Saturday, 13 April 2013

Conservation needs both scientists and artists

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Nature conservation isn’t a science or an art. It’s an idea. An idea about our relationship with nature. An idea about how we relate to the other species with which we share our planet and how we treat the natural world.

Nature conservation is most often linked to a science perspective. There are probably more people employed in conservation with a science background than with an arts background. Much of our conservation jargon is, or at least sounds, scientific: sites of special scientific interest, biodiversity, species, habitats, National Vegetation Classification surveys, ecosystem services. The language of science. Classifying the natural world into boxes seems a sciency thing to do!

Don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting that good science isn’t vital to protect nature and save endangered species. Science has informed conservation massively. It’s science based surveys, research and statistics which tell us about biodiversity loss, both globally and locally. It’s science which helps inform the management techniques which can restore habitats.It’s science which can monitor the impact of pollutants, help us understand the causes and cures for climate change, discover ways to control non-native invasive species, and help us ensure that conservation action achieves real results.

However while science is necessary for conservation it’s not the whole story.  If conservation is about changing attitudes then perhaps its artists who have the skills to speak to people’s hearts and help people care. When you think of the big five drivers of biodiversity loss: habitat loss, climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources, human introductions of invasive alien species and pollution then what do they have in common?  Surely they are all the product of human actions and their solution is about changing human behaviour. Perhaps nature conservation is more about us than about nature.

Artists, more than scientists, may have the skills to bring about a change of perception of how we relate to nature. Surely it’s our hearts that motivate us more than our heads. Artists are brilliant at communicating in the language of feelings, whereas science deliberately avoids this language.

What have I learnt working in nature conservation? That conservation is fundamentally about people. About our relationship with nature. That changing people’s attitudes and communicating in ways that people can relate to is achieved as effectively by artists as by scientists. Perhaps we need more artists working in conservation to bring about the changes to the human heart without which conservation will never truly succeed.

I’ll end this post with a quote from Tanaka Shozo who was born in Japan in 1841:
‘The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart.’

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