We caught up with Gillian to discuss education, diversity and the natural world.
Do you think public attitudes towards environmental and ecological causes have changed over the past two years?
I think some issues have climbed further up the agenda in the last two years and that’s great, but it’s important to remember we’ve had a few passes at this already. There’s a sense that nobody talked about the environment until the last two years and that’s simply not true. I’m old enough to remember the first real political discussions around what we then called ‘global warming’. In the late 1990s, people were talking about it and we were moving towards consensus among world leaders on how to tackle it. To say we didn’t get it right first time around would be quite the understatement, but we need to look back at recent history to avoid making the same mistakes again.
What inspired your passion for educating the public about wildlife and conservation?
I like finding a subject that might be inaccessible and being able to tell its story – getting people excited about something they never thought they would be interested in. For example, I used to enjoy reading a research paper and being able to explain it to my friends. I hope to help people understand that, with the right language and presented in the right way, anyone can understand science.
You’ve supported projects on rewilding, plastic waste reduction and tree planting. How do you choose causes to support?
I’m a doer – I like campaigns where people are creatively working their way around obstacles and aren’t waiting for policy change first. There’s a great expression that is used among the First Nations peoples in Canada, it’s called ‘water over stone’. I think of that image of a river working its way around obstacles, and I love supporting campaigns that can do that. Essentially, when they find their own creative ways to make it happen.
And what projects are next?
Well this year has been the mother of all disrupters! Off the back of climate activism, Covid-19 happened and now Black Lives Matter – people are hungry for change and in my view the focus must be on both social and environmental injustice. Progress is made by looking honestly at how the past shapes the present and future – who are the winners and losers of the system. We must look to restore and integrate a fractured world across habitats, diversity, gender, socio-economic, urban and rural issues. I’m supporting movements that are about restoring natural systems and indigenous wisdom, bridging gaps and making things less polarised.
What natural success stories should we be most proud of?
In the UK, there are many examples of nature reserves that have been regenerated from former industrial sites. The ones that really stand out for me are in Yorkshire, where there are some brilliant RSPB reserves, like Fairburn Ings and Old Moor. These are great examples of where landscapes have healed over 20 or 30 years, from what looked like post-apocalyptic scenes. They’ve regenerated to the point where some species that were virtually extinct in Britain have made a tentative return. If we can continue this trend, who knows? Some species might have a fighting chance of making a proper comeback.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it just shows how much latent power there is when nature’s given a chance.
We’ve heard that you have a passion for singing. How does this provide a balance to your day job?
I think we have a lot to learn from how music can inspire and empower. In particular, Gospel music has this incredible energy of taking people through a whole cycle of emotion. From accepting and acknowledging that you’re in a difficult place, to moving forwards and thinking: “I’m going to keep going and I know I’ll get to where I need to be.” Of course, it has famously been the force behind the civil rights movement and subsequently many other campaigns.
About Gillian Burke
Gillian shares her love of the natural world through film and enjoys the challenge of showcasing the animals most people love to hate. Along with the BBC’s Watches strand, her film credits hint at her reputation for championing the outcasts of the animal kingdom – from Ultimate Guide to Spiders & Ants for Discovery Channel; to King Cobra! & Anaconda! for Animal Planet’s Snakemaster series; to the ground-breaking, and one of the highest grossing IMAX films to date, Bugs! 3D – literally as big as it gets for a film about insects.
Gillian may be passionate about the natural world, but is increasingly curious and drawn to human stories of behaviour change. As a science communicator and environmentalist, reporting on genuine conservation success stories, as evidence that things can change for the better, has become her hallmark and she defiantly remains a conservation optimist (on most days).
The Colour of Money
This article was originally published in the 2020 anniversary edition of the Colour of Money, Triodos Bank's inspirational magazine.
Our mission is to make money work for positive social, environmental and cultural change. The Colour of Money gives you stories, features, and interviews showing you how we do just that. Read the magazine in full on Issuu.
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