So I did. Within a week of leaving my office in London for the last time, I found myself sitting in a small dinghy off the East Coast of Queensland studying humpback whales as an intern with an American whale research foundation. A couple of months later, after the whales left for Antarctica, I found myself searching for the Hastings River Mouse, one of Australia’s most elusive little creatures. It was part of an Earthwatch project, supporting the Forestry Commission of New South Wales, to feed into an environmental impact assessment prior to logging.
It transformed my life. I vowed never to work in an office again, returned to the UK and went back to university to study the nature conservation Master’s course at UCL. My first degree was geography, which I loved, but seemed to lack a purpose. My degree in nature conservation helped me to make sense of it all, and at last I could sense a mission in my life – I knew what I wanted to do.
I finished my Master’s degree in the early 1990s at a time of recession. So I never did get that job working as a nature reserve warden, or studying some exotic species in a far flung location. I could not really call myself an ecologist – my field knowledge wasn’t up to it – but I did understand where nature fitted into the grander scheme of things. My strengths were in policy and strategy.
I ended up working for an environmental consultancy, set up in 1966 by the much celebrated Max Nicholson, who coincidentally had also helped to found the Master’s course at UCL. I started at the bottom, and worked my way up, and now am fortunate enough to be both a Principal and Director – helping to run a company of passionate individuals – ecologists, planners, landscape designers, landscape planners and managers – people who want to make the world a better place in which to live. I work with the government and local authorities, statutory agencies and charities. I understand environmental regulations, and over the years have developed a certain expertise in strategic environmental assessment of plans and programmes.
But twenty years on, my views about nature conservation and why I do it have changed. I originally became involved because I was concerned about what we, as a species, were doing to this beautiful and remarkable planet. I wanted to save the world, or at least play my part in it. I wanted to help to conserve nature and the countryside for its own sake. I signed up to all sorts of campaigning organisations, including BANC.
Then I heard of the Gaia theory. I read James Lovelock’s books, and I soon became persuaded. I began to understand and believe that the Earth is, indeed, a self-regulating entity. It is how life, the air, the oceans, and the rocks have become so inter-twined that they have formed a powerful force that determines our environment.
Then it began to dawn upon me. How presumptuous of me, and my fellow humans, to believe that we can save the planet. The planet doesn’t need saving. It will continue quite happily long after we have gone, just as it did when the meteors hit it and the volcanoes roared and flowed all over the globe, and just as it did when dinosaurs became extinct (and let’s face it, they were around a lot longer than us).
No, the planet is absolutely fine. Of course, climates will change, species will come and go, whether or not we humans are around. We may accelerate things a bit, and there is no doubt that there are too many of us living or wanting to live lifestyles that are simply impossible to maintain for more than a few generations. There will be disheartening and upsetting events, catastrophes and disasters, famines and floods. There always have been, there always will be, and they will break our hearts.
Yes, this is about us. It is about the human species. Many of us working in conservation did so because, as children and young adults, we had a love of nature – some of us were fascinated by the plants and the trees. Others fell more for the birds, the butterflies, or the mammals. Some even preferred bugs, worms and snails. It was only when this initial wonderment and fascination turned into one of fear and shock about how we are treating this very special place, that we began to realise it was all under threat.
And this, in turn, meant we began to question what effect this will have on the planet and ultimately us. Not only did we become concerned that there would be no birds to watch, no butterflies to flutter by, and fewer and fewer wildflowers to admire. We began to wonder whether this would mean that the very ecological functions that they perform will begin to break down. Would we have enough water? Would it be fit to drink? Would our soils become useless and our crops unable to pollinate? Would we lose the spiritual nourishment that nature provides? We began to fear that our physical and emotional well-being were under threat.
So I have come to realise that nature conservation is important. In fact, it is essential. But it is not because we need to save the planet. It is because we need to save us from ourselves.