Weak yet strong: the uneven power relations of conservation

Over the summer I have been lucky enough to go to various meetings and events (particularly the North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Madison, US and the Cecil Summit in Oxford) that have exposed me to unfamiliar examples of conservation practice around the world. A consistent theme running through much of what I have learned is the importance of the power relations between conservation and other actors, and how much these affect conservation thinking and practice. This in itself is not surprising, but what has really struck me is that there are two different, and seemingly contradictory, narratives about conservation and power in circulation.   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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Election 2015: Would conservation charities vote Green?

Everyone knows that the Green Party is particularly interested in environmental issues. But perhaps less widely appreciated is their left-wing position on how to deliver the social change that would lead to more positive environmental outcomes. Their vision is based on a return to a large and interventionist state and a reversal in what they call the ‘marketisation’ of public policy, as demonstrated by the following quotes from their manifesto:

  • We need to remake society. And in this remaking we need finally to realise that consumer capitalism is the problem, not the solution. The solution lies in a democratically managed economy that operates within the Earth’s resource limits
  • The market has been in charge for so long that it dominates our imagination and colours our view of ourselves. The market is short sighted and short term. It’s time for change – time to put the market to work for the common good and for people to be put back in charge
  • We want a One-Planet economy that will address the challenge of climate change and unacceptable levels of inequality. We have to throw off the shackles of market ideology and consider afresh what really needs to be done
  • The market makes us impatient with the suffering of others, tolerant of inequality, prone to prejudice, suspicious of difference. We know we can be cooperative, appreciative, understanding and fair. We just need a world that encourages us to be these things

This radical alternative to mainstream UK politics seems to be striking a chord with the public. The early phase of campaigning for today’s UK General Election saw widespread reporting of a ‘green surge’ as the Green Party’s membership swelled to unprecedented levels. As polling day approached, the larger political parties returned to their traditional dominance of the election narrative, but the Greens are still set for their best ever performance in a national poll; something in the region of 5% of the vote according to the latest BBC poll of polls. Continue reading

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