The United Nations declared the 2010s to be the Decade on Biodiversity, but to what avail? A generation after the Convention of Biological Diversity launched the term biodiversity into the realm of global environmental policy, species’ numbers keep declining, as do state-funded conservation measures. Meanwhile, public attention to ecological crises focuses understandably on immediate dangers of undrinkable water and unbreathable air. With climate change deniers in positions of power, simply decrying the daunting climactic changes underway takes work, alliances, and political strategy. In this dire ecological and political time, supporters of both biodiversity and its conservation are hard-pressed to state their case.
Three scholars have stepped up to do so, but each contends that the very terms of the conversation need changing. These books complement each other, and would comprise an informative, thought-provoking seminar on historical, present, and future iterations and expansions of biodiversity conservation. Other books and perspectives, however, would be needed.
Rafi Youatt’s Counting Species: Biodiversity in Global Environmental Politics begins by challenging the reader to conceptualize biodiversity as a productive idea, a cluster of meanings changing over time and space. His discourse analysis attends to the materiality of the topic as both object and subject: coauthor of itself. By “breaking up” dominant notions of agency into biotic, techno-informational, and abiotic components, Youatt seeks the lost political potential of biodiversity, whose story is partially one of “self-inflicted co-optation in an effort to bring about serious reform” (p. 4). Though not actually saving much biodiversity, the various biodiversity conservations nevertheless do things, such as follow and enact larger political trends. The book illustrates this trajectory with case studies.
In the 1980s, biodiversity value was tied to liberalist human rights and the “intrinsicness” of positive law. The “awful symmetry” of biodiversity hotspots cluster in the tropical Global South and exacerbate power asymmetries of conservation interventions. In a brief ethnographic analysis of scientists, Youatt argues that biodiversity was dematerialized in the preservation of a species type.
In the 1990s, biodiversity was remade to align with agendas of sustainable development and liberal multiculturalism. UNESCO World Heritage Sites embody this entrenched Western tendency to dichotomize the natural from the cultural, until hybridized/hyphenated in the multicultural 1990s. Even the current “living cultural landscapes” version of heritage has become code for “living museum” indigenous associative landscapes; the mixed status of heritage site serves as a proxy for “postmodern rewriting of nature-culture by guilty postcolonials” (p. 85). Likewise, the term “biocultural diversity,” once institutionally embedded, can reify “the indigenous-nature complex” (p. 94) and so elide the fact that all human landscapes are also eco/biological.
In the 2000s, biodiversity was valued as provider of goods and neoliberalized ecological services, “downsized” (p. 102) to fit in easy market-based solutions. By the 2010s, it serves security goals of emergency resilience, particularly in cities. Global urban biodiversity policy still erases colonial past and projects Western environmentalities, while post-Hurricane Sandy New York City expands green governance and postpolitical nationalist and metropolitan securitization.
Youatt effectively demonstrates the fatal flaw of the multiple meanings that characterize biodiversity. This framing allows for success in policy discourse and conservation politics, but it prevents biodiversity conservation advocacy from sustaining the thorough critiques needed for actual ecological flourishing. Eschewing fixation on individual species preservation opens space to foster trophic cascades, species communities, and attention to the distributed nature of nonhuman and human agency and thus subjectivities and encounters.
Youatt holds out hope for the reanimating potential of three-pronged rewilding: on a personal, Thoreauvian level (as in new urban micro-ecologies of rooftop gardens and dung beetle composting), a grand ecological level (as in predator reintroduction and continental wildlife corridors), and on a political level. Yet this theoretically rich, thoughtful, and well-written book ends with anti-climactic call for “occasional, but regular and passionate engagement in politics” so as to rework existing political concepts such as sovereignty, rights, security, and equality “through interspecies lenses” (p. 137). Throughout the book, Youatt succeeds in expanding dominant international relations, anthropocentric, Eurocentic, and (neo)liberalist theories of political agency regarding biodiversity conservation, so why are these the best options for action?
Kemi Fuentes-George’s Between Preservation and Exploitation: Transnational Advocacy Networks and Conservation in Developing Countries addresses biodiversity conservation policies from an explicitly international relations perspective. The book uses qualitative fieldwork to explore the influence and effectiveness of transnational advocacy networks participating in the design and implementation of biodiversity conservation. He examines four case study projects each, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), each taking place in a country active in the Convention on Biological Diversity, and each catalyzing a diverse multistakeholder network of non-state actors who comprise epistemic communities to enact the conservation at hand.
The Accompong Maroons, a “fiercely independent community of descendants of escaped slaves and anticolonial rebels” (p. 1) in Cockpit County, Jamaica, used language of anticolonial resistance, cultural survival, and war to oppose bauxite mining in their area, which has extremely high levels of biodiversity endemism. This land-based community, long excluded from decision-making about land use and mining and from mining revenues, forged alliances among locals and conservation scientists, environmental groups, and even government agencies, to achieve a moratorium on mining in 2007. The cause and consequences of ecological injustice were glaring, with 60 billion tons of toxic “red mud” refinery waste and subsequent groundwater, air pollution, and health impairment. This clarity helped mobilize a broad network of scientists and local community leaders to join forces and complement respective ecological knowledge as they leveraged the data to those in power. Fuentes-George shows how the biodiversity conservation of Cockpit County was unequivocally grounded in an environmental justice framework, thereby mobilizing and sustaining strong grassroots activism.
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef off the coast of eastern Mexico has more than ninety species of coral and up to three thousand species of diverse marine flora and fauna, extensive mangrove zones, and seagrass pastures. Cancun tourism has boomed. Mangrove destruction, sedimentation, nitrification, and coral die-offs merge with cruise line pollution and severe overfishing, even as millions of dollars are spent to dredge up, truck, and re-sand eroded beaches: “the advertising strategy relies on a simulacra [sic], a fantasy representation of the Yucatan’s environment that chooses to be unaware of the degradation that the industry is causing” (p. 53). Local fishers organized to protest these exclusive enclaves, with their low-wage work, shantytowns, and the disproportionate burden of sewage waste, pollution, and restricted beach access. The advocacy network grew impressively to include major international environmental and human rights organizations as well as other regional activists, scientists, and conservationists; finally an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Area was secured. Again, the foundational framework of environmental justice grounded the broad epistemic community, and again the clear cause (tourism) and consequence of the threat facilitated the message.
Elsewhere in Mexico, the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor was proposed to protect a region with 900 different plant species and 200 animal species per hectare, from industrial agriculture and forestry threats. A transnational advocacy network did emerge and deploy “socialization” with government officials, but without a simple cause-and-effect scientific consensus of biodiversity losses and risks. Moreover, low-income rural populations were not involved in the conservation justification or design, their expertise was discounted, and they ultimately viewed the project with suspicion. With neither sufficient knowledge consensus nor, crucially, grassroots support, the proposal languished.
Fuentes-George ends with the Egypt and Migratory Soaring Birds Project, another failure. Tourism to Egypt grew from 1.1 million to 11.5 million between 1993 and 2011, growing nearly five-fold in revenue to US$9.5 billion. Nearly half of these tourists visit the coastal Red Sea, endangering the habitats for millions of migratory birds as well as the livelihood of local Bedouins. This conservation project, however, never even attempted to partner with locals, remaining mired in crony capitalism under the closed, authoritarian Mubarak (and post-revolutionary) regime. What little space for intellectual freedom and epistemic influence on state policy had withered, and so did the conservation project.
The strength of this book lies in its methodological care. Its major finding is that transnational advocacy networks can and do have effective influence on biodiversity conservation if they have three components: (1) internal, intersubjective, and participatory scientific consensus on the specific causes and impacts of the biodiversity threats; (2) social links with target audiences in regulatory positions; and, (3) most importantly, firm grounding in local communities and environmental justice. Though a neoliberal framing of biodiversity’s value and conservation reigns in both policy and in scholarship, Fuentes-George argues that this approach will not work: too many people are disenfranchised from, if not actually harmed by, neoliberal economic policies and ecological paradigms. Without local buy-in, conservation flounders. Besides, “there is nothing inevitable about treating the environment as a tool of capitalism” (p. 212).
On one hand, such a powerful conclusion remains somewhat constrained by the staid terms that comprise it: “conserving the environment” in “developing countries” by “socialization with target audiences” in “the international society” through “norms” and “frames.” Robust case studies are followed by a bulky chapter on institutional regime complexity. Effective local invocations of anticolonial justice do not respond to or rely upon the openings afforded by overlapping, (neo)liberal, global environmental governance. Even the book’s title diminishes the power of its bold argument: is justice what stands “between Preservation and Exploitation”? On the other hand, these are the terms used by those in power, and the book culminates with a direct message to the GEF itself, an audience that perhaps needs conventional discursive framing to hear the bold, final warning: “it is clear that conservationists and environmental advocates ignore justice at a significant cost” (p. 218).
Jamie Lorimer’s Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation After Nature abounds with critical social theory. The book exists to interrogate and expand the dominant terms, beginning with much-besieged “Nature” itself and the new-fangled Anthropocene. The book is self-described as part manifesto. Drawing on a decade of research on biodiversity conservation, Lorimer proposes a “hybrid and discordant ontology of wildlife,” a word “revived and reworked” (p. 9) in lieu of “wilderness.” He proposes a post-Anthropocene environmentalism to help usher in a new epoch: the “multinatural” Cosmoscene, wherein humans recognize “the impossibility of extricating themselves from the earth” and start “to take responsibility for the world in which they live” (p. 4). This ontological transformation begins with acknowledging the multiple, concurrent, and affective logics of interspecies encounters that make up what is called biodiversity. It also entails recognizing the assemblage of institutions, discourses, conceptions, commitments, networks, bodies, maps, papers, databases, markets, and websites that all hang together around what has come to be known as conservation, which needs to be reconfigured as an experimental, open-ended, and surprising process. Here, Lorimer employs critical geography, political ecology, and new materialism theories of lively matter, vital matter, immanence, nonhuman agency, and topology amidst the connectivity turn. Clearly, the GEF is not the intended audience.
Or is it? He argues that there are “good, practical reasons for [the current biodiversity preservation] approach, but it drains the life from any ecology, rendering the present eternal at the expense of the generative processes that keep any ecology alive” (p. 33). Lorimer proceeds by charting the limitations and possibilities of popular biodiversity conservation measures, such as mega-fauna corridors, bird habitat conservation, urban rewilding, wildlife film, and voluntourism.
His examination of charisma is illuminating. As a linchpin in conservation, it drives elephant reserve funding, nature documentaries, underpaid and citizen conservationists, and the spectacle-lure of eco-safaris. He unpacks the construct of charisma and its deployment for the “compositional model” of species-oriented preservation, wherein corncrakes and elephants are counted so as to be saved. This construct is also deployed through commodification, financialization, and the “creeping neoliberalization of conservation” (p. 141). Marketized experiences of exciting (constructed) wildlife have arisen in the wake of state-funded 20th century conservation. The rise of citizen-consumers means increased value of cosmopolitan flagship, photogenic, species that serve as lively capital boundary objects. In this captivity paradox, imprisoned pandas garner staggering lucre for their respective captors and keepers. But Lorimer also charts the honesty of affect, how charisma can, at its best, engender encounters—in person, or via screen—based in salubrious, open-minded, open-ended affection and interest.
Here, the book brings in cutting-edge critical geography. The territorializing spatiality of modernist nature conservation bounds allegedly discrete spaces, with fortress conservation walled off from ecological sacrifice zones like urban spaces. Alternative topologies are needed, and are underway in such initiatives as urban rooftop gardens and rewilding: “fluid, processural [sic] and hybrid approaches to wildlife require new ways of thinking about spatial relations” as “landscape-scale connectivity” (p. 170) and connected, mobile networks. Novel urban wild ecologies—as spaces, practices, modes, topologies, imaginaries—will open up space to recognize and expand interspecies, human-nonhuman encounters. Lorimer muses on such interactions, beyond sentimentality or commerce, can “catalyze new forms of environmental responsibility and citizenship,” serving as “archetypal” (p. 165) post-Anthropocene spaces. As a counter to modernist static conservation and to neoliberal, engineered, eco-services marketization, he advocates immanent, experimental modes of wildlife conservation: a cosmopolitical ecology of multispecies commons and models of justice.
It is because the book is so well versed in and so creative with social theory, and its final call so winsome and provocative, that its oversights matter. Though Lorimer astutely discredits homogenous projections of Nature and The Scientist, the book could do more to avoid generalizations about the Human who interacts with animals and plants. He affirms the multiplicity of human and nonhuman topologies, but in practice could attend more to how communities of diverse racial, ethnic, gender, class, religiosity, ability, and linguistic backgrounds actually engage with birds, beetles, or bears. Who exactly is the first person plural of “the wildlife we value survived in spite of agriculture” (p. 95) and of the observation that “we must start living well with wildlife” (p. 180), which “our modern predecessors so successfully tamed” (p. 181)?
Each of these three books acknowledges the axes of race, class, and gender disparities, though gender certainly needs more work across the board. Fuentes-George includes a brief analysis of how whiteness is wielded in scientific authority in Jamaica; he also effectively weaves in the multinational People of Color Environmental Summit’s Principles of Environmental Justice. One of the strongest sections of Youatt’s book is his analysis of the colonialist and white-guilt legacies at work in World Heritage Site selections. Another is his riveting inquiry into “how secularism constructs itself as an unmarked category, relative to religion and the sacred, and how this construction itself involves and enables the exercise of political dominance” (p. 66) in heritage conservation and beyond. But the passing reference to constitutional rights of nature by Latin American left on the book’s final page erases the context of indigenous cosmology and movement animating this. Lorimer’s book—itself an ode to ontology—leaves little space for other (cosmological) worldviews. Why the oversimplification and disparagement of awe in the face of wildlife? Why would invocations of the sublime necessarily be dystopic or apocalyptic? The micropolitics of curiosity has potential, but why discount the cultural traditions and ontologies grounded in metaphysical, or even primordial, or religious understandings of certain animals, plants, human responsibilities to or relations toward them?
Amidst deftly wielded literatures, Lorimer’s use of biopolitics also begs questions. After introducing the term as a modern form of security-oriented, population-level governance, Lorimer then interprets biopower as the vital agency of biota, and biopolitics—living consciously with nonhumans—as foundational to post-Anthropocene cosmopolitics. Though poetic and optimistic, his reworking of the generative aspects of securing life elides the lucid warning of original, Foucaultian analyses of biopolitics, wherein governmentality captures and controls at the level of life itself. Youatt also grounds his analysis of massive global censuses in biopower theories, but his application retains the subtle peril of intervention and regulation at the level of life itself. He also claims scholars have yet to apply biopower to biology conservation, when some (Biermann and Mansfield 2014) have. Youatt works to demonstrate that nonhumans, as biosocial collectivities, have their own ecological agency, visible as strategies of adaptability, migration, and/or reproduction, but he does not try to rework the concept of biopower, much less biosecurity, to make this key argument.
If these three books comprised a seminar on biodiversity conservation, more would be needed on agriculture. Lorimer admirably dives in to farm policy in his research on crofters and corncrakes, but his generalizations of peasant “premodern agricultural landscapes…understood as fixed and timeless” (p. 87) beg the question: by whom? Agroecologists—in and beyond the academy—study and practice agriculture that enhances biodiversity while producing nutritious food (Perfecto et al. 2009). Likewise, Fuentes-George describes “slash-and-burn” farming in southern Mexico without mentioning agrobiodiversity of traditional practices.
The many insights in these three books would be deepened with even more postcolonial, critical race, and feminist political ecology analyses. Biodiversity conservation studies would be wise to acknowledge and follow the lead of indigenous agrarian communities and decolonial scholarship already articulating multispecies engagement and abundance (Collard et al. 2015). Nevertheless, these books cover a lot of ground and complement each other. Opening the horizon to nonhuman agency is just a first step in moving towards a politics of inter- and intra-species encounters, according to Youatt. Actual conservation policy will not work, however, without a firm grounding in locally articulated justice, according to Fuentes-George. And Lorimer opens up the very terms at hand by calling for a cosmopolitics of diverse, multinatural [sic] agencies flourishing in interspecies responsibility. As a whole, these three authors make a set of powerful statements: effective biodiversity conservation policy needs critical social theory; smart social theory, however, must attend to equity; and environmental justice needs, and makes for, good policy and action.