Could Technology Make America Wild Again?

In a recent essay published in Aeon, Henry Mance asks “can technology mend our broken relationship with the natural world?”  At first, it seems, apparently not.

Making points that echo those formulated by philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann in an earlier post on this blog, Mance show how technology tends to undercut any native closeness we might feel to the biological world. He points to the irony that Amazon and Twitter are named after natural phenomena “even as they invent products that seem bent on supplanting it.”

Nature and technology appear to pull in different directions. Why else would the disposition of most technological futurists (wild optimism) be so often at odds with that of environmentalists (deep pessimism)? The only way a person can escape the destructive digital pressure created by the internet of things, Mance says, is “to surround yourself with things that can never be plugged in.”

Having set up an opposition that is as old as Aristotle, Mance goes on to ask if this antagonistic framing really makes sense any more. Given the pervasiveness of human impact in the new epoch of the Anthropocene, might it be time for a new mindset in which technology and nature can exist harmoniously side-by-side? After all, nature that is entirely free from human management hardly exists anymore. Citing the case of S’Albufera National Park in Mallorca, Mance shows how it is often the case that the places that appear to be the wildest have to be carefully maintained for that appearance by industrious park managers. As Emma Marris has put this curious phenomenon in the North American context, “suddenly the vacant lot in Detroit is wilder than Yellowstone.”

Peter LinehanMance gets the speculative juices flowing by proposing a range of technological possibilities for conservation including reforestation performed by drones, “RoboBee” pollinated meadows, and automated underwater killing machines for invasive starfish. In these and other cases, technology could be good for nature.

Although the examples cited show that the use of technology is not always at odds with the goals of conservation, they do not show that nature itself must necessarily be “technologized” in the Anthropocene. To the contrary, they are examples in which a technology serves the function of permitting nature to carry on more or less as nature in the face of ever-increasing pressures from humans. Technology just helps make this happen.

Then Mance takes the argument is step further.

What if machines were not employed to help land managers pursue their conservation goals but if the machines themselves were determining the conservation goals? From a purely practical point of view, cutting out the human middle-man may save dollars and potentially provide far more efficient ways of sustaining a world beyond the human.

Citing work done by Bradley Cantrell, Laura Martin, and Erle Ellis, Mance floats the possibility of automated devices that use an evolutionary type of machine learning to determine – and then execute – self-appointed conservation goals. This would be the curation of wild places not by people but by self-learning machines. These machines are not assigned conservation tasks by humans overseers. They work out a management regime of their own.

The benefits offered by this possibility are not just practical. The significant philosophical advantage is that it escapes from the paradox of parks like Mallorca’s S’Albufera and North America’s Yellowstone. Rather than remaining natural only through the concentrated efforts of park managers, such a landscape could remain natural without human input.  Humans, say the authors of the study, have been “painted out of the picture.”

Although they admit that the prospect of successfully developing such devices lays decades in the future, the authors of the study suggest that it is a prospect worth thinking about. Mance is enthusiastic about giving it a try. Why not let machines shape for us a new relationship with our surroundings? This has the potential to generate within humans a new sense of awe for a newly emergent type of wild nature. “Our experience of nature,” he says, “could be both more technological and more fulfilling.”

Where Mance is clearly right is that there is going to have to be room made for a new kind of wild in the Anthropocene epoch. The authors of the proposal on self-learning suggest that “wildness creation is the ultimate design challenge of the Anthropocene.” The old type of “wild” championed by early environmentalists like John Muir, the one where nature needed to be pristine and untouched to truly be wild, is increasingly difficult to find. We need a new concept for the wild in these different times. Environmental thinkers such as Fred Pearce and Emma Marris have been working hard to develop it.

Fair enough, as far as the creation of a “new wild” goes.

Michael ClarkWhere these visions seem to miss the mark is that they forget the importance of the extended sweep of history to the environmentalist’s appreciation of wild nature. The kind of wild John Muir fell in love with had long tendrils reaching far back into the epochs before humans arrived on the scene.  “All Nature’s wildness tells the same story,” said Muir. “The shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring , thundering waves and floods, the silent uprush of sap in plants, storms of every sort, each and all, are the orderly, beauty-making love-beats of Nature’s heart.” Part of the essential character of wildness is found in its deep history.

The Anthropocene has certainly meant that many of the objects resulting from this deep history are now changed. The seas are more acidic, the ice caps have become thinner, many of the species that evolved in one ecology have been extinguished or chased off by the new ecologies humans have created.

Yet strong links to the non-human past still remain. They remain in the physical topographies that reflect eons of sun, wind, and rain beating down upon a landscape. They remain in the elements of autonomy and surprise inherent in the wild animals that occupy all Anthropocene environments. The are found too in the unpredictability of DNA as it moves stealthily from generation to generation.

Yes, the Anthropocene comes with demands about how to think of wildness more broadly and creatively. But the Anthropocene, a term that occupies just one small line in a long list of epochs, does not provide license to forget all of natural history in one grand, human-centered gesture.


Drone image by Peter Linehan
Fossil image by Michael Clark

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