Guest blog – Ask not…., by Paul Sterry

Paul Sterry is a passionate conservationist and has been writing about natural history and photographing wildlife for the last 40 years. He founded the international competition Bird Photographer of the Year and is a trustee of the charity Birds on the Brink.

Ask not what nature can do for you, ask what you can do for nature.

Much is made these days about the well-being benefits of connecting with nature. However, parodying JFK’s immortal words, turn the narrative on its head to make it less sapiens-centric and more about environmental concern and there is arguably a better chance of securing a sustainable future for the planet along with its habitats, biodiversity, and the health of its human population. Enlightened self-interest or informed empathy, call it what you will.

Translating the prose into reality is the challenge but a process in which we can all participate. A cynic might well ask: Why bother? What difference can one person’s actions make among a global population of 7.8 billion people? For a few, this dispiriting, defeatist argument is enough to make them give up. However, anyone with even a modicum of self-awareness knows there are good choices and bad ones to be made in life. Choose the right paths and we can make a difference, big or small and, if nothing else, we can lead by example.

Turning back the clock, until Galileo provided evidence for the heliocentric nature of the Solar System proposed by the likes of Copernicus, conventional wisdom held that the Sun revolved around the Earth. It says something about human nature that there are parallels between that antiquated world view and many people’s blinkered outlook today. And it is not unique to individuals: strategic narcissism can be seen as a manifestation of the same perspective but at a national level. Changing these insular views of the world is at the heart of solving many of the problems that beset the planet and its human inhabitants.

Right now, overcoming the challenges posed by Covid-19 has understandably taken centre stage. However, an unintended consequence has been to shine a spotlight on the best aspects of human nature and its frailties. How we approach the Pandemic also sheds some light on how the human race does and should deal with those other self-inflicted crises of our times: habitat destruction, biodiversity-loss, pollution (notably plastic), and climate change.

Through our use and abuse of the natural world there is good reason to suppose that Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease and that humans unwittingly sparked its genesis. Scaling up, as a species the blame for the planet-wide environmental devastation that has occurred in the last 50 years falls fairly and squarely on our shoulders too. A reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that we continue with our exploitative relationship with wild animals and the natural world at our peril. And our unwillingness to think beyond our own lifespans is putting the future of humanity in jeopardy.  

Some people’s interaction with the natural world is superficial at best and has little to do with engaging with nature. As a consequence, many in conservation circles feel that last summer’s post-lockdown increase in access to sensitive wildlife sites was not good news.  What’s needed are more informed, enlightened visitors and less unbridled public access. Photo: Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

By nature, we are an inventive species and there is an understandable desire to engineer solutions to the manifestations of problems that most directly affect us. However, there is a danger this blinds us to the root causes of these very issues.

In the case of Covid-19, focussing on vaccinating our way to a safer planet means there is a danger we fail to grasp why it happened in the first place, and what we should do to reduce the risk of future pandemics. As the WHO puts it: ‘Urbanization and the destruction of natural habitats increase the risk of zoonotic diseases by increasing contact between humans and wild animals.’

In the case of environmental issues, by focussing on carbon and how the resulting climatic impacts affect us as humans, we often come up with solutions that justify continuing our existing, biodiversity-destructive lifestyles. The race to Carbon neutrality, use of Carbon Credits and concept of ‘off-setting’ can sometimes legitimise the continuing abuse and destruction of natural habitats and biodiversity. As an example, it is hard to see how Microsoft financially underpinning cattle ranching in Australia benefits the continent’s natural ecosystems and native biodiversity.

The much-used phrase ‘no-one’s safe until everyone’s safe’ is as relevant to habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and climate change as it is to global pandemic resolution. We all live on the same planet, a finite world with finite resources.

Two alternative visions for Brazil’s Amazon. One seemingly favoured by President Jair Bolsonaro (left) and another advocated by anyone with even a modicum of environmental respect, not to mention enlightened self-interest (right). But before we in the UK criticise too harshly, remember that our ancestors cut down almost all our primary forest millennia ago. And wilful habitat destruction continues to this day on our watch – just think HS2. Photo: Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

Talking of finite resources, Easter Island is sometimes cited as a case study of a disaster caused by unbridled environmental exploitation in a closed system, one that led to a dismal tally of plant and animal extinctions. Whatever the precise cause of the catastrophe – habitat destruction pure and simple or a plague of introduced Polynesian Rats – the inescapable reality is that Easter Island’s ecosystem was wrecked as a consequence of human settlement, and the lives of surviving inhabitants were degraded as a result.

Bizarrely, it has been argued that this manmade environmental catastrophe is a success story in human terms, the argument being that people’s ingenuity allowed them to survive a disaster of their own making. That’s an oddly rose-tinted and sapiens-centric interpretation of events.

The early residents of Easter Island had the excuse of ignorance. We do not. Scaling up, Planet Earth is also a closed system with (energy from the Sun apart) finite resources. By combining unsustainable consumption with a reliance on economic growth, you have the ingredients needed for a disaster mirroring Easter Island but on a global scale. Add to that eye-watering human population growth and the problem can only get worse and harder to solve. No less a luminary than Sir David Attenborough has dared draw attention to the spectre of this ‘elephant in the room’. Perhaps it is time for an evidence-based revision of the advice in Genesis 1:28: ‘…Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it…’.

Human ingenuity and energy efficiency measures could conceivably come to the rescue and allow our species to engineer a solution to its own survival on a dying planet. But at what cost? Probably the wholesale degradation and destruction of the natural world if current economic policies are the driving forces. Along with an insidious erosion of the quality of human life too.

As a species, perhaps we need to ask ourselves an existential question: Do we exist merely to consume? Assuming the answer is ‘no’ (and not ‘I shop, therefore I am’) then far better surely if human ingenuity was orientated towards planetary survival with a sense of global community, and recognition of our roles both as a problem and as part of the solution. And maybe what the planet also needs are few more Anders Holch Povlsens rather than ego-driven billionaires and aspiring states seeking immortality through space exploration.

Stating the obvious, without solving the issues that beset humanity (inequalities, poverty and the rest) at the global level, we will never resolve the planetary environmental problems caused by our species. To do this you have to consider everyone on the planet. It’s all very well pontificating from a position of relative ease in the wealthy UK. But it’s harder to convince somebody in the developing world when their concerns relate to how they can put any food on the table as opposed to whether what they eat is organic or which brand of supermarket they choose to make deliveries.

Conservation in the developing world: Brufut Woods in The Gambia, a wonderful reserve but a tiny fragment of the forest that once cloaked West Africa. Although surrounded on all sides by encroaching development, avian gems such as African Pygmy Kingfisher still survive, amidst the sea of plastic that abuts the site. Photo: Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

If we are aware of the consequences of our own actions then we have a moral responsibility to act and respond accordingly. If we lead by example then others may follow. And then there’s advocacy. Not everyone can do it but by standing up for what’s environmentally right, persuading and cajoling others with compelling arguments, fighting environmental injustices, and speaking truth to power, then real and influential changes can be made. If you can’t do it yourself, then you can support and encourage those who can.

Returning to Copernicus, among this polymath’s many achievements were economic theories. Some of these went on to inform economists including Henry Dunning Macleod and led to him coining the term Gresham’s Law, which frames the concept of ‘good money’ and ‘bad money’. Perhaps what Planet Earth needs most right now is a renaissance intellect suited to our times, and an economic model that reins in our more atavist tendencies while allowing what’s most creative about humanity to flourish. Someone and something to usher in a new Age of Enlightenment, one tailored to the 21st Century and the needs of our sickly planet. 

That economic model might be termed Conservation Capitalism. Regardless of its name it would certainly require a recognition of our role as planetary custodians, and a world vision that sees the natural world not as a resource to be exploited but a treasure – and our home – to be respected, protected and cherished.

No way to run a Planet, surely? Photo: Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

A wise man once told me that when it comes to conservation I should ‘never give up’ because you never know who is listening or reading, or where it may lead. It may not be you but somebody else who has an inspirational thought that spurs others into action: chain reactions, butterfly effect, call it what you will.

That wise man was Mark Avery and he’s right of course. Most of us can’t claim to have his incisive mind but we can all bring something to the debate and the fight for the environment.

Just as global vaccination is a complex process not an event, so the same is true when it comes to solving the problems that beset Planet Earth. In theory no problem is insurmountable and we can all do our bit to help. Armed with this knowledge, shame on us if we do nothing or the wrong thing.

If the statement that heads this article ‘Ask not what nature can do for you, ask what you can do for nature’ is framed as a question, perhaps the answer should be ‘treat it with the respect it deserves’.

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13 Replies to “Guest blog – Ask not…., by Paul Sterry”

  1. Of course the “Ask not ....” phrase is an adaption of what John F. Kennedy said in his famous inaugural speech on Jan 20th 1961. JFK also said in separate speeches, “ man can be as big as he wants, our problems are man made and therefore can be solved by man”. “ We need leadership today not salesmanship and the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead and lead vigorously. “
    I think what JFK said in the early 1960s is as relevant today, probably more so, as when he spoke then.
    Unfortunately besides this virus we have had four years of a Trump in the USA and this has set things back a lot, coupled with a very reactionary, right wing and isolationist Government here in Westminster. So the world is in desperate need of good leaders, not sales people, to tackle saving nature and our environment. Joe Biden is a good start but we need more and it certainly won’t come from this myopic Westminster Government.

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  2. What people mostly need to accept is that it is not just human needs and desires which matter. Still, in practice, most people believe that in a conflict between what people want and the needs of other creatures, humans should get what they want. And while most people believe that we will make limited progress - as we are now.
    Hurray for David Attenborough - population is indeed the elephant in the room. At least many people are talking about over consumption and injustice. The 7.8billion people on the planet, and rising, is still a taboo subject, even among most conservationists.
    https://populationmatters.org/mythbusting
    In the last 100 years or so, we don't even have the excuse of poor or no contraception.

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  3. And always people complaining 'not enough jobs, not enough houses', while they are contributing to their being too many people for the number of houses and jobs!
    (in case you don't know David Attenborough is a Patron of Population Matters)

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    1. I'm a paid-up, lifetime member of Population Matters, before it re-badged itself. Sometimes I regret the cost of that.

      If two member of Population Matters met how many more opinions would they have than two Muslims?

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  4. The image with the dogs looks very similar to Gunner Point, Hayling Island, Hampshire. If it is, then the number of dogs shown is just a small fraction to what usually can be seen on a daily basis. The beach area is home to two fine collections of green-winged orchids and autumn lady’s tresses – Spiranthes spiralis. How they both faired during lockdown is anybody’s guess. It is also my area for the non-estuarine count (NEWS), where the most numerous species counted by a large margin was – man and dog. The fence you can see is the golf course boundary, that’s where the skylarks, meadow pipits and most of the other bird’s breed – apart from gaudily dressed golfers, very little disturbance. The beach shown although ideal for ringed plover and terns doesn’t get a single breeding species. Go east about 5 miles you’ll come to Black Point my WeBs count area. This was once the premier site for roosting waders. Dunlin featured in the thousands, last Saturday I counted 40. My conversations with the Conservancy have always been about disturbance, but as an organisation they actively promote water leisure activities and are funded by tourism, slightly ironic to me to have a nature conservancy reliant on the very issue that is decimating the harbours’ wildlife. But this is the problem right through the UK, the other blog about Scottish job creation, is focusing on these jobs in tourism. There seems to be an illogical theory that in order to have wildlife you have to reintroduce leisure man as if the two have some sort of symbolic synergy? It was disappointing to read the Langholm Moor website as they wrote about increased tourism being the vital link, what they’ll create in time is a Scottish version of the New Forest tourism regime. I’ve yet to meet a ‘wise man’ in the upper rarefied hierarchy of our nature charities, I really would like to think they exist? It would be a good start if all our national nature charities started themselves to wise up?

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    1. Well said, Thomas. You're right, there is too much emphasis in conservation circles on tourism and leisure activities which often have detrimental effects on important wildlife areas. Nature reserves are too often failing to protect natural treasures by allowing unrestricted access and/or promoting invasive leisure activities. Even the RSPB has some ill thought out promotions on some of its reserves.

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  5. Superb article Paul. In the last issue of Broadleaf the newsletter of the Woodland Trust someone wrote in and tentatively stated that they thought the trend of promoting woods as places that are good for mental health suggests woods are no more than a commodity for us, not having value in themselves and for wildlife. Years ago they did quite a big public consultation exercise about our local woodlands and a local politician said about the results of it, and I quote 'this has shown our woods need to be more people friendly'.

    Any idea that we have personal responsibility to the world around us, not just rights from it, is rapidly being done away with. Even with 'green' organisations they are increasingly telling the public the whole system needs to change so they aren't going to 'hassle' them by suggesting what they can do to help the environment - everything is down to bad companies. So an ancient forest that could have been saved by people buying recycled bog roll will be chipped to make virgin fibre roll instead? Is that progress?

    Good for you mentioning Anders Hoch Povlsen, everything being reduced to carbon credits and population issues effectively being a taboo. In many third world countries even where people want to plan family size the services for it aren't available because it's become such a loaded subject. In America the far right church prevented foreign aid going towards family planning because of accusations that this involved abortion too. This, I believe, was a total lie, but meant basic contraception was denied. Interesting that the church of the white right has big problems with even suspicions of abortion, but is perfectly OK with more children living in dire poverty and an increased infant mortality rate. So much for the sanctity of life.

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    1. And not quite so ancient forests are being felled and processed for fuel to ship across the Atlantic to burn in Drax so that fans of the Climate Ponzi Act can make a killing and feel good about themselves

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      1. Yes groups like WWF can now be putting more effort into saving coal from being burnt than the same happening to forests. The issue isn't even whether you believe in man made climate change or not or how severe it will be, it's that what would contribute to whatever it's going to be is in its own right something doing massive social and environmental harm right here, right now. That, however, is being ignored to focus on the bloody carbon emissions it produces. Once upon a time even kids on rough estates were enthralled by how amazing rainforests are and enraged at the threats they faced. We've lost that it's been thrown away and now we need to protect the Amazon because of carbon sequestration, while elsewhere forest has been bulldozed to produce 'green' biofuels for gas guzzlers. Carbon emissions rather than ecological damage has become the deficient measuring stick for us now.

        Two years in a row I tried to deliver a motion at the Friends of the Earth Scotland AGM that it initiate a campaign for change re both our atrocious grouse shooting and deer stalking estates. The second time I was told by a member of staff just before I delivered my spiel that they didn't want to do anything that would 'dilute' their existing campaigns - namely climate change. My proposal was subsequently smothered by waffle. A few years later we eventually got Revive the Coalition for Grouse Moor Reform in spite of this, we still don't anything to fight open hill deer stalking. This in the country that's almost certainly the worst affected in the world by ecologically damaging recreational shooting. The nature of climate change campaigning has done an enormous amount of environmental damage, it put the wagon in front of the horse.

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        1. Spot on LW. Repeating the "suck carbon" mantra doesn't do it. It takes people like Moore and Schellenberger to call out the contemptible promotion of forest destruction by green shills like Gore, Weepy Bill, Kutney et al. Planet of the Humans - https://youtu.be/5x7UgKfSug0 - is still up (12:59:18). I'm amazed that the bedwetters haven't taken it down by now - but they haven't.

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          1. For fourteen months I actually worked as a Home Energy Assessor a govt scheme to help people reduce fuel poverty and carbon emissions. I spoke to hundreds and thousands of people on the doorstep and this supposed widescale public interest in CC is a mirage. That's why a Trump can come along and totally disregard it, I very much doubt the UK is any different from the USA in that respect.

            It's only a core of activists that are as 'tuned in' to it as a large part of the public are supposed to be and an awful lot of people involved in the environmental sector aren't chuffed with the way pretty much everything has been reduced to brand climate change, but now it's virtually mandatory to somehow squeeze in a mention for carbon emissions into every environmental and conservation discussion. And if you can't do that likely the discussion won't happen at all.

            One last (if by no means all) hair of my chest - it used to be Global Warming of course a considerably more appropriate and accurate term than CC, but as some people in the chilly north thought that might not be such a bad idea it got changed for essentially branding reasons. Was this any less deceptive than calling rubbish dumps landfill sites to make them more acceptable? An awful lot of people have seen through this rather pathetic, patronising ruse including a notoriously thick gamekeeper, who mentioned it with derision, it must have been the only time I found myself cheering for him.

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