What is the Impact of Covid-19 on Nature? This was the burning question for all those who joined the Horsham Climate Café’s sixth (since lockdown) weekly Zoom meeting, which took place on Saturday 2nd May.

113 people booked from from all over the world including England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Uganda and South Africa (including 37 South East Climate Alliance members). They tuned in to hear special guest, Dr Tony Whitbread, President of Sussex Wildlife Trust, give an inspiring talk about how nature is blossoming with less human activity. He highlighted:

– the speed at which animals all round the world have expanded their ranges in to towns and cities

– the bluer skies and reduction in air pollution

– that people have slowed down and are noticing and valuing the beauty of the natural world

His insights prompted questions such as what can we do to engage our children in protecting the planet, should “ecocide” be unlawful, and perhaps the most pressing issue right now: how can we ensure the “nature recovery” continues post-lockdown?

Tony said: “Between two and four new viruses appear every year due to humans’ unhealthy contact with animals. We must replace the “old normal” of consumerism where animals and nature are exploited as commodities with a regenerative culture. All our actions now need to be carbon-positive”.

The message is loud and clear: Protecting nature will reduce the risk of future pandemics.

At 7.15am on 2nd May Tony and Carrie Cort the founder of Sussex Green Living and the Horsham Repair Cafe had a BBC Radio Sussex interview with Mark Carter, you can listen to it below.

Tony kindly took the time to comprehensively answer all the questions asked in the Zoom chat, you can see the Q&A below the podcast and gallery.

Podcast of Tony’s talk

Listen to Tony & Carrie’s radio interview

Horsham Climate Café –2nd May 2020 at 2pm
Tony’s Talk on Nature and our relationship with nature


Responses from Tony Whitbread (my comments are in italics).

Below I will attempt to add some thoughts to questions that were asked during the session.  There was a great deal of wisdom in the “room” so I will leave a lot of questions hanging, leave some as statements in their own right. Great to have such a breadth of discussion, but these are only my thoughts, so I don’t claim any expertise.  It would be good if this was used as an opportunity to continue the dialogue between you and others.  I have rearranged questions a bit to try to get subject matter in some form of logical order.  Apologies if I skewed or misrepresented anyone.  There were clearly some rich discussions going on in the “chat” line, so I hope I’ve caught the essence.

David Warren: Which politicians get the message about the need to really tackle climate change?

A key question and not one easy to answer.  Most claim they understand the issue, but we may wonder about the depth of that understanding.  Maybe it’s an important question to leave hanging so we constantly pressure MPs and other decision makers about how well they are taking on the fundamental needs once climate change is recognised.

Mark Francis: If face-to-face with your MP – what is the best information to bring to his/her attention.

What MPs want to know is what are you asking of them.  We need to make sure we have a set of clear asks (backed up by good information).  And if they don’t respond to being asked then that is where campaigns come in.

Kate Evans-Makrakis, The E.Y.E. Project: for those youth groups that want to approach your local MP with these burning issues – a great campaign that supports you to focus your cause and connect to your local MP is. “Hope for the Future”  http://www.hftf.org.uk/

Jill Shuker:       How can we reconcile the enormous financial losses that will go with not using the airlines and travelling the world?

Maybe we can expand that question to cover the financial losses from all businesses that might now not be consistent with ecological sustainability.  This probably relates to how a change needs to be a properly planned transition so that old businesses are replaced by new business models.  We should not just dump people who are currently working for airlines (fossil fuel industry etc).  They have fantastic transferable skill that should be transferred into new areas. Someone who knows about the Green New Deal (and similar initiatives) may be in a better position to develop this.

Jill Shuker:       How can those places that rely so heavily on tourists be helped?

I’m not sure, but maybe this is all part of the needed planned transition, above.  There could be more opportunities for tourism locally, but this may leave a gap in the global south which relies on international tourism.

Barbara:           The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is a good site https://ipbes.net/

Mark Francis: Now that I’m working from home, I’m exerting more control over my lawn, and therefore removing lots of moss. uh oh – am I part of the problem?

Why not survey the lawn for it’s wildflowers?  How about a “no mow May”?

Barbara:           Say no to the mow in May! https://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/discover-wild-plants-nature/children-families/say-no-to-the-mow

Rachel Swabey: What are some of the solutions Tony is most excited/hopeful about to tackle the problems of industrial agriculture and restoration of ecosystems?

A massive question, and I’m interested in other people’s thoughts.  To me there are a lot of exciting approaches, from rewilding to regenerative agriculture.

Luke Hull:         How do we get our kids engaged in these discussions? and

Jennifer Lake: Do you have any suggestions about how we can approach this responsibility with our children?

Fundamental questions!  I am not an educationalist and would look to people like Carrie Cort for this https://www.sussexgreenliving.org.uk/green-education/ .  What I would say though, is how young people today are moving into the position of leadership, rather than waiting for old people (!) to get them interested.  Think of Greta Thunberg globally, Bella Lack in England and I’ve heard other key young people.  Us, the post generation, might soon be the followers, not the leaders.

Liz McCallum: It appears that education would be the way to change things. Do you have readymade resources that can be used in schools/colleges? How/where can people who are interested in disseminating that information sign up to volunteer?

The Wildlife Trusts have resources that may be worth a look.  Also, talk to Carrie Cort of Sussex Green living https://www.sussexgreenliving.org.uk/about-us/ .

Max M:             I agree Liz McCallum, but I think that education isn’t enough, getting kids to experience nature is extremely important.

Jill Shuker:       I agree with Max and Liz. Carrie does great educational classes in schools, she may help with resources if you would like to volunteer with her.

Max M:             Here is a good resource for young children, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/50-things-to-do

Liz McCallum: I agree, Max, Education needs to be combined with experience of nature.

Veronica Carter: The children from the school I have retired from, are visiting their forest school site on their family walks and leaving each other messages written by laying down sticks to make the letters or to make a heart shape etc.

Alan Sloan:      A two-part answer to young people’s education – 1.  Exposure to nature and 2.  deliberately take pressure off them to “do things” – more emphasis on observation.

Mela Davidson: People who grow up in nature love it as adults. should there be countryside summer schools for all children growing up in cities?

Kate Evans-Makrakis: The EYE (Eco, Young and Engaged) Project has had to rethink the delivery of our Eco-Summit, scheduled for this July to our schools (5-16yr olds). We raise awareness of environmental issues through workshops delivered by such groups as Carrie and Tony, sparking the younger generation to take action in their own homes/communities. Positive change and impact at a young age for sustainable behaviour. https://eyeproject.co.uk/

Nick Bailey:     Take the example of fish taken for domestic animal feed: can you or I affect/challenge that damaging practice?  How?  What are the principles?

Philip Lymbery (who wrote “Dead Zone”, the book where I took the penguin example from) would say that we make a choice 3 times a day – every time we decide what to eat.  We need to know the repercussions of the decisions we make and act on them.  Local farmers producing high quality products that rely less heavily on imported destructive practices will only be able to overcome the bad practices of others if we support them.  Again, though, a very broad question and I’m sure others here will have great ideas.

Ilse:                    It does seem overwhelming with big food controlling, but we can choose what we support. What we buy.

Jonathan:         The link to the food system and industrial agriculture is crucial. I am extremely pessimistic that this will change in a ‘new normal’ – too many vested interests. How do you tackle those?

I will leave that as a statement!  I hope you are wrong, but it’s a real fear.  Maybe it links to the answer above, and maybe it will be a start if we pay the true costs of things like food and products (so the cost of a product reflects the cost of any damage it does).  Of course vested interests will fight against that.

Mela Davidson: We can’t be complacent about this new normal, there are still many interests that want the old normal to return. eg town planning. how can biodiversity commitments by developers be enforced?

Jane:                  Can we talk about a Fresh Start rather than New Normal? feel politicians have devalued this and we don’t want things to stay as they are as our norm – we need things to change – start afresh. Or is there a better phrase?

Julian Kenny: Jane – that’s a really nice idea. I’ll start using Fresh Start rather than New Normal.

Jill Shuker:       Fresh start sounds wonderful.

Amelie:             An open question: what would Tony like to see the councils across West Sussex doing, to play a key role as being part of the solution he outlines?

One element that may help is to make sure that good words, that are already in the planning system, are properly implemented.  One concept already embedded in planning policy, is that all development should deliver “Net biodiversity gain”.  If achieved, this would really help, but developers often promise the earth but when it comes down to it, this is rarely delivered, if at all.  This is considered too “optional” in a planning system – that is far too weak in practice.  This should be simple – no biodiversity gain – no development!

Tom Broughton: Even with significant reduction in energy consumption we are going to need a lot of renewable energy. Would you accept that some of this needs to be sited in the countryside including protected sites, e.g. South Downs National Park.

We will need more renewable energy, but schemes must be under the same scrutiny as any development.  There should be plenty of opportunities for schemes without allowing them to damage other environmental assets.  A fundamental point, however, is that we cannot simply replace fossil fuels with renewables and expect to continue our economic growth like before.  Renewables are part of the transition but they are not the transition.

Mela Davidson: We need to create local trusteeships to enforce the net biodiversity gain – volunteers – as councils don’t have resources to enforce.

Barbara:           Important to conserve the nature we already have in urban areas and have developments that integrate the natural environment with the urban, as well as introduction of new green infrastructure. Also needs to connect up green spaces in order for them to function. Tony’s comments on planning so right.

Mike Croker:   From a planning perspective, central government ‘rules’ are the main problem.

Jill Shuker:       We need more and more people on our councils like Tony, who understand the impact we are making on our environment.

You are very kind – but we should remember that there are many good people who are on Councils and will be supported if we lobby them.

Caroline Instance: How do we stop the inevitable rush to restore economic growth be done in a way that is even more destructive than in previous years?

Wow – “nail on the head” Caroline!  Changing the nature of our economy is the requirement.  Big question.  To help, I recommend reading “Doughnut Economics” by Kate Raworth.

Tim Richardson: Nature’s recovery and reclaiming of urban areas has been startlingly fast during lockdown. There are calls to make “eco-side” a crime. Do you agree? Will it help to change practices?

Yes, this should be a big step in the right direction.

Nick Bailey:     What is eco cide?

Rachel Swabey: You can find about more and contribute here: https://www.stopecocide.earth

Viviane Doussy: https://ecocidelaw.com/

Mela Davidson: Ecocide is politically too controversial sadly. The UK was one of the countries that kicked it out.

Nick Bailey:     So is burning the peat more ecocide?


Alan Sloan:      Assuming you’re familiar with the idea, how useful is the Ecological Footprint in relation to measurement of ECOLOGICAL impact- (it has been criticised as being basically “only” a measure of consumption).

I’m not an expert in this but I feel these measures can be useful.  The calculations can be dubious, and you have to avoid aberrant effects (like it may give the idea that things are “tradeable” when they really aren’t).  I guess estimates are also likely to be under-estimates too.  But they do give big figures that can make people think.  For instance, I’ve worked out using WWF Global hectare calculation (https://www.footprintnetwork.org/content/uploads/2019/05/WWF-GFN-EU-Overshoot-Day-report.pdf), we need an area roughly 12 times the area of Horsham District to cover the ecological footprint of Horsham people.  Probably an underestimate, but it should make us all think.

Nikki P:             What can we do to positively capitalise on the interest that out local environments are getting now, when the world picks up pace again.

Thank-you; a topic for a whole conference!

David Warren: Localism is really important.


David Warren: Go vegetarian and stop flying.

Oisin Collishe: When regarding our diets, is there anything known to be truly better for the environment? A lot of people say veganism is great but others say that vegetarianism is better – would love to hear your thoughts if this is relevant!

A big debate.  My thoughts are that you justify the nature of the agricultural system in terms of the regenerative nature of that system – does it regenerate soils, biodiversity, human communities etc.  Thinking of meat – animal husbandry can’t be justified in terms of producing protein for human consumption.  However, it can be justified if it is part of (for example) regenerative mixed farms, rewilding etc.  Vegetarianism and veganism are inherently better in terms of efficiency of production (you get more food per unit area of land) but may have their own issues.  Systems including animals can be better at building whole regenerative systems.

Melanie Holliker: Is anybody considering or working on alternatives to all the plastic being used as part of PPE etc – understandable we need to protect people but the huge use of plastic incl single use feels a step backwards.

                            Agreed – this is outside of my main area, but others may have thoughts.

Maggie WW: Is it a good idea to establish more rewilding areas such as Knepp in the UK.

                            Yes.  Courses for landowners of any size are hugely popular at Knepp.

Rachel Swabey: What is the current thinking about reintroducing apex predators such as wolves and lynx in the UK?

A question for a conference perhaps!  In short I’d say it is ecologically justifiable, might be economically justifiable, but may be socially and culturally unacceptable.

Alan Sloan:      How can we quickly and easily measure biodiversity?

Best to talk to your local biodiversity record centre for example located at the Sussex Wildlife Trust.  Here’s the link https://sxbrc.org.uk/home/.

Joanne Knowles: How do we balance rewilding with local food production? Is there a danger we will out-source food growing to countries with lower environmental standards?

It should not need to be a balance.  There are huge opportunities for local food production that won’t impact on rewilding and vice versa.  Indeed, understanding natural systems and implementing them in terms of permaculture, forest gardens, regenerative agriculture means that we need rewilding areas in order to learn about the natural systems we are trying to mimic.  Regenerative agricultural systems also tend to be more productive per unit area than traditional agriculture, so we should aim to increase our local food production.  Strangely, I notice we have this conversation when we talk about rewilding, but not when we talk about golf courses, vineyards or pony paddocks!  These produce far less food that rewilding!  However, you are right – we should not export our problems by not producing enough food here.

Joanne Knowles: Why does Tony not think we can pay the fully costed price for food? Increased prices might reduce food waste and over-consumption?

I agree.  I think we must pay for the true cost of anything we buy, we don’t at the moment.  We pay a minimum and “externalise” any problems (meaning someone else pays).  If we paid the real price then I feel local, high quality producers would get their advantage back.

Jill Shuker:       I also agree with Joanne, our food is very cheap as is our energy.

Barbara:           Need to integrate nature into urban environment in order to connect with wider audience, due to shift of more of the population living in cities. How can we get nature back into all human environments to reconnect?

Jryan : Barbara – Green Infrastructure is key to integrating nature into urban environments. Such as green walking / cycling corridors, green walls / green roofs on buildings, green public realm spaces.

Stopsforgoldfish: Unfortunately, making green, sustainable choices is a luxury. Being vegetarian is a luxury, buying from small, local producers is a luxury. Working from home is a luxury. ASDA is cheaper. How can living greener be translated to the masses? There needs to be investment in green production to make the costs equal.

You are right.  It is perhaps the main problem of our time that the environmental choices are the most expensive to people.  This is a failed economic system so we can’t blame individuals.  Paying the right price – including costs of problems caused – would reverse this.  Can you imagine the cost of a gallon of petrol if the car driver had to pay the cost of climate change!?  Well someone is paying.  I’m not sure I would call these choices a luxury – it works out that way as only those who can afford it can make those choices.  You could say that we live in an unrealistically luxurious world because we are not paying the true price of goods.

Victoria WE:    I agree with @stopsforgoldfish – In order to allow the masses, particularly the lower income masses, to be able to afford the true cost of food, wages have to go up.

Nick Bailey:     Pay true costs – can that principle be applied to transport costs and use of fossil fuels? Include a carbon cost. Will our population accept this?

Not paying the true costs has another name – “theft”!  Someone pays and so far, we are getting other people (often poorer people across the globe), and later generations, to pay for us.

Rachel Swabey: I’m assuming that’s land required for everything, including consumer goods, etc., rather than just food?

Tim Richardson: Hoping this situation and perhaps a more local, protectionist approach following Brexit will help reduce the need to import?

Jill Shuker:       With regard to water, if we all had to use what we had in our water butts, for all our needs, we would soon reduce our usage.

Tim Richardson: Is there such a thing as a carbon calculator?

Karen Park:     Carbon footprint calculator – https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/#/

Mike Croker:   http://carbonindependent.org/

Liz McCallum:  Kate Rayworth ‘Doughnut Economics’ is well worth looking at as too is filmsforaction website and The Economics of Happiness.

You can also find Kate Rayworth on TED talks

Jennifer Lake: Is it then the case that we won’t experience the personal danger we are facing, as a species, unless we can see in ‘real time’ the false economy of our environmental impact?

A good way of putting it.  Although we are increasingly experiencing the repercussions of our false economy now.  The cost of climate change, the cost of deforestation, the cost of the pandemic, etc.  These are happening now and it is increasingly difficult to dismiss these as externalities (ie things we decide not to count!).

Jane:                  Or subsidies to food industry to support sustainable practice rather than benefit poor farming practices?

We hugely subsidise unsustainable food practices now – so a rebalance as you suggest is needed.  Maybe the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) will go some way to redressing this.

Jill Shuker:       That sounds good Jane.

Rachel Swabey: Reading ‘Rewild Yourself: 23 Spellbinding Ways to Make Nature More Visible’ by Simon Barnes at the moment. Can recommend.

Nick Bailey:     People getting into nature: can I offer a quote:  Nature helps us to remember, as nature writer Mary Reynolds Thompson suggests ‘ The wild soul- who you really are – gets its sense of power and imagination from the natural world’ she writes, ‘ and thrives on an altogether different set of values: creativity, authenticity, diversity.’

Alan Sloan:      Good question – Nick!  True costs are not so hard to calculate really!

Agree, and we must be cautious.  Valuing something does not mean that it is tradeable.  But getting an idea of the size of costs and benefits should help decision making better than if we ignore them (as we do at present).

Tim Richardson: Interesting to see what is happening to oil at the moment: lowest share prices, supply has overtaken demand. Really hoping this starts a change in mindset.

Kate Evans-Makrakis: corridors of nature are amazing! and needs to be better understood.

Mela Davidson: Who will administer the restoring biodiversity network?

The Sussex Local Nature Partnership will probably be key.  This is a partnership of key NGOs, government bodies, authorities and business interests initiated around the country but formed in Sussex by Sussex Wildlife Trust.  It is currently chaired by East Sussex County Council.

Brett Dawson: Who is likely to make the biggest contribution to the change that is needed? Is it government, and policy makers? Is it civil society taking voluntary action? Is it reform in the finance industry? Is it a rewriting of the rules of economics? Is it the technologists and engineers who might come up with better solutions? Does it require a domino effect where one group holds the keys to the first lock that needs to be unlocked?

Great questions, the fundamental ones of our time.  I have not got an answer but maybe these should form a central point in further discussions.

Jill Shuker:       Brett, you have asked THE question – who is going to change us??

David Warren: Mobilisation of millions of people for change Jill.

Jill Shuker:       That would be wonderful David – how do we do that?

Darren Townsend-Handscomb: Brett, Jill, surely the answer is no ONE (body / organisation / person) is going to change us.  Change will occur from multiple bodies and people pulling in more or less the same direction.

David Warren: Groups like XR (Extinction Rebellion) are a start. Also political lobbying.

Darren Townsend-Handscomb: Interesting articles about China, that Tony mentioned: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2020/03/16/coronavirus-lockdown-may-have-saved-77000-lives-in-china-just-from-pollution-reduction/#759f7a1e34fe

Tom Broughton: West Sussex County Council is working on a Climate Change Strategy. A focal point?

Rachel Swabey: A mindset shift is happening, I think. I like this idea of a local forum for action. The change will come from us. It has to be grassroots, in every sense X

David Warren:   Don’t hold your breath.

Jill Shuker:       We also need the local councils to understand our acute concern and to start listening to us.

Viviane Doussy: South East Climate Alliance (SECA) is one way to connect like-minded people and c90 organisations. https://seclimatealliance.uk/about/    A Horsham Action Forum good idea.

Sally Barnard: The South East Climate Alliance is coordinating groups across the south east- sign up on the website home page https://seclimatealliance.uk/.

Amelie:             To Tom B (and others) as the lead on the creation of the County Council Climate Change Strategy – I’ve been listening carefully and scribbling down a lot of ideas.

Nick Bailey :    Responding to Paul – I am reminded of what Bernard Levin (Times journalist) used to say: ‘if enough people demand anything, then the leaders/politicians in any regime will have to get out of the way and make it happen’.

Kate Evans-Makrakis: Do we need to compile a target list of items we could change in our area? with the support of the forum that Paul suggests- a bit greenpeace style.

Jill Shuker:       Is it that not enough people are demanding change yet then?

Rachel Swabey: Yes, mutual aid and building local solutions to replace the damaging status quo from the ground up seems exciting to me.

Alan Sloan:      Jill, Nick the figure of 5% has been mentioned as a tipping point, we may well be close to that.

PS I mentioned dolphins in Venice in the talk.  Joan Grech tells me that apparently this story has been de-bunked.  Venice is clearer, and you can see fish – but not dolphins!

A couple of take-away quotes from the CHAT that I’d like to leave you with:

Tim Richardson: We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children (Native American proverb).

Jill Shuker:      We cannot do without the earth; but the earth could do very well without us.

This is the film we tryed (technology did not allow) to show at the end of the Horsham Climate Cafe, please watch, share and take heed

You can read Tony’s blog here.

Written by Dr Tony Whitbread, President of Sussex Wildlife Trust

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