Who will give nature a voice?

Chris Nash shows that every Green vote gives nature a louder voice and increases the likelihood that we will all enjoy a greener, healthier future.

UK nature
UK nature

Image credit: 'Spring evening in Yorkshire' by Illiya Vjestica (Unsplash License). 

Chris Nash

“First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out —

because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists

and I did not speak out —

because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out —

because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me —

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.”

This is the great poem of social conscience. It was written by Pastor Niemoller, a Lutheran Christian religious leader who in WW2, spoke out against Nazism and was imprisoned for his views. Tragically, we know what did happen when too few spoke out. Holocaust Day is a solemn reminder of our collective duty to show empathy and solidarity with all of our fellow citizens, our duty to work for social justice, in the face of injustice. 

But what of nature and the environment? We can see the species threatened with

extinction in our country through the same lens:

“First they came for the Turtle Dove

And I did not speak out — 

Because I was not a Turtle Dove.”

Of course, it’s not quite true to say that no one is speaking out for species under threat. There are protective organisations like the RSPB and myriads of volunteer groups across our country with selfless people dedicated to their local ecosystems. In my home county of Dorset, there is a Wildlife Trust with over 50 members of staff, more than 300 active volunteers and 27,000 supporters.

Of course, the Green Party has 100 per cent pride and support for all who give up their time to act as good environmental citizens. But we have to ask why are we relying as a country on the goodwill of such people to preserve the natural environments from which we all benefit so much?

In a recent series of articles, I’ve been thinking ahead to the May elections. I’ve argued that we need Green votes for sustainable healthcare. We need Green votes for a sustainable economy. But above all, we need Green votes to give Nature a voice. Neither Conservatives nor Labour can be trusted with this responsibility.

How can we persuade more voters to speak up for nature? For me, there is a simple parallel between the environment and health. We recognise that we need a national health service to provide a socially just level of healthcare to every citizen. What we don’t yet recognise is healthy environments, both rural and urban, are also a part of that national health service. We can call it the ‘Natural Health Service’. 

We all know about the current crisis in our healthcare services. It is an incredible indicator of the fundamental communitarian conscience of our people that support for justice for health care workers is so high, despite all the vicious headlines of the right-wing press. But we have another critical patient that needs our care and our voice – the environment. Let’s remind ourselves factually of the scale of the problems the environment is facing. We can pick up an authoritative document such as the ‘2019 State of Nature’ report. The report finds:

  • 41 per cent of species are showing declines in abundance.
  • 15 per cent of native species are under threat of extinction using the International Union for the Conservation of Nature criteria.
  • Between 2006-2012 a vital 1000 hectares of wetlands were lost to other uses.
  • In England almost 100 per cent of vulnerable bio-systems have dangerous levels of nitrogen as a result of inappropriate use of fertilisers
  • Since the start of data collection for 55 butterfly species in 1976 there has been a 23 per cent decline in overall abundance.

Now let’s focus on one particular patient in the emergency ward – the River Wye. The River Wye is dying under our very eyes. Professor Paul Withers, a river expert at Lancaster University, carried out research last year which found that 3,100 tonnes of phosphorus runoff from farming are making their way into the River Wye catchment area every year. This encourages the growth of algae, which can rapidly multiply into thick layers on the water’s surface to produce toxins that can be harmful to humans and wildlife. The algae use up oxygen in the water, which in turn can suffocate fish and other creatures. Damage caused by the runoff from agricultural practices in the area near the river is posing fatal levels of risk to the whole river ecosystem.

Recently the government through Defra published an updated ‘Environmental Protection Plan’ that unbelievably concluded that they will aim to reduce nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment pollution from agriculture by 40 per cent from 2018 levels by 2048! If a family member was told it would take 25 years to cure her or him of poisoning you would be scandalised.

My point is that a river is no more or less a family member than our blood relatives, along with every other species and landscape. Think about it. This is not a fanciful figure of speech. Every time we step foot outside of our houses, we are at home in urban and natural environments which either promote or damage our health. And the thing about environments is that they’re all interconnected, so the bit of eco-system that you step into every morning is interconnected to all environments across the UK, including the Wye River, and of course, beyond that to a whole planet of eco-systems, all working in symbiosis for global health. What is our Green response? What should we be asking our potential voters to support? The first point to make is that unlike the complex issues underlying the national health service, there are relatively straightforward measures which would start to improve our natural health service almost immediately.

One answer lies in regulation. The source of environmental ill health is almost always human activity – urbanisation, pollution, harmful runoff from industrial agriculture. Therefore it is within human capability to change all of these harmful behaviours. We know how to do this – regulation that rewards behaviours which support nature and punishes harmful behaviours with fines. As experts involved with protecting the River Wye admit, the regulatory framework which could prevent further damage is already in place. Actually, the issue is not more regulation but enforcement of existing controls and restraints. It’s a matter of priorities. In the Conservatives Party, we have politicians who will always prioritise private profit above the state of nature. In the Labour Party, we have politicians who will always prioritise the economy over the state of nature. If you want a healthy economy, with a healthy population living in healthy environments – only a Green vote will do.

I want to finish however by arguing that Green ambitions should not stop at regulation. As Confucius noted in his Analects, ‘If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame.’ Regulations are the short-term solution, but we Greens have the vision and determination to move beyond regulation to grow an ecological culture where we no longer need to protect the environment because we have learned – perhaps re-learned – how to live in balance with nature.

The difference between the two can be easily explained. Non-Green governments need policies to ‘protect’ nature from harmful human activities. A Green government will use ‘pro-nature’ policies to regrow a healthy balance between nature and humanity. Rewilding will be an important part of this, returning ecosystems to their original health.

Let’s take beavers as an example. 400 years ago they were hunted to extinction. Now as part of re-wilding they are being reintroduced to river ecosystems across Britain and creating improvements in both the biodiversity in these areas and water quality, from which all species benefit. Another example of Green pro-nature policies could be used to help our good friend the River Wye. Industrial agricultural techniques feed chemicals to plants, leading to harmful run-off. But the whole process can be restored to natural health if instead we use regenerative agriculture, which feeds and nurtures the quality of the soil so that it can provide the nutrients the plants need.

Regenerative policies such as this put pure ‘green water’ between us and the other political parties. There is one further step we can go. We started with Pastor Niemoller and protecting our rich diversity of fellow citizens. A key tool to achieve this since WWII has been the development of ‘human rights’. We need to go to the next level. As Greens, I believe we should now be promoting the ‘Rights of Nature’ alongside and interwoven with ‘Human Rights’. In New Zealand, the Whanganui River system was reduced to something like the condition of the River Wye. Then in 2017, the New Zealand government took the extraordinary step of giving the river system legal status as a person. Crucially this means that the river ecosystem now has a voice, because it has representatives whose role is to speak for the river and its health in courts, tribunals and even parliament, anywhere that decisions are being taken which affect the river’s health and future. This could work wonders for the River Wye and all of the other threatened water systems of Britain.

The policies of both the Conservative and Labour parties pretend that environmental health is a luxury we can’t quite afford yet. Only we Greens recognise it’s the other way around. Our economy needs a healthy environment. Our people and other species need healthy environments for their wellbeing. Every Green vote gives nature a louder voice and increases the likelihood we will all enjoy a greener, healthier future.