Wisdom or dogma? Reflections on the People’s Manifesto for Wildlife
We need a Species’ Manifesto for wildlife, not a People’s Manifesto
The unseen baggage
The well-meaning Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife is a recipe for friction, not traction, amongst conservationists. If you wanted to irritate over half the voting public at the moment, using the term “Peoples” would be a good start. More so if reinforced by cover artwork reminiscent of communist iconography, sitting implausibly with the claim that “This manifesto has no party-political bias.”
The many short essays within the Manifesto are claimed to be by “strong, independent voices”, but ‘independence’ is a big claim to make, hard to prove – and irrelevant: what matters is the logic and predictive power of the argument. Each essay has “ten commandments” – allegedly “no-brainer” solutions to the problems. Such over-simplification should ring alarm bells for dogma.
The Manifesto cites the State of Nature report, 2016, but this report is based on the traditional conservation paradigm that parts of the Manifesto oppose. Many of the declining species listed on the second page “lest we forget” benefit from this paradigm, with some agricultural weeds (corn marigold), some invasive of unknown impact (little owl) and at least one (rabbit) an invasive and highly destructive pest! Using the wrong metrics will reinforce the deeper problem: loss of species that have been here for most of the first 10,000 years of the Holocene. Such species have life histories similar to those typically declining internationally: old-growth, forest interior, wetland and coastal specialists, especially those with large sizes and ranges. These are the species for which rewilding offers (limited) hope – whilst also benefitting large numbers of more transient species in species-rich, structurally-complex, closed-canopy forest. No country has better knowledge of the loss of its native species than Britain, yet this evidence (key to reducing loss) is not even cited in the “fully referenced” version. If evidence matters so little, beware fake conservation.
The Manifesto proposes a publicly funded body, similar to the BBC, to oversee environmental care in general. Sadly, that’s a hopeless way to get independence – as BBC coverage of the environment shows. Other ways to attempt independence have problems too, but prevention of the bullying of dissenting voices will be a key part of independence – in accord with the Manifesto quotation “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. Let’s see who listens to criticisms of The Manifesto.
The flaws of ageism
There is recognition of shifting baseline syndrome. Yet this clashes with the themes of some essays. A “commandment” for a youth-led re-wilding project of scale in the UK, where all decisions are taken by people aged 12-21, is hardly a recipe for good conservation: believe me, I teach this age group ecology. The statement that the opinions of the young generation matter most shows disrespect for the wisdom of the elders. I find ecologists get better with age and experience (up to the time they lose their faculties or Faculties). That’s why so many indigenous people, with their lauded ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’, respect the elderly. Perhaps the ‘Ministers’ should consult their essay on inclusivity?
Survival of the cutest?
It is good to see coverage of relatively neglected or touchy issues such as wildlife crime, lead shot, snares, pet cats and dogs, and introduced game birds. The diminishing capability and focus of the government conservation Agencies is highlighted: before they were neutered, hijacked by a semi-natural focus and recreational remits, and defunded, these did some good work.
Some ideas are philosophically unworkable: that nature itself has a legal right to live in an environment adequate to its well-being. How would that be measured? The needs of anaerobic bacteria differ from those of plants, and the needs of forest mosses differ from those of grassland butterflies. Conflicts of interest amongst species, habitats and specialist conservation societies could then be played out in the courts, with those commanding greater legal resources winning. Can we look forward to ‘Psocoptera vs. Butterflies’ in the Supreme Court? An Act including duties to restore habitats and species to “favourable conservation status” would, if done using science on threatened native species, impose blanket rewilding: not many would want that (not even me!). Placing environmental decision making in the public domain – a noble democratic process if they enact the result – could lead to survival of the cutest.
Romantic illusions of nature thriving on farmland, parkland and uplands (land sharing) and in urban areas, and concern about the declines of farmland birds and urban sparrows, reveal the challenges in explaining the root of species loss. Sharing simply does not work for sensitive species – globally or over thousands of years in Britain. Declines in farmland species and species of low-intensity agriculture (such as calcareous grasslands and heather moorlands) would likely result from successful conservation of the majority of native species. The cunningly ambiguous term ‘biodiversity’ is once again exploited to suggest farmland is rich if it is “brimming and buzzing with life”. Ancient trees are recognised as important, but unfortunately with the enthusiasm for open-grown veterans which Vera’s strongly contested hypothesis has encouraged (despite abundant sub-fossil evidence). Urban areas might be biologically diverse – there are no substantive studies, and I doubt it – but if so it illustrates the mismatch between protecting ‘diversity’ and conservation. Fortunately, internal contradictions between sections of the manifesto show some traditionalist pressure groups are facing a reality-check.
Some of the proposals need researching. A ‘no-brainer’, to “Give all primary and secondary school children access to outdoor growing facilities to provide ‘Edible Playgrounds'” might expose them to lead, cadmium and the ‘anti-pollution’ pollutant platinum from catalytic converters. I’m not sure of the best time to cut hedgerows or verges – perhaps the winter would be bad, given their value for hibernation? Unintended consequences are a hallmark of simplistic environmental policy.
Many ecologists will be glad the report does not get distracted by climate change, despite several of the authors alluding to it. There is the easily disputable claim that warming seas round Britain are causing a loss of wildlife – consider the temperature records and P. A. Henderson’s long term sampling results. If a future draft goes the full bore on climate it will lose another chunk of its intended audience – pitting renewable energy further against wildlife with lagoons, wind turbine infrastructure and biomass. The Manifesto invites suggestions, and I propose a Ministry for perverse subsidies – which might, for example, scrutinise the £700m per year subsidising burning the world’s forests in Drax power station. The opportunity costs and damage from ‘green energy’ will need Ministerial scrutiny.
The biggest gap is unsurprising, given the ideology of many greens: the role of human population growth. This matter needs handling not by a ‘Minister’, but the ‘Prime Minister’. The current and projected demand for housing, energy and water – much of which is due to population growth – will underpin the British extinction rate. I’ve shown habitat destruction is the main cause of extinctions in Britain in the last 200 years, and continues to be the main threat. How can increasing population not put more pressure on wetlands, forests and coastlines – directly and in recreation and pollution? Look at the proposed developments to see how this will continue: housing proposals on the Oxford-Cambridge Expressway, threatening Sites of Special Scientific Interest if not National Nature Reserves. Low human densities in the uplands are irrelevant: these cold areas have limited potential for many species, even if rewilded. Maybe, as with nuclear energy, some activists will eventually switch beliefs. In another gap, the Overseas Territories are not given the attention they deserve.
Selective sound science?
The publication declares: “This manifesto is controversial. It is informed by sound science.” But all science is controversial, and people pick and choose the science they think is sound. The fully referenced version would be considered very sparsely and selectively referenced were it just an undergraduate essay. If inconvenient science continues to be overlooked the consequences are predictable. How about a better informed Species’ Manifesto for Conservation?
Clive Hambler is an ecologist in Oxford University.
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