The Social Nature of our Species

  • Climate and sustainability

Dr Gemma Harper FAcSS (Chief Executive), Professor Melanie Austen (Independent Member), Manaswita Konar (Director of Economic Analysis and Evidence), Joint Nature Conservation Committee 

Here Dr Gemma Harper and colleagues from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee explore the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to our challenges around climate change and biodiversity.  The piece places people at the heart of the problem and at the heart of its potential solutions and as such emphasises the crucial role that social science must play. It also explores the evolution of our relationship with nature and our changing attitudes to conservation.

Biodiversity has played a second and supporting role in the sustainable development agenda to its twin crisis, climate change. A key reason could be that biodiversity is more challenging to measure. It may also be more challenging to act on the negative impacts of biodiversity loss. This compares to climate change where, despite the complexities, there is a singular metric (reducing carbon emissions) used to target global action. There is, however, growing recognition that the two crises are fundamentally interconnected, demonstrated by an ever-increasing number of countries who are including nature in their climate commitments. Biodiversity is both affected by climate change and, through its healthy functioning, has important contributions to make to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Experts are still working out the complex issue of measuring and managing biodiversity loss; and the process of driving global consensus in taking unified action is relatively new. This provides us with a unique opportunity to take a novel, transdisciplinary approach to addressing this crisis. Climate change efforts have been criticised for their lack of inclusion of social science. A recent review of climate projects suggested that only one in six public-funded climate change projects had a significant social science component. Tackling the biodiversity crisis gives us an opportunity to address this by bringing people into the heart of our understanding of the problem and our design of the solutions to ‘bend the curve’ on biodiversity loss.

The current state and trajectory of natural systems is a complex interplay of how people, both as exploiters and conservationists, have valued and interacted with nature. The nature conservation journey in the developed world tracks the emergence of different nature narratives, as described by Dame Professor Georgina Mace in her article Whose Conservation. Professor Mace takes us from the 1960/70s starting with “Nature for Itself”, with a key focus on the species and habitats and the importance of their intrinsic value, to the 1980/90s, where Mace argues that we see more focus on pressures and threats (e.g. habitat loss and increase in pollution) – “Nature Despite People”. And in the early 2000s, Mace describes how the value of “Nature for People” emerged strongly with the ecosystem approach. Environmental economics rose as an important part of conservation science, especially the valuation of ecosystems services. By 2010, “People and Nature” were recognised as being interconnected, with conservation efforts focusing on both ecological and social sciences; and the emergence of more interdisciplinary thinking and understanding of socio-ecological systems. The publication of Nature Positive 2030 by the Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies of the UK seeks to build on this integrated narrative.

This evolution of our relationship with nature shows that there has been always an inherent tension accepting that humanity is part of nature and, one could argue in line with the Dasgupta Review of the Biodiversity of Economics, that our failure to reconcile this tension has contributed to the biodiversity crisis. This is further perpetuated by siloed, often hierarchical, thinking evident in the structure and organisation of many governments, businesses, universities, funding bodies, charities and others seeking to address complex problems. There is a need to move away from this linear approach and consider the dynamics of human activity on biodiversity, as well as the social and cultural impacts of conservation and restoration, in terms of equity and social justice.

The dynamic and social nature of conservation has been especially highlighted in developing countries. Measures performed in the name of conservation can be disproportionately harmful to local communities, affect their access to land and ocean spaces and assets that are their only source of livelihood, or be used to support exploitative narratives. If we fail to bring in the social sciences, we will continue only to understand part of the problem and generate partial solutions.

So how can better engagement with the social sciences and a better understanding of human-nature connections be achieved?

First, there is a need to frame the problem through recognition of the systemic nature of the biodiversity crisis. This requires a transdisciplinary understanding of what in the systems world would be called ‘the community of connected entities’, as well as recognising the multiplicity of values at stake arising from policies and practices that construct, enforce, and defend disconnection of people to the rest of nature. As a part of this, we need to take a multi-faceted approach (covering social, health, wellbeing, economic and environmental dimensions) when assessing the problem.

An example of where social sciences, in their broadest sense, can play a role is in understanding and interpreting the different value systems that people hold for biodiversity. For some, it is about the social and economic value of the services that nature provides to support people’s health, wellbeing, livelihoods, safety, and culture (ecosystem services). For others, this approach is too utilitarian and should also take into account that biodiversity has intrinsic value. Policy needs to be guided by social as well as natural sciences, as recently demonstrated in the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) values assessment.

Second, to be successful, the creation and implementation of solutions to the biodiversity crisis need to be embedded in social science structures. Social scientists have the appropriate tools to investigate the social, economic, political, and cultural dimensions, but they need to be integrated with biodiversity research and policymaking.  Social science research has a vital role in situating and contextualising natural science research, especially at the relevant local scales at which implementation is needed to address biodiversity loss and tackle climate change. The nature-based solution Triple Win Toolkit, led and developed by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), provides guidance for policymakers to take this kind of multi-dimensional approach to targeting and implementing investment. It provides guidance and tools to help nature-based solutions effectively and efficiently contribute to improving outcomes across poverty, biodiversity, and climate.

Third, there is a need to engage communities and the wider public when developing interventions and evaluating performance in tackling biodiversity loss. So far, discussion on measuring success of solutions, aimed at bending the curve on, or reversing, biodiversity loss, has been almost exclusively driven by natural science evidence and techniques. There is scope to take a more inclusive and integrated approach. Citizens are increasingly concerned about climate change and biodiversity loss.  For example, evidence shows that there is growing appetite for climate decision-making to be informed by public opinion and that there is a desire for the government to take the lead on tackling it. Though a relatively new phenomenon, citizen assemblies and juries on climate change are increasingly being used in the UK as a mechanism for engaging people on the issue and providing them with a role in informing climate action. Exploring this method further, especially in the context of measuring our progress on tackling biodiversity loss, will help us understand the impact that these processes can have on environmental policymaking and outcomes.

Biodiversity is the web of life on which human survival and wellbeing ultimately depends yet, for too long, our structures, processes and governance have failed to prevent the denigration of the ecosystems that we are an integral part of. Putting people at the heart of our understanding of nature is imperative. It requires taking a transdisciplinary systems approach that works with complexity and mobilises us to adapt to a changing environment. This needs to recognise the interconnected forces affecting nature, operating at different geopolitical and biogeographical scales, and to acknowledge fully that human beings are an integral part of the Earth’s biodiversity – that we are simultaneously a disruptive force and wholly dependent on the wider ecosystem. Such an approach is likely to have greater traction in addressing the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss and much greater likelihood of success.

Increasingly, we know that when we harm nature, we harm ourselves. To understand this system better and affect positive change, it is necessary to study it as a whole – taking an inclusive approach, using a wide range of disciplines, and moving the narrative towards ‘People as Nature’.

Photo Credit: Shane Rounce on Unsplash

About the authors

Dr Gemma Harper is Chief Executive of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) – the UK’s scientific advisor on nature conservation and recovery. Prior to joining JNCC, Gemma was Deputy Director of Marine policy and Deputy Race Champion in Defra. She was awarded an OBE for services to the marine environment in the New Year Honours 2021. In March 2020, Gemma co-led Defra’s Food Vulnerability directorate, as part of the COVID-19 response, and the directorate won the Civil Service Diversity and Inclusion ‘Impact on the Citizen’ award. Gemma has nearly 20 years’ experience working in the UK Government. After eight years in criminal justice research at the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, Gemma joined Defra in 2010 as their first Chief Social Scientist. She was awarded the Defra Leadership Award twice. In 2020, Gemma was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences for her contribution to social science. She founded and co-chairs the Civil Service Network for Nature, whose mission is to connect civil and public servants to celebrate nature.

Melanie is Professor of Ocean and Society at the University of Plymouth. She is an interdisciplinary marine research leader with a strong background in marine ecology. She was on the Government’s Natural Capital Committee and served a three-year term as the first Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Marine Management Organisation. She is currently a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the UKRI Sustainable Management of UK Marine Resources Programme.  Melanie’s research focusses on developing interdisciplinary understanding of marine systems, their natural capital and ecosystem services, and their use and governance to improve social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

Manaswita Konar is Director of Economic Analysis and Evidence at JNCC. Prior to this she was the lead ocean economist at the World Resources Institute, where she provided economic advice to the Ocean Panel which consisted of 14 world leaders transitioning to a Sustainable Ocean Economy. She has also worked as a Senior Economist and Strategist in the UK Civil Service on a range of high- profile international and domestic policy issues.