This is quite a long blog – for you it’s a ‘cup of tea and two chocolate digestives’ blog, for me it was a ‘two glasses of Rioja’ blog.
On Saturday there were three letters on the subject from Buglife’s Matt Shardlow, WWT’s Debbie Pain and Jonathan Wallace.
The gist of Peter Marren’s article was that the coalition government had removed some voices that could speak up for nature (the Sustainable Development Commission, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution) and silenced some others (Natural England, Environment Agency and Forestry Commission). This much is true (although some of the aforementioned bodies were never that good at speaking out – and others were clearly too good).
Peter went further and suggested that the NGO community had not risen to this challenge through a mixture of self-interest and sheer timidity, and that there was a need for a strong voice for nature conservation to replace, coordinate or out-shout those rather quiet NGO voices.
Which are these NGOs of which we speak? There are quite a lot of them, in alphabetical order:
Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Badger Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Campaign Whale, Friends of the Earth, Grasslands Trust, Greenpeace, Hawk and Owl Trust, Mammal Society, Marine Conservation Society, Marinelife, National Trust, National Trust for Scotland, Plantlife, Pond Conservation, RSPB, Shark Trust, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust, WWF.
And although you could add or subtract organisations from this list it is already almost as diverse as the biodiversity these organisations aim to help. There are the big and the small, the old and the new, the land-owning and the not land-owning, the campaigning and the not-campaigning, the single-species, multi-species, habitat-based and issue-based, the scientific and the off-the-cuff, the county, country, British, UK, and, to various extents, international.
Some organisations which used to be much more active in UK nature conservation, most notably Friends of the Earth, but also WWF and Greenpeace, are included in the list even though UK nature benefits mostly through their general work on sustainable development at home and abroad.
So this is the tangled bank of UK nature conservation – a diversity of organisations. And like Darwin’s tangled bank it is a struggle for survival. Is there grandeur in this view of life? Anyone viewing the tangled bank of UK nature conservation organisations might think that they were looking at a bit of a mess. But like species in the real world, nature conservation organisations will come and go, thrive and decline, wax and wane according to how well they are managed and what potential funders, including the public, think about them. And we are where we are.
But what would nature think? If you asked the sharks, fungi, dragonflies and hen harriers, how they would like things to be ordered, what would they say? They might point out that there is a lot of replication and that surely there could be more sharing of resources. They might ask that organisations at least think of where efficiencies could be delivered by working together better. And that is perhaps what we, as supporters of nature with all our hearts, and supporters of nature conservation organisations with our hard-earned money, should be asking.
Does nature benefit from this diversity of organisations, with overlapping overall purposes but subtly different perspectives, each spending money on membership recruitment, sending people to the same meetings, many buying land and managing their own nature reserve, each trying to figure out health and safety issues, each talking to the press and trying to comment on the same issues?
Might there be benefits to organisations, and benefits to nature itself, if there were more sharing of backroom resources in computing, land management, human resources etc? It might be worth thinking a lot more seriously about these aspects of collaboration.
In the past there have been serious talks about real mergers – quite some time ago between the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB – but these seem unlikely to take place in the near future. One reason is that conservation organisations have drifted apart in their thinking. The organisations listed above do not all think the same and that makes collaboration between them very difficult. And I’m not just talking about the gulf between, say, Greenpeace and the National Trust, I mean between organisations with, at the face of it, fairly similar objectives and means of operation. These differences usually focus around whether nature conservation is for nature or for people, how environmental organisations should relate to businesses, whether you measure success at all, and if you do, do you measure conservation success through the fate of species or habitats or through actions carried out.
But we haven’t yet considered Peter Marren’s big suggestion – setting up an organisation that could be a stronger voice for nature – what of that?
Peter’s thesis was that the current diverse crop of conservation NGOs have become self-serving, timid and irrelevant. They pull their punches because they are too dependent on government funding, have become too international, have gone off chasing climate change issues or have simply lost the plot. Is there any truth in this? Yes, some, but it’s a harsh analysis to apply to all these diverse bodies equally. Different parts of the tangled bank deserve different levels of opprobrium, and tempting though it may be, I won’t divulge what I know of the ins and outs of this subject. But it is fair to say that, for example, different organisations looked with varying levels of horror and anticipation at the prospect of government getting out of NNR management, and then out of the timber business. I think nature could be forgiven for thinking that some nature conservation organisations lacked a clear sense of what was best for nature cosnervation, and perhaps it was unenlightened self-interest that clouded their view.
The organisation that is missing from the tangled bank is the thoughtful, outspoken, raging-against-the-idiocy-of-it organisation – the organisation that is outside of government and outside of industry, which can say what nature needs in an uncompromising but authoritative fashion. The organisation that has nature’s needs not people’s needs at its core. The organisation that doesn’t say ‘it’s all about people‘ or ‘it’s all about ecosystem services‘ but ‘it’s all about nature‘. This organisation could be FoE if it rediscovered nature. But if it doesn’t, and there are no signs that it has, then there is, perhaps, an empty niche in the tangled bank of UK nature conservation organisations. Not because the other species are bad, or inadequate or evil or hopeless – but because nature abhors a vacuum.