By Peter Bridgewater, Associate Editor for People and Nature.

Straka et al. tackle an interesting problem in a recently published paper in PaN. They were working in greater Berlin, surveying the views of more than 600 residents on their attitudes to native and non-native plant and animal species management in the Berlin urban environment. Berlin, because of its history, was an interesting choice: it is relatively “green,” but with non-native species of both plants and animals increasingly needing management as urban densification proceeds.

Straka et al. distinguish values from beliefs – defining the former as guiding principles that influence people’s thought processes and their beliefs, attitudes, norms, and behaviour. This distinction is an interesting one, and can find resonance in some of the work undertaken in the recently approved Methodological assessment regarding the diverse conceptualization of multiple values of nature and its benefits, including biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services from ipbes. The ipbes assessment creates a typology of values, in which ‘broad values’ are described as “guiding moral principles informed by people’s worldviews and beliefs.” The assessment further notes that broad values “can underpin people’s specific values of nature.” Further, they suggest that “While values influence individual and collective decisions, other factors like knowledge, beliefs, opportunities, and skills also affect behaviour. The inability to fully explain behaviour based on values is known as the ‘value-action gap’”. The recent editorial in Nature Ecology and Evolution has similar messages.

So, values and beliefs are quite entwined, and understanding the difference between them, and how their application affects people’s views of nature, and its conservation management can be complex. And, as Straka et al. demonstrate, values are central to the practice and science of conservation – and central to policy development that enhances delivery of good, well-informed nature conservation. When it comes to known non-native species (and there are many that are not well-known by the public), beliefs are key factors in people’s perception of species, based on their existing knowledge.

The 600+ participants in this study could decide to fill in either a survey on plants or animals. For each animal and plant species, three different management actions were offered (doing nothing, population control through ‘unspecified control action’, and population control through eradication such as lethal control for animals or complete removal for plants). Participants could also specify their views on management actions regarding distance from their residence to evaluate for evidence of NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard).

Overall, participants regarded lethal control as the least accepted management action for native and non-native animals. However, both lethal and unspecified control actions were more accepted for non-native than for native animals. ‘Doing nothing’ was more accepted for native than for non-native animals or plants. Interestingly, the acceptability of doing nothing and non-lethal control actions of non-native plants differed with perceived distance from participants residence. Thus, a NIMBY effect was found for the acceptability of non-native plant management, but no NIMBY effect was evident in relation to animals.

Straka et al. demonstrate well that knowledge and beliefs show predictive potential for management actions for non-native plants; and partially for non-native animals. Emotions towards native animals and plants were significantly higher. Strongly held beliefs about the negative effects of non-native plants (perhaps because many are trees or shrubs) translated into desire for complete removal. And, unsurprisingly, strongly held beliefs about the negative effects of non-native animals manifested as support for lethal control. Beliefs were seen to be more important than knowledge (echoes of climate change ‘belief’).

There was also interesting, but not unsurprising, stratification amongst age groups. Older people were less supportive of doing nothing and more supportive of eradication of non-native plants. Previous studies had already showed that older people tended to perceive invasive plants more negatively than younger respondents. Other writers have suggested this is due to the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ where environmental changes are more noticed and questioned by older generations, but less so by younger people, who experience different states of nature.

Through understanding people’s views on native and non-native management strategies in an urban context this study could help policy development that is effective and supported by local communities. The study did identify that while values and beliefs can be important, emotional reactions are not insignificant. Coupled with peoples age and the type of residence they live in, this is an important perspective for management agencies to consider. For some people, if it is not too close to their home, cutting down a non-native tree is still a loss of nature.

This also plays into what Milner-Gulland has called ‘the journey to being nature positive’. I suspect that journey will need underpinning by more studies like this to help amplify values, beliefs, and emotions of people regarding all of nature, native or not. Being nature positive is the prerogative of all human society as we move to the CBD 2050 vision of “living in harmony with nature”. Perhaps, though, a useful question on A-Level Biology papers might be “define Nature.”

Please take a moment to dip into the paper; it is a fascinating window into how urban people think, and does underline the importance of the ipbes values assessment. The trick will be how to get decision makers to focus on just what understanding and using values means, and not be simply transported by their ‘beliefs’.