Post-Truth in Conservation: Reflections on 2016 and aims for 2017


2016 in a nutshell (Image: Ron Bury)

Whatever you read or hear, the public consensus is that 2016 has been as warmly received as someone redecorating your wallpaper with cat faeces. Of course like all things in life, nothing’s clearly good or evil. On a personal level I had a rather good year, bar some dissertation stress in March/April and a bit of middling near the end, but overall it treated me well, and it’s not what I’m going to go on about here. This is, after all, a nature blog.

And as such, you could argue that nature conservation has been set off to an even more uncertain, divisive start to the new year than has been seen for a long time. The rise of the far-right, driven by the un-predicted victories of Breakfast and Dump (as I think we’ve all heard their venomous names often enough now), has created a world in which these previously blurred ‘your-side, their-side’ divisions are growing clearer.

Unsurprisingly, the conservation sector is not really considered part of the picture in the mainstream. But similar things are going on there. Directly, mistrust ranging from disregard to outright hatred of experts and scientists, fuelled by the new alt-right leaders, has set us off into the much discussed post-truth era, with among others things, climate change going straight to the centre of the dartboard. Wildlife conservation isn’t safe from this either.

A good example of this post-truth environmental perspective was the release of State of Nature 2 in September. Given it was pretty much a repeat of what was said three years before, I had my own critical thoughts about it. But the response from much of the media, and in particular the groups that represent ‘real country people’ (I’ll also come back to them later), was astonishing. Where you expect some acceptance of the facts presented, and an agreement that we need to get our act together, it instead became “oh these bloody whingeing conservationists, nothing’s ever right from their point of view. I saw loads of blue tits on my feeder this morning! And how dare they say intensive farming is the cause of most of these declines, farmers are the custodians of the countryside!”


A male hen harrier – a typical ‘source’ species of conservation conflict. (Image: RSPB)

Which nicely brings us on to, as promised, ‘real country people’. Wildlife-human conflicts have been going on ever since our stone age ancestors decided they wanted to live in the same place a cave bear was snoozing, but the more accurate term for what has been going on recently – conservation conflicts – is more about human-human conflict over a wildlife source, and is escalating at unprecedented scales in the UK. Groups like the NFU and Countryside Alliance know that they have more friends in power, and in the past probably didn’t really think much about any serious threat to their status. Since the escalation of topics such as the driven grouse shooting debate, the rise of rewilding, serious questioning of land use politics in this country and of course the old badger-cattle chestnut however, their heckles are truly raised, and trying to find common ground to negotiate is getting about as rare as turtle doves.

Successes that impinge on what they feel is ‘right for the countryside’, such as the freedom given to Scottish beavers, are only likely to stoke the fire more. The post-truth era is the perfect time for this – so much so that the Countryside Alliance can outline their opposition to rewilding to the government without any back-up evidence in what was, um, an evidence-gathering enquiry.

But if the tale of Pandora’s Box taught us anything, it’s that there’s always hope. Just look at when we at AFON launched our Vision for Nature. Here were the voices of young people from across the country saying what we wanted nature in the UK to look like in 50 years time. It helped show that my generation aren’t willing to just let progress die. Isn’t the fact that conservation courses are in higher demand each year, or that Planet Earth II was watched by more young people than X-Factor, hope enough?

This new year, I would encourage you to find common ground as much as you possibly can with those who may not necessarily share your opinion regarding conservation. While it’s impossible to appease to everyone, and some are either too entrenched or too much of an arsehole to break down barriers, increased division will only get uglier. The more we can work on common ground, the better.

Equally, whatever the case, don’t give up on what you know is right for wildlife. The greatest conservationists and campaigners never had an easy time. But it all pays dividends, and we need bold conservation now more than ever.

And most importantly, always remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a practical conservation gig as your day job, get away from that inbox or word file as much as you can. Cherish the nature you see, aim to keep it, defend it, make it better.

I wish all my readers a very happy new year.

7 thoughts on “Post-Truth in Conservation: Reflections on 2016 and aims for 2017

  1. Wow. No punches pulled here Pete! You are right though in that we need to tread carefully when it comes to conservation in this so-called ‘post truth’ era. Seeking common ground and working together must be the right way forward and it is up to everuone to be proactive and ensure this happens. Happy new year!

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