Five common half-truths of nature conservation

The following are my five top half-truths of nature conservation. What do you think – have I got these right? Which have I missed out?

  1. Photo: Christian Fletcher
    Photo: Christian Fletcher

    Think global – act local. This one drives me mad – not because it is completely wrong but because it is rarely completely right but is trotted out as a mantra. Thinking global is pretty good, and acting local is pretty good, but there are plenty of your global thoughts that might be better solved by acting globally.  Take climate change just as an example – lots of local actions might help (altering your personal carbon emissions through lifestyle choices) but you get a bit stuck if you want to build a windfarm in your garden – or even a nuclear power station. And what we need is concerted action across the world led by governments, churches or anyone else.  We might just as well say ‘Think global – act global’ or even ‘think local – act global’, or maybe ‘Think – act’ or maybe we could get away with ‘Act!’

  2. By Linda Bartlett, via Wikimedia Commons
    Photo: Linda Bartlett

    What we need is a bit more research. Speaking as a scientist by training, I am hugely in favour of knowing your subject very well. But there is a tide, in the affairs of men, when you have a good enough idea of what you should do and the time has come to do it. This tide is often missed and the rushing water is disspated in the shallows of ‘more research’. It’s a favourite ploy of government to ask for more research to buy more time and to postpone action. And it can be done at any level, I expect I have done it as a manager too, but you have to ask yourself ‘Will this (costly?) research really help me make a decision – or should the nettle be grasped now?’

  3. We’re all on the same side really.  I don’t believe I have ever said this (but West_Bromwich_Albion_team_1888maybe I have), but it has been said to me many times and I haven’t often said ‘No we aren’t – you are the enemy!’ (but sometimes I have thought it).  If, in a world of NFUS farmers calling for White-tailed Eagles to be sorted out, NFU Presidents saying that there aren’t any pressing environmental issues any more, Hen Harriers persecuted to within inches of English extirpation, the SoS at Defra suggesting that ancient woodland could be offset by new planting and the PM talking of ‘green cr*p’, you think we are all on the same side really you must be mad. No, there are friends of the earth as well as FoE and there are foes of the Earth too.  Yes, it is confusing that ‘foes’ is quite a similar word to ‘friends’, and that some of the foes are jolly nice chaps – nicer chaps than sometimes are the chaps on our own side. But that’s because this is the real world rather than a cowboy film where the goodies shave more cleanly, have lighter clothes, whiter horses and shinier teeth than the baddies!  Get real! We are not all on the same side.
  4. Lord-Palmerston-Addressing-The-House-Of-Commons-During-The-Debates-On-The-Treaty-Of-France-In-February-1860,-1863Nature conservation shouldn’t be a party political issue. This is like saying that education shouldn’t be a political issue (it’s too important – we all care about our children), or the NHS (it’s too important – we all care about sick people).  Nature conservation should be a more political issue and we need to ignite politicians with a burning fire of passion about the natural world (or a healthy worry about our voting intentions will do as a substitute).  If only nature conservation were a political issue! If only the PM and Leader of the Opposition were rated, partly, on how well they argued about whether the loss of farmland birds mattered at all and which is the political party with the best solution for their restoration! If only!
  5. 800px-Primary_LaosWe must invest in the next generation. Clearly we must, but only because they will be grown-ups with economic power and influence in time. If we are always going to delay solving the problems of today because we concentrate on educating the decision-makers and consumers of tomorrow then we are always going to fail. I’d rather have some influence on David and/or Samantha Cameron today than on all their children and their children’s schoolmates.  When the enemy is at the gate you pick up your weapons rather than investing training your children to fight when they grow up.  Nature is facing a crisis now and needs help now, and that means influencing powerful people now.

As I say, these are half-truths often trotted out as cliches.  I bet you can think of some more.

Now I come to think of it, I think they are more like quarter-truths than half-truths – but they are partly true and partly false.  The key thing is spotting which you are dealing with each time.

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38 Replies to “Five common half-truths of nature conservation”

  1. Mark
    Interesting list of 5, 3 of which I 'd agree with. My biggest gripe with your list is no 5. The more I work in conservation the more I value young professionals coming forward and the value people at large put on conservation. I met a 17 yr old recently (working with RSPB & the NP) who told me all about her plans to study conservation at University. Whilst I agree today's politicians must step up to the mark, that 17?yrvold will do a huge amount in the next 20 years. Learning, tertiary studies in conservation-related work, access to wild places and the spark of interest in nature is increasingly important. What's exciting is our old employer gets this now as part of its strategy. In my view it is a very important issue and the risk of getting learning wrong is justification of it not being on your list!

    1. Jim - thanks for that. I don't, obviously, disagree with you. It is when too much (what is too much?) emphasis is given to children (rather than young adults) that I fear we are taking our eyes off the ball. Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends were once young!

      1. Yes! This exchange really clarifies! In my experience there is a huge bias towards younger children in environmental education. Teenagers and young adults (and all adults!) need it too & this is rarely addressed.

        1. Ellie - I'm not against environmental education - how could I be? But adults need it to! If you analyse the problems that nature faces, and their causes, then we don't have the luxury of saying that we'll write off the current generation and fix everything in the next one - but that is almost what some seem to think.

          1. Very interesting article. I agree that wildlife/ environmental education is more easily accessible to children than it is to young adults; as a conservationist I've recently been venturing into providing wildlife education to primary schools, with a focus on getting children curious about nature in their school grounds. I've been focussing on primary schools not out of choice, but because there are less boundaries to cross to actually get in. However my wildlife sessions are often regarded as rewards and treats for the children; something which I have been told by many secondary teachers wouldn't be appreciated by teenagers. I, of course, disagree with this theory entirely. I do agree with you, Mark, that practical conservation & efforts to change the failing environmental policies of this country should be addressed now - why wait? I also believe that they can be undertaken in sync with education schemes; something I hope to achieve with a programme I'm developing, as it's not just young people we can create a fire within, it's a whole nation of schools & communities.

  2. I must be feeling very emotional today, your blog brought tears to my eyes! You are so right and it can be so frustrating.

    1. Linda - I wasn't expecting that reaction. Thank you. I was expecting a whole lot of mild irritation with me - I expect that is to come...

  3. The other one that gets me is "we must develop a model that we can apply elsewhere". If we know anything it is that each context is different, and we'll spend more time adjusting a model than finding what will work in that context.

  4. This is great. The world needs more thoughtful critique of accepted tropes. Thank you. Especially interested by your pt 5. I work in environmental education and struggle with the knowledge that we need action as well as education. As educators our activism should be equivalent to keeping up to date in the field. This is easier said than done!

  5. Nature conservation should absolutely be a big issue in politics and high on the agenda of every MP (sadly we are a long way from that though). I am not sure about it being a party political issue though as so often that seems to mean that one party opposes anything and everything the other party says or proposes (and then derides any u-turn even if it means the two sides now agree!). I would like to see all the parties agreeing that the loss of wildlife from our countryside is a a major problem and pulling together to fix it. One can but dream...

      1. True, and it is also our responsibility to ensure that conservation is moved up MP's agendas by continually contacting them and highlighting the problems nature faces. So I suppose we can and should do more than just dream!

  6. My vote would go to ‘traditional management’, as in ‘we must instigate a programme of traditional woodland management’ or ‘management should be a traditional pattern of grazing’.

    I can see what people are getting at – I’ve said it myself – but it can translate as ‘we are going to do what we’ve always done because we can’t think of anything else’. It harks back to an imagined golden age, when all was well and red-backed shrikes hunted corncrakes on every village green.

    Also, different groups have a different concept of what ‘traditional’ means. For many, overgrazing the uplands is now traditional.

    Rather than resorting to this cliché, we should decide what we want from a particular nature reserve, patch of countryside, or whatever, and actively manage for that as best we can. Of course, if the current management is doing a good job, then by all means continue. If it ain’t broke…

  7. The need for more research is always so one sided, betraying its use as a tactic of the opposition to kick action into the long grass. I think it is high time we used it back to demand more research before for example farming subsidies, fisheries policies, water abstraction licences, salmon farms etc are agreed.

  8. I may have expressed my concerns on this blog before about the amount of effort that goes into involving children but without any measurement to see if it succeeds in bringing more people into nature conservation in their later years.

    If it is bringing us hoardes of new generations to the cause then great. My fear is we have no idea.

    1. I don't know either and measuring it would take a generation and despite my best efforts I don't see many of the youngsters who showed promise and enthusiasm in class out in the field a few years later, they may of course be active in other ways! But there does seem to be a strong, knowledgeable and committed up and coming generation out there if the numbers of young people joining A Focus on Nature and Next Generation Birders is anything to go by. But where they always there anyway just less visible and how many have come through the ranks of Watch groups, YOC, whatever its called these days etc? One thing is for sure though from reading their blogs, watching their films is that they want to influence their peers into getting active and involved with the natural world and that can only be a good thing.

  9. No mild irritation here Mark,just think it a very thoughtful blog.I do wonder how you keep coming up with them as sometimes of course there are obvious things in articles or happenings but mostly they must need a degree of thought on your part,well done.Even praising you will probably annoy some LOL.

  10. Mark, good points. As you mention wind farms have you considered another source of generating electricity. I think it is Sweden? who generate electricity by burning their combustible rubbish. This means that a lot of rubbish that would otherwise be dumped is used for a better purpose. I suppose the government would say it is not worth the effort. How much effort is our Environment worth?

    1. to Diapensia
      We in Britain do burn a lot of rubbish and turn it into electricity. Fairly near where I live is a large incinerator (or waste to power plant) that burns waste form Stoke on Trent and surrounding areas. It is one of a number of "waste to power" units in the UK. Recently the council was fined for not supplying enough waste to the private operator. The incinerator depends on residents throwing stuff out, and plenty of it! If they can't get it locally they will bring waste from other areas.

      1. Incineration suffers from Chronic Nimbosis.
        There is (was?) a plant near Ely producing power from the incineration of poultry manure and litter. Recovered ash is recycled as a range of mineral-rich fertilisers - this is an effective way of recycling and redistributing phosphorus (we have no reserves here) but all the nitrogen and organic matter has of course gone up the chimbley.

  11. A lot of food for thought there Mark, and I don't necessarily agree with all of your points. But as you asked for more examples of cliches and half truths, here are some of my favourites:

    "Nature is fragile" - no it's not, it's actually very, very resilient. Up to a point.

    "We are the stewards of the Earth" - no we're not, the opposite is true: the Earth is our steward and does a very good job of looking after us despite all we throw at it.

    "Environmentally friendly" - no such thing: every action/product has an environmental impact. The question is whether we can accept that impact in the larger scheme of things.



  12. Hello Mark,
    I'd add a 6th cliche: 'There's no contradiction between economic growth and environmental protection.' Oh yes there is...

    You can find this kind of bland statement in various Government policy documents and ministerial speeches.

    The missing word is 'should'.

    There should be no contradiction. And sustainable development is about overcoming trade offs and findings integrated solutions across and between social, economic and environmental concerns.

    But as we've seen of late there's an overriding push for economic growth, whether in times of boom or bust.

    Let's hold for well housetrained economic activity and an economy that succeeds without compromising nature.


  13. "Nature conservation should be a more political issue and we need to ignite politicians with a burning fire of passion about the natural world (or a healthy worry about our voting intentions will do as a substitute). "

    It should be abundantly clear to everyone reading this, that waiting for politicians to do something has been shown to be utterly futile.

    Think global, act local is right. It's amazing how many birders / conservationists spend unnecessary time burning fossil fuels on the roads or on long haul birding holidays yet complain about a few BoPs being killed as if it's the worst thing happening on the planet

    1. That reminds me of another half-truth there Steve and I bet Mark was expecting me to pick up on it too. If you look at any carbon data (many sites on t'internet) for most countries and/or worldwide air and road transport combined accounts for less than 10% of all emissions. The rest (and proportions vary from country to country is made up of industrial and agricultural sources. Indeed, air transport is around a third of the level produced by road transport sources yet it is always the one that conservationists rush to condemn first. OK, cards on the table. I am interested in aviation too but the reason I found this out was by chance when I was looking up carbon data for a caller when I worked for the RSPB. I checked a number of sources and all came out round about the same although the actual figures will vary from country to country for obvious reasons. I am aware of other objections to needless air travel (or any needless travel for that matter) but given our conservation arguments are political, it is probably better to be shouting from a good position or we are awfully vulnerable to counter-claims. It is not that difficult to construct a seemingly clever and persuasive argument (see any number of Bird Forum threads to see what I mean) and we must not forget that MPs are past-masters at this sort of thing.

  14. Todays politicians - or rather 'leaders' have environmental issues fairly near the bottom of their agendas. They are all cut from the same cloth, tv savvy, corporate friendly, scared to stand out in any way. Some of them, even some of the leaders were once more idealistic and had ambitions to 'do something' like many of us, what happened? Whilst I appreciate the truth in many of your highlighted cliches Mark, it is the cliche about economic growth at all costs that irks me much more. That and people's credulity in shiny suits and false smiles

  15. 'Some of them, even some of the leaders were once more idealistic...'

    Indeed! Was it not David Cameron who called Nelson Mandela a terrorist who should be hanged? Allegedly!

    More seriously though, it is not really an age thing as such because I see a lot of local MPs trotting out sacred cows while they are junior ministers. As you say, conservation never seems to be high on political agenda anyway and like other (idealistic) issues, they are likely to be dropped as they do not conform to party core values if that minister moves to the front benches. Unfortunately, this is about as useless as it can be from the perspective of getting anything done.

  16. Paul beat me to it, but the most annoying cliché of all is the one now being peddled out by govt, local authorities, LEPs and just about everyone else: the "no conflict between economic growth and protecting nature" mantra. Green growth it's called. Show me the evidence.

  17. We’re all on the same side really.

    With the current Hen Harrier debate it is helpful to know who are your foes and who are your enemies but absolutely essential to know who are your faux amis !

  18. "Giving Nature a Home"

    Biodiversity "Offsetting"

    "Natural England"

    "Greenest Government Ever"

    "Local 'Nature' Partnerships"

    "Biodiversity Action Reporting System"

    "Wildlife and Countryside Link"

    "Sustainable Development"

    "Daily Mail 'Newspaper' "

    "Climate Change 'Mitigation' "


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