Guest Blog – Why should we care about Jon Snow? by Ralph Underhill

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Ralph Underhill worked on planning casework and water policy at the RSPB for seven years, before joining the Public Interest Research Centre where has worked on the Common Cause for Nature report which wss published yesterday.

He also draws cartoons for this website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why should we care?

‘Why should we care about hedgehogs?’ Jon Snow asks Bill Bailey.

I watch; slack-jawed.

When I come to my senses I begin shouting and waving my fist at the television (one of several reasons I have largely given up watching it!)

‘Why should we care about the Mona Lisa?’

‘Why should we care about money?’

‘Why should we care about life?’

‘Why should we care about bloody Jon Snow!!!’

 

 

 

Can you imagine John Humphrys asking George Osborne on the Today program ‘Why should we care about the economy?’ I think to myself.

Gradually I calm down, and once have wiped the rabid foam from my lips I feel quite melancholy.

Have we really come to this? Have our imaginations become so limited that we can only view the whole world through the limited scope of either its service to humankind or its monetary worth?

Thankfully the answer is a resounding no; despite the relentless focus of the media and politicians on economic value of everything, this is not actually what most people care about.

Just look at the millions of people who join conservation organisations. They don’t join because they think kestrels are worth £52 to the local economy, they are members because they value the wonder and beauty of wildlife. For them – like me – there is something awe inspiring and unquantifiable about the natural world, something that I can feel but not easily explain.

Moreover, research consistently shows that when people are asked what they really care about most they rarely say money or the economy. The most common answers are friends, family, community, and happiness.

Despite it being contrary to what we actually care about, this single-minded economic view of the world continues to dominate. I am not sure when the quarterly figures for Marks and Spencer’s became news but somehow they did.  Apparently this information is both relevant to my life and vital to the growth of our ailing economy. But it’s not just the prevalence of economic stories that is of concern; it is how money has become the starting point for all discussion. Debates on education now seem to focus on how to generate the best future workforce, and NHS patients are increasingly viewed as customers. What about the joy of learning, or the inherent worth of health and wellbeing?

 

Why should conservationists care about a world that gives so much emphasis to economics and consumerism?

Conservation does not exist in isolation, whether we like it or not what happens in the wider world impacts on our work. We are all afloat in a cultural soup, constantly bombarded with messages that may be working against our cause. An increasing body of research suggests that such messages are likely to make us care less about other people and our environment and feel apathetic. These messages – and this cultural soup – don’t encourage people to get behind conservation and other social or political issues. In fact, they actively discourage it. In this context it becomes acceptable – it even makes sense – to ask  why we should care about hedgehogs.

Research shows that using economic terminology and treating people as self-interested consumers only serves to make them more self-interested. Whereas treating people as capable, active, and caring members of a group will encourage them to behave in this way. Although it seems like common sense it is something we seem to have forgotten.

The Common Cause for Nature report, published yesterday, uses social psychology research – which highlights the insights above – to examine how conservation organisations can communicate and work in ways that help motivate people. It makes a series of recommendations on how to improve existing practice.

But conservation organisations can’t keep ignoring this cultural soup: while we continue to tinker around the edges it is the torrent that is feeding water into the metaphorical dam that is at breaking point (as set out in my previous guest blog). The report also recommends that NGOs broaden their remit. As our understanding grows of how the media, advertising and other areas of our lives impacts on people’s motivation to act on behalf of the environment, it all points to the fact that if we do not address them then conservation will never be able to achieve its goal of creating a world that is rich in wildlife and truly sustainable.

Confronting such large forces seems overwhelming, but if we truly want to galvanize people to get behind conservation then it seems to be our only option. We can either continue to float along in the cultural soup and manage the slow and inevitable decline of what we care about or we can face up to the fact we need to try and change. It may not be a battle we can win but we won’t know until we have tried.

This new understanding should fill us with hope: it allows us to understand why we have been failing to mobilize public support and better still it actually provides us with new tools and opportunities to address this pressing issue.

The report has a detailed examination of the communications of the conservation sector, but one thing that really struck me from our findings was that we don’t seem to express or celebrate the inherent worth of nature very much: its magnificence and beauty.

This really struck a chord with me: during a decade of work in several conservation organisations I realised I hardly ever talked about these feelings. In part, this is because they are considered unscientific, but largely it was a result of professionalisation.  Love of nature has too many associations with being hippy and unpragmatic. Over time we have forgotten how to talk about our love of the natural world and started to use the language of business and government. Clearly, I am not suggesting every stakeholder meeting, regardless of topic, is spent waxing lyrical about the beauty of a starling murmuration. However, we must work harder to bring a love of nature back into our work, even if it is small steps like talking about wildlife to a civil servant during a coffee break. Not only will it help inspire them it is also likely to inspire you: and by doing this, in a small way at least, we can start to add some nature back into our cultural soup and daily experience.

Back to Hedgehogs

Anyone who has had a close encounter with a hedgehog will instantly know why we should care about them. It is not something that can be described; it is something that is felt. It may not be scientific or objective or quantifiable but is real and part of what makes us human. We must work to address those aspects of society (the ‘cultural soup’) that are making us care less about nature, and find opportunities to embrace and express the beauty and wonder  of it.

Maybe the answer to Jon Snow’s question ‘why should we care about hedgehogs?’ is ‘you have clearly never seen one’…

 

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30 Replies to “Guest Blog – Why should we care about Jon Snow? by Ralph Underhill”

  1. I care enough about Jon Snow not to want to lace his dinner with slug pellets, unfortunately, slug pellets regularly end up in a hedgehog's last meal.

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  2. The one high profile place where waxing lyrical about the wonders of nature is routine is on television. Wildlife programmes seem to be very popular but somehow people seem to divorce what they see on the screen from the world outside their back door. Many viewers will gasp in wonder at footage of a far away rain forest but then fail to notice a beautiful spider's web in their own garden or swallows swooping overhead. Somehow we need to get many more people to notice and interact with the nature around them - to experience that thrill of watching a hedgehog go about its business - and if the Common Cause for Nature report has some helpful recommendations about how to achieve that it will certainly be very welcome.

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  3. While I despair at the focus on money and the economy as the next guy, in terms of the question posed "Why should we care about hedgehogs" - rather than getting hysterical and applying lots of value judgements to the question, it should be seen as a legitimate question. It is asking the interviewee to explain in depth why something is important. "Why build a third runway?", "why is fracking needed?", "why do we need to enter into a war in Iraq?". It's asking people to explain their motivations, their reasoning, what drives them, it's asking them to make clear to their audience why x is important to them.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with the question as long as it is asking the person to give an objective answer, even if that answer may come from a passionate feeling about the subject, but when it comes to a choice of spending money on x or y, sometimes being passionate isn't enough, you have to be rational to make intelligent decisions.

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    1. Totally agree. Questions like Jon Snow's should not be seen as a challenge but be grasped as an opportunity to deliver a concise, thought provoking, inspiring answer.

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    2. Whilst I agree that there is nothing inherently wrong with the question - arguably it was lobbing up the ball for Bill Bailey to smash it back with a great answer (I didn't hear it so I've no idea if he did or not) - I think that your point about passion not being enough maybe misses the point that I think Ralph is making. Conservation organisations are full of people who can give you the facts and figures that allow them to give objective answers to questions and make rational intelligent decisions but that needs to be fueled by passion. They are undoubtedly also full of passionate people but perhaps do not always successfully communicate that passion. Certainly not enough for it to rub off on the great majority of the population who are seemingly fairly indifferent to nature, barely notice when species disappear from our countryside and do little if anything to protest at such losses. If we are to change the state of nature for the better we need enough people to care about it passionately.

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  4. Hi All,

    Thanks for the comments. I don't deny that the "why should we care question about hedgehogs?" does give the opportunity to respond in a positive way about nature. My problem is more with the framing of the question. Why does nature always have to justify its existence? Jon Snow could easily have asked what makes hedgehogs so great? instead.

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  5. Beautifully put.

    I'm often frustrated that what the NGOs offer as a message is generally a greened around the edges version of an otherwise normal consumptive, individualistic lifestyle. Increasingly I think a lot of us are skeptical as to whether that is enough, or whether we need to be offering a genuinely alternative vision of how good a life fully connected to nature can be. Hopefully your report will offer some encouragement in this.

    I've been skimming the short version, and it is certainly very well put together. Where did the starlings graphic come from? Fantastic!

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  6. Well if someone said to me - "let's save the planet" and I responded "mm but how much would that cost" I might seem to be being a little cynical - but actually it's a very worth while question that needs to be asked. Mainly because the cost of something is a way of measuring it's possibility. We need to come up with a cost effective way of saving the planet rather than one which is unaffordable.

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  7. But Giles what if the all the evidence shows that the solution is costly - what argument do we have to fall back on then? See the page 90 (measuring success) of the practitioners guide if you want to understand why monetary appeals are unlikely to work on their own.

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  8. I think that much of the problem arises because most media commentators (and many politicians) live in an urban bubble where all of their activities and recreations are man-made. They have not known the joy of spending time in the natural world and have no appreciation of its beauty, its seasonal rhythms and interconnected nature.

    I think the answer is to get them out there, to wild places (with Simon King) or even just outside their front door (with David Lindo). Few would then ask "Why should we care about ...?"

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  9. I think Jon Snows question is one of context and a lot of people including yourself (to a point) have missed a larger point about Jon's question. I actually watched the Channel 4's news segment in which the question was posed. The "large" point for me was the fact a news broadcaster (and not some unwatched rolling 24 hour version of news) actually spent a whole week with dedicated daily segments to nature ranging on a whole spectrum of topics including the recently released State of Nature report. I actually laughed at Jon's question I also laughed as he wandered around the countryside with Bill and Jon's inability to identify a single species with the imortal line "I've grown up in the countryside and I can't identify a single species" was for me the more telling statement and "joe public's" perception of nature, I mean seriously how can anyone living in the countryside not be able to id certain species of birds? Are they really walking around with blinkers on? Perhaps this explains so much in what is going wrong with our countryside?
    If you went into a rant about the hedgehog question I bet you had a fit when at the end of the week whilst debating the state of nature report at the side of a Loch with a representive from the RSPB and Scottish Gamekeeper Association, and 30 seconds in the SGA bloke called for a relaxtion of "Bird of Prey" laws to help waders breed...you did you watch the whole week of segments?
    I personally feel Jon's question was deliberate and a way to prick the public mindset away from reality TV etc after all it made my girlfriend take her nose out of one her magazines and go "Is it because of foxes" and sit up and watch and trust me I stuggle to get her to look at the bird feeders in my garden, so in my mind Jon's question worked, it engaged one person for about ten minutes!
    And finally did the BBC with it's massive Natural History department cover it on the news and then link the news segment to that nights Springwatch in a bid to get some more viewers for Springwatch? Nope, missed chance there then, did ITV (apart from ITN via Channel 4)? Nope! Did Sky with it's "rainforest campaign" focus more closer to home? Nope! And nor did any of the rolling 24 hour service.
    So silly question or not and some silly statements apart I applaud Channel 4 for at least covering the State of Nature report for a WHOLE WEEK and not just a 10 minute segment...oh and not at 10:30pm but a time of night when more people are likely to watch too.

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  10. Do we really care about Hedgehogs anyway,we slaughter them on our roads and lots of people do not want less Badgers.These are almost certainly the main cause of deaths for Hedgehogs.
    I happen to think the link with slug pellets is a complete red herring as in my experience birds and animals have somehow the knowledge to leave both slug pellets and slugs killed with slug pellets alone.
    Anyone wanting evidence ---fact is our garden where we use slug pellets is full of Toads so they obviously leave them also Blackbirds always leave dead slugs.

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  11. Lots of good points made on here, but I do feel that it's a bit "going round in diminishing circles". The whole point, from what I can gather, not having actually seen the piece, was to highlight the declining population of said hogs and bring wildlife in general to the attention of a section of the populous who are not normally exposed to it. It sounded like a good opening gambit to a conversation, leading to the question of the state of wildlife today. Perhaps Mr Bailey wasn't the most ideal person to chose as a interviewee, not being generally known for his undoubtedly deep interest. Lets concentrate on getting the message out there rather than bickering amongst ourselves!

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  12. Its always the hedgehogs and dolphins, polar bears, pandas and lions (etc) isnt it?

    We should care no more about hedgehogs than we do about Crucifix ground beetles, Manx robber flies, Medicinal leeches or Narrow-mouthed whorl Snails.

    I wonder what the good folk of North Uist and Benbecula might say when asked "why we should care about hedgehogs"?

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    1. Doug - you should ask a dunlin too. But then if you asked most people whether they cared about the people of Benbecula they would all say yes - but would they mean it...?

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  13. For me, I struggle to answer this question. But I take some satisfaction from the fact I would also struggle to answer 'why should 'we' care about my family'. Somewhere in there is the answer.

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  14. Have we Conservationists walked into a trap here? Also, why do some people assume that only people brought up in the country can truly enjoy nature. I was brought up on a Council Estate in Rochdale and yet I became an Ecologist!

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  15. Totally agree John - people can connect with nature in urban settings - I blogged about that here http://valuesandframes.org/get-myself-connected/

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  16. I don't think Jon Snow was being flippant. He showed genuine concern when Channel 4 led with the 'Green and Pleasant Land' report highlighting the decline in our species back in May. And well-done Channel 4 for doing that - the BBC push conservation items to the back of their agenda, usually with a "And finally..."

    I think it was Jon's means of giving Bill Bailey a platform to air his views. Look out for my interview with Bill Bailey in 'Bird Watching' later this year.

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  17. Ed, I am sure that Jon does have genuine concern. This piece is not an attack on him it is simply asking why the media as a whole choose to frame their questions in a certain way (and given the psychological evidence - unhelpful way). He could have given Bill the same platform by saying "why do so many people love hedgehogs?" instead or any number of alternatives. There is always the fall back assumption that nature should justify its existence - this is likely to change the way our culture feels about nature.

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    1. Ralph I now see where you are coming from with Jon's question, for individuals like yourself the question could be put better, however and sadly the vast majority of people in this country really don't care about wildlife therefore the question in that context was fair. You're right nature shouldn't be the one justifying it's existence but I feel Channel 4 should be applauded for it's attempt, it's not a broadcaster "famed" for it's wildlife programming, though recently it's been trying.
      In your blog-post you mentioned how NGO's need to use all media platforms to get it's message across, when this interview on C4 news went out also on TV schedules was Springwatch and even though Springwatch did cover the State of Nature report a chance was missed by the NGO's. For example BBC news had it briefly (5 minutes) at the end of the news in the afternoon, but no coverage on the evening news until Newsnight which devoted just over 11 minutes, why when the BBC had a production crew at an RSPB reserve did no-one either at the RSPB or BBC try linking the report with a comment or thought from the Springwatch team, most people watching SW will already know of the State of Nature report, so I feel the RSPB and SW team should have tried to get more people interested in the report by linking up with the BBC.

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  18. "Have we really come to this? Have our imaginations become so limited that we can only view the whole world through the limited scope of either its service to humankind or its monetary worth?"

    Clearly we, in the developed world at least, have come to this and reinventing our imaginations is the key to implementing a proper (dynamic) balance between all forms of capital before its too late.

    Jon Snow, Bill Bailey and lately Bill Turnbull are the gateway to a wider understanding. The RSPB have started to understand that and their visibility becomes ever higher with TV ads and increased news presence. Good on 'em, if only the likes of the Green Party, the New Economics Forum, Forum for the Future etc would start to promote their messages to a wider audience.

    For my ongoing infinitesimally small bit to help the cause, I recently prompted Richard Heap to make his marvellous film "Consumed, Inside the Belly of the Beast" freely available on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOKl04TWVsU

    To solve a problem you first have to define it. This film is one of the best attempts I've come across. Understanding how humans have evolved into consumers (at the expense of the environment) is key to understanding how the situation can be remedied and how the "crushing weight of established orthodoxies" (how I love/hate that statement from a staffer at "Forum for the Future") can finally be overcome. IMHO !!

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  19. I agree totally, which is of course why I am setting up EWA - the Ethno-ornithology World Archive, to give a voice to the ordinary people, the real people, the voiceless who love nature by instinct and always have. But my main reason for commenting is to add that there is another significant community who remain resolutely unimpressed and unmoved by TEEB and conservationists' attempts to reduce nature to a balance sheet. They are the business community, the bankers and financiers. At least they recognise TEEB for the hokum that it is, but it's more than just that: it's hypocrisy and prostitution of our real value: you cannot put a price on love, and we need to wake up, smell the coffee and understand that the real common currency of conservation is not GDP but love. Oh, if you don't understand love, read 1 Corrinthians 13.

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