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The concept of extinction is at the heart of the modern conservation movement, and massive resources have been spent on developing models and frameworks for quantifying and codifying a phenomenon that has been described by American researcher and naturalist Edward O. Wilson as an obscure and local biological process. Scientists, environmentalists, and politicians have repeatedly used extinction rhetoric as a core justification for a global conservation agenda that seeks to influence a wide range of human activities despite the inherent difficulty and uncertainty involved in estimating current and future rates of extinction, or even in verifying the demise of a particular species. In this article we trace the historical origins of the extinction concept and discuss its power to influence policies, agendas, and behaviors. We argue that conservation needs to develop a more culturally meaningful rhetoric of extinction that aligns scientific evidence, cultural frames, institutional frameworks, and organizational interests.
Environment and Society: Advances in Research 1 (2010): 96–115 © Berghahn Books
Origins, Uses, and Transformation
of Extinction Rhetoric
Richard J. Ladle and Paul Jepson
n ABSTRACT: e concept of extinction is at the heart of the modern conservation move-
ment, and massive resources have been spent on developing models and frameworks
for quantifying and codifying a phenomenon that has been described by American
researcher and naturalist Edward O. Wilson as an obscure and local biological process.
Scientists, environmentalists, and politicians have repeatedly used extinction rhetoric as
a core justication for a global conservation agenda that seeks to inuence a wide range
of human activities despite the inherent diculty and uncertainty involved in estimating
current and future rates of extinction, or even in verifying the demise of a particular spe-
cies. In this article we trace the historical origins of the extinction concept and discuss its
power to inuence policies, agendas, and behaviors. We argue that conservation needs
to develop a more culturally meaningful rhetoric of extinction that aligns scientic evi-
dence, cultural frames, institutional frameworks, and organizational interests.
n KEYWORDS: climate change, conservation, crisis, extinction, frames, Red Lists, rhetoric
e death of a species is a more remarkable event than the end of an imperial dynasty. (Orton
1869: 540)
Extinction is typically viewed by contemporary conservation scientists as the logical endpoint of
the process of population decline, that is, the point on the graph where the population size curve
meets the x-axis and terminates abruptly and nally (Ladle and Jepson 2008). e operational
denition given by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is that a species
should be considered extinct “when there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has
died” (IUCN 2001: 14). is denition reveals one of the main stumbling blocks for eld-based
measurements of extinction: the diculty of ascertaining the continued existence of a species
that is certainly exceedingly rare and may also inhabit an isolated area that is dicult to survey
eectively. e nal death of a species, beyond the gaze of the scientists and conservationists,
led Edward O. Wilson (1992: 255) to conclude that extinction is “the most obscure and local of
all biological processes.
e IUCN guidelines state that a species can be declared extinct only aer exhaustive surveys
fail to produce any observations within a time period and geographical range that are appropri-
ate to its life cycle and life form—an unfeasible task for most species (Roberts 2006). Butchart
Origins, Uses, and Transformation of Extinction Rhetoric n 97
and his colleagues have recently reinstated the defunct category of ‘possibly extinct’ to apply to
those species that are, “on the balance of evidence, likely to be extinct, but for which there is
a small chance that they may be extant and thus should not be listed as Extinct until adequate
surveys have failed to nd the species and local or unconrmed reports have been discounted”
(Butchart, Statterseld, and Brooks 2006: 9). Interestingly, this necessary ‘gray area’ has not pre-
vented many species from being prematurely labeled as extinct, allowing them to be ‘rediscov-
ered’ and, in the process, generating many positive headlines (Ladle et al. 2009).
e above denitions of extinction are concerned with species that are known to science,
have been collected and processed, and exist as physical specimens in the world’s biological col-
lections. However, there may be anywhere from 1 to 100 million species for which science has
no ocial records at the present time (Lomolino 2004). Extinctions of these ‘yet to be discov-
ered’ species have been of great importance in the construction of the ‘extinction crisis’, and they
are claimed to outnumber documented extinctions many times over (Whittaker et al. 2005).
Such ‘unseen’ or postulated extinctions are highly dependent on estimates of global species rich-
ness and are the source of most of the headline-grabbing gures that periodically appear in
the media. Moreover, the majority of such extinctions are in poorly described taxa (groups of
organisms) and ecosystems, such as arthropods in tropical forests.
Despite the inherent uncertainty associated with identifying, measuring, and forecasting
extinctions (Ladle 2009), the concept of extinction is a prominent element of issues relating
to the environment. It has been instrumental in the production of international conservation
agreements and associated programs and, for more than a century, has been deployed to attract
attention and motivate individual and collective actions that constrain our attitudes and behav-
iors toward the non-human world.
Extinction is the focal point of a vast scientic literature, concentrating mainly on the devel-
opment of techniques to measure and forecast extinction rates (reviewed in Lawton and May
1995; see also Ladle 2009). ese techniques are based on insights from diverse elds, including
paleontology (Jablonski 2001; McKinney 1997), genetics (Keller and Waller 2002), island bio-
geography (Channell and Lomolino 2000), behavior (Courchamp et al. 1999), and taxonomy
(Nee and May 1997). e wide variety of ways in which extinction can be dened, classied,
and measured has (perhaps unsurprisingly) led to increasing levels of misrepresentation of this
concept in the public domain (Ladle et al. 2005). In an attempt to clarify the diverse meanings of
the term ‘extinctionand to explain its power to inuence institutional and individual behaviors,
Ladle and Jepson (2008) presented a new typology of extinction concepts associated with dif-
ferent degrees of scientic certainty concerning the disappearance of a species and the potential
for its re-emergence at some point in time. ey briey discussed the social inuence and power
of these dierent extinction ‘types’ in dierent settings and, in so doing, drew attention to the
multiple and changing usages of the term.
In this article we present an extended review and discussion about the origins and agency of
the term extinction’ and examine its historical and contemporary impact in conservation dis-
course, policy, and management. To provide greater analytical traction, we draw on the concept
of the ‘frame’ (Goman 1974), which suggests that people make sense of and act within a com-
plex world by gathering together an assemblage of ideas, objects, and practices in frames (i.e.,
mental models/schemas). e concept has been extended by new social movement theorists
(e.g., Benford and Snow 2000) and is gaining popularity in science technology studies (e.g., Cal-
lon 1998), policy studies (e.g., Triandafyllidou and Fotiou 1998), including conservation (e.g.,
Lorimer 2006), and environmental communication (e.g., Davis 1995). Frames are essentially
stories constructed from concepts, metaphors, beliefs, and images interacting with the everyday
practices and technologies through which we live our lives. While each person constructs his
98 n Richard J. Ladle and Paul Jepson
or her own frame and is able to switch between multiple frames, frame construction is largely a
social and cultural process. Frames develop over time and can be understood as the sedimented
histories of particular ways of understanding and engaging with the world. When frames include
collective actions that attract widespread consent, they become institutionalized, guiding poli-
cies and scientic, management, and cultural practices (Tarrow 1992).
e premise we explore in this article is that extinction—as a term, concept, fact, and pos-
sibility—organizes and assembles frames that incorporate individual and collective anxieties
relating to loss, decline, crisis, and so forth. ese frames help to explain and give meaning
to events in the non-human world and motivate and legitimate ideas for collective action. At
the same time, they enable conservation/environment issues to bridge and ow into numerous
other frames. Further, we suggest that the rhetorical power and cultural agency of extinction
enroll actors not directly concerned with avoiding species extinction, consciously or otherwise,
into pronouncements and interventions in the environment/conservation issue frame. ese
processes serve to transform extinction from a key idea element within wider frames to a dis-
tinct issue frame that has come to have an immense inuence on social decision making.
In considering these ideas, this article is organized into three sections. e rst section pres-
ents a brief review of the origins and historical context of the extinction concept. e second
section focuses on the power of this concept to transform intentional collective or individual
actions (sensu Engeström 2006; Eskola 1999) and examines the interplay between the domains
of scientic practice, the media, and conservation policy and governance institutions. In the
concluding section, we take stock of the inuence of extinction on decision-making frames
and explore areas of further investigation that would extend our understanding of the cultural,
social, and political dimensions of this concept.
e Origins of the Extinction Concept
e history of the concept of species extinction has two separate components. e rst involves
the realization during the nineteenth century that it is possible for a species to cease to exist. e
second entails the recognition that the decline and eventual disappearance of a species can be
directly or indirectly attributable to human impacts on the environment (Lowe 1983). Neither
of these processes occurred rapidly or completely, and it was probably not until the rst decades
of the twentieth century that a scientic consensus emerged on the role of humans in extinc-
tion, following the high-prole disappearance of several formerly abundant and highly visible
species, such as the passenger pigeon.
e slow emergence of a concept of extinction is unsurprising, given the almost complete
lack of biogeographical knowledge and the strict biblical interpretations that dominated West-
ern thinking in the natural sciences until the middle of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the
best candidate for the rst documented extinction is a plant referred to as ‘silphium’ by Pliny
the Elder in  77, who commented that its resin was a valuable and eective remedy against
illnesses ranging from fevers, coughs, and warts, not to mention its role as a useful contracep-
tive (Parejko 2003). Pliny goes on to describe a drastic decline in silphium availability and that,
within his own lifetime, the plant had not been seen in its native habitat for many years, the last
known stalk, valued at its weight in gold, having been sent to the emperor Nero (ibid.). However,
it was not until detailed analysis of the fossil remains of species such as the mammoth in the
late eighteenth century that extinction emerged as a socially important theme with potential
theological implications. e central gure in establishing extinction as an undeniable fact was
Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), a professor of animal anatomy at the French National Museum
Origins, Uses, and Transformation of Extinction Rhetoric n 99
of Natural History in Paris. Cuvier’s careful reconstructions of fossil elephants led him to con-
clude that (1) they were very dierent from any living species; (2) given their size and dramatic
appearance, it was very unlikely that they still existed; and (3) the probable cause of extinction
was some form of periodic catastrophe (Rudwick 1997).
By 1859, the year Darwin published his seminal work, extinction was already widely accepted
among the academic community, although great doubts still remained about what could have
driven enormous animals such as dinosaurs and mastodons out of existence. ese doubts
extended to more contemporary examples of extinction where, in hindsight, human involve-
ment seems obvious and decisive. A good example is the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), a
large and impressive seabird that was hunted into extinction by European sherman. According
to nineteenth-century accounts, the last specimens were collected by a party of Icelanders in
1844 (Bengtson 1984). Although in hindsight overhunting was clearly to blame for the demise
of the Great Auk, contemporary writers had great diculty accepting the pivotal role of human
action. As James Orton (1869: 540) expressed it: e upheaval or subsidence of strata, the
encroachments of other animals, and climatal revolutions—by which of these great causes of
extinction now slowly but incessantly at work in the organic world, the Great Auk departed this
life, we cannot say.
is reluctance to attribute human causes to the contemporary extinction of species lasted
into the twentieth century, with many (but by no means all) commentators being reluctant to
point the nger of blame at fellow humans for playing an important role in extinctions. e rea-
sons behind the decline of the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius)—a heavily hunted spe-
cies that has become iconic to the modern conservation movement—were also actively debated
in the scientic literature of the time. In a publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union,
G. C. Tremaine Ward (1901: 191) stated: “I am not aware of any satisfactory explanation of the
phenomena [i.e., the decline of the passenger pigeon]. It is not improbable, some epidemic
disease, spreading more rapidly on account of the immense number of individuals, nearly exter-
minated the species.
As with the acceptance of the fact of extinction, the scientic community slowly coalesced
around the idea that this new wave of extinctions was most likely being driven by human action,
oen through direct persecution. is new understanding mobilized the formation of inuen-
tial societies, notably the Boone and Crockett Club in New York, founded in 1887 by eodore
Roosevelt, and the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire in London,
originally founded in 1903 in Africa by British naturalists and American statesmen. ese orga-
nizations and others like them promoted the social value that the “human conquest of nature
carries with it a moral responsibility to ensure the survival of threatened life forms” (Whittaker
et al. 2005: 4) and were a driving force behind the creation of wildlife sanctuaries and refuges
in North America and colonial territories (Jepson and Whittaker 2002). is social value, along
with the reality of extinctions, aligned with and was informed by nineteenth-century Western
humanitarian preoccupations relating to cruelty to domestic animals (omas 1984) and their
extension to practices of “bird slaughter for millinery ornament” (Doughty 1975: 103), market
hunting (e.g., for bison tongues), and recreational hunting (Trefethen 1961).
ese social trends of the late nineteenth century coincided with the rise of the print media,
and newspaper reportage of such events constructed the concepts of human-induced extinc-
tion and associated moral responsibilities in the minds of European and East Coast American
readerships. In conjunction with the debates surrounding the publication of Darwin’s Origin
of Species, they transformed Western framings of nature by downplaying the organizing role of
religious ideas and introducing new scientic notions. Furthermore, the awful loss of life during
World War I promoted associations in the public mind between the senseless killing of humans
100 n Richard J. Ladle and Paul Jepson
and that of wildlife, further enhancing the legitimacy of collective action to govern the processes
leading to extinction (Jepson and Whittaker 2002). us, by 1931, the inuential American
biweekly magazine, Science News-Letter (now Science News) was prompted to write the follow-
ing with respect to the rapid demise of the thylacine (ylacinus cynocephalus), also known as
the Tasmanian tiger: “Australia, which has had a development more or less analogous to that of
the American West, is now passing through a phase also experienced in America—the realiza-
tion that reckless slaughter is threatening extermination of many of its unique animal species.1
e article goes on to report how the government of Tasmania had recently taken steps to pre-
serve the remaining thylacines by banning the exportation of pelts.2 e last known thylacine
died in Tasmanias Hobart Zoo on 7 September 1936 (Bulte et al. 2003).
Such high-prole extinctions and the fear that colonial expansion into Africa would result
in the decimation and extinction of large mammal populations did much to galvanize the
nascent global conservation movement. One notable result was the 1933 Convention Relative
to the Preservation of Fauna and Flora in eir Natural State, which was signed in London
and became known as the London Convention. is treaty, which established a set of African
parks and wildlife sanctuaries (Hingston 1931; Jepson and Whittaker 2001), convinced Harold
Coolidge, a leading conservationist of the time, that extinctions could no longer be treated as
singular and unfortunate events. Coolidge mobilized the funds to commission the rst two
global reviews of extinction (Allen 1942; Greenway [1958] 1967), which played a signicant
role in promoting the view of individual extinctions and declines as indicators of a much larger
pattern of global extermination.
A more catastrophic view of nature’s trajectory came to the fore in the 1970s in the context
of Malthusian worries over the population bomb (Ehrlich 1971), anxieties due to the oil cri-
sis, and dire forecasts about the fate of tropical forests (see, e.g., Myers 1979). Arguably, it was
during this period that the term ‘crisis’ became attached to the extinction concept and began
to be used more systematically and strategically as an advocacy device by both scientists and
conservationists—a trend that reected the extent to which the concept had become embedded
within Western societies.
e Transformative Power of the Extinction Concept
ose who believe that the rate [of extinction] is several times higher than normal oen
talk of a biodiversity or extinction “crisis.” Crisis talk has tremendous rhetorical value in the
political terrain of the North. (Sarkar 2005: 6)
Due to a combination of inherent scientic uncertainties and deeply held but frequently undis-
closed beliefs about the intrinsic value of other species, extinction rhetoric occupies a unique
space in contemporary science discourse where estimates and forecasts of species loss can vary
dramatically in magnitude and certainty, depending upon the intended audience and the com-
munication media. Following Sarkar (2005), here we dene the extinction crisis as the belief that
the current rate of extinction is several times higher than the normal background rate (from the
geological past). It is dicult to pinpoint the beginnings of the crisis framing of extinction, but
some members of the scientic community were certainly making claims of this nature by the late
1960s and early 1970s. For example, Iltis (1970) quotes S. Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian Insti-
tute as saying that the majority of the world’s animal species will be extinct by the year 2000.
One of the rst and most widely disseminated estimates of the current rate of global extinc-
tion was produced by Norman Myers (1979) in his inuential book, e Sinking Ark: A New
Origins, Uses, and Transformation of Extinction Rhetoric n 101
Look at the Problem of Disappearing Species. In this book, Myers made the claim that, on aver-
age, 40,000 species per year would become extinct over the course of twenty-ve years (ibid.: 5).
Although this gure was clearly a rst-cut estimate based on circular reasoning and very little
hard information, it has frequently been quoted by environmental organizations, politicians, and
other interested groups. Myers’s claim has also been used as an illustration of misrepresentation
and scaremongering and was a key example in Lomborg’s (2001) e Skeptical Environmental-
ist, a highly publicized critique of the global environmental movement. Recently, Myers (2001)
admitted that the estimate of 40,000 extinctions per year was “preliminary and exploratory, and
advanced primarily to get the issue of extinction onto scientic and political agendas.” In this
respect, he certainly achieved his aim, as testied by the publication of Global 2000 Report to the
President of the United States, in which it was estimated that 500,000 to 2,000,000 species could
become extinct between the years 1980 and 2000 (Barney 1980).
During the 1990s, the notion of an extinction crisis was extended and given added gravity
by dubbing it the ‘sixth extinction’ event (Leakey and Lewin 1995). is frame amplication
constructs extinction as a major present-day phenomenon—one that has not happened for 45
million years and one that, in contrast to the last ve extinction events, which were caused
by physical changes, has been caused by anthropogenic inuences (Eldredge 2001). e sixth
extinction rhetoric has been widely deployed by leading scientists and is popular with the media.
We suggest that in this guise the concept of extinction is constitutive of processes to adopt the
term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch.3
Scientic Practice
e rst systematic scientic account of extinction was made by Walter Rothschild, a scion of
the Rothschild family who was a zoologist, as well as a banker and politician. His paper pre-
sented at the 4th International Ornithological Congress (Rothschild 1905) and his subsequent
book (Rothschild 1907) compiled accounts of extinct species that had appeared in lists of the
faunas of regions and islands since 1580. e book can be understood as part of the broader
scientic eort to document forms of life, but Rothschild’s treatment of the causes of extinction
and his unequivocal statement—“the melancholy fact … that man and his satellite dogs, cats,
rats and pigs are the worst and indeed only important agents of destruction of the native avifau-
nas wherever they go”—helped establish the idea in scientic circles that human expansion into
new territories needed governing. Interestingly, there are three features of Rothschild’s account
that have virtually disappeared from contemporary scientic discourse on extinction.
e rst is the use of the present continuous tense of the verb ‘to vanish. is was prominent
in the title of early reviews of extinct and nearly extinct birds and mammals (e.g., Allen 1942;
Greenway [1958] 1967; Harper 1945), but seems to have fallen out of vogue in the 1960s and
1970s, with the notable exception of Tim Halliday’s (1978) book Vanishing Birds. e replace-
ment of ‘vanishing’ with the terms ‘threatened, endangered’, and ‘vulnerable’ represents a shi
in the logic of extinction rhetoric, a move toward representing extinction as a risk that could be
managed through the proper execution of governance technologies and techniques.
e second change in authoritative accounts of extinction—nowadays framed as the assess-
ment of threatened species—is the absence of anecdotal accounts provided by non-expert
travelers and residents of the regions. Rothschild regularly quoted from letters that provide
descriptions of eld observations. Indeed, Greenway ([1958] 1967) included a list of ‘hypo-
thetical’ extinct species known only from eyewitness accounts. However, over time, such local
ecological knowledge has gradually been replaced by evidence published in scientic papers
and reports or collated through networks of experts developed and managed by conservation
102 n Richard J. Ladle and Paul Jepson
institutions. is increasing ‘scientication’ of extinction risk accounts has presumably served
to strengthen the authority of extinction-related information in ocial policy circles.
Finally, contemporary accounts of threatened species rarely mention the possibility that
extinction might be the result of natural phenomena. By contrast, Rothschild (1907) talked
about natural cataclysms and devastated populations losing their vitality when discussing the
demise of the New Zealand moa, a large ightless bird, whose extinction coincided with the
arrival of humans on the islands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the widespread transformations
in ecosystems since Rothschild’s day, contemporary extinction discourse focuses almost exclu-
sively on the anthropogenic causes of extinction, thereby emphasizing the need for governance
of human behaviors and societal systems.
A more distinct science of conservation started to take shape in the late 1970s and early 1980s
when conservation biology was recognized as a sub-discipline ‘worthy’ of academic study in its
own right, with university courses, textbooks, and peer-reviewed journals. e rst international
conference dedicated to conservation biology took place as recently as 1978 at the University of
California, San Diego. However, the study of conservation biology noticeably accelerated with
the founding of the US-based Society for Conservation Biology in 1986 and the publication of
the rst edition of its inuential journal, Conservation Biology, in 1987. Founded and supported
by some of the ‘giants’ of modern conservation and ecology—Edward O. Wilson, Ernst Mayr,
Michael Soulé, Paul R. Ehrlich—the society has led the development of conservation science
into the twenty-rst century and has been instrumental in both legitimizing conservation as
an academic discipline and providing the hard data and strong concepts that underlie modern
conservation practice. From its beginnings, conservation biology was framed as a crisis disci-
pline. Indeed, Soulé (1985) went so far as to state that this characteristic primarily distinguishes
conservation biology from related disciplines.
One of the major components of this crisis was the belief, based on a variety of scientic evi-
dence, that the current rate of extinction was many times greater than normal background rates
(Sarkar 2005). Much of this evidence was strong, especially the rates of documented extinctions
on oceanic islands, and there was a justiable consensus among the scientic community about
the reality of unusually high extinction rates (Pimm 2002). e evidence came from two main
sources: (1) historically documented extinctions, and (2) models, simulations, and frameworks
that relate environmental change (e.g., habitat loss and transformation) to probabilities of the
extinction of individual species or to rates of extinction within specied areas and time frames
(Lawton and May 1995). It is this second source of evidence, especially with respect to estimates
and predictions of future global extinction rates, that has been the foundation for many of the
most high-prole claims of the extinction crisis and the sixth extinction event discussed above.
ere are many ways to forecast extinction (reviewed in Ladle 2009), but probably the most
widely used (and misused) method is based on the observation that the relationship between
the size of an oceanic island and the number of species it contains can be eectively captured by
a simple mathematical relationship, known as the species-area curve. Scientists have used this
relationship to calculate how many fewer species should be found in ecosystems such as tropical
forests aer large areas have been cleared. An example of this is Wilson’s (1992: 268) ‘conser-
vativeprediction of approximately 27,000 species going extinct every year, based on the rate
of tropical deforestation. ere is nothing fundamentally wrong with such extrapolations, but
without an appreciation of the underlying assumptions, such crude statements may give a false
impression of certainty to non-scientists and—potentially more damaging to the conservation
movement—may also result in scientists being accused of hyperbole. In the case of the species-
area relationship, the key assumptions are that (1) the number of species and the proportion
of endemic species prior to habitat destruction are known; (2) the slope of the species-area
Origins, Uses, and Transformation of Extinction Rhetoric n 103
relationship has been correctly determined; (3) terrestrial islands such as fragments of rainforest
act like oceanic islands; (4) the number of species in the original habitat was already in equilib-
rium; and (5) when the area of the habitat is reduced, the species do not go extinct immediately
but are slowly lost due to a range of demographic, genetic, and environmental eects (Ladle
2009; Whittaker et al. 2005).
Of these assumptions, the estimated total number of species has the most scope for inuenc-
ing the gure for global extinctions (Whittaker et al. 2005). ere are anywhere between 1 and
100 million species that are yet to be formally described by science, many of which are repre-
sented by arthropods in tropical forests. Choosing a higher number gives a higher number of
total extinctions and thus a higher rate (Pimm 2002). It also means that when scientists speak
about extinction in terms of thousands or millions, they are mainly referring to species that are
yet to be discovered. From a rhetorical perspective, calculations such as Wilsons gave the sci-
entic community shockingly high numbers that were guaranteed to attract the attention of the
world’s polities and strongly supported the narrative of environmental crisis.
is type of reasoning and extrapolation has been taken up enthusiastically by science-
based conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the World Wide Fund
for Nature (WWF), and Conservation International (CI). Indeed, CI has arguably transformed
the Wilsonian extinction crisis into a modern multimedia interactive experience through its
constantly running ‘extinction clock, which is introduced in the following way: “Every 20 min-
utes, one species is pushed to extinction as more than 1,200 acres of forest are destroyed. At the
same time, over 180,000 tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Protecting and
restoring forests is a key solution to climate change and is vital to the survival of all life on Earth.
Indeed, 2,000 species are at risk of disappearing forever each month.4
CI’s extinction clock gives several interesting insights into the legitimization of extinction
rhetoric through scientic reasoning and the strategic alignment of extinction with the cur-
rently dominant frame of climate change in public discourse. First, it should be noted that
these extinctions are forecast on the impacts of habitat loss and climate change and assume that
global species richness is 4 to 6 million (i.e., 2 to 4 million more species than have currently
been documented). As a consequence, of the three species “pushed to extinction” every hour,
two are currently unknown to science. In addition, the uncertainties involved with extinction
estimates based on the reduction of a habitat’s area and, even more so, with predictions based
on climate change scenarios mean that any such estimates need to be treated with extreme cau-
tion (Ladle 2009; Whittaker et al. 2005). Second, the narrative strongly links extinction with
the discharge of carbon dioxide and deforestation—two themes with arguably more relevance
and traction in high-level policy circles. It is also interesting (and perhaps not coincidental)
that the annual predicted rate of extinction from CI’s clock is almost identical to Wilsons
(1992) estimate of 27,000 species per year, based solely on habitat loss (but assuming a slightly
higher global species richness). Such congruence can reinforce the validity of the statistics in
the public consciousness. Finally, CI states that “[o]ur clock is based on the best science,5 a
claim for scientic legitimacy that may not hold up to close scrutiny. Indeed, given the uncer-
tainties involved, the word ‘best’ probably has little meaning when applied to extinction fore-
casting (Ladle 2009).
It would be wrong, however, to portray the scientic conservation community (academic,
NGO, and governmental) as united in its perspective on current rates of extinction or how
these should be communicated to the public. ere is an increasing realization among some
conservation scientists that (1) a serious lack of concordance exists between the robust language
of early conservation scientists (e.g., phrases such as the ‘sixth mass extinction’ and the ‘extinc-
tion crisis’) and the slow (in human terms) rate of documented species loss, and (2) the very
104 n Richard J. Ladle and Paul Jepson
notion of an extinction crisis is becoming increasingly counterproductive. Reecting on the
successes and failures of conservation scientists in the global conservation movement, Redford
and Sanjayan (2003: 1473) express the following lament: “Our focus on crisis has hampered
conservation biology in achieving a scale of action required to match the world’s environmental
problems. Despite our best eorts to launch our cause into the mainstream culture, the world is
suering from crisis fatigue.
ere are even some mainstream scientists who are challenging the consensus on the current
and future rates of extinction. Two highly respected tropical forest scientists, S. Joseph Wright
and Helene Muller-Landau, recently argued that current human demographic trends, including
slower population growth and the migration of rural populations into urban centers, strongly
suggest that tropical deforestation will slow, natural forest regeneration through secondary suc-
cession will accelerate, and that “the widely anticipated mass extinction of tropical forest species
will be avoided” (Wright and Muller-Landau 2006: 287). is rather politically naive prognosis
may be unlikely, especially given the spread of oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia, but it does
signal an unusual break in scientic ranks.
e Media
e global media has always been a valuable source of publicity and rhetoric for conservation.
is is beautifully illustrated by the publication of the special ‘shock issue’ of the Daily Mirror
tabloid newspaper that coincided with the creation of WWF in 1961. e front-page headline,
hovering over a photo of a black rhinoceros and its calf, boldly stated “DOOMED—to disap-
pear from the face of the earth due to Mans FOLLY, GREED, NEGLECT.6 is strategy reaped
rich dividends: the Daily Mirror appeal generated an unprecedented public response and was
able to raise the equivalent of about £2 million (Jepson and Ladle 2010). Shock stories such
as these can help keep an issue in the public consciousness, aid fund-raising, and potentially
inuence public opinion and policy. ey illustrate the ease with which the topic of extinction
can be aligned with the broadened moral and societal concerns that sell newspapers. Moreover,
increasing pressures on academics to garner attention for their work means that the media are
fed on a diet of publicity releases from university press oces or, not infrequently, directly from
the scientists involved.
e global news media has a strong agenda driven by economic imperatives that make it
ill-suited to communicate the intrinsically complex and uncertain science of extinction. Conse-
quently, when extinction science has appeared in the traditional print media, it has oen been
badly misrepresented. is is clearly illustrated by the coverage of a recent high-prole article
that appeared in the journal Nature concerning the possible impacts of climate change on global
biodiversity (omas et al. 2004). e results of the study suggested that, given a number of key
assumptions and under “mid-range” climate change scenarios, 15–37 percent of the 1,103 species
considered within the study would be committed to extinction” by 2050 (ibid.: 145). e authors
described these percentages as being an estimate of “proportions of species committed to future
extinction as a consequence of climate change over the next 50 years, not the number of species
that will become extinct during this period. Furthermore, they noted, “decades might elapse
between area reduction (from habitat loss) [through climate change] and extinction” (ibid.).
Aer this article was published, Ladle et al. (2004) reviewed 29 reports in the UK’s national
and local newspapers and found a systematic pattern of errors in 26 of them. e most sig-
nicant misrepresentation of the study’s ndings was the frequently repeated contention (in 21
reports) that over a million species would become extinct due to global warming by the year
2050, while two others went so far as to suggest that one-third of all the world’s species would
Origins, Uses, and Transformation of Extinction Rhetoric n 105
become extinct. Just two reports explained that only a few species would actually be extinct by
2050. Interestingly, the origin of the majority of the cruder generalizations and extrapolations
in the media can be traced back to the original press release from the lead author of the study,
which carried the headline “Climate Change reatens a Million Species with Extinction.It
is here that the million species reference rst appears, along with the unattributed claim that a
quarter of land animals and plants may go extinct.
e power of such widespread media representations to inuence political debate soon
became clear as some senior politicians commented on the study, apparently using the errone-
ous newspaper reports as their source material (Ladle et al. 2004; Ladle et al. 2005). For example,
then EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström (2004) wrote in the Guardian news-
paper: “Many people had a lot to say about the recently published study that suggests global
warming could wipe out a third of the planets species by 2050.” e discussion of the subject in
the UK House of Commons was similarly inaccurate.7
e sensationalist coverage of the omas et al. (2004) article in the UK news media is perhaps
to be expected, given the short timescales and circulation-driven mentality of most newspapers.
It is also clearly characteristic of much science reporting in the media. What is perhaps more sur-
prising is that representatives of CI felt obliged to support such misrepresentation. Hannah and
Phillips (2004), writing in Nature, argued that sensationalism is acceptable if it brings an environ-
mental message (e.g., about the potential extinctions caused by climate change) to the attention
of the public and polity. Similar motivations are clearly responsible for the massively unrealistic
predictions for the imminent extinction of orangutans (Pongo spp.) used by Friends of the Earth
to discredit the oil palm industry,8 a strategy described as ‘blackwashing’ by Koh et al. (2010).
Scientists themselves are clearly important actors in the production of media-friendly stories
about imminent extinctions, as are the well-known and inuential journals that are willing to
publish the articles on which the stories are based. e kudos associated with being responsible
for research that gets extensive coverage in the global news media is clearly good for careers,
tenure applications, research funding opportunities, and probably citations as well (Ladle 2004).
At the time of writing, the article by omas et al. (2004) already had over 1,000 citations on
the Web of Knowledge.9 e benets also extend to the departments that host the scientists and,
ultimately, to the universities and research institutions where they work. e degree to which
such pressures inuence scientists’ decisions to write press releases or to conceive research proj-
ects that will attract media attention is unknown, but this is clearly a fertile area for future
research. Moreover, the perceived urgent need to mobilize conservation action may also draw
acknowledged leaders of cutting-edge science out of their areas of expertise and encourage them
to make poorly considered and inadequately researched statements about extinction, environ-
mental crisis, and conservation imperatives.
Conservation Policy and Governance Institutions
Tarrow (1992) argued that when frames include collective actions that attract broad consent,
they necessarily become institutionalized and thereby take a leading role in determining the
future trajectory of policies and of scientic, management, and cultural practices. e institu-
tionalization of extinction by the international conservation community began 50 years ago
when the IUCN rst attempted to codify dierent levels of extinction risk within their Red List
of reatened Species, published as the Red Data Book.10 e rst Red Data Book, a list of 135
endangered mammals, was published in 1960 (see Epstein 2006). By 2009, a total of 47,677 spe-
cies from all the major plant and animal groups had been assessed, including all known birds
and mammals (IUCN 2009). At rst, a rather subjective system founded on expert judgment
106 n Richard J. Ladle and Paul Jepson
was used to categorize extinction risk, but this was replaced in 1994 by a much more quantita-
tive approach, developed by Mace and Lande (1991), that is based on population and life history
characteristics. At the heart of this system is a set of simple quantitative criteria—population
sizes, population decline rates, range areas, and range declines—that are used to allocate species
to one of several categories of extinction risk (e.g., endangered, critically endangered, extinct
in the wild, etc.). It should be noted that the Red List employs dierent methods of assessing
extinction risk, depending on the available data, and that some of the processes used to assess
species status (e.g., population viability analysis) are also extinction risk forecasting methods.
In this sense, it may be better to consider Red Lists as a framework for standardizing and com-
municating extinction risk (Ladle 2009). e act of dening and categorizing extinction risk
has deeply aected what is measured, managed, discussed, and studied. In turn, this has fed
back into endangered species policy and has inuenced the degree to which it is meaningful to
specialists and non-specialists.
is correlation is illustrated by the now widespread use of the rates of transition between
IUCN categories as a means to forecast extinctions (Butchart et al. 2004). e key transition
for extinction forecasting is between endangered’ (where a population has a ‘very high’ risk of
extinction in the wild) to ‘critically endangered’ (where the species is considered as having an
extremely high’ risk of extinction in the wild) (IUCN 2001). e criteria for inclusion in the
latter category include very small populations and geographic ranges and a strong trend toward
population decline. e category ‘critically endangered’ can thus be cautiously used as a sur-
rogate for ‘imminent extinction’. Brooke et al. (2008) tested this proposition by comparing the
historical transition of bird species into the critically endangered category with veried extinc-
tions at both a global level and within Australia. ey concluded that species were actually going
extinct at a rate that is 2 (Australia) to 10 (globally) times lower than predicted. e potential
cause of this discrepancy was identied as the eectiveness of the global conservation commu-
nity at rescuing bird species on the brink of extinction.
Red Lists are deployed and promoted as the global standard to (1) ensure consistency in
conservation investment across taxa and regions; (2) inform national legislation and implemen-
tation; (3) guide the management of natural resources at multiple scales, including the identi-
cation of sites for conservation action; and (4) monitor changes in global biodiversity and the
reasons for these changes (Rodrigues et al. 2006). Since 2004, Red Lists for birds (Butchart et
al. 2004) and amphibians (Butchart et al. 2005) have been further reied into a Red List Index.
e index is a quantication of the movement of sets of species (grouped taxonomically or
geographically) through categories of the Red List (Butchart, Akçakaya et al. 2006). In essence,
the indexing system conates the complex realities of extinction into a single trend line. Such
practices raise extinction (or extinction as an indicator of biodiversity) to a level of abstraction
where it can be correlated with index data on the economy, population, and other major areas of
policy concern. is helps maintain and elevate the international policy position of biodiversity
conservation and the organizations producing such data.
e reication of continuous biological characteristics into extinction risk categories also
provides an opportunity for manipulation to advance conservation aims. For example, the emi-
nent Canadian zoologist and sea turtle expert, Nicholas Mrosovsky (1997), accused the IUCN’s
Marine Turtle Specialist Group of upgrading the listing of the Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmo-
chelys imbricata) without making available the scientic evidence for this change in status,11
and then using it to inuence proposals for the sustainable use of the species. us, it is possible
that unconscious or conscious biases in the information accepted and used by specialist groups
might inuence the categorization of species and hence provide an unduly pessimistic progno-
sis of their future survival. is example also illustrates the perceived power of terms such as
Origins, Uses, and Transformation of Extinction Rhetoric n 107
endangered’ and ‘extinct’ to mobilize conservation action. More generally, it is clear that even
the application of quantitative criteria can be subject to values-based biases with the ultimate
aim of ensuring that a favored species maintains or achieves a label that reects the highest pos-
sible level of extinction risk.
e extinction narratives exemplied by the pronouncements of the international conserva-
tion community demonstrate how, within this group of actors, extinction has become “locked
within a more coolly constructed rationalistic argument” (Adams 2004: 25) that characterizes
discourse about biodiversity. Moreover, like the rather technocratic term ‘biodiversity’, extinc-
tion has been increasingly subsumed into the dominating policy narrative of climate change.
e shiing focus of the environmental polity has, inevitably, led to a certain amount of realign-
ment and transformation of earlier agendas as a way of both maintaining their public visibility
and accessing international funds focused on the ‘new’ threat of climate change. us, extinc-
tion narratives are increasingly being transformed and inserted into the climate change frame,
providing a bridge between the two dominating conservation agendas of the last 30 years.
e impacts of this process of alignment pervade much of the current NGO and academic
extinction rhetoric, such as CI’s previously mentioned extinction clock or the high-prole
omas et al. (2004) Nature article that included authors from the Royal Society for the Pro-
tection of Birds and CI. Another notable example among many is WWF’s 2009 campaign to
conserve the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), which clearly and eectively links traditional con-
servation themes of extinction to the threat of climate change: “e planet is rapidly moving
towards a tipping point with climate change impacts on polar bears. Unless immediate action
is taken by responsible governments, we may be relegating polar bears to extinction in the wild
within the lifetime of our children.12
e above example indirectly illustrates one of the most interesting aspects of the insertion
of extinction narratives into the climate change frame—the current lack of a conspicuous and
unmistakable victim. Polar bears may or may not be threatened with extinction by anthropogenic
climate change in the next 80 or so years, but for the time being they are still very much extant.
Perhaps the best candidate, and a subject of some debate, is the Costa Rican golden toad (Bufo
periglenes). is striking amphibian, which was discovered in 1964, had a known range of only a
few square kilometers within the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (Sarkar 1996). e toads were
always elusive but could be reliably surveyed for a few weeks in April when they emerged from the
dense undergrowth to mate in temporary pools. eir nal demise was rapid and unambiguous:
in 1987, more than 1,500 toads were observed, but in 1988 and 1989 only a single toad emerged
(Crump et al. 1992), and there has been no veried sighting since then (Sarkar 1996).
Catastrophic declines in amphibian populations have been observed around the world since
the 1970s, and the general consensus is that it is a global phenomenon with multiple local
causes, including shis in weather patterns (Alford and Richards 1999). So why did the golden
toad become synonymous with climate change–induced extinction? is is a dicult question
to answer, not least because there is a large degree of uncertainty in the science, which primarily
relies on correlational inferences. e two most high-prole hypotheses and the probable source
of the golden toad’s status as a poster child for casualties of global warming are both complex and
untestable. Pounds and Crump (1994) linked the toad’s probable extinction to the 1986–1987
El Niño that was responsible for very low rainfall during several critical life history stages. In a
far more ebullient and polemical article published in Nature in 2006, Pounds and his colleagues
propose that climate change–induced outbreaks of pathogenic fungus were responsible for the
extinction. e underlying message is hammered home in the nal line of the abstract: “With
climate change promoting infectious disease and eroding biodiversity, the urgency of reducing
greenhouse-gas concentrations is now undeniable” (Pounds et al. 2006: 161).
108 n Richard J. Ladle and Paul Jepson
is direct tone and strong linkage between an extinction event and the general threat of cli-
mate change to the natural environment are echoed by widely used NGO narratives concerning
the probable extinction of the golden toad and another amphibian, the harlequin frog, which
disappeared from the Monteverde reserve at around the same time. On its Web site, WWF
puts it as follows: “e golden toad (Bufo periglenes) and the harlequin frog (Atelopus varius)
of Costa Rica have disappeared as a direct result of global warming.13 CI also makes the link:
“For Ticos, as Costa Rican natives are known, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stabiliz-
ing the climate is personally important, as the extinction of their emblematic golden toad (Bufo
periglenes) due to climate change and altered weather patterns is still fresh.14
e convergence of scientic and NGO narratives is perhaps unsurprising, given the increas-
ingly close ties between NGO and university researchers, funding sources that have targeted
‘applied’ research on the biodiversity consequences of climate change, and the increasing num-
ber of multi-partner research projects that aim to generate regional or global-scale databases.
However, the willingness of major journals to publish articles with increasingly bombastic rhet-
oric in relation to extinction and climate change seems to be a relatively new trend. It carries
with it the threat of undermining the legitimacy and credibility of scientists while at the same
time playing into the hands of the powerful anti-environmentalist lobbyists, who are quick to
exploit perceived weaknesses in the underlying science (see Ladle et al. 2005).
Adams (2004: 25) wryly commented that WWF’s choice of the “cuddly” giant panda as an icon
perfectly captures the “slightly mawkish public sentimentality about extinction,” which he also
characterizes as having “both an anger and a desperation about it” (ibid.). It is certainly true that
extinction continues to have a special rhetorical power within natural resource policy, probably
because its focus on species simultaneously constructs nature as a domain in need of gover-
nance, provides specic targets (species and places), and allows for the compilation of statistics
that provide direction on how to become “the best possible governor” (Foucault 1991: 87).
However, the strong emotional response that can be provoked by the use of the term ‘extinc-
tion’ suggests that it should be used wisely by conservation advocates and scientists alike. In this
article, we suggest that because the term resonates with deeply held human fears (e.g., extinction
of a life, of a re and warmth, of hope), the extinction of species provides a powerful organizing
concept for frames relating to humanity’s relationship with nature. e rhetoric of extinction as
an expression of human failings (selshness, greed, ignorance) and of human potential (com-
passion, morality, planning) creates a powerful rallying force for conservation action. e scien-
tic act of systematically classifying extinction risks has resulted in a broadening of the frame so
that extinction now refers to anything from the local disappearance of a cultural-valued species
to the imagined extermination of masses of undiscovered species caused by global process of
deforestation. is breadth creates the possibility for extinction frames to travel and align with
a multitude of other frames—from deeply personal frames involving identity and place to big
issue policy frames such as climate change and ecosystem services. is widening of the frame
may, however, carry risks. Sarkar (2005) argues powerfully that the continued use of inated
rhetoric—some of which has been documented herein—is another way in which biodiversity
conservationists may lose public credibility.
Given these comments, we argue for more research on the cultural agency of the concept of
extinction. In particular, we suggest that it would be valuable to understand better where, when,
and how the concept of species extinction has the capacity to produce a phenomenon or modify a
Origins, Uses, and Transformation of Extinction Rhetoric n 109
state of aairs. On one level, this might involve, for example, surveys to test whether the concept of
extinction is universal. Our opportunistic and unsystematic surveys among rural people in parts of
Asia suggest that it is not. If this is the case, it could have important ramications for communica-
tion strategies aimed at building local legitimacy for conservation projects. On another level, stud-
ies of extinction that adopt, for instance, actor-network perspectives (Latour 2005) could reveal
important new insights on the assembly, persistence, and power of conservation institutions. We
favor the development of a more balanced, nuanced, and culturally meaningful rhetoric of extinc-
tion that accurately reects long-term temporal perspectives and the considerable uncertainties
involved in the act of declaring a species extinct. In a previous article (Ladle and Jepson 2008), we
have argued that one possible approach is to delineate carefully the dierent meanings of the term
extinction, along with their varying powers and agency in society (see table 1).
e above typology of extinction recognizes that dierent meanings open up or enable entry
to dierent governance spaces. For example, in the case of global extinction rates, derived from
the species-area relationship in island biogeography (see table 1, Linnean extinctions), con-
servation scientists and NGOs have successfully used this meaning of extinction to attract the
attention of the inter-state polity. e startling gures generated in support of the notion of
a sixth mass extinction (see, e.g., Pimm and Brooks 1997; omas et al. 2004) bridge easily
with political and bureaucratic worries about economic and social instability and the proposed
macro-scale solutions, and they easily align with natural resource policy discourses favored by
intergovernmental agencies. By contrast, ‘ecological extinctions’ (see table 1) clearly align with
the interests of zoological gardens and seed banks because they provide an outlet and legitimiza-
tion for their operations. In turn, these facilities bring conservation and endangered and exotic
species into urban culture, creating links between cities and conservation sites around the world
and thus eectively globalizing conservation culture.
We would argue that public trust in the legitimacy of conservation action can be restored
and strengthened only through the development of a more culturally meaningful and sophis-
ticated rhetoric of extinction, one that aligns scientic evidence in the form of documented
and predicted extinctions with cultural frames, institutional frameworks, and organizational
interests. To achieve such alignment, conservation practitioners and advocates must develop a
more sophisticated understanding of the dierent meanings of extinction and the power that
each has to inuence individuals and societies. For example, the documented local extinction of
a previously abundant bird species may have little power to mobilize funds for an international
conservation NGO, but it may provide a focal point for the development of new community-led
conservation initiatives. Likewise, the latest projection of global extinctions based on tropical
deforestation may have some traction with environmental policy makers, but it may lead to apa-
thy and compassion fatigue if overused for conservation fund-raising in the developed world.
Finally, it should also be noted that extinction rhetoric has been strongly founded on the
use of the species as the key unit of classication and measurement. is is understandable,
given the widespread recognition of the term among the public, but it has perhaps limited the
discourse about the wider evolutionary signicance of extinction. Nee and May (1997) dem-
onstrate that approximately 80 percent of underlying evolutionary history would be preserved
even if 95 percent of species should be lost. Moreover, choosing the ‘survivors’ based on algo-
rithms that maximize the amount of evolutionary history preserved was only marginally better
than choosing the survivors at random. As yet, little progress has been made in translating such
scientic understandings into conservation policy and practices. However, there are signs that
conservation science is starting to take the preservation of evolutionary history more seriously
(e.g., Davies et al. 2008; Forest et al. 2007), a move that will undoubtedly provide a rhetorical
challenge and may call for a whole new vocabulary of extinction.
110 n Richard J. Ladle and Paul Jepson
Table 1: Typology, denitions, and potential agency of the term ‘extinction
Extinction Type Denition Potential Agency
Linnean extinction Extinctions of undiscovered species • Construct and make credible the notion
inferred from the species-area of a ‘sixth mass extinction event’.
relationship and estimates of species • e potential risks and opportunity
diversity for a given ecosystem or costs associated with such an event
region. e assumed losses of these make extinction relevant to a range of
inferred species are termed ‘centinelan international policy areas (e.g., agriculture,
extinctions’ by Wilson (1992). forestry, and health), thereby contributing
to the ‘mainstreaming’ of conservation/
biodiversity in international policy.
• Create a sense of urgency and crisis that
can be used to raise funds and legitimize
Wallacean extinction Species that have not been documented • Inspire local action.
for many years, but for which extinction • Promote eld surveys and expeditions to
is uncertain because populations might remote areas.
survive in areas that have not been sur- • Attract funding to specic localities.
veyed within the potential distributional • Support NGO communication strategies
range. by providing a steady stream of ‘good
news’ stories.
Phoenix extinction Extinct in the wild, but genetic material • Mobilize support for innovative conserva-
is available in the form of stored material tion management strategies.
or a closely related conspecic or conge- • Create controversies by challenging
neric variety/breed/hybrid, allowing for fundamental precepts of the global
the possibility of a future reintroduction conservation movement concerning issues
of the same or a functionally equivalent of ecosystem composition, introduced
form. species, and adaptive management.
• Inspire innovative uses of technology.
• Extend the range of actors participating in
conservation (e.g., biotechnology
Ecological extinction Extinct in the wild but with extant • Support and legitimize the actions of
captive-bred population, or present in botanical gardens, gene banks, and
the wild but at such low densities that zoological parks.
it no longer interacts to a meaningful • Create momentum for habitat restoration
degree with other species in the com- and reintroductions.
munity (i.e., it is functionally extinct). • Eectively communicate the reality of
extinction to the urban citizenry.
Local extinction Extinct in the wild within a clearly • Mobilize local conservation action.
dened geographic area but with extant • Reinforce local cultural identities.
free-living populations outside that area. • Legitimize restoration and reintroduction
True extinction 1: Extinct since the birth of the interna- • Create a moral imperative for conservation.
Contemporary tional conservation movement (in the • Legitimize and publicize actions aimed at
extinction mid-nineteenth century). e last known specic drivers of extinction (e.g., climate
population has been monitored and change mitigation and the golden toad).
surveyed and is now considered globally • Mobilize action and support for
extinct in the wild. No captive-bred popu- global conservation initiatives.
lation or genetic material is available.
True extinction 2: Extinct prior to the birth of the inter- • Create a moral imperative for conservation.
Historical extinction national conservation movement. No • Legitimize the existence and actions
authenticated record of an extant popu- of the global conservation movement.
lation. No captive-bred population or • Create a ‘zero sum’ threshold for
viable genetic material available. conservation—embed the notion of the
nality of extinction.
Source: Modied from Ladle and Jepson (2008).
Origins, Uses, and Transformation of Extinction Rhetoric n 111
n RiChARD LADLE is a Brazilian-based conservationist and writer. He is a Visiting Professor at
the Federal University of Alagoas and a Senior Research Associate at the School of Geogra-
phy and the Environment, Oxford University, where he was formerly the Course Director
of the MSc degree program in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management (2003–2009).
He has diverse and interdisciplinary research interests that span the public understanding
of science, extinction theory, conservation biogeography, and theoretical ecology. Recent
related publications include Conservation Biogeography (2011), with R. J. Whittaker; Con-
servation: A Beginners Guide (2010), with P. J. Jepson; and Critical Concepts in the Environ-
ment: Biodiversity and Conservation (2008).
PAuL JEPSOn is Course Director of Oxford University’s Master of Science Degree program
in Nature, Society, and Environmental Policy. He has consulted for a wide range of inter-
governmental and non-governmental organizations and was Indonesia Programme Coor-
dinator for BirdLife International (1991–1997). He leads an interdisciplinary Conservation
Governance Lab and the communication work package for an EUF7 eco-informatics project.
His research focuses on long-term interests in protected areas, wildlife trade, conservation
history, media and technology, and the role, accountability, and legitimacy of conservation
NGOs. Recent publications include conceptual pieces on conservation actors and interdis-
ciplinary biogeography and a series on self-governance and bird keeping in Indonesia.
1. “Australia Arousd [sic] to Preserve Wildlife,Science News-Letter, 16 May 1931, 307–308, here 307.
2. Ibid., 308.
3. Coined in 2000 by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, the term ‘anthropocene’ is used by some
scientists to describe the current era in the earths history in which humans have had a major impact
on the earths ecosystems.
4. (accessed 5 November
5. (accessed 5
November 2009).
6. (accessed 4 November 2009).
7. Reported in Hansard, the printed transcripts of UK parliamentary debates, on 8 January 2004.
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9. Despite the limitations and uncertainties associated with omas et al. (2004), this article has been
cited numerous times. See the Web of Knowledges ISI Web of Science site at
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11. Much of the ‘scientic evidence’ for Hawksbill sea turtles is actually derived from so-called gray lit-
erature (Mrosovsky and Godfrey 2008).
12.nder/polarbear/rsm.html (accessed 20 January 2010).
13. (accessed 20 January 2010).
14. (accessed 20 Feb-
ruary 2010).
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... Perhaps one of the most important aspects of framing is that the same frame can be used by social groups that have opposed or incompatible ideologies (Oliver & Johnston, 2000). One clear example of this is the frame of extinction that was examined in the work of Ladle and Jepson (2010). The concept of species extinction has been variously defined by social actors with different ideological agendas. ...
... Environmentalist NGOs attempt to mobilize citizens and influence policymakers by providing reliable scientific information, either carrying out their own research or by compiling the research of others (Bailey, 2009;Yearley, 1993). However, there is much scientific uncertainty in determining which species are under threat of extinction (Ladle & Jepson, 2010), and scientific uncertainty has factored into the debates within the IWC about the sustainability of whaling (Bailey, 2009;Heazle, 2004;Iliff, 2008;Singleton & Lidskog, 2018). Several members of the IWC Scientific Committee have argued in favor of maintaining the moratorium on commercial whaling, based on estimates that whale species have not rebounded to their historical abundance levels (Epstein, 2008;Singleton & Lidskog, 2018). ...
... US President Theodore Roosevelt's 1909 value articulation that 'human conquest of nature carries with it a moral responsibility to ensure the survival of threatened life forms' (Hornaday 1914) expresses this worldview. This conservation value inspired the wildlife movement and the near universal adoption of policies to avoid species extinctions (Ladle and Jepson 2010): it accepts the reality of human exploitation and modification of nature and frames the act of saving and protecting nature as a moral cause. In narrative terms, it presents conservation as the extension of civilised values of compassion, stewardship and moral consideration to the non-human world: an act that would ennoble humanity and, in the wake of Darwinism, help humans reclaim their special identity (for context see Jepson and Whittaker 2002). ...
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Rewilding may signify the emergence of a new environmental narrative. Discussion of underlying policy narratives is important because they shape understandings of the state of world and how society should act. I summarise the origins of twentieth century environmental narratives and argue that their influence derives from components telling of the dire state of nature, the catastrophic consequences of this and the need for competent authorities to act to govern the perpetrators of harm. Reflecting on my engagements with rewilding science and practice, I posit that stories of rewilding are adopting a quite different narrative structure: one that involves components telling of feelings of despondency and processes of awakening, action, and reassessment leading to the recovery of natural and social well-being. These components align with the narrative structure of accounts of mental health. I label this emerging narrative ‘Recoverable Earth’ and suggest that it signifies action by grassroot conservationists to reassert their ability to lead change locally and produce better outcomes for nature and society.
... Conservation scientists who engage with the media therefore need to consider how the scientific information they are providing is going to be interpreted, given that the vocabulary, dynamics, and the goals of reporting science in the popular media differ substantially from those in scientific journals [2]. Good communication between science and mass media is particularly important when it comes to addressing complex and inherently uncertain conservation issues such as the impacts of climate change on biodiversity or forecasts of global rates of species extinction [3] or for explaining the future impacts upon human daily-life. In summary, one of the key challenges of communicating conservation science is to make people aware that "human societies have been built on biodiversity" [4, p. 1], and that to preserve biodiversity is to look after the long-term survival of human societies. ...
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It can be observed that, when faced with news of environmental crises such as the impacts of climate change, many people increasingly express detachment or even denial. Given the fundamental importance of public participation in conservation action, it is clearly important to understand how this situation arose and how it might be improved. Here, we argue that growing disconnection (distanciation) from the fate of the natural world can be conceptualized as a cyclical process whereby environmental crises —as represented by the media— causes despair and denial, limiting participation in societal-level conservation interventions and decreasing the effectiveness of conservation actions. We propose a strategy to reduce and possibly reverse distanciation, focusing on biodiversity responses to climate change. In doing so we hope to raise awareness about the undesirable (and unintended) consequences of promoting biodiversity conservation through emphasizing negative outcomes, thereby altering perceptions about the current state and future of wild nature and jeopardizing the capacity of individuals to influence outcomes.
... We suggest that this is because orangutans are too human-like to form strong agency-producing relations with frames concerning national and collective identities. The alignment of conservation with nationalism, notably in the guise of national parks, has helped elevate conservation from a social movement to an established arena of public policy (Jepson and Whittaker 2002; Ladle et al. 2011). It is unsurprising that the refined political elites of Java, Sarawak and other groups tracing their roots to old South-east Asia sultanates would eschew the orangutan—which evokes framings of primitive humanoids-as a national animal emblem. ...
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The flagship species approach is an enduring strategy in conservation. Academic discussion on flagship species has focussed on two dimensions: on what basis should they be selected and how have they been put to use. Here we consider a third dimension, namely the manner in which flagship species act and have the capacity to galvanise and influence conservation outcomes. Drawing on concepts from the social sciences, viz. affordance, framing, and actor-networks; we discuss examples of flagship species to propose a theory of flagship species action. In brief, our theory posits that a flagship species is one with traits that afford the assembly of relatively coherent networks of associations with ideational elements located in pre-existing cultural framings. These associations give rise to opportunities to align with deep cultural frames, contemporary cultural phenomena and political economy such that when a conservation action is introduced, forms of agency cause the species and human publics to change. The species becomes re-framed (or reinvigorated) as a cultural asset speaking for a wider nature, publics and political agendas. Further our theory posits that species with traits that enrol in idea networks incorporating human fears, will have limited flagship capacity. This is because the ability of the representations produced to align with frames incorporating collective aspirations is constrained. In terms of applied conservation practice, our theory suggests that: a key criteria for selecting potential flagship species is presence in existing cultural frames, that effective deployment of flagship species requires an understanding of the species’ cultural associations, and a species ability to galvanise action may be limited to certain times and places. Furthermore, once deployed conservation interests will never have full control over the flagship species: it may act in uncertain and unexpected ways.
... It is in this spirit we examined use of the term extinction, prompted by our curiosity, borne of our broad experience with the conservation literature, of whether the term has become a panchreston. Although the term has a long history, it has for at least the past 150 years been reserved, biologically speaking, for a species no longer in existence (Ladle and Jepson, 2010), but now it is used in a multitude of contexts. A Google search yielded over 48 million hits for the term, everything from the reasonable mass extinction to the odd political extinction. ...
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Mistrust of science has seeped into public perception of the most fundamental aspect of conservation-extinction. The term ought to be straightforward, and yet, there is a disconnect between scientific discussion and public views. This is not a mere semantic issue, rather one of communication. Within a population dynamics context, we say that a species went locally extinct, later to document its return. Conveying our findings matters, for when we use local extinction, an essentially nonsensical phrase, rather than extirpation, which is what is meant, then we contribute to, if not create outright, a problem for public understanding of conservation, particularly as local extinction is often shortened to extinction in media sources. The public that receives the message of our research void of context and modifiers comes away with the idea that extinction is not forever or, worse for conservation as a whole, that an extinction crisis has been invented. © The Author(s) 2015.
This thesis explores how contemporary literature in English engages with what has come to be known as the sixth mass extinction, the ongoing extinction event as a result of human activity that is causing a devastating loss of biodiversity not seen since the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. Building on existing environmental humanities scholarship, the thesis demonstrates and tests literature’s capacity to complement or counter the spectacular, apocalyptic, and exclusionary modes through which species extinction is often portrayed in popular culture, and thereby to contribute to understanding and ameliorating our dire environmental predicament. Drawing on materialist and multispecies theories, the study pursues two avenues of research: it examines species extinction as both, and simultaneously, a material reality and a cultural discourse. In the first part of the thesis, I investigate how fiction mediates and registers the structural drivers of biodiversity loss, which tend to be neglected in coverage of the extinction crisis. Here, my investigation centres on the link between species extinction and what Nicole Shukin has described as a twofold circulation of animal life under capitalism, where animals are rendered as both disembodied signifiers and as products for consumption. I argue that literature that attempts to dramatize species extinction risks participating in a process I call animal fetishism, i.e., acts that contribute to the dissemination of extinct and vulnerable species as “undying” images and that obscure the historical conditions of their exploitation and endangerment. I further show how whaling fiction can be used to illumine the other side of this process, namely the slaughter and commodification of whales and other animals in what Jason W. Moore has termed the capitalist world-ecology. In such fictional works, the twin endangerment of whales and Indigenous cultures finds formal expression in irrealist narrative styles, as the texts convey the bewildering effects of colonial capitalism’s socio-ecological destruction. The second part of the thesis probes the web of values, biases, and exclusions that characterizes species extinction discourse. I discuss the issue of taxonomic bias and the fact that representations of endangered species gravitate towards the cute, visible, and charismatic. Specifically, I analyze how authors grapple with the representational challenges of narrating the multispecies complexities of the sixth mass extinction and the vulnerability of non-charismatic creatures such as plants and insects. I also take up the bias towards biological entities and the species category within extinction discourse, and investigate how literature responds to the extinction of non-living entities, such as snow and glaciers, that large-scale environmental change is already engendering. My discussion concludes by considering the limitations of framing and studying species extinction as a problem in isolation from a more holistic environmental context.
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The UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration signifies the ambition to move beyond a defensive focus on biodiversity protection towards a proactive agenda of restoring ecosystems to generate value for people and nature. The international nature regime, based on the linked concepts of biodiversity and sustainable development, has achieved much. However, its institutions are built on a ‘compositional’ approach to ecology that ‘locks in’ arbitrary ecological baselines and constrains an ambitious approach to ecosystem restoration. Rewilding and the wider field of restoration ecology foreground the dynamic nature of ecosystems, the need to consider system function and the importance of trophic networks for ecosystem recovery. Rewilding science extends these new directions with a focus on restoring the functional effects of large megafauna and random biotic and abiotic disturbance. I argue that historic processes of institutional reductionism, which enabled the construction of a strong protective biodiversity regime, have created institutions that lack the flexibility and innovation culture needed to create new policy and practice to support the recovery of ecosystem integrity and open‐ended restoration processes such as rewilding. Given this, we need to initiate ordered and effective processes of institutional redesign. To this end, I have proposed five actions for discussion, namely: (a) adopt and embed a positive, hopeful and empowering narrative of nature recovery; (b) create ‘nature recovery innovation zones’, where existing policy and regulations are relaxed and new approaches are developed and tested; (c) develop functional classifications of nature to support the design of ‘new generation’ policy instruments; (d) create markets for ecosystem recovery based on units of ecosystem change to support the emergence of a nature recovery land economy; and (e) introduce programs of professional training in the science, principles and opportunities of ecosystem recovery at all levels in government and non‐government conservation agencies. The world of 2050 will be very different from that of today. We have extremely well‐educated and skilled younger generations, with the motivation and ability to redesign nature institutions. It is time to act and empower them. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog. The world of 2050 will be very different from that of today. We have extremely well‐educated and skilled younger generations, with the motivation and ability to redesign nature institutions. It is time to act and empower them. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.
In the 1870s, an estimated 60 million bison (also known as buffalo in the United States) roamed the Western plains of North America, though by the early twentieth century only 541 documented animals remained. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid hunter, called the extirpation of the buffalo a tragedy for the natural world, and the era of organized environmentalism and preservation began. Today, in yet another significant turn in environmental science and politics, bison are subject to the high-tech interventions of the biotechnological age. The story of the bison illustrates every important stage in the development of American environmental politics: deliberate efforts to weed out the abundant species in the 1800s, followed by its allegorization in the mid-twentieth century and then efforts to restore the original herds through high-tech reproduction today. This chapter begins with that story as a precursor to analyzing the cultural path of the idea of extinction as it moved from the rarefied worlds of philosophy and science to the chaotic and messy domain of politics. It begins with a brief discussion of extinction debates in the Enlightenment era then analyzes the development of nature conservation from the Progressive Era to today. The chapter concludes with an introduction to the new politics of hope that is embedded in the idea of de-extinction through the use of advanced biotechnologies.
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Culturomics is an emerging field of study that seeks to understand human culture through the quantitative analysis of changes in word frequencies in large bodies of digital texts. Culturomics research can help nature conservation respond to cultural trends, building and reinvigorating its societal relevance. We identify five areas where culturomics can be used to advance the practice and science of conservation: 1) demonstrating constituency and public interest in nature; 2) identifying conservation emblems; 3) providing new metrics and tools for near real-time environmental monitoring and to support conservation decision-making; 4) assessing the cultural impact of conservation interventions, and; 5) framing conservation issues and promoting public understanding. More generally, culturomics opens up an exciting new area of research, equipping conservationists with novel tools to engage with and shape human interactions with the natural world.