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, ‘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.

These debates 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). 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, makes good or successful conservation? These questions are not just tactical, but political, moral, ethical and affective. They fashion new notions of culpability, stewardship, crisis, hope and possibility, while reconfiguring conceptions of ‘humanity’, ‘nature’, ‘culture’, ‘the planet’ and the relations between them.

Our project looks at how such questions and dilemmas are playing out in the global nexus of orangutan conservation—an important frontier of Anthropocenic phenomena, ideas and politics. Today, the fate of the orangutan is inextricably entwined with transnational capitalism, inter/national politics, socio-economic disparities, global climate and anthropogenic environmental change. More than a battle to save a species from extinction, orangutan conservation is a complex, manifold project of defining, managing and calibrating multispecies and environmental relations in an era of planetary crisis.

By assembling an ethnographic picture of this global nexus, our project aims to generate a nuanced, critical and, importantly, empirical understanding of how conservation today is scaling up to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene.

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