ECOS 40(2): ECOS revisited – the early 90s melting pot

Editions reviewed:
ECOS 12(1), 12(2), 14(1), 14(3/4)

In 1991, James Robertson writing about his own official history of the near-defunct Nature Conservancy, observed that despite judicious edits one uncomfortable truth remained evident: “that ‘the system’ has failed nature conservation”.[1] The same issue of ECOS contains numerous other examples of how this had happened:  fragmentation of regulation, the inadequacy of the Crown Estate, and the weakness of the then Department of the Environment in bringing together opposing interests.

The failure of ‘the system’, and the opportunities in rebuilding it, is a theme which runs throughout the issues surveyed here. In total, we can see that during periods of significant uncertainty and change, there is value in returning to first principles and key questions. What is conservation? Who does it? Why does it matter? A number of articles, ranging from wonkish concern with conservation bureaucracy to sweeping visions of the future, grappled with these topics across these editions.

Change afoot

It is clear from these ECOS editions that the early 1990s felt like a period of major change in post-war UK conservation. To an extent this change was sensible, reflecting the fact that undertaking conservation beyond the boundaries of a comparatively small number of highly-protected reserves requires the engagement of a range of stakeholders, from landowners, to farmers, to a wider public. But change also placed a number of threats on the table: privitisation of the environment, the need to demonstrate conservation’s economic impact, a decline of interest in scientific expertise, and the identification of an ill-informed general public as a stakeholder. Significant reorganisation of the various quangos in the UK, both overall and then internally, created much uncertainty. Each of these threats was treated by the ECOS issues under consideration here.

It is notable that while managerialist and post-modern ideologies are given the scepticism they deserve, ECOS’s authors did not reject contemporary changes outright. There was a broad view that the then Nature Conservancy Council was unfit for purpose, and that effective countryside management required “converting, recruiting and influencing” land managers rather than policing their behaviour.[2] Similarly, a broadening of what conservation is, away from “a preoccupation with rare species and a narrow emphasis on site safeguard”, to a definition more relevant to the wider public was to an extent welcomed.[3]

NEIL BENNETT

There was optimism about the realigned institutions following the abolition of the Nature Conservancy. But there was also a recognition that it was not just institutions that were changing, but the ideologies of policymakers and the broader public. In 1993, ECOS’s editorial talked of an emerging political context, in which the ‘critical natural capital’ and public-private financing would be the tune to which conservationists would have to dance, whether they want to or not.[4] Clive Potter and Bill Adams in the same issue described the transformation of English Nature into “a streamlined and corporate-minded [agency] driven by the need to serve its customers”, with staff working to produce “quality products and services”. EN’s strategy was described as presenting a version of conservation “in terms of satisfying people’s needs and wants as consumers of wildlife and the natural environment”. This rationale was “a world away from the much more remote, scientifically grounded formulations of the Huxley committee”.[5]

Thinking big

Prescient of this, an interesting series of articles from 1991 evaluated the opportunities and threats for nature posed by a series of activities including golf courses, hill-walking, canal restoration and even paintballing.[6] Among these is a particularly compelling piece, in which Clive Gordon predicted the rise of the ‘inner-directed’ individual. In a future world in which technology has enabled “chore shopping and financial transactions to take place from the home”, and where traditional boundaries between work and the home have been eroded, he suggested the ‘inner-directeds’ will turn to nature both to escape their everyday existence and to practice the ‘green consumerism’ which is essential to their self-fashioning.[7] Reading through this edition today, it is encouraging to see that future-orientated ‘think pieces’ can have such value. Whether Gordon was an early investor in Amazon, PayPal et al, I do not know.

NEIL BENNETT

If conservation in the 90s was to be undertaken on the basis not of hard science, but of maximising utility for the public, this led to the question: what do humans value? And how could conservationists make a case for valuing things which go beyond human interests? In 1993, ECOS tackled these questions through a collection of articles on the philosophy of conservation. These included a ‘conservation rationale’ from Derek Ratcliffe, which recognised that while “conservation becomes easier in a well-off society in which people are not oppressed by the need to worry where their next meal is coming from”, ultimately “appeal to a deeper feeling of nature” is necessary to a permanent conservation message.[8] Alan Holland and Kate Rawles’s article in the same issue also asked some provoking questions: what do we mean by ‘nature’ and ‘the natural’? Aren’t invasive weeds, or even the smallpox virus, natural too? Asking these questions, which still feel challenging now, is certainly an antidote to complacency about the purpose and rationale of nature conservation.[9]

Lessons for today

To the reader in 2019, much of this resonates with contemporary issues. The decline of the expert, the unending need to engage stakeholders who know little about the thing in which they have a stake, and the need to demonstrate economic value of abstract things, all remain familiar. Perhaps less recognisable to our culture, is the willingness to take a range of perspectives. In the collection surveyed here, pragmatic articles about Center Parcs, of all things, sit alongside much more abstract thinking. It is clear that a movement, or at least a cause, as represented by ECOS writers, can be a broad church.

NEIL BENNETT

This perhaps reveals the role that ECOS had during this era: as a place for people working across government, the third sector and in business, to share and be exposed to new ideas. Reading it now, the value of a critical, independent journal with a diverse readership seems manifold: as a place for viewpoints to mix, challenge and cohere. The cartoons of Neil Bennett and others also add much to the content, humorously responding in images to what ECOS’s authors were saying in many paragraphs.

It is also clear from these issues that there is value in thinking big: either expansively on a particular subject, or by looking into the future. Comments presented about future social change, and about the direction of conservation policy, seem remarkably prescient. Considering fundamentals, such as questions of ethics or values, can have practical import. Collectively, the ECOS issues surveyed demonstrate that at times of significant upheaval, considering potential new opportunities, alongside thinking broadly, are vital approaches.

References

  1. Phil Rothwell, ‘Sea of Troubles’, ECOS 12(2), 61.
  2. Clive Potter and Bill Adams, ‘Reclaiming conservation’s public face’, ECOS 14 (3/4), 50.
  3. Paul Evans, ‘Starting points’, ECOS 14(1), 2.
  4. Tim O’Riordan and Peter Rawcliffe, ‘Conservation fusion: overcoming the status quo’, ECOS 14 (3/4), 1-2.
  5. Clive Potter and Bill Adams, ‘Reclaiming conservation’s public face’, ECOS 14 (3/4).
  6. ECOS 12(1).
  7. Clive Gordon, ‘Sustainable Leisure’, ECOS 12(1).
  8. Derek Ratcliffe, ‘A conservation rationale’, ECOS 14(1).
  9. Alan Holland and Kate Rawles, ‘Values in Conservation’, ECOS 14(1).

Cite:

Neale, Matt “ECOS 40(2): ECOS revisited – the early 90s melting pot” ECOS vol. 40(2), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/ecos-402-ecos-revisited-the-early-90s-melting-pot/.

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