Freethinkers, echo chambers and the cult of personality in conservation

Just as it is in politics, the cult of personality is alive and well in the environmental field. Just as the charisma, views, values and outlooks of notable politicians – Trump, Corbyn, Merkel – shapes our political ideologies, so do the same features mould and sculpt our views on environmental issues. Influencing everything from our sense of priority and moral values to the very methods by which we go about achieving our aims as conservationists.

Notable individuals have the power to inspire us to action, instigate rage or alarm, fixate our attention and, in some cases, whip-up a frenzy of such magnitude that it generates real, physical change – whether these changes are positive or negative is often open to speculation. These people (they can be organisations too), the figureheads or ringleaders, depending on your outlook, have achieved many noteworthy feats; though that does not mean they are always right. And whether they be NGOs, columnists, bloggers, television personalities or campaigners, it is perfectly acceptable to challenge them. And to refuse to tow the line when necessary.

I dare say that the cult has had a profound impact upon all of us, and although we all like to think of ourselves as unshackled freethinkers, it is difficult not to be taken in. Hard to resist the pull of an expertly-crafted article, published by a renowned writer, a book by a notable author, or an Oscar-worthy performance given by a famous presenter. There is no shame in this. It is difficult not to be influenced by the views of others, especially when they are delivered with eloquence and passion; though, equally, it is perfectly acceptable to challenge such ideas. And all of us, amateur and professional alike, should not be afraid to poke our heads above the parapet and voice an alternate view.

It can sometimes feel like a betrayal when one voices opposition against those they, by large, admire and respect – almost as if that, by criticising the views of leading conservationists, you are actively harming the wider cause. Sometimes you might be; though all discussion is healthy. Equally, it can be intimidating, as an environmentalist, to go against the grain, especially when faced with the backlash that often coincides with such. Something not helped, I fear, by the pack-mentality that reigns supreme on social media. This, I suspect, is why many people, particularly younger individuals, are often cowed into quiet acceptance. Fearful as a result of the above and, I believe, of the potential harm that possessing a contrasting view may do to their personal and professional prospects. We have all been told (or warned, in some cases) not to bite the hand that feeds us.

As I am sure many of those reading this post will too, I disagree with a great deal in conservation: resource allocation (including both effort and money), priorities, tactics, stereotypes, visions and general viewpoints. Through this, I often find myself disagreeing with notable individuals in my field, or in others. I would never presume to claim that I, less experienced and less skilled than they, am right in my assertions and they are wrong – such things are entirely up to personal preference. I have, however, been inspired on numerous of occasions to publically disagree with others here on my blog and elsewhere. All of which, despite clearing my conscience somewhat, ended in a mixture of results ranging from submission and worry to education and acknowledgement. Indeed, for my disagreement with the live and let live approach to Grey Squirrel management, as advocated by a certain, notable TV personality, I was met with insults, threats and a deluge of enraged tweets; while for my thoughts on dialogue with alternate groups in the countryside, I have even veiled threats of professional blacklisting. It’s all very disheartening, at times, and entirely unnecessary in an age when we pride ourselves on freedom of speech and tolerance.

From my own experience, I see clearly why so few people choose to combat the cult and speak out for their beliefs. Indeed, I have received emails following particular blog posts showcasing agreement in private; though these people remain conspicuously absent from the real debate. I do, however, believe wholeheartedly that we must strive to insight debate wherever possible. Freethinkers in our field should not be scared to voice an opinion or break free of the conservation echo chamber. Similarly, figureheads should use their influence to encourage civility not hostility and, everyone, positioned on whatever side of the fence tickles their respective fancy, should learn to respect alternate views. Or, at the very least, forge one for themselves without giving in to tribe mentality. If you fall in line after this, after research and soul-searching, then that is fine.

Now more than ever, we need freethinkers in conservation. We need people willing to challenge mass hysteria, inherited viewpoints and group outlooks, and in doing so, generate the discussions necessary to enact change on behalf of nature. While figureheads and organisations are often correct in their actions and driven by noble principals, they can also be blinded by their outlook – unopen to tweaks and changes that deliver a better result for the natural world, or ignorant to perfectly valid ideas that dispute their own. If we are to achieve our aims as environmentalists we must collate information from all sides of the spectrum: we must listen to all suggestions, hear all voices and forgo the tendency to suppress the assertions of others just because they clash with our own. We must listen, learn and consider.

I have chosen to write this blog post now after observing a particularly interesting episode on Twitter a short while back. Here, Simon Phelps penned an incredibly interesting (and very frank) blog in response to comments made by George Monbiot regarding BBOWT Chimney Meadows Nature Reserve. It was a rather good article, in truth; one which without resorting to namecalling or unnecessary rudeness openly challenged a few of George’ more controversial assertions. Fine and dandy, right? Well, not really, and it appears Monbiot did not much approve of Simon’ choice of words – threatening legal action to force a number of changes to the post, later made in good faith by the author. Now, while I disagree with the tone taken by GM here – I do not think the original post was overly antagonistic – I understand why he approached it as such. The use of words such as lies and misleading imply a certain level of deliberate falsity and we are all accountable for the words we publish in public domain. I think it could have been handled better by both sides but appreciate (and agree with) what Simon was trying to do. This, however, is not the main thing I have taken away from the thread.

No, what I feel most important is the number of other individuals who echoed the author’s concerns following the publication of the post: others who clearly disagreed with GM’ views on the matter, yet had previously remained quiet on the issue. Indeed, tracking through the various responses published to social media, it was clear that many people, from a range of backgrounds, felt the same but required a catalyst in order to stand up and be counted. This is something I have observed occasionally when other individuals go against the grain – with Peter Cooper’s stance on Lynx reintroduction, in Ben Eagle’s honest approach to agriculture and occasional pieces elsewhere, for example regarding hunting or predator control – and it is clear that myriad people hold alternate views on important matters yet do not share them. Despite the fact that each and every one of their voices is of paramount importance to that of our environmental figureheads. They (we) may not possess such prominent platforms from which to voice our opinions but regardless, our opinions, just like theirs, matter.

Now imagine if members of the conservation movement spoke and wrote freely, openly and honestly about their views, absent concern. Imagine if a greater number of conservationists and normal, everyday people chose to challenge the norm and speak out. There would certainly be more options and a greater diversity of content available to help others, people like you and me, make up their minds on important issues. There would be fresh ideas, possibly more viable and productive than those that prevail at present, there would be new approaches to conservation deadlocks and, potentially, unheard and unrecognised solutions to many problems currently impacting upon the natural world. There may be more spats and disagreements too; though at least things wouldn’t be one-sided.

This post is not intended as a rant against the towering figures currently shaping the conservation movement in our country, though I admit it may sound like such. Such people do an awful lot of good for their respective causes and despite being somewhat radical, shall we say, in their approaches, achieve a great deal. They are, however, just people – no more important than you or I – and together, have an uncanny knack for painting conservation as a one-way street. At present, if you disagree with something (in method or principal), you are labelled an apologist, and if you withhold judgement you are accused of fence-sitting. This should not be the case – conservation should be an open debate and whereas many will claim it is; it is clear to me that the views of many are being withheld or suppressed. Something which only harms our collective cause.

The internet, social media, online writing platforms and so forth can make being heard above the clamour incredibly difficult; though they also allow us to voice our concerns and propose alternatives with incredible ease. If I want to see one thing happen in the coming years it is the rise of freethinkers; those unafraid to break free of the echo chamber and have their say on incredibly important issues. Just as it is up to the conservation radicals to set the ball rolling, it is also up to the quiet moderates, pragmatists, realists and even the suppressed future figureheads to keep them in check, propose alternatives and, ultimately, to ensure diversity of thought in the environmental field. The stirrings of this are there plain as day – particularly prevalent in the youth nature movement – but evidently, there are many more people looking on in silence.

All of us are probably censoring ourselves more than we should, so if you have a view that contrasts with that of your peers, say it, unashamedly. Providing you do so in the correct manner, no one will hold it against you. And if they do, they are the ones who are wrong, not you.


For more from the author, you can follow his personal blog at or join him on Twitter at @CommonByNature

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.

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