4.4 — Conservation: Next Generation Technology

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Technology and nature used to reside at the opposite ends of the spectrum. But like our environment, that relationship has changed over the years and the two have a cyclical relationship of preservation and innovation.

The commitment to conserve and heal our diverse ecosystems has pushed technology further and with urgency. Because there’s no time to waste.

From the American Great Plains and the African Sahara to the furthest depths in the ocean, we’re talking to the trailblazers who are innovating everyday to save the planet.

In this episode:

● Conservation becomes a part of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential legacy. (0:00)

● The preservation movement is not without its critics. (3:37)

● Post WWII environmental awareness stirs up a suspicion of technology. (6:00)

● Ocean exploration reveals a dire need for conservation efforts. (7:55)

● A paradigm shift makes way for conservation technologists (12:19)

● The high price of ivory (16:44)

● GPS technology strikes a blow to poachers (18:18)

● Bringing back the wooly mammoth (21:38)

Guest List

  • Philippe Cousteau Jr. is the founder of EarthEcho and grandson of the renowned explorer, author, and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau.
  • Iain Douglas-Hamilton is the founder of Save the Elephants and pioneered the use of GPS and satellite communications to study the movements of elephants.
  • Stewart Brand is an author, pioneering conservationist, and the co-founder of Revive & Restore, an NGO that seeks to enhance biodiversity through new techniques of genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species.
  • Ryan Phelan is the co-founder and Executive Director of Revive & Restore, a California-based nonprofit with a mission to enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species.
  • Adam Rome is a professor of environmental history at the University of Buffalo.
  • Shah Selbe is an engineer and conservation technologist and founder of Conservify, which uses open source technology to empower local communities to change our planet’s future.

“Terrestrial conservation has been a concept that had been around for a long time. Ocean conservation, not so much. Part of that was the fact that we really didn't understand anything about the ocean. All we knew about the ocean was what we pulled out in fish and what we dumped in and trash.”

— Phillippe Cousteau Jr., Founder of Earth Echo International

Walter Isaacson: Theodore Roosevelt was 24 years old when he killed his first buffalo. The year was 1883. The place, Little Cannonball Creek in Montana. The great outdoorsman and future president was so excited by his triumph that he danced around the carcass in celebration. Six years later, Theodore Roosevelt killed his second buffalo, but this time his reaction was considerably more muted. He later wrote that as he watched the great beast, he felt the eager excitement of the hunter mix with a certain half melancholy feeling. A feeling brought on by knowing that the herds of buffalo, which had once numbered in the tens of millions on the Great Plains, were nearing extinction.

Walter Isaacson: By the time Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, only about a 1,000 buffalo remained. And his half melancholy feeling about the buffalo’s extinction had morphed into a full blown determination to do something to save them. He pressured Congress to provide funds to secure land and promote buffalo reintroduction projects. And slowly, their numbers would turn.

Walter Isaacson: Today, several hundred thousand buffalo roam private and public lands throughout the US and their numbers are growing. In his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt wrote that he considers his efforts to save the American buffalo to be among his most important accomplishments as president.

Walter Isaacson: The story of the American buffalo had a happy ending. Sadly, most stories about species facing extinction today do not. The list of fish, animals, plants, insects, and birds that scientists consider to be endangered is very long and getting longer.

Walter Isaacson: Today, technology is increasingly seen as a critical piece of the puzzle. Researchers are using cellphones to protect African elephants from poachers, facial recognition software to track the movement of whales. They’re putting tiny radio transmitters on the backs of endangered birds, and they’re even thinking about trying to find ways to use genome research to bring back species that have long been extinct.

Walter Isaacson: They’re using the next generation of technology to solve many of the problems caused by an earlier generation of technology. And even though it might sound counterintuitive, it’s actually working. I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.

Speaker 1: The story of conservation is the story of waste that time has come to do something. An intelligent program of conservation will restore the beauty of our land. No one should be allowed to do this to a river. We have wasted our timber, ravaged our soil, polluted our rivers and their loss would be a real catastrophe.

Walter Isaacson: Theodore Roosevelt was arguably the most dedicated conservationist to ever occupy the White House. In addition to helping save the American buffalo, he expanded the National Park system and establish more than 50 federal bird preserves. In 1905, he created the United States Forest Service to manage America’s forests and chose Gifford Pinchot, a forester from Connecticut to run it. They believed that forests, if carefully managed, could serve both private commercial interests and the public’s desire to commune with nature. Roosevelt and Pinchot were part of a small but vocal group of politicians, civil servants, writers, naturalists, and academics who in the late 19th and early 20th century, struggled to convince Americans to pay closer attention to the impact that industrialization and urbanization were having on their water, air, and land. Their critics accused them of trying to turn the clock back to a pre-modern world without cities or industry.

Walter Isaacson: But Adam Rome believes that doesn’t accurately reflect how these early conservationists actually felt about using technology to solve environmental problems. Adam Rome is an environmental historian.

Adam Rome: I think actually there’s a lot of misunderstanding about that. The preservationist impulse out of context sounds anti modernist, but I don’t think so. I often tell my students, there’s an old Alka Seltzer commercial where a guy’s eaten a sausage sub and he’s gotten indigestion. Oh my God. Oh my God, I ate the whole thing. And the solution is not to stop eating the sausages. That would be un-American. The solution is to take a pill that then allows you to go back to eat them whenever you feel like it. And that’s really what the preservation movement was like. Hardly anyone at least wanted to give up the modern city and the industry and the growing place in the world that America was achieving because of both. But they thought that the cities were making them sick and they needed the antidote to that.

Walter Isaacson: By the 1920s, the concerns raised by conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt were beginning to fade from the American political consciousness. It was not until the 1960s that a new wave of environmental awareness emerged. And at the core of the new environmentalism was a deep seated suspicion of technology. There was a growing awareness that many of the miraculous technologies that had helped fuel the post World War II economic boom, had serious potential downside. Splitting the atom may have won the war and nuclear power was now heating our homes, but at what cost? Pesticides greatly increase crop yield, making food cheaper and more plentiful, but those chemicals were polluting the soil and water. In the 1960s and seventies, hundreds of thousands of young people turn their backs on technology and move to the countryside in a massive back to the land movement.

Walter Isaacson: When it came to conservation and preservation. Technology was widely seen as the problem, not the solution. But that slowly began to change thanks to some trailblazing conservationists and the technology that they pioneered.

Philippe C.: My name is Philippe Cousteau and I’m an environmental advocate and the founder of EarthEcho International.

Walter Isaacson: Philippe Cousteau is a third generation environmental activist. His father, Philippe Cousteau Sr., was a filmmaker, an oceanographer, and much of what we know about the ocean today is due to the incredible work of his grandfather, the legendary Jacques Cousteau. Jacques Cousteau’s story began in 1943 when he teamed up with an engineer named Emile Gagnan to develop an autonomous underwater breathing apparatus. They called it the Aqua-Lung and today we call it the scuba tank. It opened the eyes of the world to what was happening below the ocean surface.

Philippe C.: I think this is hard for a lot of people today to realize that before my grandfather co-invented the Aqua-Lung or scuba diving, that the only way people could really explore the ocean was either breath hold diving or with those old hard helmets, the big copper ones that you see in old movies or in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or, reading books and they were hard helmets that were attached to a suit and you had big lead boots and you’d clomp around on the bottom with a hose to the surface and guys onboard of a ship pumping a huge generator to pump air down the hose into your suit. That was how we explored the ocean.

Walter Isaacson: Until Jacques Cousteau and as Aqua-Lung came along, the only people exploring the oceans in a serious way were military personnel and salvage divers and neither of those groups had conservation as their primary focus.

Philippe C.: He was a pioneer from an ocean conservation perspective. Terrestrial conservation has been a concept that had been around for a long time. Ocean conservation, not so much. Part of that was the fact that we really didn’t understand anything about the ocean. All we knew about the ocean was what we pulled out in fish and what we dumped in and trash and it was my grandfather who opened people’s eyes to A, what existed there. It’s hard for people to imagine. We grew up with Nemo and Shamu and Flipper and images of sharks and and coral reefs and we take all of that for granted today. 75 years ago this year, when my grandfather co-invented scuba diving, the Aqua-Lung, nobody knew what any of those things looked like.

Philippe C.: It was an alien world and there was no real sense of needing to protect it until he came along with my father and grandfather and other early pioneers that they worked with, that were starting to do oceanography and science. There was nobody that was really ringing this alarm bell about the decline in the health of the oceans and that’s really what he and my father helped to contribute to from a conservation perspective and on this planet.

Walter Isaacson: Jacques Cousteau’s initial interest in ocean exploration was not centered on conservation. He was a filmmaker and the Aqua-Lung allowed him to spend more time underwater with this camera, photographing fish and coral. But by the 1960s Cousteau realized that the ocean life that he loved so much was in danger of disappearing. That revelation occurred after a diving trip to the Red Sea with his son, Philippe Sr.

Philippe C.: I remember the story that he told.

Walter Isaacson: … son, Philippe, Sr.

Philippe C.: I remember the story that he told me. It was in the 1960s. After several years of not visiting some of his old haunts in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea and diving in those places, he went back to them and saw even in that period of time, that between the 1950s and 1960s that there was a huge devastation in the ocean life in those areas. The reefs had been destroyed, the fishing had disappeared; because post-World War II, we saw a massive increase in industrial development, in fishing, in population growth, and so huge pressures on the ocean unlike ever before.

Philippe C.: He and my father both were so devastated by what they saw. They came back from expedition, it was really my father who said, “This is no longer about exploration. This is about conservation.” He convinced my grandfather. So then they embarked on this journey of really being, as Ted Turner called my grandfather, the grandfather of ocean conservation. That was really the next problem for them to solve was they saw the declining health of the ocean, and how could they do something about it?

Walter Isaacson: Jacques Cousteau inspired generations of researchers; but for a very long time, many of those researchers remained suspicious of technology and employed only the most basic tools to solve the ocean’s problems. It was well into the current century that that began to change.

Walter Isaacson: [Shaw 00:12:27] Selby, saw it happen firsthand. He was an engineer working in the space industry when he decided to go back to graduate school to figure out how he could apply his engineering skills to help save the planet. At Stanford, he joined a group called the Center for Ocean Solutions, which was looking for a way to solve the problem of illegal fishing on the high seas.

Shah Selbe: I started recommending a bunch of technologies that I thought could help in certain areas; and a lot of times, this was rather new. I’d be in this room full of biologists and environmental lawyers talking about conservation issues, and I was the sole engineer in there and using words like drone that at that time people thought about the wars that were happening in Afghanistan and Iraq and those sorts of drones. So a drone wasn’t as common as it is today. People didn’t get it for Christmas presents or anything like that. It was a bit of a paradigm shift at that time. And slowly through talking to more people, working with different organizations, volunteering my time in some places, helping them think through technology strategy, the entire industry started to slowly embrace this as technology’s got easier, cheaper, faster to prototype and develop and deploy. It really created this massive shift in the entire industry.

Walter Isaacson: Shah Selbe has spent much of the past decade helping researchers overcome their skepticism towards technology. His projects use satellite data, drones, smartphone apps and sensors to address issues like illegal poaching. He is part of a small but growing group of researchers who call themselves conservation technologists. The fact that that title even exists is perhaps the clearest indication of how much the paradigm has shifted.

Shah Selbe: One of my goals when I started working in this space is how do we make sure that conservation technology becomes the norm and not something that’s obscure and strange? I think during my time in working in this field, we’ve seen exactly that. I meet people all the time that now consider themselves conservation technologists, which was quite different when there was just a handful of us calling us that in the beginning.

Walter Isaacson: Today drones, sensors and sophisticated cameras are essential parts of the environmental toolkit. They are found not just among Silicon Valley startups, but inside some of the oldest and most venerable conservation organizations in the world.

Iain D.-Hamilton: My name is in Iain Douglas-Hamilton, and I’m the founder of Save the Elephants.

Walter Isaacson: Iain Douglas-Hamilton made his first trip to Africa in the summer of 1963. He was a 23 year-old zoology student at Oxford when he arrived in the Serengeti region of Northern Tanzania to assist a researcher who was doing a PhD on wildebeests. It was an exciting time to be in Africa studying animals in the wild. A handful of pioneering scientists were already there. Jane Goodall was living among the chimpanzees. George Schaller was focusing on gorillas. Iain Douglas-Hamilton dreamed about being part of that group. He wanted to study lions. It didn’t work out.

Iain D.-Hamilton: I wanted to come out and study lions and be the first person to do it, and I’d met this director of the Tanzania National Parks, who when I put it to him, he said, “Sorry, and I’m afraid that’s not possible. We’ve got George Schaller coming to do that.” But he said, “If you like, you could study elephants in this small national park called Lake Manyara National Park on the edge of a very beautiful lake. He said that I could have an old car and a shack to live in, and if I could raise the money and come out and do it, I’d be welcome. So I threw myself into finishing my studies and got a scholarship to come out and plunged into the world of elephants.

Walter Isaacson: It was a decision that has likely saved the lives of thousands of African elephants. When Iain Douglas-Hamilton returned to Africa from Oxford in 1972, he was shocked by what he found. His beloved elephants were in dire straits.

Iain D.-Hamilton: The situation for elephants had radically changed, it all began in Kenya where the price of ivory streaked up through the roof, and everybody started shooting elephants who could. In those days, it was legal to hunt them. Lots of people who normally never shot them got a license, because the price of ivory was so high. And at the same time, there was a lot of illegal poaching, not so-called sport hunting. The elephants started nose diving in some of the major national parks.

Iain D.-Hamilton: At that time, I realized that I should do something about it. We’d written a book and we’d made a film; and by the mid-’70s, we could become a voice talking about elephant problems.

Walter Isaacson: Iain Douglas-Hamilton has spent the last 45 years talking about elephant problems and helping to solve them. His organization, Save the Elephants, which he founded in 1993, has been at the cutting edge of innovation using increasingly sophisticated technology to study elephant behavior and stay ahead of the poachers.

Iain D.-Hamilton: We started the very first radio tracking using little beacon radios that send out a pulse of VHF waves that could be picked up on a receiver, and you could home in on where the elephant was. So it’s quite a lengthy procedure, because you could collect one or two elephants per day if you were lucky.

Iain D.-Hamilton: It wasn’t changed much until the GPS system was developed by the Americans as a military system of guidance. Now everybody has GPS in their cars, and we fairly early on started putting GPS receivers on elephants. Instead of getting one reading every two weeks, which was considered intensive, we got one reading every hour. Now even less than an hour, so literally we can get a continuous flow of information on the elephants.

Iain D.-Hamilton: That’s been absolutely radical in improving our understanding of how elephants move, where they live, how they cross from one favored place to another, what are the vital corridors? And then on another aspect, it has allowed us to share this information with people who are protecting the elephants and hugely increase the efficiency of their patrolling, which can now be also based on movements of elephants.

Walter Isaacson: Today, researchers and park rangers can track on their smartphones the movement of individual elephants. Sensors allow them to instantly identify when an elephant is in distress. Machine learning algorithms will eventually allow even more sophisticated observations. And while the threat of poaching has not been eliminated, technology has made life much more difficult and dangerous for prospective poachers, and it has allowed us to learn more about elephant behavior than Iain Douglas-Hamilton could ever have imagined when he first started studying them in the wild 50 years ago. While he celebrates the success that technology has brought, Iain Douglas-Hamilton believes there’s still no substitute for the kind of good old-fashioned fieldwork that first got him hooked on elephants.

Iain D.-Hamilton: Yes, it has been extraordinary. Everything is improving. But at the same time, I think we have to keep our feet on the ground and check up that we’re not diving too deeply into the world of models and models only, because we want real animals and real data, I think the same need for fields observers in the field actually looking at animals through binoculars. I mean, maybe that’s making me antediluvian, I don’t know, but I do believe it’s important. We can’t only look at proxies for what’s going on that will fit into the model. We have to always root ourselves back in direct observation. Whether it’s the machine that’s doing the observing or it’s us, we have to keep very closely in touch with natural processes in nature.

Walter Isaacson: But what if the elephants you’re hoping to study or save from extinction can’t be observed through binoculars? Not because they’re too rare or too elusive, but because they’re already extinct and have been for more than 4,000 years. Surely there’s nothing we can do about that. Well, don’t be too sure.

Walter Isaacson: Well, don’t be too sure.
Stewart Brand: My name is Stewart Brand and I don’t know, how do you want to identify me?

Walter Isaacson: There are lots of different ways of identifying Stewart Brand, but let’s start by calling him one of the most influential Americans of the past half century. In 1968, he started the Whole Earth Catalog, a magazine that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the back to the land movement. It offered the young counterculture communards tools to survive in a strange and sometimes hostile environment. Most of those tools were decidedly low-tech, but Stewart Brand was also one of the first to understand that personal computers could be a tool of empowerment. Today, Stewart Brand is still focused on developing tools, technological tools, to help solve some of the most pressing environmental issues of our day. And that now includes finding ways to not just save species that are close to extinction, but to bring back those like the woolly mammoth that haven’t been seen on this planet in millennia.

Stewart Brand: The deal with elephants is they used to live absolutely everywhere. They were especially important and everywhere in the Arctic and subarctic in Northern Canada and Siberia and so on. And they were an essential part of the ecosystem there. When we got the warming after the passing of the last ice age, the last glaciation, mainly we killed off the most of the large animals, the large megafauna, of the Arctic and subarctic including the woolly mammoths that were there.

Walter Isaacson: In 2012, Stewart Brand and his wife, Ryan Phelan, founded a nonprofit organization called Revive and Restore, with the audacious goal of using cutting edge genomic technology to save species that are currently nearing extinction, like the black-footed ferret and revive long extinct species like the passenger pigeon and the woolly mammoth.

Stewart Brand: Since Revive and Restore is all about access to genetic and biotechnology tools for conservation purposes, I want the innovators in biotechnology to have conservation in mind as they develop the tools from scratch, the way they have biomedicine in mind now, they have agriculture in mind. This is the nature of the Anthropocene is humans have an enormous role to do harm and an increasingly important capability to undo harm. And so that’s, that’s the side on I’m on.

Walter Isaacson: The idea of using biotechnology to revive extinct species was sparked by a conversation that Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan had with acclaimed Harvard geneticist, George Church, back in 2010. Ryan Phelan is a co-founder of Revive and Restore.

Ryan Phelan: At one point, George Church actually showed Stewart and I kind of the state of the art at Harvard for genetically altering more than one trait at a time. And Stewart asked, “Could you use something like this to actually bring back an extinct species if you had the skeleton of the scaffold of the closely related species?” And George very clearly said, “Absolutely. This is where the technology is going.” And one thing led to another. We just kept asking more questions and George kept showing us more and more opportunity for advancing the field of genomic engineering for conservation.

Walter Isaacson: So how do you revive the woolly mammoth? The short answer is very carefully. What George Church and his colleagues are doing is basically using gene editing techniques such as CRISPR to introduce woolly mammoth genes into Asian elephant cell lines. Asian elephants are genetically closer to the woolly mammoth than those found in Africa. With each edit, the Asian elephant more closely resembles the genetic makeup of the woolly mammoth adapted to survive in the subzero temperatures where the woolly mammoth once roamed and may one day roam again.

Walter Isaacson: So far, all this is just happening in the lab, but the project, even in this early stage, is not without critics. Some argue that the money and the time being spent reviving extinct species would be better spent trying to save endangered species that are still with us. And once we get used to the idea that extinction is not forever, we may not pay enough attention to saving those endangered species. And many people are simply uncomfortable with the ethics and morality of manipulating the genetic code of large mammals. After all, don’t mess with Mother Nature is a maxim that many people subscribe to, but Stewart Brand is not one of those people.

Stewart Brand: Well, Mother Nature is a bitch. Mother Nature messes with itself, with us, with all these things. We did not have any problem messing with Mother Nature when we got rid of smallpox. I don’t think we have any problem with trying to mess with Mother Nature in getting rid of the Guinea worm, cause of Guinea worm sickness in Africa. Mother Nature mostly is entirely resilient and robust. There’s a lot of thought that it’s very fragile and we have to be careful or it will break. Happily, I’m trained as an ecologist and I’ve done a certain amount of fieldwork and I’ve been around a lot of field biologists and what you keep finding is that nature is incredibly robust, incredibly active, up to all sorts of things that we’re still discovering.

Walter Isaacson: Maybe one day, probably not in our lifetime, some variation of the woolly mammoth will once again be roaming the Arctic permafrost. If it happens, it would probably rank as one of the great scientific achievements of all time. But then what? For environmental historians like Adam Rome, it’s the unintended consequences of applying cutting edge technology to conservation that we need to pay more attention to.

Adam Rome: If there’s one thing that we should learn from the 20th century that will help us in the 21st, it’s that technology, miraculous as it is, never has only the intended consequence. There’s a long record now of technologies that appear to solve problems that have caused others. I mean, the auto’s a perfect example. In 1900, the problem that people talked about a lot was horses in cities. They were (beep) all over the place and they died and their carcasses would sit in the road for days and be surrounded by flies and the automobile solved that problem. We don’t have horses in cities anymore, but it created a whole bunch of other problems as well as other opportunities.

Walter Isaacson: Adam Rome believes that the key ingredient that is too often missing in the discussions of technology and the environment is humility. Computers, satellites, devices that detect toxins, have all allowed us to gain a far greater understanding of problems, from climate change to biodiversity. But along with those benefits, we have to be mindful of the overall environmental effects of technology, which is only as good or as bad as we use it. I’m Walter Isaacson and you’ve been listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. If you want to find out more about any of the guests on today’s show, head to our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.