Exploring how science and policy intersect within environmental management and nature conservation.
Associate Professor - School of Global, Urban and Social Studies; Leader - Interdisciplinary Conservation Science research group; ARC Future Fellow; Theme leader - ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decision; Theme leader - National Environment Research Program Hub for Environmental Decisions.
Intersection of science and policy in environmental management.
Leading the Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICSRG) has forced me to see my research focus through different lenses and, ultimately, that has strengthened the research.
Sarah Bekessy has always been passionate about biodiversity. After undertaking a PhD on the science behind the conservation of the South American Monkey-puzzle tree and a post-doctoral position in Canada she came to RMIT to teach.
Bekessy’s research group analyses ecological decision-making processes from an interdisciplinary perspective in order to develop a more holistic approach. The group brings together experts in social science, ecology, physics, psychology and other disciplines.
Traditional conservation decision science looks at the funds available, the species that need support and then distributes the funds based on formal prioritisation. The ‘people’ element is frequently absent from the equation.
Bekessy believes that environmental management and protecting threatened species is actually very social and political. She investigates the surrounding elements which are not being taken into account: social and political aspects and how we can build them into the decision making process.
A large part of Bekessy’s work investigates best ways to preserve biodiversity in our cities and city fringes. “It’s about rethinking how we do things when it comes to development. In Melbourne we either have massive high rises or huge urban fringe expansion. This creates social isolation; expensive transport and congestion; energy inefficient housing; a lack of connection to nature,” says Bekessy, “Not to mention the threat to at risk species.”
Sarah and her team are recommending ‘Biodiversity Sensitive Urban Design’, which considers everything from the paved surfaces and evening lighting brightness to rooftop gardens and design led conservation of threatened species.
“New developments can be designed to actively protect native grassland and animal species,” says Associate Professor Bekessy. “With an exploding population we are exploring avenues to increase liveability and reduce the impact of developments 50 to 100 years in the future.”
Bekessy’s ARC Future Fellowship, ‘Socio-ecological models for environmental decision making,’ focuses on the growing use of markets in managing biodiversity. Laws that made clearing vegetation illegal have been amended so developers, farmers and property owners can clear their land if they provide an offset of vegetation and trade on it.
The offset should be of equal value in biodiversity terms and these parcels of vegetation can often be purchased over the counter. There are some obvious ecological problems, including the time lags between destroying and recreating vegetation, but there are also important social dimensions to this shift.
The rise of markets in conservational policies means more than changing laws: the perception of right and wrong is greyed in the process.
“The ethical and societal understanding used to be that clearing native vegetation was wrong. People still did it but they were taken to court for it. Now you just need the right offset to justify it. That shift in societal ethics has big ramifications: in a way, it’s removing an ethical roadblock to the destruction of vegetation.”
Other market-based tools use ‘reverse-auctions’ to efficiently provide financial incentives to conserve biodiversity on private land.
"People can behave in unexpected ways. For example, landholders who participate in voluntary schemes may well feel displeased by neighbours being paid to do the same thing, which can lead to a reduction in altruistic motivations. My research focuses on the factors surrounding the decisions people make and how this affects environmental management and conservation outcomes."