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Urgency: an interview with Gillian Burke

Gillian Burke has had a remarkable career researching, producing, directing and narrating nature documentaries, and going on to become a host of BBC’s Springwatch. Her passion for wildlife and conservation continues off-screen, as an ambassador to Cool Earth, an NGO protecting endangered rainforests, as well as being Vice President of the Wildlife Trusts. Having grown up in Kenya, Gillian had a great deal of exposure to the uniquely diverse natural world of East Africa. Later, she studied Biology at Bristol university, underpinning her profound understanding and passion for biodiversity, and the importance of the delicate balance of our ecosystem. Gillian now lives in Cornwall with her two sons.


To celebrate Heal's first birthday, we're delighted to bring you this exclusive interview with Gillian Burke by Heal's founding trustee Jan Stannard.

Q. When did you start to feel a sense of urgency about the environment?

I could begin with when I noticed that that all was not well in the world. I was about five or six years old. I was born in Kenya, my Dad was a mechanic and he was the one responsible for us children getting our feet dirty in the mud, for going out and camping, the actual physicality of being out in the natural world, whereas my mum was responsible for the ideas. She was a journalist and she was working for the United Nations Environmental Programme around the time I was born. My earliest memories, aside from being outdoors a lot, was going to my mum's place of work every now and again and I’d play outside. It was at the UN complex, which is really beautifully landscaped and is still there now, and I’d play just outside her office window in the gardens. There were streams and dragonflies and all that stuff. It was all very idyllic! There were always tadpoles and frogspawn and just endless space to explore in my own time and my own little way.

Photo © Hannah Couzens

But when I was in her office, I would notice posters on her walls. The one that really struck me was a poster, with a big drop of water and swirling writing, and it said ‘Every Drop Counts’. That made me think there may have a problem. Just from being in that place, I acquired the vocabulary almost by osmosis. Words like ‘soil erosion,’ ‘desertification,’ ‘deforestation,’ all became a part of my awareness. I can't tell you exactly when I understood what these words meant, but I knew quite early on. That was partly because of the vocabulary, the knowledge, the information and those graphics, but also because when we’d be driving home, from school for example, after a heavy downpour, especially in the rainy season, there would be landslides on some of the steep-sided valleys. I grew up in a part of the world where we had immediate feedback from the environment. If you cleared a hillside of its vegetation – stripped it – there would be a landslide almost immediately, as soon as there was rainfall. Similarly, with water shortages. I just grew up with that very present sense that, ‘If we use too much of this resource, it will run out; if we cut this down, we will get too hot, the soil will dry out, we won't be able to…’. It felt normal to understand those immediate consequences.

Because of this, I was born into a world where there was already work to be done and some people were doing it – or trying to. But what I didn’t notice for a very long time was that while there was work to restore, to conserve, to preserve, the environment was being degraded in all sorts of ways more quickly than people were doing the good work. So I grew up, through my teens, through my university days, knowing there were environmental issues, that there was a crisis, but assuming that the adults of the world ‘had got this’. They’d understand there was a problem and of course they’d fix it, because why wouldn't they? It was so alarming, they would deal with it! And I carried on thinking like that for quite a long time. I felt that I was communicating it by joining the wildlife filmmaking industry. I was part of a community of people who were really dedicated to communicating those ideas, and also the positive stories about where people were making a difference and showing where we are achieving what we need to achieve. But what I was failing to notice again was that things were being degraded more quickly than those gains were being made. Overall, we were slipping and sliding into more and more environmental degradation and all the indicators were down, all bar one, which is CFCs (which I find an interesting story but I’ll park that one for now).

I’d say the urgency kicked in when I became a mum and stopped working. I find the interplay between urgency and pace of life a really interesting one. This urgency kicked in when I slowed down, which I was forced to do as a mum. I had my two children quite close to one another, within two years, and moved to Cornwall. So I've got a one year-old and a three year-old, and I'm trying to get through the world. I was very fortunate to be a stay-at-home mum and I would go on walks (or try to anyway!) but I was moving through the world at a child's pace, noticing the world in a childlike way, because my attention, my pace of life, was completely dictated by what my children were capable of – how far they were able to walk or how many things they stopped to look at. You can either resist that and feel frustration, or surrender to it. You feel frustration as well, but you surrender anyway. These were really interesting years, where I slowed down and my pace of life slowed down. I was less busy trying to be this professional career person so I really started to notice.

Because it was Cornwall and coastal – I love beaches and the sea, it’s my element – the first thing I noticed was the plastic pollution. I got incensed. It wasn't just stuff washing up, it was carelessness, littering. I got really ‘ranty’ about the whole thing. The urgency kicked in when I slowed down enough to start noticing what was going on around me, rather than thinking I already knew.

Q. Do you think there's a connection between a sense of urgency and lockdown, which has been a process of slowing down for many people?

There are people trying to establish whether there has been a positive effect in terms of people's engagement with environment and nature. The first lockdown was the one where it really did feel like the world slowed down. But with the current lockdown in the UK, there’s a tension between opposites happening at same time, being extremely busy but also bored.

In the first lockdown, there was no real pressure, from schools, for example. No pressure for children to be attaining and keeping up with lesson plans. The feeling was, we don't know how to do this so let's just be reassuring; let's create a nurturing space because this is unprecedented. We've never done this before and there's a lot of anxiety, let's be kind to ourselves. I felt the first lockdown had much, much more of that. Obviously, the season made a difference as well with Spring and that gear change that you feel as it starts to ramp up, and because everything quietened down as well in that first lockdown. People really did notice, even people who wouldn't normally even consider themselves someone who had an interest in nature, they’re the ones who said, ‘Oh, the birds! We can hear them!’ So I think in the first lockdown that may well have been the case.

Q. When did your feelings about plastic pollution expand more broadly into an awareness how rapidly things were declining? When did you feel that stronger emotion beyond the initial plastic rant that you mentioned?

At this point, I'm feeling like a very disempowered member of society. I’m a stay-at-home mum, which is a strange job, because it's a very, very taxing, very busy, very important one. You’ve got human lives that you've got to keep going and nurture, and it's not one that I found that I was asked a lot about. I lost my network of friends because my friendship circle had revolved around my working life, so when I stopped working, it became a very isolating experience.

So here I am with my toddlers, feeling really angry about the amount of plastic and plastic waste I'm seeing – unnecessary waste – and I thought I’d call the council up, because that’s their job. This was where I hit the first barriers: in Cornwall, there are economies of scale, there are issues about effective waste retrieval and containment. I got into a wormhole around why was it so difficult to contain all the rubbish. I understand that some of it is just washed in from ocean currents, but what about the stuff that was land-based and finding its way into the waterways? I became the Cornwall Council nuisance caller! I got to the point where I would get massively triggered, particularly by dog poo bags hanging on hedges, and trying to be that person saying, ‘don't choose violence, don't choose violence…’ but let’s park that, because I'm going into a rant!

When I felt that I wasn't getting anywhere with reporting issues to the council, doing what I thought a concerned citizen should be doing, I went to Surfers Against Sewage. I consider myself really lucky to live where I do, because it's a beautiful place and it’s got a great community, but it's also got a network of amazing campaigners, environmentalists, conservationists and charities. I managed to get an audience with the CEO Hugo Tagholm, who's an amazing brain. He holds a surfer/soul vibe in his campaigning and also gets into the nitty gritty of policymaking, like all the different types of plastics and plastic processing. He has this complete ability to move through that whole landscape. In hindsight, I must have just sounded plain crazy because I told him I had an idea and about auditing small-to-medium-sized businesses about how to reduce or eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic in their supply chains.

Q. And so was that about 12 or 13 years ago?

No, probably around 2015 or 2016. Hugo was brilliant. He listened, said it was a great idea and suggested people I could network with and talk to. Then at around the same time, because I was starting to talk to more and more people about how we could fix things, I met another extraordinary person local to us at Cornwall Wildlife Trust, a guy called Matt Slater, who's the Marine Awareness Officer. Matt mentioned an obscure little story about a hermit crab that had been wiped out, made extinct, in Britain after the Torrey Canyon oil spill, which was in the 60s and at the time the biggest manmade disaster. He said ‘unbelievably, we've done a citizen science survey, and we’ve rediscovered it.’ And I said ‘that's an amazing story!’

At that point, I was also wondering how I was going to make a living. I was divorced by this point as well, so it was a ‘restarting' of my whole life from what felt like ground zero. I thought, why don’t I do a little report for Springwatch? I was really sceptical about them going for it, but they did. They thought it was a great idea and said they’d run the story. When they came down to film it, I felt really scared and nervous that I'd managed to make something happen and now I had to do it! That was the beginning of me getting back into TV work, a convoluted journey basically!

So part of the urgency was the visibility of plastic pollution and then almost unwittingly being pushed back into having to do something about it. I thought the simple thing was just to call the council and complain but when I figured that wasn’t working, I had to keep escalating or finding other ways to go with it.

The other thing that happened in 2017, which was an absolute deal-breaker for me, was in 2017 when 15,000 scientists published an Open Letter to Humanity – the second one. The first one went out in 1992, the year I began my biology degree. In those 25 years, I've done all this living – I’ve got my degree, I’ve started a career, I’ve become a mum, I’ve got divorced, I'm trying to rebuild my life, I’ve restarted a career, I'm getting back into TV – and every single environmental tracker has slid down, most of them exponentially. The 1992 warning hadn’t been heeded and it was getting a lot worse, a lot more quickly with every year that went by. That was the data I needed to see, to feel the moment of ‘Holy s***, this is real’. Pardon the swearing but that's how I felt. Every single tracker was down bar one: chlorofluorocarbons, atmospheric CFCs. That was the only thing that had improved over 25 years. I held onto that as my evidence of hope. That is definitely a story which shows it can be done.

Q. Isn't that such a good story - CFCs and fixing the ozone hole?

Yes, and I latched onto that in all the public speaking I was doing as a result of working on the ’Watches. It wasn't a story to tell on the ’Watches but in all my public speaking, that was how I explained that I have hope. I'm an informed optimist on most days. I remember the news breaking about the hole in the ozone, how scary that seemed. I remember it being reported in the news, that world leaders were meeting to discuss this and they’d done something about it. CFCs were banned and all of a sudden, products changed. Then 25 years on, things had got better, so if we can do that… That was what I held onto.

But with climate and biodiversity, the whole picture is much more complex, because what we're looking at now is this ‘three-dimensional matrix’ – the physical, natural world in which all life is embedded and interconnected. There isn't a single smoking gun like there was with CFCs. I really appreciate that we’re dealing with complexity with climate and biodiversity, but we have to embrace the complexity because that is the nature of life on Earth.

I got really fired up by that epiphany around the Open Letter and seeing the CFCs story and the ozone hole, but then I fell down almost as soon as I had got going with that story, because I couldn't find a way to simplify the storytelling around climate, biodiversity and the ecological crisis. And now in 2020, we're looking at systemic issues too – social justice issues and racial inequality – and it’s all part of the same story in my mind. I think for a lot of people, it’s a very difficult thing to get a handle on.

I follow a guy called Scott Duncan, a meteorologist and a climate communicator. He works in the private sector but as a hobby, he creates easy-to-read, easily digestible graphics about climate news and weather news: ‘this is what's happened today, there have been heat records, there's been this extreme event…’ and it's delivered as if it's almost like a weather report but for the climate. What a difference it would make if, alongside the weather forecasts we have on the radio and TV and other media, we also had climate news, every day, just tagged on, like 'we had a few more heat records fall,’ because for me, when it gets too complicated to try and hold it all in my head, I look at those graphics and I say to myself, ‘This is so simple. It is changing.’ It becomes easier to know that doing nothing – not changing the way we do business, the way we feed ourselves, all of that stuff – is no longer an option. That's where the urgency is now…that feeds the sense of urgency for me.

Q. So it’s about urgent action?

Yes, and it's actually easier now knowing how to act, because it's completely integrated: head, heart, soul. I have the knowledge in every facet of my being now, so it's become easier to face. I know that I need to act – not necessarily what to do but I absolutely know I need to act.

Q. That last sentence, about not necessarily knowing what to do. I do think people know - they see messages about the way to live their lives, and when it comes to wildlife, they look at being more sympathetic to wildlife in their gardens, or in their local parks, working with councils. But there is a level of repetition of what the action to take. I worry that people are going to be worn out. We have to keep the urgency going somehow, by inspiring people to act in ways that keep having traction, would you agree?

This may be a neat segue into rewilding work and the work of Heal. There's a sense of urgency, that ‘what must we do?’ But actually it might be that the less we do, the better. We allow natural systems to right themselves by providing the right ingredients and stopping the harm. That's one of the real fallacies of being human, that we think we have to do it all, or fix it all, or nothing's going to work if we're not there thinking about it. It’s such a relief to read stories like Knepp or other regeneration stories that I've come across, to see that people realise it's not about just dropping the reins, but it’s about not seeing ourselves as being in the driving seat of this whole thing. We have to have the humility to fall back in line, find our place in the grand scheme of things and really learn because this is knowledge that’s kept the human species going for a very, very long time. There are still holders of this knowledge – indigenous peoples around the world – and what’s really exciting for me is that in Britain, there is this movement to reconnect with that. I don't know how you feel at Heal, but with ‘rewilding,’ the words and the language are so important. I firmly believe that what will emerge won’t be where we’ve ring-fenced some land and taken humans out of the equation. I don't really subscribe to that narrative that we’re such a nasty species, or that we’re disgusting and destroyers and all that stuff. That's dead-end thinking. There’s nowhere to go with that.

There are examples, even in quite recent history – the 1700s into the 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution was taking hold, and even right up until the Second World War – where we were actually a pretty good keystone species. An example is a traditional fruit orchard, which can be a beautiful place in terms of its biodiversity and abundance, providing more opportunities for more species to thrive than if it wasn't being kept as a traditional fruit orchard. There are many examples around the world where we can be a really good keystone species. I avoid saying guardians or custodians because, again, that places us on the top – but keystone species. If you look at examples like beavers, our activity has an impact that creates more opportunities for life than if we weren't doing what we need to do.

Ultimately, we still need to feed ourselves and we need to live somewhere, and for me those two things still very much go hand-in-hand. I firmly believe there is a way through. I think that's the beauty of rewilding, that we don't have to innovate our way out of this [biodiversity crisis], as that’s possibly going to make it worse.

Q. When you talk about nature being in the driving seat, we humans don’t need to be in the backseat. We can be in the passenger seat and reach across and slightly shift the steering wheel. It's this idea of us working in tandem with nature. And we have to help repair sometimes. Ponds can't replace themselves, so although the restoration of ponds isn't strictly rewilding, how can a filled-in pond restore itself? There are times when we can make a real difference. Have you seen that, on any rewilding sites?

Yes, I have. Up in Scotland, the Glenfeshie estates, wow, that was amazing! The scale and the scope of that – it’s obviously still got a long way to run but seeing those differences already in the young Scots pines regenerating naturally, it's extraordinary to see. What it felt like was that latent energy that’s just lying in the earth, ready for that moment to spring into life. That was what I came away with from there. I’ve visited Knepp with my children too. We camped there a couple of summers ago, in the middle of a heatwave, and as we walked through parts of the estate, it absolutely felt like a waterhole in a thicket somewhere in Kenya. It really took me back. Something about the heat and the sun beating down, and just the atmosphere, and the fact that you could hear the crickets.

Q. That’s the sound of summer, don't you think?

Yeah, and that's a sound that's so absent in our soundscape, really. It's so evocative and it just took me back.

The Cornwall Beaver Project is another place I just love. I feel really at home there. It’s not just being with Chris [Jones] and his family, and the barn and the buildings, but being in the beaver enclosure itself. I really feel at home there because it has elements that take me back, that connect with my childhood. I've had to unpack that feeling to work it out. I think it's the lack of human influence, a noticeable one in this environment. Obviously, that's not strictly true, but it's not visible. I’ve never been drawn to very manicured gardens and big ornamental gardens. I can see that it's a lot of work but I love tangled, messy gardens and the more mess and the less intervention, the better.

Q. Can we talk a little more about action? How is urgent action manifest? Are there things that you mention to people, if they come to you and say, “I know there's a crisis in biodiversity? How can I make a difference?” What sort of answers do you give people?

I think applying pressure on governments is possibly the most important thing we can do now. It’s overwhelming, how many different individual campaigns, individual actions, individual organisations I could potentially support, and when I step back from that I think, ‘well, I only have so much time in the day and I only have so much energy’. If I'm honest, my work rate is nothing compared to some of the activists I know, so I never call myself an activist; it's just not something I can sustain and be a halfway decent mum. I don't even mean a great mum, just a decent one.

I really see [pressure on governments] as the most important way of getting wholesale change. We’re looking at systemic issues such as food supply chains. I could go into all that detail and that's when I get that ‘wading through treacle’ kind of feeling. When I step back, there are some pieces of legislation that are having an impact. For example, Wales, a small nation, passed a piece of legislation in 2015 that, if rolled out in the rest of the country and around the world, could have such a huge impact. It’s called the ‘Well-being of Future Generations Act’ and it's about putting well-being at the heart of all decision-making, whether it's at government, local authority or community level. Every single decision has to be run through the filter of its impact on the well-being of future generations.

One of the people behind that legislation, Jane Davidson, who's a former Welsh MP, has written a great book called ‘Hashtag FutureGen'. That's one thing that people could do – aside from feeding birds, gardening differently and such – is to inform themselves. That was such a hopeful book to read, because it shows how it actually works, government and the law. If a requirement is enshrined in law, you don’t have to fight, on a case-by-case basis, every single development, every planning initiative, every housing development. Similarly, I'm really looking to lend more support to the campaign to make ecocide a criminal offence.

Along with writing to your MP, and being the nuisance that I was to the council, make it abundantly clear to our politicians and leaders across all parties that this is something we want. A recent poll suggests that this is now a majority concern. It's not a minority concern.

Q. So, be a nuisance! That's a really simple way to act. And it doesn't mean criminality, but nagging, nudging, asking, demanding, whatever suits you as a personality. Would you agree?

Yes. And to sidestep out of this space, I like to see where someone else in a completely different area operates, the other side of the same coin. When I look at racial injustice, and the Black Lives Matter movement, and if you thread that back into the 60s and 70s, and civil rights movements in the US, and keep threading it back to essentially the African-American story right from the slaves being sold on US soil, one of the things that strikes me is that it is a centuries-old struggle and campaign to be seen as equal. When I look at that, I think that's where we can learn about being resilient and sustaining this being a nuisance, being persistent, because actually, it works. Also when I think of a black civil rights activist or myself, giving up on this isn't an option. I'm not going to settle for being slightly equal or a little less equal'. I'm not. I will never settle for that and in the same way, I'm not going to settle for a world where damage and harm to the environment is acceptable.

Q. I totally agree. I will never stop. It gets in your blood and if you love something, why would you let it die?

Yes. Urgency is an interesting word, to come back to that. It's urgent, but it's been going on for ages as well. And holding those two things, and slowing down enough to notice and to question.

Q. Yes, and also knowing that nature takes a long time. So you urgently need to do something that's quite slow, wouldn't you say?

Yes, it's fantastic.

Thank you so much for presenting me with a word that I could bounce so many different ideas off. I'm really grateful for that.



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