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The project has two objectives:

Objective 1: Refiguring conservation in/for the Anthropocene

Since its formulation as a proposed term for a new (but as yet unratified) geological epoch dominated by human activity (Crutzen 2002; Crutzen and Stoermer 2000; Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill 2007), ‘the Anthropocene’ has been widely adopted within scientific scholarship and public discourse as a catchall phrase through which to apprehend the effects of large-scale anthropogenic change on the planet. In recent years, a strong ‘Anthropocenic’ awareness has spread across the field of conservation, shaking up its very ethical, normative and philosophical foundations in the process (Robbins and Moore 2012).

These debates—which have both resurrected and transcended conservationists’ long-standing concern with the relationship between ‘parks’ and ‘people’ (e.g. Adams 2004; Minteer and Miller 2011; West, Igoe and Brockington 2006)—are exemplified by the ongoing controversy over ‘new conservation’, which repudiates the apparently ‘anachronistic and counterproductive’ goal of protecting biodiversity for its own sake while ‘embracing development’ and ‘advancing human well-being’ (Kareiva et al. 2012; Kareiva and Marvier 2012; see also Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015).

Such debates are pushing practitioners and scholars to ask: What is being conserved, and what is it being conserved from? What should conservation be and do? What, today, constitutes good or successful conservation? Such questions are not just tactical, but political, moral, ethical and affective; fashioning new notions of culpability, stewardship, crisis, hope and possibility while reconfiguring conceptions of ‘humanity’, ‘nature’, ‘culture’, ‘the planet’ and the relations between them. Urgently needed in this high-stakes, transformative moment are nuanced, critical, empirical understandings of how these questions and processes are manifested in and reconfiguring global conservation in multiple, cross-cultural settings.

To generate these understandings, our project pursues two main lines of enquiry.            

  • Situating contemporary conservation in its planetary, and not just transnational or ecological, milieu. Our project asks: how is conservation shaping and being shaped by planetary-level phenomena (e.g. climate change, haze) as well as by ideas about planetary crisis, culpability and responsibility on the other? How might specific manifestations of orangutan conservation be understood as part of larger planetary processes and predicaments that are irreducibly ‘human’ and ‘natural’?
  • Exploring new ways of calibrating and transcending the dominant ‘humans’ vs. ‘nature’ divide in conservation scholarship and practice. First, we ask how recent conceptual optics such as proximities, ‘making kin’ (Haraway 2015), multispecies justice (Shoreman-Ouimet and Kopnina 2015), or belonging (Gibson-Graham 2011) shed new light on the interactions and emergences that constitute orangutan conservation. More challengingly, we also ask how specific ethnographic themes and concepts that emerge out of our fieldwork—orangutan adopters’ notions of kinship and care, for example, or indigenous Borneans’ ideas about interspecies responsibility—can be used as analytical or conceptual devices in their own right. In this respect, our project seeks to harness the creative potential of ethnographic description and analysis to recast conservation scholarship and practice.

Objective 2: Figuring out ‘the Anthropocene’

More than scaling up the study of conservation, our project also seeks to figure out how Anthropocenic formations, knowledge and politics are experienced, reshaped and produced in multiple contexts. We thus aim to make a timely ethnographic contribution to nascent cross-disciplinary studies of the Anthropocene—one that underlines both its ‘lumpiness’ and its epistemological, conceptual and political effects.

This project grapples with ‘the Anthropocene’ on two levels. First, building on current efforts to theorize ‘Anthropocene’ ontologies, it will explore how a diverse range of ‘Anthropocenic’ forces and developments—from annual forest fires to oil palm ecologies—are experienced, encountered and engaged with in various contexts on the ground. How, for example, do humans and orangutan become ‘companions’ (Yusoff 2010) experiencing burning peatlands and choking haze? What new ecologies of human-animal coexistence and conflict are generated by oil palm expansion? Such questions will add much-needed depth and texture to current, relatively abstract, theorizations of ‘the Anthropocene’ in the social sciences and humanities.

Asking such questions, however, means taking seriously the often glossed-over fact that the ‘anthropos’ in the Anthropocene is not singular and homogenous, but deeply striated by socio-economic inequalities, power imbalances and other differentials (Malm and Hornborg 2014). These disparities urgently signal the need for a critical level of analysis that treats ‘the Anthropocene’ as a ‘problem space’ (Moore 2015) built around highly contingent assumptions that generate and organize specific realities, relations, politics and imaginaries.

A key aim of this project is thus to examine the diverse ways in which the truth-claims of Anthropocenic discourses and politics are deployed, contested or ignored. It asks, for example: What forms of ‘Anthropocenic’ reasoning are adopted by conservationists, governments and publics as means of accounting for specific events (e.g. forest fires, a rescued orangutan) and apportioning blame? What becomes framed as an ‘Anthropocenic’ problem, and what ‘solutions’ does it demand?  

 

To tackle these objectives, our project undertakes an unprecedented multi-sited ethnography of global orangutan conservation: a sprawling nexus of models, ideas, practices and human and nonhuman players spread across Borneo, Sumatra and the global North. Rather than assuming the seamless implementation of international conservation strategies across this nexus, we approach orangutan conservation as a contact zone between ‘Anthropocenic’ realities, politics and discourses, changing conservation practices and priorities, and diverse sets of historically, culturally and politically specific conditions. In the process, we aim to make three distinctly anthropological interventions:

  • To develop a synchronic, multi-sited approach to the ethnographic analysis of global conservation.
  • To build up a thick ethnography of how one global conservation nexus is being reshaped by and reshaping emergent ‘Anthropocenic’ phenomena, discourses and politics at a unique historical juncture.
  • To experiment with new analytics through which to grasp the mutually transformative relation between conservation and ‘the Anthropocene’. These are, provisionally: planetary perspectives, thresholds, proximities and in/commensurability.