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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


AHIA 2020-21 Demonstrating dependencies between humanity and nature for a sustainable future: A nitrogen case-study

By c.washbourne, on 1 September 2020

STEaPP’s Dr Carla Washbourne is part of a new project supported by the ALTER-Net High Impact Action (AHIA)-fund. This blog is also published at on ALTER-Net website

Through this project we want to explore how past and current research on the nitrogen cycle can be used to generate new insights on the dependence of humans on non-human-nature. Insights from this project will provide a new way to view humanity’s place in nature and could help to shape the development of more equitable and sustainable environmental decision-making and management.

Team photo

Team photo

The nitrogen (N) cycle is a familiar concept. Many of us first encountered it at school, where it was used to illustrate the scale and importance of global cycles that link air, water, rocks and living things. Humans are often presented as the end recipient of natural processes like the nitrogen cycle, and sometimes are not shown as part of the cycle at all! However, humanity is part of the cycle, being both a direct beneficiary (of  food) and direct contributor (fertiliser use) and is impacted by effects of nitrogen on air and water quality. This AHIA-funded project questions what the nitrogen cycle would look like if we rebuild it to more clearly include humans and to show the true scale of our dependence on non-human nature. The project is driven by a desire to provide a different narrative of the relationship between people and nature, that better represents our place in the biosphere.

Through the 12 months of the AHIA award, our interdisciplinary group plans to identify and investigate human-nature relationships and dependencies. Many environmental disciplines argue that considering ‘humanity’ and ‘nature’ as separate is the origin of most environmental problems and there is a growing agreement amongst many people carrying out research on this topic that this view does not appropriately describe humanity’s place on the planet. If we do not recognise this fact, and the negative relationship with the rest of nature that it can encourage, there is little hope of achieving the transformative changes to environment and society that we need to tackle global ecological change and the escalating climate crisis. The project will address a real, current challenge: how to better understand our dependence on nature to help us manage growing global environmental challenges. We recognise that attitudes towards our connection with nature can significantly influence our behaviour and choices, and that shifting attitudes in public and policy discussions is an important part of saving it. We know that nitrogen management underpins almost all Sustainable Development Goals and we hope that the project will add to recent efforts across a range of different development areas.

As students we most likely learned about the nitrogen’s vital role in the biosphere: as a common limiting factor to plant and animal growth. It is a key nutrient on which nature depends. This means that nitrogen is not only vital in the right amounts for natural processes but also for human resource production, crucially food. As such, nitrogen is one of the most human altered cycles exceeding its ‘planetary boundary’ (the proposed level of change that the cycle can sustain before its effects on the functioning of the Earth System may be substantially altered) due to human actions. The nitrogen cycle is, therefore, high on the list of concerns for the global environmental change agenda. Being so critical in our basic nutrition it is also well researched, having many long-established methods for measurement in natural and human systems and there is a plethora of information available. This gives an ideal starting point for our intention to illustrate humanity’s dependence on the rest of the natural world. We will develop the commonly used, simple ‘nitrogen cycle’ into a more detailed and nuanced ‘nitrogen network’, clearly showing linkages and demonstrating how changes in one part of the network can lead to changes in many other elements of environment, economy and society. With this network as a tool we aim to demonstrate and acknowledge how humanity depends on the rest of the natural world in many ways beyond simple resource consumption. We hope to be able to illustrate human-nature relationships and dependencies to support decisions for transformative change into a sustainable future.

The project team and idea inception occurred at the 2019 ALTER-Net summer school, where we first met and began to realise both our common interests and the need for ideas going beyond current practice which led to the development of this project. This AHIA award project forms part of our ongoing conversations and collaborations.

Project lead:

UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH)

Project partners:

Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, Toluca, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, INBO – Research Institute for Nature and Forest (Belgium), Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Swedish University of Agricultural Science, University College London, University of Exeter, University of Massachusetts Boston, University of Namur, University of Twente

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