At the recent WWF State of the Nation conference, Sir David Attenborough, described the biggest obstacle for conservationists as a communications challenge. What he meant, of course, was that the science pointing us to the multiple causes of habitat and species loss was available in reams, but that the science needed to be turned into a narrative that the public understand and motivates them to take action.
Our major conservation organisations have been in existence for well over 100 years, so why is it that we still haven’t managed to engage the majority of people to stand up against the destruction of the UK’s wildlife?
Every conservationist, and many others who aren’t conservationists, have heard of Rachel Carson and her seminal book, Silent Spring, which is often referred to as one of the most important environmental books of the 20th century.
Carson had a hard time following its publication and she had plenty of critics but she did get the message across. Silent Spring highlighted the issues of pesticides and herbicides and their devastating impact on wildlife and people. The public did start to pay attention, so what did she do? I re-read the text recently to see if I could understand how she achieved to change attitudes when others had failed.
In a 2012 article to mark the 50th anniversary of a Silent Spring, Margaret Atwood wrote : ‘So one of the core lessons of Silent Spring was that things labelled progress weren’t necessarily good. Another was that the perceived split between man and nature isn’t real: the inside of your body is connected to the world around you, and your body too has its ecology, and what goes into it – whether eaten or breathed or drunk or absorbed through your skin – has a profound impact on you. We’re so used to thinking this way now that it’s hard to imagine a time when general assumptions were different. But before Carson, they were.’
These observations are undoubtedly true and the very first chapter hammers the message home but making the links between humans and nature is done at every opportunity. I read recently that GPs in Scotland can now prescribe getting in touch with nature as a remedy for illness, and the mental benefits of being in a biodiverse rich environment are well understood. So what else did Carson say that made people take notice?
Personally, I think it was the way she explained that the public had been duped. That decisions had been made in their name, without their knowledge or consent. People were outraged because they were unwittingly part of the problem.
‘I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm. We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons, without their consent and often without their knowledge. If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.’
‘When the public protests, confronted with some obvious evidence of damaging results of pesticide applications, it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half truth.’
‘The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts’
And it shouldn’t surprise us that not much has changed since the 1960s. It’s not a faceless corporation that is ripping up rainforest and planting Palm Oil trees, it’s the business plan of well-known brands, informed by focus groups who unknowingly demand more of this product or these products or even these products. If your soap brand actually asked you if you were OK with destroying rainforest and prime orangutan habitat so that you could wash your hair with their product, would you have said ‘Yes’?
HS2, the super fast rail link between London and Midlands that will save 30 minutes on a trip to Birmingham and 60 minutes on a trip to Manchester, will be accomplished at great expense (£56bn for phase 1) and the destruction of homes, businesses, ancient woodland and immeasurable wildlife habitats. This is being done in your name, for your sake, so that you can get to and from London and Midlands quicker. A government publication states: People around the country will notice the benefits – even if they never take a high speed train. Did anyone ask you? Will you even use the service? Can you imagine how HS2 will benefit you or your family? Did you even realise it was being done in your name?
We’re constantly told that consumers demand cheaper food. Is that actually right? Admittedly, if there’s a choice between two products that look identical and one is cheaper than the other, why wouldn’t you go for the cheaper option? But do we actually demand cheaper food? We are led to believe that intensive farming practices are driven by consumer demand for cheaper food. Yet the organic food market is growing. Yes, it seems that we are will to pay slightly more for food that isn’t subjected to chemical treatments that are also destroying soils and wildlife.
Apple Inc. do not sell the cheapest mobile phones, tablets or computers and yet they are one of the biggest companies in the world. Why? Because they are pretty good at differentiating and making people want to pay more. Isn’t that what a National Union of Farmers should be doing on behalf of its members? Instead of defending intensive farming practices, wouldn’t it be better to defend a more environmentally sustainable method of farming and create some value for its members?
Once again, you and me are to blame for the amount of pesticide use that is destroying habitats and disrupting the food chain. Did you know it was your fault? Do you recall being asked for your opinion?
Like it or not, corporations, politicians and decisions makers all over the world are destroying wildlife and changing our planet in your name. That means only one thing, you can stop them.
It’s a pain I know, but the only way to let these people know if you’re not happy using you as the reason for this wilful destruction is to tell them. Unfortunately they don’t appear to offer an ‘opt out’ service so it will require some effort, but not too much.
Palm Oil is an issue that the public are becoming more aware of; you can check out how well companies are doing by viewing WWF’s Palm Oil Scorecard