Fernando Vidal and Nélia Dias (Editors). Endangerment, Biodiversity and Culture. 264pp., 11 b/w illus., index. London: Routledge, 2016. $163 (hardback), $52.95 (paperback), $52.95 (eBook)

In Endangerment, Biodiversity and Culture, editors Fernando Vidal and Nélia Dias bring together scholarship on what they compellingly label the “endangerment sensibility”: that is, “a complex of knowledge, values, affects and interests characterized by a particularly acute perception that some organisms and things are ‘under threat,’ and by a purposeful responsiveness to such a predicament” (2). The volume features nine contributions split equally into three sections. These sections consider: the affects, values, and science that are interwoven in this sensibility (Part I); the situated politics of endangerment discourses and practices (Part II); and technologies of preservation, which help constitute endangerment and have ontological consequences for the entities they aim to preserve (Part III).

Whether endangerment concerns a species, language, heritage, or landscape, this volume shows the importance of tracing the genealogies of the endangerment sensibility and understanding endangerment not as an objective fact but as a perception rooted in values, politics, and technologies. Vidal and Dias introduce readers to the endangerment sensibility in their opening chapter, which begins by arguing for the distinct essence of this “late-modern feeling for the fragility of things” (3) compared to earlier moments of environmental reflexivity. They highlight three key issues that reappear time and again in endangerment practices and the controversies they engender: first, the value of diversity, which has become a “sociological and cognitive correlate” (8) of endangerment; second, the practice of listing and the epistemic logics that follow from it; and third, the role of emotions, which work both to realize endangerment and simultaneously undermine its credibility. Overall this chapter not only serves as an excellent introduction to the analytical concepts that recur throughout the volume, but also grounds our application of these analytics through the brief elaboration of several recent cases. For example, the authors refer to UNESCO’s Language Vitality and Endangerment Framework to illustrate the ontological consequences of listing, which in this case categorizes languages in six degrees from safe to extinct. The extent to which this listing is actually useful to language communities (rather than to the linguists who study them), and the questionable value of diversity when it reifies language or culture as a pristine object (rather than allow them to adapt to new ecologies) are issues raised by highlighting the UNESCO initiative and its diverse critics.

In the opening chapter of Part I, “Affects and Values,” Shaylih Muehlmann discusses “entangled endangerments” in the Colorado Delta: that is, the metaphorical and empirical correlations between language and the natural world that have been made to produce a single extinction discourse. Muehlmann chronicles how this entangling of linguistic and environmental discourses occurred in the 1980s and 1990s as language advocates leaned on the legitimacy and successes of environmental biodiversity rhetoric. This entangling both renewed objections to environmental determinism among anthropologists and created new enthusiasm for encompassing “biocultural” frameworks among linguists and evolutionary biologists. Listing and indexing practices that were part of these integrated frameworks reveal value conflicts that efforts to preserve diversity inevitably give rise to. Muehlmann ends her chapter with an ethnographic case study of Cucapá speakers to show how endangerments must be understood in relation to social inequality.

In the second chapter, David Sepkoski pays attention to the changing relationship between extinction and diversity with the advent of the endangerment sensibility. He refers to two watershed moments, namely: the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, which was well-received by the biological conservation movement, and the 1986 National Forum on BioDiversity held in Washington DC. He argues that the endangerment sensibility is a fairly recent historical construct that emerged in the 1970s to mid-1980s. Nineteenth century Darwinian understandings of extinction “as a process that contributes to an endlessly renewing natural equilibrium” gave way to twentieth century views that emphasized the permanent loss of biological diversity with potentially catastrophic ecological and evolutionary consequences (63). Sepkoski illuminates the earlier “extinction discourse” by focusing on the extinction of groups of human beings; how nineteenth-century Europeans responded to this issue shows how deeply this discourse was implicated in imperial ideologies. The rest of the chapter is devoted to the “new catastrophism” of the late twentieth century. He shows how the biodiversity movement was shaped by multiple factors, not least conservation arguments that “increasingly tended to promote the economic, biomedical and even ethical reasons for preserving all life, rather than those related to aesthetics and recreation” (77). While Sepkoski’s narrative of the new extinction discourse places scientists as central agents of change, in his conclusion he points out that scientists were also influenced by changing cultural norms: “it is quite likely that the new understanding of extinction was made more acceptable by a cultural and political context in which nuclear proliferation and environmental catastrophe were looming specters” (82).

In the final chapter of Part I, Rebecca Lemov extends our understanding of the endangerment sensibility by considering how it operates on “second-order” phenomena: not the plants, animals, cultures (etc.) that risk extinction themselves, but rather the data generated about them that is often at risk of being lost too. Lemov considers anthropological data in danger between 1941 to 1965 and shows how second-order endangerment operated by threatening systems of knowledge through degradation and “accidents of circulation.” She shows how such stores of knowledge were considered “sacred” and constituted a kind of fetish: “It is no longer the things and trappings that must be preserved against ruin, but the representations of the things and trappings—their data and the repositories in which they rest” (90).

Stefan Bargheer begins Part II (“Situated Politics”) with a study of endangerment “in reverse” (116): that is, by looking at conservation efforts, particularly those that evolved with UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program since the late 1960s. Bargheer shows how biosphere reserves (and the goal of conservation) were added to MAB, which initially sought only to document human involvement in ecosystems. In Chapter 5, Stefanie Gänger traces an endangerment logic that emerged in Chile after the conquest of Araucania in the early 1880s. Although this endangerment discourse had been circulating in trans-Atlantic networks for some time, Gänger argues that it was “unconceivable” in Chile prior to this moment. She notes that: “The esteem that is necessary to the possibility of endangerment thinking, and the reverence that is conducive to it, is usually possible only after the danger or inconvenience the endangered might once have represented had been overcome” (142). Looking closely at a brand of Chilean “salvage anthropology” that studied what were (by definition) a disappearing people, Gänger shows how indigeneity was understood and given strict confines.

José Augusto Pádua finishes Part II with a chapter about “the conceptual shifts regarding the value and status of tropical forests in Brazilian political culture” (149). To do this he considers the longer history of Brazilian forests: not only deforestation of the Amazon (a late twentieth century phenomenon) but also the more extensive and longer-term destruction of the Atlantic Forest. He frames this history as a transition from an earlier “conversion imperative” that had roots in Portuguese colonialism and viewed forests as a “hindrance to the creation of a Western-like civilization” (153) to a “conservation imperative” that started to emerge in the late twentieth century and recognized the value of forests. Pádua’s chapter offers a rich analysis, including discussion of the complex (local and global) factors involved in the emergence of a new Brazilian political culture guided by the conservation imperative. He also warns that the rise of the conservation imperative shouldn’t be interpreted as “a victory of ‘pure ecological reasoning’ […] over political and economic interests.” We should see this as “the development of a new form of understanding economic and political interests in relation to rainforests, rather than as a victory over these interests” (153).

In Part III, Etienne Benson begins discussion of “Technologies of Preservation” through his study of the California condor and perceptions of the species since the late eighteenth century. Benson is keen to note that this history of condor endangerment is not necessarily the same as the history of other endangered species: “each endangered species has ultimately been endangered in its own way” (190). That said, he provides an instructive chronology that moves across four phases: “discovery,” “salvage,” “preservation,” and “management.” Essentially, the author shows how changing understandings of endangerment (how the threat of extinction was perceived) affected not only research methods (how the species is known) but also arguably the species itself. For example, Benson describes the consequences of the fatalistic attitudes that were characteristic of the salvage phase: this led to certain methods that generated “new knowledge about the species even as it contributed to its decimation” (180). In the present management phase, the author shows how new research questions (e.g., about reproduction) have become salient and also argues that the boundaries between lab and wilderness have been blurred: “the archive of science and the archive of nature had been collapsed into a single postnatural archive that encompassed living things in ‘the wild’ and in captivity as well as specimens and records” (189). Benson’s ultimate argument is that the “ontological and epistemological conditions of endangerment” are “connected: the threat of non-existence leads us to new ways of knowing at the same time that ways of knowing reconstitute their objects of inquiry” (176).

Rodney Harrison focuses on the technology of “listing” particularly as it is has been used in the development of the World Heritage concept. His chapter offers a history of the idea of world heritage as it was formulated through international safeguarding campaigns (the first in response to the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the need to protect the antiquities of Egypt and Sudan, and the second motivated by the flooding of Venice in 1966). Harrison shows how heritage came to acquire a universal valuation through these efforts and the subsequent World Heritage Convention of 1972. In addition to considering listing practices associated with the World Heritage List, he also analyzes later efforts to protect “intangible expressions of cultural heritage,” showing how Intangible Heritage Lists created new categories and expanded the endangerment sensibility to new objects. Harrison considers these developments in relation to Foucauldian ideas of power, arguing that “one of the important implications of heritage lists as apparatuses is that they instigated and have continued to facilitate forms of government ‘at a distance’” (196).

In the ninth chapter, Joanna Radin focuses on cryopreservation systems that have been established as “genetic salvage projects” (218) through planned hindsight: that is, the “imagination of the present as a future past” (236). Her chapter includes a brief history of cryopreservation and then several case studies of the practice as it has been enacted at the Swiss Village Farm Foundation in Newport, Rhode Island, the Frozen Zoo in Escondido, California, and the Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection in New York. She shows how cryopreservation has been both an agent of endangerment and a shield against it, and further how the endangerment sensibility has led scientists to embrace the technique. Radin observes that cryopreservation and planned hindsight more generally defer problem-solving to some future point: in the cases she studies, “reference to the ‘inherent’ value of biodiversity might also be understood as a deferral of an ability to name the specific instrumental properties of that worth, which will ostensibly be realized at some future time” (236).

The volume ends with a coda: In this final essay, Julia Adeney Thomas asks “Who is the ‘we’ endangered by climate change?” There is an obvious desire for a “conjoint understanding of the human-at-risk” to be shared by both scientists and humanists, but Thomas shows us that this is a false hope by exploring the multiple understandings of “the human” across different biological sciences (paleobiology, microbiology, and biochemistry). These biologies “produce human figures of varying vulnerability,” and while the sciences enrich humanist understandings of what is at stake, we must admit the limits of biological description and the inability of scientists to address questions of value. Drawing inspiration from Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work on climate change,[1] Thomas ultimately emboldens humanists—and makes them responsible: “Ultimately, defining what is most endangered by climate change is the role of the humanists” (255).

This well-organized and well-crafted volume serves as a basis for further research on the subject of endangerment in parallel studies on Africa and Ghana in particular. Studies in the history of science and environmental history are important because they explore historical discourses on endangerment, biodiversity, and culture. It seems, however, that in the context of Ghana, these subjects require even more urgency in academia and research. This reviewer is familiar with two critical areas: the degradation of the physical environment of communities in Ghana due to galamsey (artisanal mining), and the preservation of indigenous knowledge systems in Ghana and Asante in particular (including medicinal, cultural, and customary practices that can inform our contemporary moment). For example, two of my own recent studies pay attention to the proper management and nurturing of the physical environment (which has ramifications for the health and well-being of the people), but don’t ask larger questions about the meaning of endangerment and the preservation of the “human species” in particular. With no equivocation, this edited volume has stimulated a desire in the reviewer to consider how endangerment has shaped our understanding of human species, language, and culture especially among minority groups in Ghana. This notwithstanding, it is important to emphasize that endangerment as a policy discourse should continue to be explored to ensure that policymakers and other actors see the need to deal with the subject matter—especially in regions where policymakers and institutional actors have disregarded the endangerment sensibility no matter the number of international conventions and protocols their countries have signed toward this end. This edited piece opens new avenues for further research and is also useful for policy discussion because of the profound and practical examples it offers to the reader.

[1] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197-222.

Samuel Adu-Gyamfi: contributions / mcgyamfi@yahoo.com / Department of History and Political Studies, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology