Vision for Nature: saving wildlife past, present and future

A transcript of my talk at the Natural History Museum on 11 December 2015.

A place where birds don’t fly is a place where people don’t mix, ideas don’t get sparked, friendships don’t get forged, stereotypes don’t get broken, collaboration doesn’t happen, trust doesn’t get built, and freedom doesn’t ring. – Thomas L Friedman

Birds have been at the heart of my life for about as long as I can remember. I’ve loved wildlife since I was a lot younger and at least a little shorter than I am today. One of my earliest memories is of watching a little egret on Brownsea Island in Dorset in the early 1990s, when that bird was a true rarity. Thanks in part to a changing climate they are now so ubiquitous you struggle not to trip over them when birdwatching.

Aged seven, I learned about the Amazon rainforest at primary school. When I got home that evening I was intrigued and my parents helped me to write letters to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF.

Several weeks later and I remember post dropping through the letterbox for me! When you’re six or seven this is such an unusual event, and you’re perpetually jealous of adults who get post every day (until you grow up and realise it’s mostly bills).

The leaflets and posters I was sent contained stories about deforestation, pollution and overfishing. And that made me angry, really angry.

So, in my teenage years, when I first heard about climate change, I was acutely interested in it and deeply troubled – it posed perhaps the biggest threat to the wildlife I loved, and as a young person, it was going to make a big difference to the years that lay ahead of me.

As I speak, world leaders are finalising negotiations that could make or break the climate as we know it on Earth. In all likelihood, the deal struck in Paris will do neither, and will set the world on the right course, but not at the right speed, to tackle climate change.

Whatever happens, climate change sits at the heart of the current extinction crisis that our planet faces.

New research shows that major past extinction events in Earth’s history may have been linked to abrupt (read several hundreds of thousands of years-long) shifts in the climate and not just or not at all to cataclysmic events like asteroids.

In my day job I work on climate change policy for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In mid-November we published a report showing that wildlife across Europe is already feeling the effects of climate change.

Up to one third of Europe’s bumblebee species could lose 80% of their habitat by 2100. Climate change has been linked to a 70% decline in UK kittikwake populations. It could be a factor if the Iberian lynx goes extinct in Spain.

Two weeks later, our partner organisation BirdLife International published a report showing that birds across the world are already being affected by climate change.

I spent a year living among the mosquitoes and mud of an Indonesian peat swamp forest. New research published just this year has shown that climate change will have an even bigger impact on habitat change on Borneo than human land use shifts will have. Climate change could be what does for the orangutan.

Across the world, climate change is likely to be the single biggest contributing factor to the loss of wildlife and species. The practical implications of it for extinction are clear.

More widely, as we all know, we face an extinction crisis. Rates of extinction are anywhere between 100 and 1000 times higher than the background rate.

I now want to move onto the way that extinction finds expression in our culture and in/through our language(s).

For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our [passenger] pigeons mourn the loss. – Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac

This is the second element of my talk – the intersection between culture and extinction. We learn then from Leopold that the cultural concept of extinction is a relatively new one.

In many ways, culture allows us to mourn the loss of species. It also becomes a place where many of the same power dynamics of ecological extinction are played out.

Languages allow us to express connection to the natural world, and to perform our place in it. But languages can also be hunted, persecuted, neglected or obliterated to extinction. I was struck by the many similarities between the extinction of languages and the extinction of wildlife.

I wanted to describe a journey across the Welsh hills accurately and effectively, [but] it seemed I had only the barest, blandest, words at my command. There was a hill, then a dip, then some lumpy bits and then it got stony. It was acutely frustrating not to have the right words available, like trying to fix something without the right tools. I reasoned that there must be words for these details of the landscape precisely because I needed them in order to do what people must have needed to do for millennia: give directions, tell a story or find a place. – Dominick Tyler

Many experts believe that we are witnessing the fastest ever rate of the loss of languages, due in part to globalisation and homogenisation brought on by the spread of capitalism and western values. Some people have set up protected areas and reserves where endangered languages can survive or even flourish. And one of the academics I read noted how catastrophic natural events can lead to the decline of languages.

As climate change forces those on the front lines, small island states, to flee their homes, entire cultures and languages may become extinct. With this we may lose local ways of living in harmony with the natural world, ways that are bound up in their culture and language. Traditional practices that benefit nature may be lost as globalised solutions are imposed by international bodies.

The same writer also extolled the need for a ‘climate’ in which positive attitudes towards bi- and multi-lingualism could flourish. Our climate needs to be suitable both for endangered wildlife and endangered languages.

Unfortunately, those in economic and political positions of power are behind many of the institutions, literal and metaphorical, that result in the extinction of both wildlife and languages.

It is the most marginalised in our societies – cultural and linguistic minorities, voiceless wildlife, and (as I will come on to show) young people – who are disinherited of power and pushed to the precipice of extinction. Extinction becomes a place where power politics play out.

I was speaking to a friend just this week who told me about the plight of the Mursi people in Ethiopia. The Government is undertaking one of the largest ever land grabs in history by building a dam that will dry up Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world.

This threatens not only the wildlife associated with it but also the culture and homes of this people.

Culture can be a safe place, where we can venerate rare and threatened wildlife. Projects such as the Ghosts of Gone Birds can be vehicles for drawing people’s attention to the plight of wildlife.

However, there is a double movement, or a tension, at the heart of the culture of extinction. A species that is biologically extinct becomes venerated, idolised, like the dodo. Its ecological loss somehow might matter less because it is immortalised in its new habitat – the lines of our poems and photo frames in our galleries. I posit that there is a dangerous tension at the heart of this culture of extinction that could put some creatures at risk – do we fear the loss of each tiger less because we can always pick up a tiger tshirt on amazon?

In a sense, extinction is always already itself extinct, because as soon as we move a creature into that cultural category of extinct, we subvert its loss, and we breathe new life into it.

But culture might also be our best ally in giving voice to the voiceless and in preventing ecological extinction in the first place.

Where’s your shame? You’ve left us up to our necks in it. – David Bowie

To close, I want to share with you the ways that other young people I work with are trying to preclude this. I help to run A Focus on Nature, the UK’s leading youth nature organisation. We are building a UK youth nature movement.

The young people that are part of this organisation are constructing and imagining a different future through culture. Our Vision for Nature project uses photography, art and creative writing to set out how young people hope to see the natural world in the future. We’ve also managed to take into account the views and visions of over 200 young people. Using youth culture we are imagining a different future. One that we hope is free from the threat of extinction.

And our report imagines a different culture, one where our attitudes to wildlife have radically altered.

For young people and future generations to lose out on wildlife that may have gone extinct before they were born is a gross case of intergenerational injustice.

A story, passed on by word of mouth, that a friend shared with me helps to illustrate this idea of intergenerational justice. In the 1930s an entomologist was brought in to explore the insects found at New College Oxford. One evening at dinner, he happened to notice that the beams in the ceiling were beset by a beetle that was eating them away. They needed replacing.

News of this spread around the college and reached the college groundskeeper. Tradition had dictated that the knowledge had been passed from groundskeeper to groundskeeper over the centuries, that when the college had been founded, a small copse of trees had been planted in order to provide wood for future generations when these beams needed replacing. This story encapsulates the idea of intergenerational justice.

The young people who have helped us put together vision for nature are painting the memories they want to have, and using culture to hold off extinction. By setting out their vision and making it known, we are putting pressure on those in power to save nature.

I believe that a strong sense of memory is crucial. Returning to Aldo Leopold, he describes sawing down an oak tree. Each ring they cut through takes them farther back in time, and he imagines all the events that have happened during the tree’s life, right back to the family that planted it so as its wood could one day keep him warm in the depths of winter. He was a writer acutely aware of the history he relied on.

People like these put in place the institutions and infrastructure, literal and metaphorical, that we as naturalists rely on today. They did this driven by passion, but also with future generations, to be born after their lives, in mind.

In a sense, we owe a debt to them, one that we can repay by performing similar kindnesses and gifts for future generations. Our memory of those gifts, the stories they are wrapped in, is crucial, for it shows us the path that we should take, the gifts that we as young people who care about nature should try to leave for the future.

By imagining a future in which extinctions have been retold as recoveries of wildlife, we are resisting that tension or double movement at the heart of the culture of extinction. And we are moving ourselves as young people and wildlife out of that marginalised space into a position of having a voice and having more power. That is what culture allows us to do.

This takes us away from the precipice of extinction, the extinction of wildlife and the extinction of experience, to a space of more possibility and true richness.

We will be publishing our final Vision for Nature report in early 2016.

I would like to close with a quote from one of my favourite authors. It’s a quote that I try to live up to every single day.

I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable – George Orwell

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