World Land Trust Chief Executive John Burton shares his ‘conservation realist’ view of the recent developments for reducing carbon emissions in the political landscape.
It is fantastic news that Britain is trying to become the world leader in carbon emissions reduction. Fantastic, is also perhaps literally the right word, as it is a fantasy that it will put the world to rights again. The elephant in the room is human populations, and it is growing ever larger. I heard someone from Britain’s Labour party spouting forth on how they were committed to zero carbon emissions, and that they were committed to maintaining peoples lifestyles, and reducing energy costs by expanding renewable energy production. This all demonstrates the fantasy world that politicians live in. Climate change, zero carbon, are certainly important issues, but they are also a bandwagon, upon which all and sundry are jumping – even Amnesty International “has confirmed it will make job losses amid reports that it is planning a major strategic change of direction to focus more on climate change.”
Air travel and cars are focussed on all the time, but there are other major sources of carbon emissions, just as polluting. Cement for starters, and then there is the fashion industry. But what drives all these, is quite simply human population growth and human aspirations for ever higher living standards. And the latter is equated with more and more disposable ‘stuff’. All politicians predicate their policies on expanding economies, and of course ultimately this is impossible. At what point will politicians realise that economies cannot expand indefinitely.
Wildlife conservationists realised, some time back, that continued exploitation of natural resources would lead to the extinction of species. But even now, relatively few accept the fact that we have almost certainly passed ‘tipping point’. Awareness of Pauly’s ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ is still little understood by many conservationists, and this means that the young activists of today are likely to accept assurances and models that are way too conservative to actually reverse the current trends. Conservationists for far too long have focussed on the charismatic ‘flagship’ species. The argument has been that if you conserve elephants and pandas, then everything will be OK because they need ecosystems to support them. And because a few large obvious species such as Otters, Red Kite, and Sea Eagles are doing well (in the UK), then this indicates we are making progress. Unfortunately this is very wrong indeed. As someone who has been actively watching wildlife since the 1950s, I am very aware of the dramatic changes in insect life that have taken place. No longer do moths fly in an open window at night, no longer are the hedgerows full of linnets, no longer are field full of hundreds of swallows in summer. And all terrestrial animals such as slow worms, lizards, and many small mammals are now living in fragmented ranges, isolated by urban development, housing and roads. These populations will almost certainly suffer from inbreeding, as well as predation by cats and cars, and over the long term will disappear. I doubt for instance that the common lizards that once inhabited the railway embankments in Streatham, where I grew up, still exist. And what about the swarms of grasshoppers that I remember on the commons of London in the mid-50s? Pesticides, herbicides, and intensive mowing have taken care of these.
I could go on at some length, but my point is simply this: we are still doing too little, too late. Others have said it, but we need much more radical change to society if humans are to survive living in the world we know now.
I am accused of being a conservation pessimist. This is something I still deny. I am a realist. I know that wildlife will survive, I believe that some humans will survive, but I also believe, that unless human populations and human aspirations for economic growth are curtailed, the world of the future will be a very impoverished one. I have watched the destruction of the natural world not only happen, but also accelerate.
I am fully aware that what the World Land Trust has achieved is a drop in the ocean. But thanks to all our supports, we have done something. That is the ‘take home message’: Doing Something . And perhaps more important, using our democratic rights to vote for politicians who are the only people who can make the real change needed. Switching off a bathroom light makes no sense at all, if street lighting is left on all night.