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Ursula Heise on Extinction

Ursula Heise received Master's degrees from UC-Santa Barbara and the University of Cologne in Germany before receiving her PhD from Stanford University in 1993. She specializes in contemporary American and European literature and literary theory; her major fields of interest are theories of modernization, postmodernization and globalization, ecology and ecocriticism, literature and science, narrative theory, […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison and we're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
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Over the long winter months of 2012 when entitled opinions went off air
and into its polar hibernation a number of you devoted listeners panicked
anxiously querying us about whether this was the dreaded end
the terminal silence of a program that serves as your lifeline
to intellectual sanity and thoughtful conversation
in a world that doesn't have much of either at the moment.
Entitled opinions is an extremely rare species to be sure
but no we did not go extinct we merely put our virtue to sleep for a while.
That's one of the trustees of this radio program declared over a century ago
when virtue has slept she wakes up all the more refreshed.
Thank you Frederick Nietzsche.
I couldn't have put it any better myself.
With trustees like that entitled opinions is not going to go extinct
anytime soon even if in the words of one of our other trustees
the futures uncertain and the end is always near.
Stay tuned we have a new show for you today our topic Extinction.
I'm joined in the studio today by my colleague and friend Ursula Heisz,
a professor of English literature and environmental humanities here at Stanford
her most recent book in English came out with Oxford University press in 2008
titled Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, the environmental imagination of the global
and now she's close to finishing a book on extinction
a version of which she already published in German in 2010
but before I welcome her to the program a word about our topic today
Extinction is an extremely common occurrence in the natural world
At these days the very word arouses the sense of guilt
I would call it our species guilt
This species guilt has been around since prehistoric times
we have always anguished over the debt we owe to the species we feed and depend on for our survival
yet our guilt has become more virulent of late
we deplore the untold extinctions we are bringing about all over the globe
yet deploring our destructive relation to nature only in traps us within the cycle of remorse
In one of his poems the contemporary American poet W. S. Merwin writes
"If I were not human I would not be ashamed of anything"
but again feeling shame does not mitigate the causes of our shame
as the daily holocausts that supply the human demand for fish, foul and meat continue
our species guilt grows as the extinctions we bring about year in and year out continue our shame only gets deeper
W. S. Merwin has written one of the most searing confessions of this species guilt
it's called for a coming extinction
Grey whale now that we are sending you to the end that great God
tell him that we who follow you invented forgiveness and forgive nothing
I write as though you could understand and I could say it
one must always pretend something among the dying
when you have left the seas nodding on their stocks empty of you
tell him that we were made on another day
the bewilderment will diminish like an echo winding along your inner mountains unheard by us
and find its way out leaving behind it the future dead and ours
when you will not see again the whale calves trying the light
consider what you will find in the black garden and its court
the sea cows the great ox the gorillas the irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
and four ordaining of stars
our sacrifices join your work to theirs tell him that it is we who are important
the speaker sarcasm here is almost unbearable as we follow the poems logic
the logic of those who follow the whales to extinction who invented forgiveness but forgive nothing
who pretend a higher morality
who presume to be made on another day than the other species of creation
and who build black gardens or natural history museums where the fossils of creatures hunted to extinction
are put on display as we follow this sacrificial logic the poem provokes in the reader a sense of outrage
that takes the form of a genocidal desire to eliminate from the face of the earth this speaker and his kind
in her poem reading the Bible backwards the contemporary poet Eleanor Wilner imagines the form that natural
justice might take
namely a universal flood that would reverse the course of history destroying humankind
submerging its cities and returning the world to its primordial pre-human oceanic state
this long poem of the undoing of human history concludes as follows
now nothing but the wind moves in the rain-pocked face of the swollen waters though far below
where the giant squid lie hidden in chai tangles the whales
heavy bodied as angels their fins like vestiges of wings sing some mighty epic of their own
a great day when ships would all withdraw the harpoons fail of their aim
the land dissolve into the waters and they would swim among the peaks of the mountains like eagles of the deep
while far below them the old nightmares of earth would settle into silt among the broken cities
in the planetary thaw the whales prayed for sending their jets of water skyward in the clear conviction
they'd spill back to ocean with their will accomplished in the miracle of the rain
and the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep and the spirit moved upon the face of the waters
for will know the sins of the seat of Adam are sins against nature not God
hence the wounds they open up in the natural world can be healed only through the miracle of the rain
if history is at bottom a natural disaster only its extinction does it justice
yet these phenomena sin guilt justice redemption they belong to our own human vocabulary
they pertain to the stories we tell ourselves about nature and our place in it
as the speaker says to the whale and merwin's poem
I write as if you could understand but the whale does not understand our human narrative of guilt shame or redemption
it's a narrative intended only for us who were made on another day
my guest orcel a high says been reflecting in depth on the kinds of human narratives that the phenomenon of extinction is given rise to
as time now to get her thoughts on this issue which go to the heart of her discipline of environmental humanities or so
welcome to the program thank you for having me Robert well I'm looking forward to our conversation today about extinction
and I'd like to first talk about extinction in the realm of nature leaving you know the human out of it for the moment
and I've read that somewhere that it's been estimated that ninety nine point nine percent of the species that have ever existed are now extinct
and obviously human human beings are responsible only for a tiny portion of these extinctions
so could you say a few words about the role of extinction in evolution in general before we move on to the human narratives about it
yeah there's really two kinds of extinction that we need to distinguish one is a normal extinction that comes with evolution
as better adapted species emerged that less adapted ones die out that's nothing more than orthodox Darwinian theory
and so that in and of itself is nothing to worry about and it's something that occurs regularly at the rate of approximately one species
every four years or at least that's one way of measuring it there are different ways of assessing normal extinction rates so that's what biologists call the background rate of extinction or the normal extinction rate
that's very different from mass extinctions those happen very rarely as opposed to normal extinction they've only happened five times before the current period
in the whole 3.5 billion years of life on earth so these are very rare events and during those events in a relatively short time period
now short by biological and geological Sarah so it could be a few hundred few thousand years
a large part of existing species becomes extinct the most famous of those events is the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago
where we usually remember culturally the dinosaurs and a lot of people are fascinated with their disappearance actually about 80% of species that then existed
disappeared at the same time so this is really a massive reduction of biodiversity one that was lucky for us and obviously mammals rose in part because there was a massive change in the evolutionary path at the time
so that's mass extinction so it's a very different kind of event and what's structurally different about it is that in moments of mass extinction adaptation
and the dinosaurs were perfectly well adapted to their environment they didn't die out because there were better animals around that beat them out in the competition for habitat and resources
so these are very different and what biologists are currently worried about is that we may be going through what many of them call the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on earth
and the first one that's caused in large part by human interference with nature
and if that's the case has there been any precedent of another mass extinction that was provoked by one species
no not that we know not that we know of now because I was reading about some of these extinctions that you've heard to and some of them are really quite quite amazing
like the Cambrian extinction in 500 million years ago they're 50% of all animals went extinct
and there's some place where the Permian extinction 95% of all marine species and these are catastrophes that are natural in their currents
and as you say it opens up possibilities for new speciation right
it does and but the problem with that is that it does take many millions of years for biodiversity to get back to the levels that had before the disaster
so after each of these mass extinctions biodiversity did recover but over time spans that are humanly almost in imaginable
now there's some some new research that indicates that after the Permian extinction actually some groups of species came back faster than we had previously thought
but faster means oh it took them only one or two million years so it's still I mean for an uni human scale
this is not a time frame that we can reasonably look at and just say oh well it's not it's not so worrisome that we're losing a bit of our biodiversity
it'll come back it may well for all we know but not in a time frame that's really going to make any difference to human life on earth so far as we know
so if I were to play the devil's advocate which is not my position and follow that line of reasoning saying that
you know extinction is part of the natural process of speciation and therefore sometimes clearing the field of excessive
biodiversity is a good thing the way like forest fires at first glance seem to be disasters because you lose this whole thing but sometimes in the wake of these great fires there's a rebirth of new life and so forth so
how does someone like you or me answer that sort of casual attitude towards the if not mass extinction the kind of significant high quotient of extinction
that human beings seem to be responsible for as we speak time scale is extremely important here you could say that yes the fact that dinosaurs and other reptiles died out 65 million years ago cleared the way for mammals eventually to gain dominance on the planet but that was 65 million years ago right so it took a very very long time for that to happen what is worrisome about the current situation is that according to the predictions of some by all
ologists we may lose up to 50% of currently existing species and that includes plants too which we don't usually think about quite as much as animals by 2100 now that is a very massive reduction of biodiversity in a very short time span that is
the experience of all for us so the question is how is that going to affect us and the other question is apart from the effect on humans what is sort of our responsibility here toward the right of other life forms to exist those are those are sort of the two questions that have arisen in the debate over that so one is simply the worry that we may
cutting ourselves off from really important energy food medical resources and from basic what is called ecosystem services for the future so that's sort of the anthropocentric argument that with a loss of a large part of biodiversity we're actually losing some of the potential for making our own lives better or even to sustain it is current form
the other part of it is and that's that's a sort of slightly more philosophical or more biocentric type of reflection that says well even if we can't prove for certain species that they have any use for us does that mean we simply have the right to wipe them out and that's that's a slightly more complicated question and both of these questions I think have been
have been very vigorously debated in environmentalism over the last over the last two or three decades so so there's a double argument here one one is about what good biodiversity is to humans and then the other one is what right do other species have to inhabit the planet along with us.
I tend to be more on the biocentric side I'm a little uneasy with the term other species rights to exist because right is a very human concept and it's something that implies a system of law and of adjudication and so forth. Regardless of that it seems that in this kind of society that we live in the environmentalist or the let's say the the colleges the even the most highly committed ones need to speak the language of the
pragmatism to the society and to remind the interests that control the fate of the earth or particular regions of it that by destroying you know the tropical forest we might be losing access to a great deal of medications that would then cure diseases in the future or by losing certain animal species and you lose eco tourist
the tourism possibilities and so forth so it seems like this is the language for the moment that we are condemned to speak whether we believe in it or not.
Right I think there is a certain amount of truth to that I mean extinction has had at least partial extinction have had quite concrete on present consequences think of the collapse of cod fishery along the eastern seaboard that's an event that's already happened and that did wipe out a significant industry that people profited to.
that people profited from and lived off of now that's not a species extinction in the sense that the cod survives in other in other habitats but these kinds of regional extinction are actually not rare and they're occurring all over the place and they are undermining local economies.
But you're quite right when you read books by eminent biologists say somebody like you wilton who's written a great deal about biodiversity.
It is very curious how the starting argument always is the one that that biodiversity is of use to humans but it then very quickly becomes clearer that you can only justify conservation of species to a very limited extent by their use for humans to polar bears for example an icon of climate change and of species extinction of an endangered species now have any concrete use for humans.
would we be worse off without polar bears? Probably not really right. Not materially. Not materially. Maybe it's spiritually. Well exactly something.
So the argument right so the argument then moves from species that are beneficial to us in a material sense to species that are culturally significant that are symbolically meaningful and finally argument tends to move to something more general because even with that you can only judge.
You can only justify the survival of a very limited number of species there are simply lots and lots of species out there that are not in any way related to us just think of the millions of marine species that most humans don't even know about the recently completed senses of marine life was absolutely amazing in all the new species that it turned up and it's very hard to relate those or many of them in any immediate way to either humans when heroes are rival or to their cultural appreciation.
So then the argument tends to move to biodiversity conceived of in a more abstract sense and there are certain biological arguments that you can make for saying if there are more species in a particular ecosystem then if there is something like a forest fire it will it will reconstitute itself more quickly that will be more species that can occupy the resulting niches and so forth so the term of resilience in biology tends to address.
But they're complicated arguments and not on controversial even among even among biologists so in the end you do come down to a value question what value and that's where the question of.
The right of other species maybe if you're uncomfortable with that term we could for the moment call it the value of other species to some extent becomes detached from their immediate or cultural use for humans and becomes a little more abstract and I think the discourse of.
The rights of other species which I quite agree is complicated but I think not completely unjustified I think it tries to address some of that problem how do we think about species that are not useful to us that we don't we may not even know about.
This is another thing I mean we only know a fraction of the biodiversity that exists on the planet and one of the interesting tensions in the discourse around biodiversity is that even as we know that species are dying out at a much faster rate.
That is normal we're discovering new species all the time in this country of new species is a routine occurrence in certain branches of biology think of entomology I mean we already have identified 950,000.
Insect species that's half of the 1.8 million species that we know and the discoveries keep flooding in so we don't even know the biodiversity of our planet no no scientist has an idea within an order of magnitude how many species are on planet Earth.
That's really quite astonishing when you when you think about it so we don't even know a lot of the species that we're destroying when we're laying flat a particular habitat when we deforest when we change ocean acidity and so forth and so the question is how do we think of our responsibility in that respect and that's harder to cover.
With any argument that this is useful to humans even in a symbolic sense.
I've always been astonished at this.
Eagerness to discover life on other planets even if it's the most primitive form of life when there is actually as we were saying so much undiscovered life forms and species on our own planet that which seems like because they are our neighbors they are somehow devalued that if they're on Mars or in some other solar system then all of a sudden it takes on an order of a miraculous discovery.
Whereas the miracles are daily occurrences around us in an everyday way that we tend to discount.
You're absolutely right about that and there's a wonderful film.
A French film called Microcosmos the people of the of the of the meadow.
Le Pueblo de L'Alb that captures precisely that it's an unusual documentary that was filmed in just an average European meadow.
And what is remarkable about the film is that it closes in on the animals that inhabit that meadow which is caterpillars, beetles, butterflies, and by closing in on them.
And the documentary gives you no explanation of what they are unlike a normal nature documentary gives you no account of what their habits are, what their ecology is.
So just presents them to you like space aliens and that is exactly what they look like. A lot of beetles insects in shot and close up look astonishingly like aliens.
Now I will defend science fiction which is one of my favorite genres by saying that I think just as a lot of older science fiction has been a way of thinking about human difference.
I mean you see this very clearly in the Star Trek of the 1960s which was very transparently the dealings with aliens are often an allegory of dealing with racial ethnic religious others on earth.
A lot of reasons science fiction has actually used the genre to think about our encounter with animal others and where the appearance of the alien is in fact an allegory for how we think about radical biological out other in this in our encounters with our own world.
So I think there is good science fiction that isn't just interested in the other planets and life on other planets for say otherness is sake, but that really wants to bring it back into the earthly context.
Well I agree with you and these alien beings don't only look to us like alien beings when you see them up close, but if you have any kind of even basic understanding of how the world appears to some of these.
Some of these different species and there's a famous essay what is it like to be a bat Thomas Nagles famous Thomas Nagles and then there's others about what it's like to be a worm or what that these so so many of these species live in worlds that have nothing to do with the world that we we live in the same space or in the same on the same planet, but our perception space time color dimension distance.
We have completely different life forms that come with completely different planets in an analogical sense they live on completely different planet than we do from the experiential perceptive point of view so the earth is actually a.
It would be what what would you call a multi verse or it's a there's a kind of infinite.
Amount of worlds contained within you know that just one biosphere from the point of view of how.
Particular species inhabit that biosphere completely different nothing in common and not just the biosphere they inhabit us I mean it's also useful to remember that our bodies of course are habitats for a multitude of species.
Which which is an interesting it's an interesting thing to remember once in a while that that we in fact are the space in which many species too small for us to see or experience directly other than when we get ill or experience some kind of bodily discomfort even even perceive.
But what you bring up I think brings up a very interesting question for literature and culture which is might there be ways in which we can imagine or represent.
These other experiential worlds and I think that's I think they have been some attempts one of the most interesting ones to me is a.
Is a novel trilogy that came out in French in the 1990s by a novelist called Bel Nalvelle Bayo.
Which is called it's a trilogy about ants where about half of the protagonists are human but half of them are ants and there's a very serious attempt to imagine.
A literary language that of course by force always has to remain human but within that language to imagine.
What the world looks like to beings for whom touch and smell is much more important than either either site or sound and imagine you know what would what would an experience a daily life look like for for an ant and for an ant hill.
Yeah I could add to that a Colveno at the end of his life he was writing on the five senses and he died before he finished all five but.
He he has three or four short stories that look at the world from the point of view of only one sense what the world appears like and.
These are fascinating experiments so where's a good good bring now to the human there's two things one is you mentioned dinosaurs in the extinction of dinosaurs and I'm old enough to remember that when it.
Time when dinosaurs were scary evil kind of bad to get creatures the enemy somehow and you were scared of them.
And then to witness something change some fundamental change in their symbolic imaginary in our own imaginary of them in somewhere around the 80s or early 90s where all of sudden they became.
Toys of the kids wanted them they there was a sense of sympathy with them almost as if the the species unconscious was realizing that perhaps you know we might be going the way of the dinosaurs that perhaps we're self destructive behavior.
It might lead us to the same sort of end and I mean there's no empirical evidence say that there's kind of a subconscious identification with the fate of a disappear species.
But you did mention the cod industry in.
In Canada and Maine so here we're dealing not with the extinction of the species of the fish because the cod has survived but we.
They did give rise to the extinction of a human.
The form of economic survival for a community of people that regardless of all the evidence that they were destroying their own way of life that they were leading to the extinction not only of a species but to their their own kind of way of life which was completely dependent on that species.
They never the last did not find a way to avoid that.
And Jared Diamond has you know book about how human behavior even in the light of the full evidence of the fact that.
Certain kind of human practices are going to lead to a self destruction on the part of a given community they will not change their behavior.
This becomes now more perverse about what is there something about the phenomenon of extinction that now is something that we we we have an experience of it either as individuals.
Communities or species as a whole that this is something that we are at risk of in various cultural form not as a species the species is doing fine.
Yeah, absolutely and I mean there are some writers on this topic who actually make the argument that you mentioned that humans themselves might eventually go extinct as a consequence of the havoc that we were on nature.
For the moment I scary your skepticism about that story I mean by all objective measures you know we're increasing we're spreading we inhabit a wide range of different habitats so by all sort of sober biological measures we're doing.
Extremely well as a species which of course does not mean that all members of our species are doing well in that and that they are on groups of people who are who are fairing miserably but as a species.
I think there's not good evidence for the moment to argue that we're in any danger of extinction now in terms of the cultural meaning that extinction events have though I think it needs to be pointed out that thinking about biodiversity and extinction itself.
We didn't always believe in extinction scientists actually had quite a hard time making the public believe that extinction had occurred in the early 19th century when you go back to the age of Jefferson.
The idea was that if God had created all species currently existing he would not allow them simply to vanish and it took some time in the discovery of fossils of creatures that clearly were no longer around to establish a consensus that no extinction was occurring and was not had not just occurred in the remote past but was actually occurring in the 19th century and they are writers such as John James Audubon Alexis to Tocqueville who occasionally begin to mention this and worry about the fate of certain.
The fate of certain species given the settlement of the North American continent.
So this is then a thought that develops and by the end of the 19th century in the early 20th century the fate of the passenger pigeon which went extinct around that time.
The endangerment of the American buffalo the extinction of the Carolina Parakeid all inside it large public awareness and intense self questioning.
I mean what kind of society are we that we're driving even as numerous a species as passenger as a passenger pigeon to extinction.
And one of the things that's interesting is when you look at the writings and the films and the photography about extinct species in different countries is how indeed they are often made meaningful by becoming proxies,
and the communities and the ethnicities if you want to use that literary term for larger changes in humans relation to nature.
So very often these extinction stories especially in industrialized societies become meaningful as a way of thinking about processes of modernization and about reflecting on what was lost when we became modern and the extinct species sort of becomes the icon that stands for everything that we lost.
And there is sort of an irony to it that I think you alluded to and one might refer to it with a convenient shorthand that the anthropologist Renato was all to provided in it in a somewhat different context.
He talked about imperialist nostalgia in Europeans nostalgia for indigenous cultures that had either been driven to extinction or at any rate been significantly altered through the advent of colonialism.
And there is something like that going on especially when you think back to early modern extinction such as that of the Dodo, which is this large flightless pigeon that inhabited Mauritius and adjoining islands.
That was one of the first stories of extinction that clearly had to be attributed to human agency where it was obvious that this bird would have survived had it not been.
For the sailors who arrived and hunted it to extinction and who introduced invasive species and so on and so forth.
And so the Dodo often is a good example for the kind of nostalgia for the abundance of flora and fauna that is commonly thought to have existed before our own society intervened.
Now, in many cases this is factually accurate in some cases there is a certain amount of retro projection also that that we always imagine for a golden age to have existed before our own generation right about two or three generations, generations back there sometimes that kind of thinking.
But all that makes, so what I would have been interested in my research about this is the way in which ecological processes and things that occur as a consequence of our interactions with nature then become part of our shared conversation become part of our cultural consciousness through the way in which they actually get fed into certain stories we tell about ourselves.
So that's part of what I think is really interesting about it and the other thing that's very I think both compelling and troublesome about stories of extinction and the broader story of diminishing biodiversity today is that it fits in very well with an overall narrative of the decline of nature that environmentalists on one hint but then also proto environmentalists in the 19th century have told for the last 200 years.
I mean ever since roughly industrialization at least in the Western world, one of the basic narrative templates has been nature was bountiful and homeostatic self sustaining in balance before modern humans came along and then society was modernized and we started making nature go to hell in a hand basket.
And the reasons that this gets hung on are quite different so in the early 19th century in Britain it's the enclosure of the commons in the US it's the laying of railroad lines and the sort of weakening or extinction of indigenous cultures.
If you jump to the 20th century in the 1960s it was demographic growth it was pollution in the 1970s it was acid rain and the 1980s it was the ozone hole and then the beginning of worries about biodiversity and I think it's interesting you mentioned the dinosaurs.
Maybe they changed their image in part because at that moment biodiversity loss became part of public awareness and then you know for the last 10 years climate change has been the driving issue that we've been thinking about so the issues change but the overall narrative template doesn't.
And this has been I think in many ways very productive very useful I mean this has been a powerful narrative for environmentalism and also one that has allowed it to rally in a certain sense forces that resist certain aspects of modernization so it's had a really important role in resisting more dominant narratives of progress.
At the same time it's a problematic narrative and environmental historians have had a lot to say about how our notion of what the ecological past was is often quite mistaken and we need to think much more carefully about how this maps onto to ecological and biological facts.
Well that could be but the narrative templates are you interested in the kind of stories latent or explicit stories in movements like environmental activism or in biology or are you interested primarily in how a certain genre of literature or popular culture.
And it takes over those narratives and and and gives us new kind of stories whether it's in the realm of science fiction or Hollywood you know fantasies about extinction or in what we call high literature.
Contemporary novels for example.
I think these are clearly distinct so there's a huge body of work think of David Attenborough's documentary films right that's ecological science but it is also popular culture.
Or think of you know there's numerous photographers who've taken pictures of endangered species there's painters who who paint extinct species think of Walton Ford as a bill of Kirkland Peter Shout and I mean there's a lot of art.
Some of it would maybe be classified as popular some of it is clearly high art that deals with this and that tries to bridge in some sense.
The gap between ecological science as you know the discourse of specialists in a particular discipline with with popular culture environmental activists of course try to do the same thing.
So I think and that's precisely what I'm interested in what happens in that translation what happens when biological facts get hooked up with certain cultural narratives.
To what extent does that give a cultural life to what might otherwise remain.
You know the purview of a few of a few specialists but to what extent also does it then lead us to certain beliefs and images of nature that might need correcting.
So if there's a master narrative that or some kind of general recurrent motifs to the narratives that you're talking about.
Would it be fair to say that a certain thing that I call species guilt is what keeps coming back in these stories namely that nature is good human beings can be good but we've been very
bad and naughty and we have to reform we have to repent we have to correct our behavior is is there this insistence that we are the problem.
I mean there's certainly a strain of that in environmentalist discourse.
I like the term that you used in your introduction the species debt that we owe to nature I think that's a really interesting way.
I'm not sure if you're going to be afraid of phrasing it it's a little bit different from from guilt which is a slightly more native language it's the same word isn't it.
This is true sure.
That's where you're right right no and they are not distinct and one of the things that I mean I think there there's in English at any rate there's somewhat different ideas and the idea of a species debt might more easily lead to concepts such as ecosystem services which are which is a which is a current way you know.
I'm thinking about what kinds of services nature other species provide for us that we might actually at some level want to think about in monetary terms so as to make them visible now this is an enterprise it's be set with with many conceptual and practical problems and and we need a whole other show to talk about that but so I think there is that idea.
That there is a debt or a guilt the other way in which that has expressed itself is through just omnipresent tropes of melancholy mourning and loss so one of the most common genre templates that you find in accounts of species extinction is that of the elegy.
The morning for a beloved who is either about to die or has already died and who is beautiful and and whose loss will be felt in in dire ways.
The rhetorical devices that you find an allergy all over the literature on extinction and again I think that's a that it's an ambivalent use of the genre on one hand it's clear that.
Troops of morning and especially also of melancholy right the sort of 40 and suspended.
That can never quite come to a conclusion has been very powerful in environmentalism as a force for you know forcing us to think about things that normally cannot be grieved things that society at large doesn't actually.
The knowledge is grieveable objects so I think the literature the films the paintings the the photographs really contribute to bringing that to cultural awareness on the other hand you know there's always a problem also with these narratives of decline in morning which frankly especially for younger people very quickly can get higher some and repetitive and sort of.
tend to induce a state of paralysis that if things are that bad and if all the good things are already on the brink of extinction or have died then what can we really do to make this better or to prevent future things and so I'm also really interested in what might be.
All turn it as to the narrative of decline what might be other ways about thinking of our changing uses of nature changing interactions of nature, but don't inevitably lead to my own cole.
Well I agree when it comes to the narrative of decline that there can be something paralyzing about them but the narrative of extinction is a little or the phenomenon of distinction is different than decline in it's so far as extinction is forever.
It's a loss that cannot be recuperated or rescued and you spoke about the pathos of loss in the genres of the allergy losses one of the most universal human experiences you know one no one goes through life without.
Experience in the most direct existential way the loss of a childhood or the loss of a loved one.
And so there is the the irretrievable loss which is part of our natural human experience and therefore the loss of species.
It's hard to keep separate sometimes from this natural pathos that we have what interests me is also the role that a certain kind of.
Platonism I don't know what other word to use but there's a sense in the western psyche that when you lose a species so that you can hunt a species almost to the brink of extinction therefore we have to bring them back because if we let the last ones die out we will have lost that mold forever.
And yeah there's something I think hardwired in us to want to not be casual about an irredeemable loss when it comes to species loss.
I think that's I think that's true there is that sense of having lost something error tree will in terms of richness and beauty but that then you know in aggregate when you move beyond the story of one individual species becomes part of a larger narrative of decline right that as these losses accumulate we have.
A world that we will leave to future generations poorer more diminished less diverse than it is now that sort of that sort of the more the more the more general narrative I think that this forms part of now the irretrievability.
I think has been a really important part of this discourse in the past now of course it's interesting that there may be the possibility of it not being completely irretrievable.
I ran into Stuart Brand at a barbeque sometime last summer where he said he was on his way to Siberia where they were had they have plans to establish a park sort of a national reserve that might include genetically engineered mammoths.
Now this is a project that I personally have the greatest reservations about not only because I'm not sure that mammoths would really feel so comfortable in a in a warming world and the whole idea of restoring the fauna and flora of the past has now really taken on a completely different twist.
I hope it doesn't come in that direction that would be horrific that would be much worse than extinction is the forced reintroduction of banish species.
Well I think it could be meaningful in certain contexts just as the captive reading of species has saved species like the California condor so I don't think genetic engineering is in every case.
I'm categorically distinct from that I think in certain contexts it might make sense but the problem always is that the main reason why species go extinct is habitat destruction.
So even if you can revive what you called interestingly sort of the mold the the morphological shape the genetic shape of the organism more or less.
The question then is where is this plant or animal going to live if the habitat is gone and that yeah in the case of the mammoth it's just really hard to see that it's going to have it's going to have a habitat and why do we need to go back 10,000 years.
But thinking about the passenger pigeon just going a hundred years back or the Carolina Parakeet becomes a little more interesting right I mean I'm still not sure that this is feasible or desirable.
But the technical capability sometime in the near future but it is interesting to think about that and then a case of the Tasmanian thylosene there were actually attempts in the 1990s to see if from from existing specimens enough DNA could be extracted to to reconstitute that species which certainly would still have a habitat and has mainly and even parts of Australia.
So I think it's I think this is an interesting perspective to contemplate for the future that you know for many species this is still not going to be so well one of the platonic aspects of this is that it's such a focus on species that are identifiable by their form and their genetic makeup and what is harder to bring into our understanding of this topic is habitat environment the absolute interdependence of the biosphere of once in a year.
So isolating them as a genus and species doesn't do justice to the complexity of their the environment which they thrive or survive or die out.
And the other thing that bothers me about the eventual development of a technology that can go back and undo the past is precisely the temptation for this kind of redemption because redemption.
in that con, in that in British counter is is to go back and and redeem something that has been done and a sin gets a tone for and and for sure you're right about that and and I think that is one of the problems with imagining that genetic engineering is any easy fix to this crisis.
I think the other thing I'll say you said I think is is very important to remember and that is that when we talk about biodiversity which is a relative to the recent term it's the 1980s term.
And conservation and worry over species extinction goes back a lot longer than that, but biodiversity has become hitched in almost inexorable ways to the species concept.
And that's the largest in any you know even relatively superficial popular science book on biodiversity will tell you that biodiversity of course is not just number of different species biodiversity exists at the level of genetic diversity within particular populations species is is one level where it exists but and above that it's at the level of the ecosystem too.
A lot of conservation organizations like the IUCN the International Union for the conservation of nature are quite conscious when they make redlists of endangered species that species are in a sense a proxy is an act to key for biodiversity at large now they are.
Well, exactly but that's why we have an endangered species act in our law, but we don't have a law to protect habitats so it's only because you identify an endangered species that you're then allowed by law to protect the habitat in which.
Which it survives that's partially true right I mean there's a notion of critical habitat in the endangered species act that is actually then a habitat protection law I mean the law is in call debt but it does in fact protect habitats right.
Well, it does if you can if you can identify one particular species like spotted owl then then you can put those for some in protection yeah.
I would say we're so that while there's a recurrence of this golden age motif that you were referring to in some of these narratives it's not just that that golden age is always a myth that is the product of a intrinsic spiritual nostalgia that we have but sometimes.
The environments actually were a very different kind of place and they've become in a very short order of time.
I think the crucial word is sometimes I mean I think I think it's true that obviously you know I mean there's no debating the fact that a lot of habitats have been devastated and are being devastated now look at the Amazon look at you know enormous environmental damage that's being.
reeked in China currently but if we only look at those stories we also forget we tend to forget other stories which is that there has been massive a forest station regaining a forest in the American North Northeast there's a forest station in central America in general of course rivers in a lot of western countries are now a lot cleaner than there were 50 years ago.
So so there's also other stories to tell and I mean certainly when you compare.
You know our cities today to London in 1853 you know the Great London stink and the conditions that that prevailed in cities in the 19th century you'd have to say there is also a narrative of improvement if not overall progress or anything like that.
But but there is also improvement in other ways there simply is change that that a certain ecosystem certain habitats are being inhabited are being used by humans quite differently than there were 150 years ago no question about that.
Whether that always adds up though or whether the only thing it adds up to is nature is getting worse I think is a real question and I think we do need to question that I think one one narrative thread that I think is is fairly clearly substantiated is that there is less and less habitat fewer and fewer ecosystems that are exempt from human manipulation or alteration.
Bill McKibben has made that argument most eloquently as 1989 book the end of nature which sounds sort of apocalyptic what he meant by that really though was not that nature in and of itself ends what he meant was that a certain conception of nature as separate from human society has come to an end.
And that's a motif that you find across a lot of theories of contemporary culture and society in very different argumentative shades, but the idea that nature understood as something that humans have not tampered with.
So that is becoming more and more elusive I think that's a that that is undoubtedly so and that then raises the question that.
Well so what kind of nature do we want for the future since it does seem that we can quite we have already quite encompassed only altered our natural habitat so then the question is not you know do we need to restore it to an earlier.
Stage or can we do that or is it would it be desirable to do that but what kind of diversity do we want for the future what kind of natural world do we want to live in and we here is of course.
A crucial part of the problem I mean do we have any agreement with people in other parts of the world on what kind of world we want in the future and I think that's the conversation to have more so than.
You know do we want to restore this or that species much as I'm personally you know I agree I remember contributing to a volume back in the night early 90s on call uncommon ground where they were taking on the legal definition of a wilderness.
You know William Cronin and the I the the American definition of a wilderness as a place untrambled by man then all of these theoretical.
And I'm in the environment listen up said that there's no such thing and they deconstructed the notion out of existence and I got a we got a lot of flag I mean I was a kind of on the margins of that volume I but.
And because there are a lot of environments that even if that's true it's counterproductive because that means that's opening the door for developers and so forth that sometimes preserving myths even if they're not true serves a positive purpose.
And at the same time I think you're absolutely right to say that the discussion is what kind of nature we want not to restore some notion of a pristine pre-lapse area in world.
Or so when your book comes out you're primarily by formation of literary scholars is going to be a book that you're addressing to fellow literary critics primarily or to a broader audience of.
Environmentalists and biologists and people who are interested in the actual science and history of evolution and extinction.
I'm hoping it'll be addressed to that larger to that larger audience and especially I want to address it to people who are interested in the way in which we talk about the environment right and think about the environment represent the environment visually.
Part of these people are academics a lot of them a lot of them are not.
The title is going to be where the wild things used to be narrative database and biodiversity loss databases are sort of another crucial part of thinking and talking about this when I did the work for this book.
My initial instinct as a literary and cultural scholar was to look at the films, the pictures, the texts, the novels, the poems.
But then it quickly became clear that redlists of endangered species, global biodiversity databases and endangered species laws are also whatever else they may be.
There are also expressions of cultural concern of mourning. There are certain ways of engaging with historical narrative, with historical thinking about our own history and the history of species that have co-existed with us.
And so some part of the project also engages with the field of digital humanities and thinking about the database as an important new cultural form.
Well, we look forward to that. I hope it comes out soon. I want to remind our listeners we've been speaking with Professor Ursula Heist from the English Department here at Stanford. I'm Robert Harrison for entitled opinions.
All our past shows over a hundred of them are safely stored away in our archives that you can access just by going to our website entitled opinions or the iTunes podcast.
I'm listening to any of the 150 hours or more that we've accumulated over the last six or seven years that we've been on air.
So Ursula, thank you again for coming on. I look forward to having you on in the future.
Thank you, Robert.
Take care.