Life is full of ups and downs and certainly at the moment it often feels as though there are more downs than ups as we continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic, hunker down into lockdown and contemplate the possibility of a festive season without our wider families (sorry, if you thought that this was going to be an uplifting blog I recommend you stop reading right now!). As an ecologist that sentiment is echoed in my professional life as much as my personal life.
Earlier in the year there seemed to be some really positive signs that nature was finally going to be recognised and valued as an essential life support system. That there was wider recognition of how important nature is to human wellbeing, both social and economic, and therefore how very seriously we need to tackle the crisis of biodiversity loss. Indeed our Autumn (early Winter really) conference this year is called Time to Change: Putting the environment at the heart of social and economic wellbeing. There were clarion calls for a Green Recovery, new environmental legislation, such as the Environment Bill, was finding its way through the various parliamentary processes and were stuffed full of potentially great new transformative approaches to tackle biodiversity loss: biodiversity net gain, environmental land management schemes that work, local nature recovery strategies to name just a few.
I was on a high. Here were great opportunities emerging across the UK to realise Sir John Lawton’s ambition to Make Space for Nature (yes an England-only ambition but one that is surely shared in principle by other countries). Everyone, from politicians and senior civil servants, those working in statutory nature conservation bodies and local authorities, influencers in industry and key NGOs, and those working ‘on the ground’ to deliver better outcomes for biodiversity, all working towards a common purpose of nature’s recovery.
Our Autumn Conference was going to be a chance to celebrate these opportunities and share ideas as to how our profession will lead the charge in delivering the positive outcomes we need. With great speakers such as Defra Minister Rebecca Pow, Emma Howard-Boyd and Tony Juniper and informative sessions on biodiversity and environmental net gain, new approaches to land management schemes, exciting new tools and technological approaches, mainstreaming investment in nature and, very importantly, creating more inclusive access to nature and a more diverse profession, we were going to ensure that ecologists and environmental managers are at the heart of this new world order.
And then came the downs. Firstly was the realisation that our face-to-face conference was going to have to move online. Minor issue in the scheme of things I know, but I was ready to see people again, in a safe socially distanced way, and by offering a blended approach we hoped to provide for those able to meet in person as well as those who could only attend remotely. Now it is all virtual but hopefully, by utilising a new conference platform and delivering a sessions-based programme we have structured the event to be a really positive experience for attendees. But no, the bigger down has been watching that optimism around making changes to halt biodiversity loss gradually get chipped away by policy makers.
Bit by bit it seems that all the potentially good stuff that was coming our way in England is being weakened, amended, blunted. Changes to how the proposed Office for Environmental Protection would work that may effectively neuter its ‘bite’, modifications to how biodiversity net gain would be implemented, a requirement for local planning authorities to cooperate with Natural England on approaches such as Species Conservation Strategies (District Level Licensing by another name), new Planning White Paper proposals that seem to miss the point that nature doesn’t live in zones – I ended last week feeling very down. It felt that once more we were being sold rhetoric without the substance.
But we ecologists and environmental managers are a doughty lot and we don’t give in easily. Yes we do have to fight for what we believe in and argue our case, using good scientific evidence to wear down those who only pay lip service to the importance of nature. And we are not alone. I thought Natural England’s launch of their Nature Recovery Network Delivery Partnership yesterday was excellent at showing just how, if we can all work together for a common cause, we can and will make things happen (well done Natural England!).
So I am ending this week on a high. Once more I am excited about, and looking forward to, our conference as I believe this well be a great opportunity to explore how the profession I love can be at the heart of a seismic effort in delivering nature’s recovery. I want to hear from policy makers and practitioners about how we can use the forthcoming changes to deliver more, bigger, better and joined-up nature, and I want to feel that sense of unity amongst delegates as we seek to work together to resist the watering down of potentially good proposals and really put nature at the heart of social and economic wellbeing.
I hope to see you there!
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