“People just think I’m trying to save fluffy animals. What I’m really trying to do is save humanity from extinction.”
So said the great Gerald Durrell, which has no doubt been rolled out in justification by many of his fans in the conservation world since, myself included, breaking backs to pull unique species from the brink. The work of these people may pay dividends for plants, animals or habitats at various scales.
But if it was all undone, or never happened in the first place, would the world fall asunder? Would cities grind to a halt for the news of the golden lion tamarin’s extinction? Would the passing of the lemur leaf frog trigger a global crisis?
The answer is sadly obvious.
It might be easy to suggest Durrell was over-egging the scale of the issue. But his point highlights an eternal struggle of conservationists – to drive a world in where at least the bulk of people even care.
Nature is the most wonderful, magical thing. And most people working to preserve and restore it know this. If you sat them down with several drinks, let them rabble away the boring utilitarian arguments early on, and then really ask them why they would do what they do, it’s because of the same reason a child gets transfixed by a beetle. It’s pure. It hasn’t come about through our hand, nor does it really need it. It’s magic.
But just like so many of our stories with magic in them, it is being lost. Like Saruman tearing down the forests to grow industry and mystical elves leaving the world to materialistic humans in The Lord of the Rings, species by species we are losing at a rate unprecedented in the Earth’s history. How are people supposed to know or care unless it affects them directly?
Only when environmental loss means the fall-out of ecosystems as we know them through the very climate we live in breaking down, only then does resistance on the street reach levels mainstream media pays attention to, as Extinction Rebellion (XR) have lead the way this year.
XR’s efforts are derided as laughable, annoying, misplaced, hypocritical (they’re wearing clothes and use mobiles! The bastards), cult-like and the work of ‘uncooperative crusties’ courtesy of Boris Johnson. Such comments are apparently the norm now in the age of Brexit and Trump.
Another observed comment about XR is “if they really wanted to make a difference, they would plant trees like I’m doing” or words to that effect. While restoring habitats and species in your own patch is incredibly laudable, doing it on your own is not going to ring in policies that curb the production of fossil fuel industries. Top-down, policy change is needed for that, and although it may not be obvious to some, change is what has resulted from non-violent civil disobedience in the past. They have caused the UK government to declare a climate emergency and plant trees. This is still lip service and simplification (what kind of trees? Where?), and more protests will be coming I’m sure. For ‘hippies’ to drive this kind of thinking in the current political climate is still an incredibly valiant effort.
If XR continue to up the ante and they need to for the future of our world, by doing so they would have accomplished the bane of many a conservationist; wanting to save the planet, but never feeling like they’ve done enough.
We humans are a species filled with grandiose expectations as soon as we begin to walk and talk. Perhaps the ‘gift’ of an apparently high degree of self-awareness is also one of our greatest curses. In the existential confusion of finding place and meaning, we strive to mark as much of a legacy on the world as we can, while being simultaneously baffled with what it’s all about – and I suspect you can trace both the best and worst decisions made by humanity to this fundamental question of meaning.
This is where things start to get a little bit off-road for a quaint naturalist’s blog, and apologies if this comes across like the wine-infused after dinner lecture from your relative who’s just read Sapiens and now thinks themselves a major in developmental philosophy (which to be honest, isn’t too far off the truth). But I think it explains, at least in some part, the conservationist’s dilemma.
We are thus faced with a nasty catch-22; we have a desire to make a difference to the natural world, which is the ‘non-self’. If finances, culture and other human-crafted systems are all ultimately fictions we use to build a reality we call civilization, nature is the ultimate non-fiction that just is, yet hosts things far more wondrous than the human hand could ever contrive. It is the one thing that will continue beyond us as individuals and probably a species, to find some greater purpose to our lives.
Yet our own self-driven desires aim to a high standard that is often unrealistic, and, when we realise the futility of this we fall back into a depression of how pointless it all is.
If we take the word of Sigmund Freud, you could argue the desire to save nature stems from the ‘superego’ that drives the moral compass of humanity. While we banish away the ‘id’ – our purely instinctual, self-driven sides – to the sub-conscious, the ego is there battling away a middle-ground between the two. It’s a fight that shapes humanity, and it is all inter-connected: Some of us like nature because it makes us feel good (the id), and as our ego rationalises what we experience, our love for it grows into a desire to protect it, as something greater than ourselves (the superego).
As a species whose self-awareness brings both conscious and sub-conscious searches for meaning, this desire to save the non-self perhaps in part justifies the meaning of our selves. Setting out to conserve nature brings a significant emotional investment, so if it appears that all that comes from it is the continued downward spiral and significant apathy from others, perhaps its no surprise conservationists descend into hopelessness and a nagging feeling of ‘what’s the point?’
It’s here where our egos and desire to do selfless good clash messily.
The scale at which we wish to make a difference is often over the realistic capability of what we can achieve. Restoring a species is worthwhile for the sake of that species alone, but even that requires huge effort and, like re-sticking a leaf on to the branch of a collapsing tree, may not combat the vast losses of natural habitat. And that’s before we get to climate change and pollution.
Personal life changes can play a part, but are not always practical for some. Unless you’re privileged enough to afford and travel to the farm shop to get your local organic meat or unwrapped vegetables, the majority of people will continue to eat cheap industrial chicken and fruit layered in non-recyclable film, because the local Tesco Express four streets away is the only viable option in a hectic life on a poor wage.
If this is to change, as it should, it needs to be top down. You can live on local vegetables in a yurt and never drive in your life, but while we live in a society that is built on the above-mentioned systems, it’s not going to be modified anytime soon.
There is hope in that the 2010s was a decade where environmental conscientiousness – be it on the impact of flying, plastic or meat – have influenced lifestyle change more than at any other time in history. But it’s not fast enough to work on personal change alone; and one of the worst things governments and major corporations can do is blame it all on consumer personal choice. This enshrines guilt, and by not making top-down change, ensures the status quo can be maintained.
We can talk as much as we like about reducing single-use plastic, and whilst we’re moving in the right direction, it is still near impossible to buy affordable, healthy produce in the supermarkets without some single-use involved. Until it is made impossible by enlightened government legislation, it will continue to be embedded in our environment. With no top down enforcement of change, I continue to burn a significant level of fossil fuels to drive my car – my jobs rely on it. Being completely green is not easy.
So in the absence of top-down change, how do we make a difference? Perhaps the better question is how we can manage our own natures. We set incredibly high goals for ourselves, and when we can’t achieve them, we become our own greatest critics.
The human experience is shaped by stories. Although the stories often do not match our reality. The Death Star was not destroyed by co-ordinated groups, campaigns and zeitgeist-driven policy, but by Luke Skywalker. Individuals who have shaped huge, globally-significant change are notable for the very reason they are very rare. Yet conservation joins many other fields in encouraging a narrative of salvation that rarely meets our fulfilments. NGOs promise you that your membership is ‘saving nature’, but without any real political influence, this is often applicable only to within the tiny landholding of a few nature reserves.
That’s not to say that individuals can’t play a part – history obviously proves this. And in the present day, just look at how Greta Thunberg has mobilised hundreds of thousands of young people in the youth climate protests. She has become a figurehead of a wider movement. It is worth remembering that individuals often drive the vision – but it is collaboration that makes things happen.
And yet, the same hunger for influence that can lead to great things has also driven the crueller aspects of humanity for centuries. Like all professions, this finds its way into conservation, and too often what is required to actually save species and habitats becomes overruled by selfish goals. What in theory should be one of the least selfish occupations – preserving and restoring the natural, non-human world – can quickly become dominated by egos and playground politics that stifles progress.
Going back to Greta, this is something she recognises clearly. “The climate movement does not need any more awards,” she wrote after refusing to accept an environmental award from the Nordic Council, “What we need is for our politicians and the people in power start to listen to the current, best available science.”
Many, often older white men, sneer and jeer at Greta, ego-driven and self-agenda serving people accusing a young girl who wants to save the planet as being ego-driven and self-agenda serving. To me that merely suggests she has held up a mirror, and their egos don’t like what they see.
Gerald Durrell talked about saving humanity through saving fluffy animals as a means to an end. Ultimately, the money and the politics are human constructs to create a functioning society, but create a deluge of destruction behind them as bycatch. But nature is real, it just is – and yet, tragically, we have the capacity to erode it.
As we head into a new decade, do what you can. A case of working your damndest to make a difference within your capacity, while not slamming yourself constantly for not actually achieving your fullest expectations.
Put aside your self, nagging doubts, the creeping ego, and do what you can. In every bee, river, deer and tiger, meaning and reality is out there. And it’s too beautiful to spend all your life dwelling within the limits of your mind.