The two, or three, cultures

I had a great time at the New Networks for Nature meeting at Stamford on Thursday and Friday.  This was partly because it blended art and science in a novel and stimulating way.

Where else, in the space of less than 24 hours would you be able to hear about their work from the lips of one of the country’s most distinguished writers about the countryside and from one of the nation’s most distinguished evolutionary biologists?

On Thursday evening, Ronald Blythe, the author of Akenfield (and much else besides), in conversation with Mark Cocker, told us how he wrote and of his memories of rural Suffolk.  This will be broadcast on Radio 3 in December.  It will be well worth a listen.

Blythe has reached 90 years and is still productive and creative.  He talked in a very engaging and modest way about his achievements and in a tender way of his memories of people and and of the countryside past.

Professor Nick Davies FRS talked about his work on cuckoo nest parasitism.  Only someone with a great mind and a razor-sharp understanding of the workings of evolution by natural selection could make this fascinating but complicated story seem so simple and be so clear.

Nick, who is a birdwatcher, and who was the external examiner for my PhD (so I’ve known him for a long time), talked engagingly about the cuckoo, its hosts and the evolution of egg mimicry, egg rejection etc.  He, like Ronald Blythe, wore his erudition lightly.

Blythe and Davies were perhaps the stars of the twin peaks of the two cultures merging in the landscape of New Networks for Nature.  I won’t mention all the others – partly for fear of missing someone out. But it was a unique collection of people – and for me, a mixture of old friends, new acquaintances (how many will become friends?) and a great deal of intellectual stimulation.

There was also a ‘Question time‘- style discussion, nominally about whether the British love nature, but ranging quite widely. The panellists were Fiona Reynolds (now ex-Director General of the National Trust), Peter Melchett, Peter Marren and myself – chaired by the Independent’s Michael McCarthy.

Is controlling non-native species a waste of money? Are all the political parties a bit rubbish on nature? Why is it OK to tip 35 million non-native pheasants into the countryside every year but not a few white-tailed eagles? Is it too late to save nature?

So, you see, this was where, in this meeting of the two cultures, the real world of politics showed its face – a third culture? Fiona told us that the political parties don’t do nature very well and that’s why she has never been a member of any political party.  Peter Melchett, a past Labour minister in the Callaghan government, was sad that more politicians didn’t get this subject.  Peter Marren was in a delightfully curmudgeonly mood throughout.

I told the audience that, as a conservationist, I felt I had to join the Labour Party after it lost the last General Election – I care about endangered species.  I’ve ‘always’ been a Labour supporter but it certainly isn’t because of the Party’s brilliance on wildlife issues!  The people’s party is, overall, a disappointment when it comes to issues about the countryside.  I may use this blog a little more over the next few weeks to express my frustration over Labour’s low level of wildlife engagement.

Before setting off for Stamford the day before I had done my stint as a teller outside my local Polling Office in a dark, dank, misty and cold morning.  Later on Friday afternoon I was delighted to hear that Labour’s Andy Sawford had won back Corby and east Northants with a stonking majority.

When I asked the 200+ audience how may of them were members of any political party then around half a dozen hands went up.  My message is to join your favoured political party and agitate for it to take wildlife issues seriously. Don’t sit on your bum and moan about politicians. Vote for the ones you want and influence their thoughts and actions.

The same applies to the NGOs you admire too.  If, as I do, and said so, you feel that the National Trust has lost the plot on nature conservation then let them know!  It’s OK to moan, but do something about it!  Don’t act like a victim  – be a player.  You live in a country with a clear and open democratic process and where social media provide us all with unprecedented opportunities to learn and to express our views.  Use them!

At the end of the discussion we were asked whether it is too late to save nature.  My answer was as follows: It’s too late for us to do as well as we should have done, but it’s not too late to do as well as we can do from now on.  But that means we all must leave this meeting and do something!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all those who care about the natural world and all those who understand the natural world, got together and made an impact on those whose decisions do most damage to the natural world?

Website Pin Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati Digg Google StumbleUpon Premium Responsive

Get email notifications of new blog posts

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

18 Replies to “The two, or three, cultures”

  1. Don't forget there are more than three political parties in the UK.
    Surely the Green Party must rank highly for left wing nature lovers?

    1. There are many more than three political parties in the UK. The mix differs in the four UK countries. Our single Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, is a very effective and talented MP.

  2. Sadly if you were not there on Saturday you missed the chance to see the first copy of 'Kitty the Toon'. [Delayed by the strike in Spain!] A new series of children's bird books aimed at fact and fiction. A good sock filler for Xmas.

  3. Too true Mark,
    As a fellow Labour Party member I can sympathise with your frustrations.
    Your point is valid though, get engaged with "grass roots" politics (whatever your political leanings) to effect change.
    Sitting on the sidelines and complaining achieves nothing.

    1. John - welcome to this blog and thank you for your comment. Maybe you and i should start the official UK Watermelon Party - green on the outside and red all the way through?

      1. Yes, maybe we should-could we be any worse on "green issues".
        Or...... perhaps we should encourage academic, high profile conservationists to stand for public office-change from within!

  4. Mark,

    This is really interesting - all the more so over what has just happened in your home town of Bristol. The establishment - including the political parties and the media - are waxing lyrical about low turnout leading to freak results. They aren't. The people who bothered to vote knew exactly what they were doing, as they did when they voted for a mayor originally. Bristol is a hugely successful city - but badly let down by its public sector due largely to the incestuous infighting of the political parties. The traffic is solid, public transport a disgrace, schools underperforming. A lot of people are fed up and want a different approach - and the guy we've elected has a serious track record in the real world, an architect with the leadership of a flagship urban re-development to his credit in the city. And the best bit is he is closely linked with the city's green movement.

    The feeling is very much the same as over the forest sales, which similarly confused the establishment (including the conservation NGOs); the clear message was that ordinary people aren't meant to do this sort of thing because they don't understand. Actually, its the other way round and you've picked it out brilliantly in the blog: that mix of art and science, the hard rational and the spiritual & emotional that goes to make up 'quality of life'. It's a struggle for anyone trying to manage anything - I know, because I struggled with it in the Forestry Commission and you know how much time in RSPB you spent debating the balance between birds and people, what facilities RSPB should provide on its nature reserves, at what point you turned from bird conservationists into attraction managers and so on.

    The bottom line is there is something vital there we have to capture and I agree that politicians generally don't get it - they are urban, establishment and increasingly have never actually had a proper job. On top of that the level of knowledge of basic science - especially biology tends to be worse than abysmal.

    1. Roderick - that is good news. Bristolians have always been far-sighted. We built the city's wealth on the slave-trade, importing sherry and port, and tobacco. What could be more socially and environmentally progressive? Things may be looking up...

  5. Another candidate for the official UK Watermelon Party perhaps?
    To raise funds, both you and Roderick could combine your areas of expertise and write a book.
    You could call it "Bird and Forestry"......just a thought!

    1. John - what a great idea! I wonder whether anyone has thought of that? Can't imagine it would see that well though...

  6. More political parties, whatever their policies, are not something this country needs. Politics are the problem - they cannot ever be the solution. What we need is a totally non-political department of government that manages environmental issues. Staffed by the best environmentalists/conservationists and sufficiently robustly funded so it is able to draw on the expertise of scientists and academics, professionals and amateurs. We desperately need decisions about environmental issues to be separated from the short term vote seeking nonsense that pervades parliament.

    1. Interesting idea, a non-political department of Government.
      I just wonder how and who would appoint these non-elected guardians of all things "green".
      Might be problematic due the voters hostility to Quango's generally (spending public money, etc.) but I suppose that could be overcome.
      Now all we need is another Quango to elect our "best environmentalists/conservationists".
      Or do we trust incumbent politicians/governments to appoint our saviours and in doing so, remain free from political bias, self interest and pressure groups.
      Perhaps we could set up a Parliamentary Committee to whittle down a short list acceptable to all NGOs, public sector, private sector, pressure groups etc.
      When this "divine body" is established, I'm sure the Great British public will accept all their pronouncements with the subservience and grace they are famed for.
      It's a winner!

  7. I too have been to an inspirational meeting recently , indeed today was the Annual North of England Raptor Conference this year in Newcastle.Some wonderful and interesting talks about introducing WTE in East Scotland, the historical range of both eagles in the UK, investigating bird of prey crime, Langhom 2, Goshawks in NE Scotland, sound recording birds of prey and the Buzzard in central Scotland and a small short talk about some recent issues covered by the Northern England Rsptor Forum (NERF) ( Politics -- Harriers, Persecution, buzzardgate, the parliamentary environmental audit commission, collaberative working for hen harriers) by me as chair of NERF. A interesting and unintended theme ran through this. The enormous impact on all the species and issues discussed of persecution in areas managed for pheasant and grouse shooting.
    I always come away from these conferences elated, inspired and just plain old bloody angry. Elated and inspired by meeting like minded friends, hearing about research that helps the birds I love and bloody angry that persecution of raptors is still so universal on grouse moors and significant in areas of intensive pheasant management. The latter of course continues at least partly because politicians ( policemen and courts) don't "get it" or if they do they are like Richard Benyon and maybe batting for the other side. Whatever they consider themselves to be those engaged in or commissioning this persecution are common crimimals with pechant for organised crime against OUR wildlife.
    THAT'S WHY MORE OF US NEED TO ENGAGE WITH POLITICS (and education considering the subject of friday's blog.)

  8. Kind of agree with your statement Mark in the your post about the stopping of the moaning and getting more involved with politics....however as I was only able to start voting in the 95/96 election I haven't benn able to vote alot, however I was heavily evolved in politics (studying it , believe it or not) but have been disillusioned for a very long time. If I look at all MP's across the House, I don't think someone "like me" could even relate to the cuurent crop nevermind engage in a chat with. I think the last politician I would've liked to have a "chat" with was John Smith.
    I also don't believe you even have to join one political party to have a say, why commit to one party, make them work for your vote....

  9. Lets get into politics. Oh there was a birder MP, What was his name? Elliot Morley. Did not support the protection of Hen Harriers in Britain when we were in the House of Commons! What ever happened to him!! Forget politics. It stinks. People power is the best way. Country Guardians given the top prize for their campaign against wind farms. Slowly but surely this government will be kicked out but with no one to replace them as we see labour doing nothing for the environment or Birds of Prey.

  10. Politics, religion and greed will ultimately lead be the death of this planet, the current situation in the Middle East has all been caused by all three ingredients and seems to be leading us to the very brink of a major catastrophe. Getting back to raptors, I have now reached to conclusion after 46 years trying without success to protect birds of prey, politics and politicians have now brought us to the current situation. We must accept that the position and security of so called “protected” birds of prey which have the misfortune to venture upon ANY moorland used to shoot red grouse are doomed, and in my personal opinion this situation is unlikely to change any time soon. Game shooting is undertaken by very powerful individuals, many I regard as some of England’s most influential aristocrats who have shaped the way in which our country has been governed for hundreds of years, this is not about to change. We only have to look at the leader of Defra, Richard Benson MP. What chance do raptors have with an honouree gamekeeper in charge of England’s wildlife protection? I agree totally with John Miles, once our current government are finally out of the way, what alternative do we have? I am given little if any encouragement by the current leadership of the opposition. Perhaps one important step which could be taken in the future would be to cancel completely all funding via Stewardship Awards system paid to estates out of the public purse, the tax payer.

  11. But for me John politics fro me is much more than enivromental and conservation issues, I can look out my bedroom window out onto my estate,for tories "my estate" doesn't have gamekeepers or tenant farmers :), I could easily point out 20 issues that need adressing but are frequently ignored by succesive parties. When the last general election came and went, people canvassing for votes would walk straight pass the estate and go to the college across the road instead. I doorstepped the only politicians who came out of the college, didn't walk straight pass, it was a Lib-Dem, and invited him to knock on a few doors on the estate and have a look at a few of the issues, it was refused as they were "busy", IT'S POLITICIANS THAT NEED TO CHANGE and if they do people may get more engaged in politics until that happens you're just banging a broken drum.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.