Friday 12 May 2023

#081 Why Is Conservation Failing?

In 2016 I wrote the blog Expeditions, Projects & Extinctions. It was, in part, a contemporary view on wildlife and habitat conservation. Seven years on, it’s time to revisit this subject.

The intervening years have seen the world go through the Covid pandemic and then be plunged into  energy market price inflation and food production instability. This has manifested itself within the United Kingdom as the cost of living crisis. To some extent, our current situation was precipitated by war in the Ukraine. But there are other deeper rooted causes. 

What has all this to do Conservation? 

The natural world is inextricably connected and affected by global geopolitics as well as domestic government policies. We’re not just talking here about the obvious: Such as burning fossil fuels for energy production, or whether there really are any green alternatives which can match the exponentially growing demand for electrical power. It may seem abstract, but it is basic things like people’s health and wellbeing which are a truer litmus of conservation and it’s potential.

The recent David Attenborough series Wild Isles showcased the beauty, spectacle and wonder of our domestic wildlife. The tenacity and talent invested throughout the production came across in every frame. Wild Isles also broke new ground in its narration timbre, consistently informing viewers of the precarious state of degraded and polluted ecosystems in the United Kingdom. Reading the reviews, this approach was too much for some, didn’t go far enough for others.

Photo copyright: Stu Westfield

But the statistics show that, as a whole, conservation efforts are failing to prevent habitat and species losses on a catastrophic scale. The dedication of scientists, rangers, custodians and volunteer groups is simply is not enough to halt this trend. Twenty three years on, David Attenborough’s closing address in State Of The Planet has become even more prescient

“The future of life on earth depends upon our ability to take action. Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there’s a change in our societies and our economics and in our politics. I’ve been lucky in my lifetime to see some of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer. Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy and inhabitable by all species” – Sir David Attenborough (State Of The Planet, in closing. November 2000)

However, for anyone who campaigns for the environment and by extension, the future of our species, there is a question which should be asked.

Why would a hard working member of the public care about anything you are saying when their thoughts and actions are wholly preoccupied with putting food on the table, clothing their kids and paying the utility bills. 

Bit too strongly worded? Until conservation can win wholescale support from the population, it will continue to be a by-word for management of base-line shift towards irreversible habitat loss and consequential species extinction.

Photo copyright: Stu Westfield

So let’s look at some of the reasons why people have neither the capacity or ability to engage with conservation. Without addressing these issues, there’s not going to be any meaningful progression onto inclination and choice. Only then, with understanding, comes love and value. 

Within the context of my own experiences and other insights, I’ll also share the rationale behind some the choices I have made to directly and indirectly support people and conservation. 

Circular Signposting.

I am a carer for my wife, who has suffered irreversible decline in health due to complications which originated with cancer and its treatment fifteen years ago. To the extent that, for some time, she has had persistent, chronic pain and is registered disabled. I’m not fishing for a pity party here and I am very much aware that there are people who are considerably worse off than us. But being an unpaid, non-voluntary carer, has an undeniable impact upon our choices and opportunities. After prompting by friends, I have looked at what help is available specifically for carers. My experience of this is so deeply shocking that I could easily write a whole feature on this alone. 

The only conclusion I have reached is: Unpaid carers, the sooner you abandon hope, the quicker you reach acceptance and the realisation that there is no provision for you. 

As a brief illustration, there are several organizations to which the UK Government signposts carers. These are very good at signposting onwards, without doing anything useful in terms of actual help or assistance. If you follow the trail to its conclusion you end up back at the UK Government website. 

Some crumbs are out there, but they are so narrowly targeted as to be inaccessible. 

Flippantly, it all starts to sound like: Were you a nurse, working in Edinburgh, between the December 1970 and January 1971? Then you can fill out this lengthy form and see if you’re eligible for £300 towards a new boiler.

Source credit: Carers UK

Annually, around 4.3 million people become unpaid carers (source: Petrillo and Bennett, 2022). With such high barriers to accessing welfare, many of these folks are simply existing. It’s delusional to think that they will give anything other than a passing thought about the amount of untreated effluent the water companies are discharging into Britain’s rivers and coastline. 

Food banks.

In 2022/23 approximately 2.99 million people used a foodbank in the United Kingdom, an increase when compared with the previous year. Between 2008/09 and 2020/21, the number of foodbank users increased in every year, from just under 26,000 to more than 2.56 million. (source: Statista, 2023).

“When it first opened, pre-Covid, our food bank was serving mostly homeless people. These days, most of those coming through the door are people working full-time” – CNN Business, on food banks in Doncaster. May 2023

So many people are now having to choose between affording to heat their homes or buying food. When faced with such an existential crisis, do they care if salmon numbers in the Spey have been decimated? 

Photo copyright: Stu Westfield

In January 2022 a survey found that 30% of nurses had difficulty paying for food, and that 14% were relying on food banks. (source: Nursing Times, January 2023)

"To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are." - Jacob Rees-Mogg, Member Of Parliament, 2017

The fact that food banks have become normalized and working people from diverse professions require them is an absolute tragedy. That the Government have simultaneously failed to address the causes of this and actually say their existence is a good thing, shows a deep disconnect and inconsiderate disregard for their constituents. 

Source credit: The Russell Trust

A persistent agenda promoted by Government policies and certain elements of the tabloid press has been the demonization of the desperate and vulnerable. Shaming and making them pariahs, as if they are deserving of their circumstances. It’s a nasty and vindictive strategy of setting people against people. 

Source credit: TUC

But this only works for as long as those on the receiving end are few and have no voice. Now the numbers are rising into tens of millions. Lets stop listening to the bile and point the finger back at the true architects of this hatred and propaganda.

Mental Health Care.

At the Peak Centre in Edale, where I work as a freelance instructor a couple of afternoons each week, we frequently welcome organizations with guests from challenging backgrounds or in recovery from traumatic life events. The Peak Centre is not operated as a therapeutic venue, per se. But its location and facilities do offer space and tranquility which is appreciated by many. Post-Covid it became noticeable how many young people had been affected in negative ways by the lockdowns and absence of in-person social contact.

When the opportunity arose, I enrolled on a funded three month online mental health first aid course. The course was assessed, requiring some proper learning input and the potential for good was obvious. However, when it came to ongoing help for folks in crisis, we might as well have been reading a fairy story, full of catchy phrases like holistic care, mental health continuum and signposting. Yes, that word again. Which, when you take an in depth look at mental health care provision, these words are actually an aspiration, an ideal, which rarely matches reality.

Source credit: Champion Health

The cost of living crisis, so soon after Covid, has caused terrible anxiety and widespread mental health illness. It is also known is that stress on this level can and does also give rise to physical illness. Despite a few weaselly words, little action is being taken by politicians. They’ve been more interested in appropriating taxpayers money and lining their own pockets with lucrative PPE and other dodgy contracts to their mates.

Photo copyright: Stu Westfield

Engagement with nature, fresh air and physical exercise has been proven to be beneficial in promoting good mental health and recovery. Given no hope or means of escaping a downward spiral of mental ill health, how does a person find the energy to campaign against their local ancient woodland being felled so that the train can get into London ten minutes quicker?

Annexation of land and opportunities.

Sufficient money is out there to solve many of Britain’s social issues. But, it is being accumulated in the hands of the few. And the inequality gap is growing. 

Billionaire Britain 2022 reveals that: The wealth of the UK's billionaires has skyrocketed by over 1000% between 1990 and 2022, ballooning by around £600bn. The number of billionaires exploded from 15 in 1990 to 177 this year. Between 2020 and 2022 alone, billionaire wealth increased by almost £150bn (source: Equality Trust. December 2022)

Stratigraphy of earnings within an economy will always exist and is not in itself a bad thing. It is human nature to try and do better for oneself and family. In a healthy society, reward is rightly distributed to those putting in the effort and achieving results. But a fair proportion is also set aside to protect disadvantaged people from deprivation. We do not live or work in a healthy society.

Source credit: Rob Evans, The Guardian, 2017.

Wealth distribution is now so unequal that half of England is owned by 1% of the population. (source: The Guardian. April 2019) The justification for this situation, trickle-down economics, has been proven not to work. The uber rich don’t like sharing their wealth or assets. 

Annexation and exclusion is a modern take on 'Gerrof my land'. As seen when millionaire hedge fund manager, Alexander Darwall, successfully blocked public wild camping on open land. 

“To lose this right at a time when nature connectedness in Britain is the lowest across the whole of Europe is a travesty. We should be increasing, not impairing, people’s ability to spend time in nature.". – Lewis Winks, The Stars Are For Everyone campaign.

Don’t get mad. Get everything.

While outside of context, Ivana Trump’s sentiment epitomizes the attitudes of the obscenely wealthy towards money and assets. It begs the question, how much do these people want, how much will ever be enough? Rapacious greed, also makes them mean, crass and incredibly cheap. 

Millionaire politicians have joined in. Spaffing tax payers money on £840 rolls of wallpaper, claiming expenses for heating their stables, stuffing their tax evading, off-shore accounts with unashamed impunity. All while enjoying self-awarded pay rises totaling 32% over the past 10 years. It’s not as if they were worth it, having presided over the worst drop in living standards in modern times. 

Are you still surprised that tragedy of species extinction causes so few ripples?

Photo copyright: Stu Westfield

Is there a political solution?

After the recent drubbing of the Conservative party in local polls, there is an expectation that these results will be replicated in the next national elections, bringing a change for the better. When you look at the history of opposition over the past decade, I’m not hopeful: Where was your anger, where was your passion, your outrage? I’ve lived long enough to know that, with the next incumbents, there will be a brief period of optimism followed by the same monstrous self-serving, self-interest.

It's a waste of time to hold out for the self-proclaimed ‘brightest and best’ in parliament to show real leadership, actioning policies which enable people to do more than just exist. They just don’t comprehend the concept of service, let alone the nuance of leaders eat last

Conservation will only become important to people who have the ability and choice to love and cherish it.

Photo copyright: Stu Westfield

So what can we do?

Getting out to experience the countryside and nature is a first step. Sharing opportunity and means with friends who are having a tough time, or could not otherwise afford to, is a gift of kindness which can go a long way. Giving directly, maximizes the benefit by removing intermediate steps.

As the organizer of Ranger Ultras trail running races, I’ve always attached great importance to the affordability of our races. Yes, I still need to make a living and put food on my own table. But year on year, we've consistently held back on anything other than very modest price increases to make ensure that all our events are as affordable as possible. 

Photo copyright: Stu Westfield

From the beginning, our trail races have embraced a low-key ethos, which are capped in numbers to respect communities while bringing beneficial trade to local business. We have also rejected the razzmatazz of overhead gantries and excessive plastic paraphernalia. Ranger Ultras’ participants can see that their entry fee has been invested in an authentic uncommercialized experience.

In comparison to similar events, Ranger Ultras events are an excellent combination of price, quality, service, participant experience and value. By putting people before profit we make the enjoyment of trail running and outdoor life accessible to as many people as we can.

Our Ranger Expeditions walks also go a long way in helping people affordably engage with nature in a fun, entertaining and adventurous way. Our clients are treated as individuals, not lost in a mass participation crowd. 

We support charity groups and individual fundraisers with a transparent approach to fees and fair pay for local guides. We do not operate any take-back, or minimum sponsorship schemes. If participants choose to fundraise, all their efforts go directly to the charity of their choice.

Photo copyright: John Figiel

Ranger Expeditions and Ultras may not change the world or solve the problems that conservation is now facing. But what we are doing is helping people make the choice to enjoy the outdoors and engage with nature. And, by taking less, there is more left to go around.

In conclusion.

The welfare of all people is bound to a biodiverse and thriving environment. If conservation is not engaging the broadest possible demographic then environment policy will continue to be driven towards the vested interests of those with the greatest power and influence. 

“I am not sure that human beings need strong leaders. But the idea that the people in charge ought to be responsible grown ups seems pretty engrained in most of us” – John Harris (Columnist, 2021)

Elected members of parliament, without exception, should be asking themselves some serious questions of morality and justice. In terms of what kind of country they wish to preside over. One which is grotesquely unequal, run for the benefit of the few. Or one where people are not relentlessly driven into poverty, but have the means, capacity and choice to engage with and cherish their natural spaces. 

Photo copyright: Stu Westfield

Author: Stu Westfield, May 2022

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