Connecting Habitats, Connecting Disciplines

James Lee and Simon Nicholas are undertaking research projects as part of the Environmental Management Research Internship. Although at first glance the two projects would appear to be very different in subject matter and approach, a closer look reveals a common theme of ‘connectivity’.

Simon’s project is concerned with the isolation of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and the effects this has on the native fauna as a prelude to efforts towards increasing the connectivity of the area with protected habitat to the north, south and west. The focus of James’ project is the role that the creative arts have in connecting people to environmental issues in ways that cannot be achieved through the reporting of scientific facts and figures, and connecting disparate disciplines to work towards new visions and understandings of social-ecological systems.

The Blue Mountains – an unspoilt wilderness?

Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Image: Simon Nicholas
Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Image: Simon Nicholas

Simon: Like many people I enjoy visiting the Blue Mountains for the fresh air, relief from the Sydney summer heat and above all, to go on bushwalks through eucalypt and rain forests or along the spectacular escarpments. To the vast majority of visitors the Blue Mountains seems like a huge protected area in pristine condition as far as the eye can see from Echo Point, the main look-out in Katoomba, visited by the majority of tourists to the area.

However, all isn’t necessarily as it seems. Although totalling over 1 million hectares of national parks and reserves, the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area is largely cut-off from other protected areas to the north, south and west. Furthermore, the Great Western Highway which runs east-west across the mountains effectively cuts the world heritage area into two parts.

The problem with isolation

So why is this an issue? Well, although the area is large, healthy animal populations are supported by the ability for individuals to migrate in and out of a location – where connectivity to other habitats is low such migration is impeded. Additionally, the Blue Mountains are likely to become an even more important habitat for native animals as the climate changes. Many species are predicted to adapt to climate change by moving to higher elevations but Australia’s relatively flat topography limits the opportunities for such adaptation. If the Blue Mountains were better connected to other habitats the area could provide such an opportunity for some species.

My project seeks to review what is known about the current and future connectivity barriers for the Blue Mountains as a precursor to an effort to find solutions on the ground by the Great Eastern Ranges Initiative (GER). The GER works through cross-sector collaborative partnerships to reverse habitat fragmentation by reconnecting ecosystems along the Great Dividing Range and Eastern Escarpment from Victoria to far north Queensland. In addition, my project will be supported by the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute, which seeks greater integration of science and the community within the management of the World Heritage Area.

Art for environmental governance?

Bisecting heritage
Bisecting heritage – artistic rendition of the Great Western Highway passing through the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Artwork by James Lee

James: The focus of my research is the role of the creative arts in informing environmental governance, particularly at the community level. Initially, it may not be clear what contribution the creative arts can bring to environmental governance, but research increasingly shows that facts and data on their own have little capacity to engender pro-environmental behaviours. Storytelling, poetry, paintings, music and photography–to name just a few of the creative arts–all have capacities to connect people to environmental issues in ways that facts about the state of the environment cannot: by making those issues felt, sensed and experience.

Beyond the communicative and engagement capacities of the arts lie additional, compelling reasons for including the arts in decision-making processes. Art itself can be seen as a process through which knowledge is gained, explored, and co-produced. In the UK, the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) has embraced the arts and culture as a core theme for negotiation and creating new visions of prosperity and well-being. This space of negotiation and valuing of different kinds of knowledge can challenge the dominant, techno-rational assumptions that have underpinned the ‘business as usual’ approaches to environmental governance, and can enable democratic and deliberative participation in environmental decision-making.

I have partnered with the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (AELA) for my research project. AELA adopt an interdisciplinary, and even transdisciplinary, approach to the investigation and development of earth-centred law, governance and ethics. Through this pursuit, AELA connect with other disciplines including economics and the creative arts; creating interdisciplinary searches for more holistic solutions and visions for the earth and its inhabitants.

As my background is in music, film and television, there is great appeal in exploring arts engagement as a process for embedding ecological values into social-ecological systems.

Our research processes

Simon’s project, ‘Landscape connectivity in the Greater Blue Mountains: What are the barriers to species persistence?’, will be a semi-systematic literature review with a mixed quantitative and qualitative approach that aims to explore and evaluate the effects and significance of the isolation of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. The sources reviewed are likely to be primarily scientific, especially covering the fields of ecology, climate change, protected area management and adaptive management. Appropriate grey literature will also be reviewed.

James’ project, ‘Art as governance? Informing environmental governance through participatory creative arts’, is similarly exploratory in nature, but largely qualitative in methodology. Key points of interest include highlighting existing approaches towards arts-informed environmental governance, including the disciplinary lenses–from sustainability arts to ecological economics–through which this concept can be envisioned. Deeper interrogations, beyond a survey of disciplinary approaches, will involve case study oriented comparisons of arts-environment-governance integrations to find the epistemological and ethical motivations for pursuing this agenda.

These research projects have embarked on two vastly different pathways, yet each embraces connectivity–at physical and conceptual levels–to address key environmental issues of our day. Our individual blogs will bring you updates on the research progress.


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