Biodiversity, conservation, and culture

Finding creative and inclusive solutions to biodiversity loss
The biodiversity crisis demands multidisciplinary approaches that bring the best scientific research into dialogue with the insights of history, philosophy, economics, law, and the creative arts.

As human beings, our lives are made possible by the rich diversity of plants and animals that we share this planet with. This theme explores the complex interrelationships between human communities and the natural world. In a time of escalating biodiversity loss, it champions the value of both biological and cultural diversity.

We aim to:

  • Better understand the relationships between human communities and the biodiverse ecosystems that support and enrich their lives.
  • Develop innovative multidisciplinary approaches to understanding and intervening in the biodiversity crisis in ways that are creative, inclusive, and just.
  • Value, elevate and highlight the importance of Indigenous and traditional knowledges.

Featured research projects


Human-shark relations

Redefining the human-shark relationship in Australia

All current research projects

Living on the Edge: Caring for Australia’s Threatened Places is a multi-year collaborative project that explores the relationships of Australian communities with threatened ecological communities and landscapes. This project considers what these places are like, why they matter and how we can protect and regenerate them.

The project brings together cultural researchers, writers, curators, traditional custodians and artists, as well as policymakers, scientists and community conservationists, to share knowledge and explore ideas. Ultimately, it aims to open up a broad public dialogue on these important topics through a series of public events, broadcasts, publications, exhibitions, and the development of learning resources.

This project is being developed by the National Museum of Australia (through the James O Fairfax Senior Fellow in Culture and Environment Program) and the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney, and is led by Kirsten Wehner (NMA), Cameron Muir (NMA), and Thom van Dooren (SEI). The project webpage is available here.

SEI Contributors: Professor Thom van Dooren

 (Un)worlding is a University of Sydney-based staff and student reading group in the environmental humanities. The group was established in early 2022 to support the intellectual development and interdisciplinary engagement of Higher Degree and Early Career Researchers at the University. (Un)worlding's monthly gatherings center on reading key sources in the discipline, reviewing work-in-progress papers, and engaging in critical dialogue and debate on contemporary theories and methodologies in the environmental humanities.

For more visit,

Contributors: Professor Thom van DoorenDr Sophie Chao

This project builds collaborative links between the Sydney Environment Institute and the School of Humanities at the University of Sydney and colleagues in Multidisciplinary Environmental Studies in the Humanities (MESH) at the University of Cologne.

The project is funded by a Humboldt Research Award, which is made made annually to internationally leading researchers whose “fundamental discoveries, new theories or findings have had a lasting effect on their discipline beyond their immediate research area and who are expected, moreover, to continue producing outstanding research in the future.” 

Contributors: Professor Thom van Dooren

Building on the methods and concepts of the emerging environmental humanities, this project will produce a new conceptual vocabulary for a world in which multispecies conflict and coexistence is increasingly important. It brings critical and generative rereadings of classical political thought and contemporary biopolitical and cosmopolitical approaches into dialogue with a set of empirical case studies emerging from novel encounters between humans and other animals. This project will expand Australia’s knowledge base and research capacity in the interdisciplinary environmental humanities and stake out new approaches to the question of living together in a changing environment

This is a Discovery project funded by the Australian Research Council.

Contributors: Associate Professor Dinesh WadiwelAssociate Professor Thom van Dooren

Other contributors include, Associate Professor Robert Briggs, Dr Matthew Chrulew, Dr Jacqueline Dalziell, Associate Professor Dominique Lestel.

This project investigates the regulations and environmental history of the Botany Wetlands, a 4.5 km corridor of degraded freshwater wetlands and native woodland habitats in Sydney's inner east.

The researchers hypothesise that complex regulations enforce an environmental narrative that may not represent the Botany Wetlands of the past.

Their goal is to offer authorities with a roadmap for the sustainable management and restoration of the wetlands, which filter stormwater runoff, accommodate floodwater, benefit human health, and host rare and endangered ecological communities.

This project is supported by SEI’s 2024 Collaborative Grants Scheme.

Contributors: Associate Professor Josephine Gillespie, Dr Rebecca Hamilton, Professor Dan Penny

What happens when we think about worlds beyond the boundaries of dominant scientific frameworks, including biology? Alongside matter, what role do immaterial, sacred, ghostly, or non-secular beings play?

An interdisciplinary symposium contributed to these conversations as part of the Beyond Bios project.

Project lead: Dr Sophie Chao


Chao, S. 2023, 'Spent Earth', Critical Times, 1 August.

Using the lens of co-stewardship, this project will bring together local Wiradyuri Elders, Landcare and Local Land Services in the Riverina to share stories of stewardship and sense of place, to map out these stories, and to have open conservations around practical and imagined ways of deepening community engagement for environmental regeneration on public and private lands. It will address; the need to protect, enhance and regenerate the environment; enable Indigenous governance of natural resources; and protect and activate culturally significant sites - these needs are inescapably intertwined. The project will focus on:

  • The role of environmental stewardship in building shared values through landscape-scale story-sharing and mapping.
  • The type of practical strategies that could enhance Indigenous-led cross-property, landscape-scale Caring for Country.
  • Pathways for generating more meaningful engagement between Traditional Owners and non-Indigenous landholders.

This project is supported by SEI’s 2023 Collaborative Grants Scheme.

Contributors: Dr Rebecca CrossAssociate Professor Rosanne QuinnellKatie Moore


Cross, R. 2023, 'Finding the resonance between farming stewardship and First Nations Custodianship, Institute of Australian Geographers', 4-7 July, Curtin University, Western Australia.

For millions of years sharks have swum through native waters, and dating back to Aboriginal carvings, sharks have represented a threat in the human imaginary. The recent opposition to shark culling in Australia represents a leading tip of the international “Save the Shark” movement. This project aims to devise long-term public education tools and policy options to redefine the human-shark relationship in Australia. The project will:

  • Investigate Australian’s attitudes and views of shares as native species, beach hazard, and conservation target affect policymaking.
  • Analyse how public education can facilitate the coexistence, public safety, and conservation of sharks in Australian waters.
  • Develop inter-disciplinary approaches for reconciling political interests around beach safety and environmental preservation with the ethical treatment of wildlife.
  • Devise a policy mechanism that allows for a post shark-net consideration of shark bite mitigation in NSW and QLD.

This project is supported by SEI’s 2023 Collaborative Grants Scheme.

Read more about the project

Wildlife exists all around us - in our backyards, on our balconies, in parks and disused industrial areas. If we pay attention, these creatures are an invitation into an entire world of growth and decay - of communication and sensation going on right under our noses. This project brings design, research, digital and environmental humanities and life sciences together, with a focus on community nature storytelling. We’re co-authoring a book and producing a range of other interesting things. 

Contributors: Associate Professor Thom van DoorenProfessor Dieter Hochuli

Other contributors include John Martin, Zoë Sadokierski and Andrew Burrell. 

Read more about the project

Lively discussions are taking place about cities as multispecies environments across multiple disciplines. Moving on from modern conceptions of cities as ‘unnatural’ environments, there has been growing interest in cities as habitats for plants and animals as well as humans. The challenge posed by this research is conceptual and political. How should the planning, development, maintenance and use of cities shift, based on recognition that many species call them home? 

This project is a collaboration between an urban geographer (Geosciences) and an urban ecologist (School of Life and Environmental Sciences) which will document and analyse the role of historical urban infrastructure spaces as urban ecological biotopes. These infrastructures have accidentally performed a vital role as urban animal and plant habitats. In this project we ask: what can the political ecology of historical urban infrastructures teach us about planning multispecies cities? 

Focusing on active and abandoned railway corridors and water storage and distribution infrastructures, this project will document the animal and plant species that have found homes in the city thanks to the fencing of these infrastructures and analyse the implications of these ecologies for the planning and management of existing and future urban infrastructure. 

This project is supported by SEI’s 2022 Collaborative Project Fellowship scheme.

Contributors: Professor Kurt IvesonProfessor Dieter Hochuli

Read more about the project

Native to the continent, targeted as pest, and exploited for their meat and hide, kangaroos occupy a unique yet conflictual position in Australian social and ecological imaginaries. Contestations over this interspecies relation emerge strongly in the context of kangaroo culling, conservation and consumption, and their divergent ethical, economic and environmental dimensions. Culling seeks to limit the impacts of kangaroo over-abundance on the rural ecosystems upon which farmers’ livelihoods depend. In its commercial form, kangaroo harvesting provides an arguably more environmentally friendly and ethical alternative to livestock rearing. This reasoning, however, is challenged by scientists and animal welfare activists who advocate the protection of kangaroos from harm and exploitation. 

This project aims to uncover the diverse perceptions, knowledges and practices shaping kangaroo-human relations in Australia, and to produce inter-disciplinary knowledge towards more equitable human-wildlife futures. Its aims are: 

  • To investigate how industry, government, scientific, agriculturalist and animal welfare organisations conceptualise kangaroos as native species and pest, food resource and political symbol
  • To analyse how knowledge about kangaroos and their relations to humans and ecosystems is produced, communicated, and contested by diverse sectors of Australian society
  • To develop inter-disciplinary approaches for reconciling economic interests and environmental preservation with the ethical treatment of wildlife.

This is an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) funded project.

Contributors: Dr Sophie Chao

Related research outputs:

Chao, Sophie. “The Colonial Roots of the Kangaroo Controversy.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (Spring 2023), no. 7. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. 

Chao, Sophie. 2022. “Bouncing Back? Kangaroo-Human Resistance in Contemporary Australia.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 1–24.

Chao, Sophie. 2022. “The Palate Politics of Eating Kangaroo.” Edge Effects. Unpure Imagination series. 29 April.

Chao, Sophie. 2022. “Writing Nature in the Active Voice.” Environmental History Now. 8 July.

“Crafting Humanimal Histories: Anticipatory Reflections on Some Methodological, Conceptual, and Ethical Stakes.” Deep Conversations. Centre for Environmental History.  The Australian National University. Guest speaker.

Price, Catherine and Chao, Sophie. 2023. "Multispecies, More-Than-Human, Nonhuman, Other-Than-Human". Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal.

Beyond Bios symposium, 27 - 29th June 2023.

Sophie Chao on Kangaroos and Animal Resistance, SHE Research Podcast (Season 4, Episode 4).

Grounded in ethnographic and philosophical literatures and approaches, this project explores the social and ethical dimensions of a growing field of biological research that seeks to achieve conservation outcomes by altering animal behaviours in domains that range from predation and migration to reproduction. Thom van Dooren asks how scientists, diverse animals, and local human communities are adaptively learning to relate to one another, to make sense of one another, and hopefully to survive with one another. 

This project is funded by The University of Sydney (SOAR Prize 2022-23) 

Contributors: Associate Professor Thom van Dooren

Animals live fascinating lives. They do so, however, in their own particular ways. Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in animal stories of different kinds. Stories about real and imaginary animals abound in art, in children’s and adult literature, in form of television documentaries and across social media.

The arts, humanities, and social sciences have responded to this ubiquity of animal stories with a new interest in the challenges and possibilities of telling animal stories. Across this work is a central preoccupation with questions of meaning. In some cases, this takes the form of an exploration of how particular animals make sense of their worlds: how they understand and interact with changing environments.

In other contexts, the focus is on the diverse cultural and historical ways in which people attach meaning to animals and their lives - from the reading of auguries in animal movements or entrails to shifting ideas about animal rearing and welfare. These stories have made it clear that animal stories matter, and that we craft our own lives and our human identities out of them.

Contributors: Associate Professor Thom van DoorenProfessor Julia Kindt

Related research outputs:

- Thom van Dooren, A World in a Shell: Snail Stories for a Time of Extinctions, 2022, MIT Press. (See media coverage of the book here.)

We live in an era of troubled food systems. Climate change and increasing climate variability and extremes are affecting agricultural productivity, food production and natural resources, with detrimental impacts on food systems and rural livelihoods. Against this backdrop, this interdisciplinary project examines the poetics and politics of hunger among Indigenous West Papuan communities whose traditional foodways are threatened by large-scale deforestation and industrial agribusiness expansion. Pushing against the sanitized language of “food insecurity” in policy and biomedical discourse, the project focuses on hunger as a lived, sensory experience, imbued with contested moral, political, and affective significance for those subjected to its deleterious effects. Weaving Indigenous theories of metabolic (in)justice with insights from anthropology, phenomenology, the environmental humanities, cultural theory, food studies, and Science and Technology Studies, the project seeks to reframe hunger as a multiple, more-than-human, modality of being – one that is no less bioculturally shaped than food or eating. 

Contributors: Dr Sophie Chao

Related research outputs:

Chao, Sophie. 2023. “Food Security Starts With Food Sovereignty.” Sydney Business Insights. 30 August. 

Radio feature 2023, ABC’s Soul Search, "Forest bathing and the 'more than human world'", 1 June.

Chao, Sophie. 2022. “Gastrocolonialism: The Intersections of Race, Food, and Development in West Papua.” The International Journal of Human Rights 26(5): 811–832.

Chao, Sophie. 2021. “Eating and Being Eaten: The Meanings of Hunger among Marind.” Medical Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies in Health and Illness 40(7): 682–697.

Chao, Sophie. 2023. “Metabolic (In)justice.” Backchannels. 4 April. 

Chao, Sophie. 2022. “Forest Foodways in West Papua.” e-flux Journal. Issue #128. June. Available online.

Podcast - 2022. “Gastrocolonialism and Dayak Resistance with Dr. Sophie Chao.” Poor Prole’s Almanac Podcast. 13 March.

Recorded Keynotes - 2022. “Eating and Being Eaten: More-Than-Human Metabolisms on the West Papuan Agribusiness Frontier.” Metabolic Matterings. Deakin University. Keynote speaker.

Large-scale plantations are a major driver of deforestation and climate change. Often established by governments and corporations in the name of economic development and food and fuel security, industrial monocrops have been connected to the displacement and dispossession of Indigenous Peoples and other local communities who rely directly on the environment for their livelihoods and subsistence, and also to racialized labor regimes that have historically undergirded the plantation regime. This interdisciplinary, collaborative project examines how life and death unfold in spaces of transition between bioculturally diverse forest environments and industrialized plantation landscapes in the tropics. It considers how the spatio-temporal epoch of the Plantationocene reconfigures more-than-human entanglements, transforms inter-human relations, and alternately enables or undermines multispecies futures. In doing so, the project seeks to situate the plantation against processes of colonial racial capitalism past and present, and to highlight the force of the plantation and attendant modes of resistance and resurgence in shaping contemporary politics and the pursuit of justice.

Contributors: Dr Sophie Chao

Related research outputs: 

Chao, Sophie 2024. "Beyond the Anthropocene: We must rethink our epoch." IAI News. Available online.

Chao, Sophie 2023. “Episode 21: Kate Brelje Interviews Sophie Chao.” Networking with Plants in the Anthropocene. 1 December. Available online

Chao, Sophie et al 2023. “The Plantationocene as Analytical Concept: A Forum for Dialogue and Reflection.The Journal of Peasant Studies. 10 July.

Chao, Sophie 2023. "Why Mourning Matters in the Anthropocene: Academic Minute." Inside Higher Ed. 26 June.

Chao, Sophie 2023. “How to Mourn a Forest.Aeon. 23 May. 

Chao, Sophie. 2022. “Plantation.” Environmental Humanities 14(2): 361–366.

Chao, Sophie. 2022. “ (Un)Worlding the Plantationocene: Extraction, Extinction, Emergence.” eTropic: electronic journal of studies in the tropics 21(1): 165–191.

Chao, Sophie. 2022. In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Chao, Sophie. 2023. “Multispecies Violence, Ontological Murk, Epistemic Resistance: Insights from the West Papuan Plantation Frontier.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology 34(1)

Chao, Sophie. 2022. “International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples: Celebrating the Custodians of Global Biocultural Diversity.” Duke University Press Blog. 9 August.

Chao, Sophie. 2022. “The Psychic Terror Wrought by Palm-oil Production.” The Monthly. April

Chu, Kymberley, and Sophie Chao. 2023. “An Interview with Dr. Sophie Chao on Palm Oil Worlds.” American Ethnologist website. 13 February.

Podcast - 2023. “Drones, Birds, & the Gray in Between.” Open Environmental Data. 11 April. With Madhuri Karak.

Podcast - 2022. “Pluralizing Justice Amidst the Expansion of Palm Oil Projects.” 14 June. Green Dreamer. With Kamea Chayne

Theme lead

Thom van Dooren

Theme lead

Sophie Chao