Ecology is everything, and one day, everyone
Progress on limiting human impacts on climate change is increasingly evident, through policy and regulation, investor activism and even corporate choice. But it is only half the picture. The less well publicised and understood yang to the climate’s yin is biodiversity. Distinct but inseparable concepts, they are twin challenges demanding equally urgent action.
The dramatic decline in biodiversity over the last 50 years may in part be related to climate change but is in many arenas very directly the consequence of human economic activity. Deforestation, resource depletion, pollution, population increase, changing land use and development all play a part in putting pressure on species on land, in the air and the sea.
A recent report, commissioned by the UK treasury, illustrates the need for a change to the prominence of ecological considerations in the economy. Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge published in February this year his study on the economics of biodiversity. The review finds that humanity has collectively mismanaged its ‘global portfolio of assets’ (specifically its natural capital) to the extent that the demands on nature far exceed its capacity to supply. Prof. Dasgupta argues that we urgently need a different measure of wealth and success than GDP, one that accounts for the environmental cost of our actions.
It can’t come soon enough. The UK’s net zero targets for reversing climate change and related proposals for stopping the decline in biodiversity are already with us and provide a focus for changes beginning to appear in economic activity as well as in policy. Such shifts will inevitably increase the need for accurate assessment and monitoring of ecological impact throughout business, but not least in development.
There, ecology’s increasing influence can be seen at every stage, from design principles enshrined in RIBA’s sustainable outcomes, through a planning process where government is mandated to protect and enhance ecology, to delivery and ongoing monitoring – tracking and reporting environmental performance as a corporate KPI.
Ecologists are themselves already much in demand as advisers to our profession. At 10%, growth in environment sector employment over the period 2010-2015 outstrips a meagre 3.5% jobs growth more generally (ONS). The increase is evident in a changing prominence in architecture, landscape architecture, development, and engineering.
“As few as 20 years ago there would only have been one ecologist to a landscape practice, but it has acquired a much more central position to the world of development,” says Zoe Green. “In infrastructure, residential and commercial developments it is now, quite rightly, being pushed forward. Even large architects are bringing in-house ecologists to advise on buildings design.”
Despite the growth, ecologists at times find they must work hard to convince others of the need for taking seriously their roles and their expertise. Diane Wood is Principal Ecologist for SWECO, an international engineering consultancy, whose experience suggests that we still have a long way to go. “Working in a consultancy as an ecologist, I collaborate with people from various environmental disciplines, as well as contractors, designers, architects, planners and clients. It is common to find that many people have no knowledge of the significance of the natural world or how it benefits our lives. As such, ecology can be treated by some as a minor, unimportant aspect of planning a built development.”
This is a cultural problem that Prof. Dasgupta’s review recognises, advocating the addition of ecology to the national curriculum. It is not an isolated view.
“Training children and adults to rectify the lack of knowledge of the importance of biodiversity and ecosystems,” Diane Wood believes, “is crucial to how the world will look in the future and how much of the natural world will be left to enrich and benefit human life.”
Nathan Jenkinson, Associate Ecologist, for Tyler Grange, a landscape planning consultancy agrees that it is in childhood where exposure to such ideas can create the passions of a lifetime. “Like so many professionals in the environment sector, I was inspired from a young age to be involved in the conservation of wildlife.” At Tyler Grange that environmental outlook is expressed in the object of ‘making the built environment as good for nature as it is for people.’
That is an aim with which we can all agree, but only if we’ve learned its relevance. Changing culture succeeds by fostering early appreciation of the role and value of nature throughout education—creating awareness and preference toward environment protecting and enhancing activities ahead of destructive, non-sustainable choices made in the past. It doesn’t mean we all have to be ecologists, but we all have to know why we need them.