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’.