In July 2017 I was in Orkney with an idea for a book but not much of an idea how I would start it or structure it, and I was none too clear about the conclusions I was expecting to draw from it. By the end of the week I had solved all three questions, thanks to a visit to South Ronaldsay and its late Neolithic Tomb of the Eagles. There seems to have been a deep connection between the islanders of four thousand years ago and white-tailed eagles, a species that again enjoys exalted status, as a conservation flagship. I started to write what became the first chapter as soon as I returned.
Three years and twelve essays later I had a book that explores our relationship with other species through their own stories – those of the eagles and of eight other animals, from ants to otters. The final three essays try to make sense of the state of nature as a whole, reflecting on what those nine species have to say to us about us. White-tailed eagle is a good place to start because (to distil a 6,700-word essay down to 22) in the course of 4,000 years it is a bird we have successively revered, admired, revered, hated, extirpated, missed, reinstated and iconised.
The otter is another source of hope because it is a species that we nearly lost by serving it a lethal cocktail of threats: fur-trapping, sport hunting, persecution, river mismanagement, habitat fragmentation, direct and diffuse pollution, toxic pesticides and starvation. It is now found in the centres of a dozen cities and along hundreds of stretches of river and coastline thanks to a classic recipe of, well, not doing those things. We love otters, which helps. We didn’t always, though. Thankfully, the fascist-but-lyrical Henry Williamson and the weird misanthrope Gavin Maxwell created two of the best and most enduring works of nature writing and we took the formerly verminous otter to our hearts.
Pretty much all conservation is made up of some combination of not doing, or undoing, those things. We’ve known that for decades. We have the tools. We also have the graphs that tell us that for every story of white-tailed eagles or otters there will be many more stories from the other side of the hope-despair divide: nightingale, turtle dove, adder, starling and ash among a seemingly endless litany of unhopeful causes.
So, traditionally, conservation is divided into the things we can do with the knowledge, resources and land at our disposal, and the things that won’t happen unless the government coughs up lots more money, enforcement and policy cover. The balance between what has been achieved and what hasn’t shows clearly that it’s mostly the government’s fault (this and all previous governments) that nature is going down the pan.
Well, I kind of agree with that, but it does feel like a bit of a cop-out at the same time. So I wrote 90,000 words to try to understand why we aren’t there yet. I kept returning to the same few questions, and realised they were questions about culture: the cultural values of society at large, culture clashes between irreconcilable interests, and the culture of conservation itself. Here are six:
Why do we tolerate the catastrophic scale of biodiversity loss; and why don’t we grieve it? If any other ‘public good’ – GDP, life expectancy, cancer recovery rates, GCSE results, business efficiency – were to decline at the same rate and for so long it would prompt a crisis response; governments would fall; we would be regarded the world over as a failed state. In Framing Nature – conservation and culture I write that we are becoming desensitised to the loss of nature. It’s partly because the conservation movement struggles to create in society a sense of urgency and crisis about something as insidious as what author Michael McCarthy termed the Great Thinning. In The Great Derangement Amitav Ghosh makes the same point in relation to climate change:
Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like “Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?” or “Where were you on 9/11?” Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, “Where were you at 400 ppm?” or “Where were you when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?”
Or, one might add, when the last northern white rhino died? Or the last West African black rhino, Christmas Island pipistrelle, Yangtze river dolphin, slender-billed curlew, Jerdon’s courser….
But it’s also because we operate a conservation model that has loss built in. We have knowingly deployed agri-environment schemes that won’t arrest the decline of farmland birds, as essentially the only available measure for the purpose. And if all the layers of legislation, planning guidance and procedure around protected areas were amassed into a single compendium, overwhelmingly it would say more about how to lift protection than about keeping sites safe and in good condition. So,
Why doesn’t the UK have a protected areas network? One reason is because we pretend we do. The current threat to Minsmere RSPB reserve of all places, and the ten-year fight to save Lodge Hill are two stark reminders that even the country’s best-loved wetland and its most important site for the universally-loved nightingale are not immune from developers’ voracious appetite for land. They remind us that one thing the UK protected areas system lacks, is a single protected area. Someone has other ideas for using the land – housing at Lodge Hill or nuclear power next door to Minsmere – and the system encourages them to go for it.
We should win both fights, we usually do. If so, some will say that it proves the system works. But these battles rage for years, draining resources from conservation charities, business and government alike. If it takes the best part of ten years to win no more than a reprieve, it proves the system is a failure. That’s if we win. At best the struggle to defend the most important wildlife sites from development is a continual conveyor belt of costly and divisive cases, which can be comprehensively lost but never conclusively won.
So the announcement earlier in August of planning reform, with an explicit reference to ‘Protected Zones’ was promising. The detail, though, reveals that nothing whatsoever has changed – if you want to develop in a protected area, just apply through the planning system, exactly as now. If protection could only be lifted by an Act of Parliament, it would both democratise the fate of our protected areas and filter out all but those few proposals that genuinely represent an overriding public interest. So,
Why isn’t biodiversity an imperative? Two decades into this nature-famine of a 21st century, a G7 Prime Minister (ours) can make a speech about the imperative to Build! Build! Build! and include a gratuitous dig at wildlife conservation which needs to get out of the way of development. Really? In the same month that the World Economic Forum publishes a 111-page report calling for an urgent shift towards nature-positive models in the most damaging industries? Including, by the way, infrastructure and construction? No Prime Minister has shown much leadership on the environment since, er… Margaret Thatcher, actually. Strange but true. Stranger still would be the spectacle of an army of top global capitalists leading the charge onto the high ground of green recovery, leaving Ministers Prime and otherwise in their wake, to gradually puff their way halfway up the same hill.
Why do we have such a low tolerance for problematic species? Take bovine tuberculosis. Because it is the cattle that are continually moved about the landscape and the badgers that stay in their ancestral domain, badgers are described as a reservoir for the disease, thus by a simple choice of language defining them as the problem. The consequence of this scapegoating has been for the government to focus almost all financial, scientific and political resources onto dealing with the 6% of bTB transmission that comes from badgers, and relatively little on promoting farm-level and industry-level solutions to the 94% of transmission that comes from other cattle. The result has been described as the greatest destruction of a protected species on record. My essay on the badger was possibly the hardest thing I have had to research and write.
Regular readers of this blog know only too well that blaming the innocents – hen harriers spring to mind – for problems not of their making is culturally embedded enough for public policy to be shaped by it. Instead, public policy for the 21st century must be built around tolerance and coexistence, or is that just too difficult?
What cultural signals does sport hunting send at a time of biodiversity and nature connection crises? Conservationists are right not to get tangled up in the ethics of hunting, but on the other hand, rigorously sticking to our comfort zone of population dynamics, law enforcement, optimal habitat management and the rest isn’t working for us. We end up focusing on a narrowly-defined problem (not grouse shooting even, but driven grouse shooting, say, or pheasant releases) and deploy arguments that seem almost devoid of value judgements. Values can really come to our aid here. We’ve used them to take sides against trophy hunting, but haven’t noticed that mass bagging of uneaten game is exactly that. Intensive land management that is detrimental to wildlife and ecosystems, intensive prophylactic predator control, and manipulation of threatened species populations are just wrong. We should feel empowered simply to say that. Whatever the morality of hunting, the modern-day voracity with which it is practiced is at odds with rebalancing our relationship with the natural world. We should say that, too. If it is not to be outlawed altogether, the right to shoot wildlife must be conditional on its being demonstrably part of a beneficial programme of management of land and its natural wealth. So,
Why do we put the private privileges of land ownership above the common benefits of good land management? Over nearly a thousand years – since 1066 in fact – land-based prerogatives have relentlessly narrowed in scope until barely any of those private privileges are subordinate to any of the shared benefits. The loss of the commons was not only the starting pistol for nature’s relentless decline, but an historical injustice in human terms for which reparations, in the form of a rebuilding of our natural capital, are due. Can we find a 21st century analogue of the commons whereby, regardless of who owns it, land once again functions as the core of the nation’s natural commonwealth? A first step would be to abolish farm and other land subsidies as a concept and replace them with investments in land as a national asset.