With the end of the pandemic in sight, Mark Cocker talks to Keith Savage about the possibilities and challenges for environmental campaigners
The Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted massive loss and damage on our country. Yet in all the hardship of the last year we have learned or relearned something about ourselves. Could it be that the experience of lockdown has changed our lives and our relationship with the natural world for the better?
Just as there are wide reports of mental health problems triggered by the pandemic and lockdown, so there have also been positive outcomes, says Mark Cocker. For instance, many came to appreciate the centrality of green space to the quality of their lives. Dozens of studies report that experiencing green spaces and nature is good for mental wellbeing and is an aid to recovery from illness, mental and physical. The issue is not why we should engage with nature, but how do we do it.
We are trapped in a set of historical relationships with nature which are so deeply embedded they are hard to alter. But green space is still unevenly distributed across the population. Black people are four times less likely to have daily access to quality green spaces than white people. We gained the right to roam in 2001 but we still only have access to 8% of the country. Our country, supposedly. But it still feels likes someone else’s land. It is another example of the social injustice that bedevils our society. People are a casualty but so is nature because so many of us are unaware of our responsibilities to the rest of life in these islands.
Theoretically there should be scope to turn the tanker of habitat loss around in this country. Whatever your views on Brexit and our membership of the EU, a silver lining in our leaving Europe politically could be the opportunity to press a reset button on our attitudes and policies for the natural environment.
In the autumn the Government made great play about investing in the countryside. Given their track record one is entitled to be sceptical. The prime minister talks about “Build, Build, Build” and sweeping aside “newt counting” formalities as the means to economic recovery after Covid, while the planning White Paper offers few environmental safeguards. It’s a bit like expecting the butcher to promote vegetarianism!
But who and what can affect our political discourse? Our binary political system distorts debate and prevents really innovative views on how to tackle the profound social, cultural and economic problems from being heard and considered. Our biggest environmental charities have been weakened financially by the lockdown and their charitable status prevents them from taking on explicit political campaigns.
All of this might leave you feeling a bit pessimistic – after all, David Attenborough has been a brilliant educator and campaigner for 40 years but wildlife populations worldwide have halved in that time. However, there are issues that we can focus on in Britain that would make a significant difference.
We have the largest, most important areas of blanket bog in the world. The Flow Country in northern Scotland is typical. It was proposed as a UNESCO world heritage site 40 years ago, and calls have rightly been renewed for recognition. This blanket bog landscape is made of peat and is a land form that contains fewer solids than milk. Boggy and quaking it may be, but it stores 400 million tons of carbon and sequesters more carbon than rainforest. It is, therefore, brilliant for wildlife, but it also has a key role in combatting climate change.
These islands have about five million acres of peat moorland and it is vital that they receive proper environmental management too. Instead we see millions of pounds in subsidies go to support their degradation. Much of this upland area is intensively managed to support the sporting interests of perhaps 10,000 super-rich people. Instead of being improved for carbon capture, the areas are often systematically burned to create breeding habitat for grouse. The whole exercise is ecological illiteracy and I look forward to a complete ban on driven grouse shooting.
The Government recently signed up to a target of protecting 30% of the countryside for biodiversity, but what is centrally important is that all areas of land rich in nature are linked and connected with corridors. Nature functions as a single system, not as a series of separate pocket-sized fragments. The creation of new National Parks will be great but it is also necessary that we have a connecting network that links them all.
In existing National Parks, such as the Lake District and Peak District, much of the high ground is a sheep-shorn desert. The parks need to be funded and farmers supported so that we slowly shift from this traditional sheep monoculture, devoid of wildlife, to a wilder countryside that fulfils the nation’s requirement for green space and recreation.
We need a New Deal for Nature. We have seen local charities and voluntary groups showing great creativity and imagination, getting bold projects off the ground. Environmental politics is, in many ways, still marginal to the mainstream and the recognition that we as a species are party to a single functioning biosphere, and completely dependent upon it, is still undeveloped in the mainstream political conversation. Too few politicians at Westminster are well-informed and able to argue the case for and about nature.
A post-Covid, post-Brexit world could allow us to “build back better”. But part of that means not putting the needs of the dominant species first every time. That is going to be difficult to argue. The economic hardship inflicted by Covid-19 will see unemployment rise, child poverty reach into new communities and health services stretched.
Tackling these issues will be at the heart of political arguments in 2021 but the pandemic has proved how much our own health depends on the life around us. It is time to recognise that acting in the interests of the biosphere is not just good for nature, it is good for us too.