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.

The (Anti) Raptor Alliance

It’s happening again. After the nonsense of ‘You Forgot the Birds’ last year, there’s a new joker on the scene – The Raptor Alliance. Don’t let the name fool you – this is neither a collaboration of sparrowhawks angry at social injustice, a scene from Jurassic World or even a group attempting to save the decimated Hen Harrier. Quite the opposite, this is an alliance of pigeon fanciers intent on clearing the skies of any potential threat to the enjoyment of their little hobby.raptor alliance

I’m not going to make any snarky remarks about how anyone could possibly enjoy pigeon racing, but surely the removal of raptors only sanitizes it. Like modern F11 (again, baffled), where’s the excitement in knowing that they’re all going to make it back safely? Surely the addition of a potential sparrowhawk-wildcard adds to the thrill and anticipation. Surely a little thinning by raptors leads to the evolution of quicker, smarter pigeons2.

The recent petition put forward to members of Pigeon Racing unions (who knew, right?) is asking racing pigeons to be designated as livestock. With this designation it will then be legal (the Royal Pigeon Racing Association states) for pigeon racers to shoot birds of prey ‘around their loft’. Now, I’m not entirely comfortable about the idea of any group blasting away into the sky, presumably in a residential area, particularly when I think about the rather woolly concept of ‘around their loft’. How many pigeon lofts are not in the vicinity of another property? Are they sure they can discharge a weapon without firing beyond their premises (as per Firearms Act)? So straight off the bat, I am not convinced by the legality of this unless said loft is in the middle of a field (yes, some of them will be). Might there be the potential for a little stretching of that ‘around the loft’ phrase?

But that’s mere nuts and bolts, protocol, procedure. From the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ debacle, we all know the real fun starts when you dive into the PR and reasoning behind it all. So lets head straight into the world of twitter, where we can rest assured that these types of movement will invariably make a boob and receive the mauling they deserve:

Another brilliant business enterprise scuppered by my time-travelling nemesis

Another brilliant business enterprise scuppered by my time-travelling nemesis

Ah, here we go. Protection of ‘assets’. A Racing Pigeon owned by someone inherently has more value than a wild falcon. Because someone has paid good, hard cash for it. I’d rather not stroll too far down this path of monetising wildlife, and I’d also rather not turn this into some form of Bird Top Trumps (now there’s an idea), but if we must….

‘60,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK have no legal protection against increasing attacks from soaring sparrowhawk and peregrine falcon populations’

Just picking the RSPB as they’re the most relevant environmental charity here: 1 million+ members, a great deal of them probably spending a large amount of money to view and protect birds. Some of the most popular birds to spot are likely to be raptors (and probably not pigeons, if we’re honest)…if we’re going to play ‘my bird’s worth more than your bird’, I know whom my, a-hem, money is on.

Such nice chaps, and therefore we should totally support them. People who give money to charity should always get their way.

I already said I wasn’t going to play ‘which bird is better’, but…oh go on then, if we must judge wildlife by their interaction with man: Falconry wins by a good 1780 years.

I’m never entirely convinced about bravery awards for animals, but this doesn’t make pigeons particularly special: Falcons were also used to bring down these messages.

I know, I know, all rather childish of me to pick out these random tweets, but there is an inherent undercurrent in everything the Raptor Alliance says that racing pigeons in so many ways have more ‘worth’ than raptors. This is even more dispiriting when in previous releases RPRA gave relatively reasonable advice on how to discourage birds of prey around ones pigeon loft.

This leap towards blasting them out of the sky all harks back to the rather perfidious notion I encountered growing up in the countryside that raptors need to be ‘controlled’. This was sold to me as essential for protecting songbird populations, but even then I could not understand the logic. Apex predator control doesn’t work ‘backwards’ like this. The only natural control on their numbers was prey numbers, and I couldn’t see the need for the introduction of a third agency. With this petition, attempting to directly pit raptors against ‘livestock’, it shows exactly where the real conflict lies.

1I am not disparaging recent changes to F1 or the lack of high-speed, potentially fatal crashes. I am completely ambivalent towards F1. Although the crashes were the best part.

2Smart, self-aware pigeons is one of my nightmare scenarios. That and squirrels intent on world domination.

No Shades of Grey in the Hunting Argument

About a month ago I wrote an article, in which I lightly prodded the League Against Cruel Sports about their current stance over Trail Hunting. I thought I’d give it a few weeks to lend a little distance and give me time to mull over the various replies I received in relation to it, but this has only reinforced something I already suspected: You can’t wade into the hunting debate without being on a particular side. It’s just not allowed.fox2

My first port of call was an article on the 10-year anniversary of the ban in the Guardian (I know, I know, I’m a mung-bean eating, sandle-wearing Pinko). I dropped in to say hi, do a light bit of shameless self-promotion of Adventures in Conservation and popped in a small query relating to my article but also to something else I was trying to write at the time:

‘I’m genuinely interested what role hunting for subsistence and people’s preconceptions about those that take part in fox hunting has to play in people’s views of it. There’s a wider psychological point here about generations of hardwiring to gain satisfaction in a hunt successfully completed – how well are we able to incorporate that atavistic, analogue hardwiring into our digital, hyper-civilised modern brains? Can we, should we, attempt to completely deny this part of ourselves?’

(And OK, reading that back it does sound rather po-faced. Atavistic? Hyper-Civilised?)

This gathered a predictable melange of unrelated posts and it soon degenerated into the usual tit-for-tat. No one bothered to actually answer the questions I posed, but it didn’t take long for me to be labelled as ‘pro-hunt’ because of my desire to probe the human side of the issues rather than the canine, to couch my questions in terms of psychology rather than animal cruelty – an issue that I am not, as some have suggested, looking to ignore, it’s just not what I currently happened to be talking about:

SteB1

As a short aside here, this is a constant theme, and one that particularly irritates me – the sheer whatabouttery of that 80% stat thrown in there and also the charges of ignoring animal cruelty. This is not what I was talking about and yet there is the sense that by not talking on their terms, I am somehow being neglectful, sly even. One of my least favourite phrases in the world is ‘there’s people starving in the world and you’re talking about this?’

I responded:

‘That’s my point well emphasized right there – it’s such an entrenched and opinionated topic that to some, you can’t be neutral, in the middle, or have the capacity to argue, understand and have sympathy with both sides. As soon as you’re in the debate, you’re immediately seen as falling in one camp or the other – and as long as that kind of viewpoint prevails, you’re all doomed to just keep banging your heads against each other for the foreseeable.’

There were no further responses, either because of the astounding insight I’d just delivered or because the comments section had closed. You decide.

And so I ventured on to twitter with my article and held my breath…nothing. Where were all these virulent anti-hunt Sabs that the pro-hunt movement had led me to believe were ready to pounce (and visa-versa)? Maybe I’d done them a disservice in my piece; maybe I’d misrepresented them. And so I left it. For a while at least. But I can’t help prodding things; maybe I’m just a bit of a git.

So to the image that dragged me back in, just when I thought I was out…(Warning – has naughty words)

If you’ve read my previous article, you’ll know the point I have been trying to make is about the aggressiveness demonstrated (by both sides) and that I think there’s a real need to deescalate before there is a fatality. Images like this, images and phrases that promote the dehumanisation of a section of society…well, viewing a certain class of person as ‘less than human’ has always worked out so well in the past, hasn’t it? I couldn’t really let it pass and so I engaged the tweeter. Tweetee?

Later in the conversation, with absolutely no sense of hypocrisy, I was tweeted the below image, demonstrating just how mean pro-hunt types are (and yes, it isn’t very nice). I retweeted the original image that kicked the whole thing off, just as a reminder…I’ve yet to receive a response.

hunt abuse1

More than anything, I think what has stoked my ire is the willingness to throw out utterly sweeping statements and generalisations, the inability to see things in anything less than black and white – Sabs are non-violent angels and the hunt are all thugs, Sabs wear masks and intimidate the hunt who are just defending themselves. I was startled by the unwillingness to believe that it is entirely possible to have a foot in both camps, which led to (quite tame) abuse and blocking (I’m still not entirely sure what I did to deserve that).

I may have charged in on Social Media and Below the Line comments knowing what I was potentially letting myself in for, but what surprised me was that the thing that most riled, most irked people was my neutrality.

I’ll leave you with this final, charming tweet I received and the thought: What do we normally call people who wish a violent death on those who do not subscribe to the same ideology as us?

(I was then mocked for my use of the word ‘jeez’. Fair enough)

Social Media – Not Just For Tooting Your Own Horn

A while back I wrote a piece about the need for environmental charities to embrace the 21st Century and engage more innovatively with social media, before castigating one for doing just that. I know, I can be a bit of an arse occasionally.

Now while the Green movement has shown itself to be pretty new-media-savvy – the #greensurge on twitter is really gathering momentum – most environmental charities are still a little slow off the mark, still a little set in their ways, still a little misjudged. There’s definite scope for the larger use of social media platforms for means other than self-promotion and marketing.

Well, I can toot my own horn a little about a very, very, very small project where I’ve been attempting to do just that. Last month I used Flickr to set up a Fixed Point Photo project on Tooting Common – (Fixed Point Photography is, in it’s simplest form, taking a picture from the same point on a repeated basis over a long period of time. It can be used to show changes in vegetation etc. both seasonal and over a period of years). It was so simple even a luddite like myself could manage it – it took barely 2 hours, including the time on site actually taking the pictures – and though it hasn’t really got many people involved yet (it doesn’t really need that many, to be honest), it’s an easy way for absolutely anyone with a camera to help with surveying and monitoring. I’m hoping that it’s an idea that other greenspaces might take up too, as an easy way to engage and fill gaps of knowledge.

And it’s not the only way you can get the public involved in survey work. Citizen science projects are booming, they’re a great way to get the public involved, increase a sense of ownership and fill knowledge gaps. They don’t even need a great deal of training – take the Tower hamlets online bee survey, a great project that involved a wealth of new volunteers in 2014 (and one I shall be stealing the format of in 2015). So for those working in the sector – it’s time to get inventive with Facebook and Twitter, let’s see what we can come up with.

Here Kitty, Kitty – Big Cats or Just Slightly-Bigger-Than-Average Cats?

It’s silly season again, with another report of a massive mystery moggy making the news the other week in France (yes, I’m a little late to the party). This story seems to have gone a little quiet now, so one can only assume that it was an oversized tabby rather than a misplaced Tiger after all. Was it another instance of a Dougal-esque mistaken sense of perspective?

There seems to be another sighting of a Big Cat around the British Isles every few months. Just what is going on? Monbiot, in Feral and recently on his blog, has put this down to some sort of collective yearning for a connection with something wilder, something atavistic to bring some excitement to mundane lives bereft of any really cool wildlife of the ‘can disembowel you’ variety. Maybe he has a point. Maybe there is some sort of subconscious wish fulfillment going on here. Or maybe this is a case of people falling victim to some kind of primal pre-programming to seek out the sinister and deadly amongst the commonplace and routine, analogue hard-wiring of the brain in a digital age. Maybe our remaining fauna have become so readily visible, such as with our expanding urban fox population, that we have had to invent our own, more interesting charismatic carnivores.

And my, it does generate a lot of media interest. Just take the Epping Forest puma; after numerous attempts at generating publicity about fly-tipping, a cuddly toy stuck up a tree generated more press interest than any amount of builders rubble ever could:

kitty2

Monstrous and horrifying beast captured on a trail cam round my way

We do seem to love the novel, the out of place the aberrant, the anomalous in our wildlife. I should know. By far the most interesting thing I’ve ever done is counting Wallabies on the Isle of Man (I’m pretty dull). It’s all anyone I talk to ever wants to hear about, I take measures to ensure I can bring it up in any conversation. I’m a riot at dinner parties.

Big Cats seem to spring up from nowhere from time to time, arriving fully formed and with little prior incidence or evidence that might have tipped off even your most unobservant of ecologist (I think even I’d notice 5 foot high scratching posts and an abundance of half-eaten deer about the place). Take the debacle in St Osyth a couple of years ago which saw the tabloid favourite mythical Big Cat get a fresh chance to stretch its legs. This time it was supposedly a Lion (are we upgrading? Are pumas and panthers no longer exciting enough that we have begun to see Lions and Tigers lurking in the undergrowth?). This was a modern play on an old theme, with Twitter aliases, bad photo-shopping and rolling 24-hour news coverage of intrepid reporters standing in fields completely bereft of anything even vaguely feline. Much as the Paris Tiger has, the Essex Lion also seemed to vanish without a trace.

Mysterious Black Cats - They could be hiding anywhere

Mysterious Big Cats – They could be hiding anywhere

But what I have found peculiar about both instances is the reaction of the local police forces, and the similar reactions from police forces around the country after other sightings. I think this might be something worth considering all in itself. Yes, they have a duty to ensure public safety, but where the rest of us see a grainy image and think ‘someone really needs to cut back on their kitty treats’, the local rozzers decide to scramble their ‘copters and mobilize SWAT with more alacrity than even their Ferguson counterparts might. Do they take the whole thing more seriously than the rest of us? Do they know something we don’t? Or are they just waiting for any excuse to break out their shiny toys? Either way, they are clearly taking the whole issue much more seriously than most of us. Why might this be?

Well, one possible reason might be that there really is actual concrete proof of at least one Big Cat turning up in the UK. In 1991 a Big Cat was shot in Norfolk, prompting the excellent answer of ‘Oh, only some pigeons and a Lynx’ to the question ‘what’s in the freezer?’ As usual, I will give a warning that this lynx link is to the Daily Mail. But just as one swallow does not a summer make, one Lynx does not a…erm…bugger…anyone know the collective noun for Big Cats? Beyond this incident there are slim pickings for solid evidence of Big Cats, but as I’ve said before, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, which does rather neatly make it pretty difficult to definitively disprove the whole thing.

There are many angles and interpretations of the Big Cat phenomena, and a lot of interesting articles, websites and blogs on the subject that can run the whole gamut from logical to lunatic. The Paris Tiger will not be the last time that the (possibly) mythical Anomalous Big Cat makes a (grainy and obscured) appearance. And once again it will force us to ask the question, ‘are there Big Cats abroad?’ On consideration, it’s probably the best place for them.

Botham Takes on the RSPB (and I Can’t Even Think of a Good Cricket Pun)

It’s not often my twin interests of cricket and conservation combine. So, given Ian Botham’s criticism of the RSPB this week, I couldn’t give up the chance to comment.

Given that I have recently criticised the RSPB (well, the Vote Bob campaign, behind which it lurks and skulks like a group of foxes (learn your collective nouns, people)), this is a tricky issue and it’s going to take a bit of unpicking.

Botham is commenting on behalf of the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ (YFTB) campaign, and they raise some concerns that I have previously expressed. It raises the issue, and it is one I do keep harping on about, regarding the adoption of a business focus by many of our environmental charities. This has seen them diversify and become more centred on generating money through fundraising than actual conservation work. The figures touted (if to be believed) are a spend of £32M on fundraising against £29M on conservation operations by the RSPB. This is, genuinely, a reason for concern. Not just the disparity between public perception and actual activities, but the huge sums involved. Can charities come under the scrutiny of the Monopolies Commission? But these issues are lost beneath the sheer fug of bone-headed, imbecilic points made by the YFTB, thus losing any semblance of relevance.

YFTB Logo - I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

YFTB Logo – I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

Martin Harper has already responded, pretty well, although he has missed some of the key points and relied too heavily on RSPB’s vaunted past as a defence rather than addressing current issues. I could also do without the horrendous crowbarring of god-awful cricket clichés and metaphors into every paragraph. But I think the campaign could do with a much more comprehensive dissection. So lets pick out a few phrases from the website and highlight some of the cretinous asininity behind the campaign:

Firstly, lets look at the three big heads behind the ‘YFTB’ campaign. They are listed as:

Sir Ian Botham
Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England
Sir Johnny Scott, BBC TV presenter

Where to start with that trio? As a contrarion, I think I’ll start in the middle. Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England. Yes, indeed he was. But more relevantly, he is also the current (I have been trying to confirm this, but it is not clear on the website, I only know he was as of July 2014) Chairman of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Why is he not described as such? Why is he described by his former role? Anyone with half a brain can probably work out why they are keeping this association quiet.

Sir Johhny Scott. Well, just look at that CV. A man more steeped in the noble pursuits of hunting or blowing the face off game birds bred for the purpose of having their faces blown off you would struggle to find. He is described here as a ‘TV presenter’, and not the centenary patron of the BASC or any of the other patronages he has to hunting organisations. I flagged up the Vote Bob campaign for being an RSPB money-spinner by stealth, but this deliberate subterfuge much greater in its venality. As for Botham, a man who runs his own shoot, he is an irrelevance in this instance, a big, lumbering figurehead for a plodding, old-fashioned movement (insert your own joke about his later England career here). It’s sad to see a man who railed against the tie and blazers of the MCC become such an ingrained part of the same set. He’s an embarrassment.

Now for some of the loaded language used on the website. In reference to the RSPB using certain ‘box-office’ species for advertising, they say:

‘The wrong type of bird includes chickens (too frumpy)…’ – Chickens? Why the hell would the RSPB be using chickens, the most common bird on the planet, to advertise its work in protecting our dwindling bird species? Unless it was with regards to the horrendous condition battery hens endure, but that would involve lobbying, and, well…

‘How much “conservation money” is being spent on political lobbying on climate change?’ “Conservation money”? I’m pretty certain climate change is the main conservation issue at the moment. Unless you are denying it. You’re not denying climate change, are you YFTB? The YFTB campaign takes aim at the RSPB spending money on lobbying, education and research. These are core areas we need to be spending money on if we are to protect our natural environment.

Lobbying seems to be the key target for their displeasure and the message this sends out is clear; The YFTB campaign wants the RSPB and the like to stop sticking their nose into the business of landowners and farmers. It comes across as a call for the RSPB to ‘get back in their box’ and behave.

‘Take the hen harrier. It doesn’t just have bankable movie star looks but also a back story of victimisation. So it is the ultimate nice little earner for the RSPB’ – now, when you note that this is preceded by the sentence ‘Ideally there’s a nasty villain to protect it from’, I think anyone with half a brain can put two and two together and see what’s going on here. The plight of Hen Harriers are exactly the kind of thing the RSPB should be promoting and raising awareness about. How could anyone with an interest in bird conservation complain about this? Unless…hang on, do the people behind this campaign have a vested interest in (or think, through some misguided notion, they have a vested interest in) raptor persecution?

The ‘They Shot Bambi’ section added to the website today is equally hypocritical and idiotic (although I can not work out if they are being deliberately obtuse or genuinely are not aware in the contradictions between their aims and their backers). It gives us plenty more statements to pick apart:

‘Last year the RSPB shot dead 1,129 deer along with 273 “Freddy” foxes.’ The BASC (sorry, YFTB) are complaining about this? Well I admire their balls and sheer hypocritical brass-neckery if nothing else. They also ON THE SAME PAGE end the piece with the quote “Rare birds like Golden Plovers thrive when they have rich habitat and are protected from foxes. The RSPB is doing a lousy job at that” from the esteemed conservationist Botham (a man whose last foray in to the public consciousness was this disturbing image).

Botham - a gratuitous cheap shot

Botham – a gratuitous cheap shot

‘It also deliberately suffocated hundreds of unborn chicks by smearing oil around their shells’ – If you are going to throw this kind of emotionally loaded language around, you have to at least give a hint of the reasoning behind it. Control of some species is a vital, important part of nature conservation, which takes on many forms, and for the BASC to get shitty about this…seriously, this is staggeringly ridiculous.

They also ask ‘why its (RSPB’s) executive team is housed in a mansion. Homes for office workers? Or homes for birds?’ This is really childish, and a second’s research elucidates the background of The Lodge at Sandy. It was purchased in 1961, with generous financial help by Tony Norris. I’m not sure how this is relevant to current spending. I’ve been trying to find any evidence of the RSPB supplying homes for office workers (as opposed to, y’know, a place to work), but can’t. Happy to be corrected though if this is the case.

Despite my issues with the RSPB, and the genuine issues the YFTB campaign raises, I can’t help but think that if the RSPB are annoying the people clearly behind YFTB, then they must be doing something right.

YFTB go on to state ‘we are going to examine the accounts of the RSPB and all the 47 Wildlife Trusts and get you the facts’ and ‘It’s time it (the RSPB) was honest about its own approach…’ Well, in the spirit of honesty, I would like the BASC, a-hem, sorry, sorry, I meant the You Forgot the Birds campaign, to be honest about the ‘conservationists or self-confessed birders…farmers and landowners…’ and ‘volunteers from the cities’ behind this ill-thought out campaign. Just who is behind it? It doesn’t take a genius to work it out.

 

 

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.

Nature Blogs: Ruined by Hipsters

If you are working, volunteering or looking to get ahead in conservation, if you have a vague interest in nature and a good camera, and perhaps more pertinently if you are a middle class urbanite with a pokey garden and pretensions of being a writer, the chances are that you’ve got a blog. Chances are your writing is littered with simile, metaphor, imagery and dirty great chunks of purple prose.

Stephen Poole last year wrote an article describing nature writing as bourgeois escapism, but I’d certainly like to distance myself from what was an ill conceived and scientifically naïve rant (comparing the issue of invasive species to immigration and the EDL is a common retort by those with an axe to grind against environmentalists but it is misguided and offensive, serving only to highlight the authors ignorance). Indeed, Poole’s argument was subsequently dismembered by both Mabey and Monbiot, and if I were looking for an example of what I admire and look for in modern proponents of the genre, I would not go much further than these two. It is the idealisation of nature with which I take issue, and a large portion of the guilt for this idealisation must be left at the door of urban-centric media and enthusiasts in east London flats who fancy themselves the next Emerson or Thoreau.

Yes, I understand that I am opening myself up to claims of hypocrisy, but I’ve never understood why you would have a cake and not eat it.

Gratuitous picture of a cake. Which I ate.

Gratuitous picture of a cake. Which I ate.

There are different groups worth exploring here: those who would classify themselves as writers and those who would classify themselves as conservationists. When done well and with something to say, both have merit. However, those with a different agenda now saturate the genre. New media has a lot to answer for, but the production of content for contents sake has diluted the quality of real nature writing with regular missives about the joys of watching urban foxes frolic in your backyard. If you have an interest in the natural environment, you may not want to hear from a Shoreditch hipster with a sudden epiphany about nature (or epiphany that nature writing is the next gravy train). Practitioners in the sector are much more likely to hold your interest. There are many underrepresented areas in nature writing that I personally would love to hear from. Where are those who are in or work with the farming industry to improve biodiversity on farms? Where are the writings of those working at the sharp edge of conservation? But the genre has been overrun, and the majority of those who write about nature now would fit Poole’s charge of indulging in escapism. It is certainly true that much of the content now produced fits a certain demographic in terms of writer and audience.

Maybe I am speaking overly from the perspective of a scientist and practitioner, but I see the role of nature writing as educational, not just an excuse to describe a list of nice things you have seen in verbose, flowery prose. This does not hold the interest unless you are Wordsworth, and you are not. This whimsy and romanticism of nature writing, particularly those of the urban-centric, often neglect to inform and educate. Anthropomorphism and simile are rife, comparison of ecological players to cultural touchstones rampant. If I see another piece comparing, say, the world of insects to Game of Thrones, I may put my fist through the screen*.

But my complaint is not new. Even Thoreau, worthy but impenetrable to a modern reader, was accused of sentimentalising nature. It may be inescapable for an urban society to yearn for a (seemingly) more wholesome and natural lifestyle. It may be an idea, however, to live, breathe and try to understand at least a small part of the many areas of the natural world worth writing about before sitting down in front of a keyboard and pouring forth an assault of prose on the wonders of a wildflower in a concrete jungle. Too much is an image half seen, the wider picture not comprehended or even contemplated. A simple nature=good, man=bad narrative pervades and any human element appended with an adverse adjective, an elegiac phrasing.

I understand that not every writer can be Carson or Wilson, offering a reasoned, engaging and researched piece of work without becoming dry. Nature writing certainly lends itself to the aesthete, but purpose and clarity should not be eschewed in the name of verbosity dressed as art. A tough act to follow, but Aldo Leopold, a better writer and a better naturalist than Thoreau, shows the perfect balance of evoking natural imagery and sensations while educating and

The author: A bearded hipster wannabe?

The author: A bearded hipster wannabe?

drawing the reader in to his world. For a beautiful example of how to write up a citizen science project, read 65290 or Sky Dance. The prevalence of nature blogs risks making the most unique natural spectacles humdrum and ordinary through doggerel. Good nature writing like Leopold elevates the commonplace in nature into a spectacle all of its own through insight and compassion for his subject.

And yes, I do realise the irony of trashing nature writing on a nature writing blog. This is, to some extent, a pre-emptive hoisting by my own petard. I’m also an occasional hat wearer and beard have-r and I use the word ‘elegiac’ at least once in this post, so what the hell do I know?

*I’ve resisted the urge to link to some of the worst offenders, I’m not that mean

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?