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Imagining ExtinctionThe Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species$
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Ursula K. Heise

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226358024

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226358338.001.0001

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Lost Dogs, Last Birds, and Listed Species: Elegy and Comedy in Conservation Stories

Lost Dogs, Last Birds, and Listed Species: Elegy and Comedy in Conservation Stories

(p.19) 1 Lost Dogs, Last Birds, and Listed Species: Elegy and Comedy in Conservation Stories
Imagining Extinction

Ursula K. Heise

University of Chicago Press

This chapter analyzes the interplay of science and culture in narratives about species loss. Scientific assessments of biodiversity are constrained by uncertainties that reach from the definition of "biodiversity" to appropriate ways of measuring it. In the scientific and public realms, arguments about biodiversity loss typically follow a narrative “proxy logic,” whereby charismatic megafauna stand in for species at large, species for biodiversity, and biodiversity for what humans value about nature. This value attribution, as the cases of the dodo, the Honshu wolf, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the huia, and the thylacine show in works such as David Quammen's Song of the Dodo, Lee Hyla's Wilson's Ivory-Bill, Sally McIntyre's Huia Transcriptions, and Julia Leigh's The Hunter, are associated with narratives about modernization and colonization. Endangered or extinct animals typically feature in elegiac or tragic stories that highlight what was lost in such historical processes. Conservation, therefore, is primarily a political and cultural rather than a scientific issue, and should be approached through the study of narrative and culture. Comedies such as Douglas Adams’s Last Chance To See offer an alternative perspective on conservation that focuses on contingency and the present rather than on the past.

Keywords:   environmental narrative, environmental elegy, environmental tragedy, environmental comedy, environmental rhetoric, modernization, biodiversity conservation, species conservation

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