The history of what might be loosely called “the conservation movement” is a complex one with roots that are both deep and ramified. In the west, direct antecedents can be found in the work of 19th century pro-environmental writers such as Henry David Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh, but there are arguably also more subtle influences from other sources, for example the “Northamptonshire Peasant Poet” John Clare whose natural history inspired verse captured a rural way of life and a landscape that was rapidly disappearing:
All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books
The later foundation of organisations such as the RSPB, the Audubon Society, and the precursors of the Wildlife Trusts gave impetus to environmental campaigns focused on specific issues such as species extinctions and destruction of important wildlife sites. But it was in the 1960s that nature conservation, and environmentalism more generally, began to become of wider concern. Again the influences were broad but certainly included both popular science writing such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the attitudes and campaigning of the counter-culture. Yet a generation later, as a student studying the subject in the 1980s, it was clear to me that the mainstream had not fully engaged with what was still considered hippy, tree-hugging notions of saving the planet/whale/rainforest/ [delete as appropriate].
Having always been a fan of vintage West Coast rock, these hippy ideals were on my mind at the start of last week when I travelled to the BBC’s Maida Vale studios to attend a recording of Radio 4’s Mastertapes featuring David Crosby and his band. As well as playing music from his first solo album, the haunting and majestic If Only I Could Remember My Name, Crosby talked about his life and political activism. The following evening Karin and I were back in London, this time at the Royal Albert Hall to see Crosby with his compadres Steven Stills and Graham Nash, performing as the incomparable CSN. A number of songs from their back catalogue feature environmentalism in one form or another and, despite their vintage, they are as in touch with the political scene as ever.
Now, in the first decades of the 21st century, the green agenda has gone mainstream and it seems that every large business discusses the environment in their Corporate Social Responsibility statements. So with only a few hours sleep I jumped from CSN to CSR, a theme that recurred during the first Northamptonshire Local Nature Partnership conference held at the University the next day. One hundred and twenty delegates heard talks that presented environmentalism and nature conservation from the perspectives of citizen health and well being, Christianity, on-the-ground conservation activities, and the needs of business and enterprise. In the afternoon there were smaller showcase sessions and I presented an overview of pollination as an ecosystem service.
Every organisation (public and private sector) wants to be “green” these days, which is a good thing of course if it’s genuine and well conceived. But as David Rolton pointed out in his talk, businesses were few and far between at this event. During the question-and-answer session I followed up David’s comment with a description of our experiences with the Biodiversity Index. Despite winning a Green Apple Award, and having lots of verbal encouragement from the private sector, as soon as we explain to businesses that they have to pay to use the Index, all interest dissipates. These are the same businesses who are willing to invest in green initiatives such as recycling and energy efficiency, presumably because it saves them money as well: it seems that CSR for most businesses does not extend beyond paying lip service to biodiversity, despite an economic input of over £30 billion that the UK receives from the natural environment every year.
It took time for businesses and other organisations to acknowledge their responsibilities to the environment, and to develop policies relating to recycling, non-pollution and resource efficiency. It seems that businesses are only just beginning to acknowledge their societal (rather than corporate) responsibilities with regard to conservation, and it’s an ongoing process that exercises government. But conservation of biodiversity has got to become a priority; once a species is lost it’s lost forever, and we erode not only a natural heritage that has evolved over billions of years, but also the direct and tangible benefits biodiversity gives us. In the words of CSN: “It’s been a long time coming; it’s going to be a long time gone.“