Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (2016)

In this well researched, detailed and thought provoking book, Ursula Heise argues that “biodiversity, endangered species, and extinction are primarily cultural issues, questions of what we value and what stories we tell, and only secondarily issues of science” (p. 5) – a point of view underlining the importance of the work done by NaChiLitCul.

In the first chapter Heise convincingly demonstrates how the majority of fictional and nonfictional texts portraying endangered species rely on the common genre templates of elegy and tragedy. A single exception is Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine’s Last Chance to See (1990) that employs the comic mode, asking: how on earth did a certain species manage to last for this long?

Turning to global biodiversity databases, Heise argues that they rely on the framework of the epic and the encyclopaedia – the epic element is the portrayal of a global struggle in which the future of life and the planet itself are at stake. She also shows how artists and writers often resort to lists or catalogues to convey mass extinction. Analysing the metadata and classification schemata of Red Lists of endangered species, Heise demonstrates that they have a taxonomic bias that privileges certain species while excluding others, and that they contain elements of an elegiac narrative depicting nature’s decline. (Noting, for instance, that the more endangered a species is, the more valuable it becomes). Discussing the most influential current Red List, that of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), she argues that a “narrative of risk and of value attribution” (p. 72) is hardwired into the list categories of Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered, since it defines endangerment and extinction positively while species that thrive are tagged by negation or approximation, rather than labelled for instance “safe” or “thriving”.

In chapter three Heise analyses and compares the biodiversity laws of America, Germany, the EU and Bolivia, demonstrating that they are quite different since they derive from divergent regional histories. While the American law targets species extinction, the German law is geared towards conserving Landschaft or landscapes, which includes landscapes used and altered by humans. The biodiversity law of the European Union is framed in a less culture specific scientific rhetoric, aiming at protecting natural habitats, while the Bolivian national law establishes “Mother Earth” as a legal subject with a right to “diversity of life” (p. 116). Heise concludes: “Conservation laws, like other narratives about endangered species, are part of the stories cultural communities tell about themselves, their past and their futures. Knowing what the numbers mean, and for whom, requires a knowledge of these stories” (p.126).

This emphasis on cultural diversity is a recurrent theme in the rest of the book, as she examines the often conflicting positions of environmentalists (who focus on species) and animal rights advocates (who tend to focus on individuals) that represent differing views on the relationship between humans and animals. She also discusses multicultural aspects of conservation efforts: how may a conflict between Western initiatives for species conservation and traditional ways of native land use, be reconciled? Through the concept of multispecies justice, which is highly relevant to NaChiLitCul’s focus on interspecies awareness, Heise seeks accountability in regard to social, political and multicultural aspects of species conservation.


Lykke Guanio-Uluru, 15.12.2017

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