Bruce Howard and Stuart Robertson of the Ecosystems Knowledge Network argue for a more people-centred view of nature restoration.
On his appointment to a second term as Chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper CBE spoke of his hope for a “historic point where we mark the end of nature’s decline”. He is right in that there is a growing sense that nature can be the comeback kid. There is increasing confidence that past wrongs of copious concrete, pernicious pesticides and the like can be put right. And a hope that beavers, butterflies and basking sharks might be eyed by citizens young and old.
Tony’s hope is well-founded. Thanks to COP26, concerns about nature and climate are increasingly seen as two sides of the same coin. The websites of government and its agencies throughout the UK are bristling with documents referring to biodiversity enhancement, nature recovery, ecosystem resilience, nature positive and such like. Farm support payments are seeking to deliver habitat restoration at scales not seen in recent decades. The term 'rewilding' is trending.
But what does a historic turning point for nature really mean? Can we put the celebratory drinks in the fridge, ready for this moment?
"what does a historic turning point for nature really mean? Can we put the celebratory drinks in the fridge, ready for this moment?"
Now, at this is the point we must face up to the reality of the condition in which we find our islands in this generation. The reality of how humankind has shaped these islands – and our nature – for good and for ill. The reality of our place within global supply chains that are nature-dependent. The reality in which every citizen, often unwittingly, places a multitude of demands on a finite area of land and sea.
If we are depressed by these realities, we could find solace by taking a few sneaky sips of the celebratory drinks in the fridge. Perhaps we can celebrate some of the successes so far in restoring nature. For example, we could choose to celebrate how purer air in recent decades has led to trees in the most industrial parts of our islands now adorned with bushy lichen. In the same way, we can find cause for celebration in the work of our rich tapestry of nature and landscape conservation charities, together with the best of our nations' private land managers and local authorities. They have restored countless sites for the benefit of nature.
But if we can't find good reason to sample the celebratory drinks in the fridge, we must consider when that historic point in nature’s recovery could come. We need to consider whether all the fizz in the fridge may have gone flat a long time before we can justify consuming it.
"all the fizz in the fridge may have gone flat a long time before we can justify consuming it."
After all, are we aiming for a Stone Age state of nature, a medieval state of nature, nature before World War Two, or nature appropriate to the reality of climate change? Do we know as a society what we are aiming for? (And can a society that is urbanised and disconnected with rural land ever know what to aim for?)
We must establish a clear vision for what nature’s recovery means in practice; in places, in communities. This must take into account who has the skills for stewardship of land and water at scale, and whose voices will be listened to. We already have some brilliant tools to help us with this. In Wales, for example, ecosystem resilience has been defined and is enshrined in law. In Scotland, we have a national Natural Capital Asset Index that is being used as a measure of economic performance. We have natural capital indicators for England. The James Hutton Institute has a virtual landscape theatre to help envision future landscapes. Thanks to Queen's University Belfast, we can know the health economics of greenspace provision.
"We must establish a clear vision for what nature’s recovery means..."
Species and habitats are important. They bring joy, meaning, fascination and resilience. They can provide clues on the wider health of our natural environment. But if our focus is on measuring the recovery of species and habitat merely by counting what is spied through binoculars and satellites, we might never get to sip those drinks in the fridge.
Is it not better to start with helping people to explore what they want – jobs, health, resilience, purpose, community, naturalness, happiness. And then to take them on the journey to explore how nature can support all of this and more. This thinking is, after all, the thrust of Tony Juniper’s classic book ‘What Nature Does for Britain’.
Rather than pinning our hopes on national nature recovery, shouldn’t the focus be on harnessing all the good that comes from a healthy environment? Should we not be preoccupied with whether natural features are being harnessed to their full potential; for mental health, for flood resilience, and for making thriving places. And doing this not to achieve personal ambitions in our own lifetime, but the pursuit of the common good over multiple generations.
“shouldn’t the focus be on harnessing all the good that comes from a healthy environment?”
At Ecosystems Knowledge Network we have reason to sip drinks every week as we see the innovative work of proactive, inclusive and outcome-oriented local environmental initiatives throughout the UK. They make nature relevant to people’s needs and aspirations. We have in mind here, progressive initiatives like the Mourne Heritage Trust in Northern Ireland, Greater Lincolnshire Nature Partnership in England, Open Newtown in mid-Wales and the Langholm Initiative in southern Scotland. These are the vital threads of social capital that underpin a greener, brighter future for all.
If we are setting our sights on an imminent turning point for nature in all its diversity, we need to ready ourselves for depression, exasperation and conflict. We forget all to easily how nature is interwoven with human and social capital - our neighbourhoods, our land managers, our communities. But if we set our sights on a genuine desire to restore the environment in a people-centred way, locality by locality, we can be assured of regular cause for celebration.
Whether citizen, charity, business or public body, are you going to put those celebratory drinks in the fridge, ready for the historic moment of reversing nature's decline? Or will you join with us in raising a glass to nature’s value in society today, and in harnessing more of nature's value for tomorrow?
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Our mission is to harness the value of the natural environment for wellbeing and prosperity. We do this through shared learning, harnessing expertise and innovation throughout Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. We are open to those for whom the natural environment is their primary concern and those for whom it isn't.