Conservation and Compassion in the Age of Humans and Beyond

A new book argues against human domination and favors peaceful coexistence.

Posted Oct 08, 2018

"Broadly speaking, a posthuman perspective would call into question the anthropocentric notion that humans are to be privileged over all other forms of life. Posthumanism generally aligns with a more ecological perspective that favors simultaneous coexistence with other species and consideration of the lives and experiences of other species. Posthumanism would thus resist the notion that humans are at the center of any given context and would instead posit that human society is composed of a web of interwoven, entangled relationships of humans, nonhuman animals, organic and inorganic matter, and so on." 

Early this year I was asked to write an endorsement for Dr. Amy Propen's forthcoming book called Visualizing Posthuman Conservation in the Age of the Anthropocene. After reading through the manuscript, I was more than pleased to do so, and this is what I wrote: “In her forward-looking, engaging, and accessible book, Amy Propen makes it clear that we urgently need an ethic centered on respect and compassion for, and kinship with, other animals. Personal rewilding and compassionate conservation can lead the way.” Others agree with my enthusiastic support of Dr. Propen's book. I just received a copy of the published book and I feel that it is important enough to warrant a more detailed analysis, so I asked Dr. Propen if she could answer a few questions and gladly she said yes. Our interview went as follows. 

Why did you write Visualizing Posthuman Conservation in the Age of the Anthropocene?

Amy Propen
Book cover for "Visualizing Posthuman Conservation in the Age of the Anthropocene"
Source: Amy Propen

I wanted to write a book that could contribute to ongoing dialogues about productive environmental discourse in the Anthropocene, or an age in which human action is having an even more pronounced impact on our world than ever; at the same time, the Anthropocene marks an era in which responsibility is not just ours alone, but where humans, nonhuman species, environments, and technologies intermingle in acts of world-making. How we imagine the nature of this intermingling and our own responsibilities therein, or how we imagine this more posthuman perspective, has great implications for the worlds that we help build and in which we all reside.

Broadly speaking, a posthuman perspective would call into question the anthropocentric notion that humans are to be privileged over all other forms of life. Posthumanism generally aligns with a more ecological perspective that favors simultaneous coexistence with other species and consideration of the lives and experiences of other species.  Posthumanism would thus resist the notion that humans are at the center of any given context and would instead posit that human society is composed of a web of interwoven, entangled relationships of humans, nonhuman animals, organic and inorganic matter, and so on.

That said, as human beings who reside on this planet, make use of its resources, and create and consume goods without always anticipating the various costs associated with that consumption, I believe we have an ethical responsibility to engage with critical awareness about those practices; moreover, we would do well to step outside of our sometimes human-centric vantage point to consider the implications of our technological undertakings from a perspective that looks even farther beyond the realm of the human in accounting for our relationships with nonhuman species. Because much of my training has to do with writing and communication as well as environmental studies, the cases that I explore in this book involve technologies of visuality and visual communication, specifically as they pertain to public communication about environmental issues and species conservation. 

What does it mean to practice conservation in the Anthropocene, and what are some of your main messages in the book?

"...to practice conservation in the Anthropocene, to engage in a more posthuman conservation ethic, working in the positive, can help recover marginalized voices by destabilizing human exceptionalism in ways that subsequently make visible the needs of otherwise less visible, vulnerable, nonhuman species."

This is one of the big questions that I hope the book can help address, but to briefly address the issue here, I’ll say that the role technology plays in conservation is a big part of the equation. That is, how can we leverage technology in ways that are productive of knowledge-making and that don’t further alienate vulnerable species? How can we interact and advocate with species in ways that are compassionate and mindful of their own agency and autonomy? The book tries to move the needle a little more in that direction. 

To be a little more specific, I would add that to practice conservation in the Anthropocene, to engage in a more posthuman conservation ethic, working in the positive, can help recover marginalized voices by destabilizing human exceptionalism in ways that subsequently make visible the needs of otherwise less visible, vulnerable, nonhuman species. The trickiness is that to make visible is sometimes also to make vulnerable. And, in considering one of my main messages, this means, then, that we must act with additional care and discretion in our projects of technoscience, and be mindful of how we employ technologies and leverage visuality in conservation projects. For example, as I discuss in one chapter, we might use GIS technology, say, to map the migration patterns of certain species of birds; in such a case, those GIS maps are, taken at face value, about “seeing” those migration patterns, but they also have the potential to be about listening and imagining—they can catalyze curiosity in productive ways that resist top-down “seeing” and instead inspire more relational and transformative knowledge-making that can potentially help transform our relationships with nonhuman species. Discussions of agency and autonomy are also a critical part of imagining a posthuman conservation ethic, in which we necessarily shift our perspective from the perceived best interests and outcomes for humans and human needs, to the perceived best interests and outcomes for all the affected, vulnerable, nonhuman kin with whom we share our worlds. 

To these ends, a posthuman conservation ethic would be guided not by hierarchical mechanisms of control or transcendent systems of values but rather by a mode of thinking and acting steeped in compassion for and a sense of ethical responsibility to the worlds and bodies that are very much a part of us, and with whom we are inextricably interconnected. Such a mindset is hardly novel to scholars like you, for example, who has argued that “We owe it to all individual animals to make every attempt to come to a greater understanding and appreciation of who they are in their world and in ours. We must make kind and humane choices. … There’s nothing to fear and much to gain by developing deep and reciprocal interactions with our fellow animals. Animals can teach us a great deal about responsibility, compassion, caring, forgiveness, and love” (The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint, Page 209).

How are some of your main messages aligned with the basic principles and goals of compassionate conservation?

"Broadly speaking, a compassionate conservation approach would advocate for viewing species as individuals, and it would thus take individual species into consideration within conservation policy. Compassionate conservation is, at its core, grounded in an ethic of 'do no harm.'”

I think that to adopt a perspective that looks even farther beyond the realm of the human in accounting for our relationships with nonhuman species is very much aligned with the basic principles of compassionate conservation. Moreover, to advocate for technology use that is mindful of the vulnerability and autonomy of nonhuman species is also arguably aligned with compassionate conservation. Broadly speaking, a compassionate conservation approach would advocate for viewing species as individuals, and it would thus take individual species into consideration within conservation policy.1 Compassionate conservation is, at its core, grounded in an ethic of “do no harm.” Part of the goal of compassionate conservation is to prompt and foster a critical awareness of how we understand our relationships with nonhuman animals, and to foster an ethic of peaceful coexistence in which decision-making about conservation practice and policy is grounded in a consideration of the most compassionate choice for all beings. Of course, this is easier said than done, and we may easily complicate the notion that conservation is still, at the end of the day, about humans making decisions on behalf of nonhuman animals. I argue, however, following your work, that when we begin to ask the right questions, or questions that are more critically engaged and that come from a place of compassion and kinship, and less from the position of attempting to regulate or control our environment or place value on certain kinds of bodies, we might begin to acknowledge the rich, multispecies entanglements that can inform a compassionate, posthuman conservation ethic.

Who is your intended audience? 

The book is intended for a wide range of readers, from those in academic fields to those whose interest in the topic stems from other areas and disciplines. I have tried to explain and unpack any specialized terms in ways that can hopefully be accessible to a range of readers. 

Are you hopeful things will get better for nonhuman animals as we move into the future of an increasingly human-dominated world?

"...optimism offers more productive paths forward and helps compassion thrive."

I am trying to be optimistic because I think optimism offers more productive paths forward and helps compassion thrive. What keeps me optimistic is seeing all the great work that different organizations are doing to promote peaceful coexistence and to advocate for vulnerable species. But it will take a sustained, mindful, and multi-faceted effort on the part of individuals and organizations to ensure viable and livable worlds for vulnerable species.

What are some of your current and future projects?

I am working now on a follow-up to this book, which will essentially pick up where this one leaves off. I’m very interested in looking even more closely at the idea of what it means to live with and among our nonhuman kin—from assisting in efforts of wildlife rehabilitation, to dwelling with and among, and encountering vulnerable species in spaces that we can no longer claim as solely our own, if we ever could, but in which we find comfort and solace nonetheless. I’m interested in learning more about what it means to coexist compassionately with our nonhuman kin in the Anthropocene, but from new and even more nuanced perspectives. So this follow-up book is the main project I’m working on now, but I imagine it will take me in some new creative directions, which I’m very much looking forward to. 

Thank you Amy for an important and very insightful interview. I hope your book reaches a broad global audience both within and outside of academia. I'm sure that conservation psychologists and anthrozoologists will find plenty of food for thought as will anyone who is interested in how we can remove ourselves from the center of  just about everything that's happening in the Anthropocene. Its transdisciplinary perspective makes it a great choice for a wide variety of advanced undergraduate and graduate courses. Many people call the Anthropocene "the age of humanity," however, it's really more properly called "the rage of inhumanity." As you and others make clear, if future humans are to inherit and enjoy a diverse and magnificent world, things have to change, and time isn't on our side. There really is no substitute for choosing to coexist compassionately with other species with whom we share our wondrous world. Future generations depend on us to do so. 

1For more discussion of compassionate conservation please see "New Zealand Kids Get Into Killing Animals and Love Doing It" and links therein. 

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