Thursday, 28 January 2010


I was just reading my newly acquired book titled 'Conservation Psychology: understanding and promoting human care for nature', which will hopefully inspire a more serious (or at least more informed) post in this blog later on... but so far, it got my mind going and I might not be able to go to sleep before I scribble some words here.
I'm not sure I can determine what it is about biological diversity that I deem so valuable, intriguing and worth keeping. Very logically, it's hard for me to understand that other people just don't give a dam about it. But then, there are also things other people value, that I just don't give a dam about...
A few months ago I read a paper by William Sutherland (Nature, 273-279, 15 May 2003) where he paralleled the extinction risk of birds and mammals to the one of human languages. Using the same criteria we use to determine the risk of extinction of living organisms, he found that human languages are a far more a threatened 'group' than either birds or mammals. But (I thought then)...who cares about human languages going extinct??
Also a few months ago I moved to Oxford to read for a Master's degree, and I was lucky enough to end up in a class with people from very far distant places of the world. I've been enriched and surprised by listening to their perspectives (new for me) on environmental problems and, at the same time, by how similar we all are. It has opened a whole new world for me. So maybe that's what I find so valuable about diversity (of butterflies, languages, cultures): all that we DON'T know...and then we know it. That makes the world a richer and somehow infinite place.

Claudia S.


  1. I had a similar argument with my brother at the dinner table one night - over him being concerned about languages going extinct and comparing it with species. Though losing cultures and languages is sad, I don't see it can ever compare with losing an entire species. The gorillas could have a host of different dialects and cultures between, all of which will also die before the gorillas!
    I guess thats the reason we are all doing BCM!

  2. We could parallel that to the extinction of populations, which of course, precedes the extinction of the species. Usually people are OK with population extinctions, as long as the entire species doesn't go extinct. The problem I see is that populations are the future species, and that one populations might have adaptations that will allow it to survive to e.g. climate change, while other will not. An example is the Chilean ruddy-headed goose, whose migratory population is endangered but the sedentary one is not. It's not listed as threatened by the UICN because it's not the species that's endangered, thus limiting access to certain funding. But a migratory population might cope with changes in climate much better.

  3. To counter Tarsh (from the perspective of one with an Anthropology degree), I think our recent lectures on food security/sovereignty and agrobiodiversity highlight the interconnectedness of human cultural/linguistic extinction and homogenization with the same biological processes. I don't think it is too far of a stretch in some instances to see these tragedies within the same scope, as reduced diversity decreases ecosystem resilience and the same goes for humans- think of that video about the potato blight having minimal effect in Peru compared to Ireland.

    I suppose this may come down to personal values, but I think the loss of human diversity is a tragedy on equal footing with losses of biological diversity- what is worse than losing something, anything, when you don't even know what you don't know you've lost!

  4. Losing species or cultures is sad, but what is also sad is when you still have them, but they are "museum-ized"--the species only exist in zoos, aquariums, or botanical gardens; the culture only exists in museums or souvenir shops.

    I felt this "tragedy of the ex-situ" especially during this past winter when I traveled to Yunnan, the province in China with highest biological and cultural diversity. At a first glance, the thousand-year-old town of Dali and its young women wearing traditional Bai clothing seemed authentic enough. The collector in me wanted some REAL ethnic stuff, but lining the streets are skirts, belts, and sculptures obviously manufactured in some faraway factories and bought in cheaply by the local. A pair of cloth-made earrings tempted me for a while, but--guess what?--10 days later, in the coastal city of Xianmen thousands of miles away, I saw the same pair of earrings. It's like the "geography of nowhere" in the United States--where you go doesn't matter, it's all the same. I feel like a bitch saying that the unique Bai culture is like a show the Dali residents put on, but from experience it certainly is not easy to find a skirt hand-made in the traditional way.

    I wish species and cultures could be kept alive. I mean REALLY alive.