‘‘We want to take ‘saving the planet’ out of the abstract and into reality”

Dr Morena Mills, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Science at the Department of Life Sciences

Did you know that 35 per cent of global crop production depends, to some degree, on the pollination of birds, bats and bees? Or that the oceans have absorbed a third of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities to date? Or that hanging out in leafy parks reduces your risk of experiencing high blood pressure and depression?

These are the real, tangible benefits of protecting our planet; yet for many people, ‘helping the environment’ can seem an abstract concept. Despite billions being spent on environmental conservation projects, all too often they fail – and initiatives that would be certain to help sustain our planet come to nothing, simply because we don’t want to adopt them or because adoption is just too difficult.

Yet every now and then, a conservation initiative goes ‘viral’, with rapid, widespread adoption that completely transforms the relationship between people and nature. This is fantastic, but also immensely frustrating – why do some ideas catch on while others don’t?

At Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences, we are trying to understand why only some environmental conservation projects gain traction in society. We believe adoption rate comes down to the interactions among three elements: the characteristics of the innovation; the adopters; and the socio-economic context. Essentially the likelihood of us adopting any idea comes down to what we value, how it benefits us and how easy it is to adopt.

For instance, people will be more likely to act if they can see, feel and benefit from the impact of a project. When rural Kenyan women reported their streams were drying up, affecting food supply and forcing local women to walk further and further to get firewood, the Green Belt Movement, founded by Professor Wangari Maathai, galvanised those women to work together to plant trees. These trees bound the soil, stored rainwater and provided food and wood locally. Restoring forests changed their lives.

We are more likely to act if we can see, feel and benefit from the impact of a project"

The likelihood of somebody embracing new ideas and projects is also down to their characteristics and context – what’s their status? Do they have money? What’s their social network? Are they risk averse? Is there enabling legislation in place? Are there barriers preventing adoption?

We are finding that the theory we use stands up, even in very different environmental conservation projects across the world. When Tanzania adopted three different conservation initiatives – Community-Based Forest Management, Joint Forest Management and Wildlife Management Areas – each had the same basic aims. But the community-based forest management had the greater number of adopters because, although villagers shouldered most of the cost, it provided them with the most control over the resources and the benefits of participation – and therefore they were more likely to embrace it.

Similarly, a completely different innovation – Locally Managed Marine Areas – swept across the Pacific Islands, encouraging residents to collectively manage inshore waters. This initiative was rolled out over 500 villages across 15 island nations. The scheme thrived, especially in Fiji, where the locals greatly valued more autonomy over the management of their marine resources and the strengthening of their traditions.

We can use these examples to lobby politicians to implement government policy that can influence whether environmental conservation projects are adopted, by implementing the infrastructure needed to facilitate adoption, or implementing laws and policies that make them possible.

We are fortunate to have a dynamic and multidisciplinary team of great scientists here at Silwood Park Campus – part of the Grand Challenges in Ecosystems and Environment initiative – committed to exploring some of the greatest global environmental challenges. My lab’s work on understanding how, when and why some environmental conservation initiatives spread so effectively, and why others don’t, fills a critical gap in our knowledge of how to ensure the future of our planet.

Dr Morena Mills’s research focuses on biodiversity conservation, spanning marine and terrestrial systems on both a global and local scale.