Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

Wild Britain – a challenging thought experiment

Review of Inside Science: Wild Britain

Wood Anemonies

Wild Britain is an episode of the Radio 4 programme Inside Science which was broadcast on May 5th 2023. The programme was presented by Gaia Vince and her panelists were Richard Benwell1Richard Benwell is CEO of wildlife and Countryside Link., Meredith Whitten2Meredith Whitten is a researcher and urban environment planner at LSE., Hugo Tagholm3Hugo Tagholm is CEO of Oceana. and George Monbiot4George Monbiot is a writer and environmental commentator/activist.. At the 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15), the UK government pledged to protect at least 30% of the planet’s land and oceans for nature by 2030. This is the so called thirty by thirty (30×30) pledge. The premise of the programme was a thought experiment that imagined Britain’s natural environment in 2030 after seven years of committed action to reach this target. There were three parts to the thought experiment: firstly the panel described their vision of Britain’s nature in 2030 (they also return to this at the end); secondly they described the state of nature in 2023 immediately prior to the beginning of the transformation; and thirdly they described the path of that transformation.

A thought experiment is, by definition, a fantasy and in the true spirit of this one, the four panelists really let their imaginations rip! The Britain they envisioned was one in which any person who loves nature and recognises its foundational importance to human wellbeing would feel like they were in paradise. But their visions of the future were not pure fantasy. A century’s experience of conservation practice and environmental science, as well as our own lived experiences of nature, have shown us that it can rebound in breath-taking fashion when we take our foot from its throat. Along with Gaia Vince, I relished their vision, but I also found it unsettling. The reason for that is that every fibre of my being told me that this was an impossible vision for 2030.

We can have rivers full of Salmon, upland valleys brimming with temperate rainforests, temperate rainforests filled with Pied Flycatchers, Redstarts and Wood Warlbers – everything that they and I imagine – but not by 2030. Nature starts to recover the second we let it breath again and we can accelerate that recovery by taking positive action like reintroducing keystone species. But ecological processes, rich habitats and communities take time to fully recover. If we achieve 30×30 in a meaningful way (more on this below), nature will breath again and we will all see and feel it starting to heal immediately, but the recovery of many ecosystems, habitats and species will take decades – some will take centuries.

Of course the makers of this programme, and the panelists, know all of this but they chose to present a vision of circa 2050, enabled by the realisation of 30×30, as a vision of 2030. And although that unsettled me (and probably 90% of naturalists listening to the programme), I suspect that they did it to appeal to that part of the audience who have never thought too deeply about what the natural world around us could be like if we just ceded some space and control to it. That’s an easier vision to sell if dividends are promised in 7 years rather than to 20-30.

Disregarding the temporal flaw, I willingly accept their beautiful vision as a realistic aspiration. But what about the path to get there? If the panelists had to stretch their imaginations to conjure their vision of 2030, they had to completely suspend disbelief to describe how we got there. They catalogued an agro-ecological revolution propelled by people power around an inflexion point in 2023. This included the election of a 22 year old Prime Minister, a techno-ethical shift of diets away from animal products, a new government department of natural wealth, a preeminent green infrastructure budget, furloughing damaging industries, a compulsory purchase for nature law and a legal framework which gave primacy to the ecological integrity of protected sites (effectively outlawing things like river pollution and damaging fishing practices).

I don’t need to rehearse the difficulties in achieving any of those changes (whether by 2030 or beyond) but therein lies the most challenging aspect of this episode of Inside Science. For if we are to believe that the vision of a thriving natural environment is anything but pure fantasy, then we must believe that the kind of transformational changes they describe are possible, because without them it will not happen. It is not enough to sign up to the 30×30 pledge if, as Richard Benwell pointed out, our government claims that 26% of England’s land is already protected for nature! The government has calculated that all they have to do is declare a few new AONBs to make up a few percentage points and that’s it – job done. But I’m afraid that would only be business as usual, which means more and more environmental degradation. National Parks and AONBs are not primarily designated for conservation and their ecological condition is often extremely poor (along with a high percentage of the areas which are designated for nature conservation like NNRs and SSSIs).

Profound social and economic changes seem unlikely until they happen. The Covid pandemic and our response to it would have seemed like pure fantasy – on the same level as the transformation changes described above – until they happened. The changes we need can happen and perhaps the greatest challenge of all is to suspend our disbelief, because without doing that we don’t even give ourselves a chance.

I was 60 this year and I hope, with a bit of luck, to see in 2030! With a fair wind I could even be around in 2050. But even if we cut nature loose today I will be long dead before we realise our ambition of restoring a good number of our temperate rainforests to something like their former glory. But that doesn’t diminish my desire for them to be restored. Nature can feed our souls and bring us joy – just by its very being (or prospect of being) – even when we are not directly confronted by it. My life is enriched by the knowledge that elephants still roam African savannas, even though I will never go to see them for myself. And in the same way, my life would be richer if I knew that our temperate rainforests were on the path to recovery even though I will not myself sit in their cool shade listening to the Wood Warblers and Redstarts. It would be enough to know that someone – perhaps my children or grandchildren – will have that opportunity.

Aldo Leopold said: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds”. If we really went after 30×30 and compelled our government to treat it as a meaningful target instead of a cynical box-ticking exercise, those wounds would start to heal immediately, regardless of the time that nature needs to make a full recovery. Imagine if, instead of this current nightmare of inexorable environmental degradation, we were living in a world of healing wounds. Nature would breath again; we all would.