A Focus On Nature

Issues in conservation

The Current State of Affairs: a response by Matt Williams

This blog is an attempt to respond to and consider some of the issues raised in a blog by my friend Lucy McRobert.

In her blog, Lucy describes the emergence of conservation, ecological science and then of the modern environmental movement. She is also right to point out that our concern for the environment has been undermined by mass consumerism that has overtaken contemporary values systems in the past few decades.

Interestingly, Lucy also strongly critiques a woman who feels that sustainable labelling schemes are inherently self-contradicting and indeed hypocritical, although the woman in question put it in much stronger terms than this.

For me, we are currently seeing a spate of petitions and campaigns partly because of the extreme socio-economic context we are going through, partly because of longer-term trends, and partly because of the Government of the time. This Government is mostly Conservative, and while I respect the Liberal Democrats for their attempts to moderate some of the Conservatives’ more radical right wing policies, their is a limit to their influence. However, modern day conservatism is, for me, less linked to conserving things, and is more a part rolling forward the agenda of neoliberal economics and free-market capitalism. Modern day conservatism is more about the values of big business and small state, than it is of conserving the environment. When it does care about the countryside, it cares about what could be referred to as the countryside elite – the wealthy landowners and their interests.

For me, this is the symbol of a wider change – in the past few decades the values at the heart of neoliberal economics have won out – in particular, individualism. This means that people feel more concerned about themselves and less concerned about others or the natural environment. This is a cultural change, linked to deep values. But, I don’t think it’s the values of individuals which have shifted, rather the values of our media, our institutions and our governments. This is why, despite substantial conservation victories – species reintroductions, new policies or natural habitat restoration – the long term trends of spiralling greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss continue apace.

It’s because our societies are geared towards production and consumption, and the values at the heart of our institutions reflect these priorities, that we find it so difficult to break out of these trends – there’s too much inertia in the system. It’s not always to do with individuals, but more the structures in our society. In fact, evidence still shows that most people in Britain still strongly care about the environment and others in their community, but they have very pessimistic perceptions of other people’s values, imagining that other people tend to prioritise greed, wealth and self-image.

And for me, this is why I struggle to see changing consumer behaviour as the answer. Discrete behaviours are important and attempts to modify them are admirable, but cumulatively won’t lead to the cultural values shift we need to see. So, I think suggesting that we can save the world by changing what we buy is a difficult proposition – buying is the problem (although my concerns aren’t exactly the same as the woman in Lucy’s piece and I can comprehend the many benefits of sustainable labelling and the livelihoods that these industries can support). In fact, substantial evidence suggests that some values are mutually exclusive – it is nigh on impossible to prioritise the values of wealth and power, or consumption, while simultaneously promoting the values of concern for the environment and for other, distant people (whether that’s people in distant countries or future generations). In fact, the wealth and power values can suppress the pro-social and pro-environmental values. But, very often, conservation organisations will appeal to our consumer side in order to convince us to help them or to take an action. This raises very difficult but important questions for the way the conservation sector works.

This means that some tactics can be unwittingly counter-productive. The evidence suggests that some techniques employed by the environmental sector might be resulting in short term victories which, in the long term, reinforce the shift towards the values at the heart of consumerism and neoliberal society and economics.

Therefore, we have to make careful, long-term choices about what tactics we deploy. And education is crucial – giving children the chance to learn to love nature at an early age is a key part of the puzzle in shifting society’s values towards a set that can be more sustainable for the environment and more equitable for people. That’s why Government’s plans to remove climate change and ‘care’ and ‘protection’ for the natural environment from the national curriculum are unacceptable, and why we should all sign a petition to object to this. Petitions won’t save the world – if we want to do that there’s a much bigger conversation about tactics to be had – but they can express the values of the world we would like to live in.


Matt Williams