The answer given by nature writer and environmentalist Mark Cocker is ‘maybe’. This unusual book gives a brief history of attempts to protect nature in Britain over the last 150 years, told through the stories of some of the organisations and individuals involved. It is framed by the catastrophic findings of the 2013 State of Nature report, which found that 60% of native species in the UK had declined over the last 50 years, 31% badly, and that over 600 species were under threat of extinction. Cocker notes that the figures “don’t indicate the bottom of a curve: they chart the direction of an arrow. It means that, however bad things are, they will get worse without major change”.
Cocker is critical of the largest of the environmental organisations, including the National Trust and the RSPB, finding them sometimes overly concerned with competing for members and also unsuccessful in critical campaigning. He finds that failures to work together mean that whole-ecology approaches are being undermined by separate projects. But he allows that their difficulties may reflect something of the British public’s own ambivalence towards nature. He quotes a letter to the Daily Mail from a National Trust member apparently responding to the Trust’s campaign on climate change: “Thanks to Dame Helen Ghosh’s political agenda outside the true objectives of the National Trust, that’s £100 membership saved this year.”
He also gives due credit to individuals both within and without these groups who have been effective in seeking to protect nature, or who remind us to pay attention. I loved the example of his friend and colleague Tony Hare, who on looking at “a square foot of turf dotted with miniscule scarlet fungi and prostrate lichens” reminded his friend that “what was happening here was the same as any rainforest”.
The approach taken is not straightforward polemic. Cocker successfully mixes history with accounts of several localities as informal case studies showing how particular types of areas are faring. As a result, Our Place is readable and interesting.
Where the book has limitations they are deliberate and mostly acknowledged. There is not much about international frameworks or organisations working for the natural environment in my view, and marine protection is almost entirely missing. But as a personal rallying call for a different attitude to nature protection in the UK, it works, and shows that any of us can choose to pay attention to this critical concern. I echo his praise for those amateurs and professionals who study and protect even the unpopular or obscure bits of our natural world, and especially those who make this possible for children and young people.