ECOS 39(2)

People with a love of nature belong to many different tribes, distanced by culture, language and perspective. What is their anthropology, and can their differences be bridged, to benefit the thing they all care about?

Commonality and difference

We all like to feel we belong.  There is something reassuring about being part of a group, especially one that shares a common outlook on life.  The sense that you are not just witnessing life alone, not being obliged to form an uncorroborated view of what is real – what is true – gives a sense of solidity to experience.  The tendency to agglomerate into tribes is deeply ingrained in human experience, from our earliest origins as social animals which thrived by working together – whether together in search of food, in defence of shared space or resource, or against a common enemy.  Like all of our original instincts, the tribal instinct has an important value, a meaningful history that warrants respect, a corollary in modern life, and a dangerous side – if it is allowed to dominate our behaviour.

The need to be part of a group feeds off all sorts of subject matter – family, country, ethnicity, gender, sports team, political allegiance, interest group.  Causes of whatever kinds are fertile ground in which to grow tribal instincts, and once they take root, those causes foster connections which can become extremely strong – connections to one another, to a leader, or to an idea. 

But, like light needing shadow, the connections forged in this way define themselves by difference – difference from those who do not share our (real or imagined) tribal connections, do not show the same affinity to a leader, or do not feel the same certainty about a cause.  In these ravaged days of nationalism, egotistical leadership, fake news and cultural barricade-building, it often feels like difference is the only thing that fires us anymore.  Plurality seems to have little hold on our imaginations.

Tribes in the green thicket

Those of us who try to purvey the ‘good news’ about the natural world may feel we are above these particular aspects of human behaviour.  Sadly though, the very sense of not being soiled with others’ savagery is itself a symptom of the same trend – of knowing better than ‘they’ do.  And in truth, conservation and the wider environmental sector is riven with tribes.

There may never have been a time when those with a sense of connection to the natural world, and an instinct to be advocates for that world, could have been seen as a single, identifiable tribe.  Nature conservation – as a practice, cause, movement or idea – is but one tree amidst a thicket which now makes up the wider green movement, and it has many branches in its own right.  That thicket only looks like a coherent entity (dare I say, a green blob) when viewed from a very long distance, through narrowed eyes.  Fight your way into the thicket and you find lots of colourful shoots, which though they may have shared roots may have little understanding or even awareness of one another, and apparently rather little in common. 

The differences between groups which ostensibly share a common interest in nature, in part reflect the very diversity of human connections with the wild, which feed off hugely divergent cultural nutrients – romantic, scientific, practical, religious, spiritual, artistic, or bound up with personal narrative, family roots, notions of home and sense of place.  That is a good thing, seen in the round, as it emphasizes that nature is not simply about data, or resources, or indeed simply about faith, or art, but is something supremely complex which pervades the human head, heart and hand.  But once subjected to the tribal tendency, and the modern practice of turning interests into trends and abilities into professions, this richness of associations with nature can be forgotten, and perspectives can narrow.  We dive into a career, get stuck on the always-busy treadmill, and then stop having the time to look outside the path we’ve chosen to follow.

Natural historians, consultant ecologists, green campaigners, reserve managers and ecopsychologists occupy different niches in the nature-advocating ecosystem.  Deep ecology is rather different from field ecology.  Across the thicket of nature-connected activity run many fault lines, some barely noticed, some which define subtle differences of approach, some which mark sharp distinctions and self-images, and some which may become active battle lines. The rational versus the spiritual.  The professional versus the volunteer  The ecological consultant versus the amateur naturalist.  The landscape character assessor versus the biodiversity data collector.  The poet versus the scientist. 

Long roots, short sightedness?

Differences can be traced back to training, upbringing, culture, or other aspects of the ‘habitat’ from which people emerge, and the taxonomy of the values instilled by that habitat is usefully surveyed by Martin Spray (1). If you worked in and pursued a career through the statutory conservation agencies (or indeed, many of the NGOs) in the decades around the end of the last millennium, your professional roots will have been suffused, consciously or not, with a curious mixture of historical trace elements – the echoes of the Victorian natural historians, the example of the between-the-wars Tansleyan pioneers of ecologicial science, and the optimistic certainties of the paternalistic state during the period of post-War reconstruction (2). That will be a very different brew from the one which has fed a wilderness guide or environmental educator, who may have begun with a grounding in human psychology and philosophy, and whose cultural nutrients may be a mixture of Arne Naess and Native American spirituality. But if you have been immersed in one or other of these sets of ingredients for a long time, the perspective it has given you may just seem like objective normality.  How could anyone involved with the natural world see things any differently?  Surely this is the ‘right’ way of looking at things?

I recently attended a talk by the American wilderness guide Bill Plotkin, at the suggestion of my partner who has been training in that field.  The room was filled with warmth and love for nature, the redeeming power of human exposure to the wild.  In other words, a setting in which I should, as a conservationist, have felt entirely at home.  And yet I felt distinctly uncomfortable.  Why?  Was it that the speakers and audience were talking in an esoteric language of explicit spiritual connection that I don’t feel equipped to share?  Well, yes, to some extent.  Was it the sense of a deep knowledge of wilderness immersion in the room that I do not have?  Certainly.  But it occurred to me there was something else: the sense that everyone around me seemed sure.  Sure of the rightness of the message.  Sure that they knew a truth, which outside of this circle, in the churning unrighteous ocean out there, everyone else did not.  I do not suggest that these people were self-righteous any more than any other tribal grouping would seem to be, viewed from the outside – whether they were ecological institute members, bird recorders or anti-fracking campaigners.  But in that moment I felt a sense of detachment which enabled me to notice that sureness, and perhaps feel its consequences.

Once they have a common interest to feed off, tribal attitudes – like wild populations on islands evolving into different species – need to be isolated from one another in order to consolidate their distinct character.  In the years since my own generation was first enabled to go to university straight from school, and after that find jobs in a burgeoning public and charity sector, it has been possible to begin a conservation or ecological career from one’s early twenties, and stay in that world throughout one’s career.  That has been a great privilege in many ways, but it has also encouraged a certain narrowness of life experience, which I can certainly recall in myself and some of my colleagues in the 1990s and beyond, and which I still sometimes sense in young ecological consultants, equipped with every species-handling license and institutional passport imaginable, but perhaps lacking a certain – worldliness?  I remember beginning to recognise this issue when the Wildlife Trust I worked for took on new staff who had come to conservation from very different previous careers – as accountants, or teachers, or from business.  They seemed to bring a broadness of outlook and a sense of equanimity which wasn’t so common amongst my ‘purer’ colleagues. 

Exposure to wider aspects of life, or at least, wider facets of human experience of wild nature, can be an enormous help to us if we want to connect with other people, have an influence, and make a difference.  Yet the way we live and work tends to encourage specialism and the consequent missing of a whole lot of depth.  I am surprised, for example, how many Forest School leaders seem to know little about wildlife, or how some upland ecologists have never heard of Nan Shepherd, or how some conservation campaigners don’t know the names of common British trees, or how some champions of heaths, commons and open moors haven’t read John Clare.  And how afraid I myself can be, of things I don’t understand.

None of us is necessarily confined to one tribe, whatever our experience.  Any given individual in an environmental profession might occupy more than one ego – a scientist while at work, and a shaman at the weekends.  However, the cultural barriers are shown up by the fact that too often, that individual may not feel confident to share their alter ego with their fellows, for fear of being regarded as unorthodox or a bit weird.

Reductio ad absurdum

Identity, for many people, seems to flow from knowing which tribe they belong to.  In polite conversation, when asked to describe themselves, many people will start by saying what they do for a living, as if that is the most important part of their identity.  I guess I do that too, though I have never known what to say when asked my profession – nature conservationist sounds rather pompous.  Ecologist sounds more erudite than I feel.  Environmentalist sounds self-righteous.  Nature lover sounds fluffy.  By the time I have said that I work in and round wild nature to try and promote its conservation and encourage people to connect with it, my interlocutor will have gone off to get another drink.

But even if you are sure of the answer to that drinks party question, it does not define you.  The career you follow, and the company you keep, are only temporary descriptors of where you are now, on a much longer journey, and it pays to learn to see beyond that immediate zone of familiarity. We have become too cynical as a society to acknowledge that belonging can extend beyond those we trust, or those who we think are like us, or the pack with which we run.

Once inside a particular tribe, the nuances of badge and affiliation become more subtle, but often no less fiercely defended.  Ok, so you say you’re a nature conservationist.  But are you an ecocentrist or an anthropocentrist?  A land sharer or a land sparer?  A rewilder or a habitat interventionist?  Are you excited by espousing ecosystem services, or alientated by the very idea?  And depending on which pole of these pairs of antipathies you gravitate to, what is your attitude to the other?  If you live in the world of academia, these badges can become the basis for visceral arguments and naked hatred.  Just read Edward O Wilson’s description of the battles inside Harvard in the 1960s between ecologists like him and molecular biologists like James Watson over whether biology should seek to synthesise towards organism and ecosystem, or be reductionist towards chemistry and genetics (3).  There was blood left on the parquet floors.

The wisdom to doubt

In truth, that which we oppose may in fact be that with which we have most in common.  Zealots who come at each other from opposing poles are often more striking for their extremism than for the particular views they champion.  But in the context of conservation, the energy they spend maintaining their distinctions is perhaps best likened to the sound of fiddling while Rome burns.

A bug hunt at Neroche Woodlanders in Somerset, which purposely brought together a very wide social demographic, including a homeless shelter resident, a long-term unemployed victim of an industrial accident, a retired police officer, a former drug addict, a TV film maker and a retired GP.  They were labeling insects rather than eachother.  Photo: Gavin Saunders

What we fail to recognise, in going down these labyrinthine rabbit holes, is that the wild nature we champion is, by definition, holistic.  It does not take sides.  Yes, it is savage, brutal, unforgiving, full of endless battles, but it encompasses all sides, and ultimately, continually, it forges harmony and growth out of all the messy physicality of being alive.  To affirm nature, we have to plant our feet widely, and occupy the ground of those we think are different from us, even of those we viscerally dislike.  Wild places themselves, used as meeting spaces, can help us do that.  One of the deepest revelations for me in my years of providing a wild space in the woods for meetings, dialogues, therapies and practical shared tasks, is the way that space breaks down barriers and bridges differences, allowing the irrelevance of those differences to be recognised and left to one side.

Broadening our perspective should not just be about finding common turf with others, merely to form a larger tribe with its bastions intact against a more distant enemy of ‘them’ who are seen as against nature.  It should be a continuing journey, to question our assumptions and reactions to that which we don’t like, or don’t yet understand.  Those reactions may often be negative, fired with fury, outrage, incomprehension.  But we should treat our indignation as a by-product of efforts to make connections, rather than a stock response to everything.

It is not a sign of weakness to acknowledge other ways of seeing, and to question your own tribal assumptions, even when you feel you are holding the line for nature.  Nature supplies breath to all of us, however blind we may choose to be to one another.  Certainty is the enemy of wisdom.


  1. Spray, Martin (2018), ‘How many Conservations?’. ECOS 39(1)
  2. See Marren, Peter (2002) Nature Conservation, Harper Collins for a good romp through this subject
  3. Wilson, Edward O (1994) Naturalist. Island Press



Gavin Saunders wears many hats, co-leading Neroche Woodlanders in Somerset, working for an ecological consultancy in Dorset and coordinating a farmer training network on the Blackdown Hills.  He is chair of BANC  

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