So now is the moment for a new generation of green campaigners to come to the table.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has in the last few months repeatedly said that he wants our country to be an environmental leader – and has signalled his seriousness by banning bee-harming pesticides, and laying out plans for a new green watch-dog.
Whatever your politics, this is exciting. It could also be globally significant. Because to put all his plans into action will require a revolution in environmental thinking, involving not just protection but renewal – an approach which could spearhead an international plan to save nature.
And it is this international plan that we must demand, to tackle the spiralling environmental crisis. Nothing else will do. So if I was to writing to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) today, I would include these things in my Christmas list..
Earth and seas
Bold new goals to restore life on earth - its abundance, its diversity, the amazing places where it still thrives, and the areas where it can return. Human-driven extinctions must end, as must the destruction of our last, precious intact natural ecosystems.
Land for life. Each country should have its own plan for good land management, driving investment into the ecological innovation and know-how needed to re-boot modern agriculture, and safeguard long-term food security. Governments should reward farmers for restoring soils, protecting natural stores of carbon and supporting wildlife.
An end to oceans plastics, and protection of the ‘blue commons’. We must champion global efforts to defeat the monstrous problem of plastic in our oceans. At the same time, we must set aside much larger areas where marine life can recover, building on the ambition of the Blue Belt.
Much tighter regulation of pesticides. The neonicotinoid ban is great news – but we need to rethink how we use chemicals in the environment. My old friend Nigel Bourne, of Butterfly Conservation, said it first and said it best – next time, we shouldn’t have to face a crisis before we consider a ban.
Help for people to shape the places where they live. In talking internationally, we often forget that change happens locally. To achieve more, we need to involve more people; rebuilding local economies around a shared vision for the environment, investing in industries and businesses that repair, rather than damage, the earth and seas around us.
You might think this list is preposterous – too long, too ambitious - when the country has so much else on its plate. But what’s the point of Christmas, if you can’t think big? And although I am fifty this year, I have begun to feel the child-like sense of adventure that comes when something amazing is about to happen – when a movement is being born.
We are re-thinking what it means to eat well, both for our own health, and within the limits of the land available - since this land is also home to the rest of life on earth. A new generation is wondering anew about our responsibility towards animals held in captivity, and to the wild creatures trapped in the debris of our lives.
The manacles of plastic around the feet of sea-birds appal us; the heaps of elephant carcasses killed for their body parts are images that will last a life-time, and are a silent call to action for the conservationists of the future.
But anger and grief alone are not enough. To change things for the better also takes hope and purpose. And hope is alive, not least because of the steadfastness of the climate movement. Many will claim that today’s shift away from fossil fuels was inevitable – the result of technological evolution, rather than the efforts of campaigners.
But they will be wrong. This change was catalysed by ordinary people, who succeeded in getting a few governments to listen to them when it seemed we were destined to burn every last lump of coal in the ground.
As a result, the next generation of environmentalists understands that campaigning energy, coupled with disruptive technology, can challenge the status quo. They value the potential for human ingenuity to turn problems inside out – to replace rare metals in batteries with material made from apple-cores; to build homes that are also vertical farms and hanging gardens.
This is modern magic, and because of it, the future need not be more of the same.
Earth optimism – a confidence that solutions are possible and that we can and will renew the fabric of our tattered world – is a heady force. But it will need political action to give it wings.
So now is the moment for a new generation of green campaigners to come to the table. It is also the moment when we are deciding what sort of a country we want to live in; and when Mr Gove is making the environment front page news.
After Brexit, we will inherit laws from the European Union which have helped safeguard wildlife and tackle pollution. We must grasp this legacy, but we must also build on it - demanding laws and policies that will not just ‘stop the rot’, but begin to renew the tattered fabric of our living planet.
The game’s afoot! as Holmes used to say to Watson. Let’s play.
Ruth Davis is deputy director of global conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).