Nature as Normal: Our Lead Scientist’s Research Agenda

October 8, 2014

People enjoy urban nature out at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. Photo © Jonathan Grassi for The Nature Conservancy

Heather Tallis is lead scientist of The Nature Conservancy

When do you think about nature?

Is it when you wake up? When you turn on the faucet? When you drop your kid off for school? When you pick the investment portfolio for your retirement, or give to a charity that helps the poor?

Of course not. We don’t think about nature as part of our everyday lives. Some people say that’s what’s wrong with the world today — people are too disconnected from nature.

I think it’s the opposite: people are connected to nature in nearly everything we do and value. We just don’t realize it, and so we don’t think it’s that important.

That’s why I’m spending this year as lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy focusing my research on uncovering the hidden connections between people and nature (and fleshing out some of the intriguing connections we need to know more about).

There’s enough to explore in that sentence to fill many lifetimes, so I’m starting with just a few aspects of life whose links to nature haven’t been explored much: education, consumption and poverty.

Education: Could Greener Views Around Schools Improve Learning?

My son started kindergarten this year. Like most privileged parents, we got to choose which public school we wanted him to go to and we had a number of factors in mind when school shopping — student-teacher ratio, test scores, student diversity, and overall funding levels.

About halfway through our school visits, I read a paper that put another question on the list: What’s out the windows? It turns out that the view from the classroom might affect learning, and might even be as important as some traditional factors of quality education.

Only a few studies so far have looked at this question, but their consistent finding that a “greener” view was related to higher test scores was enough to get me thinking. (I crossed one school that I really liked off the list because all the classrooms for K-6th were in the basement.)

And I’ve gone further: I’ve started a study to see how widespread this “greener=better learning” pattern is. We have a pilot for this study underway with 550 schools in California. If that pans out, we’ll look at Texas, Illinois, New York and Florida too, where 40% of US students attend school and where five of our fastest growing cities are.

There are a lot of questions to dig into here: Is this a widespread pattern? If yes, what is it about the view that matters? Does it just have to be green? Or is it the structure of trees and shrubs that breaks up the view? Or does the actual naturalness of the view matter? How far away from the school does the view have an affect?

If we can answer these questions, we’ll know just how much nature affects student performance, and how we might change school designs to take best advantage of nature’s influence on the brain and learning.

Imagine: raising inner city test scores just by planting some trees. Maybe it’s possible.

Heather Tallis, Lead Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
Heather Tallis, Lead Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.

Water Conservation: Rethinking the Best Ways You Can Make a Difference

Water is another area where we don’t realize how connected many of our daily decisions are to nature.

I often get asked after talks what people can do at home to help the environment, especially to save water. First, off, as Matt Damon has said, stop dumping buckets of clean, filtered ice water over your heads!

Beyond that, the advice we usually give to conserve water — i.e., don’t water your lawn, take shorter showers, turn off the faucet while you brush your teeth — is misleading. These changes are important, but they’re likely not nearly enough. So many other choices we make have so much more to do with water, and we don’t even think about them.

For instance: Was the cotton in that shirt you just bought or the rice in your sushi grown somewhere with abundant water — or in the desert?

Cotton and rice are both extremely water thirsty crops, and we’re growing both right now in the California desert in the middle of a staggering drought.

How much water did it take to make those jeans you’re wearing? Somewhere between 919 gallons (if you believe Levi’s) to 2,900 gallons (if you believe the Water Footprint Network).

In any case, not buying those new jeans would save surprisingly more water than turning off the faucet (which saves 200 gallons/month).

These are interesting tidbits. But for me, the jury is still out on what the biggest ways are that our daily lives demand water, and what the biggest changes are that we can make as individuals to truly make a difference.

That’s why I’ll be leading more research this year into what personal behavior changes could make the biggest impact on water conservation. I’ll be looking at everything from diet choices to clothing sourcing to appliances to transportation and personal habits.

Time: The New Metric of Poverty

How does nature touch the daily lives of the poor? Typical ideas about how conservation can help the poor focus on income. Manage a fishery better, and local fishers can catch more fish and sell them for more income. Improve grazing practices, and there’s more food for both wildlife and cows, which means cattle owners can turn a better profit.

But what may be just as important is how conserving nature could affect how much time the poor have on their hands.

If fish are more abundant near where you live, you can catch them closer to home and spend less time on the water. If forage for your cattle is good near your house, you spend fewer hours herding your cows off to a distant grazing land with good enough grass. If conserving nature in a watershed means clean water is available closer to home, women and children may save hours a day fetching it.

This extra time can be used in other income generating activities, going to school, getting training, engaging more socially or with family, or any number of other things that generally make people feel better off.

The development community has been dissatisfied with the poverty line as our sole means of defining poverty for a long time. Time is increasingly recognized as a key resource, and how much of it we have is being touted more and more by economists and development experts as a good indicator of how well off a person is.

Can we finally get beyond defining poverty based solely on income? That’s another question I’m asking this year with development colleagues, to see if we can redefine poverty based on both time and income.

If we can, we have a richer understanding of poverty in all contexts, and we have a new way to see how conservation can help people out of it.

Nature as Normal

The environment is now a non-issue in politics in the United States. (In the U.S. 2012 presidential elections, “environment” was mentioned exactly zero times in the debates.)

And yet, if the hypotheses I’m testing this year are correct, nature is touching our kids through the classroom window, our clothes, our food… and even our time. If I’m right, then nature is a big part of our daily lives no matter who we are, and we should start acting like it is.

If test scores across the nation are correlated with what’s out the classroom window, I’ll look for schools willing to test this idea directly. Based on what matters with the view, we can experimentally change views and see if test scores respond. If they do, we’ll know a lot about how to better design schools, and you’ll start to see parents asking principals what they’re doing to make sure students have a green view. Nature will become part of the education debate.

What about water? We’ll be able to tell people how they can have the biggest impact on water supplies. People may see that they are most connected to water through the food and clothes they buy, not through the glasses they fill from the tap and the showers they take. Water sourcing — where we only buy foods and clothes from crops grown in water secure regions — may become the next consumer movement.

If we redefine poverty based on both time and income, we may see that people living off of stressed natural resources are even poorer than we thought. Not only do they scrape by on less than a dollar a day, their hours from dawn to dusk are filled with the toil of making ends meet.

But if conservation actions free up some of that time for people to do as they choose, that in itself may make the rest of life more tolerable. Nature then becomes a more important part of development work and our decisions about international aid.

These three areas — education, water and poverty — are key to growing a widespread recognition of how nature is normal. Look for progress reports from me on this research here on Cool Green Science throughout this year and 2015.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

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  1. Greening schools is such a simple and effective means for school improvement, yet it is not mainstream thinking. After just completing the U.S. Green Ribbon Award (spring 2014) process I am certain as a parent and educator that there is clear correlation between “green” and learning. The Green Ribbon program has three key pillars.

    1. Conservation – Energy, Water, Waste Management
    2. Healthy Environment – This includes the obvious physical needs -air quality, natural light, minimal chemical exposure,access to healthy food, play/natural environments. This also includes social and emotional wellness from understanding social footprint to bullying.
    3. Sustainability Curriculum/Education – Teachers build rigor and students build relevance through explorations in our modern environmental, economic, and social challenges.

    We are certain that these GREEN pillars have improved learning. Our 2014 SAS Value-Added data is through the roof, but at this time we don’t have the resources to analyze if this green connection is a hunch or if there is a clear correlation. As a Raleigh, NC charter school we are on and island. We are gearing up to collaborate with Wake County Public Schools the 14th largest school system in the country, and we are hoping for research-based connections we can share rather than gut-driven efforts. If you are interested in a partner in NC this is precisely the data we are trying to capture.

    Shannon Hardy
    6th Grade Math/Science Teacher
    Green Team Facilitator
    Exploris School (k-8)
    Raleigh, NC

    1. Shannon-great comment! Thanks for posting! This is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. We are starting to see these recognitions, but they’re not common yet. Sounds like you are doing great work with GREEN. We are looking for schools who might be willing to experiment, and add to the science basis for these key links, so I’ll follow up.

  2. Great thoughts! Keep us posted with what you discover re personal water use choices. Also, how can we effectively communicate messages that go against the grain of traditional thinking (e.g. water consumed when brushing teeth vs. producing jeans)?

  3. Thanks for the post Heather! This definitely raised some points I hadn’t even really considered, it’s great to read about some of these simple yet effective ways of changes our thinking to help us to become more environemtally-conscious of our actions. Life cycle analysis is another great tool I’ve come across that can contrast the total ‘cost’ (including environmental cost) of substitutable products available to us. As a budding new teacher-to-be (currently undertakings a masters of secondary teaching), I’d be interested to hear about your findings of the potential benefits of greener schools on children’s learning!

  4. “What about water? We’ll be able to tell people how they can have the biggest impact on water supplies.”

    All due respect, Heather, we already know how people can have the biggest impact on water supplies. No need to repeat the research. Simply switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, which also improves human health (how much water is needed for the treatment of human disease cause by lifestyle choices?! Stop eating beef especially. It takes 15,400 litres of water to make a hamburger. Compare that to 2500 litres of water to make 1 kg of rice. See and

    Since agriculture consumes 80% of water, what we eat makes a big difference! We may not buy a pair of jeans every day but we do eat every day!

    Environmental Studies, UCSC graduate 1982

    1. Well put, Jean! This issue is so often ignored by environmental organizations, but we make food choices multiple times every day! For those of us in developed (and some developing) countries, switching to a vegan lifestyle is the single biggest action an individual can take to reduce their environmental impact.