Mr. David Harmon
The George Wright Society
P.O. Box 65
Hancock, MI 49930-0065, USA

DAVID HARMON is Deputy Executive Director of the George Wright Society, a nonprofit association of professionals engaged in research and management in parks and protected areas. His research interests and writings are on the links between cultural and biological diversity, the global language endangerment situation, population-related issues, and protected area conservation. Recently, he presented his work at the conference Language Loss and Public Policy (Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 1995) and the symposium Losing Species, Languages, and Stories (Tucson, Arizona, April 1996). He is Secretary-Treasurer of Terralingua: Partnerships for Linguistic and Biological Diversity, a nonprofit devoted to information, education, and services on issues related to the preservation of linguistic diversity and to the connections between cultural and biological diversity.



"Biological and Cultural Diversity: The Converging Extinction Crisis"

The term "biodiversity," virtually unheard-of until the mid-1980s, has proven so powerful to the scientific imagination that it has, in that short time, become a touchstone for field biologists all over the world. Similarly, the most accessible indicator of biodiversity, the plight of species in the face of burgeoning human demands, has become a fixture in the consciousness of the general public. Biologists are in broad agreement that we have entered an unprecedented period of human-caused extinctions, with a strong possibility of a 20% loss in the world's species over the next 30 years.

"Cultural diversity" is also a term that has risen to prominence in recent years, though it remains nebulous in its outlines. Many people have the sense that the increasing globalization of culture, especially through the electronic media, is threatening to level cultural distinctiveness. (Here in the United States, the term "cultural diversity" has acquired numerous politically charged meanings that have little, if anything, to do with the global situation I will address.)

I have tried, in past papers, to more precisely define cultural diversity and list some of its indicators. I have concluded that the most accessible indicator is the status of the world's languages. The peril to world's human languages has not, as yet, permeated the thinking of either the academic community or the general public. Various estimates--informed guesses, really--have been made of the number of languages likely to become extinct as mother tongues over the next 100 years. These range from 20% at a minimum, to a more likely 50%, to 90% in a worst-case scenario.

My central contention is that the impending declines in biological and cultural diversity are linked, both conceptually and causally. I will present information on the distribution of species and languages that illuminates this point. I also argue that these declines will converge into an extinction crisis which may well have profound consequences for our identity as human beings.

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