I am pleased to announce the publication of “Conservation Acoustics: animal sounds, audible natures, cheap nature”, co-written with Karen Bakker, in the journal Geoforum. The paper asks why growing numbers of government agencies, professional conservation authorities, university researchers, citizen scientists, and private companies are turning to bioacoustical approaches for conservation research and management needs.

In this paper, we find that the unifying ethos behind diverse interests in acoustical sensing today is not simply one of addressing urgently needed conservation questions — the need to chart the changing migratory paths of climate-affected bird species, for example. Rather, a significant portion of interest and support for this work is coming from Big Tech. The level of interest this sector is showing towards animal sounds is perhaps surprising, but it can be easily explained by citing a claim given by one industry insider: “Sound has so much hidden data.” The economic value of data explains why companies like Google and Microsoft are not simply supporting and investing, but even undertaking bioacoustics research projects themselves. It also suggests that the algorithms being used to acoustically track elephants and songbirds may soon find their way into other social domains – like your household and your Siri Assistant.  Still, our paper does not discredit the science. Rather, it seeks to emphasize that important research gains that are happening alongside these larger trends. Given the ecological challenges we are facing, we would be remiss to ignore the benefits of acoustics approaches to conservation. What we are calling “Conservation Acoustics” clearly has the potential to improve how we study and engage the natural world. But ultimately, if our collective ability to know, study, and relate to nature is to depend on what large institutions say is sharable and hence audible, then more critical kinds of science praxis are needed.

“Conservation Acoustics: Animal sounds, audible natures, cheap nature” was generously supported by VIVA PLAN and is the basis for future research in Sweden that seeks to celebrate bioacoustics research. Thank you to all who provided generous feedback on the project.

Max Ritts is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge, and was a member of VIVA PLAN from 2019-2021. (mjr223@cam.ac.uk)