Nature Studies: The life that disappeared while baby-boomers had their fun

This uniquely lucky generation always felt a sense of radical specialness - but what did they do to the natural world?


Awide-ranging alliance of wildlife conservation groups, large and small, last week published a remarkable report entitled The State of Nature: a comprehensive audit of what has happened to the natural world in Britain over the past half-century.

No fewer than 25 miscellaneous wildlife bodies took part, from the Association of British Fungus Groups and the Bat Conservation Trust, to the British Lichen Society, although it was the biggest and richest of them all, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which coordinated and produced it (while in no way attempting to hog the credit for itself). Sir David Attenborough wrote the forward and spoke at the launch.

The report is a stock-taking, and what it amounts to is an unprecedented synthesis of loss. It is remarkable for two reasons. The first is the range of its scientific detail: all that rarified expertise in species from bats to lichens, from toads to orchids, has been harnessed to examine the fate of 3,148 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects (and other invertebrates) and wild plants in the British countryside since 1962. The second reason is its conclusion: that no fewer than 60 per cent of these species have declined in numbers, 30 per cent have declined by more than half, and 10 per cent are threatened with extinction.

The vanishing individuals range from the exquisite garden tiger moth, once common and now shrunk in numbers by 95 per cent – I remember it well, but haven’t seen one in England for years – to the turtle dove, just as lovely, down 93 per cent in numbers and on the high road to extinction. But it’s the composite picture that matters most.

Do people realise? Do they take it on board? For younger men and women, it’s hard to miss something you may never have known, but here is an unassailable documentation of an astonishing and unfortunate fact about our nation, about the United Kingdom. We now have a countryside which has lost 97 per cent of its flower-rich meadows, 90 per cent of its coppiced woodland and 80 per cent of its heathland – a countryside which, since the 1960s, has lost an estimated 44 million pairs of breeding birds and 72 per cent of its butterflies. We live in a land which may be one of the richest in the world in terms of money, but in terms of biodiversity, it has become one of the poorest.

The State of Nature report should be read by anyone who cares about the natural world. (You can download it easily from the RSPB website). Its start date is 1962 – it looks at what has happened to our wildlife since then – and, for me, that prompted anew thoughts of something I have written about here before, which is the environment and the baby-boomer generation, that cohort of individuals born in the aftermath of the Second World War – of which I am one.

It’s a question of definition. The baby boomers have always been fascinated by how they will be remembered by history, not least because they grew up in the 1960s, the decade which changed everything and brought in all those new freedoms, from sex to drugs to how you lived your life; and many have long seen themselves as the generation who made the world a better place.

More recently, they have been seen in a less flattering way – as the luckiest generation who ever lived, who benefited nearly all their lives from the overflowing prosperity of the long Western post-war boom, in a way no other generation surely ever will.

But a report like The State of Nature suggests another definition. Its start date of 1962 is when someone born in the very typical baby-boomer year of 1947 – such as Elton John, or David Bowie – would have been 15; and it is during the rich, rewarding, safe and privileged adulthood of this person, now collecting their pension, that the great loss has all happened.

They’re the generation on whose watch the Earth went wrong. Some of the baby boomers fought it, of course. They founded, and joined, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and other green groups; but many more just watched their houses grow in value, thinking they had done their bit, they had changed the world for the better, when really it was going to hell in a handcart, all around them.

Twitter: @mjpmccarthy

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

1st line call logger/ User access administrator

£9 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Warrington a...

Shine Night Walk 2014 - 'On the night' volunteer roles

Unpaid Voluntary Work : Cancer Research UK: We need motivational volunteers to...

Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable & Accounts Receivable)

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable...

Senior IT Trainer - Buckinghamshire - £250 - £350 p/d

£200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star