Sir David Attenborough made headlines at Davos last month with his interview with the Duke of Cambridge. His pitch was clear. The ecological problems we face spring from our disconnect from the natural world.
“There has never been a time that more people are out of touch with the natural world than as now”, he said.
But he wasn’t just concerned with problems on the macro scale. He spoke movingly about how the natural world is one of the greatest sources of delight, pleasure and beauty in the whole of the world, and that caring for it brings joy and enlightenment which is irreplaceable. If we lose sight of that, we lose a great source of joy.
There are all sorts of reasons why we have largely lost sight of this joy in the UK. And there are any number of problems on a national scale (such as mental health, obesity, loneliness) that show we need it more than ever. The urgent question for us now is how to reconnect?
The opportunities are there. Organisations like the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts put on excellent activities. But they mainly take place (obviously) in places where there is wildlife, so you have to be interested in wildlife before you go. Perhaps the biggest conservation attempt nationally is the Big Garden Birdwatch, that took place this weekend. But, because it takes place in your garden, you have to want to do it before you do it. September’s March for Wildlife made an important statement, but it brought together those who cared already.
Reconnection means reaching out on a much bigger scale. We need something that engages people for all sorts of different reasons, and in the process, reconnects them with their everyday natural world. Something as public, accessible and ubiquitous as Parkrun, something that can become as much of an institution as the Brownies and as sociable as watching major sporting matches. For the sake of argument, call it ‘Park-life’.
What if ‘Park-life’ took place at the weekend, in public recreational areas, offering families, individuals or groups of friends the chance to participate together? What if it was accessible for all members of the community? What if it had a simple, replicable format; perhaps something to observe, something to learn and something to do? What if it was done hand in hand with the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB whose brilliant activities are already there waiting to be scaled up? What if, like the Brownies and the RSPB, there were different badges or awards you could earn? What if it enabled management of our public spaces so that wildlife could flourish?
‘Park-life’ has a lot to learn from Parkrun. The whole UK Wildlife Trusts together ran c. 10,000 events in the UK in 2018. A conservative estimate would put the number of Parkruns at double that. Its success is astonishing (from 13 runners in 2004 to 5 million in 2018) and it deserves massive credit. Perhaps its most significant success is the fact that the events are volunteer-run – utterly bucking the trend that most organisations are finding it harder and harder to find volunteers. If the set-up is right, people will want to do it.
Building the health and happiness of a community, as Parkrun has set out to do, is an important and admirable goal. But their formula for their success could be used more widely. What if someone like Sir David or the Duke of Cambridge spearheaded a major national initiative, in our parks and open spaces, that helps to reconnect us with the natural world.
Perhaps then we might understand and nurture the wildlife we still have; we might build a constituency of citizens wanting policies that protect the natural world; we might prevent ourselves from continually dealing with greater and greater consequences of our disconnect. And, most of all, we would rediscover that joy and wonder at our incredible world.