I wrote this article for the latest edition of ECOS, the magazine of the British Association for Nature Conservationists (BANC).
You can see all of the articles in this edition of ECOS here. The article was my response to the question
“How can the spirit of nature conservation be re-energised in coming years, and what’s needed to bring more direction and more clout to conservation…?”
There is a fundamental paradox at the heart of the conservation movement. The “movement” if indeed there is one movement, has grown extraordinarily during the nearly 30 years I have been involved. I make no claim for having had anything to do with that. Organisations such as RSPB, National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts (collectively) boast hundreds of thousands or millions of members, all signing up to pay their monthly direct debits for nature (or free car parking.) TV wildlife documentaries garner millions of viewers gasping in awe at the spectacles presented in ever, higher definition. Governments fall over themselves to be seen as the greenest. Companies enthusiastically sign up to deliver biodiversity action plans or to place natural capital at the heart of all their decision-making.
Yet at the same time, over the same period, nature continues to decline, to disappear – in some cases the decline and disappearance is accelerating in lock step with the increased support for it. Farmers proud to have lapwings nesting in their arable fields simply cannot believe the farmland bird statistics that show unambiguously the birds which were formerly too common to bother with, are now at risk of extinction. And for them, they see things improving compared with their parents’ generation, blissfully unaware of Shifting Baseline Syndrome.
Legal protection has been partially successful at “holding the line”. Places rich in nature have been protected from development by the European Nature Directives, at least in part. And Sites of Special Scientific Interest have gradually received stronger and stronger protection through a series of wildlife protection laws. Outside of protected areas, formerly ubiquitous wildlife habitats such as lowland grasslands have gone entirely from some counties; and hang on in tiny, unsustainable fragments in others. The 25 year experiment in “renting nature”, known as the agri-environment schemes, has not worked out so well – delivering only illusory gains for nature, and seems unlikely to survive another round of CAP reform.
And what nature are we trying to conserve? Species, and the habitats that support them, were created by and dependent on agricultural and forestry systems that have long gone. We try and recreate facsimiles of these systems – for what purpose? Yes many are beautiful (at least to our eyes) but are there not better ways of providing a future for nature in Britain, than looking to a past now gone?
Rewilding is one such approach – looking to create a more “natural” ecosystem, by bringing back large extinct mammals and birds. The scale needed for these systems to work is eye-watering, especially given how small and crowded these islands are: the only real options are in the uplands, which are themselves highly contested landscapes; it’s difficult to see the shooters and shepherds giving up these hard-won hills without a seemingly fitting fight to the death.
The real paradox with rewilding is that it is people who need rewilding, far more than land. Until people rediscover just how much benefit they derive from nature, nature will always struggle to be recognized. I don’t mean benefits as framed by the economists language of ecosystem services, let alone natural capital.
Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital frame nature in terms of economic gains, profit and loss, financial risk. Investors will only be interested in the aspects of nature that can be quantified, commodified, monetized. Everything else will be thrown into a pot labeled “nice if” and ignored. So the carbon locked up in a forest, or the water that could cause downstream flooding, will shine brightly from the natural capital balance sheet and profit and loss account. The beauty a child sees in the flap of a butterfly’s wings will not even register.
The benefits of nature that really count for people are the things that create sensory, emotional and spiritual connections with nature. Few people are interested in nature because of facts or statistics. People are interested in and develop connection with nature through personal experience, and if not personal experience, through sharing stories about other people’s personal experiences.
Most of us in nature conservation (not landscape conservation) have tended to downplay the importance of stories and emotions, let alone spiritual connections with nature. We focus on this rare species, or that “important” habitat or that this place is very diverse; or that tonne of peat sequesters so many tonnes of Carbon Dioxide. Is this displacement activity on our part? These facts and figures mean very little to most normal people. They probably make very little difference to politicians either, who are mainly concerned about what the normal people who vote for them care about.
How do we get more people interested in nature? We need to focus our efforts on nature where people live. Is there much point in encouraging people to drive from their homes to a nature reserve, so they can empty their dog there? Great for the dog, but better to ensure that there is plenty of high quality nature in their local park, which they can see every day. Better to work to get really good large areas of “wild” land incorporated into new housing developments.
We need to work to incorporate nature into everyone’s everyday lives. And this is the crux: it’s not “rare” nature that counts. It’s common nature – street trees, green roofs, colourful flowers in planters on street pavements, turning boring amenity grassland parks into riots of colour.
We also need to change the language we use – it’s too late to stop the demise of the semi-natural (outside of a few museum piece reserves or patches of landscape).
We should mourn its passing, create ceremonies to remember it, in the way we remember the fallen of wars on Remembrance day.
We need to start talking positively about nature and what it means to people, celebrating the joy and wonder that nature provides us with, the inspiration it provides for art, music and writing. And we need to start talking seriously about the spiritual value of nature to people.
This is what we will be doing through People Need Nature (www.peopleneednature.org.uk). People Need Nature is a new charity, which will be highlighting the value of nature to people for its spiritual value, for things like the inspiration it provides to writers, artists, musicians – indeed all of us. And it will promote the value of nature in the public realm, where nature is accessible for everyone. We will be working with individuals and communities across England and Wales on projects to celebrate nature and also carrying out research and advocating the importance of nature to people for its sensory, emotional and spiritual values.