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?