CAN WE GO BEYOND SELF-INTEREST & EMBRACE TRUE ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION
Everyone we meet claims to love the environment, wildlife and conservation. The reality is that this passion – whilst usually a genuinely held belief – so often reflects a perspective of the world viewed through a single self-interested lens.
We frequently come across people who want to ‘optimise’ the environment for something that is of particular importance to them – peeling back the layers tends to reveal a use of the environment to facilitate their business or personal interests (a means to an end) as opposed to delivering positive environmental and social impact for the planet as a whole (as their primary objective).
Let’s explore some examples.
Food and Farming. Many farmers are genuinely lovers of nature but in trying to find a route to economic viability of their businesses, seek to maximise yields often in the short term at the expense of wildlife, their soil system, and water quantity. Farmers and associated interest groups will argue passionately about food security whilst refusing to consider the impact of biodiversity loss and the irony that pesticides used to protect certain crops (neonicotinoids) decimate pollinators, presenting a much greater threat to food security than conservation ever will. Other groups argue for the importance and cultural heritage of certain types of farming, most often sheep farming, whilst simultaneously lamenting the damaged state of the natural environment and the losses they’ve seen in flora, fauna and fungi that result from over grazing.
Sporting Enthusiasts. Stalkers, hunters, fans of game shooting and even fishermen seek to maximise their enjoyment of the natural world by bending and distorting it to suit their preferences. This can include burning the hillside (swaling or muirburn), releasing invasive species in vast numbers, killing competitors species and medicating target species to increase populations of deer, grouse or stocked fish, all at the expense and to the detriment of the surrounding environment. Despite being architects of these ‘focused’ ecosystems, passionate sporting enthusiasts will honestly and wholehearted contend that they are conservationists and environmentalists.
Perhaps most troubling are the significant number of local communities wanting to continue the barbaric act of fox hunting across the landscape due to its claimed historical, culture or social importance and again in the name of their version of conservation. Having heard this time and again, my interpretation of this narrative is that they “just don’t want anything to change!”
Specific Species (most often Birds). Some of the most ardent environmentalists are those that feel a particular affinity to birds or often specific bird species. This can result in people seeking to ‘optimise’ a landscape for a specific species at the expense of a much wider range of wildlife. This drastically limits landscape recovery and sentences many parts of the uplands to a barren and ecologically sparse future. In our experience, this is particularly the case in Yorkshire and the Lake District, where we have seen first-hand how the preservation of curlew (a wonderful and musical wading bird which of course should be protected) being solely prioritised to the expense of all other ecological species and indictors, can deny an opportunity for real environmental improvement at scale.
Gardeners. One of the most surprising encounters we’ve had is with passionate botanists, who are absolutely committed to a zero-tolerance approach to invasive species, except for the “pretty” ones they like to see. This has presented itself most starkly in respect to rhododendron which is suffocating and threatening broadleaf woodlands and increasingly rare areas of Atlantic rainforest across the country, yet groups have campaigned for its place in the landscape for a range of reasons, including cultural heritage, historic record, diversity and because “we just think the flowers are pretty” (for the very short period in each year when they are in full bloom).
Energy Producers. Developers, landowners and proponents of hydropower choose to espouse the need for that form of renewable energy to mitigate climate collapse and the biodiversity crisis, but choose to ignore its catastrophic impact on our river systems that result. The presence of artificial barriers to fish – most notably dams –is one of the principal reasons for the serious decline in aquatic species, because they limit access to spawning grounds. As a result, our children may no longer see wild salmon in the UK. Of course, we need to generate increasing amounts of renewable energy and, whilst recognising that they also have impacts on the natural world, we’re advocates for both wind and solar as better options for achieving a Net Zero transition. In our opinion, hydropower is a price too high to pay when other technologies are so readily available.
In each of the above examples, the individuals or groups in question genuinely and passionately believe they are environmental champions. The reality is that their campaigns promote their version of conservation, which tends to be preservation of the status quo in a way that often allows them to enjoy or profit from nature.
This level of cognitive dissonance is so severe that these groups are arguably ‘greenwashing’ themselves. On an individual level, this is probably for the better. I’ve witnessed first-hand the realisation of a wonderful farming patriarch of the long-term impact of conventional agriculture on the land he was passing to his son and I’ve seen an experienced sportsman recognise the need to change his way of interacting with the land and understanding that, despite his decades of hard work, his legacy was fewer grouse and a declining landscape. The pain both felt was so clearly incredibly uncomfortable, and at a point of time in their lives when they could do so little to make amends, perhaps it’s better that they don’t realise what they’ve done to the natural world.
This is why Oxygen Conservation will always listen to the opinions of groups whose views differ from ours – to constantly understand their perspectives and challenge our aspirations for the natural world. To me, it is obvious that the next generation, should we leave them a world to look after, will almost certainly prove our thinking wrong and be lost as to how we made so many mistakes, me very much included.
This is why we will never seek to optimise any landscape for one single purpose. We engage with as many different perspectives and opinions as possible – listening to learn, not just to respond.
Over time, we will craft a masterplan for each of the estates we are fortunate enough to manage, that maximises positive environmental and social impact. We will generate a profit as a result, but crucially not as the purpose, of what we do. We know that we will have to adapt our plan as the climate changes and we intend to continue learning and implement better ways of protecting and improving the environment for people and wildlife.