In this feature article, Tom Butterworth (Associate Director, Biodiversity – WSP), shares his thoughts on biodiversity…
There is an argument that says that the concept of nature and wilderness are constructs of our society; that the idea of the wild cannot exist without something to contrast it with, our towns, villages and cities. Biodiversity is also a construct of our thinking, but of course that does not mean that it does not exist.
With over 50% of the world’s population now living in cities and our food and clothes coming from around the world, our contact with nature is changing and often decreasing. This means the idea of what nature is, is changing too. My mum’s idea of a wildflower meadow is already very different from my daughter’s, and sadly my daughter’s has far viewer butterflies and flowers. Each of us is part of that change, whether we like it or not.
At these points in time, where our view changes we often see things in a new light. A shift in our vantage point allows us to see the same thing from a different position, in a new way. This is happening with nature. Just as we move further from the source of our food and clothes, just as we destroy another area of wilderness, we are starting to recognise that it is not just nature that is affected by our actions but that we are affected by nature too.
For those of us working in the field of ecology this may seem obvious, but the rise in the discussion about ecosystem services and natural capital is part of this shift. E.F. Schumacher is credited with saying that ‘when we win the battle against nature we will find that we are on the losing side’. What I find really exciting at the moment is that the opposite is true too; if we can reshape our relationship with nature so that we live and create places that build with nature, the benefits we gain will be massive.
At the start of October, WSP published a paper on Biodiversity in the City. We launched this in City Hall in London in partnership with Leonie Cooper, the London Assembly’s Chair of the Environment Committee. We had people speaking about the importance of biodiversity and nature from the Greater London Authority, major infrastructure developments, local communities, and wildlife organisations. I believe that we are at a tipping point. We are all starting to recognise the importance of nature to all that we do, whether we are businesses, charities, the government, communities or individuals – and of course we are all part of all of these groups.
This shift is reflected in the uptake of Biodiversity Net Gain as a target and process for developments across the world. Here in the UK, Biodiversity Net Gain has been picked up by Transport for London, Crossrail 2, Highways England, Berkeley Group and many others. This is now my day job, working with these organisations and others to deliver gains for wildlife alongside development (more information HERE).
In 2010, governments from around the world met in Aichi, Japan and under the ‘Convention on Biological Diversity’ agreed on 20 biodiversity-related targets to turn around global biodiversity decline by 2020. Within the EU, the strategy committed to halting the loss of biodiversity. We now understand better than ever that halting the loss of biodiversity on our important wildlife sites is not enough. We need to deliver net gain for biodiversity everywhere, not just because it is the right thing to do but because we depend upon it. The UK government’s forthcoming 25 year environment plan, due to be published early in 2018 and the next international, EU, and country level biodiversity strategies are important steps. I believe biodiversity net gain needs to be at the heart of these strategies if we are to create the society we all want, one where everyone has access to the ecosystem services we need, clear air, water, good food and wild green places to walk, and play.
However, I must stress that this work is not about saving the planet. The planet is fine. This work is about creating communities and places I want to live within. If nature is a construct of our society then it is equally true that we are a construct of our environments and of nature. From the food we eat to the clothes we wear and the air we breathe. But I think that this is true on a more subtle level too. We only have to imagine what it would be like in a world with no wildlife other than rats and cockroaches, to realise that nature shapes what it means to be human. This means that as an ecologist I am working to do more than simply protected a community of species or an ecosystem and all the benefits it provides. It means that I am working for, understanding and, if I am lucky, shaping what it means to be human as part of a biodiverse beautiful world. What could be more important? What could be more fun?
About the Author: Tom Butterworth is Associate Director for Biodiversity at WSP, leading the work on Biodiversity Net Gain. Tom has almost 20 years’ experience, which includes leading practical management of SSSIs, developing local, regional and national biodiversity strategies and policies, leading programmes of research, and managing the delivery of the Government’s biodiversity strategy. Tom’s former roles include Natural England Principle Advisor for Biodiversity and lead for Green Infrastructure.