“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it, and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful.” – Mathematician and science philosopher, Henri Poincaré
When you think of nature, or ecosystems, where does your mind go? Do you cast your thoughts to your neighbourhood park, or to vast forests and spring fed lakes? Perhaps, as supporters of Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) Canada, you think of wild jungles and chimpanzees in Tanzania or Uganda, far away. It’s easy to rush about our lives ignoring our connections to the environment; thinking about nature as something outside of our immediate surroundings and experiences. But the truth is, we are more connected than we think. Most of us are surrounded by ecosystems in the form of public parks, urban forests, and even our backyards, all working away to sustain us and improve our lives.
Yet, people often picture ‘ecologists’ – scientists who study the interactions between plants and animals – trekking through remote jungles, or taking water samples from alpine lakes. Indeed, I suspect many ecologists (myself included) were attracted to ecology because of childhood experiences in nature, or a deep-seated desire to visit exotic places only seen on the likes of BBC’s “Planet Earth”. To an extent, I think there is truth in Henri Poincaré’s words leading this post – the latter half, in particular. I certainly can’t deny that I am drawn to natural systems because of their beauty. A sense of awe about our planet and the beings we share it with has fueled the efforts of many brilliant scientists; and certainly, many scientists do work in fascinating natural areas (like Dr. Jane in the forests of Gombe, Tanzania).
However, I have a bone to pick with Dr. Poincaré over the first half of his statement – “the scientist does not study nature because it is useful”. In fact, many scientists study nature precisely for that reason: because it is useful. The benefits nature provides to humanity are called ecosystem services. Many research groups study where and how these services are provided, as well as how our actions affect them (including mine!). That glass of water from your tap? It came from a nearby aquatic ecosystem, and was probably pre-filtered by a wetland or forest upstream even before arriving at the treatment plant. Those apples from the supermarket? Maybe they grew in a nearby orchard, and were almost certainly pollinated by bees or other insects. And it’s not just food. Walking through a tree-filled park reduces stress and increases focus, improving mental health. Ecosystems in cities and suburban areas help to regulate climate and disease, prevent flooding, and perform numerous other beneficial functions.
In many ways, the idea that nature is for beauty rather than “use” is a very westernized viewpoint. In many parts of the world, communities are much more tangibly connected to their environment, relying on the surrounding natural areas for their livelihoods. JGI Canada recognizes this strong connection between people and ecosystems, which is why they use a community-centered conservation approach in their programming – explained nicely here by Allison. Like Allison, I am certainly no chimpanzee expert, and I’ve never been to Africa, but JGIs dedication to community-centered conservation is something I can really get behind. While JGI Canada primarily focuses on communities in Africa (who share their home with chimps), the ideas behind community-centered conservation – “working with communities, stakeholders and partners to identify their needs so that we can come up with solutions together that are relevant and realistic in addressing them” – can certainly be applied closer to home.
While ecologists historically studied wilderness, large, wild areas are becoming fewer and farther between, with natural systems increasingly embedded within ecosystems lived in and transformed by humans. In fact, scientists have determined that almost 80 percent of earth’s land has been directly affected by human activity. In these human-dominated ecosystems, people change the mix of ecosystem services we get from the landscape by managing intensively for one service at the expense of others – for example, we might prioritize food production, but in doing so degrade water quality, or reduce biodiversity. If we want to ensure reliable provision of many ecosystem services in the areas where we live, scientists need to engage with stakeholders and partners to develop successful management practices, adopting a more community-centered approach. Improving the services provided by these ecosystems on our doorstep will not only benefit us, but can also help to take some of the pressure off of our remaining wild gems.
Should we still dedicate resources to studying the remaining great wilderness areas? Absolutely! I think scientists, policy-makers, and NGOs should focus some of their efforts on protecting the healthy, wild ecosystems we have left – and JGIs programming does a fantastic job of this! But we can’t rely on these systems alone to support us, and I would argue that it’s time to start paying more attention to the ecology happening closer to home, too. Ecologists need to study ecosystems that humans have shaped and transformed, and to work with the surrounding community to better protect the important services they provide. And citizens? I think sometimes we just need a reminder that nature is all around us – it’s in our gardens and parks, the food we eat, and flowing through our taps – and we can be involved in its protection. The first step to engaging in conservation in your community is educating yourself… so next time you walk through your neighbourhood, try and view your surroundings through an ecosystem-service tinted lens. You might be surprised by what you notice.