in extreme cases a so-called extinction cascade.  The term was first mobilized to describe the unregulated behavior of a maritime ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest following the local extinction of sea otters. However, the current explosion of the debate around the Keystone Pipeline, further exacerbated by the E.P.A.’s unfavorable environmental impact report, spills into the ecological imaginary. With the Keystone Pipeline, the ecology of keystones becomes muddled with the economy of Big Oil. However, if we apply Kareiva’s logic, does it follow that the disappearance of Bechtel, Koch Industries, and TransCanada—major corporations which (or who) stand to profit immensely from the Keystone Pipeline—would lead to an extinction cascade?

Kareiva could have said just as much by referring to major corporations as the apex predators of our global ecology.

In any case, recent ecological studies show that many systems can tolerate knocking out the keystones and the apexes. In ecology, as opposed to architecture, keystones don’t necessarily hold everything together. The new ecologies are anarchitectural.

What will become of “our” global ecology in the absence of keystone species? In the first place, one cannot truly speak of the global ecology. Global ecology is an invention of the Global North. It is a system of exclusion before it is one of ecological belonging. As Philip McMichael writes, the discourse of global ecology promises to “balance” a global system, but that system is one whose goals are firmly oriented around the politics of Northern security, goals which tend to reinforce the skewed international power relations that have resulted in curtailed access for most of the world to an increasingly degraded global commons (see the Gulf of Mexico, the Niger Delta).

Ecological thought, following Marx’s analysis of a metabolic “rift” between the social and the ecological, takes shape today in the bridging of that rift and the dismantling of the monolithic, domination-based episteme of global ecology- and in the development of egalitarian land-use practices that render corporate keystones redundant.

Claire Pentecost, “Proposal for a New American Agriculture”












But the deconstruction of keystones only goes so far. The agricultural turn in contemporary art, showcased at dOCUMENTA (13) and emblematized in Claire Pentecost’s Proposal for a New American Agriculture—a cotton flag transformed by worms into soil— is one important step in reinvigorating political economy with a political ecology. The task of these new ecologies, economies, and agricultures is to consider the extent to which human “life” is everywhere shaped and warped by the nonhuman and  the inorganic. And the novel environments produced but no longer managed by human activity—from vacant lots to nuclear voids—demand equally novel ecologies.

And so we see today the spread of the ecological imagination beyond the natural world. Today’s literary ecologies, media ecologies, political ecologies, queer ecologies, urban ecologies, and other “dark ecologies” (Timothy Morton) register from different perspectives the often-disastrous transformations of our geophysical surround: the erosion of topsoil, the loss of biodiversity, the acidification of the oceans, destruction of the commons.  But these new ecologies are increasingly tracing the mutation of thought and culture beyond 20th century anthropomorphic models and beyond the destructive legacy of an anthropo-narcissism that still pervades many strands of ecological thought today, particularly in the current geological epoch now commonly known as the Anthropocene. This blog also proposes itself as one of these novel environments.

-Jason Groves

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