2019 Stephanie Hanes Catalogue Essay ENDANGERED,INVASIVE, BENEFICIAL
In early 2019, a group of international scientists made headlines when they warned that nearly a million of the world’s species were threatened with extinction. Around the same time, the IUCN – the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which keeps the widely-cited “Red List” of threatened and endangered species – announced similarly dire findings. None of the species it analyzes had become more secure over the prior year, the group said. To contrary, nearly 30,000 of those 105,000 animals and plants were at risk of dying out, some imminently.
Across the environmental spectrum, scientists and policymakers reacted to these findings with alarm, but not surprise. For some time now, many have been warning that we are in the midst of the “sixth great extinction.” In other words, there have been five times in the past half billion years that a large percentage of life on earth disappeared. Now, environmentalists fear, we are seeing number six.
Human behavior is to blame for this new extinction. Habitat destruction, over-hunting, the dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions are among the myriad ways that people have impacted the earth like no other species.
This world-wide endangerment is terrifying and overwhelming.
It can also, in Christine Neill’s hands, be joltingly beautiful.
For years, Neill has found herself drawn to those places in nature where toxicity and danger merge with the radiant. More recently she has embraced the endangered, those species and places that face the greatest existential hazard. “Disappearing Cavendish,” for instance, has as its main subject the Cavendish banana – the most commonly eaten banana in the world, long favored by big agriculture, and now threatened globally by a devastating fungal disease.
The story of the Cavendish is layered in a way characteristic of Neill’s work.
In the middle of the 20th century, the Cavendish was the answer to a different, devastating fungal infection. That disease was threatening to wipe out the Gros Michel banana, the variety that had been planted across the tropics by colonizers and their corporate successors. As growers scrambled to find an alternative, they came across the Cavendish.
It was not as tasty as the Gros Michel. But the Cavendish traveled well. And most importantly it seemed be resistant to the Panama Disease, which was not only destroying fruit but the economies and livelihoods that depended on it.
And so the banana growers swapped one monoculture for another.
There is a risk, though, when large corporate farmers decide that one, and only one, variety of plant will be grown. Not only does it push out other species by human selection and habitat consumption, the lack of genetic diversity makes it shockingly susceptible to disease, climate changes and newly introduced pests. A monoculture is inherently endangered. And so, in some ways, it should not be surprising that the Panama Disease itself adapted and now threatens the Cavendish. In other words, nearly all of the banana plants in the world are endangered.