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National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Prof Guy Midgley

Prof Guy Midgley

Changing the human relationship with the environment

In the 1990s, professor Guy Midgley, then an assistant agricultural researcher with the Botanical Research Institute (BRI), began to study emerging work on how a secure human environment depended on a secure natural environment, and that climate change could become a major, poorly understood threat to this security. He argued that research into change risks to biodiversity was much needed, precipitating work in the BRI to predict how species, biodiversity and ecosystems might respond to climate change. Three decades later, Midgley is Head of the Global Change Biology Group and Interim Director of the School for Climate Studies at Stellenbosch University. 

The work of the Global Change Biology Group, which focuses on species-rich systems of Southern Africa, has had global impact. Its contributions to risk assessment and the development of conservation responses that make sense for species, ecosystems and human livelihoods, added urgency to the adoption of global mitigation targets. This was after evidence was presented to the South African Cabinet, the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The theoretical foundation of Midgley’s work is niche theory, quantified using correlative modelling and dynamic global vegetation modelling based on resource capture and investment by plants. It’s rooted in fundamental theories of plant productivity, growth, and competition, and disturbance by wildfire. 

For Midgley, communicating their work understandably is important. “We’re trying to translate climate change and the human relationship with the environment (and with the species that make up that environment) in a way that stays inside people’s lived experience, their connection with nature,” he says. 

For this self-described optimist, it’s important to communicate the natural world’s resilience. “I have no real concerns about the survival of our planet and biosphere. Humans cannot cause the extinction of life on this planet. The planet has been hit by asteroids more than once and I do not think we can destroy life. But we can certainly damage the ecosystem services that we benefit from, in ways that could adversely affect our barely understood modern society. The extractive nature of those few that currently hold the reins of how this planet is being ridden has put us in a position of grave danger. Not to our planet as a whole, but to our own society and many species that we value,” he says.  

Midgley believes we have come a long way over the last 30 years and points to the work done by the UN through its Framework Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biodiversity and Ecosystems and other multilateral agreements. “These have completely changed the story of the future development of the planet. Aspirations are massively changed and they are starting to roll out in reality,” he says. — Elaine Williams

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