Scottish Biodiversity Conference: Connecting people and the environment
Featuring nine fascinating talks from a variety of superb speakers, the 2016 Scottish Biodiversity Conference provided a range of new insights and perspectives
The Scottish Biodiversity Science Conference (jointly organised by BES Scottish Policy Group, Scottish Natural Heritage,, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, RSPB, and the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy Science Support Group) took place on 9 November, focusing on the themes of people’s connection with the environment, why these interactions matter, and how barriers to engagement can be overcome. Nine speakers from a range of academic and policy organisations provided fresh insights into these areas, drawing on current research and contemporary policy practices. Each trio of talks was grouped around a main theme; below I have pulled the key points that came out of each talk.
Theme 1: Understanding people’s connection with the environment
The first session of the day focused on how people connect with their environment. Of particular interest was that concern for nature is strongly linked with how often people engage with nature and whether it forms a significant part of their identity.
People’s identities and capabilities shape their views on nature and the benefits they derive
Anke Fischer, James Hutton Institute:
- Benefits from ecosystems (often termed ‘ecosystem services’) are not produced independently of humans, but instead arise because of people’s interactions with an ecosystem
- The interactions between people and place that lead to ecosystem services can be interpreted as processes of ‘co-production’
- People’s individual identities and capabilities cause variations in how they engage with ecosystems, affect the benefits they derive from them and shape their views on nature
Aileen Armstrong, Scottish Natural Heritage:
- Only 6% of the UK population are highly engaged with biodiversity loss; over 50% of the population are completely unaware of the threat
- Just 14% of adults in Scotland are ‘very interested’ in the environment
- Older, more affluent people are the group most likely to take positive action for the environment
- 41% of visits to the outdoors are local, making local green space vital, especially for less affluent groups
- Nature connectedness correlates positively with improved health and increased engagement in pro-environmental behaviour
- Nature connectedness fluctuates over a lifetime, starting high before falling during teenage years, increasing again in the mid-20s, and then plateauing, before finally rising again post-retirement
- Individuals’ sense of enjoyment of nature rises throughout their lifetime, but their sense of responsibility plateaus
Nature connectedness correlates positively with improved health and increased engagement in pro-environmental behaviour
Theme 2: Competing views of nature and the role of biodiversity experiences in human wellbeing
This session focused on competing views of nature, with a common emphasis on how concepts of nature, biodiversity and natural resources are socially constructed. Solving conservation conflicts involves addressing these differing views and creating mutual understandings.
Greater democratisation of science is required, with a larger role for members of the public and increased use of clear, non-technical language
Clive Mitchell, Scottish Natural Heritage:
- The concept of ‘nature’ is socially constructed and its meaning is context-dependent and highly political
- Discourse plays an important role in the modern world; it helps to create rules and institutions and the language we use shapes how we interpret the world
- Many issues today, such as climate change, demand a ‘post-normal science’ approach, which is useful when facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high and decisions are urgent
- For a ‘post-normal’ approach to succeed, greater democratisation of science is required, with a larger role for members of the public and increased use of clear, non-technical language to communicate with a wider audience
Kate Irvine, James Hutton Institute:
- Contact with nature has been widely thought to benefit human health benefits, but only recently are the nuances of this link being researched: Who benefits? What kind of contact is most effective? How long does it need to last for?
- Links between experiences of biodiversity and human health exist, but they are complex and depend on other variables such as perception
- When people believe that an area contains a rich variety of species, they experience higher levels of wellbeing
- People’s attitude towards biodiversity matters; if an individual experiences an environment (and the variety of species it contains) as relaxing and restorative, this leads to an increase in emotional wellbeing
Nils Bunnefeld, University of Stirling:
- Conflicts arise when stakeholders have competing views about how natural resources should be managed
- Stakeholders need to be aware of the root causes of the conflict and which other groups are involved and accountable
- If we don’t address conflicts, we are left with different parties demanding incompatible outcomes
When people believe that an area contains a rich variety of species, they experience higher levels of wellbeing
Theme 3: Overcoming barriers to engagement in nature conservation
The final session addressed ways of overcoming barriers to engagement and including new stakeholders in biodiversity and nature conservation. The use of innovative language, frames, settings and communication channels to reach new audiences was particularly emphasised.
Ffinlo Costain, Costain Consulting:
- Most of the environmental community falls into the categories of ‘progressive’ or ‘centrist’; the ease and comfort of communicating with people of a similar mind-set means that engaging with conservatives in sometimes neglected
- The environmental sector must focus on communicating the benefits of biodiversity to conservatives as well as progressives; different frames, language and communication channels are necessary in order to do this effectively
- Concern for nature derives from spending time in it as a child; every town in Scotland should organise a year-round events programme to get children active in nature
The environmental sector must focus on communicating the benefits of biodiversity to conservatives as well as progressives
Pete Higgins, University of Edinburgh:
- There is no compelling reason for indoor learning to be the default educational setting; instead, outdoor learning should become the norm
- Research indicates that study in outdoor settings stimulates personal development and resourcefulness while encouraging interdisciplinary learning
- Sustainable Development Education has been shown to improve mainstream learning outcomes in a study across eighteen nations
Lyn White, Soil Association Scotland:
- It’s important to highlight the practical benefits of pro-environmental behaviour and engage with as many stakeholders as possible
- When talking to agricultural audiences, demonstrating the business benefits of sustainable agriculture is key
- Holding events in accessible locations and making them as practical and informal as possible increases levels of engagement
The presentations from the conference have been made available online.
The Conference provided a fascinating overview of current research and policy trends in relation to interactions between people and the environment. The variety of speakers allowed real insights into both the policy process and the future of academic research in biodiversity science. 2016 has been a turbulent year for world politics, but evidence-informed policy and rational debate can shape a better future. Events like the Conference, brimming with new ideas, intelligent discourse and fresh solutions, can play a part in making this future a reality.
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