…They are the majority, and until more of them are made conservation conscious all or efforts will be wasted.” – Maxwell Knight (The Frightened Face of Nature – unpublished – Chapter XV).
“Laws, rules and regulations will not themselves solve the problems of the future of wildlife,” wrote Knight in 1964 “It is only by education that anything will be achieved, and it is the younger generations that one should have in mind though a little education in its true sense will not be wasted on those of riper years.”
Here is a project documenting “Young people’s vision for the natural world in 2050” and it’s interesting that The Frightened Face of Nature contains many of Maxwell Knight’s prescient observations for 2000 and beyond and was written in 1964.
“Young people” hit the headlines this week for all the right reasons – to share their 2050 vision for nature (#VisionforNature). Let us applaud these nature-protecting protagonists for making themselves heard above the daily noise of grumpy adults.
What does it say to the world when we (seemingly) downgrade our action on climate change?
It says that we’re under stress as a country, and things are happening that we can’t control; uncertainty is piping its way through our veins.
And in these conditions – when our backs are against the wall – we can only concentrate on the here and now; the things our immediate peers will judge us for.
It says these were hollow promises in the first place.
It says we only have manners when our parents are watching us.
It says we would rather wage war on anything/anyone than stand up for the planet. We pick a fight on the smallest kid in the playground and ignore the playground bully because he’s bigger and tougher than us and there’s a good chance we might lose.
And we do this because we know there’s no big cigar to smoke at the denouement part of the script like there is in the film Independence Day.
It is nigh impossible to change the culture of a business let alone change the culture of a planet; however, it is possible – but everything’s against us. Which is why we all need to start today.
Take, for example, the food that we eat: how on Earth (literally!) are we going to provide enough food for another three billion people by 2100 without destroying the natural world? Add to food security the additional demands for healthcare and social cohesion and we’re facing a problem that is not going to go away.
If we’re lucky enough to still be roaming the planet by 2050 we’ll be sharing it with around 9bn other people – that’s a 20% increase in the world’s population.
Sub-Saharan Africa may well become the fastest growing region – but their problem is our problem: take for example “our” migrating swallows that depend on a safe passage to and from Africa – are they to become a food source? Will there be enough habitat left to sustain their survival? This growing human population will be forced to seek food and shelter elsewhere in the world. We are interconnected.
So what can we do?
We can start by putting our own house in order and then we can all agree on the job – what needs to be done; what must get done. Then we can adopt that as the game plan. It may be too late for many of us to play a part, which is why it’s essential that education becomes the culture changing vein. This is something the contributors to this blog are passionate about and one of the reasons Professor Cooper and his wife Margaret Cooper spend time sharing what they have learned and passing on their knowledge to help fight wildlife crime and care for animals. Together John and Margaret Cooper have passed on their knowledge the way Maxwell Knight passed on his knowledge as an amateur naturalist to John Cooper when he was a Surrey schoolboy and boy scout.
At times it is an unglamorous and hard life; however, if the life of an amateur naturalist was good enough for one of Britain’s most successful MI5 spy-running agents (Maxwell Knight) and the inspiration behind Ian Fleming’s “M” it might just be a worthy way for us (and our children) to spend our time, too.
“Campaigners welcome decision to turn down National Farming Union’s application for ‘emergency’ use of neonicotinoids for oil seed rape, ” reports The Guardian today (8 July).
Dave Timms, Friends of the Earth’s bee campaigner, described the government’s move as “great news for bees and other wildlife”.
But he said the victory is at risk following the EU referendum. “The government must do all it can to safeguard our under-threat pollinators. This should include maintaining the current European ban on bee-harming pesticides – and committing to upholding and enforcing EU nature protection rules, which are now at risk as we plan our Brexit.”
In this heartfelt chapter of The Frightened Face of Nature, Maxwell Knight drops his guard and invites the reader to consider the unthinkable – “the virtual disappearance of nature”.
“Does such a question as that heading this chapter stem from the neurotic imaginings of a fanatic,” he asks, “or is it one that can reasonably be put forward at the present (1964) time?”
This is a chapter of reflection – he questions how readers will see him, but his vulnerability is shelved for a higher purpose, for his love of all things nature. “It is always said that no person can truly see himself as he truly is to others, so one must be careful when producing an idea which might lead to the conclusion that no one in his right senses could even begin to think of anything so terrible and fantastic as the virtual disappearance of living things from the face of the earth or the ocean deeps.” He wrote this two years after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring (1962).
Could it be that “Miss Carson” awakened something within him that he couldn’t ignore? He acknowledges her “excellent book” and draws attention to her efforts to ban the indiscriminate use of pesticides like DDT. Was The Frightened Face of Nature his homage to Silent Spring? Or was this the treatise of an amateur naturalist, who’d spent his entire life interacting with nature, and who spotted something that many either ignored or turned a blind eye to?
He sets us up nicely and tucks us in to hear the “facts” that have encouraged him to draw our attention to his findings: “Take a deep breath, count up to ten or even twenty, and then consider some of the facts not fantasies – which face every human being today…”
The essence of this chapter is this: “in nature, all living things depend on something else.”
In just forty years between 1970 and 2010 the global Living Planet Index (LPI), which measures more than “10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, has declined by 52 per cent.” (source: WWF Living Planet Report 2014). The World Wildlife Fund’s and ZSL’s LPI report states that, “Habitat loss and degradation, and exploitation through hunting and fishing (intentionally for food or sport, or accidentally, for example as bycatch) are the primary causes of decline.”
A decline of 52% is shocking and we need things to change because as long as there are two songbirds still singing the percentage decline can’t get any worse, can it?
For things to change, we have to change: we have to agree that this problem isn’t going to go away on its own; we need our best people to stand up for nature and make certain we keep nature on the agenda during exit negotiations with the EU; our political leaders need to commit to making decisions that outlast their premiership; and we as consumers and business people need to think (really think) about our actions and – as WWF International Director General, Marco Lambertini, puts it, “build a future where people can live and prosper in harmony with nature.”
Currently, however, man runs the planet like his personal bank account – often consuming more than there is in reserve. The difference being that, the Natural World cannot plug the consumption gap with electronic quantitative easing and bail itself out; nature cannot be re-printed and re-distributed for us to “try harder next time.” We have one shot at managing the industrialized world’s interventions with nature and so far the results speak for themselves: the more man unsympathetically expands and consumes the planet’s natural capital, the more frightened the face of nature becomes.
The LPI states: “We may need 1.5 Earths to meet the demands humanity makes on nature each year.” It appears to either be us or nature who will survive, which is impossible: as we kill off nature, we kill off ourselves.
Will wildlife populations have halved again in the next forty years? That’s the question that’s on my mind as I write this and – if it’s on your mind too – we’re in the perfect place to acknowledge that this is exactly how Maxwell Knight felt when he sat down to write The Frightened Face of Nature during the 1960s and share his reflections on the first-half of the 20th century plus his concerns for the future of nature, for the second half of the Century.
He’d woken up to nature’s plight and we might try to do the same.
We cannot “pop out” to the shops or go online and purchase a new ecosystem from Amazon. Our planet’s interconnected community of living things relies on the availability of non-living things; like water, air, soil, and that’s reflected throughout the living world and broken down into its most humble (but nonetheless essential) common denominator as food, water, shelter and a place to breed.
We can start small – in our own back yards: provide safe habitat and open up a wildlife garden and its occupants will likely flourish. Encourage your neighbours to do the same and together these gardens stack up and become a super-highway, a wildlife corridor for nature to gather its thoughts and try to recover its loses. Things can improve (look how the reduction of CFCs has helped the ozone layer heal).
In contrast, strip back nature – decimate the trees and natural flora – pave every square foot of space and fight back weeds with chemicals and nature will pass quietly away, forever. Those that can – birds for example – will try to make their home elsewhere, but they will find themselves intruding on other birds’ territory. Their future in this brief scenario is bleak. Amplify this on a global scale and factor in the growth of humankind and his exploits and it’s not hard to see why nature is on its back foot.
Maxwell Knight played a significant part in a number of fields; herpetology was his particular love and he produced a number of scientific papers on this subject as well as adding to national and local records and, through his books and broadcasts, encouraging an appreciation of reptiles and amphibians amongst the British public.
The filing cabinet contains letters from members of the general public, who often wrote and shared photos of their pets and wild animals. From what I have seen, he took the time to reply in full and was incredibly generous with his feedback.
He was an excellent general naturalist and made contributions to our knowledge of subjects ranging from entomology of bird pellets to the behaviour of dormice – about as far away as one can get from infiltrating the British Fascists or stirring up a committee representing Whitehall.
Interesting as it is to think about the derring-do of “M” the MI5 spy-runner, I’m certain were the choice his he’d rather be remembered as the Maxwell Knight who, as one of a small group of enthusiasts, who through their writings and broadcasting, brought natural history to the public’s attention in the 1950s.
To answer that question, we need to better understand the contrast between Maxwell Knight’s (recently publicised) life as one of Britain’s most talented World War II spymaster’s – the original ‘M’ – and that of an early (largely unpublicised) environmentalist. Clearly he was an incredibly gifted man who had a sixth sense for identifying and recruiting talented individuals to the security services prior to and during the second world war. In Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm – The Authorised History of MI5 (Penguin Books) we get an insightful illumination into his character when he was overseeing ‘M Section’ in 1933: “Knight, however, remained something of a law unto himself. He was probably the last Security Service officer who, as one who served under him later recalled, ‘would burgle premises without authority and recruit whomsoever he wished. But to his agents, he was almost a mystical figure.” This spirited mixture of ‘talents’ may well seem out of place and unacceptable in today’s connected world but they were what was required for the time and space occupied by Knight. Indeed, it was this indomitable spirit and willingness to sail close to the wind that brought down “The Right Club” stopping cypher-clerk, Tyler Kent, from handing over stolen telegrams between Churchill and Roosevelt to anti-war activists in America. Had this information reached the United States, American troops may never have come to Britain’s rescue.
On the 30th May 1967, Wolfe Publishing posted a book contract to Maxwell Knight to confirm terms for the fairly tongue-in-cheek “How to Keep a Gorilla.” The publisher wanted “something quite simple” – they wanted him to duplicate his previous book “How to Keep an Elephant” and they agreed to pay him the same terms.
Inside the cabinet, there’s detailed correspondence documenting the toing and froing between Knight and his publisher and – for the sake of brevity – let’s just say that he wasn’t completely comfortable writing this book. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t know enough about the subject, he did, and what he didn’t know, he could access from his contacts at The Zoological Society of London (ZSL).
What was wrong?
He couldn’t shake off the fact that a licence was required to import a Gorilla and that would stop a member of the public from ever keeping one. The publisher just believed this gave the book “added cachet – like, anybody can import a tatty old lion but it needs somebody special to get a Gorilla into the county.”
The publisher goes on to push him to find out if there “are any Gorillas available in this country which could be bought without a licence? and is the Licence needed only for Gorillas which are captured in their native habitats – is there a loophole, for instance, which would allow the occasional Gorilla to be brought in from, say Lichenstein or the Isle of Man.”
The publisher thought this was an intriguing angle to pursue, and it’s amusing today to think that they were picking the brains (unbeknown to them) of a counter-subversion specialist who – although never kept a Gorilla – kept the Abwehr’s (German intelligence organisation from 1921 to 1944) agents, the fifth column nazi sympathisers and was amongst the first to warn that Soviet spies had infiltrated MI5. (The Gorilla could well be a metaphor for all of these as he certainly kept them all at bay).
As previously mentioned, Knight did have contacts at ZSL and he asked them to check on “Guy’s” (the famous Gorilla) daily rations, and this is what they wrote back with:
2 eggs beaten up with 2 pts milk; 2 cabbages; 2 lb carrots
8 lettuces; 2 lbs root vegetables; 8 bananas; 6 oranges; 1 lb dates; 1 lb biscuits; large brown bread and jam sandwich and occasionally as a treat a bunch of grapes or a cucumber
Same as breakfast, but with 4 pts of milk instead of 2
At the time of Knight’s enquiry, “Guy” was weighed and he tipped the scales at 488.5 lbs.