Monitoring nature to death

During 2012 I have found myself attending a number of events dedicated to the role of new technology in conservation. I have an interest in this area because of some recent work on computer games and conservation, and on community-based monitoring of natural resources. At these events I have heard about an extraordinary range of gadgets and gizmos, ranging from satellite technologies right down to devices so small that they can be sprayed.  The great majority of these devices seem to be targeted at monitoring – that is ongoing recording of biodiversity data, including population size, individual species movement, body temperature, weight, depth beneath the seas, or any number of other variables.

Confronted with all these new opportunities for monitoring, I find myself torn between conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I am really excited by how clever some of the gadgets are, and by all the things we might learn about nature through their deployment. I am, after all, a young(ish) man with a smartphone in my pocket and a slightly unhealthy interest in consumer electronics. On the other hand, I find myself quite unsettled by the implications of all this monitoring for our relationship with the natural world, and with each other. In a future blog post I intend to write something about how the development and deployment of new monitoring technologies raise political questions about how much we trust those who collect and hold the data. In this piece, I want to focus on a more basic concern, which is that all this monitoring may in some sense diminish the nature that we cherish.

My gut feeling is that a lot of the monitoring programmes that are being developed today are driven more by what new technologies can do than by the questions they can help us to answer. I have no problem with using technologies to help us to answer important questions about basic biology or conservation – for example changes in the population of an endangered species. However, when monitoring is used to give us constant access to the world of wild species, simply because we can, it starts to feel more like stalking than studying. We are familiar with the idea that our research should follow good ethical practice when it comes to human subjects or animal welfare. I wonder if we should extend the scope of research ethics to include some concept of a right to privacy for the species we study (an idea brilliantly satirised here). This could perhaps be breakable only in cases of overwhelming public interest, as with human celebrities, which in this case would mean the interest of the whole species.

Beyond the question of ethics, isn’t there also a certain value, and perhaps even beauty, in knowing that there are species and ecosystems out there just getting on with it, beyond our view? Robert MacFarlane makes the case for the value of unknown nature far more eloquently than I can in his wonderful book The Wild Places (2007). He writes:

“Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres: such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise, that live by voices inaudible to you.” (p.307)

A big-brother regime of constant biodiversity monitoring, from camera traps, listening devices, drones and satellites, will make us more than briefly aware of this other world. Indeed, we will likely be able to track the hare’s run from a satellite, or watch the hawk’s flight on a live webcam. The information we gain might help us to understand wild species, and in some cases it might help us to conserve them. However, I fear that the all-seeing eye of such a monitoring regime would render nature less wild, less mysterious and, eventually, boring. Isn’t there a risk that in our enthusiasm to monitor the death of nature, we end up monitoring nature to death?


7 thoughts on “Monitoring nature to death

  1. Thanks Chris – great argument! There is such a thin line between the right and wrong cause in research ethics. On the one hand, how can we know the behaviour of the animals we intend to effectively protect unless we employ the latest sophisticated technologies (as you correctly point-out)? On the other hand, to what extent should this be done (again depends on the data being sought)? These are highly paradoxical questions and am not sure we can get succinct answers. I would say, then, it gets down to individual/corporate etiquette (which widely varies), and the underlying reason why we do things the way we do them.

  2. I definitely agree with you on some fronts, Chris, but ultimately I do think people will only conserve what they know and understand, and often that means showing these species/places to people on a television or computer screen. These new technologies allows us to tap into people’s worlds like we couldn’t always before, and allows us to show that they are real, existing things that are directly affected by our actions.

  3. Some people have claimed to have found a link between people increasingly consuming nature through television programmes, internet usage, computer games etc, and a decreasing tendency to actually visit nature. The “hyper-real” world (to use the language of dead french philosophers) of close up, slow motion, nature on film is preferable to getting cold, wet, and impatient in order to get a glimpse of “real” nature.

    Pergams, O. R. W., and P. A. Zaradic. 2006. Is love of nature in the US becoming love of electronic media? 16-year downtrend in national park visits explained by watching movies, playing video games, internet use, and oil prices. Journal of Environmental Management 80:387-393.

  4. As a quick follow-up to this article, readers may be interested to look at this new piece in conservation biology: It suggests that monitoring may have unexpected negative impacts on behaviour of monitored animals, perhaps to the extent that monitoring data become unreliable. Abstract below.

    Effect of Monitoring Technique on Quality of Conservation Science

    Abstract: Monitoring free-ranging animals in their natural habitat is a keystone of ecosystem conservation and increasingly important in the context of current rates of loss of biological diversity. Data collected from individuals of endangered species inform conservation policies. Conservation professionals assume that these data are reliable—that the animals from whom data are collected are representative of the species in their physiology, ecology, and behavior and of the populations from which they are drawn. In the last few decades, there has been an enthusiastic adoption of invasive techniques for gathering ecological and conservation data. Although these can provide impressive quantities of data, and apparent insights into animal ranges and distributions, there is increasing evidence that these techniques can result in animal welfare problems, through the wide-ranging physiological effects of acute and chronic stress and through direct or indirect injuries or compromised movement. Much less commonly, however, do conservation scientists consider the issue of how these effects may alter the behavior of individuals to the extent that the data they collect could be unreliable. The emerging literature on the immediate and longer-term effects of capture and handling indicate it can no longer be assumed that a wild animal’s survival of the process implies the safety of the procedure, that the procedure is ethical, or the scientific validity of the resulting data. I argue that conservation professionals should routinely assess study populations for negative effects of their monitoring techniques and adopt noninvasive approaches for best outcomes not only for the animals, but also for conservation science.

  5. Hi Chris! couldn’t find your (no so) recent (anymore) work on computer games and conservation, and on community-based monitoring of natural resources. Really keen to read up, any references? Thanks!

    • Thanks for this. Our paper on the implications of games for conservation has just been accepted by conservation letters so watch this space! I’m afraid nothing in the pipeline on community based monitoring just yet.

  6. Pingback: Conservation is watching you | Thinking like a human

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