Conservation and the final frontier

A few weeks ago I settled down to watch a BBC TV programme called The 21st Century Race for Space, hosted by celebrity physicist and one-time pop star Brian Cox. I had spent all day thinking about conservation at work, and was looking for a bit of escapism. In the programme Cox spent a lot of time ogling large shiny spacecraft in even larger hangars in the Nevada desert, putting on space suits and visiting simulated mars colonies. It was like a Top Gear special all about space rockets.

One of the striking things about the programme was the people that Cox was able to talk to. He had 1:1 interviews with Dennis Tito (the first space tourist), Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon and owner of Blue Origin, a ‘spaceflight services company’), and Richard Branson (founder of Virgin and owner of Virgin Galactic). He tried to get Elon Musk (founder of PayPal and owner of SpaceX) but had to settle for some guy who had once met him at a party.

These billionaires are revolutionising space innovation by moving it from being the exclusive preserve of state organisations (such as NASA) to the hands of private enterprise. They have extraordinary ambition – not just to advance our civilisation into space, but to make money while doing so. Bezos in particular spoke with fanatical zeal about the opportunity to provide a whole new canvas for human innovation and economic growth off our planet. Scholars of capitalism would recognise this as the ultimate spatial fix – capital seeking new frontiers for expansion in space (outer and virtual) once the possibilities on Earth are exhausted.

I found all this very interesting, but what really got my attention was when the subject unexpectedly turned to conservation. Several of the interviewees described their plans as part of a conservation strategy – both for biodiversity on Earth in general and human survival in particular (their arguments are very usefully summarised in this article from which I sourced some of the quotes below). This idea of ‘conservation through space travel’ builds on some thinking put forward by Stephen Hawking recently when he said “the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive. With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious”. Continue reading

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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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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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Conservation and capitalism: on your Marx, get set, GO!

I recently attended a conference at the University of Toronto entitled “Grabbing ‘Green’: Questioning the Green Economy”. This was part of a series of linked conferences held over the past few years that bring together scholars who critically analyse the relations between biodiversity conservation and neoliberal processes such as commodification, marketisation and privatisation. Academics working in this field have identified various problems with so-called ‘neoliberal conservation’, as reviewed by Buscher et al 2012. Over the last few years I have enjoyed getting to know this literature, and more recently I have enjoyed getting to know personally some of its leading authors. I think that they have identified deep and serious problems with the neoliberal turn in conservation. At the same time, I have often been frustrated by the dense and difficult style in which much of this literature is written, and by the way it sometimes paints a picture of conservationists that doesn’t fit well with my own experience (a point made by Kent Redford here).

Neoliberal conservation in action in Canada

Neoliberal conservation in action in Canada

Given my interest in the work of this academic community, it was with a sense of real anticipation that I set off for Toronto. So how did it go? On the one hand, I heard some really excellent papers and discussions, and I enjoyed presenting my own work and receiving constructive feedback on it. I have high hopes that this will lead to some fruitful new research and collaborations. On the other hand, I found some aspects of the conference quite depressing and frustrating, for reasons I will try to explain. Continue reading