Thom van Dooren

There’s a vital role for the humanities and social sciences in understanding the significance of this mass extinction event, and responding adequately and ethically to it.
Our planet is hurtling towards an extinction crisis of epic proportions. Thom van Dooren is exploring the hidden value of threatened species and ushering in a radical rethink of how we respond to biodiversity loss.

Around the world, biodiversity loss is accelerating at an unprecedented rate due to processes such as climate change, habitat loss and newly introduced species.

Many experts argue that we’ve already entered our planet’s sixth mass extinction event. 

So grave is the problem that in 2012, the United Nations established an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services to provide scientific advice to countries to help stall the potentially catastrophic trend.

“The current scale of extinction is universally agreed to be massive,” says Dr Thom van Dooren, a philosopher in the Environmental Humanities group in the UNSW School of Humanities and Languages.  

But getting people to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and their involvement in the crisis, or to respond in ways that can aid conservation efforts, is a considerable challenge. 

Van Dooren says conventional dialogues about extinction are grounded in technological or scientific solutions that can alienate local communities, from farmers to Indigenous peoples.  

“When framed as an ecological problem, people with a range of other experiences of extinction, from its impact on their daily lives to the loss of traditional or cultural practices, can be pushed into the background and this can be disempowering,” he says. 

Van Dooren is radically rethinking the way we understand our relationship with wildlife and endangered species, and our approach to extinction and conservation.

His research focuses on the way “human communities are tangled up in wildlife and biodiversity loss” and getting a better measure of how this loss impacts on everything from livelihoods to religious and cultural practices.

He has previously looked at Indian vultures, which are teetering on the brink of extinction, and the breakdown this loss has caused in Parsi communities, whose funeral rituals once relied on the iconic scavenger. 

His current research involves crow populations around the world. Highly intelligent, crows present an interesting case study because they exist across a range of ecosystems, from Arctic tundras and equatorial deserts to emerging megacities. In some of these regions they thrive, while in others they are verging on extinction.

The Hawaiian crow, which plays a vital ecological role as a seed disperser, and is viewed by some native Hawaiians as a vital part of the cultural landscape of the islands, has been extinct in the wild since 2002.

Conservation plans for how to reintroduce crows bred in captivity are messy, says van Dooren, with a number of groups – including farmers, hunters, conservationists and native activists – at odds over the best approach.

By uncovering and retelling human stories about the cultural significance of these birds, as well as other endangered animals, and extinction more generally, van Dooren hopes he can shape new, creative and just dialogues between land managers, governments and local communities, which will ultimately inform new and improved conservation plans.

“There’s a vital role for the humanities and social sciences in understanding the significance of this mass extinction event, and responding adequately and ethically to it,” he says.

“At its heart, this is about bringing to the fore the diverse realities of extinction as a lived experience.”