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A Question of Engagement

By Dr. Robin Buxton, Patsy Wood Trust, 26th April 2016

I want to use this post to explore a question: Are we, the environment sector, open to mainstream engagement or do we create barriers to other sectors?  If so, is it an issue for us as funders of the sector?

I wonder how many of you remember the battle of West Sedgemoor: the burning in effigy of senior conservationists by farmers on the Somerset Levels in 1981. The issue was designation of West Sedgemoor as an SSSI, to prevent further drainage and so retain a remnant of the rich wildlife of the once vast Avalon Marshes. Had the farmers prevailed, we would not now have Common Cranes back and breeding in as near a natural wetland setting as it is possible to find in lowland England. The battle of West Sedgemoor marked the peak of hostility and distrust between conservationists and farmers that had been festering through the 1960s and 70s. The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) was instrumental in reversing this conflict, led by farmers, for conservation-minded farmers, with expert advisers who had at least one foot in farming. Collaboration, albeit guarded, replaced open conflict. Sadly the national FWAG collapsed in 2011, but local groups continue in parts of the UK.   

What fuelled that conflict and what reversed it? Are there other sectors where common ground is hidden, inaccessible at the moment because of emphasis on narrow vested interest, culturally enshrined difference, or incomprehension? Is this preventing the environment from being given the recognition and priority that all environmentalists see as vital? Do we, the environment sector, do enough to try to understand the agendas, priorities and language of the mainstream? Do we reach out to them on their turf or do we demand that they come onto ours before we will engage? Is the language I am using here perpetuating the divide between environment and mainstream or helping to bridge it? Do we, in our green hearts, genuinely want to be mainstream too, with all the implications for give and take, negotiation and compromise, and the potential for (in my view) much greater impact? Or is sharing agendas with very different people too far beyond our collective comfort zone and ambition?

Thanks to Dr William Bird’s persistent work over 20 years I think we are on the verge of a real breakthrough with the health sector. With careful management, the realisation that a literally greener urban environment can reduce clinical costs and improve health dramatically can be turned into a constructive relationship between environment and health sectors, but we must enter this with our eyes open, clear goals, tactics and diplomacy. Are the town planners listening as well as the health budget managers? What do we need to do as the environment sector to build the bridges that can move all this forwards? How will health and other socially focused charities react to an environment sector moving onto what they may see as their turf and what do we need to do (and be) in order to foster a constructive outcome?

All sectors have differences. Difference is the stuff of politics and every sector you look at closely has its fundamentalists, its liberals and its mavericks. The first excuse given for not engaging with green interests is often that we can’t agree among ourselves. We need both to deflect that response and learn to manage its causes. The fundamentalists, whether the individual Swampy tied to a tree or a corporate determination never to surrender an inch of green belt are important, but so are those who can see a way to gain concessions from others by conceding some ground. As a sector, we have real internal challenges in becoming more coherent while valuing diversity, more focused on achievable strategic goals and being more engaging to other interests.

So, what does all this imply for green funders? Through our grant making can we see ways to encourage the environment sector to be more engaging with mainstream interests while maintaining and respecting diversity of interest and approach within the sector? Or am I barking up entirely the wrong tree? Are we stronger as aloof outsiders always hectoring the mainstream and never part of it?

Dr Robin David Buxton MBE has been Warden, Director, Trustee or Chair of the Earth Trust for 34 years. He has worked to build environmental organisations’ capacity through better governance, professionalism and management and has had close involvement with the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, Wild Oxfordshire, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and many other bodies. His late sister, Patsy Wood, left a legacy in the form of a grantmaking trust with strong environmental and musical themes; Robin is Chair of Trustees. He also sits on the grant-awarding panel of the Oxfordshire Community Foundation’s Future Building Fund aimed at increasing capacity in social charities.

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  • Susan Seymour says:

    I’m seeing collaboration between environmentalists, cyclists, schools and people concerned with health over air pollution in London raising it as an issue in the mayoral election. There was even a representation from the London taxi drivers saying they are looking forward to a new electric cab at meeting on clean air last week.

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