"Simon Says" - Playing lost & found with our planet
Thursday 8th November 2018
(Above Upton Heath over-looking Poole © Mark Heighes)
Here we go again. The same old headlines from a bunch of greeny, tree-huggers moaning about the end of the world. Is that how the world saw the latest report from WWF, reported widely in the media? That humanity had wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish since only the 1970s. For many of us this was a shocking and frightening figure, general as it was. Despite how well we are doing in Dorset in so many ways, it was terrible to see that the UK was 189th worst for biodiversity loss out of 219 countries. No wonder Environment Minister Gove wants and needs to take action, starting with agriculture and fisheries.
Put in context this is the 6th mass extinction the world has seen and the first to be caused by a single species – humans. Even from now, it would take the world up to 7 million years to recover. The Living Planet report is full of devastating facts: an 89% decline in species in South and Central America since 1970; an 83% decline in the freshwater species index; 6 billion tonnes of fish removed from the sea since 1950 and pretty much replaced with 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics.
The numbers and examples from this and many other such reports run on and on. Mike Barrett of WWF is quoted as saying, “we are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff.” A metaphor that describes humans as lemmings (at least the lemmings of myths) mindlessly committing suicide. What is going on? Why aren’t we taking steps to protect ourselves and our future?
This blog isn’t another depressing resume of death and destruction, as bad and important as that is. Nor is it an examination of the causes of this cataclysmic destruction, as well documented as they are. What interests me is why this is still happening. I don’t have all the answers but I do hope to start a conversation about why our supposedly intelligent and empathetic species is so hell-bent on destruction. Please feel free to disagree with my views or propose your own. The DWT social media is at your disposal.
Science and numbers
We’ve known for years that science has a problem communicating facts and more of a problem quantifying them. Even simple statistics such as percentages don’t resonate with a lot of people. If for example you are a visual-based person, the concept of what is in effect mathematics may not have much clout with you. If you go to the next level of creating analogies, such as the weight of fishing bycatch filling nearly 100 super-tankers every year, that can give another part of the picture. But the world is big, so are 100 super-tankers really that much? Then you’re back to percentages or fractions.
It is really hard to present simple facts that relate to the context, describe the extent and indicate the importance, to a wide range of people of differing education, experience and interest. DWT Vice President Prof. James Lovelock has been successful. By creating the concept of Gaia he has been able to describe a model for how the world functions without the need for heavy, up-front data. Likewise the pictures shown by Sir David Attenborough of marine creatures being killed by plastics struck a chord with the public far more than reams of figures.
We have been alive for but a blink of the planet’s eye, but for us it really is a lifetime. If we look back over the years for which we can remember changes, they may not have been that great, but 20 or 50 years is a miniscule period of time in evolutionary terms. 40 – 85% declines in insects in the UK, whatever the true figure turns out to be, can be devastating. So many of us in our childhood remember the fronts of cars being covered with insects in the summer, but no more. That change is in the space of a very few decades.
Every issue wants attention these days. Interest groups are far more media-savvy: the NHS, police funding; the rail network. The list is almost infinite. All with their own problems, demands for funding and sound-bites. I wonder if we filter out this ‘noise’ and along with it either a belief in information and facts, or the ability to distinguish between what is important and what isn’t, what is crying wolf and what is urgent.
Undoubtedly one of the major reasons for the lack of protection for wildlife is prioritising other issues, “Of course the environment is important, but jobs, homes and income are more so,” comes the reply in the next housing development discussion. When other priorities such as money and jobs are seemingly threatened, then environment is pushed well down the list of priorities. This short-termism is rampant in a crowded, competitive world.
It’s not me syndrome
Allied to this is a widespread belief that what we as individuals, or even companies, do is just a drop in the ocean. Our removal of a bees’ nest, development of a house, use of an agricultural pesticide, are all small in the global scheme of things aren’t they? The problem is nature has to exist somewhere and humans and their impacts are everywhere. Impacts have to be dealt with at the individual level.
86% of Dorset’s heathland has been lost. Was it in some way mislaid? It hasn’t been ‘lost’ as we know where it was. It has been destroyed by development, often inappropriate and insensitive. Chris Packham has been keen that we tighten up on our language. Species have been killed, habitats have been wiped out, but we have found a range of euphemisms to cover the reality: lost, reduced, changed, etc.
Also in some countries such as the US, there is a back-lash against science and anything that is (wrongly) perceived as holding-up economic development. Some fields don’t help themselves by talking in technical language that exclude the majority of the population. Our own President Dr George McGavin is a good example to show that it is possible to combine technical knowledge, rigorous science and popular understanding.
Finally, I believe a major challenge is that people have heard the dire warnings so often now yet lifestyle, at least in the West, hasn’t altered, so they filter out the messages. It’s old news, or repetitive, or worse still, boring. We have to constantly find new and imaginative ways to present the information. That can mean getting more outspoken and alarmist, even shrill, just to be heard, but that rhetorical inflation will ultimately lead to yet more people tuning out.
Most of the above list of possible reasons why we don’t take seriously the current crisis that will impact our very survival, is cultural. If that is the case then firing more data at people, or showing them how wrong they have all been, just isn’t going to work. Our messages need to be positive rather than always negative. They must allow people to do the right things, not just stop them doing the wrong things. We must be cognisant of how not everyone understands or is motivated by numbers, but may see the world in conceptually different ways.
We know how bad things are. We know pretty much how to fix things. We know how to protect and manage species. But we don’t know how to communicate with our own species, and this could cost us not only our fabulous wildlife but our own future as well.
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