My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
This week I am reflecting on Rio+20 and considering how we rise to some of the big challenges facing us and the natural world. I am not claiming to have all the answers but simply want to continue the debate. Today I consider the importance of winning hearts and minds.
I enjoyed the comment from Hesychast on yesterday's blog - arguing that we need to decide "when we need emotion to drive change and when what we really need are very, very cool heads". I imagine that it is the politician that keeps their head in the middle of a long night of negotiation that gets their way, but occasionally, raw emotion can win the day. No doubt, the Government has learnt from the scars they bear from recent rows over forests, planning and buzzards. These were issues which touched a nerve with people who care passionately about the natural environment.
The recent debate about the Natural Capital Committee is a good example of when to engage the head but to recognise the limitations with this approach. In yesterday's Independent for example, Terence Blacker argued that "putting a price on everything is no way to treat the countryside".
I think that the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) is undoubtedly a good thing and something the UK Government deserves great credit for having the foresight to create during trying economic times. One of today's great challenges, brilliantly articulated in the National Ecosystem Assessment, is how to get the most from our land and seas. To do that we need to be able to describe the whole array of benefits these assets can deliver. The NCC is therefore as much about natural science as it is about economics. It’s as much about understanding ecosystem stability, resilience and connectivity as it is about clean water to drink or crops to eat.
There is no presumption whatsoever that all benefits can be reduced to monetary benefits or that valuation will be the sole criteria for future decisions. Even economists recognise that there are some things in the natural world that cannot be expressed meaningfully in monetary terms. The existence value of species, for example. My guess is that most of the ten million people that support BirdLife International partners in 120 countries (including the RSPB in the UK) love nature and think that there is a moral imperative to look after it. They express this time and again through the generous support they give to our conservation efforts. We have, for example, raised millions to protect threatened species which most people will never see (such as albatrosses, endemic seabirds on Henderson island, vultures etc).
The whole rationale for understanding natural capital is because we currently overexploit it by undervaluing its importance to us. This failure is reducing current wellbeing and undermining prospects for achieving a tolerable future for our children. Understanding why natural capital is so vital, and finding systematic means to articulate that importance into decision making is a no-brainer. It helps to win the minds of decision-makers keen to improve our well-being.
As I argued yesterday, valuation on its own is not going to be a panacea to solve the biodiversity crisis. Politicians are brilliantly in touch with the electorate. We need more support for nature conservation and more people prepared to exercise their vote for nature. And that means we need to reach out differently to more people in new ways. But it also means we need to encourage more people to have contact with nature ideally from an early age. This is something that the RSPB is evangelical about. More young people having contact with nature means more young people being aware of what's going on around them, more young people wanting to find out more, becoming passionate about nature and wanting to fight to save it. When you have nature in your heart, you can be a powerful force for good.
How would you go about winning hearts and minds for nature conservation?
It would be great to hear your views.
Fair point, Mele. Maybe I did overreach myself there...
Hi Martin. To win hearts and minds....I'd not use the language of economics to talk about nature. I'm with Blacker the 'natural capital' issue. George Monbiot (www.monbiot.com/.../how-%E2%80%9Csustainability%E2%80%9D-became-%E2%80%9Csustained-growth%E2%80%9D) discussed a related important issue in a recent blog; the morphing of 'sustainable development' to 'sustainable growth'. This is deeply concerning, as is, I feel, the language of economics applied to nature. I fear an ulterior motive :-(
Are politicians being 'brilliantly in touch with the electorate'? In the case of the ongoing buzzard furore they were, it appears, brilliantly in touch with certain lobbying groups who seem to have rather exclusive access to sympathetic ministerial ears.
No you should not be sorry Martin,you have to cater for a wide range of followers and by necessity these type of meetings get a bit heavy for ordinary mortals to take in.Certainly did not mean it as a criticism.Don't think we have ever been to RSPB reserve and been disappointed especially when needing help from staff and some days just work out how you might wish them too and today was one of those.
Sorry for that Sooty - and thank you for the praise! Bit jealous of your day. I was sneezing in the office. Let's see if we can get a big bus to take all the non-believers to Ham Wall...
Afraid all a bit heavy for me Martin but we went to Ham Wall today and our thoughts were that even 10 years ago we would not have seen the young Great White Egrets first to have been bred in UK I believe which we saw all morning on and off nor would we have seen Marsh Harriers or Bitterns which we also saw on and off all morning.
So to win hearts and minds for nature conservation somehow get all the disbelievers to Ham WAll.
Thanks to the RSPB for a lovely day and the Wiltshire Ornithological society was out in real force there and they had a great day as well for sure.Surely must be some of the best value for money that there is.
Oh yes I do praise as well Martin.
Redkite - thank you. We do try. Occasionally it is like leading camels to water, but alas they do not always drink!
Further to my earlier comment, Wednesdays is Prime Minister's question time in the House of Commons. Just sometimes I listen to it and apart from the totally non productive political point scoring that takes place, I hear almost no questions from MP's to the Prime Minister on the environment and conservation. All the questions are unusally on current topics and very minor in a world context. If were possible to persuade some MPs to Step for Nature by asking a few penetrating question's to the PM on global and national conservation matters that would have a lot of benefits in my view
I think the RSPB is doing a really great job in winning hearts and minds for nature conservation. You are quite right Martin about the importance of contact with nature when children are young. The working with peopleand schools local to RSPB nature reserves is good, showing them first hand how nature works. The event activities of many of the RSPB local groups are important. The RSPB's volunteering initative also provides people with opportunities to work with nature. I know several people who, through volunteering are now much more concerned about wildlife. The media is a powerful tool but not easy to deal with as they usually have their own agenda, but again the RSPB does brilliantly on that front. Campaigns and contacts with politicians are of course very important, but again not easy. Finally, the efforts of individuals can be very effective, the volunteer and farm alliance programme, for instance.
So the RSPB and many of its members are great, at winning hearts and minds. However it is a long and difficult task but it can and is being done. "The journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step". Many, many steps have been taken already but there are still much more to come.