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Learning to Dwell in Multispecies Futures

Published onOct 26, 2023
Learning to Dwell in Multispecies Futures

As I walked the streets of my hometown, the agricultural city (agrociudad) Hernando, in Córdoba, Argentina in 2018, I was intrigued by an unusual presence on the pavement. An enormous light brown grasshopper stood motionless in my path. At first it just looked strange, very different from the small, almost cute green ones that we’re used to seeing in the region. But when this almost ten-centimeter creature jumped onto an adjacent wall, almost to the height of my eyes, it generated a bunch of feelings, from fear to disgust and utter astonishment. Giant grasshoppers like the one I encountered that hot summer used to inhabit the monte, but they seemed to have migrated into the cities and the cultivated fields. Later, I learned that this phenomenon was a national concern for the nation’s Agricultural Ministry and now for urban dwellers in Pampas regions (Córdoba, Santa Fe, Santiago del Estero), as these new inhabitants were threatening local crops and agricultural revenues. This affects entire regional economies, extending into the cities, because these areas depend so heavily on agricultural exports. Newspaper headlines warned of “invasions” and “plagues” and SENASA (Argentina’s National Service of Agri-Food Health and Quality) teams quickly declared a phytosanitary emergency, followed by an extermination and control plan against the unwelcome invaders.

I was raised as a Catholic, so my childhood imagination of the end of the world was populated by plagues of insects, as in the apocalyptic scriptures (from the Book of Exodus to Revelations) read by the priest during masses I attended almost every Sunday. The plagues of desert grasshoppers that God sent onto Egypt (“traeré langosta sobre tu territorio, la cual cubrirá la faz de la tierra, de modo que no pueda verse”) inspired an imaginary of terror and disgust, creating a fundamental separation between us, God-fearing humans, and them, grasshoppers, harbingers of blight and destruction.1

Growing up, I often heard jokes about people “eating like grasshoppers.”2 Although they seemed innocent, these quips connected the biblical plague of invasive species to the sin of gluttony. Often these jokes were told at the expense of people who were overweight, or who were members of low-income communities, to mark excesses from what bourgeois society considered normal. In agricultural communities, controlling invasive species that could potentially devour valuable crops is a crucial issue. The biblical imaginary, combined with moral associations between gluttony and sin and the economic anxieties of agricultural communities, confers upon the grasshopper meanings of invader and sinner. These insects are categorized as outsiders that need to be controlled and feared.

This layering of cultural, religious, and economic meanings onto grasshoppers encourages extermination and prevents other interspecies relations—more horizontal forms of kin-making between humans and nonhumans that emphasize interconnection, sharing space, and mutual benefit, rather than revulsion and opposition. These forms of kin-making require new stories and more immersive methods of inquiry into the lives of grasshoppers, and their shared history dwelling with humans. Can scientific, artistic, and journalistic accounts of grasshoppers help us to rethink the apocalyptic biblical imagery of plagues, especially in light of current climate stress in agricultural regions? And conversely, how might religious epistemologies and cosmological worldviews provide ways to understand the climate crisis and its gendered and racist correlations?

The tucura quebrachera (Tropidacris collaris) is a species of brown grasshopper, ranging from five to twelve centimeters in length. They live in quebracho monte, an arid forest biome typical of the northern regions of Argentina. From regional agricultural zoology, we learn that this grasshopper owes its name to the fact that it ends its life cycle in quebracho trees and that its biological process of growth and development takes many years.3 Therefore, its presence in the city, as suggested by environmental organizations in Argentina, is a result of climate transformations and the clearing of woods and forest where it once fed and reproduced.4 While the grasshoppers’ incursion doesn’t pose health risks for humans, the swarms of insects prompted an urgent mobilization due to their ability to devour crops, a particular concern in an agro-exporting country like Argentina. The depredation of natural forests led these beings to eat plants that serve as food for humans and cattle—corn, sorghum, soybeans—while they appeared decorating city walls, cars, and urban alleys.

In 2006, enormous accumulations of tucuras on aboveground electric lines caused power cuts in three towns in the northern regions of Córdoba.5 At the time, agricultural companies were also calling for the extermination of these unwanted beings. But this tale stretches back to the nineteenth century in the northern provinces, when governments facilitated the installation of national and international companies that cleared millions of hectares of quebracho colorado and bushes (monte) to extend agriculture, forestry, and cattle farming to satisfy demand for food exports.6 At present, in Latin America we are witnessing the continuation of such depredatory politics in the form of the transgenic plantation: enormous tracts of land upon which are planted a single genetically modified organism (GMO) whose genes are transferred from one organism to another, through genetic engineering techniques, to obtain a plant species that manifests ideal traits (such as resistance to pests, or lower water needs), and high quality to maximize production, such as GM soy or maize.

These genetically modified plantations touch off a cascade of environmental problems: They lead to monoculture farming, since the pesticides they require exterminate all other plant species but the GM crop. This leads to soil degradation as the plant absorbs the same nutrients from the soil season after season, year after year, decreasing the diversity of microorganisms and bacteria in the soil and the surrounding ecosystem. Moreover, monocrops are more prone to pests, which proliferate in farms that have the same kind of crop grown all the time. This leads to even more intensive use of pesticides which, in turn, further damages the soil and leaches into groundwater, damaging other lifeforms in the region. Finally, as the seeds are produced in labs and owned by large multinational corporations like Monsanto, farmers no longer own the seeds they use to plant and grow their crops. Farmers enter into an agreement for several years with the GMO seed providers that deliver this biotechnology. Seeds are patented, so farmers have to buy seeds continually from mega-corporations. Nothing else but the GM seed grows in a field where GM crops are cultivated, due to the intensive use of pesticides they require. Farmers who do not opt for GM cultivation in countries where this mode of production is widespread face the constant risk of contamination from nearby GM crops (via seed escape or pollination), which makes it difficult and more expensive to stick with traditional ways of cultivating the land.

Continued expansion of industrial-scale agriculture, especially soy and cattle production to satisfy the ever-growing global demand for food, has resulted in an increase of farmed areas in Argentina and many other places in Latin America, where deforestation and the conversion of ecologically diverse habitats to farmland have become major environmental issues. In view of this challenge, Argentina’s National Biodiversity Strategy for 2016-20207 included a plan to preserve endangered or nearly endangered species. However, despite the ongoing destruction of their habitat, tucura quebrachera is excluded from Argentina’s biodiversity plan. Too often, species are left out of national and regional biodiversity action plans unless they are perceived as cute, or considered useful for people, or if an international organization like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (keeper of the well-known Red List) classifies them as endangered.

As products of the human infrastructures of plantation and land clearance, the tucura quebrachera becomes a “feral entity” in the ongoing ecological destruction of forests, as defined by Anna L. Tsing and her coauthors in Feral Atlas: “they emerge within human-sponsored projects but are not in human control.”8 On the one hand, this being’s unwanted migration to cultivated fields and cities is a direct consequence of human economic activity. On the other hand, it represents a threat to human subsistence and human livelihood in agricultural areas.

Close-up photo of a large grasshopper climbing a person's index finger. The grasshopper's body is slightly longer than the finger.

A tucura quebrachera in the Corrientes Province, in the north of Argentina. Photo: oscar_galli_merino (iNaturalist).

Displaced from their usual habitat, tucuras initiated an unwanted interspecies coexistence with humans in built environments such as cities. The biblical imaginary of grasshoppers as plagues, alongside agricultural dynamics that call for control of invasive species to protect crops, fuels the perception of tucuras as invaders rather than as ecological migrants seeking new places to survive and flourish.

This biblical imaginary of fear towards swarms of grasshoppers extends beyond national boundaries, and it has served to support racist ideas about cultural difference as a geopolitical strategy. From my undergraduate studies in English literature and culture in Córdoba back in 2004, and now as a researcher living in California, I think of cartoonist George F. Keller’s comic “Uncle Sam’s Farm in Danger” (1878), in the San Francisco satirical magazine The Wasp.9 Keller’s depiction of giant grasshoppers with stereotypically East Asian facial features made use of biblical invasion imagery and insect symbolism to stoke racist fears that famine in China would drive millions of Chinese people to emigrate to America.  

Stepping beyond the human stakes for a moment: What might grasshoppers have to say about these cultural metaphors that relate their traits to fear and threat, xenophobia and exclusion? The Belgian philosopher of science Vinciane Despret asks, “What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?” pointing to a failure in our languages and vocabularies to address nonhumans.10 Despret aims to stretch our perception about the assumed separateness of animal and human traits, inventing new grammars with which we might approach, perceive, and discuss nonhumans:

This invention requires that we pay attention to words, to the ways of saying that validate ways of acting and being, it requires us to hesitate, to invent new tropes […] to cultivate homonymies that remind us that nothing is obvious.11

Rather than talking about them, talking with nonhumans through cultivation of homonymies entails finding more caring and respectful ways to address insects—our companions in the ecosystems we inhabit—but also understanding the common dynamics through which humans and nonhumans are tangled together.

Latin American science fiction is one such tool for “cultivating homonymies” instead of fear and disgust. Cristian Romero’s novel Después de la ira (2018)12 provides some clues about new ways to imagine the relationship between humans and invasive species by interlacing biblical cosmology (centered on plagues of grasshoppers) with climate change and transgenic plantations. Romero imagines a near-future scenario in the rural town of San Isidro in Colombia’s Antioquia district, where drought and rising temperatures have rendered the soil unproductive while animal and plant species begin vanishing. On top of that, a new national law requiring the use of licensed GM seeds prevents farmers from reusing their seeds in traditional ways. As a consequence, the farmers begin selling their land to a monoculture corporation that arrives to cultivate transgenic maize. The corporation, called Semina, uses pesticides that sicken the soil, as well as human and nonhuman bodies. The pesticides cause lung diseases and cancerous bruises on the skin. A resistance movement of biohackers start growing giant genetically modified grasshoppers and secretly setting them loose in the corporation’s fields to eat up the maize, sabotaging the company’s effort to seize the farmers’ land. Together with other women farmers who are also mutating because of exposure to Semina’s chemicals, Liliana, one of the protagonists, starts a rebellion against the corporation and ultimately sets their transgenic maize on fire. From the flames, a swarm of giant grasshoppers emerge from the field and head towards the town.

The novel returns to the farm and the countryside in a peculiar future fiction that evokes Colombian Costumbrismo, the nineteenth-century style of rural realist novel. Después de la ira fuses pastoral scenes and romantic sentimentalism with futuristic images and themes to reflect on multispecies relations among humans, the soil, genetically modified maize, and grasshoppers in today’s rural spaces.

Romero draws inspiration from the recent history of agricultural laws in the country. Resolution 9.70 in 2010 regulated the use of seeds in Colombia, preventing farmers from planting the seeds that they stored for annual reuse through traditional practices. This resolution was replaced by Resolution 3168 in 2015 to stimulate the genetic improvement of seeds used for farming, with the objective of obtaining an immunologic crop that is resistant to pests. The journalistic documentary 9.70 (2013) by Victoria Solano, one of the inspirations for Romero’s novel, investigates how the Colombian government seized and destroyed seventy tons of rice that a group of peasants preserved from previous harvests to defend the interests of transnational companies, within the framework of the Free Trade Agreement between Colombia and the United States.13 In the novel, Romero extrapolates this history of agricultural laws into a vision of the near future, pitting the farmers in Antioquia against a corporation whose modified maize is expanding like a cancer over the territory, the soil, the skin, and the lungs of this fictional town. This modified crop creates synergies between social, environmental, and health crises that threaten to erase the farmers in this rural community from the future, as described by the character Liliana:

She remembered Manuel’s embittered words: They want to take us out from here one way or another. It is as if in these lands nobody was living already, as if no one could live here. [my translation, emphasis in original]

Después de la ira’s vision of the near future resists romanticizing a pre-technological rural way of life; Romero engages with gender inequality and misogyny in the relationship between the main characters, Samuel and Liliana (mind here the Biblical names!). The novel is critical of local customs involving a speciecist view14 of animals that classifies them as inferior to humans; this is most clearly expressed in cockfighting, a common practice in Antioquia. Romero connects this logic of superiority and inferiority to the patriarchal view of women as subordinate to men, a belief that is both supported and criticized in the region’s rural literature.

An important but almost imperceptible detail in Después de la ira is the constant buzzing of the grasshoppers heard by the narrator throughout the story. Carried through the dry air, this humming suggests the insects’ speech, or expression: the grasshoppers are making a demand on the characters’ and the readers’ attention with the incessant noise, but in a way that the novel cannot codify into human language. This is a poignant detail since it suggests that climate action should consider nonhuman agency—the concept that agency in shaping the environment is not an exclusive property of humans—and attend to the voices and needs of other species in charting a path to a more equitable climate future.

In Romero’s future fiction, the combination of giant grasshoppers, biotechnology, and biblical imagery doesn’t sit comfortably within our cultural obsession with catastrophic visions of climate collapse. Instead, it activates a healing process by proposing an alliance between women affected by the environmental damage, dispossessed rural workers, and the mutant grasshoppers. By creating a simile between Liliana’s skin mutations and the color of the transgenic biotech grasshoppers, Romero proposes an interspecies form of kin-making between these products of the plantation: women and nonhuman species, both experiencing cultural subordination, as well as physical changes and disease. The novel’s title, “Después de la ira,” after anger, points to a future to come, but revises the apocalyptic imagination by telling a story of resistance shared by dispossessed farmers, rural women, and feral entities such as grasshoppers.

While tucuras and saltamontes in Latin America have a strong association with the biblical apocalyptic imaginary,15 grasshoppers in other places such as Uganda are tied to longstanding local traditions that correlate with food and nourishment. Michelle Coomber’s poetic seven-minute documentary Nsenene (2021) captures in an ethereal and experimental film the tradition of long-horned grasshopper harvesting, while underscoring how climate change threatens the grasslands around Lake Victoria, where these hunts and harvests traditionally occur.16 The movie follows nighttime relations between humans and insects by documenting how locals lure swarms of nsenene (grasshopper, in the Luganda language) with powerful lamps of a thousand watts or more.

When the grasshoppers start coming into the green tent used for the harvest, glowing bulbs placed above the trap reflect the dark green color on the skin of the catchers, smoke rises from burning grass to intoxicate and disorient the insects, and the whole spectral and otherworldly atmosphere suggests an intimate, almost ritual relation between hunter and prey. The film’s protagonist, Ibrah, says: “They are whispering to us,” and “sometimes we dream about them.” Ibrah, who hails from the nearby town of Masaka, reveals that there are many local beliefs in connection to grasshoppers, suggesting deeply rooted forms of socialization built around these insects. “There are so many beliefs, like, if a pregnant woman ate them, her child would have a grasshopper head,” says Ibrah, whose family has participated in the industry for generations. “Some people believe they come from water in the lakes. Others say they emerge from the soil like ants. I believe they’re not from this world.”

Image of a man in a baseball cap peering up towards a black night sky. The air is filled with flying insects, is lit by two bright bulbs, and is tinged a green color. A written subtitle superimposed on the image reads, "I believe they're not from this world."

Screen capture from Michelle Coomber's film Nsenene (2021).

However, this practice is also affected by the hardships these communities suffer. The process of capturing the grasshoppers can lead to burns and eye damage, and people often experience hunger due to disruptions to the grasshopper harvest, since many rely on money from the harvest to buy food. Harvesting is dependent on the rainy season, and climate change has made the rains less predictable, while deforestation has destabilized the insects’ breeding and feeding cycles. Facing drastic climate transformations, the uncertainty towards the future experienced by this community is encapsulated in Ibrah’s prayer: “I’ll be lost if they stop falling.”

In Romero’s speculative novel and Coomber’s poetic film, we encounter grasshoppers as life-forms with their own needs, purposes, and agendas—not as a pernicious, alien plague that befalls humans. In both of these cultural expressions, grasshoppers are a means to visualize the interconnectedness of the climate crisis and economic challenges related to corporate governance, global capitalism, and the concentration of power in agribusiness. The religious symbolism associating these insects with a coming apocalypse resonates with Romero’s and Coomber’s use of the grasshopper to get at how economic forces and the structural violence that comes with capital accumulation are driving the climate crisis and feeding our own looming sense of eco-apocalypse. In both the biblical imaginary and contemporary media—including the novel and the film—the relationship between grasshoppers and climate change communicates a sense of impending catastrophe, a cataclysmic ending, a foreclosure of the future. At the same time, grasshoppers can also represent hope, if we can change our perception of nonhuman worlds in biodiversity action plans and our relation to them in the economic, political and cultural realms.

Stories like those crafted by Romero and Coomber, which center on more complex portrayals of relationships between humans and grasshoppers, invite us to question human behavior based on revulsion, threat, and the impulse toward extermination when encountering nonhumans. The option of pushing grasshoppers away, as in Argentina’s SENASA extermination plan, might seem like a necessary course of action to protect crops and revenues in societies that are dependent on agriculture. However, once we take seriously the notion that the climate crisis affects humans and nonhumans alike, this shared vulnerability might create new interconnections, ways of dwelling together, and forms of climate activism that are attentive to both human and nonhuman rights and survival strategies.

Some contemporary visual and sonic projects from Latin America might provide new models for dwelling together with nonhumans. An agroecological project organized by the sound arts collective Tsonami Arte Sonoro in 2019 at the Museo de Historia Natural de Valparaíso in Chile17 presents bioacoustic registers of interactions between insects, birds, and amphibians to bring awareness about interdependence in ecosystems. In these experiments, artists use the sounds of wildlife to create sonic environments, opening a visceral, sensory channel for humans to connect with other life-forms and ecosystems. These sonic experiments offer ways of hearing insect ecologies, of which grasshoppers are a part, to imagine forms of dwelling together but also to awaken different sensibilities about insects as a form of climate activism. In 2022, the art collective Colectiva Ecoestéticas, formed by Argentinian artists Ana Laura Cantera, Gabriela Munguía, and Mariela Yeregui, launched On Seas, Parrots and Intruders (A Global South contribution for decolonizing the invasion ecologies approach).18 This interactive multimedia platform addresses the perceptions of so-called invasive species by focusing on the Argentine parrot, cotorra Argentina (Myiopsitta monachus). This species originates in subtropical areas of South America but was later introduced by humans in other countries, especially in Europe. Its rapid reproduction threatens agriculture, and therefore it is considered invasive in the agricultural imaginary, much like the tucura.

A photo of several small birds perched on thin, leafless branches against a blank, washed-out sky. Superimposed on the image, over the birds and branches, is the question "are they alien?" in large red letters.

Screen capture from Colectiva Ecoestéticas' project On Seas, Parrots and Intruders (2022).

The question are they alien? posed in large red letters, juxtaposed on a black-and-white photograph of cotorras flapping their wings on a tree, invites viewers to interrogate what we mean when we label a nonhuman population “alien and invasive,” how that label further reinforces the division between humans and nonhumans, and how it plays out in the history of European colonization in the Americas. Through sound, text, and video, On Seas, Parrots and Intruders encourages approaches that focus on adaptation and coexistence in times of climate transformation, rather than exclusion and extermination. The visual and sonic practices in this project and the sound work by Tsonami Arte Sonoro have the potential to help us develop a greater appreciation for how much nonhuman (and especially insect) life is a part of the ecosystems that make our planet habitable for humans.

Change and adaptation in local contexts, in the face of a seemingly overwhelming climate crisis, can only occur if we learn to ask nonhumans the right questions—if we learn to think with human and grasshopper bodies mutually affected by chemical agents, as in Romero’s story, with the migrant tucuras quebracheras in Córdoba, the disappearing nsenene in Uganda, and the migrant cotorra in a common tale crossed by toxicity, vanishing montes, and rising temperatures. The grasshoppers descending on cities, towns, and crops might be a sign of devastation, suggesting that ominous events are unfolding environmentally, while in other cases their migration into communities might signal salvation and food. As climate chaos brings humans and critters closer, we will need to learn to live alongside the disruptive migrations and plagues that capitalism has unleashed, and find new vocabularies that reach beyond control, domestication, and despair. Cultural products like science fiction stories, poetic filmmaking, and art platforms from the margins of the Global North can illuminate pathways to inhabiting the planet with unwanted, undesired, and feral entities, while resignifying the ancient biblical myth and its strong hold on agricultural societies like the one I grew up in.

The media works and contexts I have discussed suggest a poetics and politics of climate activism that advances forms of adaptation rooted in grassroots processes, drawing on locally and regionally specific cultural and economic histories. Pathways to transition and transformation require new behavior patterns, and those, in turn, will require a renewed horizontal perception of our relations to the nonhuman world: a sense that we’re in this together with other species, rather than pushing them away or classifying them as dangerous pests, intruders, or harbingers of destruction. With these new stories in mind, I would like to go back in time and face that tucura quebrachera jumping onto the wall and be able to ask the right questions, to craft a new script built not on revulsion and astonishment, but on cohabitation and understanding.

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