Ursula K. Heise Thinks Beyond Melancholy: A Review of “Imagining Extinction”

Painting by Theron Caldwell Ris captures the multispecies lifeways Heise envisions.

Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016)

I have long thought of myself as an “environmentalist,” maybe a “conservationist,” and definitely a citizen concerned with the welfare of many non-human animals and plant species surrounding me on the planet. And I am often pessimistic about what the human-centric future may bring upon these species. . . that is, if they will even have futures. Koalas are losing natural habitat due to logging in Australia; the first bumblebee was added to the endangered species list in the U.S. this year; homeowners are cautioned every summer to diligently yank garlic mustard from their properties, lest the invasive plant displace more native species and usurp every yard and forest. The non-human lives around us are changing, we are told, and the outlook is grim. If you are reading this, you have heard these stories, too.

In a popular image of "decline" and "loss," an endangered polar bear floats on a diminishing ice floe in the Arctic sea. Photograph by Gerard Van der Leun.

In a popular image of “decline” and “loss,” an endangered polar bear floats on a diminishing ice floe in the Arctic sea. Photograph by Gerard Van der Leun. Image from Flickr.

In Imagining Extinction, UCLA professor Ursula K.Heise quickly identifies themes familiar to such narratives: “decline,” “crisis,” “loss is inevitable,” and “one last stab at survival.” The stories are urgent and foreshadow tragedy, leaving all of us koala lovers, bee observers, and gardeners in a state of melancholy. “Melancholy,” Heise says, “can be considered an integral part of the environmentalist worldview.” How true!

For me, the pensive, hopeless worldview manifests in my resentment of marketers who greenwash all sorts of non-green consumerist products.  It arrests my reading of Jane Goodall’s “hopeful” books. It can feel impossible to muster that bit of optimistic belief that humans could do right by other species.

Heise asks readers to wonder along with her:

…stories and images of decline go only so far.  Is it possible to acknowledge the realities of large-scale species extinction and yet to move beyond the mourning, melancholia, and nostalgia to a more affirmative vision of our biological future?

And she provides the answer. It is.

Through Heise’s analysis of an impressive array of media—films, documentaries, novels, poetry, graphic novels, photography, governmental policies, scientific writing, databases, and even wooden toys—she makes the convincing argument that the way we think about endangered species, biodiversity loss, and the threat of extinction is really a matter of how ideas like “nature” and “species” are culturally produced. In the first two chapters, she argues that popular attention to “flagship species” and “charismatic mega-fauna” reveals which futures we care about and which we do not, and she finds elegies for the chosen few even in non-sentimental databases such as Red List of Threatened Species and the Encyclopedia of Life biodiversity databases. In the third chapter, she considers environmental law and the difficulties that arise when a common definition of “species” is lacking. Chapter 4 sheds light on how animal welfare and environmentalist groups often differ in what they see as primary concern: physical violence toward individuals versus slow violence toward the greater ecosystem, respectively. In the final two chapters on multispecies communities (Chapter 5) and multispecies justice (Chapter 6), Heise’s cultural critique gives way to new cultural possibilities.

Heise suggests we may find respite from the melancholic flavor of environmentalism through a critical examination of the stories that we tell about it.

The six sections of her book could easily be read as individual pieces. I would argue they might even be best read that way, with time taken to carefully consider the stories and questions that each proposes before reading the next. Because Heise explores the intricacies of so many types of media, I felt that, at times, the arguments could move more efficiently than they do. I found myself slogging through her nuanced discussions of the “database aesthetic” and graphic novels, although readers who enjoy these moments in the book might find other objects of her study less exciting than I do. However, to skimp on details in the examples would reduce one of the strengths of the book, and I am grateful for the slow reading it required of me. The kind of cultural self-reflection she promotes and the difficult ethical challenges she explores take time.

Although we often look to science to tell us what our efforts should be to save the world (what the next human intervention should be to mitigate the mess of the last human intervention), Heise suggests we may find respite from the melancholic flavor of environmentalism through a critical examination of the stories we tell about it. If we understand how the frameworks we use shape our responses, she argues, we might also find a new way forward.

Chipmunks: The New Nature? 

Early in the book, Heise argues that the idea of “nature” has always been a cultural construction. She examines and quashes the idyllic vision of “romantic nature,” a meme which tells us that a nature of the past was unspoiled by humans. As she traces other historical shifts that have changed our conception of “nature,” it becomes clear that there is no absolute definition that can be used to set the course for what aim conservation efforts should take. In fact, Heise questions if there is “nature” still at all. In a society where manicured public parks are touted as a means to connect persons to “nature” wherein a few species of “wildlife” like chipmunks and pigeons have adapted to city-living and hand-feeding, I am wont to agree.

A chipmunk enjoys a peanut from a human hand.

A chipmunk enjoys a peanut from a human hand. Photograph by John M. Image from Wikipedia.

All of this supports Heise’s premise that culture has been shaping the physical landscape as well as shaping the societal—including scientific—mindscape. Because neither science nor law can agree on what a “species” is, a new conception of both environmentalism and conservation is needed. Culture defines what is important, so let that be where we look for new ideas of stewardship. Perhaps a moment shared with “wildlife” like a neighborhood chipmunk is a starting point.

Help NYC rats help you! 

In the final chapters, Heise takes readers into the view of the future. While it took some getting past my own disinterest in the sci-fi genre, Heise’s inclusion of speculative fiction like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy serves her intention for the book well. It is perhaps the truest meaning of the title: imagining extinction. Heise wonders: is the destruction and death on our planet so widespread that only the myth of novels can adequately describe what is happening? Myth is effective in that it allows our imaginative scope to include all the complexities of human action against other species. Keeping this in mind while reading Heise’s discussion of sci-fi examples is helpful for the non-fan to stay connected with her argument.

Conceptualizing the salvation of an unknown future-nature is a difficult, perhaps impossible task. Heise balances scenarios of apocalypse with examples of real and imagined counter-efforts such as de-extinction, terraforming, and rewilding. These provide an alternative to falling into the nostalgia for a perfectly symbiotic, unspoiled nature. However, whether these efforts would result in something that environmentalists and animal welfare activists would both agree is “nature” is debatable.

City rat nibbles on chocolate.

City rat nibbles on chocolate and invites a new multispecies story. Image from Pixabay.

Heise’s alternative is a multispecies future that does not ignore non-human interests for the sake of human interests. Imagine: what if people in New York City deeply understood rat behavior? What if there is a way to value urban rats, to live in such a way that their presence benefits our shared ecosystem? (I sense head shakes. Garlic mustard? At least it can be cooked and consumed. Rats as a good thing? That’s harder to swallow.) She emphasizes the need to have an assembly of cultures and perspectives engaged in the conversation that would get us there, and she is not naïve to the fact that attempts to have multispecies conversations will be full of disagreement. Yet, looking forward toward the narratives we might begin to tell, Heise believes that a new integration is better than recreating the past.

Overall, I like the idea of new stories for environmentalism and conservationism, and I’m convinced that the issues of endangered species are cultural first and scientific second.  And then I worry: Which species will be saved in this new framework? What constitutes their sense of justice? How do we balance the needs of humans worldwide? Is there enough empathy on our planet to arrive at a place of multispecies justice? How will anything get done quickly enough before the apocalyptic future is no longer myth?

(And there I go with the melancholy hopelessness again.)

Featured image: Painting by Theron Caldwell Ris captures the multispecies communities Heise envisions. Permission granted from Megan Caldwell. Photograph by author.

Amy A. Free is a Community Associate of the UW-Madison Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) and an inter-disciplinarian. A few of her interests include ecolinguistics, ethology, and human-animal relationships. She tries to make her yard a welcoming place for bats, birds, bunnies, and butterflies, including some who are non-native. Contact.

15 Responses

  1. Gwen Drury says:

    Hi CHE folks!

    If you want to hear an exciting and upbeat NON-extinction tale about the resurgence of Wisconsin’s dinosaur fish, the lake sturgeon…and realize what everyday Wisconsinites did to successfully restore this fish’s population when everyone thought it was doomed, please join us on:

    Tuesday, October 31 at 7:00 pm
    in Genetics Biotech, auditorium #1111.
    (The same place where Wednesday Nite@ The Lab is taped)

    Bill Casper, who founded the group “Sturgeon for Tomorrow” and others who helped in this amazing success story will be speaking in person. Bill is 86 now, so this may be your last chance to see him/thank him in person! Bill didn’t proceed from a melancholy narrative – probably because he doesn’t have a melancholy bone in his body! He is living proof that a different narrative can make a real difference.

    This talk is part of this fall’s course (and public lecture series) “Forward? The Wisconsin Idea, Past and Present.”

    The course website is http://www.wiscidea.com

    It includes last year’s lectures on video, and all of this year’s so far. A couple of CHE members have given talks so far this year – check them out!

    Finally, I ask that you check out my talk, from September 12. I can just about guarantee that you will learn something new about the history/founding of the Wisconsin Idea. Let me know if you don’t!

    Thanks, Gwen Drury

  2. Philip Kienholz says:

    I enjoyed your review, and reading the book as well. I’ve wondered before if, as authoress Heise suggests, a database could be considered literature. I have never found a way yet to make it so, in my own opinion. But her thinking adds some credence to my predilection, when initially exploring a new book or technical article to at least scan and mark up their bibliography first.She does offer, as you review, a widely spread approach to various literary forms in her consideration of our approaches to species extinction. Maybe it’s because of the intensely bleak mental place that reading the scientific and popular scientific literature leads one to — facing the bare loneliness of reduced biodiversity and the barren landscapes of our industries and our clogged urban freneticism, and facing as well the peril to our own species — maybe its this that causes her to suggest favouring the unrestrained myth and imagination of speculative fiction as vehicles to convey our new stories. The need for those new stories and effective forms for them grows more and more urgent.

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