The Challenges for Conservation – Simon Barnes, October 2014

‘Conservation is too polite. We need a bit of anger, a bit of radicalism, a bit of stridency …’ 


The business of conservation is changing. The naturalist-conservationist is no longer the norm. The conservation movement began with naturalists who loved the stuff and could name an awful lot of it. They wanted to keep it, and so they invented conservation. Forced by circumstances to make it up as they went along, the conservation movement in this country began as birders busking it. We’ve done OK; we could have done better.

The new conservationists weren’t confronted by decline and loss and had to react: they grew up with it. Decline and loss is their reality. For them it’s a way of life, and they’re out there to make it better. They are the new pros and it’s their world now.

The problem they face is that wildlife conservation is one of the most peculiar things in modern political life: everybody’s in favour of it and yet it scarcely exists on the political agenda. Most people who vote want to live in a green and pleasant land and all politicians will agree with them. But it’s rare to find a politician who believes that looking after the place we live in is important in any meaningful terms – i.e. career advancement and political advantage. Most politicians shy away from wildlife conservation in case it made them look trivial.

At the beginning of the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher said: “It’s so exciting to have a real crisis on your hands when you’ve spend most of your political life dealing with humdrum things like the environment.” In other words, it’s far more rewarding for a politician to deal with an affair that was summed up by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as “two bald men fighting over a comb” than it is to deal with the future of the planet.

Gerald Durrell said: “People think what I’m trying to do is save nice fluffy animals. What I’m actually trying to do is stop the human race from committing suicide.” This is the transition that the conservation movement needs to make: we need the wider public to understand that it’s not just about white-tailed eagles and dormice: it’s about the world our great-great grandchildren will live in. It’s about whether or not they will be cursing us as the last generation that could have done something about it and shirked the job.

The conservation movement needs to make it clear that the wild world is essential to the human world because the two worlds are inextricable. They aren’t two separate things. One world, one planet, one experiment.

Somewhere between the idea of wildness and the fact of the ecological holocaust lies wellness, or wellbeing. It may be jargon, but the two words carry the daring suggestion that we are not economic units to be measured only by our ability to contribute or to drain: we have a right to some sort of quality of life – and to this, the wild world is as essential as oxygen. The fact that nature makes a difference has been demonstrated again and again. Experiments have indicated that birdsong makes a measurable and physiological improvement in a person; people recover better from operations if they can look out of window, and better again if they can see trees; people work better and more accurately if they take their break in a wood rather than a street or a windowless room.

It is the task of everybody in conservation is to make such things politically relevant. This is a problem because politicians are more interested in fancy projects like the HS2. It is in their nature to prefer change — action! — to keeping things the same; conservatives are no more conservationists than any other political party. Conservation needs to become thrilling, urgent, sexy, vote-catchingly relevant.

Peter Marren, summing up the last 25 years of conservation in the previous issue, touched on the staidness of the conservation movement. The loudest voice in conservation is the RSPB, and it’s more like a polite Jeevesian cough. The Wildlife Trusts follow their lead in doing things quietly, respectably, respectfully. The place that these organisations have won in national and international debate has been hard won, and it’s not something they should squander. I have nothing but respect for them: they do a hard job and do it damn well. But we need something more — and it’s not for them to supply it.

Conservation is too polite. We need a bit of anger, a bit of radicalism, a bit of stridency. In the 1980s Greenpeace did that sort of job and did it with an inspiring mixture of chaos and maverick brilliance. Greenpeace played a major role in the worldwide campaign that led to an end of commercial whaling in 1982. These days if you go to the former killing-pools of Baja California, you can lean out of your boat and stroke the damn whales in lagoons that once were red with blood and where the grey whales attacked the whaling boats with such inspired ferocity that the whalers called them devil-fish. This monstrous change came about because radical organisations were able to catch the imagination of the public …

This is an excerpt; the full, much longer version of this article is published in October’s edition of British Wildlife magazine. Subscribe here:

One thought on “The Challenges for Conservation – Simon Barnes, October 2014”

  1. Agree. We need to get more radical with facing up to, taking responsibility for the issues ourselves. Not just signing up to a conservation NGO and then continuing to fill our grocery trolleys with ‘cheap’ food.

    Being angry must not be at the expense of creating deep divisions with farmers and others who may carry a gun – they must adapt their practices, as much as we need to change our consumption.

    Capturing our imagination is one thing (38 Degrees and forestry selloff) is one thing, changing how to make it work is another (forestry remains in limbo).

    More debate for nature, not for polarised positions!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s