The thing I worry most about for my kids is not Brexit or Vladimir Putin or ISIS or Donald Trump; not directly at least. No, I worry most about the destruction of the natural environment: habitat loss, biodiversity destruction, ecocide and climate breakdown. Regardless of what else is happening, if there isn’t a planet that is habitable, then all of us are up the proverbial creek without a paddle. The impact may be proportionately worse for poorer people and those in particularly vulnerable places in the world, but ultimately nowhere in the world is immune from the impact of the environmental disaster that is happening right now.
I believe that this is the most important issue of our era – the later stages of the fossil fuel age where humans are coming to realise the consequences of burning all of those fuels that we found in the ground. Yet given the lack of column inches in newspapers, minutes of news broadcasts and documentaries, and statements from political parties, you wouldn’t realise that this is such a critical – possibly existential – subject. It reminds me of the Jaws films – the people of Amity cannot admit to the fact that there is a killer shark in their waters as it would destroy the tourist industry in the town. Chief Brody is treated as a pariah for daring to publicise the fact that the shark is out there. Well, climate breakdown and ecocide is the killer shark in the waters and people are putting on their dark glasses and pretending that there’s nothing to worry about because they realise that business-as-usual can’t happen if a genuine solution is going to be found for this crisis.
Yet I am optimistic. I feel that most people want to do the right thing, yet inadvertently end up contributing to more environmental problems. It needs to be made easier for people to begin tidying up the mess that humans have made. I am as culpable as anyone – we all are. And that is one of the reasons that makes it easy to feel powerless. I care about wildlife yet I feel that I am doing almost nothing to improve the situation other than making regular contributions to wildlife charities and trying to teach my children respect for the natural world.
That’s why I and my family are going to London this weekend to attend the People’s Walk for Wildlife. I’ve no idea how many other people will be there but I feel that I want to put my hand up and be counted. I asked my eldest son (6) how he felt about it. He said he wanted to do it as well, because ‘he loves nature.’
I think that there is a lot to be hopeful about in the UK: the decarbonisation of power and the growth of renewables; the increase in electric cars; the growth of cycling and cycling infrastructure; huge interest in the rewilding movement; and the mainstream recognition that plastic pollution is choking our habitats, for instance. But all this is a drop in the ocean compared to what needs to happen. Some of these things are detailed in The People’s Manifesto for Wildlife.
I hope that the walk this weekend helps to persuade more people in the mainstream media and political parties that these proposals need to be considered much more seriously – and urgently – if as a nation we are to arrest the decline of our natural environment and start to improve it.
So, the government – with a tap of a wand and a puff of smoke and Michael Gove’s mercurial year 10 prefect’s smirk and Theresa May’s sanctimonious ‘Caring Conservative’ face – launched their 25 year environmental plan in January. Reaction to it has been mixed. Professor Alastair Driver offered up a ‘cautiously optimistic’ verdict which chimed with my first thoughts. He writes that ‘we at Rewilding Britain feel that the content [of the plan] is promising. And we look forward to helping ensure that its delivery lives up to its aspirations for a “greener future”.’ The note of caution comes from the fact that the plan is really just a collection of well-meaning statements with no obvious plan to put any of it into action. Which made it, in the words of George Monbiot, ‘A Grand Plan to Do Nothing’.
‘In terms of rhetoric, the 25 Year Environment Plan is in some respects the best government document I’ve ever read. In terms of policy, it ranges from the pallid to the pathetic.
‘Those who wrote it are aware of the multiple crises we face. But, having laid out the depth and breadth of our predicaments, they propose to do almost nothing about them. Reading the plan, I can almost hear the internal dialogue: “Yes, let’s change the world! Hang on a minute, what about our commitment to slashing regulations? What about maximising economic growth?”‘
One of the problems with rewilding, as a friend knowledgeable in this area mentioned to me at the weekend, is that the people who are generally enthusiastic about it are not the ones who own the land that they want to see rewilded.
And their point was that this means the biggest proponents of rewilding can afford to be idealistic about what would they like to happen to land when they don’t rely on it to give them an income.
It looks at first glance like another environmental good story that follows in the wake of a number of other positive announcements in recent times – the government is to support the planting of 50 million trees in order to make a new northern forest that will spread across an entire swathe of the north, from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east. There’s a more detailed look at the project here, on the Woodland Trust website. I previously wrote on this blog about how we need more trees in this under-wooded country and so in this respect it seems like a great thing. But as Patrick Barkham points out in the Guardian, there is more than a suggestion of greenwash on the part of the government about the announcement of the new northern forest – at the same time, HS2 and fracking in northern England are destroying valuable existing habitats and trees that have stood for hundreds of years.
I wanted to write something about the launch of the tree charter on 6 November, which hasn’t been widely covered in the media, but I did find this great piece by Boudicca Fox-Leonard (what a name!) in the Telegraph that seems to cover most of what I wanted to say, which either means I’m not nearly as original as I thought I was, or I’m in exalted company in thinking along the same lines as Ms Fox-Leonard!
Her piece begins with a wonderful sentence: ‘In slides the shovel, out comes a clod of earth; a delicate sapling is dropped into the neat hole and soil repacked around it.’ She mentions the fact that our percentage of tree cover in the UK is far below the European average. Across the UK it stands at around 13 per cent and in England it is just 10 per cent. Compare this to France (36.76%), Spain (36.7%), Italy (35%) and Germany (32%). Even allowing for the fact that Britain is an island with a high population density, the comparison is enormously unfavourable, yet 2016 was the worst year for planting on record. She also points out that the government pledged to plant 11 million trees by 2020 and that this pledge is unlikely to be kept. In other words, not enough is being done to improve the situation.
Why do I think it is important that more trees are planted? I have two main answers to that question – the first is personal; and the second is more about the benefits that I believe trees provide to our society as a whole.
My very first blog on my new website was an open letter to Michael Gove about neonicotinoids – the controversial family of pesticides that many scientists believe has been one of the primary causes of major reductions in insect and bird populations over the past fifteen years. I suggested that Mr Gove make a move to ban the use of neoniciotinoids.
I first published my blog on 6 November but didn’t get around to actually sending the letter to Michael Gove until 8 November. On 9 November there was a surprise announcement: Michael Gove backed a total ban on neonicotinoids.
In a survey of members of the British Beekeepers Association, 62 per cent said that they believed neonicotinoids are to blame, a belief which seems to be supported by the fact that suburban beekeepers (away from agricultural land) are returning better yields that rural beekeepers.