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Gillian Burke: I'd rather go down on a burning planet where we're all together than have a planet that works for some but not for all

The BBC Springwatch presenter, voiceover artist and biologist on finding an outlet for what can’t be said on pre-watershed TV.





I was a classic teenager, drawn to something that looked fun and interesting without much thought beyond that. My decision-making wasn't based on anything I'd advise anyone on today. For one, I knew I didn't want a desk job, mainly because I couldn't stand wearing tights all day due to the temp jobs I had. I thought, "What jobs could I do that don't require me to wear tights?"


Despite this, I've always had a deep conviction to make a positive contribution to the world, to address unfairness and inequality. These convictions have remained constants in my life. I meandered a lot, but I eventually found myself in natural history filmmaking, telling myself the story, that we all told ourselves at the time: all we need to do is show the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and people would fall in love with it, care for it, and act to save it. Simple, right?


Roll on about 20 years to the mid-2010s, I’m a stay-at-home mum with two very young children thinking I had left the industry behind. But it was also at this time I started to realise that our approach to making natural history programmes hadn't worked. We had sold a lot of hours of telly, engaged people who were already inclined towards our content, so it wasn’t a complete failure. But in terms of turning the ship around and dealing with habitat loss and global warming, as we then called it, the situation was only getting worse.


During this time, in 2017, there was a key paper published called World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice. It compared environmental indicators from 1992 to 2017, showing alarming trends. All the curves were looking terrible. What struck me was that the period from '92 to 2017 spanned from when I started my biology degree at university to a moment of uncertainty about my next steps in life. It made me reflect deeply, wondering, "wow, what was all those last 25 years about?" This was probably the real starting point for me in terms of how I moved forward from that moment. I began to ask, "why is this not working?"


Had I not taken a break from the industry, I might not have had that opportunity to look up and take stock of what was happening. While everyone was beavering away, the world around us changed faster than we could keep up with; beyond anything we could have imagined.

The challenge we face is less about cognitive dissonance and more about living within a system that’s failing to facilitate or encourage better choices

Part of the problem is the narrative. We tend to talk about "we", lumping us all into one big mass, overlooking individual contributions and the varied impact each person has on our environment. For instance, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with a long history to it. Those of us present today have played various roles, or perhaps none at all, in contributing to this state. But it seems like an unfair burden has been placed on individuals to make better choices, despite not always having the support or information needed to do so effectively.

 

I don't think we should be in a position where in order to have a liveable planet, we have to somehow understand the difference between ultra-processed food and the complexities of food systems to make better choices.


The challenge we face is less about cognitive dissonance and more about living within a system that's failing to facilitate or encourage better choices. Ideally, we'd have a political economy and systems designed so that making environmentally beneficial choices becomes the default, eliminating the need for individuals to navigate these complexities on their own.


I often ask myself, "who am I to shift the dial? Why should I impose how everyone else should live just because I think a certain way?" I'm becoming almost allergic to the terms "climate crisis” and "nature crisis." While I understand what they mean, and know they are correct, the language feels insufficient in fully describing what we're up against. I haven't found the right language yet, but I keep asking on my podcast, If I Ruled the World, and elsewhere, "how else can we talk about this?" It's clear the current approach isn't working, and it's not enough to go, "that's because those people over there are stupid climate deniers."


The language we use to talk about climate change and nature decline is alienating, but it's not just about rebranding the same concept with new language. The struggle to find new ways of talking about environmental issues stems from not seeing the full picture. If we could see things differently, finding the right words would be easier. This challenge is actually why I started the podcast, to shine a light on the invisible barriers to positive change, acknowledging that I don't have the whole picture. One assumption I often come up against is that the longer we're involved in environmental campaigning, the more we understand. However, it feels like we understand less because we're not recognising how the situation is changing and what we're missing.


I'm interested in finding language that helps us find points of agreement, common ground, and unites rather than divides. I am not a fan of imposing legislation on people when it's not something they want. To me, that's the end of democracy. I'd rather go down on a burning planet where we're all together, than have a planet that works for some but not for all. I'm very clear on that in my mind.

It's crucial to keep asking: Is it true? Was it ever true? Will it remain true? These questions help me stay sane in a pretty crazy world.

I love my job, I love doing the Watches, and I love being a presenter. But there's another side of me, one that's probably become more frustrated about some things in my heart that I need to say that I can’t say on a BBC wildlife program before the watershed without risking my job or being heavily criticised on Twitter/X.


One of the analogies that's made me think there's something not working here, and not something I get to say on Springwatch, is our relationship with birdfeeders. They're lovely and necessary, especially as birds struggle through the winter. But the truth is, it's turned into a multimillion-pound industry focused on selling seeds and all the paraphernalia and marketing that goes with it. And I always feel, wouldn't it be more beneficial to redirect some of that money towards improving habitats for these birds, whether by addressing farming systems or urban development. Because the way I see it, putting out bird feeders feels a bit like slapping someone around and then taking them out on a date afterwards. I realised, I was never going to be able to say that on the Watches, so that’s why I did the podcast.


Initially, I loved the idea of exploring radical system change, imagining a complete overhaul. However, 12 episodes in, I've realised we're not at our first rodeo – there's valuable environmental legislation both internationally and nationally. But what has become apparent through my discussions is the significant issue of corporate capture within our political systems. It's a huge problem, and admittedly, as someone who has focused primarily on nature and the natural world, discussing topics like corporate influence might seem out of my usual domain. However, I believe there's a critical need to connect these seemingly disparate dots. Our interests, the way we approach information, and even the subjects that capture our attention often become compartmentalised, so we need to bridge these divisions.


I feel like I'm gathering bits of insight like a magpie collects shiny objects; accumulating pearls of wisdom to see the larger picture beyond simple acts of individual responsibility like recycling. This exploration is about understanding the broader implications of our actions and the systems that shape them.


I think my current stance, because I do change my mind a lot about things – which sometimes looks like fickleness or being easily influenced – is actually beneficial. It allows my mindset and worldview to absorb new information and constantly reappraise, especially in a world full of assumptions. Challenging these assumptions is vital, especially now that we're exposed to an enormous volume of information. It's crucial to keep asking: is it true? Was it ever true? Will it remain true? These questions help me stay sane in a pretty crazy world.


As told to Charlotte Owen-Burge on 20 March 2024. This conversation was edited & condensed for clarity.


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