Prometheus is the man (or immortal, depending who you read) from Greek myth who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity. Like other tales from the classics, this one has been co-opted in many different ways. In this case, Promethean fire has most often been taken as symbolic of the development of technology and industrialism: Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’ in all their forms, from eighteenth century English mills to twenty first century sweat shops.
Classically, environmentalism is painted as a reaction against industrialism, a Romantic call for nature untainted by human artifice. Reflecting another Classical trope, much Western environmental thought has been seen as Arcadian, comparing a dystopian urban and industrial present with an idealized rural past.
But not all environmentalism is Arcadian. In his 1992 book Green Delusions, Martin Lewis criticised ‘radical environmentalism’, and its calls for a return to a simpler, rural, way of life. He saw it as doomed to fail: ‘at present’, he said ‘radical environmentalism is a marginal movement that presents little threat to the status quo’ (p. 14).
One evening last week I listened to a nightingale sing. It was about 8.30pm, and almost dark, in a block of scrub surrounding rough grass on the edge of a wood. The sky was mostly clear, and as the light fell it seemed to be backlit, with the moon up and the first stars appearing. All very romantic, except for the lights of airliners, the fields of flowering rapeseed, and the vaulting arch of high-tension power lines overhead. This is lowland England after all, not Keats’s ‘melodious plot of beechen green’. But it was still a nightingale.
This was not a chance encounter. A campaign called Nightingale Nights draws attention to the decline in nightingale numbers in the UK. I had never heard a nightingale in Britain, and it seemed a good challenge. It is not too easy. The website lists a set of places where you have a good chance of finding a nightingale. But they only sing from mid April to mid-May, and there are not many left. Numbers fell by 91 per cent between 1967 and 2007. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) volunteer survey in 2012 and 2013 recorded 3300 territories. With adjustments for areas not surveyed, this means there are 5,850 Nightingale territories in Britain, almost all in the south and east of England (with one hardy singer in Cleveland). How many singing males find a mate, and how many of these raise young, is anyone’s guess.
I’m sorry, Mole old chap, but it just won’t do you know’.
The Mole lifted his gaze from the golden coals of the fire. ‘What won’t do Ratty?’
‘There’s something going on in the Wild Wood. We haven’t seen Badger for months. I am starting to worry about him’.
The Mole looked round at the honest face of his friend, brow furrowed and whiskers twitching. Outside the light was already going from the sky, and the windows rattled in the wind. It was a day for firesides, and crumpets. With great fortitude he stood up. ‘Well’, he said bravely, ‘why don’t we go and try to find him?
‘Would you?’ said Ratty, ‘it’s no kind of a day for a walk’.
‘Of course it is’, said the Mole, moving now with bustling decision, ‘now where did I put my stick?’
Some time later, the Mole and the Rat drew close to the edge of the Wild Wood. It was not a place either of them liked very much: dark and forbidding, especially on a cold blustery November afternoon.
Watching the football World Cup in recent weeks, I was struck again and again by the images from cameras roaming the stadium, pulling out faces from the crowd. As matches moved into extra time, or the torture of penalties, they showed close ups of people in extremes of excitement, torment, delight or grief. I was reminded of my Mother’s dismissal of football on the television: ‘how ridiculous, it’s only a game’: perhaps the passion was less visible in those black and white days. Or perhaps she, like many people faced with televised sport-fests today, saw games as a distraction from more important things. Certainly the poet Rudyard Kipling, despite his romantic portrayal of the ‘Great Game’ in Kim, was dubious about their significance. In The Islanders he castigated those distracted from national needs by ‘the flannelled fool at the wickets or the muddied oaf at the goals’. For Kipling some things were too serious for games.
Is conservation something that is too serious for fun? Chris Sandbrook, Bruno Monteferri and I did a bit of work back in 2011 to explore this idea, looking specifically at the field of computer and online digital games. Perhaps predictably, we concluded that there was a lot of potential for conservation games: and certainly that conservation needed to be fun if it was to appeal to anyone who did not share the ascetic inclinations of a monastic ecology graduate foreswearing a city career.
We have now written some of our thinking down in a paper in Conservation Letters. This is a Wiley publication, and our employers will not pay to make it open access, but the gist is easily reported here. Basically, we got very excited by three things.