A Lifetime in Conservation

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Although immensely frustrated by the reckless degradation of wildlife habitats and the wider environment, Manning remains ‘a fan of the human species’ and is convinced that we can find a better balance with nature. “I always think of the words Plato ascribed to Socrates: ‘Without love there is no wisdom, only learning’ and we have to learn to love the natural world,” he says.

Aubrey Manning’s imagination was first fired by the natural world when his family moved from London into the country during the Second World War to avoid the Blitz. Aged ten he spent long days exploring the fields, woodlands and hedgerows around Englefield Green in Surrey.

It was an experience that catapulted him on a life long trajectory in conservation, from  reading Zoology at Oxford to eventually becoming Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University between 1973 and 1997. Retirement was only the beginning of a distinguished writing and broadcasting career, most recently presenting the BBC’s ‘Unearthing Mysteries: Sounds of Life’s Origins.

Perhaps best known for his seminal book ‘An Introduction to Animal Behaviour,’ Manning has since focused his formidable intellect on human behaviour and the vexed question of how we can find an equitable balance with our planet’s resources. He is at heart a human ecologist, happy to cross disciplines, intellectual boundaries and take a controversial stance on issues like population control to further the understanding of our immensely complex relationship with the natural world.

I meet up with Manning in the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s smallest reserve, Johnston Terrace in the heart of Edinburgh. With the Trust’s old offices just round the corner, it seemed a fitting setting point for a wide ranging discussion on the organization as it approaches its 50th birthday. Manning has followed the Trust ever since it was first formed by Sir Charles Connell in 1964, and was the Trust’s chairman between 1990 and 1996.

When he first became chairman Manning remembers the Trust being mainly focused on its wildlife reserves and compares their acquisitions to being ‘a bit like stamp collecting.’ “We often raised the money to buy a reserve but struggled to manage the costs of maintaining them,” he comments. “The Trust is now more discerning about buying new reserves and I think we should only be acquiring extremely rare habitats and groups of species.”

The purpose and use of SWT reserves has also shifted. Rather than being fenced in and ‘protected’ they have become much more public spaces for people to visit and connect with the natural world. The reserve at St Johnston terrace with its tiny meadow and rockery is the perfect example. People wandering up to the Tattoo can peer over the wall and see wild geraniums, bumblebees and a pond with newts in it.

"We are all part of a living landscape and encouraging people to experience the natural world in our reserves brings an awareness that we are sharing the planet with everything else in it and from there comes concern.” says Manning. “As the population and development pressures grow the wilder places where nature can be seen are going to become more and more precious.”

With the planning system still heavily weighted against environmental concerns the Trust is waking up to the importance of stressing the economic value of finite natural resources. Aubrey is convinced that the Trust should be pushing this concept of ‘natural capital’ much harder. “In the past the Scottish Wildlife Trust has undersold itself, seeking to protect rare species and habitats without pointing out that these sites are also extremely economically important,” he tells me.

But Manning would like to see the debate around the environment’s delivery of ‘natural service systems’ taken one step further. He has a biologist’s view of deep time that spans hundreds of thousands of years and argues that we should be planning for the next 200,000 years of homo sapiens tenure on this three billion year old planet. When seen thought this looking glass the focus sharpens on keeping our life support systems going.

“The fact is that without the Biosphere we don’t have an existence on the planet because we rely on it for food, water, oxygen and the circulation of water,” he comments.  “So in the end it comes down to our very survival and you can’t put a value on the fundamental value of keeping us alive.”

Manning advocates moving from a ‘throughput economy’ where resources are gobbled up and thrown away as waste, to an economy without material growth. “We can take a sustainable crop from the energy provided by the sun but we can’t afford to carry on consuming the nuts and bolts of Gaia,” he says. “It is very simple really…just look at this garden and you can see that there is no waste, everything goes around.”

Lamenting the disproportionate influence that economists have in Government, Manning would like the Trust’s voice to be heard much louder in the circles of power. “I am not suggesting that conservationists run the country, but we do have an input in the matter of constraints that many economists underestimate.”  He is convinced that growing the membership is key to effective lobbying and would like to see the Trust representing the views of as many as one million people in Scotland fifty years from now.

There has been plenty of change over the Trust’s fifty year history but the one constant in Manning’s mind is that it has always taken a practical and positive approach to conservation. “The trust is always full of good news stories as well as warnings and pleas as doom watching only leads to paralysis,” he says.

Although immensely frustrated by the reckless degradation of  wildlife habitats and  the wider environment, Manning remains ‘a fan of the human species’ and is convinced that we can find a better balance with nature. “I always think of the words Plato ascribed to Socrates: ‘Without love there is no wisdom, only learning’ and we have to learn to love the natural world,” he says.

There are some ways forward and the natural world is extremely forgiving,” Manning adds as he parts the reeds by the pond to see what lies beyond. “You can see that somewhere like Johnston Gardens where you only have to give a little space and it moves in straight away…nature is always pushing up against the boundaries.” At 83 years old he has somehow managed to keep in touch with that inquisitive, daring and irreverent boy who once explored a Surrey countryside that has long since been built over.

Scottish Wildlife Trust Magazine, Autumn 2013

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