Crisis talks: old wisdom meets new energy

Two eye-witness accounts of November’s ECOS/UCL mini-conference

To mark our 40th anniversary, ECOS joined forces with University College London’s Conservation Society, for a mini-conference in November 2019 at the birthplace of ECOS.  The conference posed the very wide question ‘How do we address the environmental crisis?’, and brought together six speakers representing two generations to address it. The result provided insights into the value of mixing long-time life experience with young determination, in our efforts to nurture nature conservation through the next four uncertain decades.

Simon Leadbeater

40 years ago ECOS entered this world, the brainchild of UCL’s then Conservation MSc students, to sustain critical discourse when the fledgling nature conservation movement was already getting too comfortable and institutionalised.  On 19 November 2019 the UCL Conservation Society and ECOS held an evening conference celebrating this birth.  The premise of the event, as BANC’s Chair, Gavin Saunders said in his introduction, was to ‘bridge the gap’ between early MSc postgraduates and current students and researchers. The event was replete with diagnosis of why we have reached this parlous direction of travel, and not a little inspiration concerning how we may begin to peer through the pall of gloom by anchoring ourselves to those few glimmering lights, some of which, as Shelley said of life, emphatically shined and radiated throughout the evening’s proceedings.

Old wisdom

Chris Howe of WWF-UK, Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England, and Stephanie Hilborne OBE (formerly CEO of The Wildlife Trusts, now head of Women in Sport), have been thought leaders for many years. Their presentations were poignant, funny, informative and powerful. These are all eloquent impressive people, and the conservation movement must have gained much from having such influential advocates. Intermingled between their presentations we had three young women with extraordinary tales of groundbreaking science, initiative, resilience, all, in my view, underpinned by a wisdom beyond their years. And they were making things happen, species were being saved; they more than walked the talk as action came across as the driving force in their lives and research.

What are some of the key messages to take from this insightful gathering?

Chris Howe took us through the failed aspirations and targets over his lifetime to preserve the world’s forests, a litany of failure, and he asked the question ‘why’? What experiences led us to becoming Conservation MSc students; what values did we have, and how did these compare with leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro or Boris Johnson? There was a desperate need for education both to reshape our leaders’ attitudes, but more importantly, that of electorates voting for leaders whose approaches are so inimical to nature. And herein lay one diagnosis for nature’s precipitous decline, and remedy: a widespread education revolution to change people’s values.

Tony Juniper conveyed his arguments for placing an economic value on nature very forcibly, making it clear that this did not mean abandoning its moral value. In his diagnosis we learn more and more about less and less, and need to become better at understanding holistic synthesis without losing our powers of analysis.

Finally, Stephanie Hilborne, in a lighter, funny, and more upbeat presentation, made the point that without conservationists things could only be worse, and that the movement had achieved, if not wholly, then substantially. She also emphasised leadership; all three of the ‘wise’ speakers clearly demonstrate leadership, but perhaps Stephanie had had to demonstrate it most strongly, particularly in her early career, originally launching herself in a mainly man’s world.

New energy

If, however, we are to trust to hope, there was something tangibly life-affirming and positive in all the ‘new energy’ presentations, all from young women, not just in their respective fields of study, but through social engagement and resourcefulness, including obtaining crowd funding to fund a PhD. Some scientists in the media may speak of the end of life as we know it as if studying something in a petri dish; their actions suggest they care, but listening to their dispassionate language it is not always easy to tell. In contrast, for every representative of the current MSc or PhD intake, passion permeated their work. Kesella Scott-Somme asked what made her care about the environment, studied the impact of plastics (well before Sir David Attenborough raised widespread awareness of this scourge), not just the material but chemicals that leach from it. How is it that we all do not know about this? Her commitment has led to widespread activism, currently working with Earthwatch, and even extending to trying to encourage the rather gentler management of a local graveyard only to encounter vitriolic resistance for her pains. And as Lillian Unger emphasised, while evidence-based conservation is vital, we cannot wait for results – we must act now. She also emphasised that working with local people to save one of the world’s rarest ducks was the sine qua non to success, a theme repeated in Carolyn Thompson’s work with very rare gibbons in China.

‘Those who wish to sing, always find a song’

For all the analysis and powerful presentations, there are some key messages I took away, highlighted by all the speakers in different ways. Tony emphasised that people are ‘wired’ to appreciate stories and narratives about nature. We need compelling stories which touch us emotionally; people are convinced by their own experience rather than by something they are told. Chris said, and I consider this to be fundamental, that people will not remember what it was you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. The emphasis on storytelling and how people feel appealed to me most strongly, but I am not sure this is ultimately good news. Speaker after speaker emphasised how childhood experiences were the route to feeling for nature, whether it was Tony’s early naturalist adventures at 8 or 9 years old, Stephanie’s horror at the widespread destruction of her Surrey home by the M25, Kesella’s father starting a community compost scheme, or Caroline’s aunt and uncle rescuing a monkey from a street market in the Philippines where she lived as a child. These were the formative experiences which led our speakers to embrace careers in conservation. But if fewer and fewer of us experience nature in these immediate ways, is it any wonder we care so little?

Hope in small comfort

I offer this final observation with a view to others swiftly disabusing me of such foolishness; perhaps getting to understand the human animal is fundamental to saving all others. Carolyn wrote a children’s book called The Gibbon who lost his song. Her cunning plan was that parents too would read this book – the same parents who regularly burned fires on their smallholdings, from whence smoke drifted in great plumes into the gibbons’ forest home, and made them lose their voices. And lo and behold the fires diminished, and the male gibbons were able to serenade once more, and thus the forest sprang back to life – or an important element of its biophony at least.

It may be hyperbole to suggest it, but for me, Kesella, Lily and Carolyn embodied in equal measure faith, hope, love, and the greatest of these… For all the angst we must share, increasingly so, at the extirpation of the natural world, the feeling I chose to take home was of three young presenters whose combinations of enterprise, compassion and determination would keep up the good fight beyond old wisdom’s time, and mine. Fighting the long defeat, small comfort, but glimmers of light steadfast in the growing darkness nevertheless.

Gavin Saunders

Over the last year or so, as ‘climate’ has become one of the commonest words in the lexicon of public discourse, I’ve witnessed the psychological response from some of my friends and colleagues who are waking up to the climate crisis. They exhibit the painful confusion of trying to grasp at rational thoughts about what we should do about the climate crisis, while harbouring a visceral fear of the reality for them and their children.

Learning to live with bad news

What has also struck me however, perhaps rather selfishly, is my own response to witnessing how others are behaving. I realise I don’t share their confusion, not because I don’t understand it, but because I am used to living with something very similar. As a nature conservationist, ‘normality’ for me, for the last 40 years, has been watching nature decline – inexorably, viscerally, pervasively – while everyday working to try and help stem that decline. To cope with that incongruity, I’ve learned to separate professional optimism from personal despair – and those two bedfellows have lain together in my psyche for so long that these days they barely notice each other.

Recently I fell into a conversation with a colleague who is about to retire, after a long career in conservation. Though we spoke of successes, shared and individual, pretty soon we couldn’t avoid the elephant which surely lurks at the corner of every professional conservationists’ peripheral vision. Namely, the thought that basically, we’re failing. It takes a certain self-discipline, not to say vanity, to judge your career achievements only in the narrow sense of whether the things you’ve done have gone well within their own terms, have gained some plaudits, and have left a positive mark on the face of nature and people. Vanity, because it’s like looking in a very small mirror at your own reflection, while studiously ignoring the wasteland all around you.

Optimism and rubber ducks

You can’t be a conservationist unless you regard the proverbial glass as being half full. A buoyant optimism is compulsory, given the Cassandra-like role we so often seem to play. Yet that buoyancy can become the equivalent of a rubber duck, complete with fixed rictus grin, bobbing on the surface as nature continues to spiral down the tubes.

In practice, to be a reasonably balanced contributor to the conservation movement, you need to place a full knowledge of grim reality on one side of the scales, while retaining a purposeful optimism about potential alternative futures on the other side. The scales can see-saw violently as life goes on, and there is perhaps a clichéd assumption that as we get older, and harvest some wisdom out of sometimes-bitter experience, the scales tip inexorably towards the pessimistic side. If that happens, perhaps younger generations can begin to appear naïve in their continuing energetic enthusiasm. So what happens when ‘old wisdom’ meets ‘new energy’?

When life experience needs re-enlivening

At our anniversary conference with UCL’s Conservation Society, our six speakers all had in common the fact that they had passed through UCL, either doing the Conservation Masters degree, or a similar ecological study. Three, however, had done so some 30 years ago, while the other three were only just emerging from their time amidst the dreaming spires of Gower Street. Their shared educational heritage provided a valuable connecting thread, while in other respects that evening, they arrived from very different starting points.

It’s a strangely vertiginous experience, watching the generations concertinaed together, occupying the same space while inhabiting such different life experiences. I admit, now rather shame-facedly, that I had half feared that the younger speakers would be overwhelmed by the charisma of the three old timers! Had I, in my early twenties, been asked to stand on my shaky legs and speak alongside equivalent big names, I think my voice might have broken back to a treble. But I need not have harboured such a silly thought. Kesella, Lily and Caroline held the room with their combination of scientific rigour, worldly confidence and vision.

But theirs was not a naïve energy. They seemed aware of how deep the water is they have set sail upon. And strikingly, they seemed already to have acted upon one wise piece of advice from Tony Juniper. Tony stressed the need for conservationists to learn to synthesise as well as analyse – to take a leaf out of ecology’s own book, and understand the links between disciplines, as well as exploring their depths. We need to broaden our perspectives into the social sciences, the arts, human psychology and economics. And we need to learn how to construct narratives, with positive messages, that draw people from their everyday experience into the natural world and its needs. The three young speakers seemed to have grasped this. While their academic research was thorough and disciplined, and they knew how to use data, they also knew how to tell stories, relate their science to local people, and take an interdisciplinary approach which kept their eyes on the horizon, and not down a microscope.

No time for generation gaps

Perhaps inevitably, one ended up half wishing for a beneficent Dr Frankenstein who could meld the old and new together, and equip a new super-race of conservationists with the life-experience of battling the ups and downs of the eighties, nineties and noughties, with the street-wise energy and confidence of young twenty-somethings. But there was a value in the contrast, and the mixture made me realise how valuable it is, to both parties, when old and young compare notes.

So I came away heartened, in three ways. The new generation of young, frequently female conservationists are not cowed by the challenges they are inheriting: far from it, they exhibit all the prepossessing resources they need. Second, conservation has been around long enough to contain a lot of wisdom, and that wisdom can be shared to great effect, rather than risk rusting into a cynical retirement. And third, ECOS spans this whole conversation, old through to young, and continues to offer a place to think. Long may it do so.



If you missed the conference catch up at our Twitter below:


Saunders, Gavin and Leadbeater, Simon “Crisis talks: old wisdom meets new energy” ECOS vol. 41(1) 2020, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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