Mark Carwardine

The broad­caster and cam­paigner is be­mused by the high value we place on pro­tect­ing art and ar­chi­tec­ture com­pared with con­serv­ing wildlife and wild places.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - MARK CARWARDINE is a frus­trated and frank con­ser­va­tion­ist. MY WAY OF THINK­ING

Is fine art re­ally so much more valu­able than con­ser­va­tion?

How much money do we need to save the world’s most threat­ened species and pro­tect the most im­por­tant wildlife sites? I’ll give you a clue: it’s roughly the same as the amount paid out in bonuses to bankers in the UK, the United States and Canada last year. Or, to put it an­other way, roughly the same as Amer­i­cans spend on fizzy drinks ev­ery year.

A few years ago, ex­perts from con­ser­va­tion and re­search groups around the world came up with a ro­bust as­sess­ment of the cost of con­ser­va­tion. They es­ti­mated that it would cost £3.7 bil­lion each year (at cur­rent ex­change rates) to save threat­ened species from ex­tinc­tion, and £59 bil­lion per year to pro­tect the most im­por­tant wild places. Though these fig­ures are eye-wa­ter­ingly daunt­ing to us as in­di­vid­u­als, in global terms they are triv­ial.

Con­ser­va­tion is ac­tu­ally rather cheap. The es­ti­mated cost, to­talling £62.7 bil­lion, is a drop in the heav­ily pol­luted, over­fished ocean. And just think what we get for our money: im­mea­sur­able beauty, plea­sure for bil­lions of peo­ple, and a moral obli­ga­tion ful­filled. Oh, and don’t for­get the ‘ecosys­tem ser­vices’ pro­vided by na­ture (such as pol­li­nat­ing crops and re­mov­ing green­house gases from the at­mos­phere), which form the ba­sis of our en­tire life sup­port sys­tem. That’s quite im­por­tant. The cost of con­ser­va­tion is dwarfed by all of the ben­e­fits we get back from na­ture. Be­sides, it’s not a ‘cost’ at all – it’s an in­vest­ment.

Why, there­fore, is it so frus­trat­ingly dif­fi­cult to raise any­thing like enough money? The prob­lem is that ev­ery­one ac­cepts – with­out ques­tion – the im­por­tance of pro­tect­ing old paint­ings, say, or old build­ings. But they don’t ac­cept the im­por­tance of pro­tect­ing wildlife or wild places, which are treated as a lux­ury. When­ever and wher­ever na­ture comes un­der threat, there is al­ways a bat­tle to per­suade the per­pe­tra­tors and de­ci­sion-mak­ers that badgers, great crested newts or wild­flower mead­ows are worth pro­tect­ing.

Last year, some­one in Saudi Ara­bia paid about £350 mil­lion for Leonardo da Vinci’s mas­ter­piece Sal­va­tor Mundi. The price is in­sane, of course, and it’s a re­flec­tion of the mas­sive dis­pro­por­tion of wealth around the globe, but what’s in­ter­est­ing is that no one ques­tioned the ba­sic prin­ci­ple of pre­serv­ing a paint­ing. In our weird and warped world, a sin­gle paint­ing is deemed to be worth nearly two and a half times the to­tal an­nual in­come of the RSPB – and no one bats an eye­lid.

An­other re­cent pur­chase – al­beit a smaller one – was a lit­tle more ironic. In June, an anony­mous col­lec­tor paid £7.2 mil­lion for the world’s most ex­pen­sive book – equiv­a­lent to onethird of the en­tire an­nual in­come of the Wild­fowl and Wet­lands Trust. The ti­tle? Birds of Amer­ica by John James Audubon. Just imag­ine how that money could have helped to pro­tect the ac­tual birds of Amer­ica.

I’m not sug­gest­ing that we should save wildlife but not art or ar­chi­tec­ture. We should save both. (Though as my great friend, the wildlife artist David Shep­herd, used to say: “We could al­ways re­build the Taj Ma­jal, but we won’t be able to re­build a tiger”.) The money is clearly out there. We just need to find more imag­i­na­tive and per­sua­sive ways of get­ting our hands on it.

That fig­ure of £62.7 bil­lion for an­nual con­ser­va­tion costs is merely a tar­get. We are nowhere near spend­ing that kind of dosh. Cur­rent con­ser­va­tion ex­pen­di­ture must rise by an or­der of mag­ni­tude if we are to have any hope of pro­tect­ing the nat­u­ral world. And the real irony is that, if we fail to do that, there’s a good chance we will ac­tu­ally lose our life sup­port sys­tem – and then the bankers won’t get any bonuses at all.

A sin­gle paint­ing cost 2.5 times the to­tal an­nual in­come of the RSPB.

Audubon’s Birds ofAmer­ica sold for over £7 mil­lion – how much con­ser­va­tion work could that fund?

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