Preserving Biocultural Diversity (New York Times)


In a small classroom in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a little girl sits, her face knitted in concentration. “Nitóxka, nátoka, niuóxka” — one, two, three — she slowly counts out, just as generations of other Piegan children have before her. Meanwhile, half a world away on the lower slopes of Mount Gorongosa in southern Africa, another little girl races excitedly about a field with her friends, gathering as many bugs as quickly as possible. She takes one particularly fetching find to a man who identifies it as a praying mantis, member of the family Mantidae, and adds it to a running tally.

What do these two far-flung scenes have in common? Each of these girls is, in her own unassuming way, making a contribution to preserving the world’s cultural and biological diversity.

The first is learning her indigenous language, a dialect of Blackfeet, in an immersion program in Montana. The second is taking part in a bioblitz on the outskirts of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique — an organized effort, under the direction of a scientist, in which ordinary people collect and add up as many species as they can in a defined area within a set time. In this case, the scientist is none other than the biologist Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s greatest champions of biodiversity, who recalls the scene in his newest book, “A Window on Eternity.” By counting, each little girl is learning how to keep track of the differences she will encounter in the world.

Most of us think of nature and culture as belonging to two separate domains. One contains items such as butterflies, the Amazon rainforest and photosynthesis; the other, things like wedding ceremonies, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and sushi. But in fact nature and culture — which we can think of as two great realms of diversity in which all the world’s differences are registered — often interpenetrate. These areas of overlap are now often described by a new term: biocultural diversity.

We see the commonalities clearly when we look at two fundamental components of biological and cultural diversity: species and languages. Both evolve via a process of descent with modification, although cultural evolution is far more rapid than biological evolution. Both can be classified into closely related families that share a common ancestor. Both coincide geographically, with highest diversity in the tropics and lowest at the poles. And both are threatened with extinction on a scale never before seen in history.

How deep is the threat to biocultural diversity? In a new report, “Biocultural Diversity: Threatened Species, Endangered Languages,” we compare the status of and trends in biological and linguistic diversity around the world. Because species and languages are alike in many ways, we use methods originally developed by biologists and adapt them to measure global linguistic diversity. Our analysis shows that at least 25 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages are threatened with extinction, compared with at least 30 percent of amphibians, 21 percent of mammals, 15 percent of reptiles and 13 percent of birds.

We also developed a new Index of Linguistic Diversity that captures the recent general trend in which a few of the world’s largest languages are “cornering the market” as speakers shift away from smaller ones. When we superimpose the global trend line of our new index upon that of the Living Planet Index, a well-respected measure of the rate at which biodiversity is declining, the result is astonishing: They track one another almost perfectly, with both falling about 30 percent between 1970 and 2009.

Why is this happening? The ultimate reason is globalization. We now live in a world where the dominant economic and political forces are aligned to encourage uniformity and the seamless global interchange of products and information. Government policies generally favor developing resources for human use, which simplifies the landscape as it destroys wild animal and plant habitats. Similar policies promote linguistic unification either directly, through sanctions on minority language use, or indirectly, such as by concentrating economic opportunities in cities, thereby making it more difficult for the rural areas in which most languages evolved to remain viable places for the next generation of speakers.

Many of us are uneasy about the proposition that erasing differences is the only route to well-being. But almost inevitably, the facts and figures, all of them pointing toward death and disappearance, make our deepest longings seem puny by comparison. Overwhelmed by trend lines, confused and dispirited, we fall victim to a kind of moral paralysis in which we do not act to protect what we value most because we think we cannot legitimately justify why we care in the first place.

The late Darrell Kipp knew this well. He co-founded the Blackfeet immersion program in Montana as part of a lifetime dedicated to preserving that language. In a guidebook widely used by other Native American language activists, Kipp hammered home that the only obstacle to setting forth is our own feeling of helplessness. “Don’t wait, even if you can’t speak the language,” he urged. “In the beginning, I knew thirty words, then fifty, then sixty. One day I woke up and realized I was dreaming in Blackfeet.”

The dual extinction crisis is actually a golden opportunity for new directions in conservation. If biodiversity organizations joined forces with advocates for linguistic and cultural self-determination, there would be a double payoff. Traditional ecological knowledge that has evolved over millennia among indigenous peoples living in a diversity of Earth’s ecosystems is being rapidly lost as the languages which encode that knowledge disappear. By working together with biologists, field linguists could help to maintain those cultural treasure troves. Conservation biologists could benefit from applying some of that traditional knowledge to their own work. By combining expertise, not only would biocultural diversity be conserved in the environments in which it evolved, but time-tested traditional environmental knowledge could be shared and adapted as appropriate to the wider landscape.

Some of this is already happening. For example, a recent study by scientists in collaboration with Canada’s Taku River Tlingit First Nation used in-depth interviews with tribal members, each with many years’ experience closely observing woodland caribou, to develop a habitat model to help recover this endangered species. When compared with a model created using Western scientific methods alone, the First Nation model correctly identified the caribou’s preference for using frozen lakes as part of its winter habitat — an important nuance that was missed by the Western model. Knowledge of this kind is valuable for our understanding of wildlife ecology and management. The Tlingit language, however, is now spoken by fewer than 1,000 people and is critically endangered.

This kind of cross-cutting conservation work is increasing, but much of what is going on is at the grass roots, far under the radar. From Montana to Mozambique, everyday people are dreaming dreams of a world whose differences are valued and protected. There are many powerful forces arrayed against the continuation of our planet’s generative capacity, and many of these same forces stand to benefit if the world’s cultures are homogenized. But on the other side of the equation is the cumulative power of millions of individuals who know that diversity in nature and culture is the genuine condition of life on Earth.

David Harmon is executive director of the George Wright Society, which promotes support for protected areas and cultural sites, and a co-founder of Terralingua, an NGO devoted to biocultural diversity. Jonathan Loh is a biologist specializing in biological and cultural diversity, and an honorary research associate of the Zoological Society of London.