‘The environment in which managers do their job is being transformed: this new landscape rewards some skills more and some less than in the past‘. A line from an article in a magazine last year which resonates with many of today’s rural and environmental issues.
‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’Giuseppe di Lampedusa, ‘The Leopard’
Executives, managers – from city listed company CEOs, to countryside land managers – are now expected to employ skills around ‘communication, building trust and showing vulnerability’. While also being comfortable with uncertainty and letting go of being responsible for strategic thinking. Our goal of success ‘at all costs’ isn’t easily geared towards experimenting with failure.
As Richard Feynman said “to develop working ideas efficiently, I try to fail as fast as I can”. Mark Zuckerberg’s also got form when he said “in a world that changes quickly, the only course that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks” (ref: ‘The Changing Hills‘).
So has a bout of precautionary thinking mixed up with fear of losing the ownership of a narrative resulted in inertia? Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes, tree planting, State of Nature etc. (the latter launched on Channel 4 with framing suitable doomerism) have all been in thrall to holding back progress.
Not so in every field, as things can be very different, and even more positive than is often reported.
In the field
There’s often more happening than meets the eye. I’ve recently travelled across Exmoor/Dartmoor, southern Scotland, Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire, northern Scotland, west Midlands and Cumbria. On these ‘field intel’ trips, I meet a diversity of people to hear what they really think and see what they are doing. It’s inspirationally eyewatering as to how much is going on below the radar: by foresters, wardens, farmers, activists, gamekeepers, birders, land agents, facilitators et al.
Quietly managed lowland farm beavers, Scots pine in MFI-owned glens, browsable windbreaks hedges, harriers on grouse moors, wild cats in traditional estates, worm-rich arable soils, light-touch funded farmland, peat protective cropping, community guided forestry, water company grant-aided ponds.
When in a conference…
In a room, things can be different. Speakers say stuff to suit the audience. Understandable when invited by the host. The Bank of England governor quoted a past farming luminary saying for ‘farmers to thrive they must have the opportunity to earn a reasonable price to ensure food production in our countryside‘. Yes, but there are also so many new ways farmers can thrive, especially as a land manager – here’s 100sec on just one way and another here.
Backing British farmers is important by buying food which is ‘best’ farmed here in the UK. But it’s not an unconditional pass to ‘business as usual’. While many citizens support British farmers; not so many buy their high quality produce as weekly budgets are stretched between smartphones and steaks.
Imagine if the government gripped parts of The Food Plan (Three Compartment farming model, dietary nudges on meat), launched a Multifunctional Land Use Framework consultation, and outlined a funded road map on how agriculture achieves its net zero targets. It might help us to acknowledge the trade-offs required, while not defaulting to a somewhat meaningless expression “two sides of the same coin“.
Time to be more honest with ourselves.
H is for humility (and honesty!). Not everything has gone right over the last 70 years across the countryside. This frontline for post-war and CAP policies – whether mechanical weeding of organic oats or thinning of forestry – has left a raft of legacies. Away from the glare of social media, it’s as hard to keep hedgerows in prime condition (trimmed annually or every 3 years) for a range of outcomes, as it to conserve curlews when abutting up to silage production, badgers, or tall trees.
Perhaps an acceptance of these ‘wicked problems’ might then help understand them better?
T is for tolerance when truth and reconciliation are tough to stomach under bright hot spotlights. An agrochemical rep can still love wild bees. We talk about food security (too often conflated with food self-sufficiency) but rarely timber security. Environmentalists lament the lack of woodland management and slow rate of tree planting yet fear firing up chainsaws or planting squirrel resilient ‘nurse’ conifers into native hardwood plantations.
Oh, and do keep a weather eye on the mental health of those working in healthy-looking green spaces.
P is for pragmatism. There’s little time for dogmatism. Or idealism. Or ideology. Locating and moving to find a space to enable action is vital; all the while taking people with you by harnessing diverse voices.
Jack Bobo has been clear on getting the pragmatic language right: ‘don’t tell farmers what they should do… but what they could do’ and “use the language which resonates with farmers”. This then enables them to deliver a stronger interdisciplinary role effectively as conservationists – not just food producers.
Nick Cave is also on the case here in an ability to….
“show that we have the necessary willingness to hold two contrasting ideas in our hand at the same time”Nick Cave’s New Year message for 2024
I’ve really enjoyed moderating events, especially ‘reading the room’, to enable the quieter voices to be heard. This involves moving furniture around to nudge people together, orchestrating an ‘open mic’ forum, framing questions to enable people to say what they need to say (not just what they want to say). All of this can help open up previously unrecognised common ground over conservation.
This isn’t about policy. Especially when politics is so weak and wonky. This is about people. Upskilled for a modern countryside. Even with an uncertain landscape, we can configure new skills, repurposing old thinking to adapt to build resilience across a changing diverse countryside (as well as between ourselves.)
So I propose we become bravely creative in moving forward together into 2024 and beyond.
“Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on”Richard P Feynman (again)
ps – this is an adaptive blog open to updates at any time: do leave a comment! Updated 26/2/24