This companion text to the fictionalised ethnography ‘Natureculture permutations’ consists in a document of a kind rarely made available to the public, namely the sacred project description. In its announcement for prospective new fellows, STIAS asks for short and pointed proposals, and a short text this is, but it captures the gist of the project that started to be developed properly in Stellenbosch, while the fellow mulled over the relationship between homogeneity and diversity, but also boundedness and contamination. The project description is a rarely analysed literary genre with conventions and requirements, and authors of such documents are encouraged to exaggerate their own significance and discreetly exude an air of arrogance and entitlement. Humility will not do.

The state of the world today

Never before has humanity placed its stamp on the planet in ways even remotely comparable to the situation now. A fifth into the twenty-first century, human domination of Earth is such that the term Anthropocene has become widespread as a label for the present time; a nomenclature which would, if widely adopted, make the Holocene (which began just after the last Ice Age, about 11,500 years ago) a brief interlude in the long history of the planet and of our species. We live in an era which, since the onset of the industrial revolution in Europe, is marked by human activity and expansion in unprecedented ways. McNeill and Engelke (2016) describe ‘the great acceleration’ since 1945 mainly as one of human expansion and environmental destruction. In my own work, I speak of an acceleration of acceleration since the end of the Cold War and apartheid, and the coming of the Internet and mobile telephony, around 1990, where changes in a number of interrelated domains have taken off at ever increasing speed – from urban growth in the Global South and international trade to mining and international travel (Eriksen 2016). Mann (2011) proposes the term Homogenocene to describe a modern world characterised by standardisation, mainly in the realm of ecology and food production. Focusing on contemporary consumption, Ritzer (2004) speaks of the globalisation of nothing, which refers to phenomena with no discernable local provenance, in his view spreading rapidly as a consequence of global modernity; while Castells (1996) speaks in more neutral terms about the network society. In an influential theory of nationalism and the nation-state, Gellner (1983) compares the modern world with a painting by Modigliani – large, calm, monochrome surfaces – contrasting it with a traditional world reminiscent of the expressionist Kokoschka, known for his intense use of colour. In other words, a world of many small differences had been transformed into a world of a few major ones (Eriksen 1993a).

This project: Biology and culture through the same lens

Building on previous research on accelerated change and globalisation (Eriksen 2016, 2018) and on similarities between biological and cultural processes (Eriksen and Hessen 1999, Hessen and Eriksen 2012), this research project will identify and analyse the relationship between biodiversity and cultural diversity at a time when both are seriously challenged by global processes which simultaneously lead to a reduction of ecological diversity and of cultural variation. The project will initially show how the modern project of progress, development and prosperity is, paradoxically, producing its own undoing owing to environmental destruction and climate change resulting from precisely the same causes as the global growth in wealth and life chances. This paradox is well known. What distinguishes the present project from other accounts about the destructive effects of industrial modernity is its dual focus on the environment and culture, which shows that the loss of diversity in one domain is closely paralleled by a similar loss in the other, and that they are often connected.

Following the account about ecological and cultural loss, the benefits of standardisation will be explored in a separate part, which problematises the narrative of loss. While admittedly reducing crop diversity, the Green Revolution saved millions of lives by concentrating on a few, highly productive cereals. The advantages of using English as an international language are similarly obvious and arguably enables many to expand rather than limit their cultural repertoire. New forms of diversity, sometimes described in terms of super-diversity (Vertovec 2007) or creolisation (Cohen and Sheringham 2016), led the anthropologist Hannerz to claim that a ‘return of Kokoschka’ (Hannerz 1996) had taken place in the new, diverse cultural settings. Similarly, invasive species have sometimes found vacant niches and led to an increased diversity of local ecosystems (Thompson 2014). Yet, at the same time, the underlying grammar is simplified and standardised. In the realm of culture, Geertz memorably quipped: ‘[C]ultural difference will doubtless remain – the French will never eat salted butter. But the good old days of widow burning and cannibalism are gone forever.’ (Geertz 1984: 105).

The third part will indicate forms of resistance and attempts to mitigate the effects of global homogenisation. Indigenous peoples struggling to retain their way of life and their cosmologies, ethnic groups negotiating the boundary between the standardised and the unique, and various recuperation and conservation efforts will form the focus here. Some of the cases to be explored are the Creole Garden in the Seychelles, a project at the University of the Seychelles where I am involved, and where cultural heritage and biodiversity are simultaneously at play; resource stewardship and cosmologies among the Sámi in northern Scandinavia (see Eriksen, Valkonen and Valkonen 2019); rewilding in the European Union and South Africa; and further empirical cases will be included as the project develops.

The project will lead to a conclusion, but it would be premature to anticipate it at this stage. Its empirical novelty lies in the dual focus on biodiversity and cultural diversity seen through the lens of overheated globalisation. It is inherently inter- or multidisciplinary, drawing on history and archaeology, ecology and social anthropology, cultural studies, linguistics and geography.


Theoretical perspectives

Theoretically, the project is largely founded in systems thinking and complexity theory (Arthur 2021, Deacon 2012, Bateson 1972). Some central concepts are flexibility (uncommitted potential for change – Bateson); runaway processes (evolutionary trajectories which become counterproductive in their consequences); scale (crucial, but often poorly understood, cf. West 20117); the tragedy of the commons and – more generally – unintended consequences of rapid change.

The biosemiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer has described evolution as ‘a process of increasing semiotic freedom’ (Hoffmeyer 1998). By this, he means that the total amount of options is increasing in the biosphere. Another way of phrasing it is by describing evolution as leading to increased complexity and differentiation. Hoffmeyer does not mention the five mass extinctions in evolutionary history, which must have led to a temporary reduction in semiotic freedom, but his argument is nevertheless an important one. It can also be applied to the cultural history of humanity. Since the origin of homo sapiens in Africa ≈250,000 years ago, groups have branched off, diversified, adapted to and developed viable niches in all biotopes except Antarctica. Thousands of mutually unintelligible languages, unique religions and customs, kinship systems and economic practices produced a world of a fast growing number of differences. What seems to be happening today as a result of frantic human activity across the planet is nevertheless a reduction in semiotic freedom, a loss of flexibility and options. This seems to be the case both with respect to the nonhuman world and that of culture and society.

The parallel between biological evolution and cultural differentiation has its limitations. The time scales differ enormously. Evolution is driven by ‘the blind watchmaker’ of natural selection, while cultural differentiation relies on human consciousness and creativity. Yet, a comparison can be fruitful at this historical moment, when the homogenising forces of globalisation threaten and reduce both biological and cultural diversity. We may be witnessing a sixth extinction (Kolbert 2014) in nature, and it is estimated that one language loses its last native speaker every two weeks (see Crystal 2000 on language death). Both processes have accelerated in the last few decades. Only four per cent of the mammal biomass on earth now belongs to wild animals. Seventy per cent of the birds in the world are domesticated, mainly poultry. The reduction of variation and of difference thus seems to apply both in the natural and the sociocultural world, which may frequently be seen as two sides of the same coin.

The conceptual apparatus underpinning the project is relational and processual, borrowing from ecology and biosemiotics. As a social/cultural scientist, I should say a few words about using concepts developed in other disciplines. As a matter of fact, concepts and metaphors have always cross-pollinated each other across academic divides. The evolutionary theory developed by Darwin in the mid 19th century directly influenced social ideologies and practices such as eugenics and social darwinism. The theory of games, originally part of microeconomics, was integrated into evolutionary biology by John Maynard Smith. Organic metaphors based on Herbert Spencer’s Victorian concepts of structure and function dominated sociology and social anthropology for much of the 20th century. Current debates about speciation and the boundary between species (Coyne & Orr 2010) have parallels with similar debates in anthropology about the boundaries of cultures and societies (Eriksen 1993b).

At the same time, scholars in the humanities and social sciences are usually reluctant to adopt explanatory models and concepts from biology and physics, fearing reductionism and misleading simplifications. In the present research, this problem is unlikely to arise. The causes of reduced diversity are similar in both cases, which is sufficient to hold the project together conceptually, and I will not try to reduce one to another. Whereas biological diversity can be quantified, cultural diversity cannot. Although certain indicators, such as the number of languages spoken in a given region, can be measured, loss of cultural diversity must be studied with other methods than the loss of biodiversity.

The project in the STIAS context

There is a great deal of potential synergy between this project and STIAS designated themes and ongoing projects. If this application is successful, I hope to become more closely acquainted with the research under ‘Crossing Borders’ and ‘Being Human Today’, but the connections are even stronger with ‘Understanding Complexity’ and ‘Sustainable Agro-Ecosystems’, where I see exciting potentials regarding mutual learning and possible collaboration. This project might fit into both themes.

South Africa is important for several reasons. Its cultural diversity – contested, fraught with a painful history, complex – makes it a perfect location for the cultural part. However, the diversity and vulnerability of South African ecosystems, where ‘rewilding’ of former farmlands has been widespread, makes it an important case as regards the biological part as well.

Plan and outcomes

If the application is successful, I would like to spend the entire second semester of 2022 at STIAS. However, should an opportunity arise unexpectedly in the first semester of 2022, that would be an even more attractive alternative.

This is a long-term project, and it will ultimately result in a major monograph written by myself, with a tentative date of publication in 2023. However, as with my earlier research projects, other results will also come out of this. At STIAS, I would organise events involving other fellows, as well as a workshop with invited speakers from South Africa and abroad, notably Mauritius and the Seychelles, where I have a long-term engagement with local academics. I am aware of the funding limitations, and would be able to find supplementary funding. Journal articles and one or several special issues will be produced by myself and collaborators. Public dissemination is an integral part of the plan, and in addition to my usual channels (in Scandinavia and Europe), I also hope to engage with the South African public sphere during my stay.



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