Whether it’s badgers, cormorants, pine martens or interfering do-gooder lefty conservationists themselves in the firing line, nature lovers in Britain could sometimes be forgiven for thinking there’s no reason to be cheerful in 2012. That the public arguments are being lost to a vocal minority, a lobby of ‘traditionalists’ encouraged by the presence of some of their number in government to agitate more vociferously for their longed-for, legally-sanctioned wholesale slaughter of pesky vermin. They’ll fight for what they believe in, even if the odd disregard for evidence or defamatory, vituperative personal attack is required along the way. And don’t be mistaken that they think themselves right. In their universe the bunny huggers cling foolishly to their cuddly mammals whilst common sense reaches for a shotgun.
That’s a total caricature of the way things are, but one you might forgive me for writing. With the forces of darkness* ranged against us poor, kindly, beard- and sandal-wearing types (again, as I imagine they see nature lovers) and so few victories to cheer about, it’s easy to be discouraged. It is, then, to the general credit of the conservation movement in the UK that it rarely resorts publicly to similar name-calling and bitterness. Take most of the RSPB’s public output: unremittingly, almost irritatingly, positive and inspiring. Forceful when it needs to be, yes, even angry at times**, and justifiably so, but never purposefully divisive, never bitter or paranoid, and never wavering from what they understand to be the message of the relevant scientific evidence (which they expend enormous resources producing, as do most of the good conservation charities), whatever the arguably less established-in-fact claims of their opponents. An organisation I’m proud to represent as a member and (soon) employee.
It’s in that spirit that I tentatively suggest we all cheer up a bit. Not by practising an empty, self-helpish sort of ‘positive thinking’, but by throwing ourselves with passion and love into our cause, even if you think the world will ultimately be lost under the weight of empty corn and soy fields, Boris Islands and Tesco Expresses. I happen to believe that striving to make the world a better place fills you with joy and hope whether or not that is a hope grounded in any sort of reality. I think, for example, of two friends of mine whose commitment to fighting for social and environmental justice is beyond that of just about anybody else I know. It so happens that of all the people I know they’re also the ones who laugh the most, even in the face of a frighteningly extensive knowledge of the world’s ills. Their tea parties are seriously jolly affairs. It’s infectious.
My less likely model for adopting a hopeful attitude is the Prime Minister, David Cameron, whom I quote in the title of this post. Back in those sunlit, dreamlike pre-crash days of 2006, when he spoke these words, he was busy attempting to mould a new image for the Conservatives as the party of optimism, hope and opportunity. Circumstances have combined since to shatter that image – some would say Cameron himself is not entirely innocent in this – but whether you believe his hand has been forced, or we’re just seeing the true colours of what never really stopped being the ‘Nasty’ party come through, optimism is clearly off the menu for them. It’s time for somebody else to take up the mantle. So if you too are one of those meddling, naïve, idealistic ‘conservationists’, and there’s no point pretending that I’m not, I invite you to join with me in stealing all of Cameron’s old lines. After all, what could be more abounding in hope, joy and wonder than a world filled with vibrant, thriving wildlife, and people too, living side by side? Maybe that world is just a pipe dream. But again I promise you that struggling to bring it about will feel great. That’s the quite good news.
The really good news is that more people are ‘on side’ than you think (though I do wish, often, that side taking was less necessary and try not to do it if possible). Indeed, those anti-conservation lobbyists who pop up in the press or wildlife criminals up to no good aren’t just a minority of the public, but very often a minority of the people they purport to represent. It’s been said to exhaustion and I’ll say it again here: though not all do, many, many, many farmers, gamekeepers, anglers, hunters, indeed, pursuers of any traditional countryside pursuit or profession you could care to mention really do think that whole ecosystems are important, not just the little bits that give them pleasure or pay the bills. Perhaps the more vocal parts of the conservation lobby need to acknowledge that fact yet more, and perhaps in turn various houses really ought to be put in order, but I do think there’s a real chance, sometime in the future, to build a wider – what shall we call it – Conservation coalition, perhaps, in dubious honour of our present government.
It isn’t an easy calling, being positive. I fail more often than not at remaining upbeat; sometimes despair feels like the only option with the world in such a pickle***. But at risk of sounding like a broken record, there’s one antidote to gloom and despair that never fails: the wildlife that got us all going in the first place. It’s brilliant, beautiful, bewildering, intriguing and inspiring. We’ll probably do a lot more good if we spend a lot more time outside engaging with it than inside reading about things that make us angry. On which note, I’d best turn off the computer and go out for that walk…
*Darkness might be a bit over the top. Maybe.
** I did notice today that they called the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s position on pine martens ‘riddled with basic inaccuracies and sheer prejudice’, but I’ve a feeling they deserved it.
***Not to mention a government department being run by a man named Pickles.