Interview: Why it's time to press reset
While the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to shape our world, recovery offers an opportunity to reset. Craig Bennett, CEO of The Wildlife Trusts, talks to Lisa Millard about the importance of nature reclaiming its rightful place
Starting a shiny new role at the helm of The Wildlife Trusts in March this year, Craig Bennett, former CEO of Friends of the Earth, was planning to get out and about, brushing up on the work of the national charity – but then lockdown happened. “I was really looking forward to travelling around the country, meeting our local teams and visiting our very special nature reserves. It’s been a shame to miss out on that, but I’m sure that will come when it’s safe to do so.” He has spent the past few months at home in Cambridge with his wife, the artist Emma Bennett, and family. “We’re very lucky to have a comfortable house and garden in a nice bit of Cambridge, with easy access to the surrounding countryside – so I really don’t think it’s for people like me to complain. I’m very conscious that lockdown will have been far more challenging for families in small flats, or people living on their own. In many ways, I’ve enjoyed being at home more and having a break from packed commuter trains. But it’s also been quite odd starting a new job during lockdown. I’m now three months in and not made it to the office yet.”
As a campaigner and strategist, not making the office has not deterred Craig from his mission. “I was very happy at Friends of the Earth and proud of some of our campaign wins in recent years, and was planning to stay a little while longer. But for too long far too many people, including many politicians, have talked about the climate and ecological crises as if they are separate issues. I’ve even had some people argue with me that one is more important than the other. It’s complete nonsense. We have no hope of stopping climate change unless we can restore the abundance of nature. And we have no hope of stopping the crisis in biodiversity unless we tackle climate change and – more to the point – the root causes of both. Given the scale and reach of The Wildlife Trusts, I thought this was a great opportunity to join up those agendas. And these sorts of opportunities don’t come along too often.”
The Wildlife Trusts is a movement of 46 individual local Wildlife Trusts. Together, it has 850,000 members, 3,500 staff, and – this is heartening – more nature reserves than McDonalds has restaurants in the UK – one thousand more (2,300). It sounds like the perfect platform for a campaigner. “Each local Wildlife Trust is delivering a big impact locally, but I want to make sure that we’re also adding up to more than the sum of our parts and delivering a big impact nationally and as part of a wider global movement for nature. I want to make sure that, together, we’re working to put nature in recovery and reverse the declines of recent decades. We want to see at least one third of the UK’s land and sea being managed for nature’s recovery by 2030, and in a way that will help us tackle both the climate and ecological crises together. We’re brilliantly placed to do this – and it’s hard to think of anything more important.”
While acknowledging Covid-19 as a devastating hazard, Craig sees recovery as an opportunity to make positive change, such as recalibrating to a sustainable circular economy, breaking away from fossil fuels and letting nature be. “The first thing to understand is that COVID-19 is an appalling consequence of the breakdown in the relationship between people and nature. Scientists have been warning us for decades now that if we keep destroying and fragmenting wildlife habitat, and particularly tropical rainforests, this increases the chances of ‘spillover’ of diseases from wildlife to people. The exploitation and trade in wildlife species, and international air travel then just multiply the risks even further. Recent pandemics like Ebola, Sars, Mers and now Covid are a direct consequence of human activity.
“So surely, we must now respond to Covid-19 in a way that helps ensure we don’t just lurch from one crisis to the next? That means not just restarting the economy as it was before, but upgrading and rebooting it into a sustainable circular and regenerative economy, where we stop investing in economic activity that destabilises the climate and destroys nature, and start investing at scale in economic activity that cuts carbon and puts nature into recovery.
“The irony is that many aspects of lockdown have shown us how to do it; from the importance of super-fast broadband, to pop up cycleways, to local shops and supply chains, to local nature and greenspace, and – of course – communities looking after each other. There are so many positive examples of how to build back better, with emphasis on the ‘better’ and not the ‘build’.”
Recent calls for a green recovery are gathering momentum, despite the current political landscape. “Yes, in my experience, people are way ahead of most politicians on anything to do with sustainability. Right now, the Government is planning on spending £27bn on new roads, many of them through wildlife sites and all of them locking us into a high-carbon future, when people are crying out for faster more reliable broadband and public transport, and local green space. It’s absurd.
“So we need people to get active and make themselves heard. That doesn’t mean everyone has to take to the streets and go on demonstrations – although great that some do – but it does mean everyone that feels frustrated at the lack of progress should do something; sign or start a petition, join or start a local community group, join an environmental organisation, email your MP, write to the local paper, or just create some space for wildlife in your garden and tell others about it. Just don’t do nothing.”
He believes there are connections between climate change and Covid-19. “Firstly, both are examples of crisis that we were warned about for many years but failed to take sufficient action to avoid them happening. Much as many politicians love to claim their actions are ‘guided by the science’, our lives and livelihoods would be in a much better state if that were true. Sadly, too often it’s political ideology that seems to win through – whether you’re talking failure to properly address Covid or climate change.
“Secondly, lockdown has resulted in a brief reduction in carbon emissions and it looks likely that global greenhouse gas emissions will be lower in 2020 than in 2019. It’s absolutely essential that world leaders now work together to make sure that 2019 becomes the year of peak carbon emissions, and 2021 doesn’t become a second peak.”
Making change happen is part of the day job. He does not perceive his mission as a Sisyphean task, in fact Craig remains optimistic. “Yes, there is plenty that we could get miserable about but equally, everywhere you look, there are reminders of just what is possible when people come together and campaign for change; whether it’s solar panels, cycle lanes, electric vehicles, or wild flowers returning to our streets. For every single one of these, someone once told me it ‘can’t be done’ and yet now we see them popping up all around us. The change we’ve seen to date is nothing like enough, but these examples represent quiet little whispers of the future for me, and I try to tune in and hear them over the cacophony of the dirty old world that hopefully we’re leaving behind.
“On top of that, over the last couple of years, from the School Strikes for Climate, to Black Lives Matter, we’ve seen young people in particular organising and mobilising like never before to make themselves heard and bring about change. That gives me hope.” And plans for the year ahead? “I want to make sure people start to see that we can’t solve the climate crisis unless we also solve the ecological crisis, and vice versa. To present a big bold vision for putting a third of our land and sea into recovery for nature by 2030. And to make sure that how we come out of Covid lockdown helps us achieve both of these.”
Recommended read? The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy
Recommended podcast? A Sustainababble: a brilliant, funny regular podcast about the environment, sustainability and the total guff people talk in the name of saving the planet – presented by a couple of former colleagues of mine. Give it a listen.
One easy thing we can all do to help wildlife and ourselves? Allow a bit of your garden to go wild. Lots of information and tips here: wildlifetrusts.org/gardening. And join The Wildlife Trusts:–
Follow Craig on Twitter: @craigbennett3
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