The Great Hall at the University of Bristol for the recording of Sustaining Life for Radio 4
Panelists Jon Bridle, Vandana Shiva, Aubrey Manning and Jacqueline McGlade - Presenter in the middle - Brett Westwood
At times it is very easy to give in to despair about what is happening to the natural world - it was hard enough in good times when governments thought they had the money for the "luxury" of policies that protect nature, but it turns out that was little more than gardening - a nice feeling from getting Britain to look nice for those family walks in nature reserves. True colours begin to show when economic times are harder and the desire to drive the economy by building and consuming our way out means any notions about meadows and butterflies, seabirds and wetlands are quickly dispensed of. Now protected sites are up for grabs as the government is thinking of having another look at the Habitat's Directive - the legislation that is protecting the places many species need to thrive - and one example is revoking its objection to a new airport on the Thames estuary and - as George Osbourne put it in the Autumn Statement yesterday:
“We will make sure that gold-plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.“ Things like habitats - pardon?
2 weeks ago the government also seemed to be massively scaling down its plans to establish Marine Conservation Zones. 127 were identified for designation this year by a range of organisations and recommended to the government for protection. Now only a handful (no number or locations specified) will be designated initially and the remainder will be looked at again at the end of next year after "more consultations." How much more is needed? Isn't 2 year's worth of consultations enough? The jungle beat is saying less than a quarter of the original number will be accepted. Why? Because it too difficult to accept marine protection in times when we need the sea's resources to boost the economy. It is money talking, not compassion and care for the seas.
Jacqui McGlade in Saving Species urged governments to do what it takes to care for the oceans - after all, she said, it is probably what will keep 9 billion people alive in the future.
So on a day when one of my son's schools is shut because of demonstrations about pensions, when we heard yesterday about how the economy is worse off than we thought and when everyone is dreading the expense of Christmas because even paying the food bills is getting harder - do fish and butterflies really matter to us? As Harry Cotterell the new president of the CLA said “The Government is starting to melt the goldplating on this (the Habitat's) directive. We support conservation, but it is important that humans are considered as important as bats, newts and dormice.”
I am bound to disagree aren't. And I do. Not that humans are less important but with the notion behind this statement. It is short sighted in the extreme and the increasing distance between our lives and our understanding of our reliance on the world around us has led us to really believe we are disconnected from the nitty-gritty rawness of earth processes. To the money people the earth is little more than a never emptying box of resources for us to use to make money. Well, so it could be in many ways if we treat it well, but that is not what we are planning on doing.
I think Dr Jon Bridle in the recording of Saving Species - Sustaining Life programme on Monday - put it beautifully when he said - when will we realise that the Department of the Environment is actually the Treasury? We place so much emphasis on industry and the economy and the Dept of the Environment is brushed into a dark corner - but the Department of the environment holds the key to the wealth of any nation.
So if the pollinators die - how will we have crops? If we destroy the range of plants and animals that cleanse water - what will we drink? If we poison soils what will we grow? If we destroy the balance of the seas by removing all predators - what will happen to the 1 billion people who depend on fish for their livelihood? If we take out all mangroves where will fish breed and what will dampen storm waves? The list goes on and on and on.
But it is more than that isn't it. Its not just about us - it truly isn't. We are diminished and degraded if we fail to protect the planet we live on - fail to care about it, respect it and marvel at it. In the superb "British Wildlife" magazine Peter Marren says:
We plainly need an independent voice that brings to an issue nature as a whole, not in terms of preconceptions of human health or happiness ... but for its own sake. This voice would not be diverted by "environment" concerns (which are invariably about the human environment ... but would talk about the real wild plants, animals, invertebrates and fungi, in all their glorious individuality, complexity and vulnerability. We need someone to tell the politicians about the natural world as it is.
On Monday night the Great Hall at the University of Bristol hosted the recording of a very important debate for Radio 4 - a special edition of Saving Species called Sustaining Life. it examined the relationship between a growing human population and our demands on the earth - and the survival of the natural world. No one listening could be in any doubt about our place in nature, our dependence on its health and why it is important to love it for what it is.
I love working on this series - it does exactly what Peter Maren wants to hear - a voice for nature that says it as it is. It champions all of life, big small and the seemingly irrelevant; and it tells the world it is worth protecting because it exists. The recognition that we have a duty of care towards the earth can only make us more fully human - but we need a change of heart.
Brett asked the panel if they thought we are entering a new age of creativity, where we view the world differently and live in a more creative way that allows all of life on earth to flourish. They thought we could do that, given a drive from governments, organisations and from the people themselves. We have to want to change - but do we?
I was also delighted yesterday by a speech given by Pope Benedict to a gathering of young people in Italy:
"Dear friends the Church, while appreciating the most important scientific research and discoveries, has never ceased to remind people that by respecting the mark of the Creator in all creation, we achieve a better understanding of our true and profound human identity. ... If, in fact, human activity forgets to collaborate with God, it can do violence to the creation and cause damage which always has negative consequences, also for mankind. ... Respect for the human being and respect for nature are the same thing, they grow and find their just measure if we respect the Creator and His creation, both in the human creature and in nature".
If 1 billion Catholics REALLY took this to heart, the world would be a different place.