Jeff Karnicky’s Scarlet Experiment serves, in a somewhat bracing way, as a tonic that runs counter to a number of books written recently about birds. Hope most definitely is not the thing with feathers, as he notes. Karnicky is a literary scholar, not a historian or a biologist, and his take is clearly influenced by literature, and by literary and critical theory. The wonderfully evocative “scarlet experiment” of the title is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem that describes the killing of a bird by scientists to learn from its mortal remains. In the context of this book, the term stands in for the wildly heterogeneous bird–human interactions that have resulted in bird deaths by the millions. The inspiration for his book comes not from hope and souls, he notes, but from “doubt and blood.” Each of the five chapters focuses on particular birds: the Blue Jay, the European Starling, the Red Knot, the Canada Goose, and the Black-Crested (or Tufted) Titmouse. Chapters 1 and 2, on the Jay and the Starling, and their respective keen intelligences, argue, as he notes, “for an avian subjectivity that brings birds into the existential and ethical world of the human.” He concludes that for the Jay and the Starling, human interactions have been good, presumably, meaning their populations are supported rather than eroded by human actions. He reaches a different conclusion in Chapters 3 and 4, on the Red Knot and Canada Goose, focusing on how two species live “within a world of intensely administered human governmentality” that is not ultimately good for either species. Karnicky argues that birds deserve greater moral standing relative to humans and marshals useful biological evidence about their commonalities. He also argues across each of these chapters that “all nature has become capital” and by extension that “all birds have become capital.” That is no big surprise, for that is what humans do. He questions whether endangered species can survive in the face of what French psychotherapist and semiologist Felix Guattari calls “integrated world capitalism,” which Karnicky says places an “exchange value” on all forms of life. In teasing out the intersecting threads of capitalism and birds, Karnicky’s overarching argument is that a broad international capitalist system has saturated our ways of being and that the future for many birds is bleak. In wanting to provide a direct connection between humans and birds in decline, he is certainly right to exhume and examine these links. However, he misses a lot of biology in his argument, such as that some populations tip into decline for reasons we do not understand well, and others can become established and succeed for equally poorly understood reasons. More significantly, however, his argument undercuts the extensive worldwide conservation efforts taking place to slow or reverse decline and to save species for their own sake. He notes that conservation measures have embraced “both science and marketing,” which is certainly true. However, examples of precapitalist bird declines and extinctions bely his argument. What about, for instance, dozens of species of birds in the Pacific that went extinct at the hands of precapitalist, subsistence-economy peoples, such as those of the Hawaiian Islands? These mass extinctions were not the fault of integrated world capitalism, but rather dis-integrated activities by humans who needed to eat and survive. This book wants to be a wake-up call for endangerment and avian extinction risk, but that is not a new approach. His story is also centered in the United States but would warrant more international comparison if his argument truly is meant to address birds and their role in world capitalism. Capital and capitalism are distinctly different constructs, and some international details undermine his narrative about capitalism as the central source for endangerment and extinction today. For instance, countries like certain Asian countries have a far larger percentage of endangered megafauna out of their total number of extant species than does the United States. This implicates short-sighted capitalism, but it also erodes his argument about a monolithic blanket of capitalism dampening species survival because slash-and-burn agriculture in, say, Brazil is very different from the sophisticated US millinery trade that used millions of feathers from killed birds. There is nothing integrative about these kinds of capitalism, although in his defense, they can all be argued as being a medium of exchange: your life for ours. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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