The Digital Planet

The Digital Planet

The Grevy’s zebra, which lives primarily in the grasslands of northern Kenya, is distinguishable from the world’s other two species of zebra by its stripes, which are narrower, more closely spaced, and altogether more elegant than those of its cousins. The most endangered of the zebras, its population was reduced by overhunting and habitat loss from an estimated 15,000 in the 1970s to around 3,000 in the mid-2010s. Like many vulnerable species, it is also threatened by data gaps: Grevy’s zebras are elusive, and the difficulty of counting them without resorting to invasive methods such as trapping and marking has made their decline harder to document—and easier to ignore.

In the early 2000s, when the computer scientist Tanya Berger-Wolf was finishing her doctoral research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she was struck by the predicament of the Grevy’s zebra. As she later told the writer Karen Bakker, she was also struck by the opposing trends in digital technology and biodiversity: as the former was expanding exponentially, the latter was plummeting. Since there was no academic field dedicated to the applications of computer science to conservation problems, Berger-Wolf proposed to create one, writing to the Princeton ecologist Simon Levin and asking him to advise her as a postdoctoral fellow in computational ecology, which he did.

Several years after training with Levin, Berger-Wolf was teaching a course in Kenya when she overheard her husband, a wildlife ecologist, joking with a group of Kenyan biologists about the frustration of identifying individual Grevy’s zebras from photos taken in the field. “All we need is a bar code reader for zebras!” he said. Exactly, Berger-Wolf thought. Soon, she and one of her doctoral students set about developing an algorithm that could recognize zebras by their unique stripe patterns.

Berger-Wolf then worked with the Kenyan government to organize the Great Grevy’s Rally, a biennial event during which members of the public are encouraged to take photos of the zebras. With the help of Berger-Wolf’s stripe reader, researchers used photos from successive rallies to calculate the size of the Grevy’s population. Meanwhile, broad participation in the rallies built support for the species and more ambitious measures to protect it. Since the first rally in 2016, conservation policies enacted by the Kenyan government have helped to slow the decline of the Grevy’s zebra, and a census in 2020 found that its numbers had stabilized. Berger-Wolf and her colleagues have now expanded the stripe reader concept into Wildbook, a “Facebook for animals” that uses automatic photo analysis to catalog individuals from species including whales, giraffes, turtles, sharks, and jaguars.

Of the estimated 8.7 million species on Earth, only about 1.5 million have been identified and described by the international scientific community, and only about 150,000 have been studied closely. (If you think the news about endangered species is depressing, remember that you’re likely hearing less than 2 percent of it.) In recent years researchers have embraced digital technology as one solution to this shortfall, using it to accomplish tasks that were previously time-consuming if not impossible: counting plants and animals, mapping habitats, and tracking animal movements. Since late 2020 ICARUS—the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space—has followed tens of thousands of biochipped animals via satellite, yielding such detailed real-time data about variations in animal behavior that it may also help alert humans to earthquakes, floods, and emerging pandemics.

“Thousands of systems like ICARUS now exist,” Bakker writes in her book Gaia’s Web, “monitoring forests and tundra, cities and clouds, and even the evanescent flows of atmospheric gases.” Some of them “are as small as a pond, while others encompass entire continents,” she explains. “When deployed, they reveal much that was once hidden about the natural world”:

Digital tracking devices are affixed to the tiniest of insects. Honeybee sensors, for example, can measure location, temperature, humidity, or light intensity; some bee trackers function much like the digital chip in your credit card, so that the bees can scan themselves every time they enter or leave the hive. The list of sensors available for whales alone is dizzying in its variety.

To reveal what was once obscured is inevitably a political act, and its consequences are rarely simple. Bakker profiles the marine scientist Dyhia Belhabib, who is tackling the global epidemic of illegal fishing—accurately described by Bakker as “one of the most intractable problems in contemporary environmental conservation”—by combining satellite data on vessel locations with artificial intelligence to help law enforcement agencies monitor the ocean.

Though Belhabib’s work is making it more difficult for known offenders to disappear into the immensity of the open sea, she is well aware that digital tools can be used for darker ends. Fishers are now using acoustic technology and the same satellite global positioning systems to locate schools of fish, accelerating the exploitation that Belhabib hopes to contain; meanwhile European countries and private security services use satellite data to surveil migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Belhabib recognizes, too, that digitally assisted enforcement does not address the causes of overfishing, for it can neither check consumer demand for fish nor substitute for effective ocean governance.

In Gaia’s Web, Bakker explores the interplay among digital technologies, social and political systems, and the living planet in the present and future. Despite the book’s buoyant subtitle, she acknowledges the risks—even the likelihood—that digital technology will worsen environmental problems, given both its potential for misuse and its enormous appetite for electricity and metals. But the fact that many digital tools are put to nefarious purposes does not mean that their abuse is inevitable or that their management is impossible. “It is not the digital nature of the technologies that is critical, but the systems of ownership, enterprise, and governance in which they are enmeshed,” Bakker argues.

Throughout her analysis, which moves from present-day applications into highly speculative territory, Bakker prods her readers to entertain what might strike them as the most fanciful possibility of all: that digital technologies can not only assist in the protection and restoration of ecosystems but strengthen our relationships with them. “In using digital technology to address today’s environmental challenges,” she writes, “we may choose to regenerate the Earth.”

Bakker, who passed away in August 2023 at the age of fifty-one, was a professor of geography at the University of British Columbia. She was internationally recognized for her work on global water politics, climate change, and, most recently, the intersection of technology and environmental concerns. (Her manifold interests also extended to food and nutrition, and under the name Karen Le Billon she wrote books for parents about cooking for picky eaters.) Gaia’s Web, published after her death, expands on her 2022 book The Sounds of Life, an investigation into the ecological and political implications of recent advances in bioacoustics. Poignantly, her final book feels like the early stages of an overdue conversation.

As Bakker explains, the real-time monitoring and regulation enabled by digital technology is helping to curb illegal fishing, hunting, and logging and also to track unreported methane releases from oil and gas operations—a major source of climate-disrupting emissions. (Bakker contrasts the speed and precision of digitally assisted methane monitoring to the data on sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants collected during the 1990s, which were sent to the Environmental Protection Agency on floppy disks.) Digital tools can also provide earlier and more accurate warnings of climate-related disasters: the San Francisco–based satellite company Planet runs the California Fire Observatory, which plans to monitor and predict wildfire risk using highly detailed, continuously updated maps of the state’s forests. In the Canadian Arctic, the application SmartICE collects data on changing sea ice conditions from a network of sensors whose placement is informed by Inuit elders and whose output is cross-referenced with Indigenous knowledge. The resulting travel maps are updated weekly and shared with communities via smartphone and hard copies.

These benefits are meaningless, however, if digital technology creates more climate havoc than it solves. Bakker points out that if the global tech sector were a country, its total power usage would rank third in the world, behind the United States and China. Artificial intelligence, whose use is growing exponentially, is especially energy-intensive, since each algorithm within an AI system must be trained on enormous amounts of data; a recent study found that training just one algorithm created five times as many emissions as an average US car creates over its entire lifetime.

It is difficult, but essential, to remember that our tiny digital devices, buoyed by a seemingly weightless cloud of data, carry the environmental and human costs of the mining operations that supply their components, the energy that powers them, and the toxic dumps where they are discarded. “Without concerted effort to constrain these negative sides of digitalization,” Bakker writes, “it will lead to an acceleration of resource extraction, consumption, and waste, raising significant issues of human and environmental justice.” If digital technology is used to support more effective, responsive systems of environmental governance, she argues, it could “create a virtuous cycle” where better and better information enables less and less consumption and waste. Such an approach, however, must address the toll of the technology itself.

With this significant caveat established, Bakker proceeds into the future. In different hands, the conjectures in the second half of Gaia’s Web might tip into lurid science fiction, but Bakker’s attention to their political, social, and even emotional implications make even the least plausible worth considering. Starting with the digital monitoring systems now used on many ships to prevent whale strikes, Bakker wonders if such systems will one day be hardwired into ships, detecting visual and aural clues to the presence of whales and plotting a course around them. In this scenario, whales would be communicating—even collaborating—with humans. “Marine navigation could begin to systematically include interspecies cooperation,” Bakker suggests, “as whales influence and constrain human action by controlling the decisions and movements of ship captains and fishers.”

Researchers are already experimenting with “mobile marine protected areas,” where location data for endangered species such as the southern bluefin tuna are combined with temperature data and habitat models to create predictive maps of bluefin hotspots, allowing no-fishing zones to shift as the bluefin move. Bakker sees this as a rudimentary form of communication between humans and other species that, if developed, could transform environmental governance. She envisions a “Parliament of Earthlings” in which technology “translates” the languages of other species, enabling humans to exchange information with them. “In the future, digital technologies may not enable nonhumans to vote, but it may be technically feasible for them to exercise political voice,” she writes. “Nonhumans have much to say to us, and can no longer be dismissed as mute or ignored as unknowable.”

Technology might allow us to understand other species, but would we listen to them? The developing concept of the “rights of nature”—under which governments have granted rivers, species, and other entities the right to be represented in court as legal persons—remains largely symbolic, but Bakker suggests that digital tools could allow nonhumans to hold more substantive rights, including property rights.

The Berlin-based art group terra0, for instance, has proposed that a forest could be both self-owning and self-governing, managing itself according to rules stored on a digital ledger and data gathered from sensors embedded in the trees and soil. While the ability of virtual reality systems to inspire empathy in their users has been badly overhyped, Bakker does think that virtual reality can be a source of emotional connection—to places one may never visit, to new ways of perceiving the world—that shifts our relationship with the rest of life.*

Bakker ends with the reminder, or warning, that researchers are already erasing the familiar boundaries between biology and machinery, embedding nanotechnology into plants and living tissue into robots, and using gene-editing tools to create new forms of life. These developments could well be the end of nature as we know it, which, Bakker believes, may not be such a bad thing. After all, the Cartesian hierarchy of humans and nature, so pervasive in Western culture, underlies many of our current woes. A world where nature informs technology and vice versa might be less thoroughly dominated by humans, and less vulnerable to our destructive impulses.

Or not. While Bakker’s optimistic speculations are alluring, she offers little guidance on navigating the profound risks to privacy, democratic debate, state sovereignty, and the biosphere she enumerates throughout. She maintains that “carefully regulated” and “thoughtfully managed” technology combined with “decentralized, small-scale, local production models” can advance environmentalism, but leaves the distance from here to there mostly unaddressed; sadly, we will not hear her elaborate. Bakker’s steadfast insistence on a wider range of possible technological and ecological futures, however, stands as a much-needed corrective to binary views of technology as either a planet saver or a planet killer: she reminds us that its applications, for good and ill, are up to its users.

On January 26, 2021, twenty days after the storming of the US Capitol, a different sort of mass action took place in Delhi. For months, thousands of farmers had been camped on the outskirts of the city, demonstrating their opposition to the ongoing privatization of India’s agricultural sector. New national laws, backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, had undercut the “minimum support price” that the Indian government sets for rice, wheat, and other important crops, further exposing farmers to the volatilities of local and global markets.

Though Modi’s toppling of long-standing price supports was the most immediate cause of the protest, the farmers were motivated by decades of excruciating pressures. Costly pesticides and fertilizers, required by the high-yield crops introduced to India during the Green Revolution of the 1960s, have burdened farmers with debt and illness. More recently, the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, including deep droughts, has led to chronic crop failures. Farmers and their families are perishing not only from starvation and toxic exposure but from despair: every day in India, an estimated thirty farmers die by suicide.

For the farmers camped outside Delhi in January 2021, then, agricultural policy was a matter of life and death. On the 26th—India’s Republic Day—thousands of farmers drove tractors into the center of Delhi, accompanied by thousands more protesters on foot. During a year of demonstrations throughout the world, the farmers’ march into Delhi was one of the largest. As the author and activist Ashley Dawson relates in his book Environmentalism from Below, it succeeded: in November 2021 Modi bowed to continued protests and repealed the new laws. In February 2024 farmers were again marching toward Delhi, calling for legislation that would guarantee minimum prices for all crops, not just staples.

The conservation and environmental movements, founded in the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, respectively, were—and to a large extent still are—populated by middle- and upper-class North Americans and Europeans. The first modern conservationists were elite sport hunters horrified by the slaughter of bison and other charismatic species by market hunters; the first modern environmentalists, arguably, were Progressive Era social reformers, many of them wealthy women, who witnessed the toll of pollution on the urban poor.

One of the legacies of these privileged beginnings is an overreliance on top-down strategies—on protecting air, water, and ecosystems through national and international mandates. While laws such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act have saved human lives and rescued other species from extinction, European and US conservation campaigns to establish parks in the Global South have often done grievous harm, dispossessing people of land and livelihoods. According to a 2022 United Nations report, abuses in the name of conservation continue to be perpetrated by militarized park rangers and law enforcement. Only in recent years have the leaders of international environmental organizations begun to recognize the costs of disrupting older forms of conservation—those practiced by indigenous and rural communities for millennia—and the strength of grassroots political movements rooted in these traditions.

In Environmentalism from Below, Dawson, a professor of postcolonial studies at the City University of New York, discusses several such grassroots movements, most of which have little or no connection to conventional environmentalism but an inextricable connection to the life support systems labeled as “the environment.” The activist farmers in India are fighting not only for their livelihoods but for the soil and water. South Africans campaigning for renewable and accessible electricity are fighting for both their neighbors and the climate. Highly organized movements such as the Uruguayan Federation of Mutual-Aid Housing Cooperatives (FUCVAM), a network connecting some 25,000 families throughout the country, cooperate to build shelter for their members and to create more compact, less polluted cities.

Dawson’s 2016 book, Extinction: A Radical History, argues effectively—and with admirable brevity—that colonialism and capitalism are the root causes of the current extinction crisis. While human communities have likely practiced forms of conservation since prehistoric times, they have caused local extinctions for eons, too; international commercial empires, however, so extended the reach of wealthy countries that humans began to drive even widely distributed species extinct throughout the globe. Colonial economies also ensured that consequences of extinction, like those of climate change today, were borne by those least responsible for them—and invisible to most who benefited from them.

Environmentalism from Below broadens this argument, maintaining that “solving the climate crisis inevitably implies confronting capitalism and colonialism on a planetary scale.” Unlike some of his colleagues on the left, Dawson does not pretend that a purely horizontal movement can prevail in such a confrontation, but he is dismissive of efforts to reform the United Nations and other international institutions, citing their lack of progress on climate change and their past and present complicity with extractive interests.

I am more optimistic about reform—or, perhaps, more convinced of its necessity, given that so many environmental and conservation problems cross national borders. Intergovernmental organizations and international environmental groups are needed to coordinate a global response to climate change; protect species whose populations range across political boundaries; and close the kinds of data gaps identified by Dyhia Belhabib, the scientist profiled by Karen Bakker, which allow the exploitation of wildlife to continue. That these groups have so far failed to do so, and in many cases have done more harm than good, does not mean they are immune to reform: over the past decade international environmental and conservation groups based in North America and Europe have at last moved beyond top-down strategies and are providing substantial financial and technical support to community-based conservation organizations worldwide. Many of the activists Dawson writes about risk arrest and retribution in the course of their work; some have been assassinated. International institutions should be pressured, from within and without, to stand with them, and to ensure that environmentalism progresses both from above and from below.

Peyman Taeidi

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