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‘The Birds Have Also Gone’: On Society, Nature and Extinction

Lullabies and bedtime stories are a constant companion of almost every child. And as we grow, these turn into poems and novellas and songs we read, hear and ponder about. Nature, in one way or the other, finds a mention in these small pieces of literature we get exposed to, be it in the form of a love ballad referring to the beloved as a Narcissus flower, a story of wolves and foxes and hares and little children conversing with them, a movie as famous as The Lion King, or a book as captivating as The Jungle Book. It is almost as if our conception of nature and the world around us is shaped by such quintessential, imaginative portrayals of it. In fact, this line of thought has intrigued the minds of ecologists and anthropologists, and literature enthusiasts all alike, so much so that a fairly new line of scientific and literary inquiry, Ecocriticism, has evolved, pivoting the focus of these like-minded people towards the relationship between literature and the physical environment. Now, as the developing Anthropocene, for the lack of a better word describing human-induced effects on the environment, changes the inherent nature of human interaction with the biosphere, the question of how it reflects in the stories we tell, the song we sing, the books we read, arises. While there might be one too many answers to this question, this article will focus on a concept that embodies how through our actions, we have been driving this world, and the species that coexist with us, to a whole new level of damnation: Societal Extinction.

While consensus about the occurrence of a biodiversity crisis is increasing day on day, little is said or written about how this crisis is reflected in our society. After all, a large proportion of people like us, who are young, educated, and to an extent, environmentally aware, do not have access to or are not readily affected by such a crisis. While scientific conferences and articles talk about increasing extinction rates and the decline of species, how does society experience this? In one of the most seminal papers written on Ecology in this century, Ivan Joric (2022) talks about the ‘extinction of experience’ – how the extinction of a species in the natural ecosystem leads to extinction in the cultural ecosystem, how the interactions between humans and nature become less salient, and how easily species are, in the simplest of words, forgotten. Joric (2022) refers to the encompassing phenomenon as “societal extinction of species”, defining it as “the loss of collective memory, attention, knowledge, representations, and cultural products associated with species from cultures and/or societies.” This definition goes a long way to discern how we, as members of a society, are responsible not only for a systematic erasure of species from the biota but also the way we have shunned these species from our memory, leaving them forlorn and without a trace. While the authors of this particular paper argue that a primal cause of societal extinction is the loss of a species’ salience in societies, they also lay out the relevance of studying and understanding this phenomenon in order to comprehend the effects of species loss and formulate effective means of conservation policymaking.

Effectively, we care more about the things we can see, touch, and have a sense of attachment to. It is human to think about things in terms of what they mean to us, no matter how good or bad that may sound. And therefore, in the development of our societies, we granted importance to species that were prominent in our lives, that were of some use to us, and that imparted some meaning to our societal bonding. This is the reason we remember Dodo, the extinct bird, through drawings, and Messenger Pigeons, because of how important they were in communication or even dinosaurs, which have been granted such salience that even when the only way to envision them is through the fossil record and, more interestingly, through fiction, they seem to be as prominent in the society as our pets. In contrast, there are species that have gone extinct and we know nothing about them – signifying what is called the Linnean Shortfall in evolutionary circles, a gap between knowledge of known and unknown species. Hence, as a society, we think of these species as nonexistent, granting them no place in our collective memory. This elucidates what Joric terms “Species Charisma”, one of the main factors driving societal extinction. Interestingly, Joric also talks about how species’ salience does not depend on their scientific importance – an example of which is the Dodo itself, which gained popularity after its extinction, but its popular depictions were based on the Red Hen, a similar-looking bird. Nevertheless, these depictions were popular enough that we care about Dodo even now, using it as a popular metaphor for extinction.

While discussing these extinction species that are socially still extant, we cannot afford to ignore species that are biologically extant, but have no societal value, and are thus ignored in conservation efforts and doomed to extinction. There is still time for these species, still, time for them to roam this earth, enjoy its bounties and just live as they have for thousands of us, if and only if we took efforts to incorporate them into our society, to care for them and give them a place of survival, and remembrance. Even while it is considered scientifically improbable to save every species, it is in our power to document most of them, vouch for their survival as our own, and to make them an intrinsic part of our lives. Just like spring speaks of hope, fireflies light up a thousand dreams in our sky, starlings beckon a cosmic display of life, cats bring a newfound pleasure to our hearts – let these species find a home with us too.

I remember growing up and reciting words of poets like Iqbal, who in a poem titled ‘Prayer of a child’ took the form of a child praying to be able to love knowledge just like a moth loves the flame of a candle. These past few years, I have read Kashmiri poems through which numerous poets manifest their beloved as thrushes or flowers of Daffodil. Coming to Turkey, I was introduced to the works of writers like Yasar Kemal, whose works have often used elements of nature to poignant speak of human nature. Literature is as intrinsic to our lives as the world around us, and it has the power to reflect everything we can relate to. Languages make up our societal fabric, and it is a steadfast belief in humanity and its use of words that can enforce a pivotal change in how we see the world around us, and how it affects us.

Writer: Qazi Hammad

References Bini, L.M., Diniz-Filho, J.A.F., Rangel, T.F.L.V.B., Bastos, R.P. and Pinto, M.P. (2006), Challenging Wallacean and Linnean shortfalls: knowledge gradients and conservation planning in a biodiversity hotspot. Diversity and Distributions, 12: 475-482. Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995. Jarić, I., Roll, U., Bonaiuto, M., Brook, B. W., Courchamp, F., Firth, J. A., Gaston, K. J., Heger, T., Jeschke, J. M., Ladle, R. J., Meinard, Y., Roberts, D. L., Sherren, K., Soga, M., Soriano-Redondo, A., Veríssimo, D., & Correia, R. A. (2022). Societal extinction of species. Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

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