Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Biodiversity, Purity, and Death: Conservation Biology as Biopolitics

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Biodiversity, Purity, and Death: Conservation Biology as Biopolitics

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper draws on the Foucauldian notion of biopower to renarrate the development of conservation science in the US as a form of liberal biopolitical rule. With its emphasis on making nature live, conservation marks a shift away from a sovereign form of rule that emphasized subduing and controlling nature; today, nature is ruled not by the sword but by science. Through a discussion of key concepts in conservation biology--populations in crisis; evolution and its future orientation; extinction as death that is necessary for life; and diversity as purity--we illustrate the truth discourses, underlying logics, and calculative technologies by which distinctions within nonhuman life are made and made meaningful. We argue that conservation is biopolitical not just in that it moves from controlling individuals to statistically managing populations and species, but also in that it extends the racialized logic of abnormality in its core notions of biological diversity and purity. In the logics of conservation and race, life produces diversity, conceived as variety of biological kinds; within that diversity exist kinds that foster ongoing life, which should be maximized, and kinds that are threats, which should be let die in the name of life in general.

Keywords: conservation biology, biopolitics, race, biodiversity, evolution, extinction

Introduction

"How can the biologist's voice be decisive in conserving biodiversity? We must respond to the crisis as the geneticist has to the challenge of mapping the human genome. We must muster human resources, define goals, develop a set of guidelines, raise funds and work within a tight timetable, rather than lose more ground through indecision.... I realize my challenge is asking the earth of biologists, but it is the biology of the earth, after all, that is at stake."

David Western (1992)

As the idea of a biodiversity crisis gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s, the expectations for and of ecologists shifted toward action, prescription, and defense of life. The newfound missions for conservation were to promote life (synonymous with biodiversity), halt or slow extinction, and ensure that particular species continue to live and evolve. In a sense this new mission represented an extension of the preservationist logic at work in the US environmental movement of the early 20th century, in which discourses about American landscapes increasingly emphasized the protection of nature and the cultural and national importance of unique natural landscapes. Modern conservation science, however, extended this preservationist logic in new directions, incorporating the wholesale protection and promotion of the biology of the earth writ large (Western, 1992).

This paper examines modern conservation science through the lens of biopower, which Michel Foucault conceptualized as the power to "make live and let die" (Foucault, 2003, page 241). We posit not just that biopower is a useful analytical tool for understanding governance of human-nonhuman relationships but that failure to understand how nonhuman life has been the object of biopolitical concern risks privileging scientific knowledge and management as purely objective and apolitical--that is, as outside the reach of power. Here, we renarrate core conservation knowledge, practices, and policies in the US as a form of liberal biopolitical rule. With its emphasis on making nature live, conservation science marks a shift from a sovereign form of rule that emphasized subduing and controlling nature. We focus on key concepts in conservation biology, such as populations, evolution, extinction, and biological diversity and purity, to demonstrate that acts of truth-telling about nature occur within, and are necessarily shaped by, the context of liberal biopolitical rule. By truth-telling we refer not to the discovery of objective facts but rather to the ways in which particular ideas about nature are designated normal, natural, and true through the circulation of scientific discourses (Foucault, 1990; 2008). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.