My Planet, My Pledge: Chris Packham

The first in a new series, to mark Earth Day the naturalist and presenter gives his view on the state of the world – and what he's doing about it.

By Simon Ingram
Published 22 Apr 2019, 11:29 BST

Tell us what you can see right now.
I’m in my garden, it’s a nice spring day in the New Forest. It’s looking hopeful for this year. Lots of campion coming up, lots of ox-eye daisies, teasels and things I planted. My bluebells are out, two weeks earlier than they used to be. All the hawthorn – that used to be called ‘May bush’. Now it’s ‘April bush’. Quite shocking really. I was up in London yesterday with the Extinction Rebellion [climate change activists]. The evidence is in front of us just for us to see. What we in this country haven’t started to feel yet is too much of the pinch in terms of the impact of it. But it won’t be long. 

How would you describe the current state of the planet?
Desperate. Because of the monitoring we’re doing, which in the UK is done to a very high standard with birds and butterflies, we’re seeing distinct changes in short periods of time as a response to climate. It’s all pretty worrying. We’ve come into a period of time - a bizarre coincidence maybe, I’m grappling to understand it – when globally we’ve elected complete idiocracies. Trump in America, Bolsonaro in Brazil, it goes on, these populist leaders all of whom are driven by extreme capitalism, extreme short-termism, and therefore they’re interested in exacerbating consumption. I read yesterday morning they’ve got a new statesman in Alberta, Canada who is leaning to the right and wants to build more pipelines and get rid of the carbon tax – and you just sort think ‘why is all of this happening at exactly the wrong time?’ This batch of decision makers who are actually moving in the wrong direction, rather than even just standing still. So I think it’s increasingly important to put pressure on our politicians to start taking this seriously. Democratically we’ve got a couple of ways to do that. We can not vote for them in the first place, which has currently failed. Or afterwards we can shame them into action. 

Can it be fixed?
What keeps me optimistic is, we’ve already assembled a toolkit that would enable us to repair and restore – if only we could implement it more widely. We’re good at building habitats. At Lakenheath, in the East of England, we’ve taken a piece of industrial farmland and turned it back hundreds of years in twenty. There are marsh harriers, cranes, bearded tits, all birds that were extremely rare when I was a kid. And we can do that all over the world. We can reintroduce species. Our skills as ecosystem engineers are profound. There’s nothing more painful to have the answers to a problem and not solving the problem. We’re eating too much meat, we’re burning too many fossil fuels... we know what the contributing factors are. We know how to stop it. We just need to get on with it. We’ve got the capacity, we’re just not doing it. And again, that’s why I was happy to go and see those people in London yesterday and say thank you, for shouting above the noise.  

Do you think activism is important? 
Really important. Increasingly important. I’ve always been an activist. When you look at the Extinction Rebellion crowd, they’re young, old, black, white, gay, straight, a very broad section of society. 300 plus have been arrested, and they will face the consequences of that, because they are desperate for their voices to be heard. And I think as long as their protests are peaceful they’ll continue to gather support. We know that peaceful protest has succeeded historically – the human rights movement, the suffragettes – and now I think we have to do the same. We’re left with no choice. 

“We’re part of a collection of species at this point, on the planet. If we fail to realise that connectivity, and fail to rebuild it, then ultimately we will fail ourselves.”

Chris Packham

What's the most powerful thing you have seen in the natural world? 
Intact functional ecosystems. Their beauty is unrivalled by anything else on the planet. They’re hard to find, these days. But occasionally you do find yourself in a place where everything is working as it should be. The biodiversity is complete, or near complete – that dynamic harmony, the co-existence, that connection between all the species is keeping it healthy. Intrinsically that is the greatest beauty. We think in terms of individual species, and we all have our favourites. But it’s artificial to look at them in isolation. When you go somewhere – there’s some oakwoods on the western side of Scotland, or part of a rainforest, or the machair –that flower rich habitat on the Western Isles. That is the most powerful thing to me. That says to me that not everything is broken. 

What part of the world has made a particular impression on you?
This part of the world [Hampshire, England]. I’m 57 years old, and when you’re young, you want the comfort that everything is going to be the same forever. But if you stay relatively in the same place for a long period of time, and you have a good memory or keep a notebook, you see changes. And unfortunately the vast majority of those changes have been negative. I am a product of this community, it’s shaped me in every way, and it’s not what it was. So I look at the current generation of people here and wonder how it is shaping them.  

What can we all do?
The most important thing we can all do is empower ourselves to make a difference. And of course if we all do it, our apparently insignificant difference becomes bigger and bigger and bigger until it becomes meaningful. 

Is there still hope?
Ultimately the power and the tenacity of nature is greater than us. That whatever we do, it’s going to recover. Something will recover. And that’s uplifting for me. We’re not the most important species. We’re part of a collection of species at this point, on the planet. If we fail to realise that connectivity, and fail to rebuild it, then ultimately we will fail ourselves.    

Tell us something that’s made a positive difference.
The one thing that I lamented for a long time was the inactivity of youth. There was definitely a period where the youth had become so disenfranchised, so disconnected from politics... And that does point to hopelessness. Because if you have a future generation that doesn’t care, and doesn’t realise the power of its own voice, then you’re doomed. But what I have seen in recent years is young people realising that they can and should speak up. And they do so with a clarity because they are uncluttered by some of the conventions that some people build into later life. They’re beginning to be recognised: people like Greta Thunberg, she has motivated hundreds of thousands of young people to stand up and shout above the noise around the world. That’s inspiration. That’s hope. 

It's your planet. What is your pledge?
To constantly change my mind. Our significant failing as the human species is the inability to change our mind, even when we are presented with information that tells us we’re wrong. I could go on all day and all night – but science shows us that at this point in time, something we are doing is wrong, yet we can’t get people to change their minds, because they get set in them. And that is the most dangerous thing in life. I think to succeed as a human you’ve got to allow yourself the capacity to change your mind throughout your life. Because then you can constantly respond, and should be able to make your life better. And the life of the planet.  

Chris Packham was born in Southampton. His career as a wildlife expert and presenter has spanned 35 years, and he is a campaigner for wildlife protection and climate change awareness. His memoir Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, published in 2016, was voted the UK's favourite nature book in a national poll. 

He guest edited the UK edition of National Geographic in August 2018.


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