On Saturday afternoon, I went to collect my wife from Madingley Hall, where she teaches Literature. I was late (probably) and she was sitting on a bench outside, waiting in the dusk, and spellbound by a flock of starlings coming in to roost. As ever they were painting amazing patterns in the sky and for once my wife was captivated by birds.
She is not a birder. Over the years, she has sat in many cars/hides/fields reading a book while I potter around looking for flowers or watching birds. Everyone has their own way of connecting with the world and, to be fair, I have to say that Jane Austen has never quite done it for me. But I did wonder whether Saturday afternoon was a turning point. Maybe, just maybe, the starlings’ performance would do more to awake a feeling for nature than a couple of decades of my detailed explanations of animal behaviour and ecology.
I know that many people believe that a love of nature always starts in childhood. I am not so sure. I think that it can get you at any time. My Dad, on walking from John O’Groats to Lizard Point during his retirement took more interest in the wildlife that he encountered than at any time in his previous 50 years of walking. And I think that I came to birds quite late. I had been a bit distracted by butterflies and big carnivores. It was when I saw my first lapwing through the scope of a vet (the detail never leaves you) that I first began to appreciate birds in all their glory. I was struck by the beauty of its plumage and then its distinctive flight and call. I haven’t wanted to stop looking since.
It goes without saying that I am a huge fan of David Attenborough’s new Frozen Planet series and am delighted to marvel at the latest escapade of an Adélie penguin, but I think that it is only through direct contact with nature that a deep and inspirational connection with nature can be forged. The sad truth is that we face a vicious circle with dwindling available wildlife-rich places meaning chance encounters are less frequent. That means fewer people catching the bug which means fewer people caring enough to do something to save nature.
This is why encouraging contact with nature through everyday living is a core part of the RSPB’s strategy. Through our youth and education work, our people engagement initiatives and even through site visits with politicians – we want more people to see nature at first hand and see how it can change your life.
As for my wife, only time will tell whether she’ll look up from her book the next time the starlings come home to roost.
When did you first fall in love with nature? How do you think we should encourage more people to get in contact with nature?
It would be great to hear your views.
2011 is quite a year for the environment movement. Three giants of the sector have reached notable landmarks: WWF is celebrating its 50th anniversary while Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace burst onto the scene 40 years ago. Am not sure the RSPB's 122 year milestone quite lends itself to a party but colleagues in Cardiff and Bangor tell me that RSPB Cymru's cetenerary is still in full swing.
Last night I was lucky enough to be on the banks of the Thames to celebrate the arrival of the third Rainbow Warrior to coincide with Greenpeace's birthday celebrations. The Rainbow Warrior is such a poignant totem of the environment movement - on the frontline of conflict between humans and the natural world - the epitome of peaceful direct action. Remember that the first ship was sunk by the French foreign intelligent services in 1985 to prevent her from interfering in a nuclear test in Morura.
Rainbow Warrior II was put to service in 1989 but was retired in August this year and will see out its days as a hospital ship run by a Bangladeshi NGO.
And now, the third incarnation is a purpose built "motor-assisted sailing yacht". It is striking to look at. Last night, with a full moon and Thower Bridge as its backdrop, the ship's two 50m masts were lit up. Apparently these masts can carry 1,200 square metres of sail. Those in the know tell me that it is also incredibly fast, which might come in handing the next time it gets into a scrape.
So it made me think. What is the role of peaceful direct action in 21st century enivronmentalism? Not something that the RSPB has explored to date and am not saying that we are going to either. But we have cut our teeth on a number of demonstrations over the past few years (including No Airport at Cliffe, The Wave climate march on the eve of the climate talks and a number of marine parliamentary lobbies). Six Greenpeace supporters scaling Kingsnorth power station three years ago essentially triggered the end of unabated coal-fired power stations in this country. And, whatever you think of the protestors outside St Paul's it has been quite extraordinary to observe the impact that a small number of people have had on the Church of Engalnd if not on the financial institutions. People prepared to make a stand for what they believe in.
So two provocative questions for the end of the week: what do you think is the role of peaceful direct action in 21st century environmentalism? And if Rainbow Warrior is the campaigning totem for Greenpeace, what do think should be the most symbol of RSPB campaigns?
Spending a day at the Royal Society discussing the latest climate science does not automatically give rise to optimism. But I left the joint WWF, Natural England and RSPB conference in better spirits that I had expected.
Yes, the evidence about our warming planet and future climate projections are grim - as Friday’s news of 6% rise in global emissions confirmed, we are not currently on track for global greenhouse gas emissions to peak and then decline by 2015 to allow us to stay within safe limits.
Yes, the predicted and observed impacts on global biomes (such as rainforests, the marine environment, the polar regions and even our own country) are both dire and complex – but at least I feel a little better equipped to understand the implications.
Yes, the macro-political situation feels intractable.
And yes, Professor Bob Watson, the indefatigable Defra Chief Scientist, did say that we should prepare for a world which is 3-5 degrees warmer than it is today.
It is impossible to contemplate that scenario. Just look at the likely impact of temperature rises on wildlife: the latest science suggests that with every one degree C rise in temperature, 10% of the world’s species could be committed to extinction. So if Bob is right – it means a loss of 30-50% of the world's species .
This is not the sort of reality that I am prepared to face.
And, that is where the optimism comes in. We can and should be better communicators to get traction with political leaders. This means simplifying the message, remaining united and being creative about how we engage people on this issue. We could all start by joining the African Climate Connection.
What’s more, in the Government’s own UK National Ecosystem Assessment we have the basis to challenge traditional economics. A new economics would see us value of the environment so that we make different decisions which deliver wider benefits for society.
And, we still have committed people who, in the words of Professor Chris Thomas, refuse to be reviled as the generation that failed to act to stop catastrophic climate change.
This may have to become our life’s work, but we shouldn’t make a fuss about it. We should get on and deal with it.
What gives you optimism that we can get out of the climate change mess we are in?
An important conference is taking place at the Royal Society today. WWF, Natural England and RSPB are hosting an event to assess the latest evidence of climate change impacts on people and nature and consider how we should respond.
We are all getting used to living in an economic crisis. Every morning we wake up to the latest news about the state of the Greek Economy, the Euro bailout fund and the UK Government’s trials and tribulations over growth.
But slowly, but surely, the ecological crisis is ever-deepening. These days, particularly since the collapse of the Copenhagen talks, climate change rarely gets a mention in news bulletins. As I blogged on Monday, the sharp rise in global greenhouse gas emissions is a wake up call to leaders around the world who need to get a grip of the global climate change talks which recommence in Durban later this month.
The pace at which climate change is processing means that it is only a matter of time before we have a Lehman Brothers style moment in the natural world. We owe it to ourselves and our children to do what we can to avoid this happening.
Today, we have a stellar line up of speakers including Defra Minister Lord Taylor and Chief Scientist Professor Bob Watson. I am looking forward to hearing what they have to say. I hope not to be too depressed. I am looking for optimism and some answers as to how we get out of this almighty mess.
I’ll let you know how we get on.
PS I posted a postcript to yesterday's agriculture event as a comment.
Am looking forward to today. I have a meeting with our Council this morning which is always fun. And tonight I am giving a talk to the South East England Agricultural Society. We are debating whether conservation is compatible with intensive farming.
I am not sure what sort of reception to expect, but I am sure it will be colourful evening. Judging by the state of the farmland bird and farmland butterfly indices, you could conclude that it is not possible to reconcile seemingly competing interests. But it is always worth remembering that it was farming practices that allowed many of the species which we now value to flourish. Many species even owe their vernacular names to their association with agriculture: cornflower and corn bunting to name but two.
But as we became better at producing food from our land - a fourfold increase in yield since 1945 - and as the Common Agriculture Policy exerted its influence, farmland wildlife suffered.
Great efforts have been made by many farmers over the past decade to try and reverse the declines but alas, the two biological indicators still show numbers are bumping along at the bottom of the graph. Some of the solutions are in our grasp - environmental stewardship can be made to work harder, payment rates for these schemes need to provide sufficient incentive for farmers to take up the right options and the new CAP must, of course, be made fit for purpose.
Given that so much of our nation is farmed, it is pretty clear that, if we want to recover farmland wildlife, we have no option other than to find harmonious coexistence between nature and farming. This is why I am so pleased that Defra, in its Natural Environment White Paper, committed to explore the question about how to improve productivity whilst enhancing the envirionment.
With luck, we should get a chance to explore some of the solutions at tonight's debate.
I'll let you know how I get on.
Do you think that it is possible to increase productivity whilst enhancing the environment? If so how? If not, what do we do?