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The Snake, The Seeker and the Smartphone

Effective communication about the environment, check. Inspiration to address threats to Earth processes, check. Community of like-minded people who want to help, check check check check.

The subtitle was: can tech save biodiversity? The members of the panel I moderated last night at the Commonwealth Club of California were Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie from, and Tanya Birch from Google Earth. With his black hair flopping around a yellow bandana, Ueda set the tone for the evening by talking about how he came to invent iNaturalist. A self-described nature nerd and computer geek, Ueda put two of his passions together to help connect people with the denizens of the great outdoors, and with each other. Utilizing a smartphone or combining a camera with a gps device, users make “observations” of insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, plants, birds, and fungi and associate these with a latitude and longitude, a date and a time. Uploaded to iNaturalist, they become part of a great inventory of nature. He described the satisfaction of looking for, and finding, creatures, and sharing these instances of attention, noticing, and communion with other nature lovers. He talked about the wonder of seeing three species of bird on a stretch of Market Street, then noticing a lone hawk perched above on an office tower; this vision, he said, gave him “solace.”

Of course I’m singing (or screaming) in the choir but I felt Ueda’s testimony was just the right sort of precursor to evoke receptivity in folks who otherwise may turn away from nature’s dire problems. (In upcoming weeks and months, expect even more terrible news about what’s happening to our planet – the 5th International Panel on Climate Change will start publishing reports, and well you know. It’s not good news.) Loarie pointed out that species are going extinct at a rate that is about 100 percent faster than the background extinction that is a part of time’s arrow. He mentioned that human beings use up 60 percent of the energy yielded by the sun – we are gobbling up far more than our share. Loarie is a scientist among whose relevant publications include The Velocity of Climate Change, and he knows a thing or two about why and how scientists use data about species to help figure out how to help them. iNaturalist is a tool the rest of us can use for fun, but when iNat’s expert verification system gives an observation its imprimatur, it gets uploaded to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, a vast database in use by scientists all over the world. An example of how iNaturalist can be used to more local effect is the Vermont Atlas of Life. What we need is for every region and state to establish similar projects.

Perhaps the central utility of technology is its ability to help reconcile the local and the global. Thus tribespeople in Brazil, armed with smartphones provided by Google Earth, are measuring the carbon sequestered in their ancestral forest to be valued in a carbon market. Illegal logging can be instantly reported and dealt with in short order. The story of the Surui was one inspiration from Tanya Birch; another was a project in Jane Goodall’s neck of the woods, where African chimpanzees are threatened with loss of their habitat. Birch talked about turning poachers into citizen scientists.

Many of us walk around knowing that our cushy Western life-style is a distinct part of the problem here. But it can feel impossible to do anything consequential about it. If you have to drive to work, you have to drive to work. Here’s something you can do: get an iNaturalist account (free). Go outside. Look for critters. And if you happen to be in the Bay Area, check out the rest of this month’s biodiversity programming at the Commonwealth Club, including my own presentation August 29. I have a nifty slide show.

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