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

Separate yet connected: the spatial paradox of conservation

Contemporary conservation practice includes two important strategies: trying to separate people and nature in space (in order to protect nature), and trying to reconnect people with nature (to promote human wellbeing and support for conservation). Both of these strategies are widespread and accepted approaches, and many conservation organisations and practitioners support doing both at once. But isn’t this a bit odd? Rather than trying to separate people from nature and then reconnect them, wouldn’t it make more sense not to separate people from nature in the first place? Continue reading

The Wild Wood and the Railway

I’m sorry, Mole old chap, but it just won’t do you know’.

The Mole lifted his gaze from the golden coals of the fire. ‘What won’t do Ratty?’

‘There’s something going on in the Wild Wood. We haven’t seen Badger for months. I am starting to worry about him’.

The Mole looked round at the honest face of his friend, brow furrowed and whiskers twitching. Outside the light was already going from the sky, and the windows rattled in the wind. It was a day for firesides, and crumpets. With great fortitude he stood up. ‘Well’, he said bravely, ‘why don’t we go and try to find him?

‘Would you?’ said Ratty, ‘it’s no kind of a day for a walk’.

‘Of course it is’, said the Mole, moving now with bustling decision, ‘now where did I put my stick?’

Some time later, the Mole and the Rat drew close to the edge of the Wild Wood. It was not a place either of them liked very much: dark and forbidding, especially on a cold blustery November afternoon.

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Is conservation really better together?

Heather Tallis, Jane Lubchenco and their many hundreds of co-signatories have caught the attention of the media and conservationists around the world with their call for inclusive conservation. In their article, which appeared in Nature, they argue that recent debate about whether conservation should be based on intrinsic or instrumental values has become acrimonious to a level that is damaging for the conservation movement, and that part of the problem is the domination of a few voices, nearly all of them from male and from wealthy countries. They go on to call for “a unified and diverse conservation ethic; one that recognizes and accepts all values of nature, from intrinsic to instrumental, and welcomes all philosophies justifying nature protection and restoration, from ethical to economic, and from aesthetic to utilitarian.”

It is impossible to disagree that angry and aggressive arguments about conservation values are unhelpful, or that the conservation movement would be enormously better off if a more diverse range of voices could be heard, whether in the pages of academic journals or the boardrooms of BINGOs. Indeed, the work I do with the remarkably diverse students on the Cambridge Masters in Conservation Leadership seeks directly to address these challenges. However, there are two aspects of the Tallis, et al. paper with which I do not agree. Continue reading

Conservation poetry: a field guide

Is there such a thing as conservation poetry? This question has been running through my mind since I talked with a Masters student who was doing a project on ‘conservation art’. I asked exactly what that meant. This led to an interesting discussion about different artists (primarily in graphic art or sculpture) whose work spoke of themes central to conservation. There are lots of examples, either of projects (the Ghosts of Gone Birds for example), organisations (such as the Artists for Nature Programme), or individuals (like the wonderful murals of my friend Rory McCann).

Yet while I can think of many artists whose work inspires me as a conservationist, I hesitate to say that my response necessarily matches their intention: the question for me is whether my feelings should be allowed to label their art? To me, artists do what they do, expressing what they see or hear in their heads. The notion that the resulting art, even if it portrays some aspect of nature, should necessarily be thought of as ‘conservation art’, seems wrong. Art just is. Its effects lie with the response of those who engage with it.

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Conservation: we are what we eat

Living as I do in a northern European city, it is tempting to think of conservation as being something that happens ‘out there’ in tropical forests and coral reefs, with no connection to my everyday life. But on our increasingly globalised planet, the consumption choices that I and my fellow citizens make really do have a significant impact on biodiversity all around the world. A clear example is provided by the question of what we choose to eat and drink. There is overwhelming evidence that the ‘normal’ diet enjoyed by the world’s rich, and desired by the world’s poor, is highly damaging to biodiversity. Livestock are fed on soy grown on land cleared from forest. Fish are harvested using trawling technologies that devastate marine life. Tea, coffee and oil palm all replace natural forest, even when they are certified as biodiversity friendly. A recent article in Science makes the claim that “human carnivory is in fact the single greatest threat to overall biodiversity” because of the huge amounts of space and energy that go into meat production. More recently it has been claimed that giving up beef would reduce our carbon footprint more than giving up driving cars.

Given all this evidence, it might seem reasonable to expect that highly damaging food and drink products are being taken off our menus and supermarket shelves through a combination of regulation and consumer pressure. But of course this isn’t happening – far from it. So what is going on? Why is there not a sensible public debate about the relationship between food and nature? I recently took part in an event at Homerton College in Cambridge to discuss this issue, organised by Luciana Leite de Araujo, one of my fantastic Conservation Leadership students. I shared the stage with my colleague Ben Phalan, who knows far more about these issues than I do. This blog is an attempt to distil my thinking after the event, and to propose some ideas for a way forward. Continue reading

Give Me Back My Greens

This is a hard time to be green. Since the financial crash in 2008, British government policy has been fixated with ‘growth’, and action for the environment has become profoundly out of fashion in the UK with politicians and media alike. No more dogsled rides for David Cameron to highlight climate change, and deep burial for his promise to run ‘the greenest government ever’. In November, the Sun reported that the Prime Minister had ordered aides to ‘get rid of the green crap’ to reduce household bills. It was, said the Daily Mail, all part of Opposition leader ‘Red Ed’s’ ‘green obsession’. In December, the Daily Mail ran an article on ‘fat cat Ecocrats’, identifying a ‘web of ‘green’ politicians, tycoons and power brokers’, profiting from these green levies.

But what does it mean to describe something as ‘green’?  The word has become so loosely used that its meaning is debased. Seemingly, it is ‘green’ to establish protected areas, restore ecosystems or protect rare species. At the same time, it is ‘green’ to oppose nuclear power, buy organic, promote renewable energy, oppose a new runway at Heathrow, try to control speeding on motorways, oppose housing development in the ‘Green’ Belt or build wind farms. Continue reading

What is conservation?

Last week I gave an introductory undergraduate lecture about conservation, which forced me to spend some time thinking about how to define what it is. This is more difficult than it perhaps should be – ‘conservation’ is a word that seems to make sense on an intuitive level (I feel that I know it when I see it), but stubbornly resists attempts to be wrestled into a clear definition. In the end I came up with a new definition, but was left wondering whether the scope of ideas and activities that fit within this definition have moved on beyond the usefulness of the term ‘conservation’ itself. This post is an attempt to explain why. Continue reading