At the end of the wonderful #EarthOptimism event in Cambridge ten days ago, psychologist Professor Steven Pinker gave a deeply thought-provoking talk.  He had previously presented data to argue that as a species we are less violent today than we have been throughout our history and he has now turned his attention to our impact on the environment.  His central argument, which will be laid out in a book to be published next year, appeared to be (and I paraphrase) that the rate of environmental destruction by humans was slowing in line with growing affluence and available technology.  We therefore had good reason to be optimistic for the future of our planet.

We had spent the day hearing stories from around the world illustrating how we had moved beyond documenting loss and were improving the environment – for example saving frogs in Ghana, chimps in Tanzania, gorillas in Cameron, albatrosses in the southern seas and oysters in Essex.  Professor Pinker argued that his data and these good news stories shouldn’t make us complacent optimists, rather conditional optimists (terms used by Paul Romer) where we should expect certain things to be in place to justify our optimism.

I’ve been reflecting on this and I’d like to propose the idea of active optimism where you can remain optimistic provided you continue to work and fight for protection and restoration of the natural environment.  I’ll choose a couple of examples to make my point.

RSPB Ouse Fen (

The day after I listened to Steven Pinker, I popped up for the closing stages of RSPB weekend where I listened to my colleague, Matt York, tell the story of the creation of Ouse Fen – a 30 year project to transform a working sand and gravel quarry run by Hanson into a vast 900 hectare nature reserve including the biggest reedbed in the UK.  It reminded me to return to the site, which I did this weekend.  It is stunning – hooching with warblers, waders and now with a decent bittern population.   Yet, this is just one example.  We are replicating this approach with other companies at other sites such as CEMEX UK at Denge in Kent, Tarmac at Langford Lowfields in Nottinghamshire, Imerys at Arne in Dorset.  What’s more, through our Nature After Minerals programme with Natural England, the Minerals Product Association and British Aggregates Association, over 64,000 hectares (in England alone) have a planning requirement to restore 2,000+ quarries and associated manufacturing sites.  If all of this is delivered to the quality at Ouse Fen, it will be a remarkable legacy created by the minerals industry.

There is a similar story in the water industry. 

Heather bales being used to block gullies at RSPB Dove Stone (Ben Hall,

I was with senior leaders from water companies at an event today to launch the new Blueprint for Water document designed to influence the environmental outcomes achieved through the latest round of company investment plans.  At the heart of this is the desire for greater investment in catchment management to provide clean water to customers while improving the water quality of the catchment.  This seems like a no-brainer today, yet it required a change in the rules 13 years ago to allow this to happen.  From the early pioneering projects we did with United Utilities, most water companies will plan this round to invest in catchment management.  The results can be very impressive.  For example, at Dove Stone in the Peak District, we are working with our landowners United Utilities to improve the water quality and biodiversity across 4,000 hectares.  Since 2004, populations of golden plover (+33 pairs), curlew (+17 pairs) and dunlin (+37 pairs) have significantly increased.  We have achieved this through a combination of blanket bog restoration (with 60km of gullies blocked to improve the water table and Sphagnum moss introduced to over 100ha), native woodland planting and creation of species-rich grassland.  And now, thankfully, there is a long list of projects delivering similar outcomes. 

The water and minerals industries are not perfect and certainly should aspire to do more, but they have over the past two decades transformed the way they do business.  Their environmental credentials today help provide their license to operate.  Yet, this did not come about by chance or wild optimism.  The changes to policy, legislation, attitudes and behaviour arose through a combination of heroic leadership, creativity, evidence and a lot of hard work.  Or to put it another way – active optimism.  

At times, reform can be painful and dangerously slow, but experience suggests that together we can create the future we want and nature needs.  

  • Almost exactly 10 years ago the Government (Barry Gardiner was the Minister) launched its Woodfuel Strategy. Stackyard is absolutely right about unintended consequences - biofuels have been a total disaster, driving oil palm and the destruction of rainforest - and the RSPB campaigned against it from very early on. Everyone expected the policy to be about big electricity - but is went in a very different direction, small - medium (30-250kw) heat,and since then, against the original intention which was farm crops, has been over 90% of the projects under the renewable heat incentive. The key was working out the consequences: the scheme is in scale with the huge resource of small unmanaged lowland woodlands, it encourages use close to source, not hauling wood long distances (let alone across the Atlantic !)and is particularly aimed at rural areas with no mains gas. Crucially, it means small, native woods can be managed - and RSPB & Forestry Commission led research has shown that lack of management is the single biggest (domestic) cause of the decline in woodland birds. In addition, half the estimated wood to be used was to come from recycled wood (with 80% imports, there is a lot of that around), previously sent to landfill. If you've heard the roaring off to the left of the Avalon hide at Ham Wall, have  a look - and you'll see giant chippers ploughing through a mountain of waste wood at the South West Wood Products plant.

    It is possible to get it right, and even improve the environment for birds rather than just minimising damage. But it does take thought - and often innovative and unexpected approaches.

  • I can see why optimism is needed, particularly with the wider world, but I'm not sure I'm ready to deal in it personally. It's the hope that kills you - and spite can be very sustaining if unappetizing.

  • So, after we've destroyed 90% of the natural world and badly damaged or contaminated the rest, you're still looking through rose-tinted spectacles are you? The rate of destruction is declining? Hooray! When there's finally nothing left you can console yourself that the *rate of decline* is now zero. Wonderful!

    Let's celebrate, while our consumption of every 'resource' continues to grow, our population grows massively, even in an affluent, high-consumption country like Britain, and the climate is destroyed.

    And if I'm wrong, take me to visit the square mile of the UK where nature is thriving, with all the native species present, and all it's natural processes operating. Where there are no PCBs and Lead contaminating the air, soil and water, and there's no light pollution or hideous artificial noise - even for one 24hr period. Go on, show me the Garden of Eden where that is happening. No? But still you talk as though everything was just great. Is it nice in cloud-cuckoo land? (Where you'll have to imagine even the cuckoos soon.)

    Your aim is far, far too low.

  • A great blog Martin. Carefully thought out and researched plans yielding fantastic results. Definitely the way ahead and the RSPB doing terrific work.

    I wish I could feel as optimistic about "green" energy, where the law of unintended consequences seems to apply all too often. Biofuels and large scale biomass are two of the great environmental policy disasters of our time - destroying the natural world in the name of trying to save the planet. Let's hope that in future our politicians will look beyond immediate headlines and take advice on the long-term consequences of environmental policies.