This past weekend saw me attending my third New Networks for Nature event in Stamford – essentially, a ‘relaxed’ conference that’s celebrates both the scientific and cultural aspects of nature in one.
I owe a lot to New Networks, especially given my first one back in 2012 was what launched me into youth network A Focus on Nature for the first time, which I am currently proud to sit on the committee for. But this year, I didn’t come away with the same ‘ooh, that was absolutely fab’ feeling as before. Don’t get me wrong, there were many great points, but others not so much I won’t bother rambling about them here though – bar one.
In the space of one coffee break, three people I’d never spoken to before all happened to approach me, and, as if they were fates sent to dictate the idea of my next blog, each said (more or less) “this is all brilliant, but you can’t help noticing how white and middle-class it all is, can you?”
“Well,” I’d reply, “you could pretty much say the same for the entirety of the conservation movement in the UK.”
Admittedly, New Networks is something of an extreme example. The prices of accommodation in the event’s host town, Stamford, seem to have been tailor-made for Russian oligarch (much to my student loan’s chagrin), and looking around at the bearded, bald and fading human mosaic in front of you is almost an art form in itself. Despite this being a sell-out event, the same numbers probably could’ve being achieved by advertising only during drive-time on Radio 4. But even when you take wider age ranges and dynamics into account across the country, the overwhelming majority are within this narrow class boundary of ‘Guardian Britain’.
And yes, I’m a shining example. Bought up in locally-regarded-as-posh-darling market town Romsey, my retiree parents maintain raised vegetable beds and go on tri-annual exotic holidays, while Mother’s first reaction to any celebration is to hit the button on a Waitrose by-invitation delivery. My four brothers are all living in the affluent London boroughs of Wimbledon, Islington, and, er, Clapham. While I try and bring some practical outside work to the family dynamic, the fact I’m even financially stable enough to study at the University of Exeter and plan to continue with a masters kind of gives me away.
Doesn’t mean I can’t be angry about why everyone else in my chosen career path is so samey though. It doesn’t need to be, and it really shouldn’t be.
Much of the conservation work people really want to do, the on-the-ground, getting your hands dirty aspects, really don’t need a variety of post-graduate qualifications when many of the skills are often extensions of primary industry tasks, such as farming and forestry. Even the more complex, specialist elements could be taught through on-job courses. So it’s not as if the skills require the same amount of training as a doctor or lawyer would at all.
Perhaps the greatest concern this brings is the illusion it paints of nature as a luxury. Frequently cited in discussions as to why protecting wildlife in less economically-developed countries can be difficult, is the same really true here? Whether you’re an inner city single mother of four, a hill farmer in Yorkshire, a café manager in Norfolk or a medical student in Bristol, we’re all dependent on nature, yet maintaining it to maintain us is bloody difficult without properly loving it first. Why should it be down to your economic status whether you care enough to make a difference? Compared to most hobbies, being a naturalist is pretty cheap. Last time I checked, it was free to walk to your local park or river.
The RSPB can boast about how powerful its ‘voice’ of a million members is, but there’s 70+ million people in the UK. Is that really enough to make a real difference? And how many of those members really ‘use’ their membership?
If you’re expecting me to come up with a solution to these problems in this blog, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. The reasons behind the middle-class whitewash in conservation are complex, sometimes contradicting, and require a revolutionary change in the way we value nature as whole to change that.
Until then, I’m sure I’ll be attending many more events full of very nice people talking about saving nature and how we all need to be engaged with it. Every time with a massive elephant in the room, silently snorting to itself in the corner with a banner upon its back reading ‘preaching to the converted’.
You’ve got a point. Though I have met ‘lower’ class people who care about wildlife (heck, I’m one of them – my family come from east-end & gypsy stock) the overwhelming majority do seem to be from a certain strata. People living on the breadline in tower blocks and council terraces can’t afford a subscription to British Wildlife or RSPB membership! Some of them may care for nature but most are too busy trying to earn a living to think about the re-introducing the Lynx. The irony is that it is not the middle-class naturalists who suffer most when nature is damaged but the poorest levels of society – if fruit crops aren’t pollinated or fish stocks collapse the rising price of food will hit them hardest.
Radical movements and revolutions invariably grow from the fertile ground of the educated middle classes. That’s an historical reality. What you have to do is nurture the growth, keep it on track, make it a cultural norm. On a lighter note – at least I know how to grow my own food, fix a house and mend your car!
Fully concur with the middle class problem re conservation – my status is middle class; white; privileged; grey and comfortable.
The following is what I wrote a few weeks ago to one of the founders of NNN. I thought it was fairly restrained, but it went down badly and I’m now persona non grata.
‘’Would have liked to have met you at your forthcoming NNN event but my wife and I cannot afford £180 plus BnB and travel costs – next year perhaps. Correct us if wrong, but there appears to be little in the way of politics on the agenda (and past agendas). If there had been we might well have ignored the expense.
Surely one of the most pressing issues is for example, land ownership and the whole business of EU subsidies. The first aim of NNN is, quote: To challenge the low political emphasis placed nationally upon wildlife and nature. But where are these challenges?
Is Katarina’s Porteus’s piece printed next to this aim one?
‘In the last half century we’ve seen a profound change in the way that people relate to place. In my own coastal village, a generation which knew every inch of the ground intimately, and which derived its identity from working with the natural environment, has given way to one which appreciates nature from behind field glasses, camera lenses and computer screens. It is as if we have become outsiders looking in.’ Katarina Porteous, poet.
If so, we hope that she goes on to add that another reason for ‘the profound change in the way people relate to place’ in her village (and nearly every other village) is that young and local people cannot possibly afford to live there. Land is far too expensive and (at a guess) all the old labourers’ cottages have become weekend second homes whose value is increasing exponentially – further ratcheting up land prices.
Yes, we need poetry but we need politics in equal measure.
We need philosophy; we need fairness.’’
That’s what I wrote. Too bold, too critical? It certainly appears to have upset people.
I should have asked also if there are concessionary rates for students. Do you know? If so, that would help a bit.
Thanks for commenting Murray. Much of New Networks seems to be about saying “we’re bringing about change to how we percieve nature in society” to roughly paraphrase, without necessarily seeing that they’re a representation of much of what needs to change. And there’s no concessions whatsoever to younger delegates who may be able to act to a greater extent on their ambitions. In fact, I was almost certainly the youngest delegate in attendance.
Thanks for the blog Pete. I had been thinking my original criticism of NNN was OTT. Undoubtedly it’s a worthwhile body with many extraordinarily talented, clever and good people from a diverse number of academic disciplines. To be honest, I would probably get well out of my depth in such company. But with that amount of intellect, the hope is there would be something inclusive and, at the same time, edgy and thought provoking. True, they have had some fiery debates in the past but it seems your recent observations confirm my doubts. The time is ripe for more politics in and around the natural world. NNN has that as its first aim.
We all need emulate Chris Packham and push the arguments and not leave off. The more organisations like the CLA that kick up and complain on account of his stand on raptors and their demise on the big shooting estates the better. We need more people like him.
Thanks for such a provocative blog. I can’t disagree with most of it. A couple of reflections, on conservation and natural history, rather than on NNN, which make me think that caring about wildlife and conservation isn’t a middle-class pursuit, but being a full-time conservationist might be:
Is ‘Class’ entirely, perhaps even primarily, an issue of wealth? There are wealthy people with working-class attitudes and aspirations, and impoverished people with middle-class attitudes. I grew up ‘working-class’ (labourer father, housewife mother, no car, no phone, in an ex mining town with 45% unemployment (yeah, bring on the Three Yorkshiremen…) in the 1980s. As it happens, I attended a decent local school, went to uni, started work as an ecologist, and am now a professional conservationist. And some time in that process, probably at or soon after uni, I became ‘middle-class’. But, 30 years later, I work for a wildlife charity which, like many such organisations, has an average salary significantly below the national average of £27,600 (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ashe/annual-survey-of-hours-and-earnings/2015-provisional-results/stb-ashe.html ) Almost all of our conservation staff are graduates, and as such, you’d probably regard them as ‘middle-class’ if you met them.
When did it all start? Although there’s a popular image of the Victorian naturalist as a parson or doctor collecting butterflies in his very considerable spare time, there were also thousands of working-class naturalists doing excellent local fieldwork and documenting their finds. There was a lot of solid natural history within the non-conformist movement called ‘Pleasant Sunday Afternoons’ focussed on getting working people into the countryside on their half-day weekly free time (when the working week was six 12-hour or longer days, and Sunday mornings were in church or chapel), and the Workers’ Educational Association has always included plenty of natural history in its programmes. Through the 20th century, natural history societies continued to have a fair proportion of working-class members, and it’s not entirely changed: a fair proportion of serious birdwatchers are working-class, as are a scatter of entomologists and botanists. The difference is that working-class naturalists rarely make a living from wildlife, and ‘career conservationists’ are very largely middle class.
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