This is an edited version of the transcript from Be Biodiverse: Bees, Art and Diversity, a talk given by Sue Spaid in September 2020, part of an event organised by by Eksjö museum in Sweden. Click here to watch the talk, or read on…
Biological diversity depends on human diversity.
~ Bob Bye
In 1992, the United Nations Earth Summit defined biological diversity as ‘the variability among living organisms from all sources, including, inter alia terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part. This includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems.’ Given the environmental destruction that had already taken place in Europe by the 16th century, it’s hardly surprising that not one European nation is among the top 5O most biodiverse nations. Apparently, whatever values inspired people to destroy forests to build ocean-faring boats, carve mountains to construct glorious cathedrals or roam Earth in search of profitable resources to extract are the same values that engendered the monolingual nation states that have wreaked havoc on biodiversity.
While researching my first book Ecovention: Art to Transform Ecologies (2002), I was struck by the statistic: ‘Of the nine countries where 60% of the world’s remaining 6500 languages are spoken, six (Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Zaire [Democratic Republic of Congo] and Australia) are also centers of megadiversity for flora and fauna.’ From this, I inferred ‘Biodiversity and cultural diversity are directly proportional’. Back then, this was a novel idea, which had yet to be tested or proven, let alone accepted. My ‘hunch’ that biological and cultural diversity are linked came to fruition when UNESCO finally claimed that ‘new studies suggest that language loss, in its turn, has a negative impact on biodiversity conservation’.v UNESCO’s 2009 report reiterates this view: ‘Cultural diversity must be seen as a cross-cutting dimension (rather than as a separate, fourth pillar of sustainability), with an important role to play in all development projects, from poverty eradication and the safeguarding of biodiversity to resource management and climate change.’ In response to a CFP for papers linking biodiversity and aesthetics, I returned to this earlier statistic to show how biodiversity could serve as a bioindicator for human cultural engagement.
Gary Nabhan, the ethnobotanist who first drew my attention to this relationship, paints a negative correlation between colonisation and biodiversity such that ‘wherever empires have spread to suppress other cultures’ languages and land-tenure traditions, the loss of biodiversity has been dramatic. Civilisations that conquer other cultures and force them to adopt extensive grain agriculture or livestock grazing are particularly taxing on regionally restricted floras and faunas. With colonists at the helm, arks inevitably sink.’ By contrast, ‘wherever many cultures have coexisted within the same region, biodiversity has also survived.’ Did Europe’s centralised authorities and monolingual mentalities cause biodiversity loss?
Every time a species disappears or is dominated by another, the whole ecosystem gets out of whack…
Although I agree with both of Nabhan’s points, I’m struck even more by two positive correlations. First, cultural diversity protects biodiversity, the point Robert Bye makes at this paper’s onset, and second, biodiversity is a bioindicator for human cultural engagement. The more calls for papers that I’ve answered over the years, the more I’ve had to research biodiversity. And the more I learn about biodiversity, the more I encounter either biodiversity sceptics or foresters and cattle ranchers who view biodiversity as a bio-indicator for nature’s wellbeing, including ecosystem functioning, what I consider nature’s true ‘beauty’. More recently, scientists have even started connecting biodiversity to human wellbeing. Let’s be clear, biodiversity is not a panacea, in the sense that maximising biodiversity does not solve all of our ecological ills. However, these days, life depends so mightily on biodiversity that
optimising it serves a worthy goal, especially since biodiversity counts tend to also inspire us to appreciate and protect aspects of nature ordinarily overlooked.
In the US, pro-business interests like to make fun of environmentalists’ efforts to save ‘obscure’ species like the ‘Northern Spotted Owl’, ‘Spotted Skunks’ or turtles of all stripes from extinction. If they truly understood biodiversity, they would realise that every species plays a role in balancing ecosystems. Every time a species disappears or is dominated by another, the whole ecosystem gets out of whack, leading to huge imbalances that affect all of the species inhabiting the particular ecosystem. Perhaps critics are right to criticise such a singular focus on a particular species, an approach that seems a holdover from 1960s environmentalism, but in fact we identify with particular animals more easily than distinct ecosystems. That is why we associate the polar bear with climate change’s impact on the Arctic, but of course thousands of animal species inhabit the Arctic (5500 to be precise), not just polar bears. And with warming climes, polar bears are moving south, which stands to wreak havoc on ecosystems supporting Inuits, but that’s another story altogether. In what follows, I review several basic points before surveying artworks that address biodiversity.
Biodiversity as a bioindicator
In my 2015 paper, I revisited the correlation between language and biodiversity identified in my 2002 book and tried to build a case to support this view. Since five of the 50 most biodiverse countries were never colonised (central China, Iran, Japan, Nepal and Thailand), blaming ‘empire’ or colonisation is hardly definitive, though nationalism and nation states that discourage indigenous languages in favor of unifying national languages no doubt contribute negative factors. Stability versus constant migration and war also play huge roles.
Given the far from direct relationship between beauty (to human eyes) and nature’s wellbeing, I worry that aesthetic appreciation only goes so far in protecting nature. Until quite recently, it was common for nature lovers to deem potentially entropic, cultivated gardens that require routine maintenance far more aesthetically pleasing than self-sustaining wild-flower meadows. To capture the way biodiversity reflects nature’s wellbeing, I noted: ‘Eager to identify a gauge that could assist aesthetically-minded environmentalists’ quest to safeguard nature, I first considered delimiting changes in entropy, whose upticks are usually perceptible. Realising that by the time entropic upticks are noticed, it’s often too late, I concluded that biodiversity monitoring could offer a better gauge for wellbeing, especially since nearly 200 nations have already committed to doing this.’ With that paper, I noted that biodiversity is a gauge that anticipates, rather than reacts to entropy upticks, a view that is supported by biologist Scherer-Lorenzen, which I’ll soon discuss in greater detail.
The co-existence of multiple languages exemplifies respect for different peoples.
My hunch was ‘that the same factors, like local cultures and protective habitats that enable obscure languages to endure, are those that ensure that multiple species survive. To anthropologists who study local cultures, this comes as no surprise. To others, [including biologists], it seems wholly irrelevant, since the kinds of places where diverse species and obscure languages thrive are really not the regions where the arts thrive.’ Yet when one thinks about it, one also realises that the more remote the culture, the more likely it is that its members have particular conventions (cuisine, dress, rituals, crafts, etc.). Conventions that capably adapt to periodic invasions prove crucial to a community’s sustainability. I employ the term ‘convention’ instead of ‘tradition’, since conventions evolve, even if outsiders don’t recognise such changes. And this is the way nature reacts to migrations. It adapts unless the invaders are colonisers at heart, who end up bulldozing whatever they don’t understand.
Second, the co-existence of multiple languages amidst shared habitats exemplifies respect for different peoples, which encourages the proliferation of various cultures to persist and interact with one another. Communities that host multiple cultures and encourage them to intersect facilitate experimentation, human engagement and art’s ever-changing course. Just as the nine nations hosting 3900 languages are macrocosms of diversity, diverse cities foster biodiversity. According to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, 34 of the ‘biodiversity hotspots identified worldwide by Conservation International all contain urban areas’, such as Bonn, Brussels, Cape Town (83 different mammals, 3000 plants and 361 birds), Curitiba, Berlin, Stockholm, Mexico City, Nagoya, São Paolo, Philadelphia and Singapore.
Third, since biodiversity characterises inter-habitat differences, not just the availability of species variety, cities that attract artists from disparate communities facilitate dynamic artistic outputs, as artists encounter both new experiences and unfamiliar audiences. The convergence of difference galvanises new forms of art-making, as foreign artists are exposed to many more artworks and cultures amidst unfamiliar environments. Such a view ties cities’ greater biodiversity, as compared to rural areas and suburbs, to the fact that they host many more people speaking many different languages. As it turns out, societies that encourage cultural diversity prove far more biodiverse than societies hosting monocultures in terms of both agriculture and language.
Over twenty years ago, Nabhan remarked that we are awaiting a hypothesis that tells us that cultural diversity is not only interesting, but ‘explains why contact with cultural diversity makes us fully human’. Totally by chance, I offered such a hypothesis in the form of three related corollaries derived from facts, hoping to inspire researchers to test said relationships.
Fact: A breadth of human languages correlates with biodiversity.
Corollary i: Human beings who value their culture protect their natural environment.
Fact: Languages tend to survive where diverse species thrive.
Corollary ii: Respect for habitat encourages cultural diversity and biodiversity.
Fact: Biodiversity is relational and interactional with human beings.
Corollary iii: Mixing it up, difference, and convergence compound biodiversity.
In order to remember these corollaries, I call this the ‘Protect-Respect-Multiply’ mantra…
In 1971, Norwegian philosopher/environmental activist Arne Naess demanded ‘An ethic respecting nature and the inherent worth of all other beings […]. The long-range deep approach involves redesigning our whole system based on values and methods that truly preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems.’ He clearly identified already 50 years ago what UNESCO only recently discovered!
Nature’s ‘true’ beauty
One explanation for cities’ greater ecosystem functioning as compared to their suburban and rural counterparts is that ‘A greater species pool might augment inter-species interactions, and thus reduce access to invasive species. As hosts to diverse cultures, it is hardly surprising that cities are increasingly becoming biodiversity centers.’ This is Corollary iii (Multiply) in action.
Although scientists cannot prove ‘causation’ between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, geobotanist Michael Scherer-Lorenzen captures growth rising rapidly (asymptotically) as the number of different trees in the canopy increase. ‘One is tempted to conclude that “the higher diversity of trees enhances productivity due to functional differences between species leading to higher resource exploitation and hence, higher growth”. Problem is, the opposite explanation also works, as “more productive stands may simply permit the coexistence of more species. Thus cause and effect cannot be disentangled from observational and comparative studies”.’ That said, Scherer-Lorenzen contends that ecosystem functioning depends on biodiversity, as opposed to biodiversity depending on some combination of climate, nutrients and disturbance. Both Scherer-Lorenzen and zoologist Shahid Naeem agree that ‘maximized productivity and resource exploitation not only improve biodiversity, but they hinder invasive species’.
I’m particularly fascinated by the notion of trophic cascades such that the addition of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 has totally transformed the ecosystem. In the 1920s, wolf hunting initially caused the elk population to explode, leading to over-grazing, far fewer beavers, increased erosion risks, and eventually far fewer elks by 1968. ‘Apparently, wolves’ predatory nature keeps elks on the move, thus reducing the over-grazing of willow, used by beavers to build dams. The reintroduction of wolves spawned a “trophic cascade”, whereby nine beaver colonies (up from one in 1995) led to: increased songbird and amphibian habitat, recharged water tables, and cold, shaded water for fish. Exemplary of scientists treating biodiversity as indicative of environmental wellbeing, wolves have enabled YNP to host larger populations of many more species.’
The Aesthetic Enhancement Aproach
I call my latest hypothesis the ‘Aesthetic Enhancement Approach’ (AEA), which claims that ‘people, whether citizen scientists counting species or stakeholders working alongside scientists to reclaim environments, boost their wellbeing, while cultivating environmental amelioration. AEA advances an “engaged” beauty grounded in wellbeing, such that environments constantly permeate and shape human somas, which in turn penetrate and reshape environments’. I wrote this paper in response to a CFP for papers focused on ‘beauty’. Given that 75% of Earth’s terrain is substantially degraded, I heartily encourage philosophers focused on beauty to redirect their brainpower to thwart ‘natural’ beauty’s rapid disappearance. I thus responded to this CFP with a paper meant to address the beauty of degraded lands. However unconventional my approach, it was fortunately accepted.
Biodiversity not only offers scientists a way to ‘gauge’ beauty… but it grants ordinary people a way to assess nature’s wellbeing.
In this paper, I argue that biodiversity not only offers scientists a way to ‘gauge’ beauty by assessing ecosystem functioning, but it grants ordinary people a way to assess nature’s wellbeing, which is ordinarily inaccessible, if not invisible, while simultaneously transforming both inhabitants and those citizen scientists assisting biologists with the counts. Thanks to regularly held Conference of the Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity (15 meetings since 1994), UN member nations regularly report biodiversity figures, so species counts are conducted across the globe. Moreover, data-collection is widely available, since 193 UN-member nations, as well as 114 cities, have submitted National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans to the UN Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Until the millennium, urban planners compartmentalised a city’s diverse functions, separating leisure (parks, theatres and community centers), commuters (in/out arteries public transit and garages) and public works (waste collection/processing, food production and water treatment). Fifty years ago, only a handful of artists such as Patricia Johanson, Alan Sonfist or Hans de Vries imagined that cities could serve as viable hosts for nature, let alone biodiverse environments capable of supporting urban forests, honeybees and urban farms. Increasingly, urban communities that accommodate myriad languages, safeguard cultural rituals and support ethnic foods encourage attitudes necessary to inspire inhabitants to value their environments and protect biodiversity. This is Corollary i (Protect) in action.
In 2008, at COP9 in Bonn, participants agreed to measure their City Biodiversity Index (CBI), which was later renamed the ‘Singapore Index’, a self-assessment tool enabling cities to ‘evaluate progress in reducing the rate of biodiversity loss in urban ecosystems’. Using 23 indicators, CBI assesses 3 aspects: 1) a city’s native biodiversity, 2) ecosystem services (water regulation, carbon storage, recreational and education) provided by biodiversity and 3) biodiversity governance and management. Since cities’ biodiversity scores reflect region and age, how scores change post 2010 (the benchmark year) matters most. To capture, track and access all of this data, new fields like urban wildlife biology and urban ecology have sprung up to assess cities’ progress in improving biodiversity.
The Singapore Index thus serves as a bio-indicator of each city’s ecological, aesthetic and human wellbeing. Even though cities have far fewer native species than isolated rainforests or protected savannahs, they tend to have more natives than exotics. Cities host more exotic plants (28%) than exotic birds (3%). Biodiversity statistics offer city dwellers quantifiable factors that they can both own and take pride in, giving citizens good reasons to take whatever additional scientifically-advised measures are recommended to augment biodiversity. No doubt, species-positive actions go farther than mere ‘city beautification schemes’, whose usual solutions tend to be species-negative. This is Corollary ii (Respect) in action. Cherishing kinship translates into respect for environment. It’s thus particularly imperative that scientists collaborate with citizens to measure, evaluate and publicise CBI.
Biodiversity thrives on roads heading out of town, in urban wastelands, and around rail tracks where habitat sprouts unabated.
In 2011, another group of researchers encouraged the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) to document biodiversity in 114 cities. In 2014, the London-based journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B ‘compiled the largest global dataset to date of two diverse taxa in cities: birds (54 cities) and plants (110 cities)’. This data indicates that ‘although some exotic species are shared across many cities, urban biotas have not yet become taxonomically homogenised at the global scale and continue to reflect their regional bio-geographic species pool. Urban floras incorrectly clustered were primarily those in Australasia, which may be explained by the high proportion of exotic species from other regions in these cities, leading to more similar floras to these other regions.’
This latest research affirms my earlier hunch that urban environments engender CBIs superior to both rural environments, where pesticides (and not queen bees) reign supreme; and suburban ones, where manicured lawns replace habitat. As already noted, cities’ lower levels of invasive species may be due to the fact that a greater species pool augments inter-species interactions, thus reducing invasive species’ access. The work of biologists Scherer-Lorenzen and Naeem totally supports this explanation, yet some philosophers remain dubious. Either way, it’s hopeful and helpful to recognise cities as biophilic oases. When it comes to hosting biodiversity, a city’s greatest assets remain its botanical garden and its zoological garden (if it has one). Recent research indicates that biodiversity thrives on roads heading out of town, in urban wastelands, and around rail tracks where habitat sprouts unabated.
Artists’ role in defending/improving biodiversity
In 1971, we first witnessed an artist attempt to link biodiversity to nature’s wellbeing when Hans de Vries counted moths, insects and amphibians on a 1-m2 plot in Rotterdam as his artistic contribution to ‘Sonsbeek: Buiten de Perken’. Problematically, the cleaning crew threw out his installation, inspiring him to post a sign that said ‘Communication difficult due to the lack of participation of the public’ near where his installation stood. This was incidentally the same year Naess publicly demanded that we preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems. In what follows, I chronicle dozens of ecoventions (artist-initiated projects with ecological intent) that have either publicised the significance of biodiversity, bolstered habitat to augment biodiversity or performed experiments to find ways to jumpstart biodiversity. In each case, I cite where readers can find more details about each project.
Publicising Biodiversity’s Significance
It took Alan Sonfist 13 years to create the iconic Time Landscape (1965-1978/present), because he first had to convince the City of New York to give him a plot of land where he could prove that it’s possible to grow an urban forest, comprised of trees and bushes native to Manhattan prior to colonisation. As already noted, Hans de Vries carried out the first species count as exemplary of ‘performance art’ in 1971. To demonstrate the prevalence of Chinese (non-native) trees, Mei-ling Hom planted Invasive Aliens (1994), whose 285 trees planted to form an ‘S’-shape were adopted by Philadelphians for their yards. When invited to contribute a public artwork for Wateringse Veld, a Den Haag suburb, herman de vries proposed bomenmuseum (1996-2011/2017/present) for which he had each street planted with one of 400 different trees, transforming this town into an arboretum.
One of the most influential ecoventions is George Steinmann’s Komi- A Growing Sculpture (1997-2006), in which he collaborated with the inhabitants of the Virgin Komi Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Ural Mountains. Over nine years, they mapped one of Europe’s last boreal forests’ food resources, registered medicinal herbs and worked with the Russian government to implement logging policies based on sustainable forest management. To offer intimate access to a meadow’s unfamiliar plants and insects, Henrik Håkansson created A Thousand Leaves (2000), whose fence supported telescopes.
To demonstrate the use of seeds as ballast during the ‘Return Passage’, such that empty boats flush with cash arriving from the New World dropped ballast before loading goods to be traded for African slaves, Maria Theresa Alves grew Seeds of Change: A Floating Ballast Seed Garden (2007-2012/present) from dormant seeds dredged from Bristol’s harbour. To publicise the fact that the EU’s making it illegal to export indigenous potato varieties threatens potato diversity, Åsa Sonjasdotter regularly plants The Order of Potatoes: A Potato Perspective on a European Matter (2009/present). By contrast, the less popular chard evades EU regulation, enabling Christoph Philip Müller to install Swiss Chard Ferry (2012), whereby 60 colourful varietals collected from seedbanks worldwide were grown in 66 crates atop six pontoons that bridged the Fulda River during documenta 13.
Bolster Habitat to Reverse Species Loss
Concerned by species loss due to overfishing in the Atlantic, Betty Beaumont worked with a coal-fired plant to make 17.000 bricks from waste fly ash, which she transported via barge to a site 70km off the coast of New York City, and then dumped into the ocean to create Ocean Landmark (1978-1980/present), an artificial coral reef. In 1983, herman de vries started making earth rubbings, of which 8000 samples are housed at Musée Gassendi in Dignes-le-Bains. Fully aware that species loss is due to habitat loss, Lynne Hull has created numerous protective islands, such as Lightning Raptor Roost (1990) that enable birds, amphibians fish and reptiles to find food and spawn. Working alongside Dutch architects and ecologists, the Harrison Studio devised the Green Heart of Holland (1995/present), whereby 600.000 new homes would be built along a 225km ‘Bio-Diversity’ Ring, thus protecting farmland, while providing inhabitants direct access to cities.
Between 2007 and 2009, Jackie Brookner worked with volunteers to build Veden Taika (The Magic of Water), three artificial islands in former wastewater treatment lagoons, now known as Halikonlahti Bird Pools in Salo, FI. The largest island offers migrating birds nesting sites, while the smaller two clean the pools via phytoremediation. Keen to study Colony Collapse Disorder, AnneMarie Maes fabricated a Transparent Beehive (2012) out of Plexiglas, which invites researchers to observe bees arriving and leaving, as they construct their hive. After growing I’m Blue, You’re Yellow (2012/present), a yellow meadow adjacent a blue one, Rebecca Chesney invited scientists to conduct species counts, which led to the realisation that bumblebees prefer blue flowers, while honeybees flit side to side.
To restore Fair Park Lagoon (1981-1986/present), Patricia Johanson worked with Dallas-based scientists to rebalance the ecosystem, which required adding dozens of native plant species, turtles, fish and ducks. To avoid having to pay massive fines for discharging stormwater into the Pacific Ocean, the City of San Francisco hired Johanson to design Endangered Garden (1987-1996/present), a snaking walkway that provides species habitat during low tides that sits atop a pump station and holding tank for use during heavy rains.
A few years before Lois Weinberger moved his massive ‘wild plant’ collection from Vienna to the Ruderal Society (2004-2020) in Gar am Kamp, he exhibited Gartenarch (1988-1999), 624 slides displayed atop a light table. Keen to broadcast the rise in malformed amphibians, as well as to discover its cause, Brandon Ballengée has counted frog limbs in various countries, as part of his ongoing Malformed Amphibian Project (1995/present).
In an effort to produce healthier, more biodiverse chickens, Koen Vanmechelen has interbred chickens with a different species each year as part of his Cosmospolitan Chicken Project (1999/present). During 2016 UN International Year of Pulses, Jean-François Paquay created Edible Environment: Pulses (2016), a bio-intensive urban farm offering eaters 16 bean varieties at arm’s length. In 2019, AnneMarie Maes mounted ElbBienen, a large wooden sculpture housing a bee hive on a pylon adjacent the Elbe River with hopes that the bees will eventually link nearby greenspaces, thus augmenting Hamburg’s biodiversity.
This is an edited version of the transcript from Be Biodiverse: Bees, Art and Diversity, a talk given by Sue Spaid in September 2020, part of an event organised by by Eksjö museum in Sweden.
Image credit: AnneMarie Maes, ElbBienen, initial installation in Brussels and Hamburg, April 2019
This is part of ROT, a section of The Learned Pig exploring multispecies creativity through modest tales of collaboration and coexistence amidst world-ending violence and disorder. ROT is conceived and edited by Julia Cavicchi.