Conferences – 2

On Friday, as on Saturday, I was on a panel with Tony Juniper.  This time it was the first AFON conference in Cambridge.

We, with Matt Shardlow from Buglife and Donal McCarthy (RSPB), chatted around valuation of nature.  If you don’t put a value on it, is it equivalent to valuing it as worthless? If you do put a monetary value on nature then can nature conservation be outbid?

It’s a very tricky subject and I vacillate on it – I always have.  I think it is horses for courses but that may seem like wimping out.

There were interesting discussions about whether science should have the last word in nature conservation. The answer is, I think, yes, sometimes!  Don’t I sound indecisive?! Science can’t tell you much about what you want in life – has science ever told you who to love? But it can tell you about how to get it. Science should have had the last word in the design of effective agri-environment schemes in England (rather than, it seemed, the NFU) and then we would have ones that actually deliver well for the vast amount of taxpayers’ money that go into them. If you want to conserve Asian vultures, as Debbie Pain said, you need to know why they are declining to solve the problem (please sign this e-petition to stop such declines in Europe too).

It’s funny – I think it’s funny – that we call this stuff conservation science rather than conservation technology or conservation engineering.  The thing is that  everyone wants to rely on science because it sounds important and clever.  But science is really a way of thinking and a way of elucidating the universe’s hidden truths.  Much of what most of us who are called scientists do is much more everyday and mundane – but important.

And decision-makers, all decision-makers, including you, use science as a drunk uses a lamp-post – more for support than illumination.  Decision-makers are looking for a respectable reason to take a course of action that they have determined for a wide variety of reasons – science can add that respectability sometimes. Most decisions are made for a whole variety of reasons – popularity, ease, cheapness, to make someone happy, to spite someone else and because they will work. Science only helps with a few of those reasons.  The most important decisions you made in your life, such as who to marry or which house to live in, were made for a galaxy of reasons. You weren’t completely rational about them – or were you? Why should any other human decisions be made according to different rules? And even if you think they should be – get over it! They aren’t!

There was another interesting discussion into which I dipped about how to get a job in nature conservation.  The answer is, generally speaking, the same as it has ever been – be more attractive to an employer than anyone else.  You have to be the best, or at least appear to be, to get any job. Which interview panel ever came out and said ‘You seemed the third-best candidate so we have decided to give you the job’? That’s all there is to it.

Giving out jobs is a buyers market – they pay you to do things for them so they get to choose you, not you them.  Try this website as one place to get some good hints, read this Guest Blog and read this interview with me for some more ideas. And, good luck!

I would have liked to stay for the Saturday – but I was heading for the Green Party conference in Birmingham. Congratulations to Lucy McRobert and Matt Adam Williams (and lots of others, no doubt) for organising this first AFON conference.

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7 Replies to “Conferences – 2”

  1. Looking at agri-environment schemes recently the rspb have had more impact than nfu. Target species are disproportionately birds rather than other wildlife.

  2. How to get a job in conservation - Don't rock the boat. Too many NGOs will not employ any one who has other ideas other than theirs which translates weaker NGOs and less chance that wildlife will come first.

    1. Bang on the money John.

      Yet another conference for nice middle class people to network at, and tell the rest of us that something really must be done soon. Yet more mainstream inaction masquerading as something faintly edgy.

      All the buzzwords and phrases are there:
      custodians of nature
      A Vision for Nature
      secure nature’s future etc

      only now with added networking and career development

  3. Like you, Mark, I am rather uneasy about the idea of putting a monetary value on nature. It is certainly a useful way to make politicians realise that natural ecosystems do confer material benefits on human society. One only has to think of the role of the many wild species of bees and hoverflies in pollinating our crops. Probably more important, and even less appreciated, is the importance of microorganisms in maintaining soil fertility. Intensive arable farming that uses only inorganic fertilisers can have a damaging long-term effect on soil structure and fertility that could take many years (perhaps decades) of manure applications to fully restore. If you can put a financial figure on the potential crop losses, even the most materialistic politician is likely to take some notice.
    However, I think that if you could ask the readers of this blog why they take an interest in nature conservation few of them would put financial benefits high on their list of reasons. We do it because getting out into a natural environment provides pleasure, relaxation and is somehow refreshing to the "soul". I for one also feel that we have a moral responsibility to repair some of the damage done by our forebears - restoring wildflower meadows, bringing back Red Kites and beavers etc. Money does not feature highly in the pleasure and satisfaction in these activities.
    So I think we shall always have to live with the ambiguity. Being surrounded by wildlife in a natural environment gives us a good feeling, and we must always share this pleasure with succeeding generations as they pass through childhood. I think our evolution as hunter gatherers in wild landscapes has hard wired this into our natures. But if it helps to persuade our political masters (aren't they really our servants?) that there is a monetary value in allocating farm subsidies in a way that benefits bumblebees and ladybirds, so be it.

  4. Your comment Mark, about whether science should have the last word in nature conservation, reminded me of a recent article in the Guardian, in that instance in a different context in relation to global warming by Brian Cox.
    Here's a couple of quotes that I think are pertinent to any discussion on science:

    Cox told the Guardian that climate sceptics had exploited the misconception that there was doubt about climate change in order to push a political agenda. “It can be a way in for people who have an agenda that’s not scientific.

    He said the strategy of challenging the science of climate change was dangerous because it promoted the idea that science was political and up for debate. This weakens the position of science as a reliable basis for deciding how to respond to the world.

  5. Why are you promoting this jobs website Mark? It is scraping job information from sites where students/job seekers can view the information for free and then attempting to charge them to view it.


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