Ursula Heise, Imagining Extinction, 2016

Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Book review by Fani Cettl                                                                         

Heise’s engagement with cultural narratives of species extinction is a timely and nuanced contribution, which thrives on the intersections of cultural and science studies, ecocriticism and animal studies. The author early on states her main premise: however much individual environmentalists and scientists may be devoted to improving the well-being and expanding our knowledge of the nonhuman species, “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” (5). By examining which and how these broader stories crucially underlie popular fiction or visual representations, but also inter/national legislation and biodiversity databases, by the end of the book Heise convinces us 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).

Heise first identifies the pervasive cultural narrative that has framed conservationist efforts since the early 19th century, of the degradation and indeed loss of some beautiful, harmonious, intact “Nature” through modernization and industrialization. More than just a nostalgic lamentation, the narrative has driven important critiques of western economy and colonialism, while also being deconstructed for positing an ideal of Nature separate from humans. It is against this historical template that Heise examines the contemporary imagination in the context of the 6th mass extinction,which is seen to be caused by humans unlike the previous ones. How does the template persist, mutate, go beyond nostalgia, or indeed open up for new conceptualizations? Heise tackles this by carefully and lucidly examining an impressive amount and variety of material throughout six chapters, decoding it significantly through the parameters of different genres. While the first three chapters zoom in closely on popular fiction, endangered species lists, or conservation laws, the last three open up for a broader discussion of the links between animal welfare and environmentalist politics, as well as the place of post-colonial geopolitics and indigenous knowledge in the efforts for what Heise calls multispecies justice.

Chapter 1 shows how numerous popular representations frequently focus on a rather narrow set of “charismatic” species, namely large mammals and birds, such as the whale or the passenger pigeon. While these species are mourned and cast in the genres of elegy and tragedy, viruses and bacteria for example lack this cultural standing. Among the plethora of elegies, Heise singles out one comic representation of endangered species, the book and subsequent TV series Last Chance to See (1990) by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine (opening thus an avenue that could be explored further, I suggest). The next chapter moves on to examine biodiversity databases such as the Encyclopedia of Life initiated by biologist E. O. Wilson, or the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Heise shows how these efforts inscribe the elegiac narrative of nature’s decline, and can also be understood as a form of modern epic, which attempts to map out the entirety of biological life and classify it according to the risk of extinction. Chapter 3 adopts a comparative approach, juxtaposing the US, German, EU and Bolivian conservation and biodiversity laws, which are shown to have different conceptual underpinnings. While the American law focuses on endangered species, particularly the national emblems such as the eagle, the German law aims at preserving culturally valued landscapes, and the EU directives focus on the notions of species and habitats. Recent Bolivian legislation strikingly stands out, for granting legal rights to the Mother Earth in 2010. Heise considers this a valuable attempt to fuse the indigenous knowledge and modes of community with ecological science and the Enlightenment tradition of politics, which aims for broader social and cultural justice.

The second part of the book shifts from tracing the underlying cultural narratives to a discussion of possibilities for multispecies politics and justice. Chapter 4 usefully unpacks different histories and conceptualizations of the environmentalist and animal welfare politics, and shows how they are often at odds with, but can also mutually enhance one another. While environmentalism is concerned with the maintenance of ecosystems and habitats, and might advocate an eradication of intrusive species, animal welfare is in principle against any kind of violence towards animals, and predominantly focuses on the suffering of individual animals in zoos, factory farms or labs. The next chapter widens this discussion by raising, in my opinion, the key question of the book, of “how we might reconcile the power differentials that lie at the core of postcolonial theory, of the environmentalism of the poor, and of environmental justice and human rights advocacies with the ‘flat ontologies,’ the levelling of categorical differences between kinds of beings, processes, and objects that accompanies many varieties of posthumanism. And not just posthumanism: in recent years, anthropologists in Australia, Europe and North America have variously proposed ‘multispecies ethnography…’ (166). In response, Heise turns to fiction, and looks into the ways in which three novels interweave the issues of violence against disenfranchised humans and against endangered species, which is seen to resonate with Bruno Latour’s approach of human-nonhuman actor networks. The last chapter turns to the genre of science fiction and suggests that the concept of Anthropocene itself be understood as a futuristic sci-fi trope. Drawing on Dipesh Chakrabarty, Heise asks who the “we” that the Anthropocene addresses is, and proposes the term “eco-cosmopolitanism” (225) to refer not to some presupposed community of the human species, but the complex processes of assembly of various cultures and histories through which such “we” mightbe experienced in relation to other species and the environment. She suggests that science fiction has a role to playin these processes as it has been significantly concerned with questioning human exceptionalism.

The book ends with a coda instead of a conventional conclusion, which highlights the crucial aspect of what Heise terms multispecies fiction, as fiction that addresses the issues of multispecies justice. As she intriguingly discusses, while the polar bear has become the symbol of environmental crisis in popular media, the Innuit who co-habit the locales with polar bears do not consider the species to be endangered, and in fact see the scientists’ practices as the primary cause of disruption to the bears’ lives. In this way, the polar bear turns into a symbol of struggle over political and cultural sovereignty, as Heise points out, and foregrounds the notion that the fictions of the Anthropocene need to be able to negotiate across different human cultures and political histories, and I would add here, across the power hierarchies between scientific discourses and local knowledges.