The RSPB’s charitable purpose, as enshrined in its Royal Charter, is to conserve wild birds and other wildlife. This objective can be interpreted very unambitiously. It could be taken as a mandate to help by marginally slowing the collapse of UK biodiversity.
Nature conservation, when construed narrowly, untainted by association with other fraught political issues, needn’t ruffle too many feathers. But if stalling, let alone reversing, the collapse of UK biodiversity is dependent upon a fundamental reset of public priorities, then a bolder approach is needed.
It was newsworthy, therefore, that when faced with the attack on nature as announced by the UK government under then Prime Minister Liz Truss, the Chief Executive of the RSPB refused to rule out direct action. Perhaps this courage came, in part, from seeing widespread public distaste for the government and calculating that taking direct aim at unpopular ministers was possible without upsetting the RSPB’s centre-right members.
But an organisation the size of the RSPB, with its huge communications reach, can’t conscionably limit itself to react to the public conversation;The RSPB plays a key role in shaping it. The greatest service that the organisation could do for ambitious and durable action to conserve nature would be to help forge new connections and point the way to new kinds of solidarity.
While figureheads in the mainstream UK conservation movement mull the need for mass public demonstrations of disquiet, anger is being heard on the streets in a seemingly unconnected sphere. Workers from diverse sectors are taking industrial action to demand pay rises in line with soaring inflation – and are forging solidarity between workers, people struggling to afford their energy bills, people in food poverty and people struggling in inadequate housing.
What would it take to bring organisations like the RSPB to this struggle?
There are attempts to align parts of the wider environment movement and unions. This is most obvious in relation, not to biodiversity, but to climate change. Members of Extinction Rebellion (XR) have been supporting workers, drawing attention to the “common interests” of striking workers and those campaigning for transformative responses to climate chaos. And workers’ leaders have reciprocated, championing the work of XR activists.
But these common interests are identified in fragile ways – by finding shared enemies.
First, XR identifies a common enemy in the fossil fuel industry, which is both profiteering while people are unable to afford to heat their homes, and drilling for new hydrocarbons at a time when they must be kept in the ground. Yet there’s no inevitable convergence of interests here – responses to the soaring costs of energy needn’t necessarily be climate friendly: think of German Greens supporting coal power.
Second, XR finds a common enemy in the UK government, which is legislating to suffocate dissent – whether public demonstrations or workers withdrawing their labour. As XR UK puts it, “By criminalising strike action and protest at this critical historical moment, the UK Government is helping workers and the environmental movement to understand our common interests.” Yet on this basis, striking workers, or XR activists, might be urged to find common cause with a motley crew of less pleasant interest groups united only in resisting further restrictions on the right to protest.
Attempts have also been made to build awareness of shared interests between climate campaigners and citizens confronted with soaring costs of living, by showing how reliance on oil and gas leaves people vulnerable to volatile prices while worsening climate change. Messaging this Moment presents several frames which strive to build this connection. But to foreground the cost of living crisis as an imperative to embrace ambitious action on climate change is opportunistic and potentially problematic. What happens when we need to Message the next Moment? Proportionate responses to climate change must necessarily drive up the costs of some goods and services – meat, dairy, flying, private car use. Are such policies going to be more difficult to advocate if people have been encouraged to demand that action on the climate must simultaneously reduce household bills? Should climate campaigners welcome moves to ease the cost of living crisis by reducing green levies on energy?
Of course, action must be taken on both the cost of living crisis and climate crisis. We must address the issues of crippling inequity, poverty and the struggle for many people to meet their basic needs while also embracing transformative policy change in the face of climate change.
The instinct to build solidarity between campaigns on these issues is sound. But the foundations upon which it is being premised are often flimsy and unreliable.
As we’ve seen, problems are encountered in thinking about the connections between energy and climate change. But such difficulties multiply when we consider two issues that are more remote in policy terms – the current workers’ struggles in the UK and biodiversity conservation. Can it be possible to establish shared concern between striking workers and RSPB supporters who are energised by the biodiversity crisis?
We believe that there is a simpler and more compelling reason for solidarity which offers far broader scope to forge connections, and which avoids the pitfalls highlighted above. It is to be found in the values that inspire concern about the cost of living crisis, the exploitation of workers, climate chaos, and the loss of biodiversity. These are values that can be invoked and strengthened in the context of any one of these struggles. But to do so requires attention: attention to the reasons that people care about these things.
Here are some of the intrinsic values that underlie public concern about each of these crises, motivating people to take to the picket line or to the streets.
- Social justice
- Love for nature
These values invoke one another. They are coherent. Hold one of these values to be important and you are likely – statistically – to hold the others to be important. Have your attention drawn to the importance of one, and you are likely to come to attach greater importance to them all. Work to undermine one of these values, and you undermine the others.
Each of these values are an expression of love. They are rooted in our feelings of connection to, and compassion for, others. These are values that around three quarters of us prioritise, but that we fail to fully recognise in others – probably because we live in a culture which denigrates such values.
Solidarity between citizens’ groups campaigning on the cost of living crisis, workers demanding fair pay and people resisting the government’s attacks on the living world, will be built on these values. And it will be built dependably. This kind of solidarity is not built on the unreliable coincidence of economic opportunities or policy levers. It is built on far deeper foundations – who we are as people and our innate capacity for connection and compassion.
Here is one way that such solidarity might be framed:
We stand together today because we care.
We care for one another – those others with whom we now stand. We care for those we represent, who cannot stand with us – whether that’s because they face racist policing; because they can’t afford to travel; because they must care for others closer to home; or because they are part of the wider family of animals with which we share our home, and which cannot speak for themselves.
This government doesn’t care. Indeed, it stands against all who care. It doesn’t care that the animals and plants we love are being driven to extinction, that workers are exploited, or that people can’t afford to both heat their homes and eat.
We stand together today because we care.
If you care too, then add your voice to ours.
We are some way away, perhaps, from the RSPB and other mainstream conservation organisations being heard in this way. But were they to find the courage, they could help to transform the national conversation and may catalyse a sea-change in public mobilisation for their cause.