After two months on a graduate placement with SNH, Tom McKenna recently secured a permanent role as Economist with us. He tells us about his experience at SNH as a young person, and his work with the Natural Capital Asset Index.
I grew up in the small English town of Warlingham, not far from Croydon in south-east London. After graduating from the University of Southampton with a Geography degree in 2011, I pursued my dream of travelling. Between 2013 and 2016, between periods of employment, I travelled for a total of 15 months, visiting 24 different countries. This travelling experience was invaluable: I learned lot about the world; about how varied the world’s environmental climates can be; and meeting so many interesting people. This provided a unique experience for me to discover, explore and understand that the array of environmental problems we are experiencing across the world need to be tackled from both a social and economic angle.
I initially moved to Scotland to study a master’s degree in Ecological Economics at the University of Edinburgh/Scotland’s Rural College in 2016: I was drawn to Scotland specifically because of its beautiful environment. Ecological Economics is an interdisciplinary subject which considers world problems from environmental, social and economic perspectives in order to create sustainable solutions from all three perspectives. One of these processes is “Ecosystem services”.
Ecosystem services are the range of benefits people can derive from the natural environment. These services are often grouped into four distinct categories and can include the provisioning of water and food; the regulating of climate or disease; the supporting of nutrient cycles and crop pollination and cultural contributions including health, well-being and recreation. Unfortunately when political, economic and social decisions get made, these benefits are often critically overlooked because they cannot be traded (for example, clean air or the pollination of crops cannot be physically or economically exchanged). The natural value or benefits society can experience from these services are usually not included in decisions because, put simply, they are hard to assess in terms of economic or monetary value, and don’t impact the economy in the sense that economic, social and political sectors can immediately recognise.
My master’s dissertation looked at the cultural ecosystem service of ‘aesthetics’ or how people’s visual preferences for landscapes changed with natural forest regeneration – in short, people like trees! This was a great opportunity to spend four weeks in the beautiful Scottish Highlands. As I was finalising my dissertation, I applied for and was lucky enough to secure a graduate placement at SNH. This allowed me to apply the knowledge gained during my degree to the research and formation of a graduate placement project: the placement focussed on Natural Capital Investment options – where is the best place to invest money to create the best outcomes for nature and people.
My graduate placement with SNH was short lived: within a couple of months of it beginning, an ideal position as Economist opened; I now provide economic advice for SNH on a wide range of subjects and projects, but mainly on Natural Capital. The Graduate Placement was a great opportunity to meet other young people at SNH (including a graduate trip to Creag Meagaidh to network with the other graduates, learn about reserve management and try my hands at reserve volunteering).
As part of my new role as Economist, I currently maintain and will continue to develop the Natural Capital Asset Index (NCAI). The Index is an indicator which looks to measure the changes in the amount of, and quality of Scotland’s habitats or ecosystems and how this will affect the benefits people will gain from them. By showing how changes through mismanagement or investment in our environment are affecting people’s wellbeing, we are able to illustrate how important the natural environment really is to concentrate importance, effort and funding to necessary projects. The NCAI is an incredibly useful and insightful tool with a lot of potential in the future for development; especially now that Natural Capital is being more widely recognised (it was mentioned 114 times in the new Defra 25 year plan!).
I feel incredibly lucky to have come out of my university studies into such a great organisation which is achieving positive work and impacts for our environment. I hope to stay with SNH for the foreseeable future. Especially, I’m looking forward to continuing my career in a country that values nature, understands how it contributes to our wellbeing, wants to care for and enjoy it and ultimately contribute to its sustainable use.
Read more about ecosystem services and the Natural Capital Asset Index here.