The natural life: reframing the separation from nature debate

An important theme in recent thinking about conservation has related to the question of whether people are becoming more separated from nature in various ways, and if so, what might be the implications. Several versions of this argument exist, including Richard Louv’s idea that a loss of contact with nature creates a kind of ‘nature deficit disorder’ among children, George Monbiot’s call for the re-wilding of human experience, and Michael Pollan’s critique of how factory farming severs links between people and nature that are mediated through food. Indeed, Peter Kareiva has said that an experiential separation from nature, as demonstrated through a decline in nature recreation “may well be the world’s greatest environmental threat”.

I have argued in a recent blog that there is a strange paradox in contemporary conservation practice which seems determined to create spatial separations between people and non-human nature, whilst lamenting the resulting emotional / experiential disconnection between the two. In this article, however, I want to focus on a deeper and more philosophical criticism of the ‘separation thesis’ – namely that a separation of people from nature is impossible because people are part of nature, and therefore cannot be separated from it. This line of criticism draws from longstanding arguments in philosophy about the relationship between humanity and the rest of life on earth, rejecting the dualistic view that humans and nature are two separate categories, and preferring instead to see society and nature as inextricably connected ‘socionatures’. This view emerges from academia, but is also a common feature of the non-western worldviews of many human groups around the world. Continue reading

Synthetic Biology and the Metabolic Rift

Synthetic biology is an astonishing field. Its scientific ambition is breathtaking. According to the Global Network of Science Academies, it involves no less than ‘the deliberate design and construction of customized biological and biochemical systems to perform new or improved functions’. Synthetic biologists hope to create a new industry by treating DNA as if it was computer software.   Writing in Nature, Daniel Gibson observed ‘A biological cell is much like a computer – the genome can be thought of as the software that encodes the cell’s instructions, and the cellular machinery as the hardware that interprets and runs the software’. Scientists can act as biological ‘software engineers’, programming new biological ‘operating systems’ into cells. That is quite an ambition.

Synthetic biology  has significant implications for conservation, from the speculative world of de-extinction (whether the cloning of mammoth or the summer blockbuster of Jurassic World) to the idea of fighting wildlife disease (such as white-nose disease in wild bats or chytridiomycosis in amphibians), or addressing human impacts on land and ocean. It has the potential to transform the production of food, fibre and oils, the flows of materials through the urban-industrial system, and human ecological interactions. It is likely to be a seriously disruptive innovation in many fields, from medicine or agriculture to energy supply.

In a world of Promethean environmentalism, synthetic biology offers perhaps the perfect combination of possibility and risk. On the one hand it offers solutions to global sustainability challenges in food, water and energy. On the other hand, it channels environmentalist fears about the scope of corporate control of genetic knowledge and the development, patenting and release of novel organisms.

But synthetic biology is not just another technology. It has profound implications for relations between humanity and non-human nature. As Neil Smith observes, it extends human artifice – and corporate interests – right down to the level of the genome.   So a key question is, how should we think about it?

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Conservation is watching you

Over the last few years the conservation movement has been enthusiastically deploying new surveillance technologies that make it possible to monitor and protect the natural world in ways once unimaginable. There are camera traps that can send live images of warthogs, lions and blurry things with legs direct to your desktop. There are unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) that buzz overhead, filming orang-utan nests or measuring forest loss. There are tiny tracking devices that can be fitted to wild animals, allowing them to be followed from space as they wander around the Kenyan plains or fly across the ocean. And there are computer programmes that can predict the behaviour of poachers and send drones out to intercept them.

All of this is very exciting for conservationists. New gizmos promise better and cheaper data that can be used to monitor populations and understand threats, and new ways to tackle those threats. What’s more, some of the outputs of the technology are visually appealing and easily communicated to the general public through websites and smartphone apps, meaning that technologies can also be used to raise funds and promote public awareness.

Clearly new technology has a lot of potential for conservation, and websites like the newly launced WildLabs.net showcase the range of applications that are being developed. But is there another side to this story? Are there any potential risks or dangers lurking in the shadows as conservation rushes to deploy the latest gadgets? Continue reading

Out of sight/site, out of mind: the challenge of studying what really matters in political ecology

According to Marx, a defining characteristic of capitalism is the way that the social relations involved in the production of commodities are obscured: he called this ‘commodity fetishism’, suggesting that we see commodities as ‘inanimate objects worshipped for their supposed magical powers’ (OED). So, for example, when we buy a cheap T-shirt or the latest gadget we can exist in a bubble of ignorance about the social and ecological consequences of their production. This allows us to carry on consuming, and capitalism to carry on churning out surplus value, without too many difficult questions being asked about things like labour rights or pollution.

Political ecology scholarship regularly, and rightly, calls attention to these hidden processes and seeks to shed light onto them. For example, a recent paper by Martin Arboleda argues that one cannot understand the dynamics of urban areas, with their towers of steel and glass and hyperconsuming citizens, without also understanding the connected dynamics that produce immense holes in the ground and gigantic livestock factories in distant rural locations, with all of their social and ecological consequences. The one could not exist without the other, and so to understand them, Alboreda argues that we must understand (and therefore conduct research in) both.

This is a compelling argument, but in practice it presents two important challenges. First, it isn’t always easy to know where to look for the concealed relations of fetishized commodities, precisely because they are so well hidden. Second, even where the concealed relations that go into the production of commodities can be uncovered, studying them in detail can be very difficult, requiring fieldwork in multiple locations and sometimes multiple languages. This work can also be fraught with potential danger, as the underbelly of capitalism can be reluctant to give up its secrets. Continue reading

Any Colour You Like, But Not Green

What are we to make of the news that the German car manufacturer Volkswagen has been cheating on emissions tests for diesel cars in the USA? The first cries of ‘disgraceful’ from the media were followed by announcement that 11 million cars had the ‘cheat software’. There were apologies, resignations and drastic impacts on share prices. Subsequent stories expanded the focus of concern from Volkswagen to the Porsche partner companies (Audi and Skoda), who announced that 3.3 million of their cars were fitted with the same software as Volkswagen to cheat US emissions tests.

Should this be a surprise? Not really.

First, it is not surprising to find regulators revealed as useless: dogs with neither bark nor bite – especially in bureau-Europe. It has been known since 2011 that diesel cars driven on the road discharged far more nitrogen oxide and particulate than official tests reported, and had significantly worse fuel consumption. The testing regimes have been criticized as ‘not fit for purpose’, especially the bureaucratic mess that holds in the EU. The BBC reported the UK Committee on Climate Change saying that between 2002 and 2014 the gap between official and real-world CO2 emissions for new passenger cars increased from about 10% to 35%.

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On the Conservation of Trolls

The strange and sad story of Cecil the lion (named for an imperialist, collared for science, shot on a private ranch outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe) has many lessons for conservation. The one I want to consider here is what it says about trolls.

Trolls are mythical semi-humanoid supernatural creatures. They were once widely distributed in northern Europe, where the winter nights are long and cold. They are grumpy, fearsome, nocturnal, and hide in (or turn into) rocks. They are traditionally carnivorous, ambushing passers by, particularly those goats unwise enough disturb the peace by trip trapping over bridges Trolls are widely believed to be extinct, but in fact they have spread widely as Norse folklore has become the staple of the fantasy industry. Terry Pratchett has contributed a great deal to our understanding: they turn out to be surprisingly good at maths, when it gets cold enough. Recent sightings include New Zealand, where dim-witted nocturnal trolls are reported to have attacked travellers, and taken to disturbing the peace by fighting. To Tolkein, trolls represented the dark side of the rural idyll of the Shire: large, unsociable and stupid, in contrast to the robust, bucolic intelligence of the hobbits.

As far as I know, there are no trolls in Zimbabwe. But their latter-day alter egos, internet trolls, seem very familiar with the place. The estimable Wikipedia defines an internet troll as ‘a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community… with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response, or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion’.

The internet came down like a ton of bricks on the American hunter who shot Cecil, a dentist from Minnesota. The staid BBC noted that the global outcry led to Walter Palmer being ‘swamped with abuse and dark humour from web users around the world’. Among other things, someone created a fake Twitter account for his dental practice, with predictable results. The commentariat, on line, in print and on TV, went into overdrive, leaving no analytical stone unturned. Not all the comment was amusing: there were death threats, and vandalism at Palmer’s properties. He went into hiding, and faces prosecution in the face of the universal disgust and hostility of the online world.

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Rewilding as Process

To his many readers, George Monbiot’s book Feral has come to encapsulate the idea of rewilding.   His mix of gritty wilderness autobiography and sharp well-researched polemic is compulsive. His sheep-skepticism and his fluency (epitomized in the wonderful word ‘sheepwrecked’ to described Britain’s bare and long-grazed uplands) are a publisher’s dream, and it is unsurprising to find the book selling well on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Monbiot is a relative latecomer to the rewilding party in the UK. Its doyenne is the British Association for Nature Conservation, BANC. Since the 1990s, BANC’s journal ECOS: A Review of Conservation has been planting and watering ideas about the wild in conservation, and how to get more of it. BANC published Peter Taylor’s book Beyond Conservation, which set out the case for large wild areas in the UK, and for reintroducing carnivores to its busy pocket-handkerchief countryside. In 2011, Peter edited Rewilding, a collection of ECOS articles on wildlands and conservation values. The Autumn 2014 issue carried a series of articles on the wild and rewilding arising from the meeting Wilder by Design in Sheffield (the first of a pair: the next is in September 2015)

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