Biodiversity for the people

An increasingly common road sign for our future

Crack open the champagne, pass out the cigars – we have a birth to celebrate! Well, actually, many births. According to the United Nations’ Population Division, the world’s population has just reached seven billion. But the celebrations have undercurrents of despair. With human population pressure cited as one of the biggest stressors on global sustainability, how many more people can the earth realistically support? And given that the majority of people live in urban areas (with urbanisation a massive stressor in itself) is there anything can be done? Or, more importantly, is there anything ethically that can be done?

These are gigantic questions that many other more deep thinking and wise people have addressed, so I won’t try tackling the answers here.  But I do want to discuss a small aspect that has relevance to my own personal field: the conservation of biodiversity in urban areas.

 I have been researching lately about the many reasons to conserve birds in urban areas (which I’m sure will be the subject of a future blog).  And one of the most compelling reasons I’ve come across so far for urban conservation relates to the concept of social (or environmental) justice.  The idea goes like this:

 There is a wealth of research demonstrating that access to biodivesity via urban green space can improve people’s physical and psychological health 1.  However, the availability of green space is positively related to education and wealth 2.  Poorer, less educated people are more likely to live in the more derelict parts of cities.  Richer, more educated people, on the other hand, are surrounded by trees and parks.  This means that poorer people also lose the health benefits that green spaces provide; a situation that is undemocratic and unjust.  To rectify this situation, therefore, the ethical answer is to create more green spaces.  Or, in other words, put more resources into conserving urban biodiversity. And this leads to a great win-win situation for people and biodiversity alike.

Trees from Kowloon Garden reach into the city.

So how does this relate to the problems of overpopulation and urbanisation? It doesn’t.  Well, not unless you consider the appalling suggestion made by a keynote speaker at a conservation conference I attended last year 3.  He proposed that to overcome overpopulation we need to be ruthless.  Stop aged care.  Stop palliative care.  Stop foreign aid.  Let people die.  Staggering proposals to which I vehemently disagree.  They strike at the heart of social equality, and obliterate social justice.  And, paradoxically, do away with a forceful reason for urban biodiversity conservation.

 Perhaps I go too far.  I know the keynote speaker certainly did.  But it reminds me that ethics are a complex yet essential part of any discussion of conservation and sustainability.  Ethics are, however, too often ignored by conservation biologists all too used to excluding people from their models, or at best considering them only as negative stressors.  Yes, people are definitely part of the conservation problem.  But they [we] also provide really good reasons for coming up with the conservation answers.  So three cheers for the seven billion!

Further reading and notes:

 1. See for example:
Fuller, R.A., Irvine, K.N., Devine-Wright, P., Warren, P.H., Gaston, K.J., 2007. Psychological benefits of greenspace increase with biodiversity. Biology Letters 3, 390-394.
Luck, G.W., Davidson, P., Boxall, D., Smallbone, L., 2011. Relations between urban bird and plant communities and human well-being and connection to nature. Conservation Biology 25, 816-826.
Mitchell, R., Popham, F., 2008. Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study. The Lancet 372, 1655-1660.

2. See for example:
Kinzig, A., Warren, P., Martin, C., Hope, D., Katti, M., 2005. The effects of human socioeconomic status and cultural characteristics on urban patterns of biodiversity. Ecology and Society 10, 23.
Melles, S., 2005. Urban bird diversity as an indicator of human social diversity and economic inequality in Vancouver, British Columbia. Urban Habitats 3, 25-48.

3. To protect the guilty, no details will be given.  But trust me, he did say this!


About Karen Ikin
I’m a landscape ecologist at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, The Australian National University. My research focuses on wildlife and habitat conservation in human-modified environments, such as those that occur in urban and agricultural landscapes. I am particularly interested in how ecological knowledge can be applied to improve conservation, management and planning.

3 Responses to Biodiversity for the people

  1. thought-provoking and evocative post – thought you might like to watch this TED talk on greening the ghetto, talks about green space and social justice: – we showed it to our first year Sustianable Development students and it generated some great discussion.

  2. Kathy Eyles says:

    spot on – there are many inequities in our Australian cities. The provision of open and greenspace in new developments (on Sydney’s hot fringe) has been recently identified by IPART as too expensive and a barrier to affordable housing. Developers have leapt on this point and the more complex questions raised by IPART about how we pay for green infrastructure that has benefits beyond the new suburb may get lost in the debate.
    In Melbourne an audit of metropolitan open space reveals open space per capita is likely to decline for all urban municipalities (bar one) with future population growth and the greatest decline is forecast for new release areas where most affordable housing is provided.
    So while you have a roof over your head, other essentials for a healthy life – access to green spaces for recreation and connection with nature become luxuries only those individuals and communities with means can afford.

  3. Your “keynote speaker” sounds like a nasty piece of work. I do find it very interesting to think about how we are going to deal with this though, as it seems to lie at the core to most of the challenges the human planet is going to face in the not so distant future. Legal limitation of family size always spring into my mind, but how can that be put into practice? It would affect developing countries far more dramatically than developed countries in which populations are already stable. Is contraception going to have to play a major role? It seems that something needs to be done to prevent our numbers getting past the tipping point, which i think would result in war and mass poverty…


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