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Chris Packham: Activist & conservationist on a mission

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Chris Packham is a man on a self-described mission to tackle what he views as shocking injustice against our climate.

Starting his career as a wildlife cameraman, Packham has since become one of the best-known natural history TV presenters in the UK on shows like Spring and Autumn Watch. In recent years Chris has also been one of the most outspoken and ferocious activists in the public eye. His willingness to publicly and candidly discuss his personal struggles, including with depression, suicidal thoughts as a teenager and his Asperger's diagnosis, is deeply moving and refreshing in an industry not known for its sincerity.

This frankness extends to his campaigning style; spiky, voracious and seemingly unafraid to criticise anyone. This has led him to court controversy and at times, abuse, which, as he explains in this interview, only fuels his work further.

Here Chris discusses his upcoming talk at Festival of Debate in May, where his drive to campaign comes from and his own professional disappointments.

The talk you're giving at Festival of Debate is called 'Fear of Being Frightened is Costing Us the Earth'. Could you give us some more details?

We've seen in recent times that people are judiciously using fear to generate some tension, and that tension has worked in our favour because we've seen changes in the profile that the climate environment emergency has. We've seen governments declaring emergencies, we've seen Extinction Rebellion and youth climate strikers stand up and take action.

Recently, NGOs that had lost their campaigning edge in the last 20 years have again begun to take strong stances, empowered by the actions people and groups are taking on this issue. One of the most conservative NGOs, The Wildlife Trust, just published a report on the impact of HS2 on the environment. It's been a long time since a wildlife NGO in the UK has taken such a prominent, forthright stance when it comes to opposing such developments.

This is part of a wider situation where, motivated by fear, everyone is beginning to understand that if we continue to harm our biodiversity, it will come back to bite us in the arse quite hard. We have to ensure we rapidly empower people to address the crisis, otherwise the fear just gives way to doom and gloom, and people will put their heads back in the sand.

as individuals, not all of us have the capacity to make the same changes

Where does responsibility lie to tackle climate change? Is it unfair that individuals are told to take responsibility for such a global issue?

I think we've all got to take a personal assessment of what we do and clearly we all have to change. In the last year, after being forced to think about the impact I make, I've made significant changes to my lifestyle. Because of where I live and what I can afford to do, both economically and in terms of time, I now have a green energy supplier, have become vegan and have an electric car. I've made the decision not to take any more internal UK flights and have been carbon offsetting for the last couple of years.

But we also have to recognise that as individuals, not all of us have the capacity to make the same changes. Not everyone could afford an electric car, but many people could cut down on their meat consumption and actually save money. Of course, though we can do a lot, we can't, as individuals, do everything. The really big issues, like fossil fuels, agriculture, habitat loss and intensive farming, require us to lobby the government and get them to change their minds.

How do you find the drive to keep fighting to confront injustice?

I am amongst the upper echelon of the world's worst losers. I hate losing. I have a furious determination to win, to keep going and not give up. Part and parcel of the Asperger's condition which I have is that many of us carry traits that are violently opposed to injustice. We don't like people 'getting away with it'. I certainly recognise that trait in myself.

That ties in with the fact that when we know how we should behave and we're not doing it, I see that as an injustice. When scientific evidence comes up with a solution to a problem, but it's not implemented, I see that as an injustice.

I think I would be racked with eco anxiety if I didn't think we had the solutions, if I thought there was no hope. But I know we have the answers. It's been in my own life when there have been times where I didn't have the answers, that I have struggled, but we do have the answers when it comes to climate change.

I've realised that if I'm occupied I can't dwell on my personal issues, so as a consequence of that I try to be always busy. When people lose a partner or a loved one, they often throw themselves into work as a distraction from the pain. That happened to me when I was 14 [with the death of his kestrel, Tem] and I haven't stopped working since.

The attacks I receive for speaking out [...] act as fuel

How do you deal with the abuse you experience for your outspoken stance on climate change and conservation?

The attacks I receive for speaking out about climate change act as fuel. It almost rivals the very highest beauty in the natural world in how much it inspires me to act. I don't block anyone on my social media - even recently, when I received some nasty abuse about one of my dogs who had died - because it just makes me want to try so much harder.

We have this sort of pervasive arrogance at the moment, where people think they can say anything and get away with it, but that won't last. At the moment they may be revelling in it, feeling untouchable, but Scott Morrison [Prime Minister of Australia, which is currently experiencing devastating bushfires] is probably not feeling so untouchable at the moment.

You have always been very clear and outspoken about your views. Is there a moral responsibility of people in the public eye to set an example?

One of the very few disappointments I've had in my professional life is that not enough people with louder and broader voices than mine are speaking up. In Extinction Rebellion's occupation of London in April 2019, I contacted around 50 different actors, musicians and athletes who were in and around London to ask them to come offer their support. None of them did. Similarly, my fellow environmental broadcasters don't come to my assistance.

I only reach a very narrow audience with my voice and certainly not the same audience of others in the public eye. We need a greater breadth of voices and people involved in this movement.

As a seasoned activist, what would be your key piece of advice for young people who want to be involved in climate activism or conservation today?

Buy an alarm clock. Get up and get on with it. If you're standing up when everybody else is lying down, you're making progress that they're not. The more time you can spend engaged with any campaign, the more likely you're going to make progress. You don't have to be on the streets. You can get on social media. It's just about being engaged and giving your time to a cause.

Retain the capacity to change your mind and always stand up and shout out loud when you're wrong and say I'm sorry. There's nothing more heartening than for us to hear, 'I'm sorry, I've got it wrong, I've changed my mind.' That's progress.

Georgina Collins

Chris Packham comes to Sheffield on Friday 8 May as part of Festival of Debate 2020.

Tickets and more information available at festivalofdebate.com.

Next article in issue 143

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