“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, February 25, 2011

Rutgers Eco Conference: Ursula Heise talk + mp3

Isabella Kirkland, “Gone,” Taxa Series

The Anthropocene. Risk Society. Cultural representations of species extinction. Elegy, tragedy. Databases of extinct species (epic?). Clear distinctions between culture and science don't exist. Science conflicted on the inside with all kinds of assumptions.

Extinction is a normal part of evolution. We may be losing species at 50–500 times the background rate. Habitat destruction, invasive species, population growth, pollution, overharvesting (HIPPO, the acronym).

Biodiversity was very slow to restart after mass extinctions.

Possible collapse of some ecosystems. Disappearance of medical and other resources for the future. Disappearance of important cultural anchor points and assets.

The problem of biodiversity: the concept is normative as well as descriptive. Divergent definitions of species. Morphogenetic shape, genome, type?

Divergent assessments as to what the magnitude of the extinction is. The discovery of species is increasing as this happens.

If so many species are threatened that entire systems are at risk, who cares exactly what is disappearing? Yet diversity is a numbers argument that must be substantiated with numbers.

Huge discrepancies between numbers of species we've evaluated for extinction and numbers we think exist. We've evaluated one mushroom; we think 30 000 mushroom species exist.

Two hundred years of environmentalist stories behind it.

Focus on culturally significant species. “Charismatic megafauna.” Many conservationists are ambiguous about these species.

Extinction as cultural signifier. The Dodo as first example. Japanese Wolf, Minke Whales. Cultural focus points that articulate critiques of modernization.

David Quammen on the dodo. As icon of regret for modernization.

Biodiversity databases as a kind of nature writing as a genre in which our cultural concern finds expression. Media theorists have argued that whatever their scientific utility, databases are a form of cultural expression.

Hayles violently disagrees with this approach. Databases directly are narrative.

Heise thinks that she's positioned in the middle, though I'm not sure what's to the other side of her. An epic aspiration to encompass all life forms. (Me: Epic narrates the origins of a nation...?)

Conceptual decisions to design databases that are cultural in nature. Technological forms of cultural memory whose architecture determines what can become part of it. Metadata: criteria for selection. Justifications for species conservation are pragmatic, not theoretical.

Species are symptomatic and symbolic.

Red lists concerning species protection usually based on these lists.

Philip K. Dick, Androids. Vonnegut, Galapagos. Oryx and Crake. All have narratives that narrate multiple extinctions. Maya Lin, What Is Missing? site.

Isabella Kirkland, Nova, Taxa series. Like still lives with nearly dead animals. Challenging the logic of still life as well as the logic of extinction. As if to say “There is no more nature outside the social.” (This could easily be misheard as: only humans remain the final arbiters.”)

Joel Sartore, who photos species against a white or black background, to give equal attention to each, in line with his reading of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. They appear artifactual and mounted rather than embedded, frozen in movement. Clinical, classificatory. Lifeforms come to resemble aliens. Not caught up with beauty and tragedy of impending death. Desentimentalizing.

Homo sapiens is listed as “species of least concern” on the endangered species red list. Inclusion of humans in a biodiversity database is a big decision to reconsider as species among species.

Databases could help us turn from Romanticism in environmentalism.

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