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Cambridge University Science Magazine
By Simon Moore

Two weekends ago I was in Cambridge for a New Networks for Nature meeting in the wonderful David Attenborough building, which brought together science and art to explore the way we relate to nature. Conservationists, ecologists and environmentalists were interspersed with poets, novelists, musicians and visual artists, to build up a picture of the diverse range of responses to the natural world, in order to find new ways for engaging people with it, to ultimately protect biodiversity. The three-day meeting delivered a variety of sessions in which both scientists and artists shared their views on particular topics, including Connection, Loss, Rewilding and Hope.

In the first session of the meeting, Tony Juniper, environmentalist and writer, was highly critical of the way that we act as individuals, corporations, and governments, towards the rest of the planet – despite the fact that each country’s health, wealth and security depends on the environment. He argued that we ignore the evidence when we make decisions – conservation research is driven by the head and data, yet humans make decisions based on feelings and not on knowledge. Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, went further in condemning politicians for wrongly focusing on the local and the short-term – the exact opposite of the global, long-term thinking we need. As an astronomer, Rees is able to think of humanity in the context of billions of years, arguing that we must be good stewards for a long-term, post-human future.

We began the second day listening to psychologist Laurie Parma discuss her research into the human connection to nature – akin to E. O. Wilson’s Biophilia hypothesis. In particular, her work looks at the health benefits of being in green spaces. Parma encouraged us all to try her app called NatureBuzz, which allows you to track your wellbeing through time and space, letting you see which people and places make you happiest. Using the data generated by the app, Parma is able to investigate which areas of the world make people happiest, and hopefully discern the habitats and features of natural landscapes that give people joy.

Listen to Laurie Parma talking about her research and NatureBuzz:

Toby Smith, resident artist at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative who hosted the event, opened our eyes to the power of imagery in telling conservation stories, from ‘the blue marble’ to a ship full of dead ‘panda’. His message and goals are clear: find a way in which you can positively affect your subject matter, by telling its story and making people care. Smith advised that finding a positive message is important, as it allows you to gain local traction and engagement, instead of potentially turning people off with constant doom and gloom.

The highlight of day two for me was the discussion on Rewilding with: Guardian writer and environmentalist, George Monbiot; farmer and rewilder, Sir Charles Burrell; and environmental geographer, Dr. Jamie Lorimer. Monbiot set out his passionate case for the rewilding of Britain – particularly the barren uplands which he describes as “bowling greens with contours”, in stark contrast to nearly-identical uplands of continental Europe, which are well forested and infinitely more biodiverse. The cause of this ecological tragedy? “The white plague, the wooly maggot” – sheep farming – which is heavily subsidised by the tax payer, despite the damage it does to our land. Monbiot is very clear that allowing ecological succession and rewilding to occur should be done primarily for the benefits it can bring to people – including farmers.

Hear more from George Monbiot on rewilding and the impact of Brexit on environmental policies:

Sir Charles Burrell provided evidence in support of Monbiot’s calls for rewilding, from his enormous estate – Knepp Castle in West Sussex. Formerly an intensive dairy and arable farm, Burrell was forced to shift economic models as farming was losing him money. After efforts to rewild his lands, he has now seen the return of roe and red deer, kites, lapwings and numerous other animals, and now attracts over 2,000 visitors a year who come to enjoy the wildlife. His example shows the economic benefits of allowing ecological succession, instead of the current model we have whereby land owners are paid to maintain nature in a state of deprivation. Dr. Jamie Lorimer pointed to the ecological boredom that comes with living in urban areas, arguing that we must rewild the city and use tourism to reengage people with nature.

The last session of day two focused on Reconnection to nature, and street artist ATM explained and showcased his work painting endangered species on streets and walls around London. He was particularly critical of the conservation movement attempting to impose solutions and strategies on poorer nations, when we have such a poor track record in our own country. ATM is keen to draw attention to species that are threatened with extinction in the UK, painting them in places of significance to each species, in the hope that it will raise local awareness and support for their cause.

ATM chats about his mission to paint conservation issues on the map:

Dr. Ivan Scales, political ecologist at the University of Cambridge, discussed the potential of ‘nature tourism’ to help people connect with other living species – he was critical of the term ‘eco-tourism’, arguing that tourism is rarely sustainable, as ‘eco’ implies. From his experiences documenting tourism in Madagascar, Scales notes that visitors are establishing a connection with nature, but not with the local people. This creates conflict as different viewpoints see the protection and regulation of landscapes in very different ways – with protection of the iconic Baobab trees causing problems for local people. His main message: conservation decisions involve many political considerations, yet many practitioners are ignoring this to their peril.

Hear more of Ivan Scales on nature tourism and political ecology (poor sound quality unfortunately):

The final day began with a session on Tools for Conservation, with Dr. Stuart Newson, of the British Trust for Ornithology, highlighting the benefits that citizen science can have for both mass data collection and public engagement. In their Norfolk project they have received 1.8 million recordings of bats, nocturnal birds and insects, from volunteers, allowing them to easily monitor populations of otherwise very difficult to detect species that are only active at night. At the same time, their work helps to put people in touch with nature, and makes them aware of the elusive wildlife that is right outside their door. We also heard from the community manager of WILDLABS, Stephanie O’Donnell, who introduced their networking website through which conservation practitioners can discuss their ideas, tools and techniques, and thereby learn from eachothers’ experiences.

Hear more from Stuart Newson and BTO’s citizen science surveys:

A workshop session during the last day of the meeting offered expertise and in-depth discussions on the topics of photography, film-making, gender, emotion, fiction, printmaking, education, drawing and writing – in relation to conservation. The one I attended was run by Hugh Warwick, ecologist, writer and hedgehog enthusiast. Warwick argued passionately for conservationists to be more emotional in delivering their messages, and for the public to avoid the trap of simply ‘liking’ conservation efforts, without taking any further actions to help the cause.

The final session of Nature Matters 2016 was on Hope in conservation, and Professor Andrew Balmford, Michelle Cooper and Bruce Pearson had no problems in passionately sharing their positive stories of hope with the rest of the conference. It is difficult in our field of conservation to remain optimistic and happy as we constantly worry about the rapidly declining state of nature. We focus our lives and hearts on loss, and despite our best efforts often find that our hard work is not having as large an effect as we would like. Yet anything that conservationists and environmentalists are doing to fight against the destruction of nature is positive and cause for hope.

Hope is something that we need and rely on to keep us going and striving for positive change in the world. And hope for the future of conservation is also well-founded, given the progress we are making. We are able to reverse worrying trends, and we are getting more and more people convinced of the priceless value of nature, and involved in its protection. Audience participation at Nature Matters was fantastic throughout the meeting, but in the last session it completely and utterly inspired hope. Audience members playfully threw a soft microphone ‘box’ around from one to another, as they briefly summarised their reasons for hope in the world of conservation. One after another we heard promising and successful stories from the front lines of the conservation world, and suddenly spirits were raised – the future of conservation started to look bright.

Following this, and rounding off the meeting, we had the unbelievable pleasure of hearing Sir David Attenborough give his thoughts and advantageous perspective on the future of conservation. He discussed the origins of conservation societies by big game hunters, and then the later crucial shift from single species preservation to entire ecosystems. Attenborough pointed out that we are nearing the point where every single person is aware of environmental issues, and that masses of young people now “know in their hearts, and in the marrow of their bones, that the natural world is of crucial importance to humanity”. We do not just depend on the natural world, but we are a part of it – “If the natural world is diminished, we are diminished”. Attenborough warned that it is easy to become depressed, but we are nearly at the stage where everyone agrees the importance of the natural world, and the whole world has never agreed on anything! Concluding his speech, he touched all of our hearts by saying that he feels comforted in the knowledge that we are all here working hard to protect nature, and wished us all luck for the future.

As the audience applauded him, the energy bubbled over and suddenly every single person in the room jumped to their feet in applause and jubilation, totally inspired, moved and overcome by the affection and love that they felt towards David Attenborough, and that he had just given back to each of us. Having Sir David Attenborough point his finger at you whilst saying that YOU are doing great work to help champion and save the natural world is simply more than most conservationists can take before welling up with emotion. Our hero, our leader, our inspiration, looked us in the eye and said ‘well done – you can do this’, and I am sure every other person in that room left feeling as incredibly joyful as I did.

You can watch David Attenborough’s moving speech for yourself here, filmed by Juniper Kiss:

Nature Matters 2016 was a wonderfully fruitful and enjoyable experience, as a couple of hundred wildlife enthusiasts shared their passions, concerns and potential ways forward, with one another. Keep an eye out for future New Networks for Nature events, and keep working hard to protect the natural world, and inspiring others to do the same.

For more of Simon’s work follow him on twitter (@Simon_C_Moore) or check out his blog