Sometimes it’s important not to take sides


Sometimes it’s important not to take sides

A launch for Ally's book, 'Ethical Debates in Orangutan Conservation', prompted discussion of how to study animal controversies.

On the 3rd December, 2020, Keble College’s Middle Common Room hosted a book launch for Ethical Debates in Orangutan Conservation, authored by Ally Palmer, a Keble Research Associate and postdoctoral researcher with the Animal Research Nexus.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, the event was held online. While we all missed the conviviality of an in-person event, the online format did have the benefit of opening up the event to a wide interdisciplinary audience, from academics in fields such as geography, anthropology, and sociology, to primatologists and conservationists working in Indonesia and Malaysia and beyond. Overall, around 56 people attended the event, with around 12 MCR members staying on for the post-launch discussion on ‘publishing your PhD’.

The event opened with a presentation from Ally, outlining the book and its key contributions. Ethical Debates in Orangutan Conservation explores how conservationists grapple with difficult trade-offs (or ‘triage’, as conservationists usually call it) in the course of their work, especially when it comes to rehabilitating and reintroducing orangutans: helping formerly captive orphans recover and gain survival skills before release back to the forest. These trade-offs arise in a context of scarcity (of time, space, resources) where it’s impossible to save every individual animal, species, ecosystem, or value.

Using a framework of ‘ordinary ethics’ (people’s attempts to do what they believe is right in the messy realities of their daily lives), the book shows how conservationists weigh up the potentially competing interests of different species, wild and displaced animals, known and abstract individuals, and properties of animals such as their wildness, welfare, and autonomy. At the same time, they negotiate relationships with donors, fellow conservationists, companies involved in habitat destruction, and members of the public, whose values and interests may not align with their own. The book therefore shows that saving orangutans, or any other nonhuman, inevitably involves sacrifice of some kind.

Ally’s introduction was followed by some very thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. Laur Kiik, from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford, opened the responses, drawing attention to how the book moves away from the typically critical approach to conservation taken by anthropologists and other social scientists, by studying conservationists themselves and taking their views seriously. By navigating readers through a ‘forest of opinion’ in a ‘clear-eyed’ manner, the book shows how conservationists ‘have culture, are diverse, and disagree’, highlighting the value of listening rather than judging.

Laur observed that the book sits at the borders of anthropology and conservation (being written for both audiences), and simultaneously shows how conservationists themselves are often positioned at the borderlands of competing interests, such as between species conservation and individual animal welfare. Laur characterised the book as therefore exemplifying a kind of ‘border-world sadness’, neither despairing about the fate of orangutans, nor especially hopeful; rather, the book – like the conservationists whose world it explores – shows how ‘staying with the sadness’ can be a productive way of grappling with the challenges of conservation in the Anthropocene.

Building on this theme, Dr Liana Chua, Reader in Anthropology at Brunel University London and lead investigator of the Global Lives of the Orangutan project, reflected on how the book moves away from a typically one-dimensional portrayal of conservationists as either moral crusaders rescuing beleaguered and endangered animals, or as arrogant neo-colonialists. Rather, the book shows how the orangutan conservation community is made up of a diverse range of passionate people, who are just trying their best under challenging conditions.

Liana reflected that while the book is critical of conservation in some ways, it presents a ‘critical analysis, not just critique’. In this sense, the book is ‘open-ended’ and ‘generous’: it doesn’t shy away from complexity and messiness, but it also doesn’t judge. Resisting the typical encouragement in academia to make big political interventions, Liana suggested that the book doesn’t posit a grand ethical programme, but rather opens up space for reflection on how and why to do conservation.

Finally, Annie Welden, from Geography at Oxford, drew attention to how the book engages with important themes in more-than-human geography. Noting that while animal agency is not the central focus of the work, Annie reflected that this remains a clear and driving force, with orangutan conservation and the book both emerging from the demands that orangutans and their plight place on humans to respond, their status as ‘almost human’ making these demands especially compelling.

Building on themes introduced by the other respondents, Annie reflected that Donna Haraway’s encouragement to ‘stay with the trouble’, while only mentioned at a couple of points in the book, is a central theme running throughout: the book shows what it means to live with and in the tensions posed by orangutan conservation, for which there is no silver bullet or easy answer. For this reason, Annie suggested that the book’s willingness to listen to the diverse voices of orangutan conservationists, and its insistence on ‘remaining neutral’ on whose view is correct, are among its greatest strengths.

Many of these themes resonate with the concerns of the Animal Research Nexus group, of which Ally is currently part. Here, we highlight three key commonalities. First, Ally’s book illustrates the complexity of human-animal relationships, demonstrating that when it comes to the tough dilemmas posed by orangutan conservation, there is no silver bullet. As our work in AnNex so often shows, the same is certainly true of animal research.

Second, Ally’s book is both about and for conservationists: it aims to progress ‘open accessibility’ (as Laur put it) by adopting an accessible style, thereby engaging with people who might otherwise feel alienated by academic writing. In doing so, it opens up conversations beyond the ivory tower, reaching out to conservationists and publics alike. In AnNex we very much share these goals of open accessibility and public and stakeholder engagement.

Finally, while Ally’s book does not advocate for a specific solution to the dilemmas posed by orangutan conservation, it does have a normative goal in mind: progressing conservation by opening up dialogue between groups who often find themselves at odds, namely the diverse conservation groups working with and for orangutans, and social scientists and conservationists.

Our goal in AnNex is very much the same: we don’t adopt a black-and-white pro- or anti-animal research stance, but we do hope to improve outcomes for animals and humans by connecting up stakeholders in this often-polarised field. In this sense, both Ally’s book and our work in AnNex refrain from taking sides as a deliberate strategy for progressing difficult conversations about how to live well with nonhumans.

For those who’d like to know more, you can read a summary of Ally’s book on Oxford’s Arts blog, and watch a recorded talk she gave for the University of Stavanger’s Greenhouse environmental humanities group. A paper related to the book, originally published in Biological Conservation, is also available open access, and Ally’s PhD thesis (on which the book is based) will be freely available in 2021. You may also be interested in Laur’s work arguing for social scientists to take conservation seriously and study them as community, and a paper led by Liana showing how social scientists and orangutan conservationists might work together.

Both Ally’s book and our work in AnNex refrain from taking sides as a deliberate strategy for progressing difficult conversations about how to live well with nonhumans.
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