Redefining the environmental scientist

Redefining the environmental scientist

Edward O. Wilson describes ‘the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life’ as biophilia, which directly translates to a ‘love of life or living systems.’ This innate love that we have for our natural world is therefore intrinsic to our human nature and can be seen as the foundation of the environmental scientist within us all.

A recent discussion with Dr Matt West, a postdoctoral fellow of the University of Melbourne, revealed some answers to the complex and persistent question of how we can stimulate positive environmental change. We must continue to communicate tailored, accessible messages and encourage the next generation to connect with the natural sciences and our natural world.

Everyone is a scientist

I know I’m not alone in saying my fondest childhood memories were strongly connected with nature – from the shorelines of Rye Back Beach to the towering eucalypt forests in Toolangi. Matt reflects on the way he viewed the wild as his ‘home’, with numerous camping trips strengthening his relationship with nature.

We’ve all felt it when we were younger; an overwhelming sense of curiosity and wonder. Everything was fresh, exciting and novel. There were discoveries to be made and most importantly new types of dirt to taste via trial and error – we were applying the scientific method before we even knew it. Nature was with us from our first steps, while the flurry of science followed closely behind.

Rye Beach. Image: Johanna Tachas

For many of us, being out in nature sparked the never-ending cycle of whys and hows, paired with the eager anticipation for an answer, even when there wasn’t one.

As children free to roam in a natural setting we observed and interpreted. We hypothesised and we tested. Science to us was not a mysterious, complicated territory but rather a way of thinking, holistically engaging and connecting with the nature that surrounded us.

There are therefore two commonalities which we arguably all share – an innate emotional connection to nature and the inquisitiveness that comes with being human. Who’s to say these aren’t the features of a naturalist or environmental scientist?

We were all natural scientists at one stage – what differs is the way people choose to pursue this. Our inner natural scientist may be expressed in various ways. Some of us, such as Matt, choose to pursue this naturalist pathway through a career, devoting their life to research and the field. Meanwhile, others fulfil their scientific curiosity with the occasional YouTube video or social media post. Either way, we all have our part to play and a responsibility, being the scientists we are, to promote positive environmental change and healthy ecosystems.

Through his science communication work, Matt has come to the realisation that ‘one group’s perspective is not more important than another.’ Whether you’re a qualified environmental scientist or someone who simply practises an appreciation for the environment in the everyday, the natural world can open the door to new points of view and enhance our understanding of how others engage with the natural sciences.

Reconnect with your inner naturalist

Recently humans have been distracted, drawn away from nature and becoming increasingly disconnected due to our fast-paced, results-driven lives in increasingly urbanised cities and towns. E.O. Wilson describes it as the ‘Century of the Environment’, a bottleneck mindset of results, production and consumption.

Humans have evolved alongside other life forms. We subsequently rely on nature on three levels: emotionally, physically and intellectually. Being surrounded by a healthy and diverse environment is considered an essential part of our satisfaction and fulfilment.

‘It would be terrible to lose the connection [to the wild] – it’s not possible to lose this connection. Sooner or later people will wake up and realise how important the natural world is to everything and everyone’s future,’ Matt says.

Yosemite National Park. Image: Johanna Tachas

Nature cannot simply be experienced through pictures, videos or seeing it from afar – we need tangible experiences to gain real ownership over the relationship and connection we have with the wild. We need to reconnect via our childlike curiosity and find that passionate link again.

Matt states that to reconnect we all need to commit to long-term engagement. Similarly, if we want to spark positive environmental change and improve the health of the natural world, it’s not just about threatened species but the bigger picture.

The environment gives us feedback on how we treat it – in many ways, it is hyperemotional and hypersensitive. It responds – it breathes, shrivels and grows again. We must take the time to listen to nature, and to act.

Celebration and communication leads to conservation

Being environmental scientists, we have the responsibility to communicate pro-nature behaviours and values. By forming our own environmental identities, we can celebrate and amplify the important messages of nature.

We can tackle the problem of environmental disconnection through the next generation. Children are our best bet – promoting and communicating the natural sciences to an audience that already has an undying curiosity for new environments. Matt believes that by ‘instilling respect, love and admiration for the natural world…’, we will nurture a generation whose culture has a fundamental understanding and appreciation of the wild.

The result is conservation and change. As Matt expressed, ‘We’ve got a fighting chance through a new generation of people connected to the wild world… we just need to help them find something they can love about nature.’

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