This article tracks the history of species suicide, a phrase that originally referred to a potential nuclear holocaust but is now increasingly cited in Anthropocene discourses to account for continued carbon emissions in the face of catastrophic climate change. With its Anglophone roots in the Cold War, species suicide discourse unites concerns about nuclear arsenals, so-called overpopulation, and environmental injustice across disciplines. Species suicide discourse is indebted to the US-based field of suicide prevention, which for more than half a century has analyzed suicide notes in search of effective prevention methods. Therefore, to theorize suicide prevention in relation to anthropogenic climate change, this article imagines a version of this genre that mediates between individual and collective subjects—called a species suicide note. As an example, the interdisciplinary and multimedia art project “Dear Climate” (2012–ongoing) by Una Chaudhuri, Oliver Kellhammer, and Marina Zurkow rewrites familiar narratives of crisis, shifting species suicide notes toward irony and unconventional techniques of hope. In analyzing these performative species suicide notes, the author complicates species suicide prevention by foregrounding narratives of irony. These notes accentuate a self-reflexive irony that works toward climate justice for vulnerable humans and more-than-human species.
As devastating fires burned throughout Australia in early 2020, the New York Times published an opinion under the headline “Australia Is Committing Climate Suicide.” The fires burned forty-six million acres, far beyond the two million acres burned in the 2018 California wildfires, the roughly two million acres burned in the 2019 Amazon rainforest fires, and the more than four million acres burned in the 2020 California wildfires. The fires in Australia killed at least thirty-four people directly, four hundred and seventeen more people due to smoke inhalation, and killed or displaced an estimated three billion animals. In the op-ed, novelist Richard Flanagan notes that “the response of Australia’s leaders to this unprecedented national crisis has been not to defend their country but to defend the fossil fuel industry, a big donor to both major parties” and to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. For Flanagan, his country’s leaders are “those who would open the gates of hell and lead a nation to commit climate suicide.”1 This was not the first time suicide was used as a metaphor for environmental degradation—during the 2019 Amazon fires, British newspaper The Guardian published an article titled “Amazon Rainforest Fires: Global Leaders Urged to Divert Brazil from ‘Suicide’ Path.”2 Both of these articles conjure a widely used term that is infrequently studied in conversations about nuclear war and environmental degradation: species suicide. Species suicide has a long yet often forgotten history, originating in Cold War discourses of nuclear holocaust and increasingly cited in discourses of the Anthropocene to account for continued carbon emissions and deforestation in the face of catastrophic climate change.
In the first half of this article, I examine the history of species suicide rhetoric, culminating in its use to describe anthropogenic climate change by invoking a need for species suicide prevention. Earnest though this apocalyptic discourse certainly is, species suicide also depends on a sort of irony to convey the magnitude of the situation: a sense of unwitting suicide, causing one’s own death while pursuing other ends. I explicate this sense of irony within the history of species suicide discourse. Irony here is defined generally as an outcome that directly opposes expectations: Romeo’s belief that Juliet has died, causing his suicide and ultimately Juliet’s death as well, is a canonical example of irony because the audience is aware that Juliet is merely in a drug-induced slumber. The sense of possessing and imparting superior knowledge characterizes irony in species suicide discourse. Though this article focuses on the concept of species suicide to explicate its peculiar modes of crisis, hope, and irony, ideas of human self-destruction circulate widely under a group of related terms—nuclear holocaust, climate suicide, omnicide, human extinction, ecocide, and existential risk, for example. Irony unites this discourse, as expressed in US environmentalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s often reprinted line: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”3 For a society invested, literally and metaphorically, in stories of progress that make the present (and future) better than the past, it is painfully ironic to believe that “advancement” leads not to ever-blossoming improvements but to self-inflicted ruin. In this essay, I demonstrate how the term species suicide positions the species as both perpetrator and victim and embeds the irony of self-destruction within discourses of mental health as well as environmental and multispecies justice.
In the second half of this article, I develop the sense of irony inchoate in species suicide rhetoric, building on the work of UK sociologist Bronislaw Szerszynski and US literary critic Nicole Seymour to posit revisions to this apocalyptic script. Because the field of suicide prevention (on which species suicide rhetoric relies) has long studied suicide notes in an effort to prevent voluntary deaths, I analyze a collective version of the genre, which I call a species suicide note. In analyzing these performative notes, I complicate the mandated version of hope in species suicide prevention by foregrounding narratives of irony. My readings of the genre of the species suicide note follow Seymour in using irony to reject the solemn affects that characterize Western environmentalism—and, importantly for the present argument, that also often characterize the individual suicide note. Thus, this article probes the range of affects and unconventional modes of hope afforded by the genre of the species suicide note.4
Apocalyptic Futures: The History of Species Suicide Discourse
The story of the term species suicide is longer and more variable than is immediately obvious when one encounters the phrase. Because academics, journalists, dignitaries, and others who warn of species suicide do not typically contextualize it, it is not always clear that the phrase even has a history. But in tracing how it has been used over time, I establish several tropes that persist throughout its usage—for example, a frequent and seemingly paradoxical concern for overpopulation, an obfuscation of the actual group of subjects to whom species refers, and an anticipation of an apocalyptic future. Apocalypticism is a key context, rooted in religious eschatology from Zoroastrian, Abrahamic, and other religions, which in turn drew on ancient Persian, Akkadian, and Ugaritic literatures.5 The “sense of an ending”6 emerging from apocalyptic teleology inspires a range of affects and behaviors in relation to an anticipated end: different forms of apocalypticism motivated, for instance, colonization of the Americas in the early modern period, reform movements in the nineteenth-century US, ongoing religious movements, and hope for oppressed peoples.7
The apocalyptic script of species suicide remains remarkably consistent over time and across disciplines, from the time it was primarily used to describe nuclear warfare to the present, when it is increasingly used to describe anthropogenic climate change. Anglophone (and largely North American) rhetoric of species suicide fostered and retained a twentieth-century Cold War imaginary of humans as a collective—as a species—that continues through its rearticulation in Anthropocene discourse as well as through Indigenous and ecofeminist critiques of nuclear and environmental destruction. The force of this rhetoric relies on a logic of suicide prevention—scaled to species suicide prevention—to advocate for changes that could thwart the feared apocalypse.
Nuclear Origins and the Cold War
The origins of species suicide rhetoric in English are in the journal Science in October 1945, following the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that year. Danish physicist Niels Bohr published an editorial articulating the collectivity that came to define species suicide; in his editorial, Bohr argued that “the possibility of producing devastating weapons, against which no defense may be feasible, should be regarded not merely as a new danger added to a perilous world, but rather as a forceful reminder of how closely the fate of all mankind is coupled together.”8 The week following Bohr’s article, Science published an editorial by US ecologist and entomologist Orlando Park containing the first Anglophone reference to species suicide.9 Similar to Bohr’s editorial, Park’s filled the first few pages of the journal and offered a sweeping vision of humankind in response to nuclear warfare. Park, who had been president of the Ecological Society of America in 1943, reconceptualized Bohr’s “fate of all mankind coupled together” into a struggle for inter- and intraspecies power.
Park describes species suicide in relation to an apocalyptic future in which humans, like dinosaurs in the past, lose dominance over all other species. Throughout the editorial, Park’s rhetoric slips between three possibilities: first, that humans might not survive a species suicide; second, that humans might survive and yet lose the ability to control other species; or third, that certain humans might lose power over other humans and nonhumans. He laments the invention of increasingly effective methods for killing, including atomic bombs, because he sees them as a harbinger for a loss of power. Park equates power with survival, and though he is ostensibly concerned with all humans retaining supremacy as a collective, his editorial reveals a concern for one particular group of humans. This is why he also expresses a concern for so-called overpopulation: “We may be able to keep pace with the rising density of population . . . by a more scientific agriculture and animal husbandry and by really effective colonization of the tropics.”10 In this spatialization of what would soon become Cold War militarism, he reveals a biopolitical agenda: the “we” of the global north (disguised as the grandiose species) subjugating the global south to reproduce a particular form of life and culture.
Though Park claims that (certain) humans will be able to retain power if they act quickly, his apocalyptic visions of species suicide constitute the vivid imaginary of the Science editorial: “[Suppose] that the mental defectives continue to interbreed freely, that venereal diseases and other widespread ailments increase, that our will to destroy overpowers our will to heal—then the decline will be much more rapid than the decline of the dinosaurs, and another species or group of species will inherit the earth.”11 Here, eugenics mandates a normate (to use US disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s term) as representative human, as the subject of what I call species suicide prevention. Beyond humans, the fact that some insects could survive nuclear war leads Park to suggest precise application of insecticides to limit the potential power of insects. Mass poisoning, then, is his method of species suicide prevention. He concludes by imagining a dwindling human population overpowered by insects: “It should be about here that man begins to fall as a world power, to enter the dusk of biological extinction, from which no previous species has been known to make a complete recovery. The act of species suicide, of course, will have been committed long ago and may pass more or less unnoticed at the time.”12 Park equates domination with survival—falling from “world power” is the same as “enter[ing] the dusk of biological extinction”—before changing course in his final sentence, when he at last admits some divergence between these possible futures: “There is still time to preserve the species, but not very much time is available for ensuring its dominance in the long future.”13 In this early expression of the nuclear apocalypticism that would continue throughout the Cold War, Park conceived of species suicide (prevention) in terms that would continue to reverberate in its usage for decades to follow. At the dawn of the atomic age, which is also the dawn of ecology, the global systems of extinction and suicide were interwoven.
The irony of mass suicide caused by nuclear warfare—or more accurately, as I discuss below, mass murder coinciding with suicide—has animated a discourse of species suicide prevention as conflict resolution between nuclear-armed nations. As US nuclear historian Spencer Weart notes, “From the 1950s on the word ‘suicidal’ became a favorite polemical description of nuclear war.”14 The association of nuclear war with species suicide incited discourse of broad pathologies, as war in general and nuclear war in particular were claimed as evidence of a “major disorder” suffered by all humans as a collective.15 Alongside the idea of self-inflicted species death came the imperative for species suicide prevention—a need to avoid the apocalypse. Prevention triumphed in a conflict with necropolitics (to use Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe’s term): some historians claim that it was the idea of nuclear war as species suicide that caused politicians to end the Cold War.16 In other words, the idea of species self-destruction inspired such fear that it momentarily interfered in the manifestation of state power as militarism and continual warfare.
Delineating a Species: Overpopulation and Anticolonialism
Many of the references to species suicide emerging from nuclear apocalypticism imagined catastrophe for certain peoples and cultures. Similar to Park’s editorial, the “species” of these references typically refers to white nondisabled people who will reproduce the consumerist, colonizing heteropatriarchy favored in the global north. Therefore, though species suicide has been used to describe a range of distressing possible futures, early rhetoric often corresponded with white-supremacist fears of overpopulation. At first glance this seems to be a contradiction—overpopulation is, in a way, the opposite of a total annihilation of the species. This did not stop early adopters of species suicide rhetoric from mentioning it in the same context as overpopulation, and often positioning species suicide as the result of increasing numbers of humans.17 The idea that an increasing human population threatens human survival has its roots in English political economist Thomas Robert Malthus’s “Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798) and was popularized during the Cold War by US biologist Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968). Ehrlich’s book predicted that hundreds of millions of people would starve in the subsequent decade if population controls were not implemented. Perhaps the most direct articulation of the white supremacist link between overpopulation and species suicide was published in 1998 by US ecologist and white nationalist Garrett Hardin: “To invite the overly fertile into a prosperous country to share in welfare riches is to pursue a policy of national suicide. (And, if generalized for the entire world, a policy of species suicide.)”18 In scaling the “policy of national suicide” to the entire world, “a policy of species suicide,” he is essentially calling for sterilization or genocide of the “overly fertile.” Hardin is most famous for “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), wherein he argues that freely sharing resources leads to ecological devastation. Hardin conceived of resource abundance or scarcity within closed systems, leading him to oppose immigration to the US to reduce the number of people who could claim the nation’s resources. Utilizing Cold War apocalyptic rhetoric—that is, bombs that can extinguish an entire city, an entire species—Hardin’s work stoked fears of the “population bomb” and the ecological collapse and deaths that were believed to result from it. Hardin and others invoked species suicide prevention to promote a biopolitics of population control.
In a striking reversal of this apocalyptic discourse that fears for the survival of white Americans, other early uses of the phrase species suicide positioned it within anticolonial politics. For example, Indigenous activist Russell Means (Oglala Lakota) used the phrase in a 1980 speech denouncing European economics: “I trust the community and the community/culturally based vision of all the races which naturally resist industrialization and human extinction. Clearly, individual whites can share in this, given only that they have reached the awareness that continuation of the industrial imperatives of Europe is not a vision, but species suicide.”19 Means’s use of the phrase is remarkable both for its rejection of Euro-centrism and for its continuity of the logic of suicide prevention—indeed, the imperative to prevent suicide is the single most consistent trope of species suicide rhetoric throughout its history. A few years after Means’s speech, Indigenous scholar Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe) and activist for Indigenous causes Ward Churchill used the term in their critique of Cold War colonialism, specifically uranium extraction from Indigenous lands and the exploitation and contamination of Laguna tribe uranium miners. They note that nuclear radiation might one day destroy all human life: “Until that time, however, American Indians, those who have been selected by the dynamics of radioactive colonization to be the first twentieth century national sacrifice peoples, must stand alone, or with their immediate allies, for a common survival. It is a gamble, no doubt, but a gamble which is clearly warranted. The alternative is virtual species suicide.”20 Moving away from overpopulation as the motivating fear of species suicide, LaDuke and Churchill presage the observation by Indigenous scholar-activist Kyle Powys Whyte (Potawatomi) that “climate injustice, for Indigenous peoples, is less about the spectre of a new future and more like the experience of déjà vu.”21 The victims of nuclear politics exist not in an abstract apocalyptic future but in an ongoing present, an ongoing genocide. In these opposing strands of species suicide discourse, the apocalypse changes shape. For Park, Hardin, and other proponents of the overpopulation argument, a grandiose species is invoked to obfuscate the privileged group to which it really refers. For LaDuke and Churchill, the threat first endangers Indigenous peoples before expanding to humans on a larger scale. These Indigenous articulations of species suicide draw on a broader antinuclear discourse that demonstrates how a threat to one is a threat to all.
Environmentalism and Species Suicide
Since the Cold War environmentalist contexts of species suicide rhetoric have continued to proliferate, often returning to overpopulation to explain the causes of environmental degradation and to formulate new methods for species suicide prevention. Climate change has been identified as a component of species suicide for decades; one of the earliest texts to make this connection is “Homo sapiens—A Suicidal Species?” (1991), wherein Canadian epidemiologist John M. Last argues that deforestation and consumption of fossil fuels are ultimately caused by overpopulation.22 Past harm of overpopulation rhetoric complicates any discussion of the relationship between human population and environmental catastrophe. For example, a recent edited collection includes US ecofeminist Donna Haraway’s argument that a burgeoning human population is an environmentalist problem to be addressed by voluntary reduction of birth rates.23 Haraway’s work incorporating an ethics of population control into ecofeminism is not without critique: several of the other essays in the volume challenge Haraway’s feminist take on the overpopulation argument, and ecofeminists have often critiqued calls for population control. Indigenous feminist historian Michelle Murphy (Métis), for instance, rejects the concept of population as a by-product of colonial epistemologies, “a way of managing human presence saturated with racism,” and calls for “other ways of figuring humanity, relations, and density as part of collectivities resisting environmental violence and towards more livable worlds.”24 The history of this latter ecofeminist discourse includes references to species suicide to critique population control as well as nuclear militarism. Species suicide prevention, in this iteration, involves dismantling militarism, industrialized agriculture, racism, and sexism that undergird the destruction of ecosystems and multispecies life. In 1990 US Green Party cofounder and ecofeminist Charlene Spretnak wrote, “Ecofeminists say that the system is leading us to ecocide and species suicide because it is based on ignorance, fear, delusion, and greed.”25 Systems leading to species suicide, in her analysis, include nuclear power and plutonium waste, nuclear war, petroleum-based agriculture, and pesticides. Spretnak then integrates a critique of population control programs as “genocide of people of color” and “patriarchal domination of woman’s womb.” Thus, as the concept of species suicide has been incorporated into environmentalist rhetoric, its history of overpopulation concerns has continued alongside pointed critiques of population control from (eco)feminists.
As is clear from Spretnak’s account, the connection between species suicide by means of nuclear warfare and by means of environmental destruction is straightforward for many of these writers. Notably documented by US anthropologist Joseph Masco and US postcolonial scholar Elizabeth DeLoughrey, nuclear and environmental history have long been intertwined. Masco and DeLoughrey have linked Cold War science directly to climate change science, and nuclear radiation to ecology.26 US environmental historian Donald Worster declared the first explosion of an atomic bomb, called Trinity, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, US, to be the initiation of the “Age of Ecology” in tension with the Great Acceleration of scientific developments that exploit more and more resources at increasing rates.27 Jan Zalasiewicz has similarly identified the Trinity explosion as the onset of the Anthropocene.28 As DeLoughrey has demonstrated, building on the work of US journalist Catherine Caufield, the atomic bomb induced environmentalist concern worldwide due in large part to an atmosphere contaminated by radioactive strontium-90, which has been incorporated into every being born after the bombs of the 1950s and 1960s.29 Worster describes this moment in the relationship between humanity and nature as having “suddenly taken a macabre, even suicidal, turn.”30 Yet the pattern of describing nuclear and environmental devastation as species suicide has been overlooked in these intellectual histories. Species suicide rhetoric flourished in this tradition, imagining Cold War nuclear, population, and environmental apocalypticism alongside the redemptive potential of species suicide prevention. Prevention motivates arguments across this terrain—scientists, Indigenous critics, and ecofeminists alike describe species self-killing to galvanize opposition to it. Species suicide prevention began with universalizing visions of humanity in the face of Cold War arsenals that threatened unimaginable scales of collective death. However, as fears of nuclear war have given way to new discourses of urgency, and the threats themselves have morphed and multiplied, the most common interpretation of the term species suicide has been anthropogenic climate change.31
Ironizing Species Suicide in the Anthropocene
From its origins, the phrase species suicide has expressed a fundamental irony as the crux of its rhetorical effect. In its Anthropocene iteration, the phrase is allegorical—because the actions of individual suicide do not map exactly onto processes at the scale of earth systems, rhetoric of species suicide relies on an understanding of individual self-killing to tell the story of a more varied, staggered, and limited process.32 The narrative of species suicide seems to partly answer what US literary critic Srinivas Aravamudan has called “the impossible question of how to conceptualize species death” due to climate change.33 And yet, in a vital way, allegorizing individual suicide at the species scale is incongruous because these multispecies-life-threatening behaviors—burning fossil fuels, developing nuclear arsenals, destroying forests, poisoning air and water and soil—are undertaken to advance (certain) human interests. In other words, they are distinct from intentional acts of suicide. A human burning the Amazon rainforest is doing so to make space for industrial agriculture; there is no intention to cause their own death nor the death of the human species. Though actors may acknowledge collateral damage—deaths from nuclear testing or burning forests, for example—the idea that these acts would threaten the actors themselves, among a vast collective of humans, is not part of the plan. Therefore, the term species suicide implicates humans in a gravely ironic situation, taking for granted that humans collectively wish to continue living yet unwittingly cause collective deaths. It is the ironic possibility of self-killing alongside the absence of intent that has kept the idea of species suicide compelling in apocalyptic discourses of the past century. Furthermore, this irony presents a series of contradictions: Unwitting suicide is not suicide but accidental death. Unwanted suicide is not suicide but homicide. Unwitting and unwanted species suicide is, to some degree, genocide and ecocide.
In my reading, however, the term species suicide contains a sense of this irony, built into the language itself. The reflexive prefix sui- can refer to both singular and plural subjects, as evidenced by the Latin phrase sui generis, which refers to a unique individual or group. The plural reflexive subject of Anthropocene species suicide consists of billions of humans, past and present, who have contributed to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, but it is impossible for the reflexive object to comprise the same group—it is impossible for species suicide to cause the deaths of people who have already died. In Anthropocene species suicide, then, the reflexive prefix sui- is unevenly reflexive—a collective of humans threatens human life, but the group of perpetrators and the group of victims are not and indeed cannot be identical. Understood this way, species suicide contains, or perhaps more accurately refers to, both genocide and ecocide. Furthermore, because possible victims exceed the category of humans—animal and plant species are also vulnerable—destruction exceeds the scope of reflexivity. Subgroups, then, of both perpetrators (generically, the global north) and victims (such as the global south) are possible referents in the sui of Anthropocene species suicide—subjects and objects are not the same in this reflexive phrase. Thus, suicide at the scale of species is better described as murder-suicide.
Climate injustice is therefore central to the irony of Anthropocene species suicide. It describes one of the foundational ironies of climate change—that imperialism has, in the recent past, briefly reduced atmospheric carbon. Specifically, a “population collapse of more than fifty million people [from 1550 to 1800] with causal links to colonization, slavery, war, displacement, containment, and outright ethnic cleansing” is marked in part by a 1610 dip in carbon dioxide levels in the geologic record.34 In light of climate change and increasing carbon emissions, reduced atmospheric carbon is usually seen as a positive change. However, when placed in the context of histories of genocide that reduce carbon because of devastating and massive loss of human life, it becomes clear that any rhetoric of species suicide that fails to account for historic and ongoing social injustice will not suffice. Species suicide prevention would fail profoundly if it were to prioritize carbon reduction at the expense of vulnerable human life. Anthropocene species suicide discourse, circulating predominantly in North America, thus conveys the irony of fearing one’s own death when the displaced peoples in the global south face more imminent and ongoing threats due to climate injustices that benefit the global north. Species suicide registers complex and overlapping ironies, balancing a collective agency moving toward collective death with stratified relations to culpability and vulnerability. This uneven reflexivity moves away from a dramatic story of total human extinction, which Rebekah Sheldon has called “a fantasy of cleanliness formally symmetrical with the quest for origins.”35 Conceiving of an Anthropocene species suicide that is partial and unjust invites us to appreciate new ironies in our multispecies relations.
Species Suicide Prevention
From its nuclear origins to its climate present, the phrase species suicide has evoked individual suicide prevention, a field that also developed in the US and UK in the 1950s and today has international reach. It relies on a logic of species suicide prevention—a fear of suicide and belief that it can and should be prevented—mandating a certain method of hope. A brief, paradigmatic history of the field: The first suicide prevention center in the US opened in 1958 in Los Angeles, offering a twenty-four-hour crisis telephone service under the direction of US psychologist Edwin Shneidman and colleagues. Though the practice and field of suicide prevention are not often historicized, Shneidman’s contributions were part of broader moves toward secularization and medicalization that had shifted the global north away from religious injunctions to punish suicides and toward systematic, managerial, and eventually nationalized programs to prevent them.36 The LA hotline followed the first crisis hotline, which was established in the UK in 1953. Since that time, the US and UK fields of suicide prevention have exported their practices around the world following the neocolonial economic patterns of global power and inequality. Suicide hotlines now exist in many countries. Anglophone species suicide rhetoric relies on the field of suicide prevention not because the latter has been effective in practice—rising suicide rates have been well-documented in both the US during the past twenty years and in the UK more recently since 2018, and there is not yet evidence that methods such as crisis hotlines prevent suicides.37 What has been effective, rather, is the rhetoric against suicide: with the exception of robust debates about assisted suicide, popular opinion about voluntary death continues to be powerfully influenced by the field of suicide prevention. Suicide has often been linked to mental illness and seen as a preventable tragedy. As a result, prevention methods often focus on psychopharmaceuticals, psychiatric therapy, and behavior surveillance and management. Support for the social acceptance of suicide (as advocated by Hungarian-American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz)38 has little traction in suicide research and advocacy. Species suicide discourse relies on this relatively recent systematic approach to prevention—ironically not because the approach works for individuals but because the ideal of prevention fashions a uniquely powerful allegory at the scale of species.
As noted above, the imperative to prevent suicide is the single most consistent trope of species suicide rhetoric throughout its history. Species suicide prevention has been imagined as mass poisoning of competing species, nuclear disarmament, population control, deindustrialization, and opposition to radioactive colonization, militarism, industrialization, racism, and sexism. This imperative is peculiar to US articulations of suicide and prevention—self-killing does not have the same meaning in every culture. As one of many examples, consider Tibetan self-immolation. Such an act elicits many interpretations, including one that casts self-immolation as “intended to express the spiritual strength of the Tibetan people,” a unifying form of protest.39 This is one instance of differing cultural understandings of suicide—preventing suicide, from this perspective, would have the effect of silencing protest. Squarely based in mainstream US perspectives, then, prevention has been valorized; the need for it is taken for granted. The rhetoric of species suicide prevention places humans in the ironic situation of unwittingly causing our own deaths while simultaneously registering climate injustices that threaten multispecies life beyond the self. Throughout its history, species suicide discourse coalesces around an array of ironies: that environmental degradation threatens multispecies life unevenly, that individuals and groups often prioritized in species suicide prevention efforts are also usually in the least danger, and that humans continue destructive behaviors even when facing personal risk.
“The Sky Has Fallen”: Reading Species Suicide Notes
Since the origins of the field of suicide prevention in the US in the 1950s, suicide notes have been studied with the belief that understanding the notes will enable the prevention of additional suicides. The story of the founding of contemporary US suicide prevention begins with Shneidman finding a large archive of genuine suicide notes and believing that they could provide insights into prevention strategies. Suicide notes have not typically been studied as a literary genre but doing so invites new interpretations of cultural understandings of self-killing. I therefore argue that there is a recognizable literary genre of the suicide note and that it can scale from individual to collective death. The present analysis of what I call species suicide notes is based on my ongoing study of the suicide note genre, based in an archive of hundreds of genuine suicide notes as well as popular real and fictional representations. Though most suicide notes reflect a sense of gravitas regarding impending death, a striking feature of the genre of the individual suicide note has been its innovations. One genuine note, written by forty-nine-year-old John Thomas Doyle in 1954, reads, “Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache.”40 While it is possible that Doyle intended his note to be read credulously, it seems more likely that, in providing a trivial reason and excluding all others, he probes the degree to which any such note can account for a suicide. Doyle’s note breaks convention using macabre humor, ironically representing his last words in a way that confounds attempts to read him as sincere.
As I have outlined above, the phrase species suicide has relied on ironic modes to convey an earnest fear throughout its history. The suicide note genre does not generally foreground irony; yet, as Doyle’s note makes clear, some notes have been known to do just that. To adequately represent the irony integral to species suicide, I use the term species suicide note to refer to texts that exploit and refurbish the sense of irony expressed throughout the history of the phrase species suicide. These are texts written amid anthropogenic climate change and mass extinction that register the ecological devastation already in motion, on a temporal boundary of collective life and death as well as along the borders of fact and fiction. Some examples of texts that I identify as fitting the genre of the species suicide note, in whole or in part, include novels (J. G. Ballard’s cli-fi The Drowned World  and Erna Brodber’s allegory The Rainmaker’s Mistake ), websites (“Voluntary Human Extinction Movement”), scientific monographs (Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin’s The Sixth Extinction ), music (Anohni’s “4 Degrees” ), and film (Glory at Sea ). As is clear by the recent dates of many of these texts, species suicide notes are becoming increasingly relevant and prolific as climate change gains ever more public attention. Like individual suicide notes, which I contextualize as a genre elsewhere in my work (but which exceed the scope of this article), species suicide notes encompass a range of media and affects beyond the ironic contemporary artworks analyzed here. One thing that they have in common, however, is a complex relation to temporality, since ecological devastation has not yet persuaded skeptics with corporate and political power to change, as evidenced by US politicians withdrawing from the Paris Agreement (signed in 2016; US President Donald Trump reneged in 2017). For this reason, a species suicide note is speculative inasmuch as it projects future deaths and factual inasmuch as it registers multispecies deaths and extinctions in the present. In my analysis, species suicide notes are an opportunity to rehabilitate, reclaim, and reconceptualize the irony of species suicide. The texts I analyze here move away from the apocalyptic tradition of species suicide rhetoric and toward a sense of embeddedness within multispecies life systems—an embeddedness that highlights irony en route to a surprising, unconventional hope.
While some species suicide notes are conventional in the sense that they follow the patterns of individual suicide notes, others both follow and break genre conventions. Such disruptions draw attention to the forms they have broken, for example in “Dear Climate” (2012–present) an ongoing multimedia artistic and literary project by US-based artists and theorists Una Chaudhuri, Oliver Kellhammer, and Marina Zurkow comprising posters (available for free download and distribution on dearclimate.net), guided meditations, art installations, and workshops, in addition to crowdsourced letters written to climate which are published on their website and which evoke the title of the project as a whole. This collaborative multimedia project breaks suicide note conventions by “using a tone, aesthetic, and vocabulary that’s the opposite of the prevailing ones: instead of crisis and catastrophe, ‘Dear Climate’ animates the familiar and ordinary; instead of desperation and heroism, it fosters playfulness and friendliness.”41 Though Chaudhuri et al. do not use the phrase species suicide in “Dear Climate,” I read many of their letters and posters as responding to species suicide rhetoric and the broader discourse of human self-destruction outlined above. Like individual suicide notes, species suicide notes speak about impending deaths, though these deaths are collective and far reaching. They evoke a collective “species” author both by crowdsourcing letters to climate and by producing the project in collaboration. Species suicide notes assume a profoundly interconnected species: without other humans, who will read the notes? A suicide note implies an audience even if it does not require one. In this way, the genre resists the ominous future it projects. Species suicide notes in “Dear Climate” toy with affects and language that evoke, probe, and revise the rhetoric of species suicide. Whereas species suicide rhetoric has historically represented the possibilities of multispecies death with gravitas, with fear of violence to the self and (in varying degrees) to others, and often with a forceful mandate to hope for prevention, “Dear Climate” species suicide notes center ambiguity, irony, and dark comedy.
To borrow a term from Szerszynski, species suicide notes follow a tradition of ironic ecology, a way of being in the world that rejects species domination in favor of relationality, alternately destructive and generative. Szerszynski, citing Douglas Muecke, calls this a general irony: “Unlike conventional situational irony, there is no distanced observer, aloof from the folly and blindness they perceive being played out in front of them. Here, irony embraces even the observer, the identifier of the irony, within its grasp.”42 These species suicide notes forego a sense of distance between ironist and subject, foregrounding the fraught place of the ironist within multispecies relationships. Species suicide, in this type of irony, is a call for introspection as much as external critique. Consider, for example, the following species suicide note from “Dear Climate” (fig. 1). This note invokes nuclear fallout affecting life on a global scale—suggested by the text overlay “The sky has fallen.” The ironist here has no space to stand at a distance from the folly; the fallen sky/fallout is no respecter of persons. By placing a phrase typically used to represent mass hysteria in the past tense—no longer “the sky is falling” but “the sky has fallen”—the species suicide note places the moment of crisis in the past and focuses on fallout in the present. Despite its emphasis on a global, atmospheric scale of catastrophe, a single figure illustrates the ruins: a bird skeleton, posed as if ascending to flight and yet bereft of flesh and precariously balanced upside down. The note registers a simultaneous tragedy and irony, telescoping scales of fallout, species suicide implicating the ironist within multispecies relations.
For comparison, another species suicide note from “Dear Climate” imagines humans consumed by birds, depicting a perched vulture as ironic counterpoint to the jauntily posed bird skeleton amid a falling sky (fig. 2). The note reads: “Let nature be your undertaker / Expose yourself. / (sky burial).” Sky burial, best known as a practice of Tibetan, Mongolian, and Zoroastrian people, involves giving the corpse of a deceased person to scavenging birds of prey for consumption. The note refers to this conventional practice of sky burial, but the imperative “let” transitions the note to a different sort of reading. With “expose yourself,” also in the imperative, the note recreates the sky burial into a practice of living persons inviting the decomposition of their own bodies. This provocative species suicide note invokes an ironic ecology—now, rather than humans causing birds to disappear by the billions and by the species, humans invite birds to consume their living bodies. By changing one’s relationship to multispecies life and death, the species suicide note reworks the affect of species suicide away from despondency and toward acceptance of multispecies imbrication.
In tone and form the species suicide notes of “Dear Climate” break the convention of the (species) suicide note, choosing wry humor over solemnity. Chaudhuri et al. use irony strategically to illuminate the larger cultural irony of what Szerszynski calls the “post-ecologist condition.” Seymour, drawing on Szerszynski, advocates for a thoroughgoing irony that foregrounds “self-awareness, self-reflection, self-criticism, self-reflexivity, or self-deprecation.”43 All of the reflexive modes Seymour delineates are integral to the genres of individual and collective suicide notes. Consider, for instance, the following species suicide note from “Dear Climate,” which documents the broad reflexivity of the danger that both threatens and condemns the elite position claimed by the speaker (fig. 3). This note positions the speaker/ironist as Marie Antoinette by alluding to her apocryphal statement of elite class privilege, “Let them eat cake.” This widely cited phrase has come to signify the cruel apathy of the wealthy in response to the suffering of underclasses. The species suicide note version, “Let them eat CO2,” critiques a global elite who own and/or benefit from major carbon emitters and other organizations that degrade the environment, most notably corporations and the US military.44 In replacing the luxury good cake with CO2, the note also repositions an atmospheric global commons as commodity, with a cruelly ironic twist substituting multispecies life-sustaining oxygen with CO2 in such excess that air becomes edible, illustrated by the diagonal lines filling the background. This species suicide note underscores its irony using reflexivity: the cruel apathy of the global elite threatens vulnerable populations and species, and last and least it threatens the same apathetic global elite.
In addition to posters “Dear Climate” publishes crowdsourced letters written to climate encompassing a range of affects written by an unspecified number of authors (some are signed, some are anonymous). One letter reads,
I was more than a little hurt to find out you don’t care about me. Really? After all I’ve done for the world? Remember Christ and the Buddha? Michelangelo? Quantum mechanics and modern medicine? Picasso?
Actually, I’m not hurt. I am angry. If you don’t care about me, I won’t care about you. And for every hurricane you level at me, every drought you make me endure, every flood you try to intimidate me with, I WILL respond in kind.
The note continues with threats to release “tons and tons of carbon into the air” as well as to “cut down every last tree on the planet, so that your best ally in fighting your carbon problem will be exterminated.” It concludes,
Keep this in mind, too: you had trees, but I have science and technology on my side. I will invent a new way to live and prosper while you go into the proverbial toilet (which didn’t exist until I invented it), overwhelmed by the carbon you can’t seem to get used to.
On second thought, I don’t need you, dearest climate. I’m going to go this one alone. It’s going to be a great pleasure watching you die.
Fuck you, climate.
This letter features vindictive self-destruction that constitutes both a popular imaginary of the genre of the individual suicide note and, in some instances, the content of genuine notes. Conspicuously, on the list of human accomplishments, only Buddha hails from a non-Eurocentric tradition, revealing the limited perspective of the supposedly universal species author. The author’s techno-optimism further contextualizes the supposed “species” author to an elite attempting to maintain an industrial status quo. The final irony is the author’s self-proclaimed pleasure at watching climate die. The arrogant and self-destructive author, a global elite disguised as a universal, also cannot survive so catastrophic a future. Of course, to read the speaker of this note as earnestly expressing these sentiments neglects the irony at work between text and audience. This note presents an aggressively pro-industry perspective that, in its attribution to an undifferentiated species, complicates the relationship between author and audience: we might not espouse these views, the author suggests, but we are imbricated with those who do. By depicting the irony of environmental destruction affecting both speaker and audience, the species suicide note recalls its nuclear history: a threat to one is a threat to all.
My reading of the rhetoric of species suicide within these texts follows Eben Kirksey et al. in eschewing “apocalyptic tales about environmental destruction, and fabulous stories of salvation” in favor of “modest biocultural hope.”45 Such hope moves away from the prescriptive patterns developed in the field suicide prevention, including foundational fear and mandated hope. Instead, the reflexivity inherent in the genre of the species suicide note offers an opportunity to find one’s own place in narratives of environmental catastrophe and to join a coalition based on ironic world-relation. I follow Seymour in rejecting particular affects—she lists “guilt, shame, didacticism, prescriptiveness, sentimentality, reverence, seriousness, sincerity, earnestness, sanctimony, self-righteousness, and wonder” as central to Western environmentalism; many of these, too, are hallmarks of the genre of the suicide note.46 The “Dear Climate” species suicide notes, by contrast, foreground irony and self-reflexivity even within a conventionally earnest genre. Irony moves away from somber claims of urgency that privilege ecological tipping points over “kinship tipping points,” to use Whyte’s term, the latter of which were passed long ago via colonization.47 In the wake of decades of species suicide rhetoric, I propose reading (and writing) species suicide notes in ways that reconceptualize both the genre of the suicide note and environmentalist rhetoric. Irony works not by eliminating or displacing sincere rhetoric but by tempering it—irony in such a note acknowledges the limits of the genre’s explanatory power while also creating new affective relations. Writing species suicide notes allows for rewriting the story of species suicide—away from the narrative of the heroism and tragedy in the global north and toward accounts of multispecies kinship, betrayal, and possibility. In the end, species suicide notes illuminate the complex webs of multispecies relationships in which we live and die.
I presented an earlier version of this article at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (2019). I am grateful to Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Ursula Heise, Chelsea Kern, Oriah Amit, Hannes Bergthaller, and two anonymous readers for insight and suggestions that have improved this piece.
This article draws from my forthcoming dissertation, which scales the suicide note genre from individual to species. Suicide has touched my family in ways that have inspired my present research in prevention. I analyze the practice and theories of individual suicide prevention in “Suicide Justice: Integrating Feminist Methods in White Settler Colonial Suicidology,” forthcoming in a special issue of Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness, and Medicine.
Bohr, “Challenge to Civilization,” 364; emphasis mine.
For a critique of the biopolitics of the term population, see Murphy, Economization of Life.
Clarke and Haraway, Making Kin Not Population. See also Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene.”
See Aravamudan, “From Enlightenment to the Anthropocene”; Cotter et al., Human, All Too (Post)Human; Hes and du Plessis, Designing for Hope; Oosthoek and Gills, Globalization of Environmental Crisis; and the UK’s Prince Charles’s 2012 speech accepting the International Green Award, reported in Brown, “Mankind Must Go Green or Die.”
For an insightful analysis of allegory in Anthropocene discourse, see DeLoughrey, Allegories of the Anthropocene.
DeLoughrey, Allegories of the Anthropocene, 23–24; emphasis in original.
Quoted in Libman, “Golden Gate Bridge,” 1.
Just one hundred companies have caused 71 percent of global emissions since 1988, and the US military produces more greenhouse gases than any other institution in the world.