Guest Blog – Why we need to change if we really care… by Ralph Underhill

Ralph Underhill worked on planning casework and water policy at the RSPB for seven years, before joining the Public Interest Research Centre where he is working on the Common Cause for Nature project. He would like to hear your thoughts on this piece and would like anyone interested in the project to get in touch.









Gordon Dam, Tasmania. By JJ Harrison (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Conservation is a dam. It tries to hold back a tide of potentially damaging impacts, that, if unleashed, would overrun the natural world and destroy the wildlife we care about.

With the increasing challenges brought on by economic development this dam is reaching its limits. Numerous biological indicators (such as this) are showing that the cracks in it are widening and water is spilling out at a rate not previously seen.

To date, the role of those working in the conservation sector has to been to try to maintain the integrity of the dam. Whenever a new threat emerges (be it a new infrastructure proposal, breeding failure on a particular reserve or a damaging government policy) it creates a fresh crack and we rush to stem the flow. Although some water gets through, it is never as much as would have done if we weren’t there.

We are making a difference, yet somehow things continue to get worse.

Placing our emphasis on threats as they appear is entirely understandable. It would be naive to suggest that reacting to immediate threats is not a key role in conservation – without it we would surely have lost a whole lot more. However, the cracks in the dam are now increasing, both in size and number. Our reaction has been to try and grow the number of supporters we have in order to allow the conservation movement to employ even more people to plug the gaps as they appear. We haven’t had the time to look at the bigger picture, and think clearly about what it is that builds the pressure behind the dam in the first place.

As conservationists, we have questioned the extent to which we can feasibly address some of these bigger issues, most of which we have traditionally seen as far outside our remit and very hard to influence – alienation, consumerism, disconnection from nature, advertising and the dominance of economics in the media – these are all things that contribute to people’s indifference. It has been considered pointless to waste time and resources on such issues when these could be usefully deployed on addressing an immediate threat. Any attempt to take focus away from the immediate crisis will inevitably allow the cracks to get bigger, letting more water through which will damage our rarest species and habitats.

In short, the desperate nature of the situation has focused our minds on the cracks, the short term. If we don’t examine what is feeding the reservoir the final result is inevitable: the dam will break…
But there is hope. There is much within our power that we can do to raise the priority of conservation on the political agenda. We can create a long term vision that puts conservation on the front foot and begins to tackle the big issues we have previously been scared to approach.

Over the past few years our environmental legislation has faced a continual onslaught, always being portrayed as a barrier to development. Campaigns remain centred around stopping a threat, rather than highlighting the intrinsic value of nature and the benefits of an existing law or policy. This makes sense from a short term perspective: threats are numerous and if left unopposed could lead to huge damage. But in the long term this failure to set the agenda will inevitably mean we are just left waiting for the next attempt to undermine our position.

Furthermore, because we engage in the government’s processes policy-makers always get a head start over us in framing the debate: for example we must partake in the “red-tape challenge”, even though the regulation we are defending serves a public good. Many successive governments have successfully framed regulation as something ‘bad’ and a barrier to progress, making our position more difficult from the start. This reactionary approach also makes it significantly harder to point to the fact that existing legislation is actually inadequate in terms of halting biodiversity loss. The end result is that we are forever on the back-foot and in some cases using the negative frames provided to us by government, such as engaging in the airport expansion debate from an economic perspective (see here).

Hang on a minute, what happened to the whole reservoir thing?

The common cause for nature project uses social psychology research to show that we are overlooking a huge area of knowledge that could help us. It is an attempt to look at society as a whole and highlight the issues that we need to work on in order to encourage people to care about nature. It is an attempt to examine why the water is entering the reservoir and how to stop it.

Of course, it is clearly not the case that we have completely ignored everything feeding into the reservoir. Clearly conservation NGOs are different and some have taken the first tentative steps towards a new direction for conservation by highlighting the increasing lack of connection with the natural world. However, this is just the start. What are the other systemic reasons for the build-up of water in the dam? Consumerism (viewed by many as the only indicator of a healthy economy and even a way of contributing to conservation charities); the widespread framing of anything of importance in purely economic terms; diminished access to nature, and the probable impacts of advertising on people of all ages. Like it or not, if we really want to stop the decline we must engage in these big issues. To ignore them is to stand and watch as wildlife gets washed away as the dam finally collapses.I am not suggesting that conservation should ‘go it alone’ and try to sort out all of society’s ills on its own. What I am suggesting is that conservation broadens its remit and works in partnership with other NGOs from other sectors. If we are to have any hope of having wildlife worth saving twenty years from now we must ensure that we stand against those things which make it harder for people to understand and appreciate the intrinsic value of the natural world. It has been shown through research that those factors which serve to erode public commitment to action on conservation are closely aligned to the things that undermine public commitment to tackling a wide range of other challenges – from international poverty to social exclusion at home. If we set aside our differences and work together we have a better chance of changing some of these in the long term.

Our infatuation with consultations relating directly to the environment means we focus almost all of our energies on Defra, a single department that is one of the smallest in government. Tackling the issues mentioned above (such as advertising or accessibility to green space) requires us to widen our focus, but also represents a good opportunity for the conservation sector to broaden its relevance. With a broader appeal and with more public resonance the conservation sector may be able to apply pressure more effectively to other government departments. Furthermore, the more integrated the conservation sector is and the closer its working links with the entire third sector, the more relevant it will appear, potentially increasing its influence, opening up new funding opportunities and members.

We are at a crucial point, we can still save our wildlife, but only if we try something different, something radical, something that might just might work…



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44 Replies to “Guest Blog – Why we need to change if we really care… by Ralph Underhill”

  1. Greed is the world’s greatest problem often brought on by the wrong education. Always trying to better yourself using up the world’s resources. Why do you need that expensive car, house, holiday or could I say telescope! What makes you better than me living on a pittance and driving a N reg car! At least I am happy trying to change the world to think like me.

  2. Lots of interesting avenues to explore – led me to Common Cause for Nature and onwards, for instance. Have often wondered why my neighbours can seemingly divorce themselves from nature so often let alone the larger worldwide community. Much to think about so thank you for the inspiration and really hope that we can all get more people engaged in caring for the natural world around them and making this their number one priority. It makes so much sense on all levels.

  3. Greed is a major cause of the problem, but what is it that makes us greedy? It can’t be hunger for life as thats what we drowning in our efforts to take all we can! But hunger makes us greedy and when we have all we want the selfishness kicks in and maybe that is where the real problem lies! Surely education can only help if the educators are not themselves greedy or selfish.

  4. In the fillum “Excalibur” Merlin explains to someone or other that the Holy Grail is not some battered old cup or even a shiny one encrusted with tomfoolery, but an aspiration: that the Land and the People are One.

    That was in the Dark Ages. In the Anthropocene, it will always be out of reach.

  5. What a fantastically engaging piece, unfortunately as is often the case, you are preaching in main to the converted. Greed is a problem but I think the problem stems from disassociation. I mean if you can’t get people to vote for who is going to govern there country how can you expect them to care about something that they see something someone else is interested in?
    Added to that the sense of community in many areas has all but disappeared and the “i’m all right Jack” mentality is being supported by the media in it’s attempts to portray anyone in need of support or help as a drain on you personally.
    Rant over

    1. I completely see your point here Mike – preaching to the converted is one of the principal frustrations of the environmental blogger. The question is how do we reach out to others to encourage their interest? I believe the answer lies in face to face discussion – successful engagement is more difficult to achieve on the blogosphere.

  6. An inspiring piece, Ralph, and i strongly agree. It is not just environmentally where the dam is cracking and a societal sea-change is certainly in order.

    At the same time, and to continue the analogy of a dam, too often, as a conservationist, i find myself working to mend the holes on one side of the dam, while at the same time adding to the water pressure of the reservoir on the other side. Perhaps others find themselves in the same position? “Charity starts at home” as they say.

    Unfortunately, consumerism, greed and acquisitiveness seem to be a natural trait in the human species (not just brought on by wrong education, John, though education can certainly exacerbate it). The Scrooge mentality is lurking back there in all of us, and we could certainly use a bit of what happened to him!

  7. This is one crucial aspect of introducing ALL children to the wonderful breadth, depth and detail of the natural world .. so that when the impertinences and narrow perspectives of the ‘grown-up’ world become known to them, they will see them as the outrages they often are. We all need to work to broaden and deepen the impacts of the conservation movement, but these political activities need to be supplemented by a continuing commitment to education.

  8. I truly thought provoking post, perhaps dare I say the best post I’ve read on here for a while. The comments left so far by many kind of highlight, to me, exatcly the problems Ralph is talking about…focusing on a couple of problems whilst ignoring all others thus not solving the problem. Let me pick up in the most common GREED. I’m sorry but why is it those who seem to have a good lot in life bring up greed. E.g. John you maybe happy with your N-reg car, but 1) I know many, I just have to look out my window, who can’t even afford a car 2) As a bit of an expert in cars, your vehicle probably omits more toxic fumes from it’s exhaust then a car that was built just three years ago hence the reason Paris is looking at the banning of ALL cars that were built before a certain date from the city centre in a bid to reduce ommisions, this includes the “iconic” 2CV. I can also show you individuals who struggle to put food on the table, hence the increase in numbers of people depending on food banks. Two stories this week in the media made me nod to myself, one was Inside Out (East Anglian version of the programe) that highlighted the fact that car usage was dropping and was close to reaching the car’s peak usage, with a slow down in new road users ie young drivers,unless as the survey suggest you live in a rural area where it’s gone up, the struggles of the rural economy hey!, will this effect transport policy, probably not. The second was about a mother who regulary misses out on feeding herself just to feed her kids.
    I also find it very condescending when people say it’s an education issue too. I’ve mentioned in a few posts my issues and would probably fall into that category mentioned, yet I still seemed to be connected to nature and conservation!
    From my perspective the problem lies in many factors and now I’m going to contradict myself a little. Greed-how much money does one man/lady need, how much land does one individual need, I’m thinking of Simon Jenkins response to “everyone has the right to a backgarden” posed to him during Question Time last week, after all if I grew up without a garden how much less would I be interested in wildlife? Education-sure a lack of is going to hold you back in terms of jobs etc, and with less time to kick back and enjoy yourself because you’re always working or can’t afford to go out to a nature reserve (how much does a NT trust mebership, RSPB, local Wildlife Trust etc cost, before you even get there and enter the reserves!) yes you are going to be less involved/interested in wildlife etc. Lack of connection-again it’s a point I’ve made in the past, mostly with politicians. People will blame someone else for this before looking to themselves. I’ll use an experience of my own to shame a certain conservation trust. I spent nearly two year in hospital and rehabilitation after a head on car crash caused by some idiot. I was transformed overnight from a calm relaxed individual who loved the race cars at hillclimb events into someone who lost their temper very quickly, depressed and suicidal, short term memory problems and problems with reading (brain damage) the reason unknown to me was “severe post traumatic disorder” as I got treatment and I started to improve due the lack of work due to my prolonged stay in hospital, one part of the recovery programme was to get me a voluntary placement to instal a work ethic. My interest in nature was ignited by a birder/nurse who subscribed to the “theory” nature can help individuals like me. So the plan was to get me to volunteer for a wildlife trust in Northants. Intial calls to the trust were promising with a volunteer placement offered until they found out about the mental health issues, calls were not returned, when we got hold of a unnamed individual I was told their was no volunteering taking place that week though whilst out with my camera I would see the volunteers in their Land Rovers! The same was repeated with the FC too. Eventually I got a placement with a falconry centre. Now if I hadn’t been interested in photographing wildlife this sort of attitude could’ve turned me off nature and conservation. I guess I’m trying to say, before you start to throw stones at the causes for the lack of interest in nature and conservation in people of all ages, not just the young, perhaps you should take a step back and have a closer look too home. And me more inclusive rather then exclusive
    Sorry fo going on and on again Mark

  9. I am really glad of the support and interesting comments so far.

    I think Douglas hits on something in terms of the deficit approach the sector takes – if only people were educated more everything would be fine. The role of nature in education is certainly a very important factor, but this on its own will not solve the problem. Both adults and children spend less time in nature and are starting to care less about it why? Just think of your normal day, if you listened to the radio in the morning,
    like me you might hear 3 or 4 stories about financial crisis or company profits before you go to work. While this may be important the downward and ongoing crash of our European birdlife is given a single days coverage and the talks in Doha are sidelined for discussion of the UKs dash for gas. If you watch TV or surf the internet you will be subjected to thousands of advertisements on a daily basis. This all comes together to ensure our prevailing culture values things through the single lens of economics even when the data is showing us it is not making people any happier. This is the outline of just one of several issues that lead us to care less about nature.

    Conservation NGOs are scared that attempting to address big issues like consumption or advertising as they are scared they will alienate their membership. We try and avoid talking about the difficult issues as these issues may require fundamental changes, but to avoid them is to be dishonest without them I cannot see anything other than a steady decline ahead of us – If we really are about saving nature then we must face up to these inconvenient truths.

  10. Great article Ralph and I couldn’t agree more about the need for conservationists to broaden the appeal of their arguments. For me, *food* is a really important topic that has the potential to bring diverse interests together. Everyone needs to eat, but many of us are now completely disassociated from where our food comes from. We have no understanding of the natural processes and ecosystem services that are vital to food production and I think this is part of the reason for our wider disassociation from the natural world. Most of our countryside is given up to food production – how we farm is probably one of the key things that will make or break our wildlife conservation objectives. If we could get people away from highly-processed pre-packaged ready-meals and back towards simple, nutritious food made from fresh ingredients grown locally (where possible) in sustainable farming systems, I think we would take a vital step towards tackling issues as diverse as health, social cohesion, food waste, litter and packaging, carbon emissions from food processing and transport … as well as helping re-connect people with the countryside. We might even start doing our bit to address the inequalities of the global food system, where in a world that produces more than enough food for everyone 2 billion people are hungry while another 1 billion are overweight… I think food is one topic practically all of the third sector might be able to work together on.

    1. Ellie – welcome and thank you for a great comment. As you drive throught the British countryside where I live you see fields of wheat dominating. I wonder how many people know where that wheat goes?

  11. I’d rather replace the word ‘greed’ with ‘selfishness’a la Carol

    But it’s Nature’s Way – BBC Nature website – Food storage is a strategy for getting through hard times when resources are low because of seasonal or other factors. Some store food for only a few hours or days, while others may do it on a seasonal timescale. Many carnivores, such as foxes and leopards, are opportunistic hunters so might stash or bury surplus prey and return to eat it a few days later. Jays and squirrels bury enough nuts to get them through the winter.

    Mark wants the RSPB to do Biodiversity “instead” – what he’s saying is – somebody should!

    But everybody’s selfish – LINK has 39 member organisations inc the RSPB
    Mark wants to grow the RSPBs scope – with its 1+ Million members – good idea

    Get LINK to change its mission and its funding – get Link to charge members based on their membership – it won’t happen – because of the RSPBs size – the RSPB will think its unfair!

    I am a Countryside Alliance member and CLA member but not NFU – they too are all doing their own thing

    Won’t happen – not without Leadership –

    Maybe Mark can write Fighting for Nature – all proceeds to LINK – see what I mean? But it’ll be long haul!

    But what I will say is that people would listen more to a message from a body that looked after Birds AND butterflies (eg) than just Birds!

    But what do you want to achieve? We’ve just had a Commons debate by 200 MPs who know very little about the subject under debate that was triggered by an unrelated (as such) organisation – that’s called politics! “Stopping a threat” Ralph says – first understand threat – I say!

    Needless to say – I am not impressed with most of today’s conservationists


    Me crows are OK and my lovely blackbirds are chirpy – in the snow – eating the cow’s micronised / flaked barley – which strangely they peck at briefly – then fly away!

    1. Trimbush – interesting comment, thank you. Is that the first time you didn’t use the ‘b’ word in a comment here?

  12. I’m going to pick up on one small point made by Ellie, again using ME as a reference point. I take on board about pre-packaged food etc, but as someone earning between 18,500-21,000 pa I simply can’t afford organic/healthy option, there’s a big section of society that should be able to eat quality/well farmed food but CANNOT, I shouldn’t be in that situation but other costs (mortgage/energy bills etc) have forced me and thousands of others to this point, savings I wish, kids, no chance can’t afford them and more importantly there’s too many of us on this planet anyway just to add another hungry mouth.
    Why can’t NGO’s like wildlife trusts/RSPB/FC/Buglife etc merge to form one big organisation, wouldn’t it be more practical and have more sphere of influence? Or is the fight for individual membership and the money raised too important for certain bigger organisations?

  13. Thanks for such a thought provoking piece, Ralph. I agree with more or less everything you said and you have already received many good comments. However I would like to step back a bit and consider the underlying causes of the present difficult and depressing situation.
    Fundamentally, we are dealing with a major ecological imbalance. One species on this planet, because of its ability to eliminate or outwit its predators and competitors, and adapt to all sorts of hostile conditions, has multiplied to what, if it was an insect, we would call plague proportions. Attempts I have seen to calculate the maximum long-term sustainable human population of the Earth, if everyone is to have a reasonable (though not luxurious) lifestyle seem generally to come to not much more than 2 billion (possibly 3). The present population is over 7 billion and rising rapidly. We have achieved this by converting as much land as possible to farming, regardless of what ecosystems we destroyed in the process; ruthlessly suppressing all competitors for food (we call them pests or vermin); using huge amounts of fossil fuel to produce fertilisers and power ever bigger farm machinery (thus adding to climate change); and overexploiting groundwater for irrigation (water tables are dropping rapidly in many parts of the world, and areas of desert are increasing in NW China and parts of Africa, the USA etc).
    The big question is whether governments and the general public around the world will realise soon enough what is happening. Given the speed with which the Arctic ice is melting, potentially releasing disastrous amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane from the permafrost layers of tundra, and the rapid depletion of aquifers used for agriculture and domestic water supplies, a very major change in human behaviour seems to be required before the end of the present decade. I see little sign of this realisation. [The recent book “Full Planet, Empty Plates” by Lester R. Brown admirably shows the seriousness of the problem with food supplies, but offers a glimmer of hope in the final chapter. (I have no connection with the book or its author)]
    On a bad day I think that it is inevitable that humanity will trash the whole planet in its efforts to stay alive as supplies of most things dwindle; but I still keep responding to planning applications on behalf of my local Wildlife Trust to try to protect the best areas near me – can’t give up the habit! Perhaps people in general are like the Americans – we “always do the right thing in the end, but only after we have tried everything else”. It is the only hope for us and most of the other species with which we share our planet.
    Sorry Mark, it seems to have been my turn to go on a bit.

    1. Good point Roger. Several billion people on the planet are currently effectively eating oil. When that runs out, as it must sooner or later, there will be a mass die off though starvation and disease. Not something I welcome but there is a total lack of realism on the part of our leadership. This extends to your point about destroying the planet in a final hurrah. We can see that locally in Osborne’s apparently successful misdirection of our “greenest” government in a dash for gas that will see fracking in England, at the expense of potentially securing renewable energy production through offshore wind power. That short term and self interested thinking is the antithesis of the leadership we need. But who will give us it?

  14. Do agree about food and ‘how we farm’. Getting people to think about their food – its provenance etc – shouldn’t be too difficult. A great place to start building bridges between different issues. Of course many teachers already take this tack.

    It isn’t condescending to be concerned with the education of children, or with the continuing education throughout life of ourselves and each other. This is education in its broadest sense. A ‘disconnect’ between many folk and the world of nature has been mentioned, and to start to overcome this you have to engage and provoke thought – as with Ralph’s funny and pointed cartoons. Conservation needs to be as broad a cultural movement as possible.

    When it comes to campaigning though, how effective would it be to persuade conservation organisations to broaden their ‘attack’ and take on the advertising industry and raise concerns about consumerism and the ‘need for growth’. Surely large issues like this are best left to the broad arena of democratic politics, and the conservation organisations should remain ‘focussed’ – many of them have strung together very real achievements and hopefully will so continue.

  15. A few (fairly random) thoughts:

    1. I sometimes wonder whether the idea of ‘conservation’ of nature or landscape isn’t too limited a goal. The aim seems to be merely to conserve the natural places we have, or perhaps even just slow the rate of their destruction, rather than trying to ‘rewild’ places so that the areas of natural habitat are increased.

    There is something a bit depressing about putting in great efforts (in terms of objecting to planning proposals etc.) merely to try to ensure that things are no worse than they are now. How much easier it is to get motivated when there is hope that a landscape or population of a species might be improved.

    2. Might it be that part of the problem is that politicians (more or less by definition) are the sort of people who enjoy working in cities and among crowds rather than the sort who enjoy wild land and solitude. So perhaps it is inevitable that politicians care less about nature than the average? (Although paradoxically living in a city is much better from an eco point of view than living in the country due to lower heating and transport costs, smaller land footprint etc.)

    3. Environmental destruction is often blamed on laissez faire capitalism. But historically in Scotland (where I live), what is striking is that most of the worst developments only occured because of government subsidies. For example: the spread of conifer plantations over about 10% of the country; the Cairngorm funicular; Hydro schemes; large scale wind farms on peatlands. None of these would have happened in a free market. It is the government subsidy schemes which have been so damaging: again and again government has supported environmentally destructive land uses.

  16. Oh heavens – too many of my soap boxes in one blog! But well said Roger H – I agree.
    Well said Ralph too – there sure does need to be a change in emphasis within the conservation movement. Fire fighting [e.g. ‘saving’ bitterns’] is good work and an opportunity for some positive publicity but this never ever leads to fundamental changes in the way we use the planet. In some ways I wonder if the ability of conservation to patch up the dam hasn’t led the general public into the incorrect belief that these ‘things’ can always be reintroduced or restored.
    I can only add to the comments by saying that my feeling is that conservationists need to find a way of persuading people [the general public] to manage their own expectations and educate their children to understand managing their expections of life – of what makes a good life and why, and how to achieve that without acting like a human tidal wave. I am much more interested in the power individuals have if they operate as one to change the world than I am in our abysmal politicians. Its not politicians that will change the world – it is you and me.

    1. Stella – thanks for your comment. Of course, since it is you and me who electpoliticians, one of the ways for us to change the world is to change the politicians. And I don’t agree that they are all dismal – some are worse than dismal, and some are utterly brilliant.

      As examples, George Osborne would be in my ‘worse than dismal’ category as far as the environment is concerned and Caroline Lucas would be one of the few occupants of the utterly brilliant category. Both were elected by people like you and me. Both are making a difference – one for good, the other for bad (in my opinion). The voters of Brighton delivered some hope, those of Tatton gave us an anti-environment Chancellor.

  17. Nature conservation in families nowadays seems to largely equate to climate change and recycling. Programs like springwatch are very popular but do not give children any direct contact with our natural history. This is why our local RSPB group and natural history society consists of members with an average age of around 70 years.

  18. Congratulations, Ralph on an excellent blog, which is reflected in the quality of the responses; the underlying theme of which seems to be a mixture of frustration and desire. Pretty basic feelings really. We can all share Stella’s feelings regarding politicians but let’s admit that they make the legislation. And so it is they and not us who will change the world; what we must do is ensure that we have some influence in framing effective legislation and then briefing politicians so that they are as well informed as possible when they cast their votes. On the subject of having influence, there is an interesting example of success. After a seven year campaign, The Osteoporosis Society succeeded in having osteoporosis included in the Quality and Outcomes Framework (QOF) giving GP practices financial incentives for diagnosing and treating osteoporosis in their patients.
    There are ways forward, but as Ralph points out it requires radical measures, but also firm and sustained lobbying.

  19. Nice one Ralph, good to put down the Pollyfilla for a moment and have a long hard look at the wall.
    Perhaps the idea of nourishment can helps us steer forwards. People need nourishment in all forms – food, physical, social, cultural, emotional and more. This could be seen as another dam, our own personal dam, and all too often, under-nourished, we grab for what what we need, deal with the cracks in our dams as Ralph has suggested society is treating the cracks in the environmental dam: with stop gap measures that are short term fixes, often with little regard to the problems in any dam(n) way, and steered largely by Western society’s economic and marketing onslaught that constantly encourages more, bigger, better production and consumerism.
    So I hope Common Cause has a thread that helps us away from all this as individual people, that helps us find our own nourishment in ways more in tune with sharing our Earth with 7 billion other people. This may be no less than helping us to redefine notions of happiness and success and eventually, society itself. Enjoying nature is one route, and there are many others – music and the arts, sport, spiritualism, our sense of community, and more. We should make more of these things as central to our lives, as the important things that make us happy and healthy. Nourished thus, we are more likely to see and understand things clearly, in proper perspective, and maybe even develop new versions of economics and society that serve us, rather than entrap us. That conservation enjoys the ongoing help of so many volunteers shows that we are good at providing nourishment – which seems a good start towards paying more attention to the bigger picture as Ralph suggests.

  20. Great piece, Ralph. I agree with much of what you have said, but admit that I struggle to think of ways to address the underlying problems. Having a good economy and increasing financial wealth certainly doesn’t make everyone happier, but having a bad economy with unemployment and increased poverty makes people unhappier. Although there are lots of people with ideas on what an alternate world could look like (eg more sharing of wealth so that all can be happy with a reduced total amount), practical ways to make this happen seem be thin on the ground.

    I am cheered by the work you & others are doing on values, and hope that the bigger picture becomes clearer soon.

  21. I increasingly feel that a large part of the problem is that we are trapped in the ideas we have created and which seem as big a barrier as the real challenges. The simplistic crudity of a lot of big business is one thing but what we do as conservationists isn’t beyond criticism.

    So much thinking sits neatly, dare I say cosily, within its sector – whether farming, conservation, energy or urbanism when the challenge – and probably the main hope for the human race – is using our considerable brainpower to think across boundaries – if we aren’t too paralysed by our prosperity.

    We can’t go on hiding behind CAP as an excuse for not questioning our fundamental approach to farming in the UK, especially as our cheap-food-only approach isn’t even good for many farmers, let alone the impacts it is having on flooding, water quality, carbon etc.

    The interesting thing is, it isn’t just conservation that is suffering from the failure to make links: onshore wind has been stopped in its tracks by public opposition and against the charges of nimbyism, I’d say they have only themselves to blame: the trajectory of onshore wind matches what happened to upland forestry almost exactly: people assuming they are in the right and focussing solely on their narrow technical concerns like grid linkages, their approach to landscape and wildlife being to go out and hire consultants to blast what they want through the planning system. The story on tidal energy is pretty much the same: like wind, I think we should be going for it but with the environment as an absolutely key concern from the very conception. It is little comfort, bearing in mind we must find solutions to save the planet, that the clumsy businesses that are pushing these destructive schemes are losing out as badly as the environment, with huge investments in flawed plans coming to nothing.

    I’m convinced there is a virtuous circle to be drawn, and one that speaks todays language, not the hopelessly badly timed Lawton bid for hundreds of £ millions: a new approach to using the land, rather than pouring conrete, to tackle flooding & water quality issues could, I reckon, save £1 billion/annum if we simply get the message about paying farmers for the products we need today, not what we needed in 1947.

    I’ve been watching the Somerset levels: how much is it costing in money & carbon to pump off all that water ? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have some land where we pay farmers to farm water rather than crops ? Perhaps even to permanently convert land to less intensive us with wildlife an equal aim to food ? The flooding is only going to get worse, yet we persist in the belief that we are in control. The evidence suggests otherwise and the sooner we start swaying to rather than resisting these forces the better – and these aren’t what the Osborne’s of this world would see as ‘fringe’ issues like nature, this is the hard end of the economy & it is real voters drying out their carpets.

  22. Superb and thought provoking post – thanks to Ralph (and Mark). In terms of influencing wider goverment more proactively, I wonder if thinking of the environment almost as a national security issue has value – e.g. threat to life, infrastructure and property from climate change, threat to social cohesion, health and wellbeing from degraded countryside and disconnection from nature, threat to biosecurity from invasive non-natives e.g. tree & plant diseases, economic cost of failure to invest to protect against these and having to take emergency remedial measures, economic cost of public money spent on activity which harms the environment, e.g. wildlife unfriendly farm subsidies, pointless jam tomorrow airport and road schemes. If the dam breaks it won’t just be wildlife that suffers (though that is rightly what conservationists push to the forefront of our minds because that wildlife is so precious).

    Douglas has pointed out in a comment on another recent post how the Australians are throwing resources (some of them military) at marine protection. This made me think that, in the same way that government’s ultimate job is to protect us from harm, that protecting the environment should be at the heart of that. We can and should all help, and educate ourselves to do so. Rather than turn Defra (and even Natural England) towards economic growth, why not turn all the rest of government towards protecting and enhancing wildlife and making sure all growth is truly sustainable – with reference to some of the issues e.g. food production/consumerism outlined in the comments above?

    Finally, I’ve said it before here and I’ll say it again – a world addicted to fossil fuels will never escape the vicious cycle of boom and bust.

  23. “I’ve been watching the Somerset levels: how much is it costing in money & carbon to pump off all that water ? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have some land where we pay farmers to farm water rather than crops ? Perhaps even to permanently convert land to less intensive us with wildlife an equal aim to food ?”

    What happened to the Parrett Catchment Plan? Isn’t that what it was all about? Are people less keen on maintaining penned levels over significant areas now that they can see the effect of reducing the waterholding capacity of the land yet further in winter? Don’t the good people of the Isles of Athelny, Muchelny or Wherevery realise how privileged they are to be knocked back to the Middle Ages, and how shopping by boat can be fun? Some people are never content.

  24. While what I have to assume is the majority of “Jo Public” are out there following x-factor, hankering after the money and riches which come from being a top footballer, are bombarded by stories of people who have made a lot of money and can afford ludicrously expensive cars, big houses, holidays in far-off destinations…(even the popular Radio 2 breakfast programme can barely go an episode without reference to some fancy, and expensive, not to mention pointless, sports car) and failing that will go out and buy the lastest massive TV which will increase their exposure further to all these material goods they think they can’t live without, is there ever any hope that they (children or adults) will be really that interested in the environment?
    Perhaps what we need are popular TV personalities who are passionate bird watchers, bug-watchers, plant watchers, etc. I know there is Spring Watch and David Attenborough still comes up with something new and good, but are these programmes not watched by the converted? Maybe if David Beckham took up the plight of farmland birds, for example, we might get somewhere.
    Not very helpful perhaps, but if you can see your world on you flat screen TV, get cheap food already prepared from the supermarket and spend the rest of the time staring at your smart phone, why would you need the environment?

  25. Ralph, I’m glad to see this analogy, which is very consistent with the work I’m doing at GrowthBusters. While I agree consumerism and what I’d call our obsession with (perhaps even systemic need for) economic growth are significant pools of water behind the dam, I would add that the sheer scale of the human enterprise on the planet (size of population and size of economy) must not be ignored. Additionally, our definitions of progress and prosperity should be on the agenda.

    My film, GrowthBusters, puts the spotlight on everything behind the dam. In the 7 years since I began the GrowthBusters project and film, I have to say the support it’s gotten from all the various silos of environmental and conservation organizations has been underwhelming. Probably for the very reasons you catalogue. So, yes, I’m very glad to hear of your work and would be interested in participating/contributing in whatever way I can. Somehow, some way, we must get a handle on the big-picture causes of our eventual collapse.

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  26. Great work, Mark.

    Briefly, I’d like to suggest a line of study for a project like CCN – hiding the results of our actions makes us sick. Obviously it makes “others” sick and enables us to participate in destructive actions without experiencing them, thereby making us sick or subject to getting sick. What would be interesting/useful to show, though, is that hiding the results of our actions increases stress or cortisol levels. Twenty bucks says it does.

    I have two main questions after reading your piece –

    How do you see any of this social psych research taking effect? From your tone, it seems like you don’t want to approach that through “the red tape challenge”, and understandably so. Like the first respondant, I see this coming down to education. We’re probably ten years away from having a strong basis for decent environmental education for youth. That means twenty to thirty years away from being able to teach our youngest about what science is telling us – advertising fundamentally shapes our behavior and most of our actions are physiologically self-serving. Certainly, we can mitigate these effects through education. We don’t teach the most basic and applicable sociological concepts to students who don’t attend college. You want to fix this? I want to spend my life working on it.

    How can we divorce the challenges mast by conservationists from the political and economic frameworks currently holding the movement at bay? We’re consistently playing defense, as you note. Fracking has got to be a prime example – something new pops up, and it’s our responsibility to demonstrate that the process is irresponsible.

    The problem might not be political per se. A central issue is that our livelihood (not level of comfort, but material sustenance) depends upon constant (economic) expansion. Close off development of physical spaces, and we need a new system of exchange. Or more public debt. That’s how we do this, Mark. We will not see sustained GDP growth without public debt increases. The ‘poorer’ 80% of the Western world hasn’t seen any benefit from the debt they’ve financed. If we can offer them something else, they’ll buy into it.

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