Professor Lindsey Gillson is the new Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity. Here we talk with her about balancing the good and bad of human impact on planet Earth.

Can you tell us a little about your background and area of research?

I’m a biologist and I started out specialising in the long-term ecology of African savannas after working for a wildlife charity.

My early research was on elephant habitat and aimed to explore whether there were too many elephants, and whether their habitat is becoming degraded. I realised that we couldn’t begin to understand the issue unless we knew what the habitat looked like before the international ivory trade started. So I designed my PhD to use palaeoecology to look at elephant habitats and how they’ve changed over hundreds of years. I found that a high level of variability in tree cover is normal in savannas and periods of low tree abundance do not necessarily indicate that habitat is degraded.   

After this project, I began to understand that a lot of conservation questions can’t be answered without looking into the past and studying change over time. We need to understand the history of landscapes to plan for the future. 

So that's how I started off: looking backwards. But I also realised that the past isn't a perfect analogue, everything's changing all the time and conditions today are likely to be very different from the past. So I work with modellers to simulate what happened in the past and then run the models forward for future scenarios of climate and land-use.

This past-present-future perspective helps us work out what the different conservation options are. We may decide to restore something close to former conditions but this often won’t be possible, so we need to look at new ways of adapting and building resilience.

What do you love about your research?

I love complexity. I like looking for connections and understanding processes. I like to try to work out how all the different parts of a complex system interact, so that we can make good conservation and management decisions based on system behaviour. 

The other part I enjoy is making this knowledge of variability and complexity useful to other people. How can this knowledge help biodiversity and sustainability in the Anthropocene? 

What drew you to the Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity (LCAB)?

Research on the Anthropocene needs to bring different disciplines together to understand landscape holistically: biology, ecology, palaeoecology, history, social sciences, archaeology, modelling and others. So the Centre’s interdisciplinary approach to tackling the grand challenges facing the environment and biodiversity was a big part of what drew me to the role. 

LCAB is an optimistic and forward looking Centre and complements the University of York’s excellent research record. Talented, dynamic early career researchers make for a vibrant and fast moving environment. The Leverhulme Centre provides the space for young researchers to run with their ideas, think creatively and innovate. 

When we think about the impact of humans on biodiversity, it’s often from a negative stance. How do you think the Centre’s research can help us balance the gains and losses of human impact?

I like the Centre’s attitude towards this: everything's going to change, so why can’t we acknowledge the gains and opportunities as well as the losses? We have a choice in how we shape the Anthropocene. 

It’s a challenge to get people out of the negative mindset as we are used to hearing a doom and gloom narrative when it comes to biodiversity and climate change. But we already have the means to make change in the Anthropocene positive: we have the technology to make clean energy; we have enough food for everybody (although it's not equitably shared); and we have new methods of food production, which can help reduce habitat destruction.

And does this make you hopeful for the future?

I am optimistic and I think we can encourage optimism within academia and beyond. There are journals such as Solutions, which are focussed on finding integrative answers to the world’s most pressing problems. We need to try and foster this positive mindset if we are to move towards a sustainable and desirable future. This is especially important for early career researchers, who need to know that their research has the potential to make a difference. I think it's partly a psychological question about how to shift people’s mindsets so that they can see the opportunities we have as well as the crises we're facing.

Is there a particular area of research that could help focus us on the positives of the Anthropocene?

I think rewilding and ecological restoration are great places to start as they hold promise for more functional social-ecological systems. People can relate to rewilding and restoration projects intellectually and emotionally. Restored, rewilded and even novel ecosystems can help in cultivating a sense of place for people. 

You’ve spoken about this a little already, but can you tell us more about how your research helps us understand the world around us?

I think there are a lot of conservation questions where we can really benefit from a past-present-future perspective. Let’s take woodland restoration. Planting trees can have benefits for carbon storage so there’s currently a huge drive to plant trees. But it needs careful handling because sometimes the wrong trees are planted in the wrong place and open ecosystems and their ecosystem services are damaged.

So as we try to manage carbon storage and mitigate climate change, we need to think about the ecosystem in a more holistic way. Planting pine and eucalyptus in the highlands of Madagascar, for example, could gain something in terms of carbon storage. But so much more could be lost in terms indigenous biodiversity and access to ecosystem services for the communities who live there.

Planting trees is often portrayed as the solution to a lot of biodiversity issues. How do people react when you suggest that planting trees isn’t always the answer? 

Our recent paper about the psychology of tree-planting looks at why people are so resistant to open landscapes. The perspective that more trees is always good is quite a Western view. A forested landscape is often viewed as the ultimate conservation goal. But for much of the terrestrial planet - sub Saharan Africa and Australia, for example - open landscapes dominate. The idea of dynamism in landscapes is viewed more comfortably: disturbance is normal.

From an evolutionary perspective, we're better adapted to mosaic landscapes - those made up of different vegetation elements - because we evolved in savannahs. When we look at the theory of landscape design, people prefer prospect, refuge and mystery: they want views, areas of refuge and areas for exploration. That’s not a closed canopy forest, that’s a much more savannah-like landscape.

Most of the planet is not forested; many ecosystems are patchy or open. As we try to decolonise conservation we need to acknowledge that the resistance to these landscapes sometimes stems from psychological and political roots.

We have to think about the context of our knowledge of landscape history and who we're listening to when people tell us a landscape should be a certain way. Are we making the best use of palaeoecological and historical data and are we being inclusive when building narratives of landscape change? My work and the work of the Centre can help us look ahead in a way that takes into account more than one perspective on how things should be in the future. 

Find out more: