Geologists have recently argued that we have entered a new era – the Anthropocene – now that humans have been recognised as a planet changing force. While the claim is contested, it is symptomatic of a widespread recognition of the scale of human impacts on the planet. There is nowhere left on Earth that is not in some way modified by human activity. Nature – as a pure domain removed from Society – is no more. And, as we know only too well, this modification is not the triumph of human reason. The predicted consequences of human planetary change are alarming, unequal and uncertain.
The diagnosis of the Anthropocene poses important challenges to environmentalists, who have long appealed to Nature to guide and authorise political action. If Nature is gone, what should guide environmental action? How will we know what is right and proper? Who will make these decisions, if not natural scientists? Should we retreat to the past or make a final further leap to achieve full modernisation? As an environmental geographer these are the types of questions I have been exploring in my research. In conversation with a wide array of like-minded colleagues, I have been proposing and critically examining the utility of alternative ways of guiding environmentalism.
Here I have largely focused on wildlife conservation. Drawing on detailed empirical examinations of conservation in practice, past and present, in the UK, South Asia and continental Europe, I suggest that:
- We might best conceive of environmentalism as a ‘multinatural’ practice, involving deliberations between many different ideas about Nature and forms of expertise, as well as with dynamic and non-linear systems. We often disagree about environmental issues and in many cases do not know what any ecology will become;
- Environmentalism is rarely rational. It involves emotional attachments to places, organisms and specific events. Here I have explored the importance of charismatic species in linking together different groups of people, we well as tracing how different and power-laden associations with different species (like elephants) can exclude marginal groups;
- A great deal of what happens in environmentalism happens far from the wild places that are the source of concern. Here I am especially interested in the role of moving imagery in framing how we think, feel and act towards the non-human world. I have also explored the role of scientific objects in framing the world and thus scripting how conservation takes place in practice
- Environmentalism has long histories. In South Asia for example, contemporary conservation emerged out of colonial exploration, hunting and subsequent tourism. Post-colonial visitors to Sri Lanka shoot elephants with cameras in National Parks carved out by colonial administrators.
This work has been published in a series of scholarly papers. I am currently joining these up into a monograph that will be published next year. Looking ahead, I have become interested in tracing a wider set of developments in the governance of human and environmental health in which the human body is seen as part of a wider environment all of which is in need of some form of ecological management. There are fascinating ‘probiotic’ trends underway in the health sciences with interventions seeking to re-wild the human body – returning animals and bacteria banished by the antibiotic approaches of modern hygiene. In my next project I aim to explore the similarities and differences between these trends across scales – from the human body to the nature reserve.