Game of Thrones & Conservation-Science Fiction: What would you include in a Conservation curriculum?

Selected text from DICE PGR seminar I presented on 19/02/2015


My propositions for the Conservation curriculum:

I propose Games of Thrones because:

If you have not seen the fantasy books and television series Game of Thrones then in short it involves multiple different peoples from multiple different habitats engaged in negotiating and fighting over the control of these different peoples, the lands they come from and the treasures they contain with a generous portion of nudity, dragons and blood. This summary does not do it justice so you will have to go and watch it yourself. I wish to use two general aspects from this epic to explain why it would be beneficial to conservation to have it on the reading or viewing list. Not because all of it is helpful to learn about, but because a number of tropes that are communicated across the entire story-telling manage to communicate very accessibly what I intend to outline, even though they are fictional and sometimes fantastical in nature.


In GOT the multiple empires or people attempting to establish an overall empire can be metaphorically equated to the multiple nations and other political groupings in the world today. In GOT they exist in the face of an impending fantastical catastrophe that is captured by the meme-catchy tagline ‘Winter is Coming’. We also exist at a time where a radical change in climate is looming large and already starting to have a significant impact on human and non-human life. I am less interested in riding the popularity of the wave of GOT by hacking, for the purpose of ‘selling’ climate change as a reality, the phrase ‘WIC’; perhaps as ‘Global warming is coming’. I personally find that a somewhat trivialising of the actual non-fantastical reality of GW. That is not what I am proposing, though such branding may have been helpful today in getting your attention, but such a cynical approach does not sit happy with people when they realised they have been conned. Not to worry, I do wish to stick to my proposition in a non-trivial sense, not simply use GOT as a ploy to get your attention rather than your action.


Instead Game of Thrones quite simply is breaking ground in how to communicate with people what they already know but cannot always articulate – and it where research is currently trying to make headway. This is the field of trying to not simply research complexity but how to understand and share the complexity of a reality at multiple scales where is can always be understood at the so called individual scale. Game of Thrones does this quite dramatically, and I think is one of the reasons people love it so much. It enables people to associate or understand the personal lives and the small interactions and decisions made by its characters, and feel how they are interconnected in to vast multi-scalar universe they are a part of. Three themes spring to mind in this attempt at ‘telling’ complexity; world systems theory, political-economy, history and non-human agency (usually in the form of magic). GOT demonstrates all 4 as key factors shaping human society and consequentially their environments. WST, PE and history are quite evident in the story as key factors to consider in how the GOT landscape is shaped, but magic is perhaps best utilised by its subtle use and in doing so demonstrates the hubris of those who believe they can control or hierarchically manage an environment. In the sense that magic is used as a device to demonstrate the humans are not all powerful and do not understand everything and thus need to consider a space for activities that are yet beyond a causal understanding limited to human agency or do not conform to it. Something we all know and recognise and resonate with us when we read or watch GOT, but not as often as needed when we apply ourselves to our research……


Secondly I propose Conservation Science-Fiction because:

As an avid fan of science-fiction whether it be Star Trek, the colonial frontier, or William Gibson or Ramez Naam’s contemporary writing on what a near transhuman and post-human future might look like. You cannot have also failed to notice the proliferation in cinematic medium of ‘end of days’ and catastrophe movies, whether they be directly about ‘natural disasters’ from the succinctly crap world of ‘the day after tomorrow’ to the cleverly chauvinistic retelling of the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl with its reckless cowboy hero in the form of Interstellar. or even in the form of Zombie apocalypses cropping up in so many films, whether overtly in World War Z or unexpectedly in ‘The last days on Mars’. Look at the role the environment plays in these or how people imagine people might organise themselves. Its not usually very inspiring.


In the most cutting of these, the peripheral by Gibson, there are the two classic options suggested: a transhuman moving to a post-human world in which the environment is nigh on non-existent or unrecognised as if humans can survive, whether for better or worse, without the biodiversity we are a part of (its what I call the battery chicken fallacy – can ask me about after if you want) or they are neo-primitivist where people go back, if you will, to living simply with nature or some romantic nonsense. It was in thinking of putting this session together that an answer came to a question I have had since a child when I read edgar rice-boroughs countless books about some human travelling to mars or some planet and proceeding with some general stellar travel narrative of humans and aliens hanging out or not hanging outs s well together, anyway in short its sciencefiction with a man reaching to the stars premised on inorganic technological prowess or in other words science-fiction. My question was how come he also wrote what he is famous for, the Tarzan series, well it makes sense now, its the two visions again, one of the star man, which in today’s science fiction is usually set in either an emasculated or out of control environmental future and the other the romance of the neo-primitivist tarzan.


So where does all this leave conservation, well it seems to me it leaves it without and constructive visions for a the coming post-human era in which the environment is subjugated out of existence or we all just setup on some island somewhere with an animal skin. I am not saying these visions will come true as they are, but I am saying that without a neo-environmental more-than-human vision for the future how can one even try and attempt to navigate or articulate and shape ones efforts. What I mean by this is a vision of the future in which the environment is neither treated as a subject or possession of humanity, nor as a static and simply a zoo to maintain. Instead a future in which the environment is a partner in a journey of human-environment development, one where we work with rather than against, inspite or for ‘nature’ if you will. I will not go much further on this but I am hoping to develop a compendium of examples on this if anyone is interested in broaching the subject further.


In conclusion:

This question of ‘What would you include in a Conservation curriculum?’ occurred to me based on my experience as a trainee teacher in Science, specifically Biology in Secondary School. In considering the huge impact and fiddling by Political interests, ask any teacher, that goes on with the way students are taught and learn (or in case don’t learn, or simply memorise) at school, I noticed that no radical changes in the actual subjects and what was being taught had really entered secondary schools for nigh on a century despite radical changes in the ‘real’ world – need I mention the internet, globalisation, post-industrialisation etc. When I asked Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology and progenitor of concepts such as the informal or human economy, Keith Hart, what radical change he would like to see in the next five years he simply stated ‘teach kids about money in school’. Funny enough there is a truly inspiring network of economics students reinvigorating and making relevant the economics curriculum’s in UK Universities (Rethinking Economics). This being precipitated by economics students realising that they were not equipped in the slightest to understand the 2008 financial crash due to the ideologically one-dimensional curriculum that they were being taught. Thus my question to everyone is how is, how does conservation science in all its facets grasp the plural reality it is having to deal with? Is it achieving its aims? And thus what areas of the curriculum that are successful can be focussed on and what areas can be added to grasp the changing reality conservationists have to deal with and achieve their aims in this beautifully messy and diverse world?