Over the next 100 years or so as many as half of the Earth's species, representing a quarter of the planet's genetic stock, will either completely or functionally disappear. The land and the oceans will continue to teem with life, but it will be a peculiarly homogenized assemblage of organisms naturally and unnaturally selected for their compatibility with one fundamental force: us. Nothing--not national or international laws, global bioreserves, local sustainability schemes, nor even "wildlands" fantasies--can change the current course. The path for biological evolution is now set for the next million years. And in this sense "the extinction crisis"--the race to save the composition, structure, and organization of biodiversity as it exists today--is over, and we have lost. (Stephen M. Meyer, Boston Review 29(3-4), summer 2004)

We are witnessing unprecedented losses of biodiversity today. While efforts in global environmental conservation are intensifying in response to the urgency of impending extinctions, their successes are equivocal. Unbridled development and resource extractions are motored by global corporate and political interests. Recently, conservation schemes themselves have sometimes been viewed as extensions of neocolonial power structures that continue to dispossess indigenous and ethnic minorities in the age of globalization. What is the relation between species extinctions and cultural extinctions? Is there an inherent interdependence, or an inherent conflict, between anthropocentric and ecocentric interests?

This seminar explores the problem of extinctions from an ethnographic perspective, “from the bottom up.” It considers how both the problem of biodiversity loss and approaches to conservation are embedded in political economic systems and transnational discourses. By reading entire monographs, we will draw on the “thick description” of specific communities and places to question how globalization, environmentalism and governance structures are interwoven in complex ways. Perspectives from ethnography offer windows into the making and remaking of “wild” frontiers. We will also read short papers to survey themes of current importance, such as marine biology and the genetic management of wild species.

© Tracey Heatherington 2013