Reflections on the CCF Summer Symposium on Conservation and Sustainability: Do we practise what we preach?

Post date: 
30 Jun 2013 - 21:45
CCF News

 Conservation and Sustainability: do we practise what we preach?

Toby Gardner

This year’s CCF summer Symposium was intended to take us outside our comfort zone. And I believe it did. It exposed some of the underlying difficulties, trade-offs and conflicts of interest in combining conservation work and priorities with living and working more sustainably as individuals, organizations and communities. Yet it also provided inspiration and hope for what can really be achieved if we take the challenge seriously. Discussion ranged from the philosophical and provocative, to a healthy admission of the hard choices facing both individuals and organisational heads, and tangible examples of local initiatives that are already driving real change. The consistent theme of the day was how to scale up efforts to minimise the environmental impact of our own activities, and to do so whilst continuing to improve our effectiveness as conservation scientists and practitioners.

Bill Adams eloquently reminded us of the multi-dimensional nature of the challenge humanity faces, and the fact that we now live in what is increasingly termed the Anthropocene – an era in which human impacts on the structure and function of natural ecosystems are almost ubiquitous. In such a world efforts to conserve biodiversity and promote sustainable approaches to development are necessarily and inextricably linked. Yet in many cases agendas have diverged. Conservation organisations horrified at the scale of human impact on the natural world have emphasised the need for strict protection of wildlife if we are to curtail mass extinction. The emergence of new conservation strategies based on market incentives and payment schemes has sparked major concerns that the nature risks becoming a tradable commodity, subject to the fickle and often unethical forces of the market. And in scaling up their activities conservation organisations have come under increasing scrutiny regarding their own environmental footprint.

We heard of laudable and path-breaking examples of efforts by conservation organisations and businesses to reduce their impacts, including the RSPB’s internal carbon auditing system, and Environmental Profit and Loss Accounting being pioneered by companies like Puma. But we also heard that organisations are often severely limited in what they can achieve unilaterally as the majority of their footprint is often due to combined impacts of the supply chain and their customers. And of the hard truth that companies care about the environment because it represents a risk to business. Just as the reputation of conservation organisations is also put at risk if we fail to practise what we preach.

Hopes were raised once more by wonderfully passionate snippets from innovative groups including Student HUBS, Cambridge Transitions and Carbon Conservations, all working hard to illustrate that a new way of living is possible. And in doing so demonstrating that Cambridge offers an exceptional, if not unique opportunity to become part of such a community.

The passion embodied in the work of these and other groups concerned with sustainability reminded us of the fundamental importance of values and purpose in everything we do. And that academic discourse, if left to its own devices, can all too quickly become divorced from this foundation. The Carbon Conservations movement is unashamed in stating is driving motivation as a love for “the wind on your face; the sun on your skin; the earth in your hands”. The Transitions movement seeks to promote environmental activities not primarily because they are necessary, but because they are fun, and provide emotional and spiritual nourishment. I myself was reminded of the words of Laurance Freeman, the leader of the global movement for Christian meditation, in urging people to stop and “look for the white space around the noise” if we are to survive and flourish in an ever more complex and interdependent world. We perhaps all have something to learn from people who live a more isolated existence and who are more intimately connected to the world around them. Nowhere is this truer than in Antarctica, as Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Scott’s companion explorer recounted in describing some of the happy moments of their otherwise tortured expedition in 1913:

The sun had just appeared for the last time in four months. Looking back I realized two things. That sledging, at any rate in summer and autumn, was a much less terrible ordeal than my imagination had painted it, and that those Hut Point days would prove some of the happiest of my life. Just enough to eat and keep us warm, no more – no frills or trimmings: there is many a worse and more elaborate life. The necessaries of civilisation were luxuries to us. And indeed the luxuries of civilization satisfy only those wants which they themselves create.

In re-connecting with values we must ensure that the statement and belief in those values is proudly reflected in everything we do. Bill reminded us of the Faustian bargain of gaining power and knowledge at the expense of our soul. This observation made me reflect on way in which vision seems to have become ever less ambitious and less clear in international sustainability negotiations, suffocated by the rise in complexity and bureaucracy of the world around us, and the ways in which we work. I was saddened to hear that Gro Brundtland herself shared this same belief when I asked her at a seminar here in Cambridge only a few weeks ago.

The path forwards often seems far from clear. But what was made clear from the day’s discussions is that the status quo is not always as static and immutable as we believe. Many of the organisations we saw present such innovative ideas for reducing our impact on the environment didn’t exist ten years ago. Leadership and courage for change is vital. And the community of Cambridge, including its universities, organisations and voluntary groups have a wonderful opportunity to help demonstrate that leadership, and show how it is indeed possible to practise what we preach.