I’m a former governor of the University Bedfordshire, still a member of its Court and an Honorary Fellow of the University. Although I am a graduate of Oxford University, I regard the University of Bedfordshire as one of my universities. From time to time it holds events which have the running title of ‘An Evening With’ and this week I attended an evening with Chris Packham CBE. Chris is well known as a naturalist and particularly for his BBC television programmes Springwatch, Autumnwatch
But he is also a successful author and a leading campaigner on environmental issues. He is president, vice president or patron of over two dozen organisations in this field.
The event was sold out with attendance from students, staff and other people interested in this field representing all generations from young children to oldies like me. Chris gave a startling 45-minute presentation with no notes or slides, simply his own very strong and at times painfully honest views on a range of things. He only recently announced that he had decided that with BBC’s Winterwatch
having finished last week and Springwatch
not due to air until May he is taking a three-month sabbatical. He denies that this is any kind of burnout, but he has such time and energy consuming commitments that he really feels the need to take a break which he calls brain space. As well as his many conservationist roles he is also an ambassador for the National Autistic Society. He started by making a plug for the two-programme series on the subject that he has produced for the BBC, the first of which airs on 14 February. He himself is autistic and it seems remarkable that he could address 200+ audience with another 300 online with confidence, charisma and not a little humour.
While he has undoubtedly been a leading campaigner on the subject of conservation and environmental challenges he recognises that though we have the capacity to address these issues we have not addressed them. He is angry and revealed that he was a punk rocker. As such he learned that he had to do it himself and he would turn his anger into positivity. He recognises that the different types of campaigning that he has undertaken with others have just failed but it is vital that we keep the conversation alive.
Initially issues were raised with authorities in a relatively low-key way but not listened to. Campaigners have got louder and louder and indeed we now have very loud campaigns like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, both of which he supports though not to the point of violence. He has even helped them financially. He asked the audience how many of us had actually been inconvenienced by any of the Just Stop Oil activities. I didn’t see anyone raise their hands. But Chris said that he had been stuck in his car on the motorway when someone had glued themselves to the gantry leading to police closing the road. He was in the car for four hours. As it is electric, he had to turn it off. He used that time to ask himself why these people were behaving in this way. He concluded that it was through fear that the world in which they were living was in danger and that their lives would be badly affected by it. The appointment he was going to was in connection with the TV programme on autism at the only state school for autistic girls in the country. He arrived five hours late. But he could understand the protesters’ point of view.
As an animal lover and conservationist he cannot believe that we are still culling badgers and thinks there is no evidence that they are responsible for illness in cows. He cannot believe there are still people hunting foxes in this country. He watched a foxhunt in his youth and was horrified by it. He observes that in the UK we are quick to criticise the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest but we only have 13% forest cover in the UK, over half of which is in Scotland whereas in France there is well over 30% forest cover. He still cannot believe that pesticides have been licensed for emergency use. This licence has been in practice for over three years which doesn’t sound to him like an emergency. He cannot believe that we have lost 75% of large flying insects in 25 years but then corrects himself in that this is not lost in the sense of mislaid but lost in the sense of poisoned.
So what is his solution to this? Empowerment. He asked us to recognise that our voice is important, that we should try to network our community and thus empower the community which can then question authority at every level. He is not just talking about the politicians in the national government but pointed out that one parish councillor can stop an offshore wind farm from being built.
I said that the audience consisted of every generation, but I think Chris was really speaking to the students and that is fair enough in a University lecture theatre. He made a plea that they should become activists and invited them to join him on a protest walk he is organising in London in May where he has taken steps to make sure that everything is properly kosher in terms of authorisation and security. His final words were that there is only one place we know where there is life and it is so beautiful.
He took a number of questions both from the floor and from those who were online. The first came from somebody of my generation but he asked Chris who is now 61 what would his advice be to those in the audience who are 21. Chris gave very serious thought to this. His answer was in some ways different from his previous request that they should become activists. Instead, he thought that at 21 your responsibility was to yourself and to ensure that you are giving yourself the knowledge and other tools to manage your life. Another question was whether the term sustainability was still relevant since so much had just not been sustained. He called it a good question and suggested that perhaps we should use a word more like restoration and that intrigued me as my wife is an art restorer and has very clear views on what restoration means. He thought that language is really important in this whole debate and gave the examples of ‘field sports’ and ‘game birds’ as being wholly inappropriate nomenclature.
Another question suggested that commercial interests were involved in many of the issues and Chris thoroughly agreed with this. He particularly pointed to the role of banks. He said that Extinction Rebellion had persuaded six out of the eight principal UK banks to desist from investment in fossil fuels and gave his own example of the bank that he uses which is genuinely an ethical bank – Triodos Bank - and says it is also very simple to work with on their app.[i]
The final question which came from someone online was what was the number one change that he would like to see. Having emphasised in his presentation that he thought that the young were the answer partly because of their concern for their own future he now felt that the older generation of politicians simply don’t get it and perhaps don’t have the same level of motivation and so the one change he would like to see is that the maximum age for elected representatives would be 50 and that they should spend the next five years training their successors.
That is not something I agree with although it might be true of Donald Trump or Joe Biden it was certainly not true of Winston Churchill. I am not at all sure that we could have found somebody aged under 50 to lead the country in 1940 in the way that Churchill did when he was aged 66. But I don’t see any sign of a Churchill at the moment of any age and I think Chris is right that as somebody who cares deeply about these things and understands much of the science behind them as a trained and practising zoologist that new approaches are needed.