An interview with Julian Hoffman on ‘Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places’
This month at E.C.O. we shining a spotlight on eco Film and Literature and are lucky enough to have interviewed a dear friend and author, Julian Hoffman. Two years after I met Julian in Indonesia, Julian, my boyfriend and I met in London in an old bank which has now been converted into a pub. After an amazing few hours of drink, food and environmental chit chat we had put the world to rights (we are awaiting our Nobel Peace Prize), and he kindly offered to spare his time for an interview via Skype which we are extremely grateful for!
Julian had arrived in Bangka, Indonesia to stay at the scuba diving resort I was managing at the time to write a piece for his book Irreplaceable. At the time it had resonated with me as an interesting concept… travelling around the world to document how normal people were fighting tooth and nail to protect their local, natural community which was under threat. Two years later it has a much greater impact on me due to my journey into environmental consciousness.
We cannot recommend Irreplaceable enough. It is moving, inspiring and honest. At times it is hard to read; hearing the reality of capitalism’s effect on communities, nature and hope for the future. But the courage and spirit of the individual’s stories and their passion for the natural world will encourage you and reassure you that, together, it is possible to protect our planet and our home if we, as a collective, love and care for it.
What inspired you to start writing Irreplaceable?
I was planning to write an entirely different book six years ago, but during a week in London with interviews and library research scheduled I received a message via Twitter. Someone had asked if I would be interested in hearing the story of somewhere which was deeply threatened, a place called the Hoo Peninsula in Kent. A place which I had never heard of, and didn’t know where it was. It turned out to be the landscape Charles Dickens wrote about in Great Expectations and was only 30 miles as the egret flies from central London. I thought there could be scope for a short blog post or maybe a newspaper article to detail the plight of this place, so with a single day to spare that week I said yes.
It was early April and as my train pulled out of the station there was a great bluster of snow. Now I say this with no exaggeration whatsoever, but I arrived at a place that a day or two before I had never heard of, and that day fundamentally changed the course of my life. There I met three residents of the peninsula who were doing everything they possibly could, with all of their heart, to save this extraordinary landscape from disappearing. The threat was a proposal, backed by London’s then mayor and now PM, Boris Johnson, to turn the Hoo Peninsula, or at least the vast majority of it, into Europe’s largest airport.
That day that I saw these great skeins of geese smudging the horizon over the Thames in the distance. Elegant avocets and little egrets burst from saline lagoons and trembling marsh harriers pushed on into these billowing bands of weather. 300,000 water birds winter around the adjacent estuary too. And that day I understood, for the very first time in my life, what loss in our shared landscapes looks like, because all of what I experienced that day would be gone. None of these three people I met were professional conservationists or ecologists, but they understood precisely what loss meant… not only for themselves but for the wild communities that they shared the peninsula with. All too often loss is measured by statistical and numerical data. It’s frequently abstract. But that day it was suddenly vivid and relatable and real for me.
I caught the train back to London after spending a full day listening to these warm and passionate people, listening to what this place meant and what the consequences of its loss might be. And I realised I needed to write a very different book to the one I’d been planning to write. Which ended up becomingIrreplaceable.
So, Irreplaceable started from one place and one person’s tweet. How did you then scale up to develop a global documentation of irreplaceable places in our natural world?
I had realised all along, subconsciously, when reading little snippets or hearing about people fighting to save something, but I took much greater care to document these stories of places that really were threatened. I wanted this book to be international in scope and dimension. These are issues that face a whole range of communities, from a range of different economic classes and different parts of the world. And I wanted to really make that clear. These issues, ultimately, are a result of the capitalism that has emerged, particularly in the last two to three decades, a really ravaging form of capitalism that seeks to essentially harness everything for its own means.
I wanted to give voice to people’s connections, wherever they may be. Because all too often the voices that are heard in our world tend to belong to those with power. Whether it’s politicians, corporations and big businesses, developers and banks and other financial institutions. So, I wanted to find a way or a space for other voices to rise through that noise. People and communities who are fighting for very different measures of well-being than the one that our society, by and large, has embraced in a political and economic sense.
But the book also emerged from the seed of the Hoo Peninsula to become global because I wanted to span as many possible habitats and landscapes as possible. From coral reefs to tropical jungles, all the way to inner city urban meadows and allotments. I wanted to approach it with the idea of something that I call an ‘equality of interest’. For the people who live in and around these places, their small allotment in the middle of Watford is of as much importance to them as that vaster and wilder landscape of the Hoo Peninsula is to the people who are lucky enough to live there. As most of us are urbanised, I wanted to make a political statement as well, that the nature and wild places in our urban and suburban environments is of crucial value to the people who use them.
What was the most surprising thing you learned or discovered while researching and writing the book?
There are two things.
Firstly, how extraordinary ordinary people can be. Ecologists and scientists feature heavily in the book because they enabled me to understand the stories of complex ecosystems and wild species and behaviour. But much of the book is founded on ordinary people’s connections to the natural world, and many of these people are in occupations that we would describe as ‘ordinary’. They are nurses or school teachers or therapists. Many of them were even children going to school. But the quality of their connections, of their sheer sense of protectiveness over a place and the dwindling natural world in which we find ourselves actually transformed their ordinary-ness into complete extraordinary-ness. Their actions had this quality that to me was remarkable. But each and every one of them would always say to me that they were just ordinary folks.
Secondly, at the beginning, when I shared with my wife, Julia, the plan for the book, I remember confessing that I was letting myself in for an enormous amount of grief. I knew this was the book I needed to write, but judging by the continuous spiral of decline in the natural world, and places that are being taken from us at every turn, I knew there would be a lot of loss along the way. And some of the places in the book are sadly no longer with us, and some places disappeared or were destroyed before I could even reach them. These places no longer exist in any physical sense, and are now simply memorials in people’s minds.
Having said that, this journey over the last six years was the most joyous of my professional career, because I realised that out there, around us, beside us, within us, are these extraordinary capacities to alter and change the very fabric of our existence and the way we relate to the natural world. And the people that I met were pursuing a course of action in a way that was profoundly inspiring to me, but I realised that these are all too often stories that are not told in this world of ours. They are often unsung and uncelebrated, and sometimes unknown because our media tends to focus on the dramatic; it focuses on the negative more often than the positive. And yet there are actually these profoundly transformative changes taking place in a large number of communities on a daily and hourly basis. And so, that realisation transformed the grief into something much more deeply joyous and hopeful.
What gives you hope about the future of our environment?
Perhaps I will start by talking about Hope itself. It is one of those words that we use on almost a daily basis, by saying, for example, ‘I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow’. It’s a word that, by and large, has lost some of its deeper, realer quality of meaning in my opinion, because it tends to be used in quite a wishy-washy manner. I think the real exciting part of hope is to remember that it’s an active verb as much as it can be a passive verb.
What I now call ‘radical hopefulness’ – this kind of dynamic, energised, real engagement with the world around us – absolutely has to be active. It has to be about doing, and making that fundamental shift from ‘hoping’ things will change to actually ‘making’ things change. That’s the key trigger I think.
Hope ultimately needs to be collective as well, because although our individual actions are of profound importance, real hopefulness, or real transformative change, begins to happen through collective agency. In a neo-liberal age, individualism tends to undermine community at a time when community, which I discovered in so many stories I wrote about, is often the key to making change real. Individualism distracts us from our collective agency at a moment when collective agency is probably our greatest tool in making this world different.
So, the kind of hopefulness for this radical change is emerging from people doing things now. I derive hope and inspiration from looking around me. I look at how, for example, the student-led climate marches around the world have unfolded. I look at Greta Thunberg, who a little over a year ago was the girl on her own outside of a school… fast forward a year or 15 months and you have this extraordinary, galvanised, international community of people that are engaging with her words, her thoughts and her actions on a deep and profound level. Right now we seem to be building a phenomenal momentum.
That isn’t to say there aren’t challenges. The system in which we find ourselves is beholden to no one but itself and it’s premised on power and financial interest, and always has been and always will be. So we’re up against a great deal, but when I look at that image of Greta Thunberg on her own a little over a year ago and compare it to the crowds in Sydney or London, Austin or Dallas, wherever it might be, that in itself shows the kind of profound potential of change.
We want to extend our gratitude to Julian for his time. This is the first of two posts of our interview, we will be publishing the remainder of our conversation around the state of our environment, what Julian does in his life to actively be more environmentally conscious and his story of his love for nature.
If you are interested in buying Irreplaceable and hearing more about Julian please see the links below.
The Small Heart of Things
Please remember to buy sustainably from companies who are committed to being green.
Grace has quit the 9-5 lifestyle in London to study marine conservation in Thailand. She will subsequently work as a scuba diving instructor with emphasis on teaching students about marine conservation and anthropogenic impacts to our oceans. Her favourite eco product is Oliva Olive Oil Soap.