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Point of No Return: Let’s Leave Nature Behind?

A review by Laura Kammermeier

Animal Internet: Nature and the Digital Revolution, by Alexander Pschera (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer)

New Vessel Press, 2016

200 pages, $14.95—softcover

I never liked Star Trek. In spite of its prophetic imagination, the fact that the show was staged wholly outside of any form of visible nature made it uninteresting. Maybe that’s why I’m not enamored of the basic tenet of this book, either, which is that going “back to nature” is a myth, a romantic fallacy, and that “the only way to save nature is to leave it behind.”

In Animal Internet, Alexander Pschera describes and laments humanity’s evolving disconnection from nature, which began, he says, when the industrial revolution severed our dependence on work animals and habitat loss decimated nearby wildlife populations. It’s no wonder that the consequent lack of “shared space” with animals has left us empty: to use the words of E.O. Wilson, humans are inherently “biophilic” and simply cannot live without animals and plants.

To cope with this, humans have developed a number of compensatory activities that “merely give the impression of animal closeness” in the absence of the real thing. In addition to the endless supply of animal photos on the internet, Pschera cites birdwatching as a “form of compensation for a modern society that has lost touch with nature.” Expensive optics are “instruments that separate the birdwatchers from nature” and do nothing more than keep birds at a distance “while giving the impression of getting closer.” Furthermore, birdwatching merely offers a “cultural constellation” (a green screen, if you will) onto which “images of nature and snippets of nature scenes are projected.”

Perhaps we should forgive Pschera, an outsider, as most philosophers are, for not understanding the driving philosophy of a birdwatcher: to appreciate nature directly and for its own sake, to leave it unmolested, and to commune with it in peace as a way to reconnect with our own true selves. The very act of birdwatching is going “back to nature.”

But when Pschera insists that “‘sustainability’, ‘ecology’, and ‘diversity’ are fighting words utterly lacking in real substance,” that “Nature Conservation, which has grown into a dogma, is striking in its inherent glut of regulations and restrictions,” and finally, that “the paradigm of nature preserves is fatal,” the author’s lack of conservation knowledge seriously compromises a book intended to be about animals and nature.

In Pschera’s view, humankind has already advanced into what can be called the post-digital age. Because technological advances have brought us to the point of no return, the romanticized vision of a pure and unfettered nature is now naive and impractical. Instead, we must look ahead to embrace a “new nature,” one necessarily impacted by, and perhaps even carefully planned around, human occupation and experienced in a wholly different way. We now stand “on the threshold of a new era of interaction with and awareness of nature.” But don’t expect that new connection to be found in the out-of-doors, where we would share actual space with plants and animals. Nope. Instead, expect this connection to come increasingly from experiences of nature obtained outside of nature, with technology as the conduit.

animal internet

Enter “the Animal Internet,” our last best hope—says Pschera—to protect global plant and animal communities. This advance can be considered the third major step in the evolution of the internet, following the Human Internet, which facilitates social and informational connections, and the Internet of Things, which gives everyday objects—your Fitbit, smart car, Apple TV, Amazon shipments—the network connectivity needed to send and receive data.

Pschera explains that the Animal Internet begins with equipping animals (and ourselves) with tiny trackers that transmit social, biological, and physiological data to scientists. Such tracking imbues animals “with a certain power of speech,” allowing us to communicate with them. Even though this animal speech is only in the form of bits and bytes, it carries enough information to make adequate science and to formulate compelling stories about the animal’s behavior, movements, and biology. When talented humans avail themselves of web-based apps and other digital tools to tell those stories, the rest of the human citizens of the world will suddenly jump out of their chairs to support nature and conservation organizations.

Pschera whips this concept into a frothy lather, in which technology bridges the gap between man and beast: The Animal Internet can save individual species, or at least individual lives, while bringing “nature”—animals—closer to humans than ever before. Once “digital interfaces and [shared] spaces exist… animals will again integrate themselves into the world from which we have chased them.”

Pschera describes the power and potential of remote sensing and animal tracking technologies very well, but he fails to recognize what would be involved in equipping all of the world’s animal species with tracking devices. Neither does he make any but a brief and dismissive mention of the dangers in advertising the locations of sensitive species. Just this year, for example, the organizers of my town’s rare bird text alert discovered that it was being used to find and shoot rare waterfowl.

Several unrealistic conditions would have to be met for tracking to be the salvation of global animal conservation. First, the number of animals tracked would have to be enormous—impracticably so. Right now there are more than 50,000 tracked individuals; how much higher would that number have to go, and where would the money come from?

This model also assumes that for every researcher conducting remote sensing there would be an effective storyteller, analyzing the data to bring each animal to life for the uninitiated. This in turn assumes that there even is an audience for those stories, that Pschera’s own fascination with his Animal Tracker app would be shared by the rest of humanity, when, instead, we’d all rather be watching cat videos.

Perhaps most seriously, Pschera appears to believe that anthropomorphic narratives, in which animals are given names, personalities, addresses, and motivations to humanize their plight, are necessary to overcome the animal-human disconnect. That, too, is dubious at best. Pschera even provides his own counterexample, in the story of a Yellowstone National Park wolf named 832F. An alpha female associated with the Lamar Canyon pack, 832F was outfitted with a radio collar and monitored in close detail. Her entire life could be followed on the internet: her kin, her pack, her sex life, her pups, and her hunting patterns. It was like MTV’s “Real World” for animals.

In 2012, 832F wandered outside of the park and was shot by a hunter. Yes, she became the first wolf to have an obituary in the New York Times. Yes, public awareness and conservation funds alike were raised. But Pschera seems to overlook the sad reality that it was precisely the tracking data that might have led an unscrupulous person with an “us vs. them” view of nature to the wolf. Indeed, commenters on at least one website subsequently admitted that they would crack tracking data codes to find other collared wolves. Outside magazine reports that of the ten Yellowstone wolves that have been killed outside the park, five wore research collars. Bottom line: No amount of celebrity saved 832F or those others among her radio-collared kin.

Animal Internet takes a lot of wrong turns before arriving at its final destination. I persevered, however, and although the last chapter did not yield a view as broad and inspiring as a Rocky Mountain summit, I can say that I was delivered to the foothills of the author’s thesis and was no longer cursing him for making up the phrase “Animal Internet”—and for failing to adequately describe it until Chapter 7.

It’s not as if Pschera’s thesis is entirely without merit. In the past year, scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology released an animated map of the “mesmerizing migrations” undertaken by 118 species of birds. This fascinating map was widely shared on the internet, both in birding and non-birding circles; I’m sure that in some cases it facilitated just the sort of human-bird connection that the author believes technology can provide.

But I think Pschera’s thesis suffers from myopia and is too long in the reveal. I’m bothered, too, by the contradiction inherent in his solution to humans’ separation from nature: While Pschera criticizes birdwatchers for watching shadows cast on a green screen of nature, his solution replaces outdoor experience with aliases of nature to be watched on a screen.

Laura Kammermeier

– Laura Kammermeier is a birder, traveler, and writer, and the creator of the Nature Travel Network, a compendium of global resources for birding and nature travel. She is President of the Rochester Birding Association and provides freelance web development and marketing services for organizations in the business of nature, travel, and birds.

Recommended citation:

Kammermeier, L. 2016. Point of No Return: Let’s Leave Nature Behind? [a review of Animal Internet, by Alexander Pschera]. Birding 48 (4): 67-68.

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  • Ted Floyd

    Thanks to Laura Kammermeier for this important and provocative review. I’m uncomfortable with what I take to be a central premise for Laura, namely, that the reason for birding is to connect deeply with nature, to channel our biophilia. I like the idea! And I’ve frequently told interviewers that that’s why I go birding. But is it really true? I’m not so sure of that.

    Ever since Peterson, I would argue (and have argued, in this venue and elsewhere), birding has been fascinatingly neo-platonic, an exercise in “watching shadows cast on a green screen of nature.” So much of birding is about the bird as platonic construct: a name, a number, a memory, field marks and feather tracts, a tick mark, “ideal,” a “form,” a “shadow,” and “beautiful.”

    For sure, that’s not how every one of us engages birding and nature study. But I think many of us do it that way. When is the last time you held a bird? Or peered into a nest? Or just chased one through a pasture? When is the last time you looked at a bird without some combination of binoculars, scope, camera, and phone? When is the last time you *killed* a bird? (Sound weird? Yet many hunters speak of the incredible connection to nature that comes from killing. Simply watching, they say, comes nowhere near the real thing.) Yes, I get it, almost all of us do some of those things from time to time. But not all that often, I think it’s fair to say, and increasingly infrequently.

    Do we *really* go birding for the purpose of connecting with nature? Do we really go out there for the primary objective of breathing fresh air and feeling the sunshine on our skin? In my experience and in my acquaintances, the answer is “not all that often.”

    I totally get that there are exceptions to the rule! Maybe Laura is one such exception. Or maybe I’m the outlier, having surrounded myself these past 35+ years with weird, philosophical, neo-platonic birding pals. (All 10,000+ of you, I estimate.)

    Anyhow, my hypothesis is that birding, for close to a century, has indeed been philosophical and “beautiful,” stimulating and worthwhile, inarguably fascinating, and deeply neo-platonic. Alexander Pschera, it seems to me, is chronicling the latest chapter in a story that’s been playing out for longer than any one of us has been birding.

    Thanks again, Laura, for the important review! (And thanks to Rick Wright for lining up one great reviewer after another.)

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