TV presenter and environmental campaigner Chris Packham reminds us of the joy that nature brings and urges us to help heal the planet....
If there’s one thing we know, it’s that our planet has been hurt; some areas are burning and others are flooding. Due to modern manufacturing processes and air travel, our collective carbon footprint is ever increasing.
Since 1970, we have lost 50% of the world’s wildlife. And it’s only getting worse. Scientists have repeatedly said that we’ve got less than 10 years now to address this catastrophic decline and keep the climate rise beneath 1.5°C.
If we don’t, we are in deep trouble. The result will be billions of people being displaced, economic collapse, wars, famine, poverty and death. Though it may not feel like it when the sun is shining and the birds are singing, we are moving closer to disaster.
Rewind to April 2019 and I, like many others, joined with global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion. We were asking people to think, to use their judgement and change their habits before it’s too late. ‘Stop flying?’ people cried in response. ‘Are you mad?’ ‘Stop using cars in the city centre? Of course we can’t do that!’
Then 2020 arrived – and with it, Covid-19. Planes were grounded. Transport of all kinds decreased. People recognised a tangible threat and they acted accordingly, proving that when we are confronted with a crisis, we have the power to change.
The lockdown impact
When lockdown hit, pollution levels dropped. The resulting improvement in air quality held huge benefits for our natural world.
For instance, pollinating insects, such as bees, find flowers through scent, but in the presence of certain by-products of petrochemical consumption, those wildflower scents are reduced in efficacy by 50%, meaning bees need to be 50m rather than 100m away from a flower to detect it.
In lockdown, without those emissions, the bees had a bonanza because they were able to find flowers more effectively. This rise in insects led to a subsequent increase in everything that eats those insects, including young birds. Plants also thrived because there were more insects to pollinate them and greater seed dispersal.
Where I live, near the New Forest National Park, ground-nesting birds were breeding much more successfully and nesting closer to paths because there were fewer people around. Although we don’t yet have quantitative data to prove this, there is certainly much anecdotal evidence to suggest that wildlife benefited from the lockdown months.
With less noise pollution from traffic, people reported hearing birds again and they became interested in nature. Social media showed that there was a euphoric reaction to people engaging with the world around them.
People were asking me questions, such as which song belonged to a robin and which to a blackbird. It was heartening because these were people who had been hearing these birds for a long time, but had never stopped to listen to them before.
With that little bit of extra time, we were all able to engage with nature. And once people started noticing the natural world, they began to look after it.
My stepdaughter, Megan, and I started a Facebook group called The Self-Isolating Bird Club, and one thing we asked was for people to dig a pond or put an old washing-up bowl filled with water in their gardens. We received hundreds of messages from people who were jubilant because a frog had arrived, or a fox or hedgehog had come along and stopped for a drink. It was remarkable.
In a period of extraordinary stress and crisis, when we were all fearful and confused, nature protected our mental health. It calmed us, boosted us, gave us respite and relief. Our eyes were opened to the fact that nature greatly enhances the quality of our lives.
We can all make a difference
My mission now is to ensure we don’t forget the joy and solace that nature gave us during this pandemic. The virus has shown us that we are part of nature, not above it.
Unfortunately, the benefits we are seeing are likely to be temporary because climate change isn’t going away. We have the power to fix it, but we will have to learn some hard lessons. Going ‘back to normal’ is the last thing we should do. After all, when you trip over a paving stone and graze your knee, don’t you fix the paving stone so it doesn’t happen again?
On an individual level, the biggest change we can make is cutting down our meat intake. I’m vegan, but I don’t think it’s reasonable for everyone to stop eating meat overnight.
We should be encouraging people to eat better-quality meat and less of it, and to put the money into the pockets of British farmers rather than multinational supermarkets that have flown it all around the world at great environmental cost. If you currently eat meat seven days a week, you could try reducing it to four days. And pay attention to where it comes from.
We can modify our homes and switch to sustainable clean energy, and we can encourage biodiversity in our gardens by planting wildflowers, or trees on local land. Trees especially are an investment: to plant one is a gesture for future generations.
There are plenty of re-wilding schemes encouraging this, such as The Woodland Trust, which gives trees away for free to community groups and schools.
One tree near my home is nearly 450 years old and is still soaking up carbon, producing oxygen and providing for a plethora of wildlife. When I sit under it, I feel it puts me in my place. It reminds me how nature is constant.
Protecting our future
The other huge issue is our carbon footprint. I’ve decided to no longer take internal UK flights and I’ve switched my diesel car to an electric. Ultimately, it’s about taking individual responsibility for our actions, reconciling our decisions with our conscience.
When it comes to healing our planet, we need to realise that all our voices are important. I would encourage people to sign petitions for environmental causes they believe in, to write to their MPs requesting change and even to summon up courage to go to a peaceful demonstration. Anyone and everyone can empower themselves to make a difference.
I think a lot of people are frightened by activism because they see it as getting arrested or shouting in a police conflict. But you’re also taking an active role if you dig a pond in your garden, if you spend a percentage of your income on bird food, or if you sign an online petition.
There will be an end to this pandemic. I know this because the human species is remarkable. We have found vaccines for numerous diseases. We put a man on the moon. We can and will get a handle on this horrendous virus. What we need to do now, more than ever, is to focus on the bigger picture.
Everyone thinks the world is massive, but what happens in other countries affects us here, too. The planet is not that big. The wildfires in California will all too soon be in Spain because the earth is drying out. Do we have to wait for our own backyard to be burning before we do something about it?
Nature was there for us when we needed it most. It has helped us to heal – and now, it’s our turn. It’s our planet, our future, and it’s up to us to protect it.
Back To Nature: Conversations With The Wild (Two Roads) by Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin is out 12 November.
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