Natural History Museums in a changing world

This article first appeared as an article in Outlook [19.02.2012] – the multi-stakeholder magazine on climate change and sustainable development in advance of Rio+20. Aimed principally at UN and signatory country negotiators it argues that ‘hybrid institutions’ that do science and engagement – such as Natural History Museums, Zoos, Botanic Gardens and Aquariums had a growing role need support for their growing responsibility to promote the understanding of biodiversity issues to the wider public.

Engageing with biodiversity at the Natural History Museum, London

Engageing with biodiversity at the Natural History Museum, London

Natural History Museums in a changing world

The agenda of Rio+20 the UNCSD underlines three inexorably interlinked domains. These include how we adapt and mitigate the environmental changes of an increasingly human influenced world and how we ensure sustainable and equitable development for the wellbeing of people across the globe. The third domain is less recognised, it is that of biodiversity and its loss. Though often overlooked this latter is actually the glue upon which the other two largely depend.

Here in the Natural History Museum we are used to looking at change across time, our 70 million specimens are a model of diversity and change over time, they are the records of natural variety and how we describe them. Looking at where historically specimens were collected and comparing this with what we see today we can see the escalated patterns of change. The collections are part of the weight of objective evidence, which it is so crucial to respond to if we are to ensure the wellbeing of current and future generations of people.

Natural History Museums are also some of the most fondly remembered places of childhood visits and are trusted places of learning, so we feel a huge responsibility to share the implications of what our collections and science tell us. Museums are places which try to understand the past, to learn and share the lessons today for the benefit of the future. This is why we are working with our partners to present the Earth Debates which explore key issues underlying the Rio+20 agenda and the science and society issues that underlie them.

It so happens that these museums are also usually located in the heart of our urban environment where today, with  a majority of  the world population now living in urban environments people are often more removed from nature than ever. But biodiversity is not remote and abstract, its about mainstream things, like how the food we eat and the products we buy. We directly impact on natural systems through the way the tings we use are produced, manufactured, purchased and disposed of. Rather than seeing the loss of biodiversity as an environmental question we need to see it increasingly as a mainstream one, it as much about how we manage production process, how we recycle and how we make space for nature. Biodiversity, the variety of life, is or course organised into ecosystems and it is these that ensure soil fertility and clean our water and our air. In the past we have tended to see nature in cities as places for our recreation and pleasure, and indeed these are profoundly important, but its not the whole picture. We are now increasingly understanding that thee nature in cities must be a part of its core infrastructure; Trees clean and filter the air of damaging particles from traffic. Greenery, properly incorporated, helps store water, reducing the risks of flooding and providing resilience during droughts, so that nature can be a key part of a cities protection against these hazards which are expected to become more frequent and severe. In a similar way the cooling effects of trees and green roofs as they give off their stored water reduce the ‘heat island’ and significant lowers city temperatures with positive benefits for health. Many green spaces can  foster hobbies, encourage community, increasingly they can also provide valuable locally grown  produce and can help locally recycle organic waste.

In fact perhaps the biggest lesson is to see the natural world and its biodiversity as a key asset and ally for the future. In an increasingly globalised world natural history collections tell us another thing. Historically cites have emerged in the most fertile places, such on estuaries where land, fresh water and oceans meet. These are the places which were also most bio-diverse historically and today. Today with large tracts of agricultural land given over to just a few human-utilised species, our urban environments are becoming hugely important for biodiversity again, as they can provide a huge diversity of new environments in which hard-pressed species can find a place to live. These are key lessons for the future; learning from and mimicking the lessons of nature will help us become more sustainable; and in treating nature as a friend and ally, and by making space for it we will serve people and the environment for generations to come.

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