In 1977, the Tbilisi Declaration, the product of the first-ever intergovernmental conference on environmental education, stated that a guiding principle of environmental education was that it should, “be interdisciplinary in its approach, drawing on the specific content of each discipline in making possible a holistic and balanced perspective.” The declaration emphasised the central importance of incorporating the social sciences alongside the natural in environmental and conservation studies.
Only recently has the significance of this statement started to become appreciated. The adoption of greater interdisciplinarity in particular is enabling conservation to overcome one of its greatest challenges: its lack of internal diversity. As people become more aware of the historical and sociological aspects of the conservation movement, and of nature and ecology in general, the roots of its diversity problem are exposed; this leads to a greater understanding of not only why there is a lack of diversity in the movement, but also what could be done to remedy this.
Conservation is one of the least diverse fields in terms of race in Britain; according to the National Union of Students and The Equality Trust, only 3.1% of environment professionals identity as non-white minorities, in comparison with 19.9% of all occupations. In addition, whilst only 9% of students studying environment-related courses in higher education identify as non-white, this is significantly lower than the 22% of UK students in total who identify this way.
While these statistics are evidently cause for concern, this Black History Month, there are many reasons to be optimistic that conservation is becoming more diverse, with various projects and initiatives designed to improve access and representation of visibly minority ethnic (VME) people in the field.
The need for an interdisciplinary approach in tackling the lack of diversity within conservation stems from the historical intertwining of race and nature. As explored in authoritative works of environmental history such as Richard Groves’ Green Imperialism and Corey Ross’s Ecology and Power in the Age of Empire, imperial assaults on the natural world came hand-in-hand with assaults on indigenous populations and the slave trade.
However, non-white involvement in environmental history has been historically minimised, with education focusing on white explorers, botanists, zoologists and others.
Sarah Middleton, PhD student in plant ecology at the University of Oxford, says such a narrow curriculum has serious consequences: “If growing up you never see people who look like you or [are] from the same background in a science field or nature TV presenter you begin to think it’s not for you. You believe this all the way through schooling, whilst often dealing with microaggressions and systemic racism.”
Middleton adds, “Decolonising curricula is a powerful step towards discussions at institutions and increased critical questioning and engagement about scientific ideas and their socio-political consequences.”
Last month Middleton launched the Black British Biology Project, which aims to uncover the historical contributions of Black Britons in the biological sciences. In her article in the British Ecological Society’s The Niche, Middleton highlights the role of John Edmonstone, a former slave from British Guiana, who was “instrumental in teaching [Charles] Darwin the skills of taxidermy and South American flora and fauna.” The fact that figures such as Edmonstone have been largely unrecognised by scientists and historians is testament enough to why the Project is such an important one.
Middleton hopes that the Project will highlight the positive contributions of Black scientists in a way that not only “provides role model[s] for young Black people who rarely see themselves represented in science,” but also “re-educates us all that contributions to science were/are not just from white North American/Europeans.”
The realisation that protecting biodiversity requires a diverse conservation movement itself can be seen not only in Middleton’s Project but also in other initiatives within the field. For instance, the 2020 Bio-Diverse Festival, taking place from 12-18 October, “aims to highlight minorities within biology and conservation by celebrating the diversity that exists and learning from those who pave the way for future scientists presently lacking representation.” Organised by four minority biology students from the University of Sheffield, this event is just one example of how the conservation movement is being driven to greater diversity and inclusivity by its own students.
The discipline as a whole is coming to understand that an interdisciplinary approach, as advocated by the Tbilisi Declaration, is the springboard from which conservation can become more inclusive, which will ultimately be to the benefit of us all.
 The language around race is complex and nuanced, and thus needs to be used consciously and with sensitivity. Black History Month focuses on Britons of African Caribbean heritage. The term VME avoids the acronym BAME (Black, Asian Minority Ethnic) as this includes white minorities, but also has been criticised for being a catch-all term which minimises the variety of experiences and challenges faced by different groups. Whilst no term of acronym is perfect, VME is used to express non-white experiences without grouping them all together as one singular group.