Uttering heresy: Why David Attenborough may not be good for conservation

By , 26 February 2010 6:50 pm

There cannot be many people on the planet who have access to television who have not seen at least some part of one of David Attenborough’s wonderful programs on wildlife. Currently we are working our way (slowly) through Planet Earth on the new TV and very fine it is indeed. Here in the UK as the old man gets into what must surely be his last decade there are already murmurings as to how we should honour him at his passing. Westminster Abbey perhaps?

Now let me say at the start that I yield to no one in my admiration of Attenborough. He is an excellent biologist and presenter (unlike the present crop of natural history presenters who seem to be chosen on the basis of looks alone) and his affection for wildlife and natural world is undeniably inspirational. And yet I have been thinking the unthinkable, and wondering whether his programmes (and similar wildlife spectaculars) have actually been good for conservation. Some of you will find this a statement that borders on the offensive or even nonsensical. Surely these programmes have portrayed the wonder of creation in a way that we could never have imagined? True: but have they been good for conservation? Have they encouraged people to go out into the natural world around them and wonder?

You see the problem as I see it is that such programmes present a wildlife that is so utterly spectacular and stunningly awesome that real nature can only come as an anti-climax. The reality is generally inferior in both quantity and quality. In the UK we do not see happy flocks of penguins marching resolutely across ice floes, schools of bounding killer whales or swarms of innumerable iridescent butterflies. We do not even get close to wildlife: the best views I have had of most birds would have ended up on Attenborough’s cutting room floor. (I do have to say that we were very fortunate in Lebanon to get some marvellous views of raptor and stork migration that rank very highly in wildlife experiences. They, though, are the exception rather than the rule; you had to be there at the right time.) From the short programmes appended to Planet Earth it is apparent that in some cases it took weeks of waiting with equipment costing tens of thousands of pounds to get some of the imagery. The problem is that having watched such programmes, when you go out into the natural world you are frequently disillusioned; birds are tiny little dots in a shaking telescope, butterflies do not stay to be identified and your photos of seals amount to little more than a cluster of pixels. If you do persist with an interest in wildlife you may be tempted to become an eco-tourist and I am very ambivalent about ecotourism and uneasy as to whether it does more good than harm. The reality of conservation is that there is an awful lot of work and some of it is frankly dull and unexciting.

Now these blogs are not of course simply about conservation or anything else; they are if anything a rather hasty Christian perspective on such matters. But actually I wonder whether this problem of reality being only a pale imitation of art is far more insidious and far more widespread than just involving the natural world. Doesn’t Hollywood and the media constantly tell us that life is spectacular and awesome, a non-stop adventure of fun and excitement? Yet the reality is that much of life is drab weeks and drab weekends albeit at punctured with brief but passing moments of pleasure and joy. And the problem is that if you expect the pleasure and joy to be the permanent phenomenon then you will undoubtedly feel cheated at your miserable lot. Doesn’t the same also apply to marriage? Isn’t that supposed to be an endless sizzling rapture of romance? Well sometimes it is but a lot of times it’s, well, just ordinary. And none the worse for that.

I am happy to keep watching the David Attenborough films and long may he flourish. But I have learnt to have happiness with a brief glimpse of a solitary Goldfinch on my birdfeeder. This side of heaven it is surely damaging to expect too much and there is perhaps more merit in the ordinary than the world would have us believe.

Have a good week.

On the current British political scene

By , 19 February 2010 6:29 pm

In case you are not resident in the UK let me tell you that this has been a long cold winter and even here in normally mild Wales we have seen snow flurries almost every day this week. In many ways the weather seems to be echoing the gloomy political scene.

A general election has to happen in the next few months and I have to say that in all my experience of British elections this is the most dispiriting one I have ever come across. Various people whose opinions I utterly respect have shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to vote.’ I quite sympathise: I will vote but I’m not sure for whom and it’s very much on the basis of the lesser of a number of evils. Let me summarise the contenders as I see them.

First of all, we have the incumbent Labour Party and perpetually glum and scowling Gordon Brown. Even Labour supporters can come up with no enthusiasm for the man who as long-time Chancellor of the Exchequer (and so responsible for the nation’s finances) must be held to blame for the appalling financial state that we find ourselves in. In fact it is difficult to avoid using of Gordon the phrase that I believe C. S. Lewis used of Lord Grey, the Foreign Secretary prior to the First World War, that ‘he has done as much harm to the country as one man possibly can do.’ As I write this, I’m trying (and failing) to think of anybody in Gordon’s dreary Cabinet for whom I have anything like respect. The new Labour dream that began so promisingly when Blair came to power has now gone very sour indeed. There is now no desire for reform, but merely the desperate urge to hold onto power. So far the Labour Party has not unveiled any political manifesto for the future but it is essentially ‘We are not the Conservatives’.

Secondly, we have the Conservatives under David Cameron. Unfortunately, no one really seems to know what he believes in and there is some question whether he even believes in himself. As a very English public schoolboy with a very substantial personal fortune he is not someone that the ordinary person identifies with and certainly not here in Wales. He is more a 19th century figure than a 21st. Cameron is widely portrayed by cartoonists as a façade over an empty nothingness and there is something in that. The Conservatives cannot even escape the accusations of financial incompetence that hang over the Labour Party; after all it was their idea under Mrs Thatcher to dismantle British industry in favour of banks and bankers. So far the Conservative party has not unveiled any political manifesto but it is essentially ‘We are not Labour’. So unappealing are Cameron’s Conservatives that they are only just slightly ahead of Labour in the polls which is a pretty remarkable feat.

Thirdly we have the Liberal Democrats under…  Ah, yes, what’s his name? Oh, Nick Clegg, a man whose hallmark seems to be blandness. On the positive side, Nick’s financial spokesman is Vince Cable, who by universal, if grudging agreement, is the only senior politician to have warned of the pending financial catastrophe and who very sensibly wants a way forward that does not involve returning to the bad old days. Yet the Lib Dems’ social agenda, apparently based on a boundless faith in human nature, is alarming. And anyway there is a widespread belief that the Liberal Democrats really don’t want power because they actually like being in that state of permanent opposition which gives them the privilege to make all sorts of promises in the sure and certain knowledge that they will never have to actually implement any.

Here in Swansea we also have the option of voting for Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalists, but given that Wales has no resources other than a boundless supply of rain, sheep and talkative politicians the idea of Welsh independence is far from enchanting.

The problem of choice is multiplied by the fact that there are real and profound issues to do with the future of Britain. You feel that one of the biggest distinctions between Britain and the USA is that Americans have always held to some sort of vision of what they are. In in our own little way we never really got round to the ‘vision thing’; we just kept muddling on in the hope that something would work out. That was never a very good policy and in the midst of a major economic crisis and unravelling multiculturalism it looks particularly bankrupt.

Those who pray, might want to pray!

By , 12 February 2010 6:30 pm

I have referred quite frequently to the issue of cultural values in various blogs but I want to return to it today. Two things have prompted it: first, the successful trial and prosecution of Police Commander Ali Dezai for ‘misconduct in a public office’ and ‘perverting the course of justice’. The second was an interesting article entitled No tax please, we are Greek on the BBC website, detailing the appalling levels of chronic fraud within the Greek political and cultural system.

Reading the post-trial coverage of the Iranian-born Dezai and how he rose to power I was struck by how he seemed to exemplify the very worst of Middle Eastern culture; those things I came to know and detest. There was a habitual and flagrant flaunting of the law, an overriding preoccupation with personal honour, and obsession with getting your own way to the point that bullying became a normal mode of operation. The article on the Greeks pointed out how endemic corruption was and how almost nobody paid tax.

Both cases point out the existence of very different cultural values. We don’t talk much about cultural values in the UK, partly because it leads into discussions that can become racist (but race and culture are very different things) and partly, I think, because it leads to that uncomfortable awareness that cultures are not mysterious belief sets that suddenly appear from nowhere but that they derive their values from the prevailing religion. For a nation that aspires to have no religion this is somewhat worrying.

British culture is, of course, shaped by the fact that for nigh on 500 years we have been a society whose ultimate source of authority has been the Bible. Oh you may have loathed the Church of England, you may even have been a practising atheist, but when it came to culture we were, in truth, all singing from more or less the same hymn sheet. The result was a number of distinctive values and I want to list some of them here because I fear in British post-Christian society they are quietly slipping away.

  1. Truth comes before personal honour. In many parts of the world the most important thing you can do is make sure that you do not lose face. Honour trumps telling the truth every day; rather than admit to a mistake or a failure, lie. It was not previously thus.
  2. Humility is good, pride is bad. It used to be held that the ultimate achievement in life was to do something wonderful but still be mistaken for a nobody. This has now been inverted so that if you are a nobody you should proclaim yourself to be someone wonderful.
  3. Serving others is good. In the Middle East you will almost never find anybody who wants to be a nurse. Bedpans? Mopping up vomit? Slaving over the sick? Leave that for the immigrant labour. Now, here we find that the service ethos is being eroded. Even in teaching, it now seems to be held that we should be over our students rather than serve them.
  4. Life is about duty and doing good rather than personal fulfilment. This is another enormous one. My understanding is that in the past you were supposed to aspire to do what was right and, God willing, you might find you actually enjoyed it. Now the rule is seek your own personal fulfilment and do what you want to do. This of course totally undermines the concept of being in the Armed Forces where dying for others is sadly not an improbable fantasy.
  5. Wealth is not to be flaunted. In the old days if you did have something like a Mercedes you were vaguely embarrassed if it was a new car. Now you are embarrassed if it does not proclaim from 300 yards that is the very latest, top-of-the-range model.
  6. All human beings have value. There are no second-class human beings. The poor the weak, the foreigner; all have ultimate significance. Increasingly I sense an us-and-them type attitude; we are something, they (said in a suitably contemptuous voice) are nothing.

I could go on and I’m sure each one of these could be expanded and developed. Please don’t get me wrong: I am not engaged in the sort of ‘Merrie England’ fantasy that some of our right-wing papers love to engage in; the idea that all was once sweetness and light in these isles. No, there were crooks, there were frauds, and there was a dreadful class consciousness. Nevertheless there were ideals that people were supposed to hold to which shaped the cultural values. And of course these values were not due to the surpassing excellency of British genes, climate or public school. They came from Scripture and it would be a fascinating exercise to try and put texts to each one of the six.

There are lots of questions that this raises and it would take a book to even try to answer them. But our culture derives from what we worship. We now have become hedonist consumers; is it any wonder that we are in trouble?

Book news

By , 5 February 2010 7:06 pm

I am somewhat concerned that people turn to this blog in the hope that they will read that my next three-volume trilogy is due at their bookstores next Thursday. In fact I rarely mention my writing. Anyway let’s see where I am at. There are three aspects.

1) Things are frankly very quiet on the Lamb Among the Stars front; so the film rights are still available and can probably be yours very cheaply. I gather the books are now out on Kindle although there seems to be some question about Book 2 (Dark Foundations). Kindle has not really caught on much in the UK and I think there must be real doubt with the pending arrival of the iPad that it will ever make much of an inroad here.

2) With regard to my fiction writing I have had goes at three separate projects. I considered a sort of lateral spin-off to the Lamb among the Stars but cannot find much enthusiasm for an epic work; they are very hard to market. I have got a notebook full of ideas for a clever, more theological work, dealing with the life of Christ from a different angle but have put it to one side in favour of a third idea which is more fantasy/thriller/romance. At the moment I’m very busy at college and will be for the next couple of months. Hopefully by the end of April I will be able to turn to seriously putting pen to paper as we used to say before computers became endemic. Or is that epidemic?

3) On a much more tangible note I came back today to find our small hall filled with some boxes of a very attractive hardback that is coming out this month: a book I have written with J John (who is probably the nearest thing we have to an evangelical celebrity). It’s called The Return: Grace and the Prodigal, published by Hodder. It is very a distinctive three-part book dealing with what is perhaps the greatest of all the parables, ‘the Prodigal Son’. In the first part John and I creatively re-imagine this parable in a short story set in a later (and perhaps more familiar) setting, filling in some of the details and fleshing out some of the personalities. In the second part, we look carefully at the meaning of the parable, and deal with such important aspects as why Jesus taught in parables and the meaning of this parable in particular. In the final part, we look at handling relationships in the light of the parable of the prodigal. We talk about how we can apply the truths that are highlighted in this parable in our own lives. Frankly I have no idea how well it will do. It’s a good book, not too long and probably more stimulating than most books on popular theology. That is not a high goal!

Anyway I thought you ought to know.

Have a great week.

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