In defense of difference
This past January, at the St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska, friends and relatives gathered to bid their last farewell to Marie Smith Jones, a beloved matriarch of her community. At 89 years old, she was the last fluent speaker of the Eyak language. In May 2007 a cavalry of the Janjaweed –the notorious Sudanese militia responsible for the ongoing genocide of the indigenous people of Darfur– made its way across the border into neighboring Chad. They were hunting for 1.5 tons of confiscated ivory, worth nearly $1.5 million, locked in a storeroom in Zakouma National Park. Around the same time, a wave of mysterious frog disappearances that had been confounding herpetologists worldwide spread to the US Pacific Northwest. It was soon discovered that Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a deadly fungus native to southern Africa, had found its way via such routes as the overseas trade in frog’s legs to Central America, South America, Australia, and now the United States. One year later, food riots broke out across the island nation of Haiti, leaving at least five people dead; as food prices soared, similar violence erupted in Mexico, Bangladesh, Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Ethiopia.
All these seemingly disconnected events are the symptoms, you could say, of a global epidemic of sameness. It has no precise parameters, but wherever its shadow falls, it leaves the landscape monochromatic, monocultural, and homogeneous. Even before we’ve been able to take stock of the enormous diversity that today exists –from undescribed microbes to undocumented tongues– this epidemic carries away an entire human language every two weeks, destroys a domesticated food-crop variety every six hours, and kills off an entire species every few minutes. The fallout isn’t merely an assault to our aesthetic or even ethical values: As cultures and languages vanish, along with them go vast and ancient storehouses of accumulated knowledge. And as species disappear, along with them go not just valuable genetic resources, but critical links in complex ecological webs.
Experts have long recognized the perils of biological and cultural extinctions. But they’ve only just begun to see them as different facets of the same phenomenon, and to tease out the myriad ways in which social and natural systems interact. Catalyzed in part by the urgency that climate change has brought to all matters environmental, two progressive movements, incubating already for decades, have recently emerged into fuller view. Joining natural and social scientists from a wide range of disciplines and policy arenas, these initiatives are today working to connect the dots between ethnosphere and biosphere in a way that is rapidly leaving behind old unilateral approaches to conservation. Efforts to stanch extinctions of linguistic, cultural, and biological life have yielded a “biocultural” perspective that integrates the three. Efforts to understand the value of diversity in a complex systems framework have matured into a science of “resilience.” On parallel paths, though with different emphases, different lexicons, and only slightly overlapping clouds of experts, these emergent paradigms have created space for a fresh struggle with the tough questions: What kinds of diversity must we consider, and how do we measure them on local, regional, and global scales? Can diversity be buffered against the streamlining pressures of economic growth? How much diversity is enough? From a recent biocultural diversity symposium in New York City to the first ever global discussion of resilience in Stockholm, these burgeoning movements are joining biologist with anthropologist, scientist with storyteller, in building a new framework to describe how, why, and what to sustain.
The biological diversity crisis is often called the “Sixth Extinction” because an event of this magnitude has occurred only five times in the history of life on Earth. The last was at the end of the Cretaceous period, when the dinosaurs disappeared. In the past couple hundred years, humans have increased speciesextinction rates by as much as 10,000 times the background rates that have been typical over Earth’s history. This is a crash that, within the scientific community, is causing a slow panic and a wide belief that the dangers of biodiversity loss are woefully underestimated by most everyone outside of science. Yet even those who grasp extinction’s severity haven’t made much of a noticeable contribution to its containment. On May 16 the Zoological Society of London released a report suggesting that since contemporary environmentalism emerged with the declaration of the first Earth Day in 1970, close to one-third of all the wild species on Earth have disappeared. Language conservationists have fared no better: Of the world’s roughly 6,800 languages, fully half –though some experts say closer to 90 percent– are expected to disappear before the end of the century.
Our collective failure to recognize and impede this rampant winnowing of diversity can in part be blamed on the sheer rapidity with which it has advanced. Since only 1900, the human population has increased by a factor of four, water use by a factor of nine, carbon dioxide emissions by 17, marine-fish catch by 35, and industrial output by 40. It’s this expanding human footprint, and the global commerce on which it depends, that unifies the stories of Marie Smith Jones, the Janjaweed horsemen, the disappearing frogs, and the food riots. The transnational flow of people and products, media and information, crops and commodities has never in the history of the planet been so heavy or so fast. But as globalized trade expands across horizons, it both uproots local cultures and kills off vulnerable species of animals and plants. If it’s not the literal extinction of a language when its last speaker dies or the spread of a devastating invasive fungus, it’s the trafficking of such exotic commodities as elephant tusks, which only get more precious as the animals’ numbers dwindle. A world increasingly calibrated on consumption, efficiency, and convenience is perhaps most apparent in modern industrial agriculture, which churns out mass quantities of food but also demands ever greater uniformity and standardization. And deep flaws within the system are beginning to show. This year a potent mix of drought, flooding, high fuel prices, and an increased developing-world demand for meat caused supplies of many staple crops to plummet and their prices to surge. But as scientists and farmers consider how to breed and engineer the next generation of higher-yielding, climate-resilient plants, they confront an alarmingly shallow gene pool. Addressing the audience at the World Food Summit in May, Alexander Müller, assistant director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, warned that most of the global food supply had narrowed to just a dozen crops and 14 animal species. According to the FAO, three-quarters of the world’s critically important food-crop varieties have disappeared during the 20th century, and hundreds of locally adapted livestock breeds are on the verge of doing so. “The erosion of biodiversity for food and agriculture severely compromises global food security,” said Müller.
The tether between linguistic, cultural, and biological extinction is, however, far more complex than its common, top-down driver of globalization. Once set in motion, the extinctions themselves also become drivers, creating a dense network of positive feedback loops. That we are beginning to understand the intricacies of these relationships is due in no small measure to the work of Italian-born anthropologist and linguist Luisa Maffi. Thirty years ago, fresh out of the University of Rome, Maffi was doing fieldwork in Somalia when she first began to surmise a connection between language and ecology. She moved to the University of California at Berkeley and began working toward a PhD in anthropology doing research on ethnomedicine in Chiapas, Mexico. It was in Chiapas that Maffi had a kind of epiphany.
The way Maffi tells the story, she was interviewing Tzeltal Mayan people waiting in line at a medical clinic in the village of Tenejapa when she met a man who had walked for hours, carrying his two-year-old daughter, who was suffering from diarrhea. It turned out that the man had only a dim memory of the “grasshopper leg herb” that was once well known as a perfectly effective diarrhea remedy in the Tzeltal ethnomedical pharmacopeia. Because he’d nearly forgotten the words for the herb, he’d lost almost any trace of the herb’s utility, or even of its existence.
This is when the full impact of current global trends dawned on her, Maffi recalls. It’s not just species or languages that are vanishing from the world. The world is losing knowledge, too, of the most useful and precious kinds. If the world was losing local knowledge, what else was slipping away?
Maffi began to cast her net broadly, reaching out to indigenous leaders, academics in the natural and social sciences, development experts, and, of course, linguists. In 1996 she and her colleagues organized a pivotal conference at Berkeley, “Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments,” and one year later, Maffi founded Terralingua, an international organization dedicated to research, education, and advocacy for “linguistic human rights.” Thanks in large part to Maffi, the term “biocultural diversity” started showing up with increasing frequency in the lexicon of a wide variety of scientists and academics concerned with the phenomenon of extinction.
The biocultural perspective is now gaining a high profile on the international scene. Last October, when United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released its Global Outlook 4 report, reiterating the scientific consensus that, ultimately, humans are to blame for current global extinctions, UNEP for the first time made an explicit connection between the ongoing collapse of biological diversity and the rapid, global-scale withering of cultural and linguistic diversity: “Global social and economic change is driving the loss of biodiversity and disrupting local ways of life by promoting cultural assimilation and homogenization,” the report noted. “Cultural change, such as loss of cultural and spiritual values, languages, and traditional knowledge and practices, is a driver that can cause increasing pressures on biodiversity…In turn, these pressures impact human well-being.”
A second major milestone –arguably even more significant– came earlier this year, when more than 300 leading thinkers in nature conservation, linguistics, anthropology, and biology gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for a symposium entitled “Sustaining Cultural and Biological Diversity in a Rapidly Changing World: Lessons for Global Policy.” Co-organized by the museum’s Center for Biodiversity Conservation, Maffi’s Terralingua, and a handful of other groups, the symposium was an attempt to begin rectifying what those involved identified as two gaping handicaps: a “mutual isolation” between the natural and social sciences and a “limited appreciation of the relevance of the vast variety of approaches to human-environment relationships that have developed across the world’s diverse cultures.” Through four days of panels, presentations, and informal “ubuntu” sessions (in the spirit of the African “humanity towards others” ethic), the forum highlighted a renewed interest in transdisciplinary fields such as enthnolinguistics, ethnozoology, ethnobotany, ethnobiology, and ethnoecology– all of which focus on documenting, describing, and understanding how other peoples perceive, use, and manage their environments.
The symposium ended on a firm and high note: a formal resolution to be put before the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) when it convenes this October in Barcelona, Spain. The resolution calls on the IUCN –which until now has focused solely on nonhuman aspects of conservation– to begin integrating into its policies and programs efforts to preserve cultural diversity.
“If it all happens the way we want, this would be a really huge shift,” says Eleanor Sterling, director of the Center for Biodiversity Conservation. “It would mean a focus not just on biodiversity, but also on how people have traditionally shaped the land. It would be a major shift in the way the world thinks about what it is we’re trying to conserve.”
Maffi agrees that if the Barcelona resolution is adopted, it will completely change the way the IUCN operates. A key contributor to the biodiversity sections of last year’s UNEP Global Outlook report, Maffi says the concept of biocultural diversity appears to have finally hit its stride. “When I think about where we were 12 years ago,” Maffi says, “this sort of thing just wasn’t what people were talking about. It was difficult to open a clearing for these discussions to take place. But now we are getting to this important understanding that nature and culture are one thing. It’s gone from being a really obscure issue to having an important place in international forums.”
It is one thing, of course, to recognize on paper that culture and nature, language and landscape, are intimately connected. Discerning what those relationships are, in a rigorous manner, is infinitely more challenging, and it’s the sort of research that Maffi and others are just delving into. Some patterns, however, have already emerged –the most remarkable being a striking geographic overlap: Epicenters of global biodiversity, it turns out, tend to be situated in exactly the same places as the epicenters of high cultural, linguistic, and food-crop diversity. One of these so-called “megadiversity” hotspots sits on the borderlands of Burma, India, and China, in the tropical forests of the Eastern Himalayas. In just one small corner of the region, more than 30 Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken; in the gardens of just three small villages within one tribal district, more than 150 domesticated food-plant varieties are under cultivation.
Indeed, if it were possible for a person to hover over the Earth and to somehow detect biocultural richness, they would see, on every continent save Antarctica, regions where nature and culture seem to have spilled all their riches in concentrated drops. Why this overlap exists, however, makes for an ongoing riddle, for the lines of cause and effect can –and often do– run in many directions. Habitat loss through deforestation, for example, is widely known to result in language death and mass extinction of animal and plant species. But sometimes, as in the case of Canada’s pine forests, the causality is inverted. Over the past decade, mountain pine beetles have killed off about 7 million hectares of British Columbia’s forests –an area roughly equal in size to the state of New York. But the story really begins with smallpox, which swept through the interior about 150 years ago, decimating tribal communities that had for thousands of years regularly burned the forests in order to regulate berry production and deer abundance. When that management scheme came to an end, the result was a landscape of dense forests and even-aged stands of pine. A government policy of fire suppression, coupled with fewer winter cold snaps, and the pine forests became increasingly susceptible to insect infestations and massive fires.
That the Earth is becoming more homogeneous –less of a patchwork quilt and more of a melting pot– is only partly due to the extinction of regionally unique languages or life forms. The greater contributing factor is invasiveness. According to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report, as rapidly as regionally unique species are dying out, rates of species introductions in most regions of the world actually far exceed current rates of extinction. Similarly, the spread of English, Spanish, and, to a lesser extent, Chinese, into all corners of the world easily dwarfs the rate of global language loss. This spread of opportunistic species and prodigal tongues thrives on today’s anthropogenic conduits of commerce and communications.
Bringing new organisms or new languages into a community nearly always results in an increase of global homogeneity. Its effect on diversity is, however, more complex, raising an important point about the very concept of diversity: It makes sense only as a matter of scale. If, for example, you introduce several weedy species to an African veldt, you will increase local biodiversity. Introduce English into a multidialect Alaskan community, and you will increase local linguistic diversity –you are, after all, just adding more to the mix. But gains in local diversity due to new introductions are likely to be short-lived. Just as languages often become overwhelmed by more dominant ones, invasive plants, animals, and microbes often eventually outcompete and replace native life. If even one native grass or one native dialect perishes as a result of these introductions –as is almost always the case– global biodiversity suffers. Thus, homogeneity, while not synonymous with extinction, reflects both extinctions in the past and ones likely to ensue.
But what, ultimately, is the value in diversity? What merits the colossal efforts required to preserve it? According to biologist E.O. Wilson’s often-cited “biophilia” hypothesis, humans have an innate attraction to other kinds of creatures and a desire to live in a world of diverse and abundant forms of life. Pose questions on the value of diversity to a group of people, and some will certainly emerge as biophiles, citing the intrinsic worth of other life forms and other ways of knowing, and therefore, their inherent right to exist. Others will take a more utilitarian tack, mentioning the carbon sink services of a forest or the role of local languages as records of human history. Still others will be hard-pressed to find any value at all. But amid the philosophical, the pragmatic, and the nonexistent, there’s a new paradigm emerging to describe the importance of diversity. For a small group of forward-thinking biologists, ecologists, physicists, and economists who assembled earlier this year in Stockholm, the answer is simple: It’s all about resilience.
Resilience theory, and the nascent field of resilience science associated with it, begins with the basic premise that human and natural systems act as strongly coupled, integrated systems. These so-called “social-ecological” systems are understood to be in constant flux and highly unpredictable. And unlike standard ecological theory, which holds that nature responds to gradual changes in a correspondingly steady fashion, resilience thinking holds that systems often respond to stochastic events –things like storms or fires– with dramatic shifts into completely different states from which it is difficult, if not impossible, to recover. Numerous studies of rangelands, coral reefs, forests, lakes, and even human political systems show this to be true: A clear lake, for instance, seems hardly affected by fertilizer runoff until a critical threshold is passed, at which point the pond abruptly turns murky. A reef dominated by hard coral can, in the aftermath of a hurricane, flip into a state dominated by algae. A democratic nation stricken by drought, disease, or stock market crashes can descend into political chaos.
It’s the ability of a system –whether a tide pool or township– to withstand environmental flux without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is formally defined as “resilience.” And that is where diversity enters the equation. The more biologically and culturally variegated a system is, the more buffered, or resilient, it is against disturbance. Take the Caribbean Sea, where a wide variety of fish once kept algae on the coral reef in check. Because of overfishing in recent years, these grazers gradually gave way to sea urchins, which continued to keep algae levels down. Then in 1983 a pathogen moved in and decimated the urchin population, sending the reef into a state of algal dominance. Thus, the loss of diversity through overfishing eroded the resilience of the system, making it vulnerable to an attack it likely could have withstood in the past.
For Crawford “Buzz” Holling, widely acknowledged as the father of resilience theory and founding director of the Resilience Alliance, a small international network of academics who collaborate to explore the dynamics of social-ecological systems, this year marked a definite coming of age of an idea. At the first annual Resilience 2008 summit, held at the newly opened Resilience Center at the University of Stockholm, Holling delivered the keynote address to more than 600 scientists, policymakers, and artists, convened for a four-day brainstorm session. As was the case at the AMNH symposium just weeks earlier, the focus was on how to move from theory to practice. And once one starts thinking through the lens of resilience, the policy implications are indeed enormous. Economics necessarily morphs into its social-ecological analogue, “ecological economics” –so that a city seeking to expand its boundaries, for example, must consider not only costs and benefits in human terms, but also the same calculus as applied to the environment. Efficiency at the expense of diversity becomes anathema, so that a company struggling to stay afloat thinks twice before replacing five human workers with one seemingly smarter machine. Redundancy is encouraged, rather than quashed, on the grounds that more genes and more memes ultimately provide insurance against a time when changing conditions overwhelm the dominant paradigm of the day. There is no “sacred balance” in nature, says Holling. “That is a very dangerous idea.”
Resilience science can get bogged down in its own specific lexicon: a cloud of “adaptive capacities,” “functional groups,” and “self-organizing principles.” But pull back from the jargon and the essence is simple: Homogeneous landscapes –whether linguistic, cultural, biological, or genetic– are brittle and prone to failure. The evidence peppers human history, as Jared Diamond so meticulously catalogued in his aptly named book, Collapse. Whether it was due to a shifting climate that devastated a too-narrow agricultural base, a lack of cultural imagination in how to deal with the problem, or a devastating combination of the two, societies insufficiently resilient enough to cope with the demands of a changing environment invariably crumbled. The idea is perhaps best summed up in the pithy standard, “What doesn’t bend, breaks.”
By the reckoning of ecological economist Robert Costanza, the value of all Earth’s ecosystem services amounts to a staggering $33 trillion. When this figure was published in Nature back in 1997 the impact rippled widely –for the first time people had a sense of what an intact biosphere contributes to the economy, and, on the flip side, what the fallout of its destruction would be. Decelerating the biological and the cultural extinctions we now understand to be close affiliates is the only logical response to this kind of calculation. And yet no one seems to have even a vague figure in mind when it comes to a goal. Just how much diversity –biological, linguistic, or social– is enough?
The first difficulty is inherent in the question itself: “Enough for what?” To be resilient against 75 percent of environmental change? Against 90 percent? Enough to fulfill how much of the aesthetic, utilitarian, and scientific value it encompasses? The second problem, more concrete though equally intractable, is that in 2008 we still have only a partial record of the biological and linguistic diversity that exists on the planet. On geneticist Craig Venter’s recent two-year cruise aboard the Sorcerer II, he more than doubled all the genes known so far to science. During an interview upon returning, Venter said, “We’re finding as many as 40,000 new species of bacteria in a barrel of seawater. And that’s not counting viruses. There may be as many as 400,000 of those.” Wilson estimates that humans have named only about 1.5 to 1.8 million species, among a total number that scientists put somewhere between 3.6 and 112 million. While no reliable data concerning the level of documentation of the world’s languages exists, a plausible estimate is that fewer than 10 percent are “well documented,” meaning that they have comprehensive grammars, extensive dictionaries, and abundant texts in a variety of genres and media. The remaining 90 percent are, to varying degrees, underdocumented, or, for all intents and purposes, not documented at all.
Perhaps the closest anyone has come to an explicit goal for conserving diversity is the “2010 Biodiversity Target,” a decision approved in 2002 by the 188 (now 191) member nations of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Its aim is ambitious: “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional, and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on earth.” But despite marked progress, including the 2006 incorporation of the objective into the UN Millennium Development Goals and a recent redoubled commitment to it by global leaders at the 2008 World Biodiversity Summit in Bonn, by the UN’s own reckoning, the target is unlikely to be met by 2010 without “unprecedented additional efforts.” A less lofty, though perhaps more feasible, approach has focused on the shoring up of the world’s biological hot spots. With organizations such as Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund, Wilson has spent the past several years advocating for the urgent protection of 25 tracts of land that account for only 1.4 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface but house 44 percent of its plant species and more than one-third of all species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. He estimates that the cost of this project would amount to around $25 billion –or roughly 5 percent of the US defense budget for 2008. Given the clear geographic overlap between biodiversity and language hotspots –and more crucially, what Maffi and others are identifying as the coevolution of language and ecology– that $25 billion could quite possibly be the best bargain on Earth.
The emergent paradigms of biocultural diversity and resilience science are not, however, without their detractors. In a 2005 paper, University of Chicago linguist and evolutionary biologist Salikoko Mufwene said he wondered whether bioculturalists weren’t “simply being paternalistic and not making an effort to learn what has led speakers to give up their languages.” He argued that people routinely exchange their native languages for perfectly rational social and economic benefits, and “ethnolinguistic segregation” is no remedy to the economic conditions at the root of language loss. “The embarrassment,” he said, “is that language rights advocates have given little thought to the revolution that is entailed by their discourse.”
Perhaps Mufwene has a point. After all, more than 96 percent of the world’s languages are spoken by just 4 percent of its people. If all the planet’s endangered tongues disappeared tomorrow, hardly anyone, relatively speaking, would notice. And who, really, would mourn the loss of a few million undiscovered microbes? We might accept that some extinction is the justifiable trade-off for the many advantages of a globalized society –that to maintain a world rapidly becoming hotter, smaller, and more crowded, the luxuries of heterogeneity may have to go.
That argument might be more convincing if our current trajectory didn’t look so precarious. For all that modern, industrialized civilization has produced –from more-abundant food and better medicines to near-instantaneous communications– it is built on what Jules Pretty calls a fundamental “deceit.” In a session on the opening day of the AMNH symposium, Pretty, who heads the biological sciences department at University of Essex, told the audience, “There is an underlying assumption in much of the literature that the world can be saved from these problems that we face –poverty, lack of food, environmental problems- if we bring consumption levels across the world up to the same levels [of] North America and Europe.” But this sort of convergence, says Pretty, would require the resources of six to eight planets. “How can we move from convergence to divergence, and hence diversity?”
Traditional environmentalism, with its tendency to erect impermeable theoretical barriers between nature and culture, between the functions of artificial and natural selection, hasn’t been able to accommodate the perspective necessary to see larger patterns at work. Its distinction –as the writer Lewis Lapham recently put it– “between what is ‘natural’ (the good, the true, the beautiful) and what is ‘artificial’ (wicked, man-made, false)” has obscured their profound interrelatedness. Whether expressed as biocultural diversity or as diverse social-ecological systems, the language of these new paradigms reframes the very concept of “environment.” Explicit in both terms is a core understanding that as human behavior shapes nature in every instant, nature shapes human behavior. Also explicit is that myth, legend, art, literature, and science are not only themselves reflections of the environment, passed through the filter of human cognition, but that they are indeed the very means we have for determining the road ahead. Autor: Maywa Montenegro