This article was written on 07 Feb 2017, and is filled under Books, New Ecologies.

Culturally Endangered: A Review of “Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species”


At a time when the destructiveness of human beings, as a crudely unified force of nature, is bulldozed across the digital and analog spheres of life on Earth, Imagining Extinction (2016) challenges liberal elitist narrations of the endangerment of ‘culturally significant species’ (p. 32). Instead of seeking to convince the reader of their moral or ethical duty to care about the potential disappearance of our animal friends, Ursula K. Heise pushes for a critical questioning of how the phenomenon of the ‘endangered species’ is culturally produced, and even beyond that, how this cultural production is, in many cases, used as a tool for many processes that are in and of themselves technics of further endangerment, such as the wretched uses of ‘charismatic megafauna’ in the production of commodities (think: coffee cups with polar bears on them).

She reminds us that “In both the expert and the nonexpert spheres, then, attention focuses above all on birds and mammals as proxies for understanding the welfare of species at large” (pp. 24-25), while these IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red Lists display little to no bacteria, insect, or other small animal species (Costello et al. 2013). Her analysis of the impact of Red Lists is prescient, for it points to the biopolitical power that rests in lists of this sort that purport to describe disinterestedly all the species that are threatened with extinction, but actually do so much more – they deploy “normative and legal force in a state or country” (p. 68). However, she takes a remarkably empathetic tone in regard to the various ways Red Lists and other such mechanisms of species description and protection can be used in ways that actually foster the agency of non-human beings, echoing Latour’s more recent thoughts on the matter (1999 [2004]).

Imagining Extinction occupies a similar space on the bookshelf as the writing of Dipesh Chakrabarty and Kathryn Yusoff, in the sense that she seeks to ask questions about humanity that are not limited to the scale of the individual, nor the scale of the undifferentiated, globally abstracted human that is made the center of so many popular scientific treatments of the Anthropocene and the ‘sixth mass extinction’ (Kolbert 2015; Leakey and Lewin 1992; Barnosky 2014). Nor does she attempt to narrate the extinction of non-human species as a purely human problem, reifying humanity’s supposed domination of an external nature, as though humans can experience themselves as a species. She writes eloquently to this point, challenging it just a bit, by suggesting that “Granted, humans may not normally be able to experience themselves as a species,” but they can experience a kind of collective reality in the form of “abstract categories as perceptible and livable frameworks of experience” (224). On this front she seeks to push Chakrabarty and even Habermas to new vistas where “even the “species” framework might not forever remain as phenomenologically ungraspable” (225) as they make it out to be.

As a critical geographer deeply concerned with the ways in which the ‘human’ is constructed in scientific literature, and how that intersects with capitalism, socially and spatially, I found many points of convergence in this book. Crucially, she introduces early on the highly under-examined reality that “what a species is, which species are counted, which ones are considered important enough to receive in-depth attention, and how local and global species numbers should be compared are all matters of debate even among conservation scientists” (p. 29). In fact, the biophilosophical debate about the ‘ontology of species’, in full flare-up at least since the 1970s (Gould 1992; Mahner 1993), is still devoid of consensus.

As the book progresses, she weaves a fairly dense web of interconnections from the cultural and scientific constructions of species endangerment, to the cultural underpinnings of the global conservation industrial complex, eventually finding her way to questions of radically biopolitical “ontological foundations of human identity through the question of the animal” (143), rifling through the thinking of Haraway, Derrida, and Wolfe, in the sense of thinking the ‘posthuman’. Heise wrestles dutifully with the more vulgar faction of the animal rights crowd, the one that is content to see humans as inherently destructive and hell bent on the othering of the non-human. The vast majority of the works, both of fiction and non-fiction, which address the supposedly already ongoing ‘sixth’ mass extinction (Leakey and Lewin 1995; Barnosky 2014; Kolbert 2015) tend to paint the human species as an accident of history with dire consequences. In one way or another, they tend to think of humans and animals as related, but only through a somewhat hierarchical rendering of humans dominating a passive, helpless, and endangered nature. Heise rightly takes issue with this in her own way, mapping out, in chapter four, the move from the rhetoric of ‘animal welfare’ to ‘animal rights’, made much more radical following the work of Peter Singer (1975). She writes, “Animal abuse shifted from being perceived as an occasional aberration to being viewed as part and parcel of modern agriculture and of a techno-scientific establishment that the public no longer trusted as unconditionally as it had until World War II” (134), which implicates capitalism, though still somewhat indirectly, pointing to what might perhaps be my only critical contribution here – that she has a tendency, like so many these days, not to name the system!

It is only through specific historical arrangements of human and extra-human natures that the conditions for industrial agriculture were put in place. The world capitalist system is as much, in my view, the culprit for the systemic torturing of animals on farms and the deforestation of their habitats as the supposedly uniform tendencies of a unified, abstracted, global human species being. She does mention capitalism, while highlighting the thinking of radical world-historian Jason W. Moore and his writing on the Capitalocene, a critically Marxist poetic to the first draft of the Anthropocene (see Parenti and Moore 2016). However, in her discussions of the important role of colonialism in the making of the current biodiversity crisis we are now living in, capitalism is not treated in its historical sense, namely as an organizing power deeply embedded in the colonial project all over the world, and very specifically in the Americas. All of that said, her very in-depth analysis of the role of science fiction and speculative fiction (something that also harmonizes well with Haraway’s recent work) make up for a lot of that lost ground in not implicating the systemic narrative that an engagement with capital requires. Remarking on the terraforming natures of speculative fiction, she writes of the Anthropocene as a new kind of geological speculative fiction, “in that it focuses on the reality of a terraformed planet that the genre has long held out as a vision for the future of other planets, but which has already arrived in the present on our own planet” (219-20). For someone like myself, who has not yet had the pleasure of reading much speculative fiction, her writing here makes a great case for doing so.

A major contribution of this book is the way she brings in the idea of ‘multispecies communities’. Modern scientific forestry, or what Vandergeest and Peluso have called “empiric forestry” (2006a/b) has long been the engine for making the world’s tropical forests more efficient, legible, and productive (Scott 1998). Along the way, European and North American conservationists – in an attempt to control the damage of these fatally flawed ‘ecological assumptions’ – have sought to “limit or terminate local communities’ uses of natural resources” (164), effectively killing off the multispecies communities that were already in advanced existence long before European and otherwise Western forestry began to dominate the forested spaces of the world at the dawn of the eighteenth century in Europe, Asia, South America, and then North America.

She goes into great detail in Chapter 5 about the historical process of separating the human and non-human, or what we might call, in the lexicon of the colonist, the ‘non-savage’ and the ‘savage’. Beginning with the development of the Simlipal Tiger Reserve in the Indian state of Orissa in the early 1980s, a classic case of ‘protecting’ an endangered species with a form of conservation that forces the local culture to make a false decision between ‘organized deforestation’ and ‘complete removal of human settlement and deforestation by tribals’ (164; also see Lewis 2004: Ch. 5-8; Gadgil and Guha 1995: 92). Equally interesting was her outlining of several texts (Tú, la oscuridad, Virunga, and The Hungry Tide) that take as their starting point actually existing conservation processes that then become fictionalized “invitations to imagine a world in which the scientific tasks of identifying organisms, counting species, and classifying them according to their risk status become part of the larger cultural enterprise of defining and enacting multispecies justice” (201). In short, then, the comingling of conservation efforts with multispecies justice is only going to happen if ‘histories, cultures, and values’ (237) are also seen as endangered.

Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species
By Ursula K. Heise
Paperback, 160 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-226-35816-I (paper)
2016. University of Chicago Press, Chicago



 Barnosky, Anthony D. 2014. Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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