What Have I Learnt from the Conference for Nature?

state of natureWhere do you get Sir David Attenborough, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the feminist writer Germaine Greer, a Fransiscan monk, Tony Juniper, the CEO of the Mineral Products Association, and Lord Peter Melchett all in one room? At the Conference for Nature of course.

Seventeen months ago, a coalition of the UK’s leading conservation and wildlife organisations released the ground-breaking State of Nature Report, which showed that 60% of our native species are in decline and 1 in 10 are at risk of extinction. The aim for this invitation-only conference was, in the words of RSPB Chief Executive Mike Clarke, to find, ‘inventive solutions and creative partnerships with many sectors, underpinned by a meaningful commitment from Government’.

david attenboroughIt was a fascinating day and the conference room looked like a Who’s-Who of the environmental and conservation world. Opened with an address by David Attenborough, it then went on to have sessions on politics (with plenary contributions from Barry Gardiner MP, Lord de Mauley); Civil Society (Andy Lester, A Rocha UK’s Conservation Director – who did us proud I might add! – and Brother Sam SSF), and Business (Mike Barry, M&S Director of Sustainable Business). Other equally interesting and notable people formed panel members after each session. The final keynote speech came from Nick Clegg, and then closing remarks were given by Peter Young, Aldersgate Group Chairman.

What have I learnt from the day? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. As always, the problem is massive

The State of Nature Report last year was a depressing read and showed the awful decline of our native UK species. Hedgehogs, butterflies, moths, birds, beetles…. Across the spectrum the many species that know and love (and many more that some of us won’t even be aware of) are disappearing. There was nothing today to indicate that any of that has changed. If anything, the indications are that the situation is continuing to worsen.

  1. Politicians are infuriating

The political session really naffed me off. The panel Q&A with Barry Gardiner, Lord de Mauley, Caroline Lucas and Julian Hupper (MP for Cambridge) was nothing more than an elongated party political broadcast with very little said of real substance (Caroline Lucas was the best of the bunch in this regard it needs to be said). Boring, boring, boring. If this is the state of our political scene then it leaves me with very little hope indeed.

(As an aside, can you believe that Lord de Mauley actually believes that this government really has been the greenest government ever??)

  1. But… we need the politicians

There is lots that politicians cannot do, and much that we cannot leave them to do. BUT, they are vital. What came through continually was that we need them to set the frameworks within which business and civil society can have some long-term confidence to take action. So we cannot give up on them and try to go-it-alone. We have to keep pushing them to legislate (and yes even tax) in favour of green and sustainable policies and practices, and to keep reminding them that a green economy is the only feasible way forward.

  1. Business also is crucial

One of the highlights was hearing from various business leaders from CEMEX, MPA, M&S and Kingfisher about the excellent work they are doing to integrate sound conservation and sound business. Since 2010, for example, CEMEX have created 500 hectares of priority habitats through working with the RSPB and others to restore quarries that they have created and they have 64 sites of significant nature conservation value.

As Mike Berry from M&S said, ‘nature is the very essence and building block of our business: it underpins the success of our business’, and as Tony Jupiter said, ‘without nature we don’t have a future for our economy’.

If you are reading this as a business person remember that your business would not exist without nature so ask yourself what you can do to conserve and enhance that nature.

  1. We need to be working together

Whilst interest in politics is waning, interest in the natural world is increasing. Last year there were 75 million trips to England’s natural areas: five times more than trips to a premier football match. If you add together the membership of all the organisations at the conference (and there were big ones present: National Trust, RSPB, WWF, Friends of the Earth, the Wildlife Trusts etc etc) you had millions of people represented in that one room. Just think of what could happen if we were all mobilized and acting together…

  1. The gender imbalance was a curious thing

There are women at the top of some key organisations: Stephanie Hilborne (the Wildlife Trusts); Helen Ghosh (National Trust); Lucy McRobert (A Focus on Nature); Caroline Drummond (LEAF), and of course A Rocha UK’s very own CEO, Mairi Johnstone. And yet of the 14 keynote speakers, only 1 was a woman. Broaden that out and of the 27 overall contributors, 8 were women.

I simply mention it as an odd thing, and I hope the organisers might rectify that another time.

  1. Food is key as we move forward

Okay you might expect me to say that, but it really is. At every angle in these discussions, from farming practices to countryside management to nature accesss to supermarkets and the purchasing of food, it was clear that food could be both a significant problem and a significant solution.

  1. There is confusion over values and language

At some times people in the conference talked about such things as eco-system services and natural capital. At other times people talked about awe, wonder and hope. How do we view the natural world? Are these different values compatible or mutually exclusive?

So what have I taken away?

Overall, I’m not too sure. Personally I felt very small amongst those giants of the environmental world. The knowledge and expertise in the room was impressive.

I’m not sure if I have come away positive or disheartened. A bit of both probably.

One thing for sure is that I am aware as ever of the challenges we face but also of the potential that lies within the Church if we can wake the sleeping giant and get people engaged. I am determined to keep going.