Ethnic nationalism and extinction

Ethnic nationalism leads to extinctions. This is a specific example of the destructive interactions between different processes within the ecological, economic and political crisis, and it is important because it shows that there can be unexpected causal links going from social to biological aspects of the crisis and back again. If we analyse the present crisis only in terms of material processes such as pollution, extinction and climate heating, we mask the agency of political and economic actors. Tracing the links between extinction and ethnic nationalism shows us how difficult the challenges we face actually are—but it also shows that to commit to activism in the Black Lives Matter movement does not mean letting go of care for endangered landscapes.

The argument here derives from work done on biocultural diversity. ‘Biocultural diversity’ refers to the inextricable mutualism between cultural and biological diversity. There are any number of good studies by Luisa Maffi, Michelle Cocks, Darrell Posey, and others, but in short the argument for biocultural diversity begins by recognising the long-term shaping of ecosystems worldwide by Indigenous and local communities. Humans are, after all, ecosystem engineers; through fire, terracing, irrigation, and many other practices we create habitats, and all life presently on earth lives in habitats that have been shaped by humans for at least 20,000 years. The mutual creation of diversity goes both ways. Because humans evolved together with African landscapes, it is hard to draw conclusions about the effects of geography on human cultural diversity there. However,  those extra-African landscapes that, for geographic reasons such as ruggedness supported a high level of biodiversity before the arrival of humans have developed into lingustically and culturally diverse landscapes once humans did arrive. These are regions such as New Guinea, the Himalayan arc, or what is now California—all regions which had very high linguistic diversity. From this we can see that landscapes which foster high biodiversity also foster high cultural diversity in human populations; there is certainly correlation, but making the argument this way exposes the causal relationship. However, we can also see that linguistic diversity in turn encodes and enables a huge variety of landscaping practices—and so creates biodiversity. This is most obvious when we study what happens when you remove long-term resident human populations from highly biodiverse landscapes.

Empirical studies have shown that when you remove Indigenous or local communities from species-rich but threatened landscapes in order to establish protected areas (the so-called pristine or Yellowstone model), those protected areas are not very successful.  Studies in the Nepal Himalayas and elsewhere have shown that protected areas which exclude local communities lose biodiversity, while protected areas which include those communities who have lived in, and shaped, the landscape (and also ensure a sustainable livelihood for them) are much more successful at preserving or even enhancing biodiversity. Admitting that humans have shaped the present biodiversity on this planet does require us to abandon racist and imperialist notions of pristine wilderness, but the evidence is there. This anthropogenic biodiversity is crucial to our long-term residence on Earth, which is why the IPBES is trying very hard to identify, respect and centre Indigenous and local communities as stewards of Earth’s diversity. 

Ethnic nationalism destroys this virtuous spiral and replaces it with a downward spiral: the material consequences of biodiversity loss (such as plagues) create anxious polities and insecure, nationalist governments that fall back on crude tactics like xenophobia—which then creates political programmes that destroy cultural diversity. Efforts to construct a culturally uniform state though language policies, schooling, dress codes, or violent racism deliberately destroy the very diversity that human societies—human polities—must cherish and encourage for our future, not just humans but all living beings, here on this planet. Whether it is White nationalism in the USA, Han nationalism in the PRC, attacks on First Nations in Canada, on Kurds in the Middle East, on Roma in Hungary…or the endless suppression of Indigenous languages and cultures in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, this is an act of short-sighted self-harm on the part of states. Worldwide, conservation biologists are pushing for every nation to develop substantial protected areas. This effort will be wasted if it presumes that biodiversity can flourish in a monocultural state. States built on a foundation of cultural diversity, an inclusive and welcoming nationalism, will navigate the shocks of the coming decades better, and they will contribute more to the long-term flourishing of life on this planet.

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