The Cyborg Conservationist

Haze from the 2015 forest fires in Southeast Asia may have killed about 100,000 people. It was also really bad for wildlife. Benjamin Lee and colleagues recently showed these effects by measuring acoustic activity on an ‘eco-overpass’ between two areas of forest in Singapore before, during and after the haze event. The data showed that acoustic activity dropped by 37% during the haze, and had showed only partial recovery 16 weeks later.

I learned of this research through the excellent BBC World Service Inside Science Programme on 12 October 2017. What caught my attention was the serendipitous nature of the study. Lee was supposed to be surveying bats to assess the effects of the overpass. But the haze triggered his asthma, and he had to stop work: but his acoustic recorders stayed in place. And hence a dataset was collected that spanned the haze event, recording not just bats but also birds and insects, and showing how they were silenced by the conditions.

This neat paper highlights the extraordinary power of remote devices to record biological data. Digital acoustic recording is widely used to survey bats (e.g. the iBats programme) and increasingly birds and insects. Moreover, archived sound recordings made for one purpose can be mined later for another. Citizen science recordings of bats in the UK have been used to identity stridulating bush-crickets. Continue reading

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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

PristinePark2.0™: the future of offsetting?

A group of smartly dressed executives stands on a viewing platform, looking out over a verdant forest teeming with wildlife. A waiter glides among the party topping up glasses of champagne, while another offers elaborate canapés. A man steps forward and claps his hands.

“Ladies and gentlemen, as Chief Executive of Conservation plc, may I welcome you to this exclusive viewing of the wonderful place that we call PristinePark2.0™. You have been carefully chosen to have the first opportunity to visit this paradise, and to purchase a stake in it. But first, let me tell you our story. Continue reading

The Conservation of Smellscapes

Recently, I cycled back late from town. There was no wind, almost no traffic, and no moon. I was struck by the power of smells in the dark: first some splashed diesel near the garage, then lilac in a garden, pine trees at the motorway bridge, and the warm ammonia of bullocks at the farm. Finally, home, and then, suddenly, the smell of my neighbour’s washing, hung out overnight: an overpowering and entirely artificial scent, a radical shift of smellscape.

I first came across the concept of ‘smellscape’ in a paper by the cultural geographer Douglas Porteus in 1985. He pointed out that smells tend to be place-related, and that the nose perceives smellscapes just as the eye sees landscapes. Porteus describes sampling smells on ‘smellwalks’, not unlike my cycle journey home. Different continents, countries, regions, neighbourhoods and houses have their particular smellscapes. As Victoria Henshaw pointed out in her book Urban Smellscapes, cities have characteristic smells.   Kate McLean, an artist and designer, makes ‘smellmaps’ of cities around the world. Continue reading

Conservation Over There

Recently, I was talking about Conservation International’s Nature is Speaking videos with some PhD students and postdocs. I recalled that long before Harrison Ford brought his gravel toned menace to voicing The Ocean, he did another video for CI, dear to the heart of fans of his knowing self-parody and sense of timing. In it, Harrison Ford has his chest waxed, while talking about tropical forest loss. Slap on the wax and cue the last line, straight to camera: ‘Every bit of rainforest that gets ripped out over there’ … rip of chest hair; wince … ‘really hurts us over here’… rueful smile.

In the past, I have often used this video with student groups. It lasts 31 seconds, and usually gets a laugh. It raises a serious issue in forest loss. More usefully, there is another perhaps more significant story behind that, in what it reveals about the view of the world that dominates western environmentalism.

The wax job narrative has obvious problems. One thing those who object to it (aside from those allergic to Han Solo or Indiana Jones) focus on the selfishness of its message. The reason it gives to stop tropical forest loss is not because of its significance to local people, or the wonder awakened by its coevolved diversity, but its role in locking up surplus carbon. The video buys into the mainstream international approach to anthropogenic climate change, which is built on the idea of a single global pool of carbon. This allows carbon burned to run chiller cabinets, warm poorly designed houses or allow commuters to queue in their cars to be directly compared with the carbon in a tree or a peatland or plankton.

From this seed grows the whole jungle of carbon offsetting. There is too much carbon in circulation: should we stop producing it? No, too difficult, too disruptive and too expensive. We need to find a convenient (and cheap) way to lock some up. Why not ignore our own carbon use and put our money into stopping forest loss instead?

Harrison Ford outlines the classic ‘carbon colonialism’ of global climate management: let us stop their forest being lost or it will hurt us over here (real people, such as spaceship pilots, archaeologists and actors, who would otherwise have to cut back on their own fossil fuel use).

But Conservation International’s core concern is not carbon as such, but biodiversity. Its website declares ‘CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the well-being of humanity’.

The same sleight of hand works for biodiversity loss as for carbon: the problem is constructed as global, and so too are the solutions Biodiversity is everywhere: we just need to find the fastest, cheapest and most convenient way to save as much as possible. Where do we get most bang for our buck? In the tropics, where biodiversity is highest, land is cheapest and people most need money. And where does CI work? In the tropics: it website shows offices in more than 30 countries, all of them less developed and almost all in the tropics.

Although the battered ecosystems of the developed world also have their passionate supporters, such as the Wildlife Trusts in the UK, all the world’s biggest conservation NGOs (and the scientists who advise them) share CI’s concern for tropical biodiversity. All of them aim to raise money ‘over here’ (from people in industrialised countries) to protect species and ecosystems ‘over there’ (in the tropical developing world).

Conservation is increasingly globalised. Its websites and magazines have come to look like travel brochures: rich colours, vibrant ecosystems, charismatic species (and sometimes quaint natives). Some conservation organisations even organise tours for their supporters, so they can see protected and threatened nature for themselves. A niche travel product has developed around ‘last chance tourism’. It is as if love of nature has become a love of the exotic: a documentary series, a holiday brochure, the immersive experience of 360o video.

Loss of natural diversity in the face of human consumption has become standardised, treated as a single problem, just like carbon. The problem with this is that conservation is not presented as depending on my actions (except in reaching for the ‘donate now’ button). More generally, the implied message of calls for tropical conservation is that global biodiversity loss has little connection with actions in the developed world, or the lifestyle and energy use patterns into which everyone is locked.

This is simply not true. The general links between global trade and biodiversity loss have been recognised for some time. Now a new paper in by Daniel Moran and Keiichiro Kanemoto has mapped the links between consumption in specific countries (such as the USA or the EU) and hotspots of species under threat in the tropics. These connections are entrenched, destructive and near universal. The new Trase transparency platform (Transparency for Sustainable Economies) uses production, trade and customs data to show flows of globally traded commodities such as palm oil, soya, beef and timber through supply chains from source, through trading companies to consumption. Whether we like it or not, transparency about the connections between consumption here and impacts ‘over there’ are going to become much harder to ignore.

Conservationists feel the destruction of nature as a hurt – we live, as Aldo Leopold said of ecologists – in a world of wounds. But the globalisation of biodiversity loss offers dangerous solace. It means that we mourn, but we do not have to change. If the real problem is over there, it is not us but those people who must change. Our job as conservationists is therefore to persuade them, or sometimes indeed to force their hands, with our donations and our buying power, our ideas of nature and our friends among their elite.

The problem is that the actions that cause the hurt are not just over there, they are also much closer to home, in excessive consumption (beef, soya, diesel, plastics, air conditioning: the list is endless), and in our acceptance that global supply chains that meet our every want are normal and inevitable (indeed – because we love our consumption – that they are basically good).

When CI talks about climate change, it presents ‘nature’ as ‘humanity’s biggest ally in the fight against climate change’. The idea of a global pool of carbon links the survival of that forest to our carbon consumption. So, as Harrison Ford argues, if tropical forests can indeed deliver ‘30% of mitigation action needed to prevent catastrophic climate change’, protecting them makes sense.

After all, the only other alternative would mean tackling the systemic dependence on fossil fuels of the capitalist system of production and consumption. And that would strike at the heart of the way the people live in the world’s richest countries – which would be really scary for all conservation’s key supporters, not least space pilots and Hollywood stars.

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?

Continue reading

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