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Previous Macaulay Lectures

Each year the Trust, in partnership with The James Hutton Institute, organise the annual Macaulay lecture.

The aim of the lecture is to stimulate thinking and dialogue about contemporary environmental issues in order to honour the vision of Dr T B Macaulay from whose endowment in 1930 both the Trust and the Hutton trace their origins. Further information about Dr Macaulay can be found here.

The lectures are aimed at an informed, professional audience and each one is given by a world renown academic. The list below shows an archive of recent lectures. The most recent lecture can be found on the following page.

Notes from TB Macaulay roundtable – held 18th October 2023

The purpose of this special roundtable held with Professor Johan Rockström who delivered the 44th TB Macaulay lecture, was to explore how we socialise issues of climate and environmental transition and whether applying the concept of planetary boundaries can assist with this. 

Notes from the roundtable.

The lecture was held on Thursday evening (18th October 2023) in Edinburgh, where we were honoured to host Johan Rockström, who is internationally recognised for his work on global sustainability issues. We were delighted to welcome an audience of over 500 attendees to the event.

Johan's talk covered the latest scientific results of the health of the earth system, including the recent work of the Earth Commission and also an update on the "Earth for All" scenario, analysing pathways towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals within planetary boundaries.

“The science is clear: the rising frequency and amplitude of extreme events is just one consequence of overshooting 1.5 °C warming, which is a real biophysical limit, and beyond which multiple tipping points in the earth system are not only likely to be triggered, but run a risk of causing tipping cascades”. -Professor Johan Rockström

After 11.000 years of a remarkably stable climate which has formed the support for civilisation to evolve comfortably; activities of the last 70 years have moved us into a period where human activity has started to significantly impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems.

We face multiple global crises, afflicting built and natural environments, health and well-being, wealth and economic development, social stability and security - culminating in the risk of a polycrisis - a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects whose overall impact exceeds the sum of each part.

The lecture reflects on where we stand shortly before the COP28, to be held in Dubai, and his thoughts on the corrective action needed in order to keep the entire system in its current inter-glacial state.

On behalf of the Macaulay Development Trust and The James Hutton Institute; we would like to thank everyone who attended.

A recording of  the 44th Macaulay Lecture is available on The James Hutton Institute's YouTube channel.

Notes from TB Macaulay roundtable – held 18th October 2023

The purpose of this special roundtable held with Professor Johan Rockström who delivered the 44th TB Macaulay lecture, was to explore how we socialise issues of climate and environmental transition and whether applying the concept of planetary boundaries can assist with this. 

Notes from the roundtable.

How do climate negotiations take place and why is progress so slow? How can governments, scientists and activists work together to tackle the climate emergency for everyone's benefit? These questions, and many others, were at the heart of the 43rd TB Macaulay Lecture, led by Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in conversation with Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, and youth climate activists Anuna De Wever, Lola Segers and Julieta Martinez.

During the lecture, Ms Figueres described her dissatisfaction with the sometimes slow progress of climate negotiations, but she also highlighted where advances have been made and reasons to be optimistic. She also emphasized the role of science in driving the conversation about climate change and holding world leaders to account. You can watch the 43rd TB Macaulay Lecture on its dedicated website or below.

With news about our climate, ecosystems and wildlife tending to be grim, there are few who could argue action must be taken and taken quickly. The 42nd TB Macaulay Lecture, Green and Prosperous Land, focussed on Professor Helm's radical but tangible plan for positive change.

The pragmatic approach taken by Professor Helm towards environmentalism includes a summary of Britain’s green assets, a look towards possible futures and an achievable 25-year plan for a green and prosperous country. This bold generational plan assesses the environment as a whole, explains the necessity of protecting and enhancing our green spaces and offers a clear, financially sound strategy to put Britain on a greener path.

Helm’s arguments expose the economic inefficiencies in our environmental policies and thus highlights the need for change. Leaving behind the current sterile and ineffective battle between the environment and the economy, this revolutionary plan champions the integration of the economy and the environment together to deliver sustainable, eco-friendly economic growth. There is hope, and there is time, but we must act now, Professor Helm argues.

You can watch Professor Helm's lecture here:

The 41st TB Macaulay Lecture focussed on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and Professor McGlade discussed the lives and experiences of those facing the day-to-day challenges associated with climate change. She shared insights from her work in Kenya, and drew on her experience at the UN, and shared lessons learnt during the development and implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as well as their practical impact.

You can watch a video recording of the 41st TB Macaulay Lecture here:

Professor Jackson’s book, “Prosperity without Growth”, is a world-renowned landmark in the sustainability debate. Originally published at the outset of the global financial crisis, Jackson's seminal work challenges orthodoxies, causing us to question the primacy of economic growth at all costs, and has drawn praise across the world from politicians to Nobel Prize-winning economists. 

Against a backdrop of Brexit, and ongoing debate over Scotland's economy and where growth could or should come from in the future, Professor Jackson showed how we can exist within the ecological limits of our planet and helped us understand how we can chart a course to a new longer-lasting prosperity.

For the first time in the 40-year history of the TB Macaulay Lecture, the lecture was streamed in real-time to viewers across the world through the James Hutton Institute's YouTube channel.

Prof Jackson also discussed how much Scotland has changed both economically and socio-politically in recent years, focussing in particular on Brexit from a Scottish perspective; on how Scotland can develop its economy; and on how economically autonomous Scotland can be in a globalised world facing major environmental challenges.

The publication of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 is the public expression of a global consensus regarding a desired pathway for our future. The 17 goals and the 169 targets indicate the areas where progress is needed and help to focus the attention of researchers, policy-makers and practitioners. However, the publication fails to clarify how the goals and targets interconnect, including trade-offs and synergies that need to be resolved to avoid unintended consequences. Achieving the promise of the full suite of the Sustainable Development goals requires the development of three additional elements:

  1. new aggregated indicators or measures of human and ecosystem well-being;
  2. new dynamic models of the integrated system of humans and the natural world, and
  3. innovative ways to build broad public consensus on the future we want and best to achieve this.

A recording of the 39th Macaulay Lecture is available below:

Europe’s populations and economies fundamentally depend on the supplies of food, water, energy, and material - from within and beyond the borders of Europe. But is this stock of natural capital being used sustainably and are the environmental resources secure enough to sustain today’s economies and people in good health? Are we using resources efficiently and can we really decouple further economic development from the use of resources and their environmental impacts?

To address these depends critically on the availability of, and access to, reliable environmental information, but there are sometimes vested interests entangled in much of the evidence brought forward to support various policies and actions.  This lecture will examine the differing roles of academics, research institutions and independent bodies in creating the sufficiently robust evidence for policy-makers and ask whether today we are seeing evidence-based policy making or policy-based evidence.

Land use has generally been considered a local issue, but is becoming a force of global importance. Worldwide changes to land resources are driven by needs for food, fibre, water and shelter for six billion people. Global croplands, pastures, plantations and urban areas have expanded in recent decades, accompanied by increased energy, water and fertiliser consumption, and by biodiversity loss. These changes have increased human consumption of the planet’s resources, but undermine the capacity of ecosystems to sustain food production, maintain freshwater, regulate climate, and restrict infectious diseases. We face the challenge of managing trade-offs between immediate human needs and the long-term capacity of the biosphere to provide necessary goods and services.

Recently, the OECD review of rural policy in Scotland argued that integration is needed between the many organisations involved – a conclusion that harks back to earlier models of Integrated Rural Development. This talk asks whether the concept of Integrated Rural Development still has any meaning in the context of the new approaches to rural governance being adopted within Scotland and more widely across Europe? These approaches are characterised by multi-level interactions (including vertical and horizontal partnerships) between public, private and voluntary sectors, in what is sometimes seen as a 'nobody-in-charge world'.

The talk seeks to link the question about integrated rural development to re-theorisations of concepts of spatial planning, place-shaping, capacity-building and neo-endogenous development. It considers how rural development policies in Scotland, and Europe more generally, might be re-cast through supporting the empowerment of local communities. The talk will conclude by asking how we might strike an appropriate balance between enabling and mobilising local actors to pursue their own strategic agendas and the desire of governments to impose their agendas. Might rural communities actually be better served by 'disintegrated rural development'?

One of the great scientific challenges is trying to understand how the operations of ecosystems, on which we all depend, are regulated by their biological complexity. Nowhere is this challenge more intractable than in soil, site of many essential services such as carbon and nutrient cycling, and home to great - and largely unknown - biological diversity.

New approaches and technologies offer real hope of progress in tackling this problem, but there is an urgent need to communicate the importance of soils to the global ecosystem and to human civilisation, to slow or halt the damage being done to the world's soils.

The most serious problem facing human society today is that the ecosystems in which we live are becoming unsustainable.Species are being lost and resources are being consumed at unprecedented rates-but just how much can we lose? The Serengeti ecosystem in East Africa has been well studied for nearly 50 years. Protected areas such as these act as ecological baselines where human-induced change is kept to a minimum. Lessons from these baselines are vital in understanding other areas of the world.In this talk Professor Sinclair will draw on almost half a century of his own research, demonstrating its relevance to the way society must manage their own systems for long-term sustainability.

The history of our planet is essentially a tale of two entities, the geophysical earth, and the life it supports, as well as their interactions. Through a cascade of entwined transitions, major geological changes and information-processing, life has co-evolved over billions of years to finally generate the habitat for Homo sapiens. We are, however, radically and abruptly transforming the Earth to the extent that we now live in an era that is unlike any that has gone before. In this so called "Anthropocene", modes of planetary operation and natural global cycles have become strongly influenced - if not dominated - by the demands of our ever increasing industrialization. Yet this may be only the beginning: geoengineering and terraforming schemes have been proposed for re-designing nature at humanity's will, possibly perverting long-term co-evolution. The lecture will try to tell a short story of the Earth through its past, present and future, emphasizing the danger associated with a rapidly decreasing wisdom-to-power ratio.

How much change can an ecosystem or society undergo and still function properly? Understanding the components and structures of systems is one thing, but knowing how to manage them in a desirable state for future generations is what lies at the heart of resilience management.

As the energy industry arrives at a pivotal crossroads, Karen de Segundo looks at whether renewable energies will help society solve the critical question of how to meet the world's increasing energy needs. Whilst many regions, including Scotland, look to a renewable energy future, the audience will hear a realistic examination of the pro's and con's of renewable energies including commercial viability, predictability, storage and competitiveness.

The lecture will look at the implications of the transition to sustainability for Scottish governance. It will reflect on the role of the Scottish Executive, the Scottish Parliament, the non departmental bodies, business and civil society. It will also introduce the role of sustainability appraisal as a policy evaluation mechanism. Finally, it will assess how far Scotland has come, and has to go to meet the transition to sustainability.

It could be argued, with some force, that the development of "Western" agriculture has represented an effective symbiosis between biology, chemistry and engineering. Understanding the basis of crop and animal production systems has led to the targetting of engineering advances and novel chemicals that have, together, sustained the productivity increases of the 20th Century.

In my talk, I would like to consider, from a biological point of view, whether this symbiosis can, and indeed should, continue. I wish to address three questions: "What is theoretically possible?"; "What is practically feasible?"; and "What is socially desirable?".

I will start from the position that the aim of developed country agriculture is to produce the safe, high-quality food that people want, at a price that they are prepared to pay, using techniques that they accept as being sustainable. I will then consider these three questions from two standpoints: commodity production at global prices; and niche market production where added value resides further up the food chain. I will argue that the technology interactions will differ markedly in these two approaches, and that much research is predicated upon the assumption that the first standpoint is the only viable one. I will question that assumption and consider how biological research can impact upon high-value production systems.

The theme of the paper is 'countryside change - policies, practice and prospects', it is used to explore and discuss a number of topics that are important in relation to land use and the research undertaken at the Macaulay. The main drivers of countryside change over the next two decades, and how policies and technological opportunities will influence the likely direction of change and the rationale for research at the Macaulay is discussed. The paper presents some of the important contributions that the Macaulay has made in providing objective information about the processes of change and the tools whereby change can be managed and forecast. The unique features of the institute research environment and how it relates to the university sector will be highlighted. Finally, the paper deals with the need to consider research as an investment in the future

Achieving increased levels of productivity using existing land whilst causing minimal environmental damage is one of the greatest challenges of modern agriculture.  Sustainable intensification, as the concept is known, was the subject of the 35th T.B. Macaulay Lecture, delivered by Professor Jules Pretty OBE, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Essex.

In the 21st century, the scale and intensity of human impacts on the biosphere and biodiversity are widely recognised: we live in the Anthropocene, the era of humankind. Through the 20th century the conservation movement developed strategies to defend nature from human pressure. There have been successes but human impacts continue to grow.

Impoverished and novel ecosystems are being created that have no exact 'natural' analogue. These make any simple idea of 'naturalness' profoundly problematic and challenge our understanding of conservation. Are current conservation strategies suited to future challenges? Do they need to change, and if so how?

The lecture tackled the challenge posed by increased calls for policy developers and decision-makers in Scotland to base their decisions more firmly on the underlying science. Professor Sutherland argued that the current processes often lead to poor and slow decisions and the inefficient or problematic use of resources. He outlined various problems and described methods that can help individual policy developers and decision-makers and also improve the decision-making processes.

Soils are home to a vast diversity of life that is essential for a variety of ecosystem functions – from the tiniest microbes to larger soil animals and plant roots. The UN has designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils to acknowledge their importance and to raise awareness on the need to protect this valuable resource for future generations. Although it is well established that soil organisms provide essential services including decomposition of organic matter, nutrient cycling, cleansing of water, and regulation of pests, the complex relationships in soil are often overlooked in management and policy decisions. The Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative (GSBI) was established in 2011with the goal of advancing the knowledge of soil biodiversity science. The GSBI aims to increase the implementation of findings on the benefits of soil biodiversity and identify ways to restore, conserve and promote soils and soil biodiversity. Scientists investigating life in the soil emphasize the critical role of soil biodiversity at all trophic levels to soil functioning and plant production, and thus, our reliance on living soils for a sustainable future.

About the T.B. Macaulay Lecture

Dr Thomas Bassett MacaulayThe annual T.B. Macaulay Lecture is held to honour the vision of Dr Thomas Bassett Macaulay, President and Chairman of the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada, whose benefaction founded the original Macaulay Institute for Soil Research in 1930. He was a descendant of the Macaulays from the Island of Lewis and his aim was to improve the productivity of Scottish agriculture. This vision continues today in its successor the James Hutton Institute, a world leader in land, crop, water, environmental and socio-economic science.