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We live in a wild world

Lily Cole, author, activist, model and entrepreneur, remembers John Burton
Lily Cole

Main image of Lily: Bart Kuykens

This article first appeared in our COP27 special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 11 November 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

***Article updated by Lily, 25 February 2023***

I was touching the earth, my face wet, recovering from the seismic realisation that I needed to try and sell my London apartment and give the money to the land.

It hadn’t been an easy realisation to come to, the truth seldom is, but it called to me as I tried to grapple — Amazonian plant medicine coursing through me — with my love of nature and a need to make that love more real.

In this raw and difficult moment, and from the bottom of my searching soul, one person came to mind: John Burton.

Defining optimism

I had first met John in 2010, while supporting an initiative for elephants by the World Land Trust, the organisation he co-founded.

The concept was simple: buy small plots of land in India that fall in the elephant’s migration paths as a way to connect up larger reservations.

The goal was to multiply the roaming space for elephants – as well as tigers and all the smaller animals that follow in their path – and reduce the human-animal conflict in those natural corridors.

The project was a great example of the wider work conducted by the World Land Trust, which buys biodiverse land around the world and protects it by vesting ownership in local communities.

The secret optimist

‘Hello!’ John said cheerfully when I called, as was his way. Despite his age he always retained a childlike glee in his voice and eyes, lit by relentless enthusiasm and cheeky anarchism.

Laced with humour, his cynical ‘realism’ was sometimes confused with pessimism, but I always believed him to be a secret optimist.

‘Not going to COP (out) 26’, he wrote to me last year; ‘This weekend, we (some of the original gang) are ‘celebrating’ the 50th anniversary of Friends of the Earth. We were all relatively young and enthusiastic, 50 years ago, saying the things that are still being said. But nothing has really changed, except for the worse. Much worse. But we have to keep trying.’

We discovered through our conversation on optimism that we have different interpretations of the word: for me, optimism is not giving up.

John was looking at baselines, and ‘realistic’ about the fact we will unlikely recover the levels of biodiversity of the past: ‘We should look at the number of moths around a street lamp, and compare that with the numbers that were there in the 1940s… I really do think it is absolutely essential that we do not take the state of the world’s wildlife in the 1960s, or any time further forward in time, as a baseline.’

Searching for a silver bullet

Under John’s leadership and vision through the World Land Trust and other organisations he stewarded, nearly 1 million hectares of biodiverse land have been preserved.

Protecting land against deforestation is one of the best ways of maintaining carbon sinks, and also preserves rare space for billions of wild animals, insects and plants to simply live in.

Over the following months John proceeded to try and guide me through the possibilities of the alternative models of land management he had encountered in his decades-long conservationism working with local communities and Indigenous groups.

If one wants to put money into land, how should one do it? What kind of ownership or management structure might work?

I was hoping he would give me a perfect model – a silver bullet as such – but of course there was no such thing.

‘On the basis that I don’t have any answers, but may have solutions to fit certain circumstances, happy to talk’, John, typically humbly, responded. ‘This is the fundamental problem’, he elaborated; ‘everyone tries to address [environmental] issues at a big public [level], as if there is a solution, whereas the truth is that you can only solve some of the problems some of the time, if you treat cases individually. The big, grandstanding speeches, pledges etc… are doomed, by their very nature, to fail… Regrettably, nothing will do, if we only ever talk about it… I am happier trying to do something, and then defend the action if it is criticised.’

The elephant in the room

On John’s blog on COP26 he had concluded: ‘no one is mentioning the elephant in the room: Human populations and human greed. You cannot possibly succeed in combating CO2 emissions, pollution, climate change, without addressing the CAUSE of it all. And that is the expanding population and expanding economies, where prosperity is measured by GDP. End of story.’

Meanwhile, John had posted my daughter some of his books on homemade musical instruments and animals at risk of extinction; we started sharing stories and images of wildlife, including Portuguese salamanders from where I was living.

The edge of the abyss

When I got the news that John had passed away, I was in Davos for the World Economic Forum, preparing for a talk at Arctic Basecamp.

It is always revealing how you respond when someone passes away; the response seems to come from a bodily rather than intellectual place, and it suddenly reveals how much someone meant to you. I cried for several hours.

I think my grief operated on multiple levels. There was the personal loss of John, who had been such an inspiration and guide to me for so many years on my path.

But it was also a wider, broader grief. In a world heading steadfastly towards ‘the edge of the abyss’, as UN secretary-general António Guterres puts it, the loss of someone so dedicated to protecting habitats for wildlife is also a loss for wildlife. I think a piece of my hope for the planet died with him.

In Davos, black cars idled and purposefully ran over pedestrians (true story) in their rush for power. Bankers, CEOs and politicians swapped notes. Helicopters hovered. Economic growth remained the religious drumbeat for the Sixth Mass Extinction.

A wild world

At John’s memorial in London in September, conservationists from around the world gathered at the Linnean Society to pay tribute to this remarkable man, who had been a mentor to so many of us.

Sir David Attenborough said of John: ‘He was an extraordinary man. One I will never forget. His energy was backed with great imagination. His loss to conservation is immense. I shall never forget him, and I shall do my best to try and live up to the ideals of energy and altruism which motivated him. He was irreplaceable and I think of him very frequently.’

Chris Packham, who once described John as ‘a very nice troublemaker’, then held up signs for different organisations he felt John would appreciate others supporting, such as The John Burton Memorial Fund and Flock Together, Whale Wide, Wild Justice and City Girl in Nature.

On the tube home that evening, a large yellow moth fluttered around the carriage I was in. It landed on my face.

Moved by this encounter and concerned for its wellbeing in the tube, with the spirit of protecting wildlife in mind, I used my camera bag to catch it and carried it out of the train station into the cold night air, where I laid it on a tree leaf under the moon.

A few days later, telling this story to John’s late wife, Viv, I learned that a new species of moth, yellow and pink in colour, had just been named after John: Tegostoma burtoni. We live in a wild world.

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