Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Biodiversity: why does it even matter?

Most people want to preserve the so-called flagship species. But different people have different motivations.

For those of you with an interest in the animal studies field, The Human Animal Research Network and the Sydney Environment Institute are hosting a seminar on exploring biodiversity as cultural value.

I know not all SAT readers have a humanities leaning, so what does the above mean?

We all know about biodiversity and the threats to it (habitat destruction, climate change, rising sea levels etc). But how much does it really matter? Really? In the words of the seminar organisers, "There may be significant unforeseen consequences to the loss of some organisms (as became evident with the recent collapse of the South Asian vulture population), but the loss of others may have no apparent consequences for humans at all. It seems abundantly clear that human cultures rely on pollinators such as bees, but would they really miss the pygmy three-toed sloth?"

Personally one of my dreams is to go and meet some sloths, so I definitely would. But the point is, is extinction bad in itself? To whom does it matter? Why? 

It turns out that we often answer these questions on the basis of concealed usefulness. i.e. biodiversity is valuable to us because we need access to that genetic bank of hitherto unexplored resources that could be useful in medicine or industry. Maybe the three-toed sloth secretes sweat containing an antimicrobial substance. 

For others, justification for all this effort to maintain biodiversity is about emotional attachment to some species - or the natural world generally. The problem is this can be seen as a bleeding-heart, airy-fairy, sentimental approach, easily dismissed by economic or science-driven types. But is it any less valid?

A lot of us are sold on biodiversity, but may not be able to pinpoint exactly why.

The seminar will explore the values underpinning current public discussions about biodiversity.

For more info about this seminar please visit here.

John Miller, “From Natural Capital to Dark Tourism: Biodiversity Loss and the Aesthetics of Conservation.”
The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio saw the signing of the Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD), the culmination of many years’ work initiated by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to safeguard ‘biological diversity for the benefit of present and future generations’. It was, according to its own publicity at any rate, a landmark in international conservation, a ‘dramatic step forward’ in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction event. 
Although a significant aspect of the CBD’s agenda was ‘the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources’, it has stimulated some sharp criticism on ideological grounds, most trenchantly in Vandana Shiva’s work. For Shiva, the CBD appears ‘primarily as an initiative of the North to “globalise” the central management and ownership of biological diversity’ in order to advance the portfolios of large corporations. International biodiversity legislation becomes part of what Shiva describes as ‘the ultimate colonization of life itself’, a penetration of economics into Earth’s biological fabric. 
Since the 1990s, the deepening entrenchment of a rhetoric of ‘natural capital’ has continued to emphasise the subsumption of species conservation into a neo-liberal logic; even environmental aesthetics are commodified into a ‘cultural service’. Public policy on biodiversity loss seems firmly installed in crude cost/benefit analyses that are paradoxically both widely discredited and progressively more influential.
Starting with debates around the CBD’s neo-colonial politics, this paper explores the relationship between the rise of ‘natural capital’ and the emergence of an increasingly prominent literary subgenre, the conservation travel narrative. 
Particularly, it examines Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine’s poignant Last Chance to See (1990) in which the authors recount ‘an unforgettable journey across the world in search of exotic, endangered creatures’. Evidently, Adams and Cawardine are writing at some remove from a market-driven approach to conservation: we should preserve endangered species, Cawardine writes, because the world would be a ‘poorer, darker, lonelier place without them’. 
At the same time, however, Last Chance to See is structured around the necessity of rendering endangered animals available to a western audience. As such, it may be understood in an intimate relationship with eco-tourism, another expression of the economic logic of conservation that Shiva critiques. Given the framing ecological context of the collapse in global biodiversity, Last Chance to See (and ecotourism more broadly) may be read as an instance of ‘dark tourism’, travels associated particularly with catastrophe, violence or trauma. Consequently, neo-liberal biodiversity conservation insists not just on the commodification of ‘life itself’, but also on the commodification of death.  

Robert McKay, “Invaluable Elephants”
This paper begins from the perhaps obvious premise that all value is valuation: it is necessarily always contingent and distributed rather than inherent. A less apparent implication of this is that all such valuations necessarily both produce and ward off alternative redistributions of value. 
These claims hold true whether value is understood in a political-economic register or in an ethical register, to refer to moral worth. Such points warrant statement in the context of discussions of biodiversity and animal death for this principal reason. The discourse of species (as Cary Wolfe terms it)—the rhetorical, political, and institutional mobilization of the imputed fact of human-animal difference—consistently plays a crucial role in the presentation of contingent and tactical (anthropocentric) valuations as necessary, absolute values in the consideration of humans’ lethal encounters with nonhumans, of the kind that is omnipresent in conservation/”biodiversity management”. 
The coding of speciesist political choice as necessity is a good instance of the crucial mechanism that Wolfe, following Derrida, names a ‘sacrificial logic’. It is not just that affective possibilities that exceed anthropocentric/humanist accounting—such as a specific animal’s interest in its own or another specific animal’s ontogeny, or a cross-species value such as an ideal of animal friendship—are devalued. Rather, ironically imagined as unimaginable, they are ruled out of court, sacrificed in a presentation of the field of value as necessarily human and (thus) anthropocentric.
This paper will develop Wolfe’s position by suggesting that a crucial purpose of contemporary ecological and pro-animal critique is to address head-on the contingency of the anthropocentric valuations by exploring specific historical instances of the sacrificial logic at work. 
This can offer a genealogical account of both a) the reproduction of the discourse of species and its material effects on living beings and b) such redistributions of value as are both produced and foreclosed by anthropocentric processes of valuation. 
I also want to suggest that cultural texts offer particular leverage for this critical operation, because they have the power both to embody the social processes of value-making and distribution of their time and resist that process in subtle ways. The historical intimacy of conservation with the practices and legacies of hunting hints at the complex intertwining of difficult and competing values in relation to animal life that underpins environmentalist thought as it develops in the 20th Century. 
The issues become even more overdetermined when the animal at stake is under a number of different hunting threats and rationales for conservation, each of them very differently politicized, as was the case with elephants in the decolonization period after the Second World War. This moment, therefore, presents an important case study in the political and moral distribution of value I have been discussing. In this paper, then, I will discuss Romain Gary’s The Roots of Heaven (1956/1958) Peter Viertel’s White Hunter, Black Heart (1953) in relation to political discourses of the time. I will explore the competing political, moral and aesthetic valuations of elephants at play, and whether these texts might portray animals, in all the senses the word implies, as invaluable.