It makes no sense to talk in apocalyptic terms about the environment, insists Dame EJ Milner-Gulland, professor of biodiversity at Oxford and a leading international conservationist. This is not to say the professor is not very concerned about on-going nature loss – and the serious impact this has on our ability to tackle climate change (and vice versa...it really is a very vicious circle).
Professor Milner-Gulland, who leads three programmes at the Oxford Martin School, has been a conservationist for more than 30 years. But, she maintains, end-of-the-world scare stories will have the opposite effect than is intended. Rather than people rushing to take action, they will fear it is too late, there is nothing they can do, and they will bury their heads in the sand.
‘Positive messages and communications work much better than scaring people,’ she insists. ‘This is not to shy away from reality. But people feel disempowered by scare stories and, if they think there is nothing they can do, they will not do anything. If you frame the situation more positively, and say you can make a difference – and show people how – it is a far better way forward both for nature, but also for people's mental health.’
People feel disempowered by scare stories and, if they think there is nothing they can do, they will not do anything
A determined optimist, Professor Milner-Gulland has been involved in two recent initiatives aimed at putting this message into practice: Conservation Optimism and Nature Positive Universities. They both emphasise the positive steps that can be taken to restore nature and ecosystems that have been harmed by human systems.
‘Conservation Optimism helps young people in particular to feel there is something they can do…while Nature Positive Universities is a network which has come together to reduce the impact of the universities on the environment – and is already doing amazing things.’
Professor Milner-Gulland is far from alone in the scientific community in arguing for more positive messaging and that nature is not just a ‘nice to have’, for countryside walks, but an essential element in protecting our ecosystems, which support human life, and help to mitigate climate change. As such, she insists firmly, nature belongs at the ‘top table’ at the COP28 climate conference, and should not be side-lined by a focus on technology, ignoring the important role the natural world has to play in tackling climate change.
‘We need to address climate change from all angles,’ she is adamant. ‘People are hoping technology will solve climate change. But everything needs to be part of the solution: cutting carbon emissions, technology such as carbon capture and storage – and protecting and restoring nature. Nothing will work on its own. We need everything if we are to have an impact on global warming.’
Professor Milner-Gulland continues, ‘Climate and nature loss both need to be tackled'.
We need to address climate change from all angles. People are hoping technology will solve climate change. But everything needs to be part of the solution: cutting carbon emissions, technology such as carbon capture and storage – and protecting and restoring nature.
It is a simple fact: if ecosystems are destroyed by humans, that will increase global warming – since the great rainforests will no longer act as ‘carbon sinks’, sucking in harmful gases from the atmosphere. Instead, they could even become giant carbon emitters, chucking out those noxious gases into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, if ecosystems are protected and enhanced, they will contribute to reducing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It is a circular relationship – vicious or virtuous – which is why nature is such a key element in any discussions of climate change solutions.
But this is far from the only benefit. Professor Milner-Gulland is passionate about the natural world, having grown up in the Sussex countryside, she now lives in rural Oxfordshire.
And she abruptly dismisses suggestions that the population, fatigued with eco-messaging, fed up with eco activists, supports a less environmental approach from government.
She abruptly dismisses suggestions that the population, fatigued with eco-messaging, fed up with eco activists, supports a less environmental approach from government...'That's nonsense'
‘That’s nonsense,’ she says bluntly. ‘People love nature and want to protect it. Look at the national furore over the recent cutting-down of the sycamore gap tree – and the anger of local residents over tree-cutting by Sheffield and Plymouth councils.’
Conservation and biodiversity work has changed dramatically over the decades, from the 1980s when ‘Save the panda/blue whale’ campaigns were more prevalent. Today, says Professor Milner-Gulland with energy, there is a lot more working with governments and corporations – and also with local people.
‘It’s very clear,’ she says. ‘That the big issue for global biodiversity loss is not local people but global supply chains which destroy natural habitats and undermine local economies.’
The focus now needs to be on these systemic drivers of biodiversity loss. Conservation is not just about fluffy animals. It is not just a luxury, nice to have. It is something to be very concerned about. We lose nature at our peril
As a young girl in rural Sussex, Professor Milner-Gulland was fascinated by the world around her – and was encouraged by both her parents in her interest.
‘My first pet was a woodlouse,’ she laughs. Her mother, as keen on nature as her daughter, did not mind the introduction of such creatures to the family home. They kept animals, including rehabilitating baby birds and went out horse-riding together in the countryside. She also remembers having a fantastic Biology teacher. But at 13, the professor actually wanted to be Prime Minister. She was worried about a possible nuclear war, which then looked very real.
But in the sixth form, she became very interested in conservation and how to change human behaviour in particular. And so began a lifelong passion with active Biology. She came to Oxford as an undergraduate to study Pure and Applied Biology, ‘It was perfect for me.’
‘Conservation needs people from all sorts of background,’ she says. ‘I was a population modeller but we also need people with backgrounds in business, social science, the arts and every other sector.’
She looked particularly at elephants [very political, she says], rhinos and saiga antelope, her ‘favourite animals’, which live on the vast Eurasian steppe and which became critically-endangered while she was writing her thesis.
‘Ninety per cent of them were wiped out,’ she says sadly. ‘Because of poaching. It was at the break-up of the Soviet Union. The knock-on effect of the political changes was that people were able to come into the area and poach. It had a devastating effect on the saiga.’
She was determined to do something about it (of course) and, in 2006, founded the Saiga Conservation Alliance. The saiga population is now recovering, and is a success story that proves that if conservationists and governments work together, conservation can work.
Many Traditional Chinese Medicine products were sold as having tiger bone in them. You might wonder where it all comes from, since there are only around 2-3,000 wild tigers in the world.
Unintended consequences of human action continue to have a devastating impact on the natural world, she says, and this can even be as a result of conservation efforts, if they are not thought through.
She gives an example; ‘Many Traditional Chinese Medicine products were sold as having tiger bone in them. You might wonder where it all comes from, since there are only around 2-3,000 wild tigers in the world. How on earth can all these products be made with tiger bone?
‘They weren’t. In fact a legal market had started up in the bones of lions that had been trophy-hunted in South Africa. But campaigners stopped this trade. So where does the tiger bone market now get its bones? Wild tigers, wild lions, or even further afield such as jaguars from South America. These types of unintended consequence are everywhere, and they need thinking through before conservationists act.’
In fact a legal market had started up in the bones of lions that had been trophy-hunted in South Africa. But campaigners stopped this trade. So where does the tiger bone market now get its bones? Wild tigers, wild lions, or even further afield such as jaguars from South America. These types of unintended consequence are everywhere
From Imperial, she came back to Oxford as a junior research fellow, before taking up posts at Warwick and Imperial again, before coming back to Oxford in 2015, to become the Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity and a fellow of Merton College.
She is highly active in promoting conservation internationally and defending the need for nature to be a key factor in decision-making around climate. Earlier this year, Professor Milner-Gulland was appointed a Dame, in the King’s first birthday honours’ list for all her work.
That’s great? In her modest pre-fab office, photos of smiling family and antelopes all around, she shifts, rather embarrassed, but admits it is. She received her award recently from the Princess Royal.
Within Biology, some worry it is essential to have done detailed research before starting conservation efforts. The energetic Professor Milner-Gulland says she absolutely understands such concerns, but clearly does not want the perfect to be an enemy of the good. She says, ‘You have to ask, what’s good-enough? There is always uncertainty. But at some point you have to act to conserve nature, despite not having all the information.’
She continues, ‘Global economic systems need to be shifted, unsustainable supply chains are damaging nature – conservationists need to be heard.’
Professor Milner-Gulland is having none of it: Some people treat nature as the poor relation of climate but nature needs to be central...[it needs to be] considered with the same urgency as climate change
Meanwhile, there are concerns about ‘greenwashing’ from climate activists, who worry that nature-based solutions are being used as a cover for continuing carbon use. Some also argue that nature is just a distraction in the need for action on climate change. Professor Milner-Gulland is having none of it, ‘Some people treat nature as the poor relation of climate but nature needs to be central – and not just for green space. We need to protect and restore the ecosystems that sustain us – the oceans, the soil. They need to be considered with the same urgency as climate change.’
Ever the realist, Professor Milner-Gulland patiently explains that protecting nature does not mean going back to the old days, ‘We are not going back to the type of nature we had before industrialisation. There will be new eco-systems and a different mixture of species. It may be that we have a more Mediterranean eco-system in Sussex, where I grew up, for example. But we need to embrace these changes and not try to recreate the past, while ensuring that nature is able to thrive, and humanity with it.’