Biopolitics of the body-less: Genetic species and the remaking of conservation

Authors: Elizabeth Barron*, University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Environmental Perception, Geographic Thought
Keywords: conservation, critical physical geography, microbes
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Grand Chenier, Sheraton, 5th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Biodiversity conservation is a celebration of life, championed by focusing on the charismatic and unique. In finding and striving to protect meaning and beauty in life, conservation gets to the very heart of the dialectic between nature and culture. Fungi and microbes are outside this dialectic because they do not fit these criteria; many are invisible species known only by genetic fragments in the environment, and microbes’ roles in the ecosystem are often more vilified than celebrated. Yet, their conservation is of growing concern, as is the interest of social scientists in thinking with microbes. This paper positions the growing focus on the microbiome within critical physical geography, taking the severity of biotic and environmental challenges seriously, but also theoretically engaging with fungi through a biopolitical analysis to ask: how do we understand a population of invisible beings in conservation discourse, how does the physical size of the body being conserved relate to the power of the discourse? And if not from size, what is the power of the microscopic in conservation? Using data collected over three years from interviews, lab studies, and event ethnography, I argue that in conservation, size matters biophysically, biopolitically, materially, and historically. I suggest that considering genetic species as abiotic changes their representative form, the language of their conservation, and their material engagement with social actions. Ultimately, given fungi’s unique relationship to conservation discourse, they may provide an opportunity to bring biotic/abiotic divisions into question to create more powerful conservation futures.

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