Susannah Welcome to Forces of Nature, the new podcast from WWF in celebration of our 60th anniversary. I’m Susannah Birkwood, and in each episode I’ll be introducing two shining stars of the environmental movement from different continents, different generations, and with pretty much nothing in common except their shared desire to protect the planet. Through conservation conversation, they’ll find out what they can learn from one another and how together we can achieve even more in the future. This episode we’re bringing together Martin Palmer and Malaika Vaz. Malaika Vaz is an Indian television presenter, wildlife documentary maker and ‘National Geographic Explorer’, who uses film making to bring conservation issues to the forefront of the conversation. At just 24, she’s the co-founder and Creative Director of the Untamed Planet production house, and her films and documentaries on rare endangered species and the global wildlife trade are broadcast internationally on platforms like Al Jazeera and the BBC. Martin Palmer is a 67 year old British theologian, author and environmentalist, and over his career he has been working to try and engage religious groups in conservation efforts, a calling which led to him working very closely with the late Prince Philip, in his role as the president of WWF. Together, they founded the Alliance of Religions and Conservation and Martin is now Chief Executive of Faithinvest, which helps religious communities invest in conservation and sustainable development. Together, they discuss their different perspectives on the best way to inspire people to act for nature, Prince Phillip’s approach to conservation and hunting, and the role of religion in protecting the environment. I thought it was a great listen and I hope you do too!
Malaika Let's do it.
Martin All right. OK. Malaika, it's a joy to be in touch with you. And having read your CV, I presume you left school at 10, because there is absolutely no way you could possibly have done what you've done if you didn't!
Malaika (laughs) Not at all. But I am so excited to be talking to you as well, Martin. I've been reading about your work for many years now, and you are such an inspiration.
Martin Oh, well, I'm very touched. I'm very touched indeed. That's very kind! But tell me, I mean, what got you started? What was the trigger for all this? What is so wonderful is that you are so delighted and excited by the work on the environment. You're not a doom-and-gloomer, you're somebody who gets out there and finds the stories and goes on adventures and actually sees what's happening - What was the genesis of that?
Malaika I guess I was a bit of a feral kid growing up. I was always playing with snakes in my backyard, diving at the beach right next to my house and looking for different kinds of coral and anemone and clownfish and rescuing all kinds of wildlife and rehabilitating them. And I always was so in love with the natural world and with everything around me. And all that I wanted was to be able to find a way to keep doing that, to just keep being outdoors, and wildlife filmmaking was my way. I guess that was my introduction into the industry and into the field of wildlife filmmaking. But when I got started, what I realised was that media could be a very powerful catalyst for change and the stories that we tell influence the decisions we make as a species. And I think that we don't have enough people telling stories of real conservation issues because for the longest time we've told stories about beautiful places and beautiful wildlife. But we haven't talked so much about the challenges that wildlife faces and more importantly, about the communities that live alongside that wildlife. So I really came into it from the standpoint of: “We need to start telling stories about the way humans interact with the natural world and the way humans are having a very, very strong footprint on the natural world”. And I think, you know, my first television series that I worked on with Discovery Channel was about endangered species, about species like king cobras and tigers and Himalayan bears and these are all really fierce animals! But even the most formidable predators today are struggling to survive. struggling to survive; they're struggling to really just, you know, stay away from the brink of extinction. And when we can do that as a species, you realise that we're in trouble. But also, if we could do that, we could also get them away from that brink. We could also go back to a sense of normalcy, to a world where we have more biodiversity and a wilder world really.
Martin Hmm. You use the word story a lot, which I love, because one of my problems with a great deal of conventional environmentalism is that it thinks that if you bombard people with data and information, that you will change their hearts and minds. Whereas, you know, obviously, like you, I know that stories are what change people. But I'm interested with the way you phrase your story, you talk almost as though you see nature as being something other than us. Is that how you view it or is that in a sense, the kind of way you’ve had to sort of talk about, what sounds to me, like a much more relational sense of being part of nature? What is it? Are we all part of nature or are we to some extent set apart? Which is it for you?
Malaika I think that we're stewards of the planet, really. I mean, we are a part of nature. but in the last, you know, thousands and thousands and millions of years, we've really proved that humans are some of the most intelligent species out there. And therefore we have amassed this power in the hierarchy of the natural world. And therefore, even though we are a part of nature, we have a bigger responsibility. We have the only, I guess we're the only species with the responsibility to protect other species. And so often we mess that up. But I do think that, you know, in the way we tell stories, we should be very cognisant of the fact that we live in a planet that we do not own. We do not have complete ownership of this planet, but we do have this power right now, this inherent power as one of the most dominant species. And we really have to leverage that to protect the natural world.
Martin I'm interested you used the word “stewardship”. That is very much a concept that comes from the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It's not a notion that is to be found amongst the Daleks, the Buddhists, the Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, etc.. You're right. At one level, we have this power. The question, therefore, is what language do we use about that power? What story do we tell about ourselves to be more of service to the rest of nature? And that's the image that is coming out of many faiths, is either that we are here to be the servants of the divine and of nature, creation, whatever word you want to use, and that we have therefore the power. We have also an enormous responsibility but it does not carry with it the right to decide what survives and what does not survive. Does that work for you as a notion, the notion that we are here to be the servants of the divine and the servants of the rest of creation?
Malaika So I think that even though I do connect with nature on a very equal level, I do not think that I am above nature in any way, my opinions about conservation and the way that we can actually create conservation change are slightly different. I'd say that we have to recognise the fact that humans have this inherent power right now and we've created this power for ourselves. But what happens here is that we actually can change things around for different kinds of species. If we see ourselves as, you know, servants of the natural world, I do not think that we will feel a responsibility to actually go out there and say protect rivers or protect mountains and protect wildlife. But if we see ourselves as a species that has a very sizeable footprint but also has the potential for positive impact, I think we can make a better difference. And on that note, I think that, you know, the way we tell stories has changed. The way I approach that has changed in the last couple of years as well. I do think that when we talk about how the environment is beneficial to us, people are more likely to actually come on board. If you talk about the intrinsic beauty of the natural world and the fact that it is inherently necessary for the natural world to be protected, I don't think that's enough. We need to start talking about the fact that the natural world provides us with economic value, the fact that, you know, if we do not have nature and trees and water, we would be a species that would have a lot more disease in our societies, as we're seeing this year. And when we start talking about the benefits that nature provides to society and to humans on an individual level, I think that we're at the point where that kind of storytelling will create more of an impact. What are your thoughts on this?
Martin I think I fundamentally disagree with you because I think that is a utilitarian approach towards nature. It basically says if it's useful, we keep it. If it isn't useful, there isn't any particular need to keep it. So the ecosystem deliverables argument argues that you should preserve the Amazon, for example, because it absorbs CO2, not because it's the habitat for something like 40 or 50 percent of the world's species that have existed for millions of years and should be allowed to continue to exist. They may have no economic value to us, but does that give us the right to decide that they're less important because they're not useful to us? I think it's a very slippery path to go down, a very slippery path.
Malaika I agree with you on some level there. I think that, you know, with parts of it, I mean, we have to tell different kinds of stories, there cannot be a single narrative.
Martin Quite agree
Malaika I think your style of storytelling is really important because it is talking about how there are amazing animals out there and there are amazing places out there that require protection and it's because they've always existed, not because they're useful to human beings. But I also think that for the longest time that's been talked about, I've heard this since I was a little girl, but that hasn't always worked. People don't really care after a point, we're so busy with our lives in bigger cities and we're consumed with our jobs and work that unless we realise that we can actually protect the natural world and also protect ourselves in that process, I don't think that governments and industries and individuals are going to make tangible differences in their lives and changes in their lives.
Martin, what I find really inspiring and exciting about the work that you do is that you have a pretty innovative approach. I don't know too many people who think about religion and spirituality as an in to conservation, and they don't really marry these two disciplines together. But you seem to almost feel like they're one. I wanted to know about what really inspired you to begin doing this kind of work and why did it all begin?
Martin Well, that's a very good question. With my parents to be absolutely honest. My mother was a passionate conservationist, you know, from her childhood, really. And we grew up on a very desolate modern housing estate, working class housing estate on the outskirts of a lovely old city, Bristol. And there was nothing there. Everything had been destroyed. There were no trees. There was nothing, no nature at all. And my mother set about planting a forest, planting a wood. And it was smashed up. It was beaten up. It was ripped up regularly by vandals. But she kept going. She kept going. So when WWF was founded in 1961 and I was eight years old, my mother immediately insisted that I set up a panda club in my primary school, which was one of the first things that WWF did. And she was one of the very first sort of members of WWF. And I was appalled. I mean, you know, you don't really want to stand out in school as somebody who's kind of got a cause, do you? I mean, I suspect you did. And I was embarrassed by all this. So in the end, the only thing that swayed me was that we offered a really nice pen if you set up the panda club. So I set up a panda cub for materialistic reasons, which is slightly troubling.
Malaika I love that. (laughs)
Martin (laughs) But my father was a vicar. He was a priest, Anglican priest, and he was one of the most wonderful people I've ever had the opportunity of knowing. He just knew that God was love and that was it. And in a sense, I grew up with my mother, who was an atheist, to all intents and purposes. I mean, she kind of went to church because she's married to the vicar, but she was deeply sceptical about religion, but passionate about nature. And my father, who was passionate about the love of God and saw it in everything around. So in a sense, those two flowed together for me. And what happened was that I set up the first ever multi-faith education centre in Great Britain in the late seventies. And we were in the inner city in a really depressed area of inner city Manchester. And we began to work with local faith communities, big Chinese community there, big Jewish community, big Muslim community, the churches and so forth. And we began to look at how those communities looked at the physical environment. The river that ran through, which was incredibly polluted, the inner city sort of conurbation, the noise, the smell, the dirt, the pollution and so forth. And this was fairly pioneer work but out of it came a request from WWF UK. Would I write a book for schools on religion and environment? And there was no such book. Nobody's ever written a book on religion and the environment before. But for me, it kind of, it brought my worlds together! And then the most extraordinary thing of all was that Prince Philip, who was then the international president of WWF, read the book and announced to the absolute consternation of WWF International, the board meeting, that their 25th anniversary in 1986 was going to be on the theme of religion. He said, look, if it was just information that was going to save the planet, we'd be doing it by now. We're not we are not touching hearts and minds. And the only things that have effectively touched our hearts and minds throughout history have been the arts and religion. And in many places they've been the same thing. And you're an artist. You're an artist. Does that ring true to you?
Malaika Absolutely, because I think that for the longest time we've had so much information out there and that data is really important. I think that without that data, we couldn't actually move the needle on things in a policy format. But to even get to that policy standpoint, to even think that things are worthy of getting policy protection we need to actually move people's hearts in that direction. And I think that art, music, movies, good books, sometimes even a really, really good picture can actually make a huge difference. But, you know, going back to what you were saying about Prince Philip, I think he's an absolute legend. I mean, I've travelled to different parts of the world and heard about his impact in very, very, very remote corners, but I was just wondering what was it like working with Prince Philip on environmental issues? Because from what I know, and this is a bit controversial, but I think that he had some very apparent contradictions in his love for conservation. For example, the year that he became the president of the WWF was the same year that he was in Ranthambore, a forest that I love so deeply in the forest that I filmed in a lot, hunting an eight foot tiger with local Rajasthani maharajas. How did those things balance out?
Martin I mean, that's a very valid question. And they balanced out in really three different ways. I mean, first of all, he was a fairly unconventional Christian. I mean, I would call him more a deist. He believed in God as the creator, but he also, like me, believed in evolution as well. Neither of us saw any tension in that. So he felt we had, as you said earlier, he felt we had a responsibility for this earth and a responsibility to God, not just to other human beings, a core responsibility to the creator who had given us authority, power, etc. So that was a core part of his thinking and came very much from his upbringing as an Orthodox Christian. The second part of his conservation, ironically, comes from being a hunter. But I'll come to the tiger in a minute. If you've spent eight hours sitting on a damp moor in Scotland waiting for a stag to appear, you've seen nature. You've watched the ants building their nest. You've seen the eagles flying above you. You've seen the trees blowing in the wind. You've sat there in the grass. You've watched the lizards going through it. So there was that, there is that tension. But you cite the tiger. And I asked him about that very early on when we started working together because everybody was saying to me, “hang on, he shot a Tiger”. And I said, “So what was going on?” He said in my world of religion, we talk about moments of conversion, moments where you realise you are on the wrong path and in Greek it's called metanoia, which means to turn 180 degrees, to turn the opposite way. We talk in Buddhism about liberation. We use the word salvation. It was a liberation, salvation moment for him. He was there because he was the queen's consort. And, you know, the maharaja's were laying on sort of late 19th century colonial entertainment, which they thought was what everybody wanted. He was appalled. He was appalled at what he'd done and that then led him to take up the role. I think if you look at the chronology, he shot the tiger and then he became the president of a bit of WWF International. I may be wrong, but certainly what happened at that moment was that he was confronted with the complete stupidity, the wrongness of what he had done, and that then shaped - he never, ever shot an endangered species ever again. And he worked his one of his major projects was the whole WWF Tiger programme. So I think sometimes were, you know, a good story has to have its kind of opening and then it has to have the moment where it where it goes down into the worst. It drops into the pit. And it's only when you hit the bottom that you can actually realise why you have to climb out the other side. For him, that was a spiritual and ecological moment of conversion. Now, I'm not recommending that everybody go out and shoot a tiger in order that they can be converted. But I do think that every one of us probably has to have a moment where the theory of “we should be protecting the environment” becomes a personal reality. At that moment, that happened for him.
Malaika Absolutely, and you know, what I love about that is that this story of Prince Philip is incredibly relevant today. We are dealing with the social media concept of the perfect conservationist or the perfect activist. And often that's someone who doesn't use a single bit of plastic, who is completely vegan, who doesn't take too many flights. And I am not that. I like seafood. I've always grown up eating seafood. I do have a plastic bottle every now and then. And I think that there was a quote that I read that Prince Philip once said, which was that even naturalists drive cars occasionally.
Martin (laughs) Exactly absolutely
Malaika And that really hits at the core that had said the core of this, which is that all of us have, you know, these vices almost. All of us have these moments where we have messed up but that doesn't mean that we can't that we're, you know, banished from society at that point. It doesn't mean that we can't do any good after. We have to see the complexity in people. We have to see that people can change. And also, that someone who drives a massive Hummer might also be someone who donates a lot to conservation and volunteers with their local nature patch. So I think that complexity is really important.
Martin Absolutely. I could not agree more. First of all, there is a terrible kind of neo-Puritanism which points the finger at other people. And condemns. And that is bad psychology. It's bad spirituality. It's bad conservation. I think the other dilemma here, and that's what I like about your approach, it is obvious from what you've done that you have fun.
Martin And one of the questions I often ask my beloved conservation and environmental friends is, have you ever seen an environmental joke book before?
Malaika we're coming up with one, it's in the pipeline!
Martin I'm delighted to hear it because it'll be the first Malaika! Because fun is kind of seen to be wrong. And we know that one of the biggest crises for the environmental movement is that it burns out its staff, its volunteers, faster than any other movement. And we are the ones that talk about sustainability. We've got Buddhist communities actually now setting up meditation programmes for recovering environmentalists who felt that the weight of saving the entire planet was on their shoulders and that if they as you say, if they used a plastic fork, they had somehow failed. And the psychological damage that is being done by eco anxiety is, I think, one of the biggest bad signs of bad environmentalism that I know. We've got to address that.
Malaika I'm sorry, Martin, have you been doing this for 60 years now?
Martin It feels a bit like, yeah. No, actually I have! To make it a point I shall be 68 this year and I founded a panda club when I was eight years old. Good God. Yes.
Malaika Oh, wow. So, Martin, for the last 60 years nearly and correct me if I'm wrong, you've been trying to protect the planet and successfully protecting the planet in part through your belief in the power of religion and bringing different communities together. I think right now we're living in really polarised times. We have religions at odds with each other more than ever before, potentially. And I wanted to understand, what have you learnt about saving the planet and protecting wildlife in the last 60 years that would be relevant today and important for us to consider today?
Martin I suppose what I've learnt most of all, and this this goes back to a conversation we were having about sort of doom and gloom and guilt, is that we need to celebrate, even if what we celebrate might seem quite small in terms of the scale of the struggle. In all our faiths, we have periods of fasting and then we party. If you take Lent within Christianity, you fast during Lent and then, boy, do you have fun with Easter and Ramadan. Then you have people fitter. So the faiths know you can ask people to live simply for a time, but you must also allow them to celebrate to say thank you. And I think what I have learnt is that the greatest gift the faiths bring to the environmental movement is to start by saying thank you in order to then realise how much we are in danger of abusing what we are giving thanks for. And then to remember to say thank you when we do achieve things rather than say, “well, that was alright, but it hasn't solved the major problem”. You know, the religions are the oldest human organisations in the world because they actually understand human psychology. There is a dearth of understanding of human psychology in the environmental movement. They've tended to adopt the worst bits of religion, which is guilt, sin and apocalypse. And those are very short term models. So I think I've learnt to say thank you in various ways to whatever it is that we believe is the origin and the meaning and the energy of the universe. And then to celebrate when we have done something, even if it isn't quite everything we hoped, it's still better than it was before.
Malaika Wow, I love that. So much is better. We don't really think about how much worse off we were one hundred, one hundred and fifty years. But in many ways we are a happier species and in many ways we're not. But I think celebrating those moments of small victories is really, really important right now.
Martin Can I ask you a question in return? Because at one level, you're relatively new into this field and what you've done in a short period of time is completely mind boggling, frankly. What do you see as being the things that you would want to celebrate as a sign of progress? If we pick up that theme of celebration, what would you say this, this and this. That gives me hope. That's a sign of the future. What what what would those be?
Malaika For me, it's the fact that we are in radically action oriented generation, I think more than ever before we are that. And honestly, my biggest fear is living on an uninhabitable planet, living on a planet where our life support systems don't work anymore, where you go into the ocean and there's nothing, or you climb a mountain and there's nothing - that scares me every single day. But I think that that's a fear that a lot of people have grown up with. My generation has grown up with that. And just like the Vietnam War, radicalised another generation, I think this growing up period of seeing our planet systems collapse and us seeing the warming of our temperature, seeing extinction all around us has radicalised us into action. And this action oriented mindset is my hope, because I think young people understand that if we don't really have urgent and committed action, if we don't sift through like the rhetoric, the inertia and the lack of hope and get to work, we're going to be in big trouble. And everyone else who's talking about stuff in much more relaxed ways, they're not going to be around. And we're going to have to deal with, you know, the onset of things like having climate refugees, being climate refugees, not having access to even water. But what gives me hope and one of the things I think we should celebrate is the fact that humans have made so much technological progress. Just yesterday, I was sitting out on the deck of my hotel balcony where I was in a shoot and I looked up and I saw the ISS. So I saw the International Space Station from where I was. And that happens not too often in your life, I guess, where you actually look up and at that very moment you see it. But the fact that a man or a woman, an astronaut was, you know, 400 kilometres away from me whizzing in a metal bubble, the fact that humans could do that, that's mind boggling. It blows my mind every day. And if we could do that, do you not think that we could actually protect the planet if we really wanted to? For me, right now, we have outrage. We have optimism. But I think what we need more than ever before is urgency.
Martin Amen to that, amen to that. Malaika, it's been an absolute joy.
Malaika Thank you so much. This was incredible. It was so, so fun.
Susannah: Thanks so much to Martin Palmer and Malaika Vaz for their time. I really enjoyed that and what I took from it actually was the importance of stopping every now and then to appreciate what you’ve achieved when you’re striving to make the world a better place. It’s easy to get disillusioned when we don’t achieve all we were hoping to, or by all the obstacles standing in our way - but as Martin said, it’s really important to celebrate every little milestone on our journey to securing a world where people and nature thrive together. If you enjoyed the episode, make sure you subscribe and we would really appreciate it if you could give us a review on your podcast app. For more conservation conversations check out panda.org/forcesofnature and keep in touch with WWF on Twitter for more info on future podcasts. This was a Fresh Air production for WWF International. Thank you very much for listening, and see you next time.