- Steven Kotler is a leading thinker on how technology can be employed to halt the global loss of biodiversity.
- Recently the prolific author and journalist convened a weekend forum for environmentalists and technologists in California called Creating Equilibrium, to bring these disciplines into conversation.
- Mongabay interviewed Kotler about his views on the biodiversity crisis and how advanced technology and creative thinking can help avert it.
Steven Kotler is a leading thinker on how technology can be employed to halt the global loss of biodiversity. Recently the prolific author and journalist convened a weekend forum for environmentalists and technologists in Tahoe, California, Creating Equilibrium, to bring these disciplines into conversation, and it featured speakers from famed ecologist David Suzuki to IBM Master Inventor Neil Sahota. Mongabay caught up with Steven Kotler afterward to continue the discussion.
AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN KOTLER
Mongabay: You say you take the biodiversity crisis personally, where does your devotion come from?
Steven Kotler: It comes from being an animal geek. Even as a little kid, you’d always find me at the Museum of Natural History looking at dinosaurs, or at the zoo. When I became a reporter I went considerably out of my way to hang out with scientists who were working with animals. I spent 2 years trying to get magazines to send me to Madagascar to hang out with [researcher] Pat Wright and study lemurs in the rainforest. I also run Rancho de Chihuahua with my wife, which is a dog sanctuary, most people don’t think of dogs when they think about biodiversity but what I believe is that dogs and the animals that are closest to us are the ‘gateway drug’ to biodiversity, how we treat the animals closest to us extends out to how we treat animals in the rest of the world. So we work on the frontlines of dog rescue in the second poorest county in America, which has a very high rate of animal cruelty. I wrote A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life, which is about the relationship between humans and animals, Abundance and Bold were [books] about using accelerating technologies to solve grand challenges. So Creating Equilibrium is the next step in that process, trying to bridge the gap between environmentalists and technologists.
Mongabay: Beyond ecosystem services, what is the rationale for slowing the global loss of species?
Steven Kotler: I’m sorry, (laughs) there is no ‘beyond ecosystem services,’ right? Species and the web of life support each other, and without ecosystems services, as recent research at Stanford shows, the planet starts to shut down completely within three generations. Animals also play a spiritual role in our lives, perhaps.
Mongabay: We often cover news of newly discovered species but they’re usually good news/bad news stories because many times that ‘new’ species is already endangered. What do you typically say to people to lessen the emotional impact of such hard facts?
Steven Kotler: I don’t know if you can lessen the impact of those facts. With species die-off rates 1,000 times the normal? Fifty percent of the species on Earth gone by the end of the century? We shouldn’t shy away from the hard facts, we should make people understand, if they’re not animal geeks, why it matters so much, why ecosystem services are so important.
Mongabay: You’ve written about how small teams or individuals can tackle big challenges like poverty, healthcare and energy. Can you share examples of such teams doing big things for biodiversity or the planet?
Steven Kotler: I love Biocarbon Engineering, it’s a startup in Australia that has created tree planning drones that are astounding, they can plant 100,000 trees a day, they’re trying to build 10,000 drones to plant a billion trees a year, they’re an amazing company. I also think The Plastics Bank is an amazing company, in terms of getting plastics out of the ocean [which] is a huge problem. Plastics Bank is in Peru, Haiti, and a couple other places, anyone who picks up plastic off the beaches, out of rivers and whatnot, The Plastic Bank pays people in cash or cellphone minutes or wifi time…they send it out to recyclers who turn that into plastic pellets which they then sell to businesses, they’ve got a deal with Seventh Generation, and I think Unilever. There are a bunch of other companies working that way too, putting themselves into waste streams in interesting ways I think are really neat.
Mongabay: We’ve leveraged the talents of a small team to report on environmental news and trends globally since the late 1990s, and are glad to see other small nonprofit outlets now proliferating. Do you think journalism is one of these areas where small teams can make a difference?
Steven Kotler: Absolutely, journalism is certainly one place where small teams can make a difference, you’re talking to a guy who started out as a journalist so I guess at a certain level, I really think you need to report on this stuff. Most of the problem the environment is having is a communication problem, people don’t understand why the environment is important. I think nothing is more critical than journalism.
Mongabay: We just hosted an event at the Commonwealth Club of California on applications of advanced technology in conservation [video], where our panel discussed things like AI and remote sensing to curtail illegal logging. What’s your take on how well technology can complement traditional conservation approaches?
Steven Kotler: Great question, we need both, and in weird ways. There are obvious ways, tree-planting drones, that sort of thing that’s really critical, using block-chain to take a rainforest ‘public’, those things are incredibly interesting. Using AI to steer ecosystems so we don’t squander research dollars, the list goes on and on. I like the low-tech/high-tech blend, agroecology is really interesting, there are a lot of low-tech perennial polyculture cropping solutions. We brought Pat Wright [to the Equillibrium Conference] because she’s got the most high-tech lab in Africa doing hard core genetics work at the same time she’s working with local villagers to plant crops in the forest that can be harvested. Those kinds of partnerships I think are critically important, we have to use more technology, but it has to be a blended approach.
Mongabay: Can you imagine an X Prize for solutions to the biodiversity crisis?
Steven Kotler: I would love a series of X-Prizes for the biodiversity crisis, I don’t know what they would look like, my personal passion is mega-linkages, those are really hard tracts of land to put together, but that’s interesting to me, I think loading an AI with as much environmental information as possible is a first step, like what IBM did with Watson. That’s a tough question and I would need to spend a lot of time on that.
Mongabay: What was your favorite part of the Creating Equilibrium conference?
Steven Kotler: How people from the environmental side and the technology side really did start talking to each other, I saw it back stage and with people in the room. That was what I wanted, to start bridging that gap, this was just a first step and there’s a ton of work to be done.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Creating Equilibrium here.