Friday, March 16, 2012

What do we do with what we know?

Eric Goode, a wealthy New York restauranteur and conservationist of extremely endangered chelonians (turtles and tortoises) found himself in thickets of Madagascar with Miguel Pedrono, a French conservation ecologist, and Lora Smith, an American herpetologist, trying to rescue the extremely rare plowshare tortoises, which collectors are willing to pay upwards of a hundred thousand dollars for--an example of "the perverse economics of rarity". William Finnegan, who accompanied Goode, documented this episode in the January 23 issue of The New Yorker,
Would defacing the shells discourage smuggling?

"Marking them won't fix much," Pedrono said. "Marked animals can be bred."

Goode asked about the Durrell Trust.

"They should stick to captive breeding," Smith said, diplomatically. "They have been having success with that."

Goode said, "I know the best thing to do sometimes is nothing." This is a core conservationist truth. But Goode isn't really built to do nothing...
The wild population (of plowshares) was clearly in decline. To get an accurate count, Goode wanted to mark every plowshare with big numbers and letters engraved into the carapace with a Dremel tool. But had the species already passed the point beyond which it could self-replicate?
The best way to find wild tortoises to mark was with trained dogs. But, if Goode brought a team of dogs and their handlers here, the poachers would quickly see the efficacy of dogs. For that matter, it might not be doing the plowshares any favors to hunt them all down for the sake of an accurate census and to mark them--too many local onlookers would also learn where they were. The poaching had been accelerated by the Internet, which connected the Asia market with local suppliers. If the goal was to help the plowshare survive, it really might be best to do nothing.
The other day, while talking to a group of undergraduate students, I was asked about how to remain positive and enthusiastic in the face of large the messes we face. I was left a little speechless, for I would be lying if I said I never feel cynical. But my mind jumped to something that I try to constantly ask myself and act on...What do we do with what we know? Sure, there are things we don't know, but do we really need to know them in order to do something? We know that dioxins are cancerous. We know that mountaintops are being blown off to burn their guts and spew their insides. We know that the most abundant thing this culture has produced is junk. We know. And so, maybe that something we need to do is nothing. But maybe that something is...something. We can suffuse our world with positivity. We can take simple, meaningful steps.

As a researcher, I am always surrounded by the anticipation of newness. Newness brings with it hope and optimism and the opening of new possibilities. Yet, there is a determinism that is deeply embedded in newness. That the directions we take are to be expected, needing no justification. There is a linearity to everything. Once it begins, it doesn't end, and the next step taken is the only possible step that can be taken. Many people make their lives and careers in aiding this determinism. Determinism is what guides most every technologist's and technocrat's thinking. It is as if a deterministic evolution has taken over all forms of inquisition and moral reasoning.

If you are reading this, you are probably very privileged with access to most basic things in the world. You have a roof over your head, food on the table each evening, and maybe some expendable money for a beer or two here and there. You probably have a decent education--you can read and understand and think about what you read. You also probably read the news, and observe violence and ecological degradation all around you. So then, I ask, what are we waiting for? What are you waiting for? What am I waiting for? Are we waiting for the never-to-come silver bullet that will wipe away power imbalances? Or are we willing to have agency, and recognise our privilege, and take a non-deterministic step?

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