Thoughts from influential nature conservationists…
I would consider myself extremely lucky. I have had very broad experience across what might loosely be called the environmental sector. From practical farming and hands on conservation work, through policy development, to delivering management, chief executive, and non-executive functions. If this experience has taught me anything, it is the fundamental importance of all people and all roles within an organisation. Organisations are social systems, and people contribute so much more than their job title would indicate. The contribution we all make to organisational culture is sometimes overlooked, but it is often pivotal to success.
I could cite many highlights in my career to date, but if I had to single out a few, the first would be recognising the central role that behavioural science has in determining whether we succeed in creating a better future. The last 10 years of my career has predominantly focused on team development, coaching, strategy and improving governance, all of which have prompted such profound insight into how to maximise our collective impact for the environment. On reflection I am not sure why conservation management doesn’t give these matters a more prominent platform.
My second highlight is somewhat different. A few years ago I was relaying just why I love landscape to Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate, and trying clumsily to articulate my feelings about the relationship between people and place. To have this reframed, re-expressed, reborn as the celebratory poem Fugitives was not only a privilege, but a reminder of the power of words. I find it hard to read this poem in its entirety without faltering, it so captured what I failed to say; a highlight like no other. The arts have such an important place in environmentalism. So I’ve focused on just two highlights, but most people I have worked with have been a highlight in one way or another.
How do you define nature conservation?
Conservation is what needs to happens when systems fail. It is an acceptance of unsustainable design and a failure, unintentional or otherwise, to accept that we are part of a complex system that abides by some simple rules of cause and effect. We have elevated the notion of conservation to that of a noble endeavour instead of recognising it as an indicator of systemic failure that tends to focus on symptoms, not causes. To celebrate the concept of conservation without highlighting its role as a compensatory measure to counter damage done elsewhere is probably an oversight.
Nature conservation is, however, important and urgently required. With an economic model that has historically externalised environmental cost much damage has been done, and we need a response. However, there are signs of change. Many businesses are now taking a progressive approach to commerce and driving sustainable outcomes in a way unheard of 20 years ago, the public and third sectors are similarly thinking and acting in a more systemic, joined up way that will inevitably lead to improvements. What’s more, the fundamental role that farmers and growers can play in maintaining the quality of the environment for us all is now well understood, and the artificial division between conservation and land management is breaking down. In the meantime, traditional nature conservation can help maintain the rump of what was once the flourishing nature of the British Isles such that, as wider conditions improve, species can increase their range and abundance.
I go back to my love of landscape. I don’t mean just visual amenity, but the way an area functions, the way its components interact not only with themselves but the social and economic drivers that are so fundamentally interrelated – that relationship between people and place. Nature conservation is part of a wider approach to landscape management; it is necessary as a stop-gap measure to ensure all is not lost. It is no substitute, however, for the wider systemic change required such that positive environmental outcomes are the natural product of wider social and economic systems. The longer we treat nature conservation as an acceptable endeavour, the longer we tolerate unsustainable systems elsewhere. Nature conservation shouldn’t need to happen.
What’s the good news about wildlife and nature at present?
The single most encouraging thing about the present is that we are clearly and obviously capable of addressing the challenges we face. We have the capacity to reverse the declines in nature and put all that is necessary in place for a sustainable future. Increasingly policy makers are making the connection between nature and climate and recognise the importance of transitioning to a different way of living. Alternative economic models are being tested, and progressive organisations are considering their environmental impact as an integral part of their governance. There is a renewed focus on community, and a recognition that a healthy, functioning environment underpins most aspects of our wellbeing. This clearly bodes well for wildlife but comes with a predictable caveat. Knowing what needs to be done, and having the capability to do it, does not equate to actually doing it. Good leadership is essential, as is the need to really understand the operating context and respond in a way that will resonate appropriately.
Beyond the obvious of habitat loss and species decline, what’s your greatest concern in UK nature conservation at present?
Inter-organisational politics are my greatest concern, and the consequent failure to act collaboratively to drive positive outcomes.
Unhelpful idealogues wedded to more traditional approaches to nature conservation act as a distraction and divert scarce resources away from more progressive front line delivery. Those of us with an interest in the future of our planet and our children cannot afford to be distracted and divided.
The longer we badge ourselves as an environmental sector, the more likely it will be that our interests are ‘balanced’ alongside the needs of the economy and wider society. Environmental outcomes must become a part of all decision making, and those with an interest in the environment must become omni-present.
If you had a limited budget on nature conservation in Britain, what would you prioritise and why?
Landscape designations, National Landscapes and National Parks, can provide a high-level focus on how an area of land functions at scale, how socio-economic drivers interact with the environment, and how local and national policy can be deployed to drive positive systemic change. This integrated set of functions is probably unique and positions them as progressive designations tailored for the 21st Century. More specifically, they have an important role in supporting fundamental changes in our food and farming systems. With one eye on the environment, and deep connections to local communities, they are perfectly placed to support change across the primary system that will drive nature recovery in the UK. They have the ability to make nature recovery mainstream, rather than the niche, highly branded, predominantly middle-class activity it can be perceived to be.
However, for these areas to function as designed they must be funded and resourced adequately. Currently they are not, and we run the collective risk of their full potential being unrealised.
How do you feel about your input to the subject – what if anything has it achieved and would you do it differently if starting again today?
I have always tried to make a difference and will continue to do so. I hope that I have brought a more humane approach to the way parts of the sector operates, and I hope I have highlighted the pivotal role that organisational culture, collaboration, behaviours, and identity affect the impact we have. If I was starting again today, I might have chosen to study social science alongside biology. Behaviours are pivotal to achieving a sustainable future and the more we know about people and the way we all interrelate is paramount. We need to work together for a positive future, and we can only do this with genuine curiosity, deep understanding, and a not insignificant dose of empathy.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts.