The Menace of Pokemon Go

As someone who works in the sunny, frabjous world of urban greenspace, there is something that causes me even more consternation than swans or geese. People. They’re always there, with their stupid faces and their stupid big feet encroaching, eroding, trampling. People ruin everything. This seems to have increased recently, particularly in the ‘youth’ demographic*, and I think I know whose fault it is.

Nintendo. I blame Nintendo. I do not fully understand Pokemon Go, but from what I have gathered so far it is a menace and a danger to the very fabric of our society and should be banned forthwith. It’s possible I exaggerate. I know, I know, I’ve been promoting youth engagement for as long as this blog has been rumbling along unnoticed, but anyone who lives long enough, has an opinions and is foolish enough to express them will inevitably get called out for a hypocrite sooner or later. The thing is to brazen it out.

On the surface, there’s a lot to be positive about Pokemon Go. It’s getting kids out and about, exercising, walking, discovering new areas and new greenspace. Trouble is, when they are there they spend most of their time staring at their phones. But more seriously, as far as I can work out, the location of your ‘Pokemons’ has been pretty randomly generated – result being that I’ve had kids wandering around sensitive areas of reserves, trampling and eroding as they go, ignorant or unconcerned about any signs there might be. I now need to check all of my reserves for traces of Pokemon (no, I’m not just looking for an excuse to play games in work hours). I particularly need to check some protected and ‘off-limits’ areas, as there does not seem to be any filter to stop these things from appearing in these places. I’m not even sure if there is any bar to them appearing on private property. Although here I feel I should clarify that I have no idea how Pokemon Go works.

squirtle

Ecologists are still trying to work out what affect Squirtle will have on our delicate waterway ecosystems

I remember Geocache – harmless, responsible Geocache. Bless ’em. Most I could ever accuse that lot of was furtively rustling in the bushes with a lunch-box and scaring off the squirrels. But at least they had solid rules written in about where Geocaches could be placed and specified that the land owner’s permission was sought. I suppose Geocache may now be dead in the water.

Maybe I’m just annoyed because it is exactly the kind of ‘app’ I’ve been crying out for (except, y’know, with ‘real’ animals and stuff in it). In short, I wish I’d thought of it. But then perhaps a Pomarine Skua is just not as interesting to the Kids as a Pikachu. Once again, I think it’s worth clarifying that I do not understand what Pokemon Go is all about.

I’m sorry, it’s been a difficult week and it’s possible my brain has melted a little.

*yes, that’s right, ‘youth’

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Green Elephants

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a ‘brilliant idea’ must be in want of a fortune. And with that rather laboured introduction, I think it’s only right that I get straight to the point: The Garden Bridge. Or rather, the Garden Bridge and its ilk.

green elephants

I’ll admit, for once I am feeling quite smug about this week’s title

Everyone’s got a ‘brilliant idea’. Take me, I have about five a day (although admittedly nutella-bacon sandwiches might not have been the product of a Spike operating at the peak of his mental powers). Problem is, these days an idea can very rapidly go from ‘in here’¹ to ‘out there’ thanks to Bloody Twitter, bypassing the much neglected ‘actually thinking it through logically’-stage. If you’re a famous person, a person with a lot of pull or some influential friends, or just a ruddy loud mouth narcissist, these ‘brilliant ideas’ can very quickly develop into a bit of a bandwagon.

It’s true there is now a generation that ‘like’² things. Wildlife charities are desperately (and occasionally embarrassingly) trying to make hay out of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and to an extent projects like the Garden Bridge or London National Park City³ feed on them, like bloated, green, trunked pachyderms. Or something.

Green-y, fluffy-on-the-surface projects tend to do quite well out of this click button, armchair conservationist demographic. There’s a definite sense of ‘It’s Green, yeah, let’s do it!’ – and kudos to them for taking that groundswell of ‘likes’ and turning it into something more solid. My concern is that the why is all too often subservient to the what. There’s a line about could we and should we in here somewhere.

Take the blasted Garden Bridge (no, please…), with its £60M of public money and £3.5M of annual maintenance costs in perpetuity (and just for comparison here, the London Wildlife Trust with their 400+ odd hectares of nature reserves and an annual expenditure of around £2.5M…but let’s not get lost down a Garden Bridge cul-de-sac). It sounded like a great idea when you first heard it, but then you scratched beneath the surface, you realised that they’re closing libraries in Lambeth, and you started to wonder…what is this adding? What are we actually getting for our money here?

Particularly as we are now in the age of the Kickstarter, these projects can quickly crop up and before long a few people have slung a tenner at it and it has gathered some momentum. Green walls at bus-stops? Sure, that’ll work. No problem. I mean, you might want to avoid putting them on any night bus routes… Or a milk-float-potting-shed? Why not? Or, rather, why?

I’m not really sure where I’m leading with all this, except that I’ll shortly be announcing the launch of my new pop-up nutella and bacon sandwich bar. Donations welcome.

 

¹ *Taps head thoughtfully* – Sorry, the blog now appears to come with added stage directions. It’s a multisensory experience. Sort of.

² And, by the way, feel free to ‘like’ the blog. If only for the positive affirmation it will give me. It absolutely, definitely will not achieve anything. Although the key difference between Adventures in Conservation and the National Park City, say, is that I’ll carry on regardless of whether people ‘like’ it or not. So there.

³ About which I was briefly positive before reverting to type. I’m still largely confused about just what this will achieve and how.

Catch All Terms – Reductive or Expedient?

You’ve all heard them. They’re there in every public document, press release, management plan and job description you’ve ever read. But do we know what they mean? And do they actually add anything to our understanding of the environment?

With the recent addition of the malleable term ‘Ecomodernism‘ to the lexicon of green-speak, it might be time to look at some of our other favourite buzzwords and ask ourselves ‘what does this really mean?’

Lets start with a big one: Sustainability. It has been rendered almost meaningless by it’s ubiquity. As a little test, I googled three companies at random (ok, not entirely at random). It should come as no surprise that Monsanto, BP and Philip Morris all have sustainability front and centre of their homepage, but when that’s the case, has it lost all sense of significance?

Then there’s biodiversity. What does biodiversity mean to people? Have we, as conservationists, persisted with a clumsy term, inconsistently applied and with no resonance with the public?

These words are becoming vapid. Vacuums. Phrases that take on whatever meaning we need them to. They are loose and ambiguous, with no strict definitions. As a ‘Scientist’ I can’t help but want to go all Linaean on them and define by family, genus, species – just what exactly does sustainable mean?

The theory is that these words help the public to reconnect with green issues by bringing terms and concepts in to facets of our everyday lives and making them more relevant. In many cases these terms do the exact opposite, placing a layer of babble between the people and the issues.

Is the adoption of these ‘catch all’ terms just another form of greenwashing? It’s an easy out for a product to describe itself as ‘organic’ and company to describe itself as ‘sustainable’ or a government to describe itself as the ‘greenest government ever’ without actually doing anything. It’s our duty to hold them to account.

How the Public View Conservation Works – the Need to Improve our PR

As conservationists, many of the practical measures we take on our nature reserves and green spaces are often unsightly and can appear drastic. When reserves are popular with visitors, and in particular long-standing local residents, this can lead to negative perceptions of the organisation if the rational behind such actions are not thoroughly disseminated to the public and where possible, the local community consulted on the need for interventional measures.

Scrub is a particular area of contention. Scrub cutting and clearance is an everyday part of environmental management, and despite recent leanings towards rewilding it will more than likely always be so. Deciding which areas of scrub to be cleared and which areas to leave for songbirds and invertebrates is a key consideration when working towards enhancing biodiversity. This can lead to dual, competing issues amongst our visitors and managing their reaction is pivotal in gaining the good will that strengthens the long-term future of reserves.

‘Public opinion towards scrub is ambivalent. On the one hand some can perceive it as symbolising neglect and untidiness, while on the other it is valued for high densities of songbirds, its attractiveness to butterflies and the colourful displays of flowers, foliage and fruits. One of the great challenges is to raise public awareness and understanding of the value of scrub and the need to manage it. Better interpretation of its traditional uses and value for wildlife and the landscape will help to achieve this’

The Forum for the Application of Conservation Techniques

In an overly simplistic representation of our two competing issues, we can characterise public reactions to conservation works as inclusive and exclusive. Neither is wrong and both opinions must be respected and addressed appropriately. A third position, ignorance, is one that we have all encountered, but is usually easily disabused through education. These two stances amongst visitors exemplify the ‘park’ vs ‘wilderness’ debate that many of us will encounter. Family visitors and those outside the local area often express inclusive reactions to practical measures, reacting favourably to improvements in infrastructure that aid the visitor experience.

‘I was really pleased to see the investment made to (the site) in parking, pathway & structures around the lake which I feel has been some time in coming (the same can also be said of parking facilities). I hope more of this can be done to other parts of the forest to encourage broader use of the area as I feel it is often under used even by the local community.’

Visitor Survey response: example of an inclusive response

pollard

Ugly trees

For some members of the public, scrub (particularly bramble, gorse) can often be seen as untidy and as a barrier (physical and psychological) to fully enjoying green space. For example, a recent questionnaire survey of visitors to a site I worked at flagged up statements about the woodland looking ‘untidy’ and ‘unkempt’ because of the prevalence of scrub. The site is a huge public space, should it not therefore be managed with these opinions at the forefront? This would be foolhardy and in all situations due consideration should be given to the overall biological health of the forest. The flipside to this is the reaction to freshly cleared and strimmed areas of scrub which can initially be a visual shock to those acquainted with an area and look more unkempt still to newcomers, aggravating those of both a inclusive and exclusive bent.

Visitors with exclusive opinions are often locals and long-time visitors with an interest and knowledge about the site. To them, new facilities, footpaths etc. are often anathema and risk despoiling their own private reserve by encouraging other visitors. This is perhaps overly harsh, and many opinions can be centred around concern about loss of biodiversity or impacts on a favourite species. Any new conservation work is viewed with suspicion and responses can be actively hostile with active sabotage not uncommon.

Pollarding, coppicing, grazing, tree felling, tree planting; they can all result in negative reactions, often through lack of understanding fostered by poor communication and publicity. Pollarding is a key historic component of managing some ancient woodlands. However, judging by some reactions I have come across, there is a level of anger, distrust and confusion about the important role it plays in preserving trees and creating habitats:

Why are so many old trees being felled? Ordinary people are not allowed to build on green belt but many old oak trees are being felled. This is a disgrace!’

I hate the way you’ve lopped the branches off trees.’

‘What is this current craze for butchering trees by cutting branches taking place? it looks awful’

We must improve social knowledge about interventionist conservation measures through the tools we have available; social media, updated and accessible websites and clear interpretative panels for our inclusive visitors, consultations and face-to-face discussions for our exclusive visitors. If our visitors are not given the information about practical conservation works in a proactive, not the more traditional passive approach, we risk losing the PR war. Without the support of our local communities and even irregular visitors, we will be resigned to battling for their ecological future alone, an inevitably futile endeavour.

Project Wild Thing or ‘How Shoreditch invented Environmental Education’

I finally made the Herculean effort to sit through Project Wild Thing or ‘How Shoreditch invented Environmental Education’ for the second time recently. And though with repetition I was perhaps not quite as hostile towards it, there still remained a niggling antipathy and feeling that all was perhaps not to be taken at face value. Why is this? The documentary addresses key issues that I agree with and have worked towards in the past 5 years, yet for some reason I still found something cold and off-putting about it.Project Wild Thing

Perhaps it is because the focus is most undoubtedly one of a salesman. Talk of ‘marketing’ and ‘product’ is not likely to go down well with many in the sector. These sections of environmental charities and organisations are growing significantly, with improved wages, in comparison with reductions in actual conservation and environmental education staffing. But then consider who is the target audience for this? The Guardian and The National Trust have heavily promoted it, and there will certainly be an element of preaching to the converted here. The real target audience should be those in urban centres on low income, those in areas of deprivation (yes, it focuses on high end products such as I-pads, but these are becoming ubiquitous in all households, and even greater barriers to environmental engagement exist in low income areas, particularly those with high levels of immigrants), but I saw little effort to promote to these groups or engage them. That woolly phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’, presented as a dead-eyed hydra, set on zombifying the next generation, is trotted out repeatedly, but it is ill defined and little energy is expended in actually explaining the scientific or social issues behind the phenomenon.

There is certainly the air of back-slappery about the whole thing. Virtually no recognition is given to the vast amount of environmental education work done by the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB etc, which I am sure will not have gone unnoticed, considering their stated involvement in the project. About the only organisation given any screen time is some monkey-tree-net-climbing nonsense, which I am sure is very beneficial for young people, though is still an artificial construct in a natural space. There would have been innumerable better examples at almost any Wildlife Trust or RSPB nature reserve, but maybe this would not have fit in with the narrative. It is almost as if David Bond believes he has stumbled upon this problem himself, and only he and his East London hipsters can save our kids, educate them about the environment and save our environmental spaces.

I will try and ignore my own perceived sleights however, and look at some of the many positives I found in the film. From the perspective of anyone in the sector, almost without exception the most interesting and engaging parts are when somebody other than David Bond is talking, such as Monbiot, excellent as ever expanding on the themes of Feral, and most notably Chris Rose, late of Greenpeace.

Another plus point of the film was the interactions with children and young people and the explanations they gave about the barriers they face in using and being encouraged to use their local green spaces, although the phrasing of some questions by Bond was almost certainly leading and garnered him the response he was hoping for. Even given these opinions and observations, the approach was still to ‘market’ his natural ‘product’, rather than attempt to find a way to breakdown these barriers. Given the background of Bond and the initially stated predisposition to marketing and promotion, I should probably have come to terms with this by now.

I am almost certainly viewing the project through the jaded eyes of an environmental educator, and maybe I am feeling a little under appreciated for the efforts the sector has gone to in broaching the gap between screen and stream almost since TV’s invention, but I’m sure I am not alone. Project Wild Thing comes across as a marketing exercise, a vanity project which focuses on the creative – little mention is given to the science and theory behind these benefits, what nature is, how it is struggling, where you can go and how you can make the most of it. These are the areas where I believe real headway would

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who know? I digress...

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who knows? I digress…

be made in inspiring the next generation to get their feet dirty, an overly didactic approach towards screens risks being confrontational and the contrary nature of children is likely to see it fail. Like it or not, screens are here to stay and setting them up as ‘the enemy’ is doomed to fail. Incorporation of screens to some extent may assist, through ID apps etc, but addressing the barriers to green space and why the security, familiarity and insularising effect of screens are preferable to

the wild, rough and tumble of our woodlands might be a better bet. The much pushed ‘wild time’ slogan may work for some, middle-class, cosseted children, but I have spent numerous occasions reassuring children from vastly different backgrounds, that green spaces are in fact safe, and not dangerously infested with poisonous insects and even tigers. No seriously, I have been asked before if there are tigers ‘in there’. And not by a child.

Most of all, my issue (which in fairness, was picked up at one stage) was that the lead should be coming from parents, teachers etc. I am sure I was not the only person thinking that if you don’t want your children to spend so much time in front of screens, then don’t given them ipads; if you want your children to show an interest in the environment, then show some yourself.

How to Lose Members and Alienate People: More Fall-Out from Lodge Hill

It has been a curious week or so in the world of conservation in London culminating in some soul searching and perhaps the rolling of a particularly big head.

Lets start at Lodge Hill. Out in Kent, the Lodge Hill SSSI, celebrated nesting site for Nightingales, has been approved for development of 5,000 new homes, to be created by Land Securities. This one is set to run and run and could become a key flashpoint and signaller of the ever growing and perennial Homes vs Nature argument. There’s going to be a lot of great content poured out on Lodge Hill over the coming months. We’ve had the predictable complaints about ‘feathered obstacles’ from the ‘Greenest Government everTM’. It has seen the promotion of the predictable ‘well if you are anti-homes then you must be anti-people’ rhetoric, whereby everyone who has a pro-nature agenda is tarred with the brush of misanthropy (ok, true in my case), and more disconcertingly portrayed as the very thing we often work against: land managers intent on

The Homeless: Now 100% more hated by environmentalists

The Homeless: Now 100% more hated by environmentalists

maintaining land for their own interests, ignoring those of the public. The argument basically runs that by preventing the building of homes we are deliberately, and happily, keeping people on the streets. It’s a neat trick, attempting to turn the environmentalists against the deprived, and obviously a load of bunkum; I suspect the 5,000 new homes will not be homing the needy and desperate. So far, so ‘same old, same old’, but here’s where it starts to get interesting.

While Land Securities are busy pushing for the destruction of the Lodge Hill SSSI in Medway, they have also moved to install their Financial Controller on the board of trustees for the London Wildlife Trust. It’s easy to see what their angle is here, this would have been a huge PR coup, not to mention the benefit of being able to influence decisions at the highest level of London’s biggest conservation charity. It is perhaps more difficult to see what LWT would get out of the deal. Yes, Marc Cadwaladr brings obvious financial skills, but are these skills that cannot be found from other sources, in-house perhaps? Are the financial skills, and presumably revenue streams, that Cadwaladr brings experience of, the kind of areas that an environmental charity should welcome being connected with? Yes, an environmental charity needs all the financial skills and experience it can get, particularly those which are intent on adopting a more ‘business-like’ model, but there are other, more gaping holes, here; The current board of trustees, and indeed staff, at LWT are not exactly representative, of the community. This is a larger problem all conservation charities are currently faced with, but for the London Wildlife Trust, it is pretty poor.

Surely someone at LWT must have seen what Land Securities were trying to do here? But no, among some baffling quotes in The Guardian piece from LWT was this:

“Marc Cadwaladr, if he is elected to serve as a trustee for London Wildlife Trust, would not do so as a staff member of Land Securities, but as a volunteer who, in his spare time, could bring significant financial skills, capabilities and experience to the trust.”

I’m still trying to get my head around this one. So, he would be a trustee and while he was undertaking his duties as trustee he would not be a member of staff for Land Securities but would be a volunteer for the London Wildlife Trust, but he would still, presumably, continue to work for Land Securities when he was not fulfilling his trustee duties. Eh? Does he resign his position with Land Securities every time he undertakes trustee duties and is then reappointed when finished? It’s all rather unpalatable and not a little deluded.

Then there is the rather sinister question of just how the London Wildlife Trust was proposing sneaking this past its members. Ahead of the AGM and nominations for trustee positions, LWTs website stated (and as of today, 27 Sept, still states) ‘As we have the same number of candidates as vacancies we do not need to hold a ballot of members’, neatly sidestepping any potential (and obvious) opposition that would occur from the nominations. This, according to The Guardian, was later clarified to state that members could vote either by attending the annual meeting or by arranging proxy votes. Would this have made a difference? I, for one, would like to know just how many votes the trustees and senior members of staff who had seemed intent on pushing the appointment through, would have carried.

Now, the London Wildlife Trust, unlike many of the other Wildlife Trusts, does not rely to such a degree on membership subscriptions, but they still form a large part of the income. By attempting to make this appointment, they have risked alienating and losing may of these members, seemingly in favour of pursuing other financial means. But even without the membership subscriptions, the will and support of the public is all for an environmental charity, lose that and they may as well all go home.

A more damming indictment of the state of affairs at LWT is the complete lack of knowledge most members of staff appeared to have about the potential appointment. One senior staff member indicated that a large portion of the workforce knew nothing of the issue until it was published in The Guardian this week. This smacks of something a little underhand going on, and there certainly seems to be something more to the story.

Cadwaladr has now withdrawn his nomination, saying “it doesn’t feel right to let my name go forward for election as a trustee of the London Wildlife Trust.” But how on earth had the other trustees and SMT at LWT allowed them self to think that it felt right? Judging by the lack of knowledge of ground-level staff and the slightly dubious-looking election process, they did know but intended to push it forward regardless. This complete lack of respect for both its members and staff will have serious repercussions for key figures at the Trust and on this occasion the Chief Executive may have finally overplayed his hand*.

*Update April 2015: Chief Executive of LWT has now departed. Whether this was connected to Land Securities or this hatchet job with its tiny readership, I can not confirm

Going Viral – Nature moves into the 21st Century

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all that good social media stuff. It’s a huge part of how most of us live our daily lives in the 21st century. Environmental charities are just about starting to cotton-on to this fact and there have been a range of movements, campaigns and ‘virals’ aimed at pushing the environmental agenda. But do we risk losing sight of what the ultimate objective of these is?

#VoteBob

Bob: Fluffy idealist or sinister tat peddler?

#VoteBob – it’s the latest in a line of marketing exercises dreamt up by PR departments of our environmental charities. It’s about time the sector embraced the 21st century, it really is. And I do admire the sentiment, but I have definite reservations about the aims behind it.

It does not take long to figure out that Bob is no independent squirrel, working for the good of nature. Behind him he has the might of one of the largest charities in the country, the RSPB. I’ve no issue with this being an RSPB campaign, but the disingenuous way it is portrayed as some kind of grass roots movement alarms me. It smacks of a stealthy attempt at spreading its tentacles into other areas, such as with the recent ‘Giving Nature a Home’ move they have made away from mere bird fanciers to defenders of nature everywhere. Why not say straight up that Bob works for the RSPB?

Having said this, the links to the RSPB site are all over the Vote Bob website as it proudly displays itself as his biggest supporter. But I think the most telling issue I have with this campaign is the merchandise. Right there, next to the button that you can click to ‘Vote for Bob’ is the shop. Support Bob by buying a fluffy toy, T-Shirt or mug! And of course these redirect straight to the RSPB shop.

Just to get this straight, I’m completely behind the move of environmental charities into the world of online marketing and viral campaigns. I’m not a complete luddite. I’m expressing this opinion in a blog for Christ sake. But I do query the motive behind #VoteBob and some of the other recent campaigns. The aim of marketing is unquestionably to bring in more revenue and the primacy of fundraising and marketing departments within some environmental charities above the job of, y’know, actually conserving wildlife, is a pet peeve of mine, and one I’m sure I will return to soon. There is something about the #VoteBob campaign that smacks of a creative team given free reign, unhindered by the need to actually do something. And I think this is my main issue with Bob, beyond my obvious concerns that it is merely a way to drive yet more cash to RSPB. It’s a missed opportunity. Vote for Bob and vote for nature…and that’s it. Click a button, show your support. You don’t even have to actually go outside and embrace nature, support any specific measure or policy, or even understand any of the problems the environment currently faces. It is the equivalent of having a huge ‘like’ button for nature.

So what can it achieve? Bobs stated aim is that a Vote for Bob is a vote for nature. I laudable message, certainly. But where’s the meat? How will he support nature? What methods will he use? Bob believes that by getting lots of people to ‘like’ nature he can get it on the political agenda. And indeed, MPs can also sign up and back Bob. But how does getting MPs to sign up actually push the many different agendas and issues on the environmental spectrum? I asked Bob (through the medium of Twitter, he’s a very technology-savvy squirrel) how it all worked. He replied:

So far, so vague. If you were a politician and you found a nice campaign with a groundswell of support and no actual solid commitments and agendas, wouldn’t you sign up for it? It is a no lose situation. There is nothing here to hold them to or to call them out on at a later date.

Yes, there is a place for this kind of marketing to promote the work of charities, but it cannot replace policy. But Bob is a very cute and fluffy figurehead, and I’m sure he will sell a lot of merchandise for the RSPB. Is Bob anymore than a vote to salve your conscience, a sop for your principles and ethics without having to actually leave your desktop? Is this environmental activism for the 21st century – to battle fracking, habitat destruction and development one twitter follower at a time? It’s about time we started to push our agenda forward using all the technology available to us, but when we allow people to believe that habitats and species can be saved at the click of a button, we have failed in our objectives to engage and inspire.

This all reminds me that I need to rewatch ‘Project Wild Thing’, a recent documentary about reconnecting children with nature and the danger of screen time. It’s probably the most ‘successful’ of the recent media led campaigns in terms of people signing up online (I don’t think I need to highlight the irony of this point, though it appears I just did). I will post about that hopefully next week.

*Authors note – Red Squirrels have it tough. If habitat loss, squirrelpox and invasive species weren’t bad enough, they’ve now got leprosy to deal with. Bob, why not make the first item in your manifesto signing MPs up to back methods for your own protection, such as removing disease vectors?