Activist countries

‘England is one of the most nature-deprived countries on earth’: Tony Juniper’s call to end binary thinking

Nature is in poor condition. England is small, land is scarce and there are no simple answers to meet competing demands. But by getting farmers, politicians, activists, gardeners and dog walkers working together, we can make a difference. That’s the message of Tony Juniper, longtime environmental activist and, since 2019, chairman of Natural England.

“It’s not a happy story,” Juniper, 61, said from his home office in Cambridge when we spoke via Zoom. “The losses run the gamut, from collapsing insect populations to the loss of birds from farmland and the degradation of our rivers. But we can do better if we put our minds to it. The reintroduction of beavers to English waterways and the return of the white-tailed eagle are both ‘good news’ stories.

For Juniper, however, the “really exciting” news is the government’s plan for a national nature recovery network. He believes the proposal can, through “a range of partnerships”, create space for food production, infrastructure and recreation, and lead to “net gains” for nature in urban and rural areas.

At a time when growing numbers of people are calling for climate action, one activist’s decision to lead a government advisory body may seem like a surprising choice. (Juniper started his career as an ornithologist with Birdlife International before joining Friends of the Earth and more recently leading WWF UK’s advocacy work.) But he suggests otherwise.

“The energy and confrontation that comes with activism must at some point meet the cold reality of politics,” Juniper said. “Activists have been very successful, particularly Extinction Rebellion, in putting the issue of climate change much more firmly on the political map.” But when activist demands begin to turn into policies, things get complicated, he added.

“Activism can be quite simple: we all want climate action. But what does this mean in practice? In terms of budgets for insulation, for renewable energies; how do you reconcile that with consumer bills? Or what is the fit between nature’s recovery and carbon capture?

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“The frustration in the activist community is that simple messages, when they enter the delivery space, inevitably become nuanced. That’s life and that’s what we have to deal with. There is a wide range of views. The militant point of view is vital and very influential, but it is not the only point of view.

We need to stop thinking in terms of binary choices: food production or farm birds, housing or grasslands, wind turbines or beautiful views, Juniper insisted. “We need to move on to a discussion with facts and nuances.”

The ability to increase natural habitats without affecting food production is a good example, he said. He cited the UK’s National Food Strategy, which found that the least productive 20% of farmland to nature would only have a 3% impact on food production. “We waste a third of our food in this country; if we reduce waste by 10%, it absorbs the 3%”.

In Juniper’s view, we have no choice but to change our approach. “This country is one of the poorest in nature on Earth,” he said. “We need to have the right policy in place to encourage the recovery of wildlife and healthy food production and agricultural businesses that people can live off of. That’s the real question, not whether it’s one or the other.

And stopping the decline of nature is not enough. “We have to hang on to what we have and add a lot of what’s missing,” Juniper said. Government proposals are the right tools to “turn around” the situation, but policies and standards alone are insufficient. “There is a cultural dimension; the extent to which people are replacing natural grass with plastic grass is not an encouraging trend.

Juniper recently wrote a foreword for a Policy Exchange article on urban green spaces, which calls for a “behavioral blitz.” Natural England is not in the business of advising gardeners nationwide, but Juniper is increasingly being asked whether it should. The million acres of garden in England equals land protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

“During lockdown, people fell in love with their gardens,” Juniper said. Along with their health benefits and beauty, we should be proud of our gardens as places for wildlife to explore, he added. “I’m particularly excited about the opportunities we could have on a whole street. The advantages of everyone doing the same thing or doing different things; one person with a large native tree, another with a meadow, another with a substantial pond, all connected along a street.

Urban green spaces are more generally important for wildlife, helping cities cope with climate change by reducing flooding and lowering temperatures during heat waves, and for public well-being. “It could be woods, wetlands or brushy areas rich in songbirds and insects. It could be a mix with places where people can picnic and walk their dogs. We can accrue many benefits through good design,” Juniper said. “But at the moment things very often fall apart and are perceived as being in conflict.”

In a country the size of England with a population of 55 million, meeting demands is “quite tricky” and compromises will bother many. But Juniper’s track record probably means he’s more likely than most to encourage a more integrated view of nature.

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