A Short Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the Nature party

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Here are the wonderful gritstone columns on the top of Kinder Low, Derbyshire

(This is a slightly adapted version of my column in Birdwatch magazine last month.) I was fascinated to read Adrian Brockless’ thoughtful piece (The Heat Is On) in December’s issue. Who would have thought that the breeding Black-winged Stilts in Kent might be a consequence of anthropogenic climate change; on the other hand, it could just be to do with the axial inclination of the Earth? However there was one part of his argument with which I wish – politely – to take issue.

Adrian writes ‘It is imperative that the arguments [about climate change] do not become shrill or hysterical’, and further contends that ‘To gain and maintain trust, conservation organisations need to distance themselves from politics and politically motivated arguments [my italics].’

I would argue quite the reverse: I would like to see much more environmental politics and some that was very ‘shrill’ and even quite ‘hysterical’. Because the real issue is the singular, shocking absence of environmental issues (with perhaps the notable exception of climate change) from any kind of contemporary political debate. Surely every reader of Birdwatch would like to see the breeding status of the Skylark or Hen Harrier as subjects of mainstream discussion, because from that would flow reflections upon land usage and practice that affect almost all birds in Britain.

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(apologies: this is the best I could do with a Hen Harrier)

But first let’s tackle Adrian’s assumption that conservation organisations should not ‘do’ politics. The answer is very simple: they don’t. In fact, they cannot do anything that smacks of party politics, because of their status as charities. The Charities Commission forbids it. Organisations like the National Trust or the Wildlife Trusts are rightly reluctant to engage in anything that looks shrill or hysterical. They are always measured and – largely – trusted, but this approach creates its own deficit.

What we get as a consequence is a campaign with the hilarious dottiness of ‘Vote for Bob’. You must have seen it somewhere on your e-travels – Facebook or Twitter – that cute red squirrel asking if you have signed the petition and telling you that ‘A vote for Bob is a vote for nature.’ (https://www.voteforbob.co.uk)

Don’t misunderstand me, I hugely admire the wonderfully dedicated personnel who now make the RSPB the most effective voice for nature in Britain. Moreover I deeply respect the 120,237 people who have signed the petition to date, but let’s be frank, the campaign is gentle to the point of toothlessness. And it is exactly what you get when a charity wants to do politics but has to look as if it is not. Worst than all this, for me, is that ‘Vote for Bob’ will probably be the only meaningful statement about the environment at the next election. That’s how little real nature there is in modern politics.

But let’s now look at ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’. If we replace those words with ‘impassioned’ and ‘theatrical’ then I would argue that the groundbreaking Hen Harrier Day – based partly on celebrity, guided by clever social media campaigns and filled with strong rhetoric and timed to coincide with the inglorious 12th – is a form of heady politics. Sometimes it is only when people stand up to be counted and perhaps get carried away and certainly allow themselves to be abused, that voices are really heard.

Hen Harrier Day in some ways resembles another ‘shrill’ protest that took place in the Peak District 82 years earlier. The actual details are relatively mundane. In 1932 a group of several hundred largely working folk from Manchester set out from Hayfield and walked close to the top of Kinder Scout. They were protesting the lack of a right to roam on non-productive private land all over Britain.

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(Here’s the route they took from Hayfield in 1932 up William Clough towards Ashop Head on Kinder)

A smaller subgroup eventually got into a scrap with a gang of stick-wielding gamekeepers. Six of those ramblers were eventually judged by a jury, packed with brigadier-generals and colonels, to have been guilty of ‘riotous assembly’ and imprisoned for up to six months. The whole thing became famous as the ‘Mass Trespass.’

The entire campaign for ordinary British people to have the right to walk on ‘our’ countryside spans 120 years. Between 1884 and 1939, 15 parliamentary bills were submitted before the House of Commons and thrown out or defeated by its landowning incumbents. It was not until this 2000 CROW Act that this citizen’s birthright finally made the statute books. It all involved politics. If you like, some of it was ‘shrill and hysterical’, in fact that part – the so-called Mass Trespass of 1932 – is the only part of all this complex political campaign which people now remember.

For me, the devastating implications of the State of Nature Report in 2013 proclaim one loud and unmistakable truth. Nature now needs all the political action it can get. Perhaps what we really need is a lean, mean, non-charitable pressure group, prepared to do loud, attention-grabbing and – yes – even party politics, funded perhaps by donation or some independent trust. Quiet, measured non-political conservation has got us thus far. Nature now needs a whole lot more.

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7 Comments

  1. flamedancerose

     /  March 12, 2015

    I couldn’t agree more. Wildlife and habitats appear to have almost no legal protection in the UK including Section 41 endangered species. It is shocking what one discovers when trying to protect a habitat or a species, particularly where a situation is rapidly declining due to neglect or poor management.

    Reply
    • mark cocker

       /  March 12, 2015

      Thank you flamedancerose. These are very hard times primarily because the crisis has shifted emphasis away from any kind of environmental concern towards economic development at any price. But the wider political situation concerning nature is particularly shocking. We need some kind of different representation and the charitable status of the main groups, e.g. National Trust etc, doesn’t allow for proper debate to take place

      Reply
      • flamedancerose

         /  March 12, 2015

        I agree – we definitely need a new, non-charitable campaigning group to do some very clear, well informed, political pressure campaigning for wildlife and habitats. Do you know if the trustees and employees of charitable groups like the Wildlife Trusts, can be involved in political campaigning, as private individuals, separate from their jobs – or can they only be involved if they leave their jobs?

      • mark cocker

         /  March 12, 2015

        i think only as private citizens because of the charitable status of the Wildlife Trusts

  2. My Full Response to Mark Cocker
    Only an abridged version of my response appears in Birdwatch 273: p. 92 (March 2015). Here is my full response.

    I am grateful for Mark Cocker’s response to my article and also for his willingness to engage with it (272: p.90). I would however, like to comment on what he has said because much of his criticism is unwarranted and appears to have been brought about by an inattentive reading of my article (270: p.40-43).
    I shall start with his first paragraph.

    Mark writes: “who would have thought that breeding Black-Winged Stilts might be a consequence of anthropogenic climate change? On the other hand, it could be to do with the axial inclination of the earth.” Firstly, I would like to highlight that one of the central points of my article was to make clear that we cannot take the isolated instance of the nesting of two pairs of Black-Winged Stilts as evidence of climate change – anthropogenic or otherwise (Mark missed the ‘isolated’ point in his question). Secondly, the question that Mark asks does not accurately reflect what I wrote. In only my second paragraph I observed that, “…some chose to use the reports [of breeding Black-Winged Stilts] to highlight the issue of climate change by claiming that this was more evidence of… anthropogenic climate change.” There is an obvious difference between the claim that we can treat the isolated occurrence of two pairs of Stilts (breeding for the first time since 1987) as evidence of anthropogenic climate change and the suggestion that their presence may be a consequence of climate change (anthropogenic or otherwise). Nevertheless, as I wrote later on, “That…is not to deny that distribution of avifauna is heavily influenced by climate but what needs to be understood is that such claims [about isolated occurrences counting as evidence] can only be made where a definite chain of cause and effect can be clearly identified.” In other words, in cases where there is no possibility of establishing whether or not an isolated occurrence of this kind is the consequence of anthropogenic climate change (or something else), there is no room for claiming that such an occurrence is evidence of it. Ignoring the tone of mild disparagement that was also evident in Marks’s question I will answer as follows: a number of people thought this occurrence to be evidence of anthropogenic climate change. At least three people professionally affiliated with well-established conservation organizations took to Twitter to make the claim that this was yet more evidence of anthropogenic climate change (that is not to say that these individual views are representative of the organisations themselves). There was plenty of further comment of the same kind from others – look in the popular press for a start. None of this is to deny the worrying reality of anthropogenic climate change however, which is supported by plenty of evidence that is legitimate.

    Mark also seems to have (bizarrely) elected to caricature my remarks about the non-anthropogenic causes of climate change. I did not claim that such causes were answerable to the long-term periodical changes in the axial inclination of the earth but, rather, pointed out that non-anthropogenic causes are extremely complex, answerable to multifarious factors ranging from the axial inclination of the earth through to the production of CO2 absorbing plankton in our oceans (itself answerable to many different factors) through to the amount of solar radiation reflected back into space by our polar ice caps and so on. In different combinations at different times, these factors will affect our climate to a greater or lesser extent.
    I will now turn to the remainder of Mark’s response.

    Mark disagrees with my suggestion that conservation organisations need to distance themselves from politics and politically motivated arguments and says that he wants to “see much more environmental politics and some that is very ‘shrill’ and quite ‘hysterical!’” Firstly, political rhetoric frequently displays forms of cleverness that do not respect the principles of valid reasoning, but instead, smuggle in spurious conclusions dressed up as the product sound arguments. Scientists (and the wider public) are quite right to be wary of such ‘arguments’ (better characterised as smokescreens or rhetoric) because they frequently attempt to obscure truth. The conclusion that the isolated instance of the nesting of 2 pairs of Black-Winged Stilts in the UK last year is evidence of climate change is one such example. The adjectives ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’ imply lack of good reasoning. An argument is shrill if it is illegitimately exaggerated and antagonistic; hysteria (by definition) implies a lack of reason. As such, the use of these adjectives is appropriate in relation to arguments loudly made about anthropogenic climate change that are not based on sound reasoning.
    What I find puzzling – particularly in a writer of Mark’s calibre – is that he implies that ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’ are synonymous with ‘impassioned’ and ‘theatrical’. Neither ‘impassioned’ nor ‘theatrical’ imply a lack of soundness in one’s position – they merely specify the ways in which one presents it; one can be impassioned and theatrical in relation to any sound argument. Thus, it is an unfair criticism for Mark to suggest that I would have labelled Hen Harrier Day as shrill and hysterical. Moreover, in relation to this criticism, he seems to have (conveniently) forgotten that my article was focussed on climate change (not Hen Harriers) and the difference between legitimate and illegitimate arguments in relation to it.

    Hen Harrier Day was a fantastic campaign – rightly conceived and directed towards raising awareness about (and trying to prevent) the illegal and senseless killing of this stunning indigenous bird of prey by ignorant gamekeepers employed by a minority to ensure they can indulge in the (alas, legal) absurd practice of increasing the numbers of other indigenous species (mainly Grouse) in order to then kill them. If such gamekeepers were better informed (and I am in not suggesting that all gamekeepers are ignorant or committing crimes) they would, perhaps, express their concerns over decreasing indigenous Grouse populations by looking at problems caused by overgrazing and the spread of artificial conifer plantations etc., instead of trying to eliminate a small population of Hen Harriers.

    Mark also claims that I make the “assumption that conservation organizations should not ‘do’ politics”. Firstly, this is a value-judgement, not an assumption or a question (it’s good to be clear about the respective differences); as such, there is no answer of the form “they don’t” as Mark writes. Secondly, I did not, in any case, say what Mark attributes to me – I did not suggest that conservation organisations currently ‘do’ politics. Here is what I did say: “To gain and maintain trust, conservation organisations need to distance themselves from politics and politically motivated arguments but without reducing their lobbying power” and this in the context of talking about the public declarations of individuals who are employees of such organisations (not the organisations themselves).

    In any case, Mark seems to undermine his own claim that conservation organisations do not ‘do’ politics by what he says later on about Hen Harrier Day – “I would argue that the fabulously groundbreaking Hen Harrier Day…is a form of heady politics”. The day was, in part, coordinated by the RSPB and supported by, among others, the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts. If Hen Harrier Day was a form of “heady politics” then are those organisations that supported it and/or were involved in its conception and coordination taking part in political action or not?

    Whichever way Mark chooses to resolve that apparent contradiction in his response, there is a point upon which we genuinely disagree – namely, his thought that conservation bodies should get involved with party-politics. I disagree with him for two reasons. The first is, as mentioned above, that politicians frequently deploy rhetorical smokescreens of which people are rightly suspicious. The second is that, as a consequence of this, by engaging in party politics – by aligning themselves with one political party or another – environmentalists and conservationists run the substantial risk of engendering the same kind of ‘voter apathy’ in relation to their cause as that which saturates the current political climate. They would do better, in my view, to rise above the grubby machinations of day-to-day party politics and express their passion through theatrical means (when necessary) from this position – such ‘rising above’ need not (and should not) be aloof but is more likely to be noticed by those who have become disillusioned by party politics.

    Whatever one might think about the adjectives ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’, accuracy and reason are as important as passion and theatre, and they are at their most powerful when combined. It is clear that Mark and I, together with so many others, share a deep love of the natural world and also the desire to ensure its future welfare (for many reasons). To do that, raising awareness of its plight in the wider public will often require high profile campaigns that try to save endangered species along with nurturing a love of wildlife more generally – in this I have no disagreement with Mark and greatly admire what he has achieved in this respect. It is however, of vital importance that conservation organisations (and those that work for them) along with well-known and deservedly highly acclaimed authors such as Mark, ensure that their love of the natural world exemplifies accuracy, reason, passion, attentiveness and, on occasion, theatre when they respond to the work of others.

    Reply
  3. Tari Tessier

     /  September 11, 2015

    Thoughtful writing – I was fascinated by the specifics ! Does someone know if I would be able to obtain a fillable a IT 272 form example to use ?

    Reply
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