By Pippa Marland
Of all the literary genres, nature writing has perhaps more than any other, and sometimes with good reason, been characterised as an apolitical form – as conservative with a small c, reluctant to engage with the politics of landscape and its entanglement with questions of class, gender and race, and slow to call out the larger political and economic forces implicated in the degradation of the natural world.
In this respect the genre has witnessed some extraordinary events in the last week: A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife was released – edited and curated by three nature writers: Chris Packham, Robert Macfarlane, and Patrick Barkham – and The Peoples Walk for Wildlife, instigated by Chris Packham, marched on Downing Street to deliver the Manifesto. As it states in bold in the opening pages of the document, ‘This Manifesto is Political’. Of course these editors are not only nature writers: Chris is also a well-known TV personality, one of the presenters of the hugely popular Springwatch, and a renowned wildlife campaigner; Robert Macfarlane works tirelessly beyond the page as an ambassador and catalyst for the cultures of nature; and Patrick Barkham is a greatly respected environmental correspondent and commentator for The Guardian. Nevertheless, this might be seen as the week in which nature writing and radical environmental politics unequivocally joined hands.
The document is structured around substantial and (in the long-form version) fully-referenced chapters written by a kind of fantasy Cabinet of expert ‘Ministers’, augmented by additional material from a range of wildlife campaigners. It was put together both to provide a focus for the Peoples Walk and to stimulate further action. It is not only political per se, but is an attempt to draw together the sometimes disparate political voices of conservation organisations, ecologists, environmental lawyers, cultural critics, farmers, urban dwellers, and, perhaps most significantly, the young people who are in the process of inheriting Britain’s massively beleaguered nature. As the Introduction to the Manifesto reminds us, according to the State of Nature Report, 2016, ‘we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world’. The situation is so dire that we appear to be waging, to use Chris Packham’s phrase, a ‘war on wildlife’. In the face of such destruction, concerted collaborative action is essential.
Central to the Manifesto is the call for a public service body – Chris Packham proposes the name ‘LIFE UK’ for this organisation – to ‘be established to oversee all conservation and environmental care’. Furthermore, ‘it should receive significant, long-term, ring-fenced funding, so that it is independent from the whims of party politics and different periods of government’. One of the strengths of the ensuing chapters is that they are not just opinion pieces; they each come with their own set of practical recommendations – their ‘ten commandments’. For example,
• Robert Macfarlane, ‘Ministry for Natural Culture and Education’, calls (among other things) for a rewriting of Section 78 of The Education Act ‘to put nature at the centre of the state curriculum from nursery to secondary school’;
• Carol Day, ‘Ministry of Wildlife Law’ advocates the drafting of a radical ‘new Environmental Act, similar to the Human Rights Act, with the core principle that everyone, and nature itself, has the legal right to live in an environment adequate to their health and well-being’;
• Ruth Tingay, ‘Ministry of Wildlife Crime’, argues that ‘All wildlife crimes should be recordable offences using official Home Office codes’;
• Mark Carwardine, ‘Ministry of Marine Conservation’ suggests the creation of ‘an “ecologically coherent” network of significantly large marine reserves for all species inhabiting our seas’;
• and Dave Goulson, ‘Ministry of Pesticides’, recommends setting a target ‘for a 50% reduction in both the weight of pesticides used and the number of pesticide applications per field’, and a ‘target of 20% of UK farmland to be organic’, both by 2022.
Other ‘Minsters’ focus on specific genera and species of wildlife: Ruth Peacey calls for a global cessation of whaling and Dominic Dyer for an immediate end to the UK’s badger cull. Others still look to habitat conservation: the restoration of hedgerows (Hugh Warwick), and the preservation of ancient trees (Jill Butler).
Again, pushing against the stereotypes of both nature writing and conservation groups, the Manifesto is conscious of a need to be inclusive: it’s called A Peoples Manifesto advisedly. For this reason it doesn’t have the air of the privileged preaching to the less privileged, but feels genuinely egalitarian, making space for a range of voices and challenging the media to do the same. As Amy-Jane Beer, ‘Ministry of Social Inclusion and Access to Nature’, notes, ‘You don’t have to be a white, able-bodied, middle-aged, middle-class, cis-male to write about nature, photograph it, present it on TV, or discuss it intelligently in a public forum. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from media output.’
Significantly 50% of the ‘Ministers’ are female, and some contributors are very young – Bella Lack (Youth Ambassador for the Born Free Foundation) and Georgia Locock (conservationist and zoologist), school pupil and student respectively, form the ‘Ministry for Young People in Conservation’ and propose a range of measures designed to engage the attention and skills of the younger generation. The voices of the latter were also heard at the gathering in Hyde Park which preceded the Peoples Walk: Bella and Georgia, along with award-winning young naturalist Dara McAnulty, all gave fiercely impassioned speeches, joining their words to those of more seasoned campaigners such as George Monbiot, Mark Avery, and Chris Packham himself. Particularly poignant was Bella’s comment that she had never seen a hedgehog ‘in real life’, only on a digital screen.
The Manifesto also explicitly recognises the importance of such inclusivity with regard to race. There is a chapter written by Mya-Rose Craig (aka Birdgirl, a 16 year old British Bangladeshi wildlife campaigner and President of Black2Nature), ‘Ministry of Diversity in Nature and Conservation’ , who calls on the conservation movement to ‘acknowledge and address the low visible minority ethnic representation (VME) across the environmental sector’. Mya-Rose also spoke eloquently on stage in Hyde Park about inequalities in terms of opportunity to engage with nature, and cited the figure that only 1 in 200 environmental professionals are VME.
There was some discussion on Twitter about the ethnic makeup of the Peoples Walk itself. David Lindo (aka The Urban Birder) noted that there was ‘a lack of ethnic diversity in the crowds’, and also suggested that media representations perpetuating stereotypes of nature and participation in nature-related activities might be limiting the access of ethnically diverse people:
Mya-Rose (on Twitter) set a goal for subsequent events: ‘Next time 10% VME’.
As Chris Packham emphasised several times in his speeches, the Manifesto is a draft document – one that the editors are inviting the public to help inform and shape – and inevitably there are some rough edges which will require smoothing, as well as some vital alliances which still need to be forged. In addition to its self-proclaimed politicism, the Manifesto also states that it is ‘controversial’. Some more contentious contributions are specifically anonymous, others not attributed – perhaps forming part of the editorial thread – but all are hard-hitting. So, while the document does generally seek to foster cohesion, some groups are singled out for their inadequacy and/or their resistance to wildlife-friendly measures. For example, although the excellent work of individuals within these organisations is acknowledged and praised, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage are deemed ‘not fit for purpose’. The National Farmers’ Union and its devolved bodies are also fiercely criticised: ‘the attention of these “unions” to the interests of smaller farmers is slight, compared to the focus given by them to larger intensive farming methods, and their relationships with powerful agrichemical companies such as Syngenta are notable and significant.’
But the movement cannot afford to alienate farmers, and absolutely vital in the coming months will be the maintenance of communication with the farming community, not just those who self-identify as nature-friendly. Even those who farm organically can feel misunderstood and undervalued by the pro-wildlife and conservationist lobby. James Robinson, an organic, 5th generation dairy farmer from Cumbria, writes on Twitter of ‘constant attacks on farmers’ that make him feel ‘like some lesser sort of being’. He gave his reasons for not attending the Peoples Walk on Twitter:
An exchange followed between Chris and James in which James stressed that ‘conversations between us all will improve understanding of both sides of the debate’:
As Chris Packham notes in his reply, contributions to the Manifesto do include pro-farming pieces, notably ones by Martin Lines (farmer and UK chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network) and James Rebanks (shepherd and highly-acclaimed nature writer) both of whom recognise the good work many farmers are doing and the systemic pressures they face. There was also a lot of goodwill towards nature-friendly farmers expressed in the speeches in Hyde Park, as well as a strong suggestion both there and in the Manifesto that we should all look at our behaviour as consumers. The sections on agriculture stress the importance of radical change in agricultural policy, and argue that ‘farmers as individuals are very rarely the issue, and many should be the most effective part of the solution’. They also make the hugely important point that ‘it is down to all of us to support the UK farming fraternity. Our hunger for the cheapest food means that someone is paying the real cost…our farmers’. As Robert Macfarlane has written elsewhere, ‘the British have long specialised in a disconnect between their nature romance and their behaviour as consumers’ . The Manifesto asks the urgent question, ‘How can we summon the temerity to ask [farmers] to do this, that or the other for conservation if we turn our backs on their beleaguered economy in the aisles of Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Waitrose?’
As for the gathering in Hyde Park and the walk itself, well, they were two of the most uniquely good-humoured and uplifting events I have ever had the pleasure to attend. Local Wildlife Trusts and conservation groups were well represented, as were the bigger national wildlife and conservation organisations. There was no noisy chanting of slogans; instead the streets were filled with recordings of birdsong – a memorial to the forty-four million birds the UK has ‘lost’ since 1966 (‘lost’ is in scare quotes here in recognition of Chris Packham’s point in the Manifesto that we should use language carefully; these haven’t really been lost, ‘they’ve been destroyed’). It was full of visual beauty too. Some people had brought home-made placards, some were dressed as badgers and hedgehogs, while others had crafted intricate models of bats and owls.
While the crowd initially seemed dwarfed by the dimensions of Hyde Park, as the morning went on every time I looked around, the edges of the group had pushed out a little further out on all sides. The numbers had certainly increased significantly by the time we joined Billy Bragg in singing his updated version of ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone?’, and as we set off from the Park towards Downing Street it was clear that there were a lot of people.
By the time we got to Whitehall, according to police estimates, we were ten thousand strong. Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was not available to receive the Manifesto. Instead it was delivered to Sir John Randall, environmental adviser to No. 10 by Chris Packham and a group of five young people. Early reports in The Guardian and The Independent on Saturday afternoon spoke of ‘hundreds’ of wildlife lovers gathering in Hyde Park. Reading these accounts on the train shortly after the walk finished, I felt that they had underestimated the significance and size of the event, and indeed the published figures were soon revised upwards. But they perhaps set the tone for a rather underwhelming coverage of the Walk in the media more broadly. BBC and ITV news’ coverage of the day was sparse; Sky news did a far better job of capturing its magnitude. This was perhaps the only demoralising aspect of an event that had been so full of hope – the notion that ten thousand people who care passionately about the fate of Britain’s wildlife marching on Westminster with a Manifesto brimming with proposals for political change isn’t deemed newsworthy. Chris Packham tweeted,
Perhaps it was a timely reminder of the challenges that lie ahead, in terms of achieving some of the recommendations included in the Manifesto, and of raising the environmental movement from what often, quite inexplicably, seems to be such a low point on the public and political agenda. The Walk concluded with a reiteration of the importance of being ‘political’. We were encouraged to ask our MPs if they were on the Walk for Wildlife (politicians were reportedly thin on the ground, though Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion) and Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) were thanked for attending) and to ask them to read the Manifesto.
The kind of radical changes needed to address the plight of wildlife in the UK will require an immense collective effort to bring disparate interest groups and agencies into dialogue and to embed measures to safeguard the natural world into every aspect of our culture and society. A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife marks a significant step in this direction and The Peoples Walk for Wildlife reflects the existence of a huge groundswell of enthusiasm for collaboration and positive action. As Chris Packham states, ‘we do not all have to agree about the all the details – but we must agree on a shared agenda. We must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of those who care enough to take some action and be part of making a difference’. Shoulder to shoulder we definitely were, and I’m hopeful that together we will begin to make a difference. It’s good to see nature writers at the very heart of the initiative.
The Manifesto can be downloaded here: A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife
Patrick Barkham will be a keynote speaker at the ‘Land Lines’ conference on 28th Feb/ 1st March 2019. Full details will be announced shortly.
Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar was the winner of the AHRC/Land Lines public poll to find the UK’s favourite nature books. Read more here: Winner of AHRC/Land Lines poll