What Have I Learnt from the Conference for Nature?

September 3, 2014

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.

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  • Reply BenNiblett September 3, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Sounds like a fascinating event, Ruth, thanks for summarising it so clearly. You too have no shortage of wisdom and expertise, and you also have the gift of making it interesting!

  • Reply Greg Valerio September 4, 2014 at 8:17 am

    Hi Ruth, I am afraid your comments on politicians are unfortunately accurate. What we need now is to recognise that the future does not rest in the hands of political elite, but in the hands of ordinary activists. These issues are too important to leave to an elite minority.

    • Reply Júlio Reis September 4, 2014 at 1:53 pm

      ‘Government is too big and important to be left to the politicians’ (Chester Bowles, here). Or, you could run for office yourself. Why not? Maybe after you set the British churches on the straight and narrow.

      • Reply ruthvalerio September 4, 2014 at 7:45 pm

        oh gosh, no I think I’ll stick with what I’m doing thanks. Anyone who actually WANTS to get into politics must be mad.

        • Reply Júlio Reis September 5, 2014 at 4:26 pm

          Erm, well, I think about that often. Only because of the huge shortage of level-headed politicians who would actually *listen* to what the people are saying. But I contemplate the cost of doing it well, and honestly I don’t think I’ll pay that price.

  • Reply Joanna September 4, 2014 at 10:37 am

    It is interesting you mention the gender aspect. I was at a conference earlier on in the year on Land Use and the statement from the front was staggering. They felt that since they had about 50/50 spilt in gender of attendees they had the issue sorted, but in the same way as the conference you attended, only one female keynote speaker – they still have a way to go and they need to open their eyes to see that.

    • Reply ruthvalerio September 4, 2014 at 7:46 pm

      yes it’s an interesting one – and once you’re ‘switched on’ to noticing that sort of thing you can’t ever turn it off, so to speak

  • Reply Mike Lacey September 4, 2014 at 10:54 am

    Lord de Mauley is probably correct (sadly). We got the equivalent of ‘with a hint of green’ when what we really want/need is ‘Lincoln Green’.

  • Reply Tony Sneller September 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Interesting comments on politicians and the political process. However, we are as much to blame as the politicians themselves in that we have separated politics from everyday life. Politics has become something that others do – and a particular kind of ‘other’ at that.

    If we could get people to grasp that getting out of bed in the morning to go to work, or not as the case may be, or to go shopping, is a political act then the people would realise the value of political action. It is a political act in that it impacts on the world in which we live and shapes how we live together.

    It is of course a vicious circle – the question is how do we break that circle……

    • Reply ruthvalerio September 5, 2014 at 7:30 pm

      yes, this is something Ulrich Beck writes on – he talks about sub-politics and how politics is conducted at social sites that were previously considered unpolitical. The work of Micheletti is good too (in her book ‘Political Virtue’) and she uses the memorable phrase, ‘thinking politically privately’.

      • Reply Dan Story September 23, 2014 at 3:17 pm

        I thought you and your followers may be interested in my recent series of blog articles, “Should Christians Be Environmentalists,” based on my book of the same name (Kregel Publications, 2012). You can check it out at http://www.danstory.net/blog.

      • Reply ruthvalerio September 24, 2014 at 10:54 am

        that’s lovely Dan, thanks for pointing me/us to what you’ve written. It looks excellent. Good to meet you here, Ruth

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