Modernism, orange paint and the challenge to collaboration 

18th October 2023

View of the west face of the David Attenborough Building c. Alan Williams

My heart thrilled when, fresh off the overnight boat from the Netherlands, I came upon the David Attenborough Building, a giant brutalist spaceship in the heart of a medieval Cambridge. Where others see grey concrete and cold surfaces I see a 70s modernist wonder, built with optimism and democratic ideals by an architect embracing new forms of construction and rejecting the finery and elitism of previous eras. 

My impressions were reinforced by my first days inside the building meeting the partners of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. The frenetic buzz of the largest hive of conservation organisations in the world, the dynamism and diversity of the MPhil in Conservation Leadership students, and the quiet hum of fine brains trying to make sense of the unfolding crisis in the natural world. 

It has been a joy to land in the building, to connect with the sector that I started my career in, and to have the opportunity to ask what has worked in tropical forest protection in the thirty years since I first worked in the Amazon as an idealistic environmental biology graduate. In the intervening years I have been focused on the sustainable energy transition, moving from fossil fuel activism to practical brokering of renewable energy projects to high level energy policy advocacy. I now blanch to think how little I engaged with the land use transition, even though the natural world remained my biggest source of personal inspiration.  

I return to the subject seized by the need to understand what has changed, and more importantly what has worked. We would never have kick-started the renewable energy revolution in the UK without a vision for offshore wind and solar on buildings, and learnt from what the Danish, the Dutch and the Germans had achieved. We know very precisely how much tropical forest we lose each year, but do we understand why two-thirds of it is still standing? It will be very context specific, since land use is by its very nature decentralized and does not lend itself to grand theory, but I hope that with the help of CCI partners and forest country actors I can begin to pull out some common threads. My hunch is that one theme will be the successful alignment of different interests over many years, for example the interests of forest-dependent indigenous nations with government land policy, catalyzed by campaigning NGOs, and financed in part by European taxpayers.  

It’s very exciting to have the time and support to flesh out these systems effects. My first week in Cambridge also made me aware of an uncomfortable challenge to this approach. On a walk around the city with my eldest daughter we saw orange paint sprayed on the walls of King’s College by a Just Stop Oil activist. I played the role of dismayed centrist dad, and she, being a paralegal who defends protestors in court, rolled her eyes and told me to watch Chris Packham’s latest film ’Is it time to break the law?’. It made for powerful viewing, as he interviews climate activists and talks of his own mental anguish and feelings of failure. As he said ‘I got my first pair of binoculars in 1970, and since then we have lost 69% of the world’s wildlife’.  In this devastating summary of the arc of his life Chris Packham captures the challenge to all of us, which is not just to collaborate and align, but to do so at scale and with speed.  

We can’t let a narrative of loss obscure what is effective, and I’m sure Packham doesn’t intend to dismiss the great work of many communities and organisations. But equally he reminds us that we won’t persuade our fellow citizens to rely on the slow working of democratic institutions to sort things out. In that sense the optimistic ideals of the architects of the 60s and 70s are still relevant. My daughter’s generation will find new ways of creating hope, and it will look different from my cohort’s version. My generation’s job is to pass on the lessons we can extract from our own endeavours, and to share our views on the things that have worked best without expecting our successors to want to replicate our designs. 

Matthew Spencer is 2023 Turner Fellow at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and Global Director Landscapes at IDH