In Defense of Difference

Feature / by Maywa Montenegro & Terry Glavin /

Scientists offer new insight into what to protect of the world's rapidly vanishing languages, cultures, and species.

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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.”

The luxury of heterogeneity may have to go.

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.

Maywa Montenegro is an editor at Seed. She likes to write about agriculture, biodiversity, and sustainable development. Terry Glavin is a Canadian journalist, editor, and author of numerous books including Dead Reckoning: Confronting the Crisis in Pacific Fisheries, The Last Great Sea: A Voyage Through the Human and Natural History of the North Pacific Ocean, and The Sixth Extinction: Journeys Among the Lost and Left Behind. Glavin is also an adjunct professor in the Creative Writing Department at University of British Columbia and maintains the blog Chronicles and Dissent.

Originally published July 9, 2010

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