Sunday, August 8, 2010

In Defense of Difference

In Defense of Difference by Maywa Montenegro & Terry Glavin, which originally appeared in the October 2008 print edition of Seed magazine, was recently put on-line. This is a really interesting article in terms of the way it conceptualizes the relationship between nature and society and, in particular, in the treatment of diversity as crucial to the resilience of both natural and social systems. Here are some representative quotes:
Experts have long recognized the perils of biological and cultural extinctions. But they’ve only just begun to see them as different facets of the same phenomenon, and to tease out the myriad ways in which social and natural systems interact. Catalyzed in part by the urgency that climate change has brought to all matters environmental, two progressive movements, incubating already for decades, have recently emerged into fuller view. Joining natural and social scientists from a wide range of disciplines and policy arenas, these initiatives are today working to connect the dots between ethnosphere and biosphere in a way that is rapidly leaving behind old unilateral approaches to conservation. Efforts to stanch extinctions of linguistic, cultural, and biological life have yielded a “biocultural” perspective that integrates the three. Efforts to understand the value of diversity in a complex systems framework have matured into a science of “resilience.” On parallel paths, though with different emphases, different lexicons, and only slightly overlapping clouds of experts, these emergent paradigms have created space for a fresh struggle with the tough questions: What kinds of diversity must we consider, and how do we measure them on local, regional, and global scales? Can diversity be buffered against the streamlining pressures of economic growth? How much diversity is enough? From a recent biocultural diversity symposium in New York City to the first ever global discussion of resilience in Stockholm, these burgeoning movements are joining biologist with anthropologist, scientist with storyteller, in building a new framework to describe how, why, and what to sustain.
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.
“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.

If you read the whole article you will find that biocultural diversity is, to my mind, too simplistically treated as equivalent to linguistic diversity -- a problem also found in an earlier (and similar) argument made by Thomas Homer-Dixon in We Need a Forest of Tongues. Linguistic diversity isn't important in and of itself but, rather, because it acts as a buffer that slows the homogenization process. If you don't communicate with the dominant group, then you are less likely to be consumed by it. But there are other factors, like the growth of transportation and communication technologies and the economics of globalization, that underpin the homogenization process. The trick is to discover how to be connected without being assimilated.

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