Bare Nature – Industrial Development and Ontological Destruction

Bare Nature
Bare Nature  Photo copyright Andriko Lozowy 2007

What are the theoretical and practical connections that exist between genocide and ecocide? Both terms indicate processes involved in the systematic and rational destruction of particular ways of being-in-the-world. While the physical destruction of bodies and ecologies is starkly visible (think of the piles of bodies at Auschwitz or aerial photos of the Tar Sands) these processes seek to penetrate and to annihilate the essence of life more generally – ontological destruction (Woolford 2009). The violence enacted upon different people and spaces has a lot to do with their relation to the sovereign power of the state – or in the case of ecocidal developments, their relation to multinational corporations that governments so often cater to and collaborate with. In Canada this is evidenced in the way that indigenous people have been displaced from the land, migrant workers are granted temporary status to fill labour demands, and corporations are given huge subsidies.

Genocide and ecocide are not aberrant social phenomena, nor are they carried out by inherently evil people; rather, they exemplify the destructive potential internal to modernity itself and illustrate the human capacity for psychological justification (Martin and Short 2014). Both genocidal action and ecological destruction are implicitly legitimated through public discourses of rational self-interest (jobs, national purity) and through the technological triumphalism that accompanies new capacities for extraction. The outcome of genocidal systems is not just death, but the production of ‘bare life’ – in which apparently ‘living’ bodies are turned into mere husks from which the divine spark of life has been extinguished (Agamben 1998). A similar ontological destruction is also evidenced in the evisceration of vast tracts of nature at a scale heretofore unprecedented in the history of human civilization – the production of ‘bare nature’ (Shields 2012). The connection between the ontological destruction of land and people is all too clear for many indigenous peoples for whom there is no distinction, linguistic or ontological, between people and the land, as both are connected to the same source of creation (Coulthard 2014).

As mass industrial developments like the Tar Sands continue, they require the creation of legal states of exception through zoning practices and legal-economic policies that render millions of acres of land violable bare nature. These projects are a continuation of historic dispossession and genocidal actions that have targeted indigenous peoples for cultural, spiritual and physical annihilation (Patzer 2014). The impact of these colossal developments also contribute to increasingly frequent climate catastrophes that regularly displace tens of thousands of people. As Canada does not recognize the ‘climate refugee’ as a valid legal category, neither does it assume no responsibility for its role in the production of bare life (Walia 2013). The ontological connection between bare life and bare nature characterizes the increasingly pervasive threshold spaces where cultural and natural objects, human and other-than- human subjects are all positioned in precarious relation to each other (Chakrabarty 2009).

Dr. Jobb Arnold is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Affect Project at the University of Manitoba (


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