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You could have it so much better…

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"We need to integrate biodiversity hotspots and enhancement into the wider landscape, and this is an area where Hutton research can and is delivering, as we develop more sustainable and biodiverse land management options"

At a recent SEFARI-organised workshop on research priorities for biodiversity, BioSS’s Nick Schurch asked whether a problem with getting traction for biodiversity conservation is that the nature of the driver-response relationship is much more complex than it is, for example, for, climate change. For climate change we know the problem is greenhouse gas emissions, so tackling these will limit climate change. For biodiversity loss, although we know there are some major “themes” in terms of drivers (as summarised in the recent IPBES [1] and Global Biodiversity Outlook [2] reports) the exact impact of these drivers and the nature of the responses needed is often very context-specific, making it difficult to develop standardised and binding international targets. However, another issue limiting action to halt and reverse biodiversity loss may be our perception of that loss, which in turn may result in part from the problem of the shifting baseline syndrome.

The shifting baseline syndrome (SBS) is something that I’ve discussed with colleagues throughout my research career. The argument, in short, is that in countries such as Scotland, where a lot of biodiversity loss has already occurred, further biodiversity loss is – generally – fairly gradual, and also many of the genotypes and species we lose are either easily overlooked (of interest only to specialists) or distant (and so not readily observable). So, unless you look closely, over short time periods you might not notice any change. And in any case nature is variable from year-to-year making it harder to detect trends. However, over longer time periods these changes sum up to something bigger and more noticeable. On average, then, they are more likely to be noticed by older people. Now, as my kids readily point out, the problem with older people is that everything always used to be better anyway so maybe we’re just making it up. Or to put it more kindly, perhaps we’re only remembering the few days when we were very conscious of nature (e.g. days with lots of butterflies) and – as with the rainy days from a holiday – the other ones get filtered out. A memory is, after all, highly plastic and is itself altered through the process of recollection.

But fear not fellow older people, for proof is at hand that we’re right (of course). In a recent study in the Journal People and Nature [3], Lizzie Jones and colleagues use questionnaires to collect public perceptions of long-term biological change regarding 10 UK bird species. They found “The perceptions of older participants had significantly higher agreement with biological data than the perceptions of younger participants”. Their results “therefore support the expectation that younger, less experienced people are less aware of historical ecological conditions and show greater evidence of SBS. We also present evidence of a negative impact of SBS on future conservation, as older people were more likely than younger people to perceive a greater need for conservation action for three declining species.”

What is perhaps important here is the question of what generates traction with the general public on issues such as biodiversity loss. Action on marine plastics has demonstrated the importance of visceral signals. Messages about the global problem of marine plastics have been around for years, but it is the clear and shocking images of the problem - such as turtles caught in plastic - that have really driven action. Likewise, messages about biodiversity decline have been coming out loud and clear for years, but phenomena such as shifting baseline syndrome might inhibit people “seeing it with their own eyes” and so pushing for change. Of course, many factors control public demand for action on biodiversity loss, including wealth and freedom of expression. But if in countries such as the UK shifting baseline syndrome is part of the problem, what can we do about it?

One approach is to make it clear what has been lost. This can be done by having hotspots for nature conservation and biodiversity, thereby demonstrating what’s missing from much of the wider landscape. This is obviously an important role for nature reserves. But Covid has shown how dependent many people are on greenspace and nature near to their homes, and many nature reserves – particularly larger ones - tend to be at a considerable distance from large urban populations. So, we need to integrate biodiversity hotspots and enhancement into the wider landscape, and this is an area where Hutton research can and is delivering, as we develop more sustainable and biodiverse land management options.

However, Jones et al. also suggest a need to encourage greater discussion between generations to help overcome what they term intergenerational amnesia. Are there untapped opportunities here for Hutton research? For example might the landscape visualisation tools which are a core part of ILUSC provide an opportunity to facilitate these discussions, and then assess their impact on commitment to nature conservation by those involved? This might be an interesting and alternative approach to resetting our baselines and realising we could have it so much better.

Thanks to Nick Schurch and Lee-Ann Sutherland for providing thoughts and feedback on earlier versions of this blog.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author, and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/EcologicalSciences/you-could-have-it-so-much-better%E2%80%A6 on 21/10/20 05:59:29 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.