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The language of conservation

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The words we choose are important. Do we talk about ‘climate change’ or a ‘climate emergency’? Do we face a ‘loss of biodiversity’ or an ‘extinction crisis’ (or even an ‘insect apocalypse’)? It depends on our audience. So, as conservationists, who should we be talking to? Environmental change impacts us at a societal level—affecting human migrations, food security, the occurrence of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19—but within society, who effects change?

The Guardian newspaper has made an editorial decision to use ‘climate crisis’, together with ‘climate science denier’ rather than ‘sceptic’, but ‘crisis’ has certain connotations. Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics group at the University of Oxford’s Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department, interviewed for The Life Scientific, has made the point that while ‘crisis’ implies an urgency, it also suggests we should ‘wipe the slate clean’, that this isn’t about blame and it’s down to individuals to act, when perhaps we actually need governments and institutions to pick up the gauntlet.

But policy has traction in individuals and conservation is inseparable from people, from culture and societies and communities. More than most fields in science, conservation biology rubs up against political and popular movements, globalisation and technology.

Earthrise, the image of a gibbous Earth above the lunar horizon, taken on 24th December 1968 by Bill Anders on board Apollo 8, has been described as ‘the most influential environmental photograph ever taken’ and credited with beginning the environmental movement, although it followed Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the formation of WWF at the start of the decade. A single, emotive image that caught the zeitgeist. More recently, the final episode of Blue Planet II, broadcast in December 2017, produced a step change in awareness of marine plastic pollution. In April, the following year, the UK government announced it was considering a national ban on single-use plastic products in response to public support. Consumer research found that almost nine out of ten people who saw the programme said they had changed their behaviour with regard to plastic use. In Richard Thompson’s view, director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth, ‘A few minutes of […] Blue Planet II has done more to raise awareness than the decades of underlying research could ever have done alone [and] perhaps the most important Blue Planet effect has not just been in bringing the message into the living room, but also into the company board room.’

For one reason or another, these images were a spark that ignited change. They resonated with people; individuals were the touchpaper.

There is a pressing need to halt the destruction of biodiversity. We need to act quickly, often without knowing the full facts and in places that are difficult to work in, in countries that are politically unstable or regions that cross geopolitical boundaries. At the same time, conservation must be evidence-led, identifying long-term changes in datasets spanning 10 or 20 years. Addressing the COP25 UN climate talks on 11th December 2019 in Madrid, Greta Thunberg put it: ‘We no longer have time to leave out the science.’ But science takes time.

And science is difficult to communicate. A reasoned, passive voice, uncertain and burdened with caveats, amid the noisy clamour of more natural voices and social media. Even governments may not listen. COVID-19 has made experts fashionable again, it is OK to turn to modelers and epidemiologists and public health experts for advice, but it wasn’t very long ago that the UK had enough of experts, according to Michael Gove. In the US, under Donald Trump’s administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has had all reference to science removed from its mission statement. ‘The language changes here are not nuanced—they have really important regulatory implications’ said Gretchen Gehrke of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.

Science is not enough, even when it is the only thing we can use to reasonably make decisions. In the light of the Randomised Badger Culling Trial, culling badgers to control bovine TB doesn’t make sense; despite this, the politics of culling badgers in England continues, as they have for the last 10 years. In an open letter in 2012, wildlife management and disease experts urged the government to reconsider its policy of culling, among them, a staggering number of the most eminent biologists in the country. At the time, Lord (Robert) May, formerly the Chief Scientific Advisor of the UK Government, said ‘It is clear to me that the Government’s policy does not make sense,’ and five years later, Tim Coulson, Professor of Zoology at Oxford University, was no wiser, ‘It’s not clear to me why the government believes this as it is contrary to scientific understanding’. Like a transport policy declaring the Earth is flat.

As conservationists, we’re acutely aware of the need to speak up: we can advocate policy or avoid being ‘policy prescriptive’; we can engage with governments and businesses and individuals—but we cannot take it as read that we’ll be heard. We should always consider how our message could be more effective. In choosing our words, we should bear in mind those of Patrick Barkham: ‘Despite all our writing about ‘nature’, we still lack the language to bring its jeopardy—our jeopardy—to the forefront of our troubled minds’.

Written by David Wembridge, PTES Mammals Surveys Coordinator

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