What did Ethnobiology ever do for us?

Paul Krause

“All right, you great git, you’ve asked for it. I’ll cover the world in Tastee-Freez and Wimpy Burgers. I’ll fill it with concrete runways, motorways, aircraft, television, automobiles, advertising, plastic flowers, frozen food and supersonic bangs. I’ll make it so noisy and disgusting that even you’ll be ashamed of yourself!” Peter Cook as “George Spiggott”, as if speaking to God in the 1967 film Bedazzled.

Of necessity, in the last 1000 years the lower income sector of the population has typically had the greater contact with nature. However, in the west we have seen a steady disenfranchisement of the population at large. Here in the UK this started in 1604 with the first of a 300 year series of “Inclosure Acts” that saw fields and open land enclosed, bounded by fences and hedges, with a small number of wealthy claiming as property land that had previously been accessible for food production or extraction of other natural resources (timber for firewood, for example) by the population at large.

This enclosure of land enabled more efficient farming practices to be introduced (from the perspective of the landowners) but led to fearsome hardship within the community at large. The right to grow your own food, be it through cultivation of plants or animal husbandry, was lost. And with it, progressively at first and then more rapidly during the industrial revolution, any sense of communal ownership of the (semi-) natural landscape.

Nowadays, we tend to look to the developing world for examples of the tight integration between communities and the natural world. Research organisations, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the UK, have for many years been studying the medicinal and culinary usage of plants in less “developed” regions (again, using “development” in the sense of a fully monetized society). And often what is seen is a tight interaction between socio-cultural elements of a society and the plants and animals that have significance to them.

As a result, perhaps not surprisingly in retrospect, we are seeing much closer working between conservationists, biologists, zoologists, political scientists, ecologists, sociologists in finding ways of empowering local people to sustain their natural environments. However, the researchers and practitioners in this space found they needed an identity to avoid being lost amongst the multiple of disciplines that they had to serve. And so was coined the term Ethnobiology: “the scientific study of dynamic relationships among peoples, biota and environments”.

So, what has this got to do with Wildsense? It is this. There is a slightly unfortunate presumption that any long name that begins with “ethno” refers to a study of “other” peoples, populations, societies. But “ethno” simply refers to culture/people. And that can and does include ourselves. So, whilst an immediate concrete focus of Wildsense is the gathering of data about wild animals (tigers at the moment), the bigger vision is to understand and enhance how we as a global community engage with nature at large. We want to make it possible for anyone, anywhere to connect back to the wild places.