Guest Blog – What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding? by Colin Williams

colinwilliamsColin Williams is a writer who explores our relationship with the natural world. He is also a conservationist and for many years worked with cetacean conservation organisation ORCA surveying whales and dolphins in northern Europe. He’s also worked for Planet Whale as a whale watching guide and in 2012 was writer-in-residence at WhaleFest.


The sea, the ocean, the deep blue, Davy Jones’ locker, call it what you will. It’s the great leveller. As the source of ancient first life, the home of the planet’s most majestic residents and a place of fear and wonder the sea is, in Jaques Cousteu’s words “the great unifier, man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat.”

The ocean has indeed become, and will become even more so, the ultimate barometer of whether or not we’ve stuffed up the planet completely. And for decades, along with the fish we eat, the most publicly visible mercury within that barometer has been the great whales. Prominent campaigns like ‘Save the Whale’ mean they have now become talismanic, diving deep into our consciousness and staying there. They swim in our imaginations as things of terror and fascination just as they were when we hunted them and our human history beside them has taken root deep in our minds. Their continued death at the hands of those who hunt them remains, for most people, one of the ultimate acts of natural vandalism; wanton and cruel.

Of course, the reality is that whaling is not, by any measure, anywhere near the biggest threat to whales and dolphins. Without question it is bloody, horrific, cruel, sickening and unnecessary and it deserves to be stopped.  But our rage and indignation is sometimes directed towards these things while by-catch, ship strike, pollution, habitat degradation and the collapse of marine ecosystems are perhaps the last things folk think about when they think of whales.

And I’m not sure how useful that is. Is an outpouring of anger, despair and disbelief really the thing that’s going to save them? (And, let’s be clear, they need help) Is whaling just one example of how our most extreme emotions have been misplaced?   And does that carry lessons for the conservation of other species and other environments?

In the course of my work I’ve been to many discussions on cetacean conservation from conferences to offices to dinner table chats with eminent scientists and experts. And unfortunately, the best that can be said for many of them is that they got me several hours closer to death without serious injury. It is, frankly, time I’ll never get back. I’ve seen NGOs and individuals alike in open enmity, pouring derision on what others are not doing whilst vehemently defending their own position. These opinions are sometimes forged under the thrall of a charismatic, Svengali-like leader and will brook no other viewpoint. And while they fight about whose approach is the best the bystanders look on, awaiting instruction from the experts. A particularly prominent advocate of sustainable food production said that when it comes to the things we as individuals can influence the experts are in danger of presiding over “a massive misdirection of emotional engagement.” I like that very much because I believe emotional engagement is where it’s at. And the best lessons in this comes from the younger generation.

At the recent New Networks for Nature event it was intimated that there are inherent difficulties in getting children interested in nature. Therefore, we should move on and concentrate our pressure upon those people who can make a difference right now, rather than wait for a generation to grow up. Difficult getting children interested in nature? I don’t buy it. At Planet Whale’s WhaleFest in October of last year you couldn’t move for the things, they were everywhere:

Children’s writers keeping packed rooms enraptured with their salty tales, guest speakers wowing them with their adventures in film-making and art, divers helping them to try scuba diving and opening up a world of wonder, charities getting them enthused about marine life and the problems facing our seas and virtual whale watch trips with kids screaming and pointing with enthusiasm at the appearance of deep and mysterious relatives.

So, if we want them to cherish the natural world, what exactly are we equipping the next generation with? It feels as if anger and malice towards others would be the wrong thing. It’s narrow, sometimes single issue, weakens our position and will burn out quickly. If we give it to our children, they can’t do much with it. It would be like giving Jimi Hendrix a banjo.

But if we can hand them understanding, reasoning and the ability to let themselves become enraptured with nature, to unashamedly LOVE the natural world, to be inspired; that would be a legacy to be proud of because its applications are universal, powerful and infinite.

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9 Replies to “Guest Blog – What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding? by Colin Williams”

  1. Hi Colin
    My name is Findlay, I am 10 years old and I unashamedly love the natural world, especially birdlife. I have done a blog for Mark about schools needing to do more to share the wonder of nature with children. The more I read and try to understand, the more I think that the safe future of the planet will only be sorted out if youngsters and oldies all work together. We all take things from nature so we should try to give something back. That's what I think.
    From Findlay

  2. Findlay - Are schools the answer? Schools are under so much pressure to achieve the government targets. If nature is not part of the curriculum then it is not in the interest of the school to teach it. How long would it take to turn the subject matter around so that the teaching was to nature's thinking? Or do we need to turn the thinking of the politicians first as we hear so often on this blog!

    1. John, Unfortunately I think you may be right. That shouldn't stop us trying to instill this into the young through schools or otherwise for Findlay's and all their futures. But curriculum rules etc does make it a very steep uphill struggle.

  3. Hi Findlay and all, difficult to disagree with anything that anybody's said really. There was a great quote from Melissa Harrison in yesterdays Indie: "It's very hard to change things out of a sense of guilt. You change things out of a sense of love". If the oldies are able to use their wise ways to redirect and amplify the sense of love that Findlay shows then that's maybe when the combination of old and young works best.

  4. I don't buy it either. That sort of comment is coming from people who don't engage with younger people - my experience is that there are an awful lot of younger people out there whose knowledge & understanding of the issues we face is far better informed than many of the patronising adults trying to say what they can and can't think. They are also more ready to question the 'there's nothing we can do about it' attitude which even spreads into a sometimes too cosy conservation movement.

    As for schools, assuming they are still allowed outdoors at all, I was staggered by what Forestry Commission educators (and I'm sure its the same with RSPB) were doing with visiting schools: incredible games like 'spaceship earth' where you have to believe you've just landed on earth and go round collecting what you need to survive. It is fun - but more importantly I was amazed to find primary school children being taught, and understanding, concepts I didn't do till A level ! At the time we had a problem with a committee member who was a traditional teacher and simply couldn't get his head round what was happening - and I fear Michael Gove would be exactly the same.

  5. What terrific guest blog; on a subject close to my heart (marine mammals) but so applicable to all aspects of natural history. Kids have an inherent interest in this stuff - it just needs nurturing and encouraging to make it deep-seated before the competing interests of the opposite sex and being perceived to be cool snuff it out during adolescence. If the love has been instilled before then, there's a fighting chance it will either endure or at least resurface in years to come.

  6. Great Blog Colin,

    Your thoughts are quite closely related to a project I am working on. It would be great to get you involved in our common cause for nature project Have a look and get in touch if you are interested



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