Deconstructing the Social Construction of Nature: Empowering Nonhuman Agency in Autonomous Conservation Systems

Authors: Erle Ellis*, University of Maryland - Baltimore County
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Environmental Perception, Coupled Human and Natural Systems
Keywords: nonhuman, niche construction, cultural evolution, conservation, cultures of nature, artificial intelligence
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Balcony B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Can new forms of conservation break the Anthropocene narrative of an ever-expanding humanity presiding over an ever-declining nature? In this time when human sociocultural transformation of the biosphere has never been greater, nature conservation has become a vast and expanding societal enterprise that already governs more than 15 percent of Earth’s land and will hopefully extend even further. Guided by diverse and evolving cultures of nature and “naturalness,” conservation strategies and their implementation vary dramatically across this vast extent from captive breeding programs to herbicide defoliation, soil removals, and the large-scale culling of invading species. Even when the goal is naturalness, managed natures are inevitably sociocultural natures, evolving together with and reflecting the human social worlds that create and sustain them. While this might be all that is possible within an increasingly human world, the time has come to examine the prospects for conservation designs that re-empower nature herself as designer. Central to this rubric is the creation of a “distanced authorship” through the empowerment of a designer with capacities distinct from and beyond those of any human—artificial intelligences equipped with tools for sensing and interacting with organisms and environments through systems of values and practices learned directly from the nonhuman world. Remarkably, such autonomous conservation systems are increasingly plausible in the realm of technologies under development and might inspire entirely new and potent forms of conservation practice that re-empower nonhuman agency in the construction and curation of nonhuman habitats.

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