From Feathers to Changing Values

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Issue 291
July/August 2015
Climate: It is a moral issue

Ecologist

From Feathers to Changing Values
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issue cover 291

Cover: Community, 2014 by Giorgia Siriaco www.gioeucalyptus.com

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In the latest of his profiles of green groups, Russell Warfield meets the head of the RSPB.

Illustration by Helen Cann www.helencann.co.uk

Illustration by Helen Cann www.helencann.co.uk

The core purpose of an organisation named the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds might seem pretty self-evident. But chief executive Mike Clarke argues that there’s more to it than its name suggests, calling birds “an entry point into a love for Nature itself”.

You might just say that the breadth of the RSPB’s work is a sign of the times. In 2015, it’s pretty much impossible for any sustainability organisation to exist as a single-issue campaigner, even if it wanted to. The threats driving species decline and climate change are too well understood as being complex and interrelated for them to be tackled in isolation any longer. These are challenges that need to be addressed collectively.

“We know more about the complexity of ecology now,” says Clarke. “Back in 1889 [when the society was founded], ecology was a very new concept. There was even still a prevalent belief that swallows hibernated rather than migrated. Today, we have real debate about whether or not we’ve entered the Anthropocene – this period of human activity causing mass extinction. And this is the last generation that can either sit back and let it happen, or do something about it.”

Concerns about the Anthropocene might have a contemporary flavour, but Clarke insists that the RSPB’s work has had a fixed ethos throughout its history, right back from when it was mostly known for high-society women campaigning against the wearing of feathers in hats. “If you go back and look at the organising principles of the RSPB in the first place, they were always just as strategic,” he reasons. “It’s just that organisations then lacked capacity, and needed to have more specific goals.”

Today, with the Society’s larger capacity, its ethos is reflected in ambitious work like the campaign for a Nature and Wellbeing Act – calling for a reversal of species loss in the time span of a generation – as well as education outreach into primary schools across the country. But mandates and legislation are only one part of the picture. What the RSPB wants is a shift in values.

“You can’t just take this top-down approach – get it in the national curriculum, and ask teachers to preach it and expect just that to change anything,” Clarke admits. “It has to be much more about attitudinal stuff among society in general. We need more parents and grandparents noticing when their kids don’t come in with scuffed hands and knees, because that means they haven’t been playing outside, and that means they aren’t having a good childhood,” he offers as just one example.

You can understand the necessity for the RSPB to have this far-reaching approach to conservation, giving attention to people and climate as well as specifically to birds. But this can lead to tension. Earlier this year, for instance, controversy flared when the RSPB apparently endorsed pheasant shoots.

For many, this represented something of a departure from the organisation’s ostensible aim of protecting birds. But, for Clarke, differentiating between different forms of “land management” is another example of the RSPB’s nuanced approach to protecting Nature as a whole.

“We are – and always have been – neutral on shooting, in and of itself. The RSPB is not a welfare organisation,” he tells me. “There are plenty of welfare organisations out there, and they’re an important part of a good civil society, but we aren’t one of them. We protect and promote biodiversity.”

This holds water as a coherent position. But organisations like Animal Aid didn’t attack the RSPB’s comments solely on grounds of welfare, but also on the grounds of conservation, citing the negative impact of factory-farm-bred birds and the scattering of lead ammunition across the countryside, to take just two examples.

Clarke replies that issues ought to be judged on a case-by-case basis, and uses the RSPB’s stance on wind power to illustrate his point.

“Of course, we support wind power and the decarbonisation of the economy and lessening our dependence on fossil fuels,” he says, telling me about plans to erect a turbine right outside the building we’re sat in. “But we totally oppose some specific proposals for wind farms that would essentially be wild bird mincing machines, or wind farms built on peat.”

He adds: “Some people have a belief and then try to find the evidence to support that belief. The RSPB tries to be totally evidence-led. When you’re trying to deal with reality, you need nuance.”

Despite occasional backlashes like these, the RSPB remains one of the most widely supported organisations of its kind, with over 1.1 million members. Clarke attributes this to remaining resolutely values-led.

“We don’t have subscription tariffs for what you get out of us, like a motor breakdown service,” he explains. “We’re very much of a mind that our members contribute to a cause, and we find – framed like that – [that] our members actually donate even more. What we have is a very loyal membership who truly care, and express that care in whatever way they’re comfortable with.”

Clarke sees more in common between the RSPB now and 100 years ago than between the RSPB now and its peers in 2015. He feels more aligned to what he sees as the greater emphasis on ethics and aesthetics in late-Victorian environmentalism than to the predominantly policy-driven organisations of today.

But one thing he seems to have in common with many of his contemporaries above all else is a conviction in communicating through hope, rather than fear.

“Sure, it might motivate me every morning to think about how 60% of all measurable biodiversity is in decline,” he acknowledges, “but if you go to the public with that, they’ll just think it’s hopeless, and feel disempowered. You have to tell that positive narrative of what a better future could look like.”

If you really wanted to assign the RSPB a single purpose, maybe that could be it. It’s a mission shared by almost all sustainability organisations today. Suddenly, the task of protecting birds seems much broader in scope than it might at first appear.

For Mike Clarke, it’s about empowering the public to take ownership of the environment, rebuilding the connection between people and Nature, and helping birds to thrive within a wider context of healthy biodiversity. And he insists it’s been the same ethos for over 100 years.

Russell Warfield is a freelance journalist. @russellwarfield

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