Sustaining the idea of Sustainability

Integrating natural science and social science is critical to sustainable ecological conservation, says Dr Christina Hicks.

Sometimes it’s assumed that the environment, ecology and its care is concerned solely with the natural world, separate from the well being of the human beings who inhabit it. But a recent study published in the journal ‘Science’ argues that alongside the natural sciences we also need the social sciences to help provide key measurements and criteria of sustainability. And these criteria include those that concern people. 

The paper, led by Dr Christina Hicks a lecturer at Lancaster University’s Environment Centre, proposes seven concepts that need to be integrated into policy-making, planning and management around sustainable environments. These concepts are: wellbeing; culture; values; inequality; justice; power; and agency (a sense of self-determination). 

Dr Hicks explains the background to the work, ‘I was invited to be part of a working group which was part of NOAA, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, in the US. They typically look at biophysical sciences but they are now developing this more integrated systems assessment approach. They wanted us – as a group of about 17 social scientists – to help them develop suitable social indicators of human well being, that they could then use when they are managing mostly fisheries, but also more coastal eco-systems and inland.’

Identity, landscapes and seascapes

Dr Hicks got an insight into the dynamic relationship between human behaviours, culture and the environment in her childhood. ‘I grew up a lot on the coast of East Africa, a lot of the coastal communities are fishing communities. What fascinates me about the coast is that people’s identities are really intimately connected to the sea.’  

Many of the traditions and norms in the community relate to the marine environment. ‘The coastal areas of most countries are often the poorest areas, ‘ she observes, ‘they are very heavily dependent on the sea for their livelihoods, their food and income so there is a real social dimension to that. People form lots of bonds while waiting for the fish to come in – it’s a very interesting environment system.’

Dr Hicks’ studies also map an intellectual journey.  She started out in environmental chemistry measuring soil samples and air samples looking for inorganic matter, spending a lot of time in the lab. She then worked for a coral reef ecologist in Kenya and decided she was more interested in engaging with the human side of the environment, which led to a Masters in Newcastle University looking at tropical coastal management. She continued this interest in the intersection of social science and natural science with a PhD in Australia, ‘looking at ecosystem services but from a human perspective, trying to add social theory into how we understand the benefits people gain from the environment.’

Sustainability and Legitimation 

While concepts such as ‘power’ and ‘agency, ‘culture’ and ‘values’ are critical concepts familiar to social scientists, Dr Hicks recognises that, ‘a lot of natural scientists really struggle to comprehend what they mean because they’re complex concepts, because they’re not quantified, because they can seem fairly fuzzy.’ Because it can be difficult to grasp what they mean, the work she and her collaborators are engaged are trying not only to communicate these concepts, ‘but to provide some tools, directions, indicators, quantitative measurement systems that people can start using to really begin incorporating these concepts into sustainability approaches.’ Concepts such as power and how it is exercised will impact on whether sustainability management is perceived as fair or legitimate. 

The other problem she argues is that these concepts are largely absent when it comes to environmental management or sustainability assessment. ‘Part of the reason is that they are not necessarily what management is trying to achieve.,’ explains Dr Hicks. ‘With the exception of the first concept “well-being”, they don’t tend to be what targets are trying to achieve but they effect the outcome of targets.’

So as an example of how implementing these concepts as part of a sustainability toolkit she gives the example of protected areas – where land or species have been protected, for very worthwhile and necessary reasons. In some instances people may be moved off the land or been prevented form fishing. ‘But,’ says Dr Hicks, ‘because people haven’t been consulted or because their preferences and needs haven’t been taken into consideration parks effectively fail. People either hunt or fish on those parks and they’re known as “paper parks” – which are parks on paper, they are not achieving any sustainability.’ 

For some of the concepts they propose, such as ‘well-being’ or ‘inequality’, there are established metrics out there that Dr Hicks and the researchers are pointing people towards. They are also, ‘trying to instigate a conversation between policy-makers, social scientist and natural scientists. For the other concepts can we develop similar indicators? Or how can we really speed the uptake of these concepts in policy and management if not through quantitative indicators?’

The next steps is to try and get organisations such as Conservation International or the relevant sectors of the United Nations, to try out new these new indicators in their management plans and monitoring plans.  As the paper suggests, it’s clear that human well-being depends on healthy eco-systems, and sustainable environments ultimately depend on a broader understanding and assessment of this.