We Need Botanists not Bond Traders.

We saw the stage show “Enron” a couple of weeks ago. Great entertainment, but it also brought back memories of my time in financial services, as I spent over twenty years working in the Japanese stock market and well remember a couple of periods of grotesque excess. I met and worked with some able and lovely people from those years (he says hastily – you know who you are!), but like any business I also bumped into some who were… not. One of the morals of Enron is something I’ve always felt about the City – you can’t regulate greed. If you nurture a system of reward which encourages people to take excessive risk with either their employer’s or their clients’ capital you can’t simultaneously ask them to behave nicely, let alone ethically. After a while they won’t understand what “ethical” actually means anyway, which adds to the ever increasing cost of regulation. In any case, how do you regulate a global industry, as folk like the oily Bob Diamond are forever pointing out.

I digress. What’s this got to do with nature conservation and botanists? In order to make our children want to become botanists rather than bond traders I am beginning to think we have to effect a much more fundamental change than any kind of regulation or funding can achieve. Whatever you might make of the current spending cuts, it’s for sure that government will shrink over the next decade. There will be a smaller stick and less carrot available to promote the environment generally. What is a tremendous short term problem for many of us could be a great opportunity though; I don’t believe regulation and artificial incentives are the way to preserve our landscape long term any more than prison is for criminals or the FSA is for banks.

There’s an old bugger in our village who just ignores any form of planning control. The local council has given up trying to get him to comply to all sorts of requirements. His yard is a rubbish strewn shambles, his outbuildings are semi-derelict, his land is a mess. He’s behaved this way for at least 40 years and he just doesn’t understand why people think he’s being anti-social. If he did, of course, he probably wouldn’t do it; I think underneath it all he might actually be a nice bloke. Of course we need regulation as a back stop to deal with this kind of thing as we do prison for hard core offenders, but it doesn’t work on its own.

For a start, nature is too complicated. Legislation protecting hedgerows in the UK has resulted in folk no longer ripping them out, but rather destroying them through benign neglect. A hedge can quickly become a line of shrubs, which becomes a line of isolated shrubs, which disappears. When does a hedge stop being a hedge? Artificial incentives are just as difficult. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that there has been a very low take up of the more complicated and consequently more beneficial seed mixes for field margins. Why? Because farmers are paid for the initial establishment of the margins and not their upkeep. Without (expensive) maintenance, which they’re understandably unable to carry out, a wildflower rich margin will just revert to grass. In any case, why are we paying to try to compensate for the farming methods we have ourselves demanded as consumers?

Is the answer to all of this education rather than funding? The dampness of the squib that is IYB2010 (gentle reader, you can admit you have no clue what IYB2010 is) goes to show that biodiversity is just not part of the mainstream yet in the same way that alternative energy and energy conservation are becoming. Our children need sensible role models to reinforce the message, rather than the City traders who rags like the Sunday Times still lionise, and – forget government and government funding – we ALL need to better understand and value these folk and what they do.