I am almost too old to speak on behalf of the young. Thirty five years is a dizzy tally, and my days of soft-handed protest are now behind me. But in travelling around over the last few months, I’ve met a host of exciting young people working hard for nature and conservation, and I feel justified writing this on their behalf, if not my own.
Because while I often feel jaded by the collapse and erosion of the natural world, I’ve taken a great deal from the optimism and knowledge of people in their twenties and early thirties. They still have hope, even if mine sometimes wanes.
And they have something else in common too – they have a devastatingly perceptive understanding of how badly our system of conservation is broken; how it lumbers and stalls, taking time to make work for itself in perpetuity. Further, the world of conservation is small and introverted, particularly in Scotland. A few people continually rise to the top of conversations about wildlife and nature. Probe into them at any depth and you soon realise that the system is largely governed by a small cadre of sticky old autocrats.
On every front, the growing message is that society needs to act differently; we need to strip down and challenge the very nature of conservation on this planet. So it’s hard to imagine why the task of implementing that radical change is often being entrusted to many of the most stubborn, institutionalised and insular people in the nation. We probably all know somebody who fits the bill on this account, but rest assured that I have no specific individuals in my mind’s eye as I write this.
It chills me to wonder how many clear, innovative ideas have been suppressed by a boggy insistence that things be done a certain way? How many times have opportunities to change and improve been squandered because they are risk, and risk is hateful? Look around and see cascades of funding and valuable government influence squandered on the same croaky old souls – it’s devastating.
It’s a precondition of a career in conservation that life should be hard. It’s a competitive world, and slender wages live or die from year to year depending on grant applications. So there’s never any head of steam to question authority or garner real change – at a structural level, radicals are weeded out and bland complicity is rewarded with promotion and job security. The best people I’ve met are hanging to their jobs by a thread; the worst are biding their time for a pension to pay out.
Perhaps this note comes from a moment’s cynicism, but as with many other lines of work, conservationists often measure their own value by experience and longevity. We’re taught to reckon that there is a quiet kudos to be gleaned from having held a role for many years – and newcomers are invited to defer to it. But as we begin to realise what we have lost in recent years, there is a fair case to turn that argument on its head. If you have been in conservation for several decades, look to your achievements. The past half century has seen the unprecedented collapse of the natural world as we knew it. The best we can sometimes say for these old timers is that they have developed a comprehensive understanding of a system which does not work. Knowing that in a different industry, similar failures would have resulted in redundancy decades ago, we must also wonder: “how are some of you guys still employed?” From that perspective, the greatest hope I have is that most of these grand old lizards will soon be put out to pasture (or to extend the lizard metaphor, to some comfortable nook in a sun-warmed rock). I don’t wish them harm, but I do wish them gone.
And in writing this, I spend the last few pennies of my own youthful outrage. How long before I wheeze out my own death-rattle and slump into the custard with the rest of them?