Too little, too late

"Bybyhandschuhe 2011 PD 05" by Bin im Garten - Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
“Bybyhandschuhe 2011 PD 05” by Bin im Garten – Own work (own picture). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

The RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have just woken up to the fact that this government isn’t doing much for the environment – and doesn’t intend to – and that it is the job of NGOs to put pressure on decision makers to do the right thing.  The best time to put on the pressure is before the decisions are taken because afterwards is too late.

After Defra apparently stepped forward (who knows what is the real story?) to accept cuts of 30% in the latest spending review, this was criticised by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts as follows:

Dr Mike Clarke, the RSPB’s chief executive, said: ‘The Westminster Government is keen to talk about “difficult choices” but it seems increasingly clear that abandoning its obligation to ensure the UK is habitable is not very difficult for them at all.  Five years ago DEFRA was at the front of the queue and took the joint largest cuts while other departments were still negotiating.  When once again DEFRA is heavily cut ahead of other departments, talk of “difficult choices” is hard to take seriously. This seems to us to be a truly perverse decision. A lack of resource is already damaging the UK Government’s ability to meet basic statutory obligations. These obligations aren’t ‘nice to haves’ – a healthy natural environment underpins our prosperity. Investing in environmental protection is an essential part of any plan for a better future.‘.

Stephen Trotter, The Wildlife Trusts’ Director, England, said:  ‘Even before yesterday’s announcement, the Government was only investing a tiny proportion of our national income in environmental stewardship and the restoration of wildlife habitats – its already far below the levels that we need.  It will now be reduced to such low levels that there are real question marks over whether the Government can continue to deliver its most basic functions and responsibilities for the natural environment.  When everything we depend on comes from the natural world this makes no sense for the economy and it makes no sense for the health and wellbeing of our society. 

The UK has been running up a massive environmental deficit over recent decades and which future generations will have to pay off.  These cuts are a false economy and will undermine and jeopardise the future growth and development of the economy.  I fear this is a missed opportunity for Government to start paying off the environmental debt that we’re leaving to our children and grand children.  We are now faced with the extremely worrying prospect that Government no longer has the ecological literacy or functionality that society needs if we are to build a genuinely sustainable future.‘.

I think the NGOs could have played a much better game over the last few years.  They needed to use their large memberships, and in the case of the RSPB a now-growing membership, to exert pressure on decision-makers. Only by creating a fear of the consequences of doing the wrong thing, consequences like losing votes, can most governments be nudged towards doing the right thing. There has been too little nudging.

It’s not an easy position for the NGOs to be in.  The climate for environmental progress has been poor for the last five years. No-one said it would be easy – in fact, it was blindingly obvious that it was going to be difficult. But the NGOs have treated Defra, and a succession of hopeless ministers, as though they are their friends, rather than either antipathetic to nature (Paterson) or simply hopeless (Truss).

The fluffy gauntlet thrown down by the wildlife NGOs a very few weeks ago is now lying on the ground ignored.

What price now, Rory Stewart’s and Liz Truss’s promises of ‘the best environment in the world’?

So where now?

The NGOs should start to shun Defra processes. Why spend huge amounts of staff time on talking to a department that cannot do much, and does even less, doesn’t listen and is quite likely not to exist in a few years time? Every working group should have, at most, one wildlife representative on it, ideally from Wildlife and Countryside Link, who reports back to all the NGOs.  There should be a public statement that the wildlife conservation community have no confidence in this government’s ability or even intention to do a good job for the environment.  No government minister should be offered a platform at an NGO event (although a place in the stocks should always be available).

The NGOs should take all opportunities to work with all opposition parties to forge environmental policies for the next general election that are well thought through and can be supported.  The opposition parties should see that the environment is an area which the Conservatives have abandoned and where there are votes to be won.

The NGOs need to turn back to us, their supporters, and engage us in putting pressure on decision makers.  This has really fallen into disrepair over the last few years.  The power, such as it is, of the wildlife NGOs comes from three things: the quality of their staff, the resources that they largely get from us the public, and the klout that they get with decision-makers through the size of their memberships.

The wildlife NGOs have acted over the last few years as though the crisis in their world was where their money might come from, rather than one of the disappearing biodiversity. It is time to mobilise us so that we can make a difference for wildlife. That is the NGO role when governments don’t listen.





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63 Replies to “Too little, too late”

  1. As it happens yesterday we were talking about how our little part of local gov might absorb the next round of Defra cuts, having been told they would be another 25 – 40%.

    We work v closely with local business, esp the 00s of £m tourism industry in our part of the world. One of my colleagues asked why economic value like that isn’t recognised by George.

    I pointed out that the entire value of the local tourism industry was probably only worth what 10 of his mates get in bonuses. Earnings that maintain 15,000 jobs are worth peanuts to a City boy.

    And I wasn’t the most cynical person in the room.

    What I don’t get is that most ordinary Tory voters I know, and I know many, do care as much as the rest of us, sometimes more so. Yet the Govt can ignore its own supporters, never mind the pinkos and greenies. I agree entirely that its time for NGOs to stand and fight, but there’s a bigger failure of democracy here.

  2. First time I’ve looked at your blog for a while Mark, ultra disappointed to you putting a critique of our premier wildlife NGO’s in the public domain. An armchair ‘should have’ critique at that. Surely, given your past position, you know the issues wildlife NGO’s face in Westminster. Equally, you know fine well the RSPB and others are making concerted political efforts across a range of issues in parliament and beyond.

    When did it become cool to criticise our premier wildlife organisations? World beating organisations comprised of incredibly motivated individuals, lobbying, fundraising and land managing for our wildlife.

    Action talks and bullshit walks! If you can do better do it!

    Otherwise, use your platform and readership to put up a unified front. There’s already enough people criticising the RSPB and others; YFTB, Countryside Alliance etc. You must have an opportunity to feed back to the RSPB, you worked for them for years!

    Yours disappointed,


    1. Jonny – I didn’t know it was cool – how wonderful! I didn’t know that wildlife NGOs, to whom I pay money, were beyond criticism either. Thanks for your comment, and you are right that it is an area that I know something about too.

  3. I think more than nudging, Governments need to know that NGOs have the resources and the resolve to give them a kicking when it really matters. And that when they do they will feel some pain. Governments that aren’t kindly disposed to the environment and are confident they won’t suffer any serious consequences for their stance, will just carry on cutting and ignoring.

    Yes, NGOs can and should do more to mobilise their members, but they also need to create wider public concern and ideally outrage over what’s happening to wildlife and the countryside. So long as this Government knows the worst that will happen is they get some letters from a small minority of NGO members, they will carry on with impunity.

  4. Well, as if we needed any further evidence, DEFRA is most definitely not fit for purpose. Given this very clear situation, I’d agree that is now up to ‘us’ and all NGOs to step up and work together on a sustainable model for campaigning to protect our natural heritage. National organisations need to combine resources and mobilise their considerable memberships, it is no longer of any value to rely on the actions of government in order to secure protection and preservation of our nature. It makes no sense to see the flagrant patronage by government for such vested commercial interests as, for example, the NFU, and still believe the government is interested in listening to the likes of the RSPB etc. I really hope the Wildlife Trusts and RSPB, together with other conservation organisations, will now see how fruitless talking to this government is and will band together as a unit to push for change. It is abundantly clear change will not happen unless all of us unite in a common purpose.

  5. And so speaks the voice of eagle eyes hindsight. How wonderful to see that you’re still making such fabulous statements. In my professional career I learned to dread the days when an official or unofficial statement was made by a certain man because it was inevitable that my job would be harder for at least a couple of months. Thank you, Mark, for standing up and suggesting a course of action and with such a supportive feel to it as well. Oh wait, no you haven’t, you’ve just slapped us. In the current economic climate, where charities are increasingly persecuted and derided by the right wing press, it’s always a joy to be told that we’re failing in our mission by someone who has abandoned it. Yes it’s true – it looks like our government is only interested in the green of the dollar. It’s also true we have always tried to lobby for better use of statutory funding for land management – surely working with them was the first place to start? After all it was with lobbying and working with the government that enable the RSPBs founders to ban the trade in wild plumage. That it isn’t working isn’t something we’ve missed. I think you’ll find most of us have in fact noticed it, and we’re starting to look elsewhere. Have you missed the enormous multi-charity, multi-business and multi-government campaign to save the Nature Directives? Perhaps you’re right, and mobilising the public is what needs to happen. So I’ll draw your attention to the sterling work that the environmental charity sector are doing to reconnect children and adults with nature, a vital part of growing public outrage at the governments cavalier attitude to our environment. Perhaps you’ve missed that whilst you were busy levelling your dismissive and unconstructive criticism at the two biggest wildlife charities in the UK. In drawing your attention to this work I will also remind you that it took 35 years for drunk driving to become culturally unacceptable. To instigate a change in culture, which is what we are seeking when we talk about reconnecting with nature, takes a significant timeframe. A timeframe which, revisiting your statement based on hindsight up there, I would say you had a decent run at trying to sort out- you were in a position to do so after all for a good run of time.

    Perhaps, instead of levelling your criticism in such an unhelpful way, you could try throwing a bit of support the way of the wildlife and environmental charity sector. That is what we are after all. Charities. Not just a group of NGOs as you call us. But charities. So yes we can lobby, but not during elections where we are constrained by law. Yes we can influence the public and get them behind us, but it’s difficult to do in the face of the continual derision of the media causing huge lack of trust in the whole charity sector. And yes, we can bang the drum and shout and make noise demanding the government do better – but it takes years to influence a cultural shift which will dramatically change the voting body and bring the environment back to the forefront.

    Too little too late? Well right back at you.

    1. Mark Avery is an important ‘critical friend’ to NGOs… and he is at least as quick with the friend bit as the critical bit (see tweet approving of RSPB input into Radio 4s Today programme this morning)

    2. Sarah,

      I’ve mostly worked in the charitable sector and been a trustee there too. I only left because my job disappeared, and while I’m happy to work for local govt I’m even happier to still have a job in the field at all.

      You talk at length about all the progress that’s been made, and hard work done; well my career has spanned roughly the same period as Mark’s. I think that all the success we have achieved in the last 30 years (since I started) has been undone in the last 6 years or so, and the loss of ground is accelerating. It hasn’t been this bad since Nicholas Ridley was in power (he is the other candidate for The Worst Ever “Environment” Minister along with Patterson). To use your analogy, it’s as if the last 30 years never happened and the government is now saying that drunk driving was really fine all along, the kill joys should shut up, and to reinforce its point it has decided to offer tax breaks and get-out clauses to anyone who has an accident while they’re sozzled.

      One thing about the Thatcher years was that there was no middle ground. If you wanted to be anything other than a passive victim you had to choose a side or one would be chosen for you. It feels like we’re back there again.

      I continue to be a member of RSPB and actively supported, in a small way, the Nature Directives campaign. Well hopefully it will work at an EU level, maybe it won’t, but it’s clear that it swayed the UK government’s view not one jot. Top marks for trying though – but the failure to influence the UK Government’s stance despite the apparent success is an indicator of how irrelevant the sector has become to those in power here.

      I continue to be a member of 2 Wildlife Trusts. It pains me to say this because I still think of the Trusts as my home, but I can’t recall a time when they had less profile or less influence than they do now.

      At local level I have great respect for NE staff, but the national organisation has long been excessively bureaucratic and is now also politically irrelevant. It hasn’t had a choice, the NGO/charitable sector does.

      Governments (of all stripes) are rarely swayed by inconvenient evidence unless it’s translated into effective political pressure. I know that it’s much easier to say than to do, but I think we as a movement have failed to make that translation; we’ve just documented the decline and hoped someone important would notice. And that if they noticed they would care. Well they haven’t. Noticed or cared. We’re just the “Green Blob” and they don’t even listen when we’re in the room.

      I have to agree with Mark that something drastic needs to change.

      1. jbc – thanks and well put. I continue to be a member of the RSPB and the Wildlfie Trusts and a whole bunch of other wildlife NGOs too. That’s one reason why I feel entitled to comment. And as readers of this blog will know I am hardly inactive in nature conservation.

        Something drastic does need to change – and my proposal would be that the NGOsput less resource into frog faces and more into mobilising public opinion in favour of nature.

    3. I don’t understand why you seem to think criticism and support are contradictory.
      Has the landscape changed so much, that criticism is forbidden. I must be getting old.

    4. Too little too late, yes if we wait or take a leisurely stroll for the next 35 years as you seem to suggest? State of Nature etc. a tragic obituary and was launched with such passion by Iolo (who also went ‘independent’ like Mark). But, sad to say quiet since, maybe with an occasional squeak? How long did Nero fiddle for, whilst Rome burnt?

      Please, do as you say you do – influence the public, a million members (+600,000 with some overlap) – Ban Driven Grouse Shooting, Ban lead shot – appreciate that’s a bit controvertial, sorry.

      Was Chris Packham wrong to speak out also? He was deemed by some to have written a variation on Mark’s critique and similarly some would applaud that stance. Were you one of those who called for his sacking from the BBC, did the associated NGOs sack him?

      To each their own? After all, reputedly we live in a (Parliamentary) democracy? But do agree collaboration and critical mass would be good ….

    5. Unfair I think Sarah.

      ‘hindsight’ – it’s not as though our host has suddenly performed a volte-face on this issue. Mark has been highlighting the lack of fight in our major conservation NGOs for some time. Nor has he been a lone dissenting voice. Others including Peter Marren, Chris Packham, Derek Moore (RIP) have all echoed his sentiments.

    6. I’m with Sarah on this one. I don’t see how knocking conservation organisations plays a constructive role… in helping conservation. Surely all you are doing is blaming the messenger. The Defend Nature campaign, which contributed to the largest ever number of signatures to an EU public consultation is proof enough of highly effective lobbying. Or check out the recent volume of tweets to @RoryStewartUK for an example of effective mobilisation of RSPB members. Or how about the reversal of the government’s decision to allow fracking surface drilling on SSSIs? No lobbying by the RSPB and other conservation groups there either I suppose. Or are you suggesting RSPB et al are mute on Defra cuts. Martin Harper et al would vehemently disagree. To my mind it requires a strange leap of logic to implicate conservation organisations in biodiversity losses. Is the hand that’s burnt at fault for the fire? Oftentimes not. So please don’t blame the messenger.

  6. Are those the same fluffy mittens you used to illustrate you’re equally unhelpful rant against the Response for Nature project Mark? You seem very proud of them. Did you knit them yourself? If so, congratulations, they look very well crafted. Do you take commissions?

  7. Do I choose anger, or do I choose level-headedness? If I am angry, will the people with the money listen more, or less? I want to scream, and stamp, and cry out in grief for myself, for you, and for the earth, and I will, and I do, in private, but here I will choose level-headedness.

    I need to declare I am absolutely FOR doing whatever we can for the environment. Crucial as it is to educate our children, heal our sick, and care for those less fortunate than ourselves, it is ultimately pointless if we have only a sick and dying planet – so I know where I’d put the money, were I in charge.

    There’s no way, of course, governments can ever get it right, whatever colour they are, but the human psyche likes something to blame, so governments are useful for that if nothing else.

    But those of us who are trying to do what we can – whether through working for environmental charities or other NGOs, or doing our bit as freelance folk – need to support each other, surely… ?

    Surely we can rise above the dark theatre of power which is the governmental political party scene and rise as one for the earth?

    1. Daphne – we should rise up, and NGOs should be leading the way and facilitating that outpouring of support for nature. That’s one of the things they are for!

  8. I’m not clear how Mark has elicited such defensive and aggressive responses to today’s post. His point seemed to me primarily that DEFRA and the government are doing a terrible job regarding the environment and that our wildlife NGOs have been slow, tame or low profile in their public criticism of them for this. Is that unfair?

    You have to delve some way into the RSPB website to find calls to government for action. The recent joint statements from Mike Clarke and Stephen Trotter at least make it into the news section at the bottom of the front page of the Wildlife Trusts website, but it’s not like political pressure is front and centre of their public agenda either. Some may say that this is not their role, and certainly the likes of YFTB would prefer it that way, but if not these NGOs then who? Tell me and I’ll switch my membership to them. If we instead accept that it is the role of these NGOs to exert this pressure then I cannot see how you can mount a credible defence of their track records to date.

    I know the RSPB does lots of fantastic conservation work and remain a dedicated member. I have resisted the temptation to abandon them like some have felt forced to do, frustrated by their reticence to get behind petitions to ban driven grouse shooting and get something meaningful done to improve the prospects of the hen harrier.

    But do I want more from them? Yes! If the budget spent on the “Give Nature a Home” ads had been spent on “Nature is bleeding out of our lives and Government policies are accelerating these losses”, then how much greater would public awareness and concern be about the scale and depth of the problem our environment faces? Off the back of such a series of ads the RSPB might equally well have enjoyed a surge in membership, but while having at the same time raised public awareness and created some political pressure.

    I’m afraid that for me Mark’s comment, that “The wildlife NGOs have acted over the last few years as though the crisis in their world was where their money might come from, rather than one of the disappearing biodiversity” was spot on.

    Where is the clamour? Where is the outrage? Where is the march, the demonstration, the placards and the protests?

    1. Exactly what we think as well, Hugh. I have written to that effect to Mike Clarke but as yet (over 2 weeks ago) had no reply or acknowledgement. We have renewed membership again – members for 40+ years and regular appeal donators – but next year I think we will put our environmental money elsewhere. There will have to be a distinct stiffening of backbone by the leader of the RSPB if we are to remain members. I’m afraid that appeasement never works. Please RSPB go on the attack?

    2. I especially agree with your point about ‘Give Nature a Home’, Hugh – that phrase is an outrage.

      Nature already has a home – and the human species is doing its best to drive all other beings off the planet which is their legitimate habitat. We are now arrogantly ‘giving’ them what is theirs. Or not.

      Going back to Daphne’s very good post earlier on – I have been an angry campaigner for animals for some 40 years – anger openly expressed does not provoke a useful response, but a rational gentle approach doesn’t seem to work either.

      And while I’m feeling angry still – what is the point of Rory Stewart? He rejects in a facetious manner a suggestion by an MP that naming the hedgehog our national animal might raise the profile of an endangered creature who is, I think, native – in favour of keeping the lion who is not.
      Oh, we can see them in zoos, I forgot. And that is another story.

      1. It depends on the spirit in which you wish to take the phrase “Giving Nature a Home”. Probably you would not disagree with the statement “Humanity is robbing the natural world of its rightful place”. Logically it follows that giving nature a home is exactly what is required. For instance, last night I watched the documentary Land of the Tiger. Is providing habitat corridors for tigers not a case of giving these animals a home? For anyone working on the ground creating habitat for wildlife, which after all is what conservation groups do, the phrase Giving Nature a Home seems eminently sensible I think. And the public-facing aspect of Giving Nature a Home which encourages people to take a look in their back gardens and have a think about things such as habitat is very welcome. Indeed, it appears to be working as an extremely effective way of increasing the public’s focus on biodiversity loss. It makes these issues… closer to home.

    3. Well said Hugh.

      The Chamberlainesque approach of the major conservation NGOs must stop now.

  9. Excellent post Mark.
    It almost feels deliberate that DEFRA wants to go back to being just the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and ditch the Department of Environment altogether.
    I may be a cynic but this was all obvious when DEFRA was created.
    The ‘we must be reasonable’ attitude of cosying up to the the enemy (government or otherwise) has to stop. For example, with PAWS, the grouse shooting, game-keeper and land-owner organizations are just having a laugh at the RSPB’s expense. Sitting down to come to an agreement with criminal (tacit or otherwise) organizations, that is sure to work.
    NGO’s have to get more political. I would like to see whole NGO departments dedicated to fighting on the political front and yes with the gloves off.

  10. Seems to me entirely reasonable for Mark to ask whether or not wildlife NGOs have got their strategy right. The evidence is clear – the battle is being lost. Unless something changes, and there is greater public pressure for action, things will get worse.

    Hugh raises an interesting point about the many millions of pounds spent on the RSPB’s ‘Giving Nature a Home’ campaign. Its primary aim is to attract more members. The logic goes ‘more members equals more income, equals more resource for nature conservation.’ Sounds fine in principle, but are those resources being used to best effect?

    It’s a question the NGOs should be happy to ask themselves. And they should be happy to share their conclusions with their supporters, in a spirit of open and constructive debate.

  11. Mark,
    i’ve read this with interest, as I am about to join the RSPB fundraising team. I expect to come up against some serious antagonism. As I have become more active as a volunteer within both the RSPB and the Wildlife Trust, I have already been sharing my enthusiasm with my current, engineering, colleagues.

    Leaving governments aside, the grim fact appears to be the most people don’t care. Describing the principles of rewilding is met with the response ‘yeah, but what for?’
    Another favourite was ‘I don’t understand how you can care for this stuff more than, you know, people’. These are highly educated people, and the fact that they hold these opinions is proof enough that the conservation message isn’t spread enough. People don’t realise that making every individual comfortable now at the expense of the environment is likely to throw everyone into poverty in a few generations. It also explains why no political party pushed conservation during the election; most people don’t want to hear it.

    I find that very upsetting, hence the career change.

    Broadly speaking, I agree with you, the only way to convince the government this matters is to convince the populace it matters. This is going to be an uphill struggle, but we juat need to find the right pressure points. Maybe people need environmental services pushed harder. Maybe when they see us campaigning for the Hen Harrier, more effort needs to go into making them aware it’s bigger than the bird.

    I agree that there needs to be a change, but as said above, I believe it is down to the culture of the nation, who may need to be made more aware that we’re not just ‘looking after birds’

    1. Phil – good luck with your new role, and thanks for your comment.

      I only worked for the RSPB for 25 years – and that isn’t long enough to understand it completely! But my experience was that most RSPB supporters wanted one of two things from the RSPB: either success (of which there is a great deal on nature reserves etc but also in the past in influencing policy) or dying in a ditch (of which there was quite a bit too). NGOs shouldn’t fear losing – they aren’t in charge of the world, but they should be seen to be carrying the fight (the arguments and the pressure) to decision makers. Not being seen to do enough is the greatest sin in the eyes of the dedicated supporter.

      1. Mark,
        This is what I mean. Despite a hell of a lot of excellent work by a hell of a lot of very knowledgeable people, people outside of the conservation sphere don’t really know what we do.

        Clearly, everyone is going to want political support of the things that matter to them, and indeed those factors pushed at elections are generally those with short term demonstrable results. Conservation is more difficult to sell if the culture you are selling to has a ‘jam today’ outlook.

        When the puffin was red listed the reports on the news didn’t go into any depth about what it’s disappearance would effect.
        This, I believe is where the NGOs could alter their message slightly. Protecting the remaining uk hedgehogs is very important, but people need to be shown why a healthy ecosystem will benefit them, to get them engaged.

      2. You’re right about dying in a ditch, Mark.

        During my early career conservation was dominated by a series of last stands. We lost most of them, but it seems to me that those campaigns were the foundation for the greater success that followed. I don’t remember anything recently that had the flavour or profile of the desperate days fighting the Newbury By-Pass etc. Nothing as newsworthy. It’s all been too tame and too nice. “I warn you, if you invade the rest of Czechoslovakia too we might have to politely criticise your policies in our newsletter”.

        I have to put in a word for “Giving Nature a Home” though. I don’t see that as the alternative to hard nosed campaigning. It’s a both/and – the money for GNAH would have come from the marketing budget, because it will raise income. That money wouldn’t be there to spend on campaigning – if anything GNAH is part of securing enough income NOT to be beholden to government. It’s also part of making RSPB relevant to lots of people and being not seen just as an exclusive birdy club. GNAH is part of the solution, not part of the problem, and as I understand it it’s going well. However now it’s what RSPB does with the increased support that matters.

        (I speak just as an interested member with no personal involvement in GNAH) .

  12. The first time I have read one of your blogs for quite a while, and as always it is thought-provoking and important. I am however going to fundamentally disagree with parts of it. Perhaps I am getting more and more cynical and feeling more and more hopeless about nature conservation and the future of our wildlife, and about how much people really care!

    I am sure that the wildlife NGOs have been well aware of the governments lack of interest in the environment, the idea that they have been carrying on in some kind of dreamworld and inviting Gideon round for a nice afternoon tea is obviously one of your trademark attempts at stirring things up and challenging them. This is not a bad thing, even if it is a little disingenuous. I am sure you are right that the Wildlife NGOs could have done some things a lot better, I suspect that there are many things that you wish you had done differently in your career, we are all fallible and guilty of hindsight. I would trust your opinion on that, though I am not convinced that this would make any significant different to the current state of affairs, considering the impossible situation that they find themselves in.

    We often hear this idea that we can change the course of politics around the environment by the NGOs mobilising their membership and creating a groundswell of public support. We think back to an example of more than a hundred years ago at the start of the RSPB, has there been another significant example since? If we still think this approach will work then I am afraid that we are in cloud cuckoo land. Negative messages about how bad things are do not work, it is the sad truth. The RSPB and others have done this for years with very little effect. To get the societal change that we need to make the British public care deeply about the environment, and influence the way the politiicans view the environment, is such a fundamental issues that it cannot be down to a few hundred people working for a few environmental charities and have the odd argument with a minister. I am afraid that the vast majority of the public who read about arguments between NGOs and government don’t understand the issues, don’t think about it in great detail and when it comes round to voting don’t let it even cross their minds. The NGOs can be a catalyst for a broader public awareness, but we have been bleating on about it for years. We go on about how many people feed birds in their garden as if this shows that people care about the environment, it doesn’t and the majority of them vote Tory and think that Boris Johnson is a bit of character.

    Whilst most of those reading and commenting on this blog care deeply about the natural environment, I am afraid that the uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of the Briitsh public (and dare I say it, a large number of RSPB and Wildlife Trust members) have this very low down on their list of priorities. Yes, we know that people care about the environment and will sign petitions to defend the directives etc… but when the next election comes around the political parties know that people will be voting because they are worried about their finances, their jobs, their homes and their children, which is why we have such negative politics at every election campaign. Yes the natural environment can be linked to all of these issues, but people just do not see it that way. If the UK government drives through the loss of the nature directives to the disappointment of a couple of hundred thousand people, we know that this will make virtually no significant difference to the election result and a fair proportion of those people you sign a petition or tweet a message will still vote Conservative. Do we really think that Dave and Gideon are worried about the #defendnature campaign?

    The idea that wildlife NGOs should stop talking to government, stop working with Defra family bodies and stop trying to engage them positively is something that I fundamentally disagree with. The just further polarises positions, makes people dig in and will put the NGOs in an even weaker position. I am not saying that we should be nice to them and tell them how wonderful they are, we still have to challenge them and challenge them more strongly.

    I think that it is great that you are in a position when you can be bombastic and challenging and give out uncomfortable truths, but I would not want the wildlife NGOs to follow suit. If they did then it would be the fast track to an even quicker ecological disaster. We need the balance of the strong voice of you and others, and other who can work in a different way. We can compliment each other and use our strengths.

    We also go on about how much easier it was a few years ago, how government listened more and how policies were better. The bare facts are though that in all of our lifetimes the natural environment has been imploding at a faster rate than ever before. We we have slowed down declines and protected a few more sites and the odd species has benefited, but even when the political climate was different things were going downhill fast. I don’t what the answer is, but it has to be something different to what we have done before.

    1. Atropos – it’s not that difficult really. If people care then they will act. In a democracy we don’t have to throw bombs we can make our voices heard – but we do have to do that. For the busy person there are lots of things to think about, and they seem quite complicated (because they are!). That’s why NGOs need to give some leadership and get people mobilised. There are plenty of examples by RSPB and others in the fairly recent past, but not so many in the very recent past. When government is unsympathetic then it is even more important to get this right because other approaches won’t work.

      I suspect I will come back to this a few times over the next few weeks (so come back now and again or you’ll miss them!).

      1. I wish I had your faith Mark. If people care they will act, but how can people be made to care? Maybe I am just too beaten down now to believe this is possible any more.

        1. Atropos – and maybe I am too much of an optimist. But the sun is shining and there is a Red Kite flying outside my office. Impossible to imagine 30 years ago?

          1. Have you not read the State of Nature Mark? It is grey and misty here and maybe I am too much of a pessimist!

    2. You wrote ‘We think back to an example of more than a hundred years ago at the start of the RSPB, has there been another significant example since?’
      Not with the RSPB (they really just don’t do activism) but yes, the the public managed to stop the privatisation of the Forests (although i’m sure that isn’t over yet).
      There used to be an ‘Action’ section in the RSPB magazine. What happened to that?

      1. The public held up the privatisation of the forest estate, but that was not out of the horror of what is happening to our declining woodland birds. It was because this is where they go to walk the dog, go mountain biking and have somewhere to take their kids on a Sunday.

        The RSPB don’t do activism in the way the Greenpeace might, but they do plenty of campaigns and none of them have come close to matching the public outcry about our forests.

  13. After reading the above comments, I happened across a speech given by Emmeline Pankhurst during the Votes for Women campaign:-
    “You have two babies very hungry and wanting to be fed. One baby is a patient baby, and waits indefinitely until its mother is ready to feed it. The other baby is an impatient baby and cries lustily, screams and kicks and makes everybody unpleasant until it is fed. Well, we know perfectly well which baby is attended to first. That is the whole history of politics. You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under.”

    Does this still apply, do you think? Or is the general public just too addicted to the opiate of materialism or just too apathetic?

    1. I’ve certainly won a few local battles in my time by making such a nuisance of myself that it was worth it for the people in power to do the right thing just to make me go away.

      You have to pick your battles with unreasonable people, of course, but you can pick winners. What’s not worth doing is wasting a lot of your own time and effort to just be a mild amusement to them. I think that’s what the Green Blob is doing now, which is why we have to be royal pains instead.

  14. I would agree getting people mobilized is a much need step forward to make change happen. As more people find and raise their voices those that should listen will soon have to! But this needs support and coordination. Your efforts along with many others raising awareness and outrage about the persecution of hen harriers is starting to make an impact. YFTB is one pathetic response.

    I don’t always agree with some of Greenpeace’s activities but their direct action, particularly aimed at businesses can make a difference. In 2011 they targeted Mattel and were able to mobilize significant public pressure for them to change their policy for packaging (Barbie) and not sourcing from paper companies directly involved in illegal deforestation. John Worst (tuna) is currently in their firing line. Public pressure, along with celebrity exposure (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) can hurt, shame, force businesses / governments to change. Getting people to connect with nature is good but there are times when brave and forthright organizations are needed to mobilize and enable us to have our say. Friendly critics are good for a bit of self-reflection!

  15. Sad to say the environment,wildlife etc is way way down the list of over 60 million.
    Their concerns are NH,Education,salary,cost of housing,cost of transport,how much alcohol can they get in the next few days,is their job safe,how much benefit can they claim etc etc.
    No the government has nothing to fear from NG0s however much they attack and government know that all these other issues are far more in the minds of that 60 million not to bother about what conservationists are interested in.

    1. Dennis – you’ve left me feeling rather depressed, because I know you’re right. Which doesn’t mean we should just roll over and give up. It does mean efforts to engage public interest and support need more creative thinking and campaigning than much of what’s been tried to date.

  16. This is mainly in response to Jonny Rankin and Sarah B; hiding problems doesn’t solve them. I’ve spent a lot of time working and volunteering for organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts. Their actions at a local level have ranged from supremely responsive to staggeringly incompetent. Quite often senior managers have no ecological experience and have no real comprehension of the issues surrounding birdlife in the area, they have simply ended up working in conservation and treat it like working in any other random charity. I’ve had conversations with National Trust staff working in moorland management projects not only unaware that raptor persecution was rampant on their sites (including where there have been well publicised successful prosecutions), but were uncertain as to whether the shooting or Short-eared Owls was illegal or not! To be clear the Wildlife Trusts and (admittedly less frequently) the National Trust do a massive amount of wonderful work, but what do you do in situations where they fail and when all attempts to sort things out ‘in house’ are ignored? Keep quiet to make someone’s life easier? I think not.

  17. Is there an ‘elephant in the room’ on the issue of the lack of up-front campaigning by our wildlife NGOs, in that many have come to rely on government subsidies for various management activities?

    1. Sandra,

      I don’t know where the idea that the government subsidises wildlife charities has come from, but in my experience it doesn’t. They can get the same land management grants as any other landowner, usually on tougher terms, but that’s about it. We get the odd contract to deliver a records service, or a health project, or whatever, but it’s a contract for services supplied not a subsidy. In fact my complaint would be that we often undervalue the services we provide (not enough full cost recovery) and end up subsidising them.

      As one old Boss of mine once said about the County Council, “if they’re going to blackmail us by threatening to withdraw our funding, they could at least pay us enough to be bothered about in the first place”. Needless to say our policy didn’t change (nor did the paltry money the CC paid us).

  18. I am coming a little late to this debate,but think Mark has made some very sensible suggestions. That is not to decry the efforts of those who are on the same side as us,but it is my opinion that RSPB and others (I am a member and a volunteer with the RSPB) have believed that their reasonable stance would be rewarded. It has not been. The electorate has not been engaged because the right wing press has framed the debate,and that is partly all our fault,as we should all be doing more to pressurise our representatives (even if my MP is Rory Stewart!) The RSPB, like the BBC has allowed itself to be intimidated by the Government and the press,and the time has come to be brave and believe in our cause. There does not seem much to lose in my eyes.

    The tories are always telling us that austerity is to prevent future generations from having to deal with our debt,but the fact that future generations may not have a planet left seems to escape them. Mark is right to suggest working with the opposition parties to build up a real alternative view re the environment that will be a vote winner. Keep telling Mr Corbyn your concerns-we might finally get a mention at PMQs!

    I used this quote some time ago on this blog and repeat it now,as I think it is the attitude we all need to show. Napoleon said “I have succeeded in what I have done because I have never hesitated-that has given me an advantage over all mankind”.

    1. Whatever the pros and cons of the wildlife charities taking a more belligerent stance, you certainly made me laugh there Dennis!

      1. Jonathan,well of course Mark is right but guess the NGOs are between a rock and a hard place and very frustrated at bashing their heads against a brick wall.There is sure to be a lot going on that we do not hear about and it is very hard to mobilise large numbers for wildlife in general.
        Mark’s petitions are a typical example as this must not be taken as a criticism but while they are great for us to support and I always admire these type of petitions the support they get is really not very great even though they are worthy causes.

  19. It seems to me that the status quo ante – talk softly and leave the big stick at home – has delivered us to a position where, in terms of the protection of the environment, we will soon be approaching ground zero. It is time that the various NGOs remembered that their big stick – a large and concerned membership who can be galvanised in the defence of the environment – is there to be used and that they have little choice but to consider that it, with little to lose, it may be time to develop a “status quo anti”.

  20. Money

    Money givers
    Money takers
    Money spinners
    Money makers
    Money gambled
    Money spent
    Money won
    Money lost
    Money gone
    Spending cuts
    If’s and Buts
    Know who your friends are
    Know your enemies
    Know your role
    Don’t roll into bed with your enemies.
    Do the right thing
    Take control
    Make a stand
    Stick it to The Man
    Before the Man takes it all


  21. I assume Dennis Ames that you consider yourself to have achieved more than Napoleon.I think it is generally accepted that he was successful! Not by you though obviously.I think it is called positive thinking-give it a try!

    1. Peter,what a silly remark,point out where I said I have achieved more than than Napoleon.It is quite bad to deliberately attribute words to people who have not even said or thought anything like that.
      There are however hundreds of more successful instances you would have been better quoting.

  22. With the benefit of foresight, I’ve been there: working for a passionately motivated organisation which believed deeply in its – but simply lost public support and confidence. That was the Forestry Commission (and forestry) 30 years ago. That same organisation has landed the only really decisive, politically high profile blow for the environment during the last 5 years – what other issue has Cameron fronted ? Or has lost a Mini9ster (2 actually) their jobs.

    At the heart of the story was the pain of recognising that whatever we believed we were losing – and its the same for conservation today. A symptom of the problem for me has been the lack of interest in how the FC got to where it did in 2011 – because there are a lot of lessons there for conservation, not least the way that so many sector leaders desperately cling to a version of forestry stuck firmly in the 1980s, cosy because it was a great victory, not just irrelevant but missing the potential for forging new alliances in the face of unprecedented challenges today.

    To understand what is going on you have to think Lynton Crosby – near total cynicism – I don’t think the Government really hates conservation – I’m not sure it really cares – but ‘green’ has proved very useful as a tactic in their hate & fear politics with the added twist that every time we protest it actually tightens the screw 0f ‘green holding back the economy’. It is also increasingly clear that what this Government says and the ‘facts’ it relies on are generally totally divorced from reality – and, to be honest, the NGOs have been letting them get away with it – sadly in the very good company of the Labour party who have totally failed to throw off the charge that they caused the financial crisis.

    So what do you do ?
    – Campaign on, of course, though it may be banging your head against a brick wall.
    – forge much wider alliances with people you may not totally agree with but who are travelling in the same direction – conservation looks increasingly ghettoised to me; the recreation lobby was vital in the forest sales fiasco.
    – You have to play on their pitch, and we can: conservation has got into the habit of measuring its success on how much money it can get, and at times almost prides itself on not being commercial. Pretty disastrous at the moment. Surely the conclusions of the Natural Capital Committee are the biggest game in town, demonstrating how we can save/make huge amounts by better environmental management ?
    – and linked to that, make progress where you can even if blocked where you want to be – we probably could reverse the decline in woodland birds under current funding & regulation, even if we can’t do the same for farmland.
    – And, looking to future elections, we need a big, clear, fundable vision for the future to directly oppose the reductionist race to the bottom the current Government promises.

  23. The natural environment counts for little politically is a correct diagnosis, but it is wrong-headed to abandon this Government and focus on the opposition. That dangerously risks consolidating or even increasing the likelihood of inaction by the current government; and relying solely on the opposition to take action is risky too – they may not be able to do anything until who knows when, and when one day elected, may in practice not actually do much different from the present Government.

    If you need to change something you need to recognise the barriers (in your view that Conservatives [but I think it is actually politicians more generally] minimise the importance of the environment and are thus prepared to sacrifice it for things that they value more highly) and change that. That is actually done by dialogue. NGOs need to focus on working with individual sympathetic conservative MPs and working out from there helping them understand and make the case inside the party for specific actions. Of course they need to do the same with opposition MPs, but that’s easier, because they are looking for causes. Not everything is likely to be do-able, but some things will be and its much more likely to be successful than a policy of shunning and cosying up to the opposition.

  24. Mark is right about all this. People have no idea of the extent of what is going to happen next – ngo’s will be all but financially abandoned by gvt in a long period of uncertainty. Clue – big ngos have been self-serving and insular for decades. Clue – New Labour continued the 1990s Ridley et al plans to diminish nature conservation and hand to MAFF now dressed as DEFRA to be part of the farm. It was easier for the ngos to run alongside gvt, fueled by scratch-card and rubbish-tip tax than to influence. Not to say a few good people doing their best in there but overall it was mostly willful negligence by the ngo professional, often lacking expertise or moral guidance, keeping their job at expense of basic principles and now the party’s over. Plan B: establish Defenders of Wildlife in UK/Europe.

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