It’s a sticky one. In fact it’s so sticky, no government or conservation group (at least any reliant on membership revenue) will touch it with a bargepole. But in reality, you can forget climate change, species extinction or habitat loss, there is only ONE issue at the root of all those other issues: Human Population. There I said it. And to his credit, Mark Carwardine has said it too in this month’s BBC Wildlife Magazine. Even David Attenborough recognises the futility of conservation without a radical rethink on our own burgeoning population. ” I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more.” David is obviously an intelligent man, but you really don’t have to be a nuclear scientist to conclude that.
So when should ‘we’ as intelligent, responsible members of society, say something? There are 7 billion of us now with 9 billion predicted for 2050. Just half a century ago, that figure was 3 billion. Quite frankly I don’t see a human rights issue in protecting the right to breed, but I do see an issue in trying to accommodate a population that can’t be fed or have access to basic resources. So is now the time to stop worrying about offending religious or human rights groups and to speak out on what is a mind-blowingly obvious global issue?
Now before you start pelting me with rotting vegetables, can I just say that this is not about culling old people, Asian people, short people, any people. As Chris Packham has said, there are not ‘too many’ of any particular type of people, there are just too many ‘organisms’. In other words, we have to look at this biologically rather than emotionally. And there is light along the tunnel. It’s a fact that when women have access to education and family planning facilities…AND when they are treated as equals to men, the birth rate falls.
The problem is staring us in the face and although riddled with emotional and cultural considerations, so is the solution. Perhaps we all need to put our brushes down and stop sweeping this under the carpet?
The capercaillie is without doubt a fine looking bird. One of the finest. And they’re in trouble. Nobody really knows why but their numbers are perilous; moreover, they are entirely dependent upon a pine forest which itself is fragmented across the Scottish Highlands. Inevitably with such an icon, conservation action is urgent, focused…and expensive. So is this denizen of the wildwood worth all the effort?
Well as with most things that depends on who you’re asking, but the plight of the beleaguered caper has become entwined with the needs of people living in the Cairngorms National Park. This is certainly not a new phenomenon but one that has crystallised recently with a requirement for affordable housing in a local village. The problem? The housing is destined to be built in what many consider to be prime caper forest.
So which species has the greater claim? Personally speaking, I can see both sides and I genuinely don’t know the answer. But let’s put aside the legislative requirement for capercaillie protection on the one hand, and the social needs of the local community on the other. Ecologically speaking, us humans are adaptable creatures and can find shelter in a wide variety of habitats. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about capercaillie. But is it really the end of the world if a few birds get pushed out of their home? No. They will be missed but within the wider scheme of things, it will make little difference. Or will it?
We can nick a bit of forest here, a flower-filled meadow there, a bit of a bog, a piece of moorland – none of it makes much difference here and now, but where do we draw the line? I’d be the first to agree that short-term, our lives will not be significantly affected by the presence or otherwise, of Scotland’s capercaillie. But then we said that about the bear, the lynx, the wolf, the sea eagle, the red kite, the osprey, the beaver and doubtless millions of micro-organisms that have slipped through our fingers. Surely we’ve learned some lessons? If I needed a house in a local village, I might not care about these things, but the irony of this is the desire on the part of everyone living in this village, to secure a future for the next generation. Nothing wrong with that of course, but that future will undoubtedly be impoverished in the absence of a (irretrievable) healthy environment, along with all the component pieces of the jigsaw. So for me, this is not a question of capercaillie or people; it boils down to whether we prioritise our short-term or long-term needs. 100 years from now, a few extra houses won’t excuse us in the eyes of a future generation for allowing a species to slip away.
Working up in the Flow country of northern Scotland recently, I was reminded why celebrated landscape photographers in say, Estonia or The Netherlands, are pretty thin on the ground. Capturing the essence of very flat landscapes is damned difficult. And along with 2020VISION colleagues Lorne & Fergus Gill, Rob Jordan and Mark Hamblin, I was aiming to capture more of ‘the essence’ of this wild place; to tell the story of why this is ‘More than just a bog.’
Basic ingredients: flat, wet ground and big skies – none of the foreground lochs and boulder-strewn moorlands of the classic Highland landscape; no rushing burns or mountain backdrops. In fact stripped of most of the usual contributory components, my head was sore from the constant scratching.
But work hard – and in this case, work together – and the story starts to unfold. Reviewing my initial images, I was disappointed but having secured several timelapse sequences, and knowing what was coming from the rest of the team, it all started to take shape.
This massive area of blanket bog – the most expansive of its kind anywhere – has a story to tell but it’s a story hidden in the layers of carbon-locking peat that make up its very existence. Those layers of peat draw on centuries of accumulated decaying vegetation – it’s an historical story. Yet the significance of peat bog as a carbon store is only just coming to the fore and it’s the future more than the past, that this wild place will influence. Photographically it’s not easy but the reasons for protecting it are manifest.
Colleague Niall Benvie made me chuckle with his ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ blog post recently. Once you get to grips with Niall’s skewed thinking (and I’m not sure I ever will), this particular post is a satirical poke at the Scottish psyche and its unwillingness to tolerate anyone who gets ‘too big for their boots’ or advocates innovative thinking.
Niall is Scottish by birth and can say such things without fear of a dawn raid from the Political Correctness Police. I was born south of the border and would suggest that such a trait is not confined to native Scots. Conservatism is a British thing, something we’re comfortable with. Innovation makes us nervous. Innovators are mavericks intent on upsetting the status quo; hellbent on making a name for themselves; obvious exploiters and out for their own ends. Like the over-ambitious poppy, they need trimming back.
Now, you might detect a raw nerve here and yes, hands up, I’m a bit pissed off. Why? Well because I’ve met many people (from within the conservation community) who don’t like tall poppies. They rub their chin long and hard and shake their heads. “It can’t be done.” “It’s not possible.””It’ll never work.” These chin-rubbers are often at the forefront of conservation policy making and in my humble view, forget one thing: one thing that was highlighted in a superb report called Branding Biodiversity. That is that for the vast majority of people in this country, nature conservation is a very long way down their priority list and if you want to address that, you need to tap into their value system. “People aren’t rational, they’re emotional” says the report. Quite so.
For my money then, anyone who puts their head above the parapet, tries something different, seeks to touch people on an emotional level, strives to be a tall poppy – they deserve encouragement, investment. They’re not mavericks, they’re heroes. We can sit and rub our chins as much as we like but in the meantime, we’re failing as a society to protect our most valuable asset.
When the rains are plentiful, the pools are full and the animals can drink freely, spared of energy-sapping petty spats. But when the rains fail to materialise, the pools diminish and more and more demand is placed on a dwindling supply. You can stay and fight over scraps hoping the rains will return, or you can leave and look for your own pool. Survival depends on that choice.
In the early nineties a drought descended on the nature photography community in the form of the digital revolution, and the subsequent accessibility to many more practitioners. Sure the pool was full, but there were suddenly many more trying to quench their thirst. I was nowhere near the front row so decided to go in search of my own pool. To survive. Most were occupied but eventually I found an oasis and was able to drink. Narrative-based conservation photography was an emerging field at the time and the water tasted sweet. Although others had arrived before me, the opportunities seemed plentiful, tempered only by the unproven case for financial viability. Although I’ve been tempted back to the main pool from time to time, I’m thankful that my little oasis has sustained me albeit on meagre rations.
But my pool and many others like it, has now been discovered and ‘conservation photography’ is becoming quite the thing. Despite the obvious pressures this brings, I for one welcome more photographers thinking about what they shoot, but more importantly what they do with what they shoot. What is unwelcome however, is the green halo competition that seems to be emerging as the increasing crowds gather around the pool.
Outdoor Photography magazine recently ran a feature entitled’ the 40 most influential nature photographers.’ I was humbled to be included, along with several close colleagues and a number of veritable giants of the business. Making such a selection inevitably raises hackles, and whether the magazine’s choice of photographers was appropriate or not, is of course a matter of personal interpretation. But I would suggest that the 40 individuals highlighted – irrespective of their ‘right’ to be there – have one thing in common: they all went in search of their own pool and mostly found it; not so they could strut around wielding their green halo, but so they could survive. Surely anyone who does that, deserves at least some credit?
Of course if we all brought a shovel along, we could make the pool bigger.
Download feature here: 61_71 most influential nature photo2_SW