Sustainable Music


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Assisted Colonization?

Colonizing ground next to a sidewalk. Wikimedia Commons.

   It’s well known that the climate emergency is threatening the continued existence of numerous species, especially those in places subject to extreme habitat change or loss, such as on the Pacific island of Palau, where the combination of sea level rise with hotter temperatures could make Palau uninhabitable for many species found nowhere else. In response, the conservation community has floated the idea of moving populations of endangered species to other places thought to provide hospitable habitats, to prevent them from extinction. The name for this is “assisted colonization.” The downside of assisted colonization is that it is impossible fully to predict the consequences, bad as well as good, of introducing a new species into an ecosystem. Needless to say, the conservation community is not of one mind about this. The introduced species might well survive, but it might also become invasive and crowd out other species in the habitat, as happened when lake trout were introduced in streams to benefit recreational fishing, but it turned out that it was at the expense of other species of trout whose populations became endangered. Besides, the original intention of conservation ecology (aka conservation biology) was restoration of ecosystems to an earlier, healthier condition; assisted colonization would be a very new kind of goal that would, presumably, divert energy from conservation as originally conceived. Against this it is argued that humans have, intentionally as well as unintentionally by way of travel and exploration, introduced new species to ecosystems; assisted colonization would be just a more carefully considered way of doing what has been done for tens of thousands of years anyway, but this time explicitly for the benefit of the endangered species and for continued biodiversity.
    In 2006 I lectured to folklorists and ethnomusicologists about the advantages of an ecological approach to musical and cultural sustainability. This idea of sustainability caught a tailwind and now, fifteen years later, the research into cultural sustainability is widespread, though more often from the standpoint of economics than ecology. Yet the contemporary debate over assisted colonization is worth considering in this light. Could endangered music cultures, for example, be assisted in moving to new geographical locations? In case this strikes you as a solution waiting for a problem, consider Old Regular Baptist singing, the oldest religious music in continuous oral tradition in the United States and identified as a national treasure. Old Regular Baptists’ “habitat” is in the upper South, in central Appalachia, where for the past hundred years most made their living from coal mining. But now mining is no longer viable and the music culture, which for generations fended off threats from other religious musical traditions, such as gospel singing, faces a different kind of threat: economic rather than cultural. They need to find another way to make a living and if they cannot in that place they will have to move. Where? Should applied ethnomusicologists direct them as a group to move en masse to a new location where they can prosper and maintain their religious communities and music? Certainly not; the idea is preposterous. The analogy between environmental and cultural intervention appears to break down at this point. Besides, the words "colonial" and "colonization" have a bad odor about them these days. And yet, it appears that some Old Regular Baptists are migrating on their own anyway, and have been doing so for decades, following the paths of Appalachian out-migration to southern Ohio, for example, and more recently into Florida, where they prefer to establish new communities of Old Regular Baptist families, and then later out-migrants feel attracted to move into these new communities, smaller of course than those in central Appalachia, and build some churches for themselves.
    Perhaps, then, applied ethnomusicologists could partner with community scholars to study these patterns of out-migration and community establishment, and see which ones have more success than others, and try to learn why. For example, a few churches were erected for Old Regular Baptists in Washington State in the last century, but these appear to have become extinct, so to speak, while the ones in Ohio have managed to maintain themselves. Possibly there is a role for applied ethnomusicologists here after all, acting more or less as consultants who would share the results of their studies with those considering out-migration as well as with those who have already out-migrated, with a view to strengthening their new communities by developing resilience. In this small way, assisted colonization might be something that ethnomusicologists and folklife specialists could do.

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