Summary

  • “The central thesis of this book is that however much individual environmentalists may be motivated by a selfless devotion to the well-being of nonhuman species, however much individual conservation scientists may be driven by an eagerness to expand our knowledge and understanding of the species with whom we co-inhabit the planet, their engagements with these species gain sociocultural traction to the extent that they become part of the stories that human communities tell about themselves: stories about their origins, their development, their identity, and their future horizons. These human stories that frame our perception and relation to endangered nonhumans are the subject matter of this book. Such stories, directly or indirectly, explain why we care, not just as individuals but as communities or cultures. This is not to deny the important role that passionate individuals have played in science and conservation and will no doubt continue to play, but to focus on the larger narratives that enable individuals’ efforts to resonate with larger social networks. Public engagement with endangered species depends on these broader structures of imagination, and individuals’ paths to conservationist engagement become meaningful for others only within these cultural frameworks. Ultimately, I will argue 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” (5).

Keywords

Notes

0. Introduction

  • “The formula quickly became too familiar to remain inspiring in and of itself, although I did come to admire more and more the deep commitment and intense effort that was evident in these works. Rather than the imperative that we should care, the fact that we evidently do care a great deal, even if our concern may not at present suffice to save many animal and plant species at risk, imposed itself more and more as the central question for thinking about why conservation matters and how it might be fostered” (4). The questions Heise’s raising here about activist fatigue and the revelatory mode apply, I think, to digital media as well—Cubitt is engaged in a similar project of accounting.
  • “From my perspective as a textual and cultural scholar, what is most interesting about these works is not so much their uniquely personal content as the elements that repeat themselves across many stories and the means they use to convince readers with quite different experiences to share the concern expressed in them. How, when, and why do we invest culturally, emotionally, and economically in the fate of threatened species?” (4); pattern, repetition, form.
  • “Whatever the concrete ecological crises at hand, modern environmentalists, like their nineteenth-century forebears, have tended to rely on a similar story template: the idea that modern society has degraded a natural world that used to be beautiful, harmonious, and self-sustaining and that might disappear completely if modern humans do not change their way of life” (7); cf Nixon and much of the work in Tsing et al. to underscore how wrong this image is (which Heise notes).
  • “The six chapters of the book move along an arc from concrete cultural engagements with endangered species in the first three chapters to broader political and philosophical reflections in the last three. The first three chapters examine how our interest in endangered species has manifested itself over the past few decades in cultural artifacts, in global biodiversity databases, and in endangered species laws, whereas the last three engage with the tensions between conservation and animal welfare advocacy, between conservation and the environmental justice movement, and with the role of conservation in ongoing debates over the Anthropocene.

2. Database, Epic, and Biodiversity

  • “Drawing on media theorists who have approached databases as not just administrative and scientific tools, but as a cultural medium of their own in the digital age, this chapter seeks to understand global biodiversity databases as a contemporary form of ecological epic” (15).
  • The catalog as a response to scale: “Much as the elegiac mode dominates verbal and visual representations of endangered species, it is often accompanied by a sense that the mourning for individual species cannot adequately capture the magnitude of a crisis that affects thousands of species and the entire globe. To convey a more panoramic view of mass extinction, artists and writers often resort to lists or catalogs” (55). Compare w/ OOO focus on lists.
  • “Database aesthetic,” cf Manovich.
  • “While such databases seem at first sight far removed from the narratives of film documentaries or popular-scientific books about biodiversity loss, I will seek to show in what follows how narrative—and, in fact, in some cases even the genre of the elegy—continues to inflect the encyclopedic project of databases and Red Lists, while conversely, the database aesthetic pushes environmental art and writing beyond melancholy and mourning” (62).
  • “A few decades in the past, an older style of literary criticism sought to describe the transfer and linkage of themes, tropes, idioms, plots, and characters between texts of different periods and genres by means of the notion of “intertextuality,” a concept that proved particularly fertile in the description of seemingly fractured modernist works of art and literature. At a vastly larger scale and with the involvement of different media, some contemporary databases similarly function on the basis of what one may want to call “interdata” or “convergence data,” the collation and rearrangement of data drawn from a wide range of different sources and connected via the Internet” (64–65).
  • Moves from Manovich’s database aesthetics to Bowker’s (and Star’s) critique of standards (67).
  • “But narrative, in some cases, has returned through the back door precisely as the consequence of this quantification. While some species entries in the IUCN Red List provide only basic bare-bones data without much explanation, especially in the case of the numerous Data Deficient species, others include elaborate textual accounts” (73).
  • “A certain kind of narrative structure, then—a focus on nature in decline, on decrease, disappearance, and the past—is hardwired into Red List categories, criteria, and the stories they make scientists tell. While Red List data do not superficially seem to be structured so as to elicit the same kind of emotion that popular-scientific elegies for vanishing species in text or image aim at, they nevertheless invoke a similar storytelling template” (75).

6. Multispecies Fictions for the Anthropocene

  • “Not only do works of environmental nonfiction draw increasingly on themes and narrative strategies of speculative fiction, but the Anthropocene itself can usefully be understood as a science fiction trope” (18).
  • “The idea of multispecies justice, I have suggested, might prove a useful tool in thinking about biodiversity and conservation: it puts questions of justice for both humans and nonhumans front and center, even as it emphasizes that justice itself has to be imagined at the intersection of different cultural perspectives that may diverge in their conception of what is just” (202–03).
  • “The notion of the Anthropocene itself, section 2 goes on to show, is often accompanied by the transfer of tropes and narrative strategies from science fiction to mainstream fiction and environmental nonfiction. Its particular power, for this reason, resides not in its scientific definition as a geological epoch, but in its capacity to cast the present as a future that has already arrived—one of the quintessential functions of contemporary science fiction” (203).
  • Tension b/t anthropocene as geoengineering opportunity and those still frustrated w/ the elegiac mode (208).
  • “Science fiction, one could argue, complements the database as another form of contemporary epic storytelling” (215). “. . . enable an understanding of the Anthropocene itself as a trope of speculative fiction: the idea of a planet terraformed by humans in such a way that the traces of the process will be perceptible in the geological strata to a putative far-future observer” (218).
  • “In its substance, this debate is not quite as new as the emergent term Anthropocene might lead one to believe. The theory of a contemporary “risk society,” first proposed by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck in 1986, already stipulated that the world was moving into a new kind of modernity characterized by pervasive uncertainty” (223).
  • Scale again: “The literary scholar Mark McGurl, in an essay called “The Posthuman Comedy,” has suggested that thinking in terms of geological time intervals might make humans seem relatively unimportant and even laughable. Formally, this perspective on humans emerges most clearly in genres such as horror and science fiction . . .” (227).
  • “The Anthropocene, at first sight, seems to rely on too simple an understanding of the human and too anthropocentric an approach to historical agency. But as the lively debates of the past decade have shown, if it is understood as a shorthand for the self-reflexive moment in which humans confront the pervasive intentional and unintentional transformations of planetary ecology and geochemistry they have brought about, it can serve both to complicate what we usually mean by “human” and to offer opportunities for redefining it” (233–34).

Archive and Impact

  • Heise is a major figure in the straight-up environmental humanities; she teaches in a comparative literature program.