Chris Packham: don’t just moan, stand and be counted
This week, we interviewed the naturalist, nature photographer and author, Chris Packham, about his Walk for Wildlife which will take place in London on Saturday 22 September.
Q. The Walk for Wildlife is a great initiative but why are you doing it now? Why this moment?
I, and many others, have reached a critical point of frustration. We know from the State of Nature report that many habitats and species are in decline. I’m armed with an enormous repository of statistics which I felt I had normalised, and they were just going up. Every time a new survey is done the figures get worse. I sensed that it wasn’t just me feeling this way. There is a general groundswell of people thinking “we have to do something now”.
The walk is a means of allowing people to demonstrate their frustration. To show there’s a commonality of vision. One of the problems the conservation movement has is that we are all quite highly specialised. We’ve become preoccupied with parts of the problem. People devote their lives to rehabilitating bats, hedgehogs, pigeons or foxes – that is all brilliant, I’m not criticising them – I spend a lot of my time working on illegal bird of prey persecution. But what we really need to do is stand shoulder to shoulder and show that all these things are connected.
I’m hoping that, on Saturday, there will be a process of unification for the first time. The invitation has been scattered as broadly as possible, amongst scientists, farmers, foresters, conservationists, environmentalists and so on, with a particular emphasis on young people.
And that was the other purpose behind the walk: to encourage participation from young people. They are an almost immediate source of solutions. There are some very bright, dynamic, committed young people out there and our generation has largely failed them. We need to start building a platform for them to step onto, so they can do so much better than we have done.
An underlying mantra of this walk is that caring is not enough, we’ve got to take action. It’s no good moaning about it in a nature reserve car park. Come to London. Stand and be counted.
Q. You have partly started to address my next question, which is what do you want to happen next?
I hope the walk will light a blue touch paper for empowerment. There are a lot of good ideas and they are not being put into practice because, just like every other aspect of human life and culture, we are slow to change.
At the moment we are very risk averse, there is a fear of upsetting people which has been hampering progress. But there are individuals out there who are committed, intelligent, powerful and outspoken and we need to give them a platform. I’m going to be offering a raft of ideas for public discussion. I’m not saying they are solutions, they are ideas. They are a means of soliciting more. It is very important that people sense that their voice can be heard so we can make progress.
Q. You’ve said that you don’t want it to be a demonstration or political in any way but do you think that there is a role for politics in protecting wildlife and restoring nature?
I don’t want it to be party political. It’s going to be very political with a small ‘p’. Over a long period – I’m talking decades – governments have let us down. They haven’t invested. In fact, they have been de-investing at an alarming rate.
They have not put the importance on looking after the environment they should have done, there’s no question about that. Although the government has a very important role to play, I am conscious that we can’t just wait for them to do it. We’ve got to do it ourselves.
Self-empowerment will promote a movement which will drive government. We have to work on this in two ways: to lobby them in a polite and democratic way and show our disgruntlement, but, at the same time, show through our own actions that we care enough to make a difference.
In the last week the news has not been good: we’ve lost three more hen harriers on grouse moors, a badger cull extension has been announced and we’ve got an issue with shooting seals in Scotland. All of those things are likely to make people angry but, on this occasion, I want them to use their anger as an energy for creative change.
That’s why we have asked people to download birdsong to play on their mobile phones, and we‘ve asked that the banners and placards are polite – I mean there were some fantastic placards during the Trump protest, some of them absolutely hysterical – but the language was not appropriate for the audience that I’m hoping will turn up on Saturday.
Q. In an increasingly complex and worrying world – with people concerned about Brexit, money etc – how do you think we can get them to see the environment as a priority?
One of the lead lines on all of the posters has been ‘see the bigger picture’. One of the reasons we have made so little progress is our system of politics.
We suffer from short termism. The problems you have outlined, Brexit etc, are all artefacts of short term thinking. Looking after the environment and maintaining biodiversity requires long term thinking. Many of the problems cannot be fixed in five years. Decision makers are not interested in taking a course of action that may not be resolved by the time they have been voted out of office. It is that short termism which has hampered our environmental progress.
We need to ask that these issues are taken out of party politics and given long term, significant, ring-fenced funding outside the terms of government office, and on every level: council, national and international.
It needs strength of government, strength of will, to show that these are the ultimate big issues because, if the soils are exhausted, the seas are empty, if every piece of our planet that can be is intensively farmed, we’ve had it. We have to come together for a consensual long term plan.
Q. It sounds like what you are saying is that, whilst engaging people is important, the leaders still need to lead?
They need to pass the baton. They have to have sufficient strength to say this is an issue we can’t address, given our systems of government. They need to accept their limitations. And none of them like doing that. Even if we had an environmental messiah as environment minister or prime minister, in the volatile world of 21st century politics, there’s no guarantee they will be there with enough time to implement any measures for effective change.
They need courage to set up an entirely independent body responsible for managing environmental care that won’t be influenced by all the other peripheral issues of politics.
Of course, Brexit is worrying everyone – whether they voted to remain or to leave – it is going to have significant impact on their lives. Everyone’s concerned about their immediate future, but what is the point if there is no long term future? We have got to have duality of vision. We’ve got to be concerned about doing things now and making sure they are managed as well as possible.
Q. Do you have any particular hopes for the Environment Bill?
So many bills are just piles of paper full of empty words. The government’s 25 year plan was one of the most disappointing documents. When I opened it and saw targets for 2068, I just thought, forget it.
It’s good to have a vision and plan, as long as it is subject to improvement as we learn more. But it has got to come with real intent and muscle.
The premise for generating that raft of ideas I spoke of was that they must be things that, if we implemented them today, would make a difference tomorrow. I, and others, haven’t struggled to come up with almost 200 ideas. And we’ve just got started. In the time it would take to write an Environment Bill half the problems could be partially solved if we just got on with them.
Q. The UK has one of the best established environment sectors in the world, yet our nature and wildlife is still in big trouble. Do you think that, as a sector, despite everything we’re doing, we are punching below our weight?
Very much so. All the figures point to it. 189. That is where we are ranked in terms of the quality of our biodiversity. 189 of just over 200 countries that have been measured.
How on earth can any conservationist, how can I, and I have worked as hard as I can – and there are thousands like me in NGOs, in government, everywhere – how can any of us stand with our hands on our hearts and say that we have succeeded in our objective. We have failed. We are still looking at catastrophic decline, we are still looking at one of the most damaged environments anywhere on earth. For all of our skills, all of our passions and energies, we have failed, and that is the bottom line.
That’s what has compelled me to give up every moment of my summer to organise this walk, because I’m basically racked with guilt.
Q. You have inspired so many people, Saturday will prove that. But who inspires you?
I met an 11 year old young man last weekend in Scotland wearing a shark t-shirt. He told me he’d been sacked as a shark ambassador because he’d spoken out about the Bear Grylls Adventure in Birmingham having sharks in tanks where people will be swimming with them. His opinion, along with mine, is that this is a circus and exploitative. There’s no genuine interest in the conservation of these mammals. He was angry and had spoken out and they sacked him for speaking out of line. He was sticking up for what he believed in.
With the terrible social pressure that young people are under to fit in, to not buck the trend, he was prepared to say no and not back down. There is always going to be hope with young people like that out there. It gave me real heart.
A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife was launched by Chris Packham today (19 September 2018)