Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species

Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), xiii + 280 pp. £21.00 Pb. and ebook. £62.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780226358024

There have been five naturally occurring mass extinctions since the beginning of life on Earth. We are now, largely unwittingly, perpetrating the sixth. But who are ‘we’? Can we dissociate ourselves from the rest of ‘nature’? And how do we weigh up the extinction of a species against the deaths or deprivation of individual humans or other animals whose lives may depend on the same conditions that lead to its demise? These are the questions that Ursula Heise asks in Imagining Extinction. She does not contest the occurrence of anthropogenic extinction, although she is alert to the extent to which any statistical pronouncements on extinction depend upon estimates and extrapolation. But she does insist that extinction is a cultural concept first and foremost, and that the scientific as well as the political discourses around extinction take shape in particular cultural contexts and through specific cultural forms. It is essential to recognise this, she implies, if we are to find workable ways through our century’s unfolding ecological crises. One imperative is to avoid imposing any single set of values but to reach, instead, for what Heise calls an ‘eco-cosmopolitanism’ (225-26) which recognises and respects the perspectives and needs of other cultures, whether those be other movements, other peoples or indeed other species. Another is to avoid succumbing to the fatalism and despair forced upon us by narratives of environmental collapse. These two imperatives are intertwined, as the intractability of the problem derives in part, Heise suggests, from the apparent irreconcilability of the ways in which different cultures conceive of the value of non-human life. The hope is that, by recognising these differences, we can make some progress towards an accommodation with one another and with other living things.

The range of Heise’s analyses and the care with which she maintains her critical distance are remarkably impressive. Imagining Extinction begins with three chapters that concentrate on specific cultural forms, tracing how they conceptualise and shape narratives of extinction. The first chapter focusses on the most familiar narrative genres, the novel and the non-fiction memoir, to show how the mood of elegy and the structure of tragedy pervade contemporary accounts of the extinction of individual species. The emphasis, almost always, is on recognisable and aesthetically compelling species – beautiful birds, imposing carnivores – which, as Heise explains, form a synecdoche for the loss of biodiversity as a whole or endangered species as a class. Against this prevailing trend towards tragedy, Heise pits the possibility of comedy. Although she only has one example to offer – Last Chance to See (1990), by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine – her analysis of its affection for the ‘inefficient, irrational unadaptedness of the natural world’ (52), in which the ‘human and nonhuman protagonists . . . fail in different but comparable ways, and the idiosyncracy of their shortfalls invites readers’ fondness and sympathy rather than their admiration and mourning’ (53), is at once very perceptive and genuinely promising.

The second and third chapters move beyond familiar literary forms to examine biodiversity databases and the texts of laws which set out to preserve endangered species. Heise’s analysis of databases works with a somewhat looser literary analogy than her invocations of elegy, tragedy and comedy. She proposes an equivalence between the database and the epic, in that both are attempts at totalising narratives, encoding the sum of knowledge within a given culture. In the case of the databases, these totalising narratives fall into line with the prevailing elegiac logic traced in the previous chapter. The rhetoric of the IUCN Red List, which categories species on a spectrum from ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Critically Endangered’ and beyond to ‘Extinct in the Wild’ and finally ‘Extinct’ (71), is a prime example, as there is nowhere in this categorisation for ease of mind, even where species are not under threat.

Excepting the glimpse of comedy, chapters one and two analyse expressions of a single, even monolithic, narrative of extinction within Western culture. In chapter three, Heise problematizes this impression of uniformity through a comparative analysis of four different legal codes drawn up to protect endangered species which reveals the deep cultural roots of these laws, and how these determine their objectives. In the US, the object of the Endangered Species Act is to protect individual wild species once they are under threat, foregrounding their value to the nation. The German Federal Nature Protection Law and the EU’s Habitats Directive, by contrast, place emphasis on ecosystems as a whole, landscapes that, again, are seen to be integral to national and supranational identities. The Bolivian constitution and Law of the Rights of Mother Earth gives Heise her first substantial example of a non-Western perspective on environmentalism, incorporating indigenous cultural traditions and breaking with fundamental Western assumptions, most notably by granting Mother Nature the status of a juridical person with established legal rights.

In the second half of her book, Heise extends her analysis by considering key conceptual issues that complicate any aspiration towards a uniform cultural response to extinction. In chapter four, she examines the tension between environmentalism and animal welfare. These are objectives that one might expect to coalesce, and yet they often come into conflict. Where animal welfare campaigners and philosophers value the individual life, environmentalists value the ecosystem or the species, often disregarding the life of individuals, especially if they are deemed invasive, in favour of what, to their critics, are at best abstractions. In chapter five, Heise moves on to consider how environmental justice movements can cope with the competing priorities of multi-species communities, where humans come into conflict, directly or through their needs, with other species. Her comparative analysis of three very different novels here – Mayra Montero’s Tú, la oscuridad (1995), set in Haiti, Virunga (2009) by the Stanford Graphic Novel Project, set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2005), set in the Sundarbans – show how effective fiction, closely read, can be as a means to explore in detail the ethical and imaginative challenges of extinction. The final chapter is a sustained discussion of how another genre, science fiction, might help us to think our way through to effective forms of multi-species justice and a less, or less exclusively, catastrophic conception of the Anthropocene.

Imagining Extinction is a crisp, consistently intelligent study which helps us to think through extinction and the loss of biodiversity, but also how to negotiate and respect cultural difference, and how, practically, to extend that consideration to other living beings. The price to pay for Heise’s critical sophistication is that it inevitably makes a hard problem seem harder still. But if we do not recognise the complexity of the situation we face then we will never reach a solution. In getting us closer to the understanding we need, and suggesting a direction of travel, Imagining Extinction has a very important contribution to make.

John Holmes, University of Birmingham