We recently announced River Action’s expansion plans and appointment of James Wallace, former Chief Executive of the Beaver Trust, as CEO. Here, we get an insight into the life of our new CEO , the future of River Action and how we plan to continue rescuing Britain’s rivers.
Tell us about your early life…
In 1972, the year of my birth, wildlife was still relatively abundant and our climate was stable, although starting to show signs of a wobble. Butterflies clouded hedgerows, rivers ran clear and full of rising trout, starlings murmurated in their thousands. Supermarkets didn’t exist. Fossil-fuel powered agribusiness was constrained to the USA. 11 million fewer people were crammed on our small islands. Politicians had yet to privatise the water industry, putting profits ahead of people and the planet. Maggie Thatcher hadn’t told us “There’s no such thing as society.”
Right from the womb, I was always dissatisfied with the hierarchical order of things, the learning by rote, the parroting of lies from a dead empire, the “I’m better than you”, the quest for wealth, and the drive for growth in this fragile finite world. I was sent to boarding schools which ruined me, despite my parents good intentions. I didn’t fit in and fought the system, rejecting the “kill it, cut it up and put it under a microscope” reductionistic scientific methodology and the exploit and extract economy.
Unsurprisingly, I was ejected kicking and screaming from my college without A Levels and told I was beyond help. Armed with a mohican, leathers and screw-you attitude, I polluted my veins with drugs and lived on the streets and lurked in dark corners of crumbling squats.
Full of self-loathing, convinced that I was the problem, and hatred of this greedy world, I eventually saw that I’m not alone and that something could be done if only I could see the individual wood from the communal trees, and started a journey of recovery, of myself, of communities and of nature.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
In 1994, I blagged my way on to an Archaeology BSc degree and studied the rise and fall of civilisations – little did I realise how relevant that would be today – and the iniquitous relationship between humans and the rest of nature. An accidental five-year corporate career demonstrated the abject and inherent lack of responsibility of businesses driven by shareholder value, and I left having tried to introduce a neophyte version of CSR in the late 90’s. My suggestions to the senior management team fell on deaf ears so I hit the road to social and environmental enlightenment.
I went back to school in 2002, and fitted in. This time I learned about how the world really works: Schumacher College awarded me a Distinction (now that was a surprise!) in my Masters in Holistic Science having studied with extraordinary teachers like Jane Goodall, James Lovelock, Teddy Goldsmith, Vandana Shiva, and Satish Kumar. So I started on a mission to use natural systems thinking to solve human-made problems. Over the past 20 years, I have helped set up and lead enterprises trying to realign society – which does exist – with the planet that feeds, waters and houses us – which won’t exist for much longer if we don’t stop behaving like a virulent planetary coronavirus. There’s only so much sweating that Gaia will do before we are washed into the plastic- and turd-filled seas.
These start-ups included climate communications (Susten8), renewable energy (Renpro), green regeneration (Ecocities), ecotourism (Canopy & Stars) and cleantech financing (The Research Exchange). Some succeeded, some flopped. More recently, I co-founded a marine exploration charity in 2015 (Nekton Foundation), helped grow a tropical conservation charity (Blue Ventures) and co-founded a river restoration charity (Beaver Trust) in 2019. All the time, coming closer to home, as I realised we spend more time and effort saving snow leopards in the Himalayas than saving wild cats in Britain.
You used to be CEO of the Beaver Trust. Tell us about the charity and the importance of river restoration…
Beavers are ecosystem engineers, with the power to transform whole landscapes from desertified agricultural wastelands into verdant ecological sponges, soaking up and storing floodwaters, releasing them slowly in drought. Their wetlands pack more biodiversity pound per beavery bucked tooth than your average forest and having co-evolved with species like salmon, crested newts, willow tits, barbastelle bats and otters, they are everyone’s friends, including humans, creating habitats and food for thousands of species.
Our agrarian civilisation evolved on the banks of rivers and in the midst of beaver wetlands; we even mimicked their homes made of sticks, stones and mud, and replicated their water managing dams and canals; although to the opposite effect – beavers save water, humans rush it off to the sea, having liberally dosed it with a cocktail of economic effluent.
Beaver Trust has helped ensure the native Eurasian beaver is protected and returning to Britain once again, working with amazing NGOs like the Wildlife Trusts to restore the species and support communities including farmers and anglers to live alongside these dynamic and sometimes challenging neighbours.
Perhaps our biggest success, was the launch of Woodlands for Water, a £15 million farm payment scheme to incentivise landowners to set aside river buffers, providing space for rivers to breathe life back into the land. We launched it last year with Defra, National Trust, Woodland Trust and Rivers Trust. Although we were the obvious minnows in the pond, we played an essential role in galvanising support, pushing bold targets and ensuring the programme is scalable.
Why do you love rivers and how did you become involved in river protection?
I learned a lot about the challenges facing rivers in our country at Beaver Trust and how to engage otherwise divergent interests in respectful and urgent dialogue to form a consensus on what we can do collectively. Like the blood in my adolescent veins, all our rivers – our life support system – are polluted, some are close to ecological collapse. Water security will be the biggest challenge to our climate-broken communities over coming years and we need to harness natural systems while simultaneously holding to account the polluters, and their crony enablers in government.
Having grown up on the banks of the Rivers Pang and Kennet, two once-idyllic chalk streams, and learned to fly-fish for trout, I have a deeply ingrained affinity with all things wet and wild. I’m the grandson of farmers who tended the land in Herefordshire, Pembrokeshire, Shropshire and further afield in Kenya, Australia and New Zealand. Farming is very much in my blood, and what I see in this dreadful dichotomy between the unbridled industrialised rape of the land and the sensitive agroecological ways of regenerative farming breaks my heart. There is no excuse for the continued rampage on nature under the banner of food security and productivity. It is a lie spun by powerful interests that must be exposed and stopped.
Likewise the defecation in our rivers by privatised water companies – companies owned by foreign investors who have indebted assets and paid out £billions in dividends – is scandalous, and expedited by our national government. This is not accidental. The current libertarian political system is based upon deregulation and low taxes, which not only allows but encourages large agricultural, food and water companies to exploit and pollute with impunity. The likelihood of being detected and prosecuted by our defanged Environment Agency is a business risk so low that it is laughable. Why? Well how would you monitor and police 200,000km of rivers if you had lost 70% of your budget in the past 10 years?
Despite what some will tell you, the writhing death of our rivers lies at the feet of our government and the very political decisions of the HM Treasury.
Tell us about your new role as River Action CEO and what needs to change to save UK rivers?
The move to River Action was organic. I joined our inspiring Founder and Chair, Charles Watson, with a few others in 2021 to help him set up our first campaign on the River Wye and then became a trustee that summer. When we discussed the need to grow River Action and my wish to mobilise all the contacts, goodwill and expertise gathered recently from working in river restoration it was the obvious next step for me. There is nothing more important than water security to me as a father of children inheriting the omnishambles we have created. Everyone may not feel they need beavers in their life, but even billionaires and Prime Ministers – sometimes embodied in the same person – need clean water.
Charles has demonstrated clearly the need for an independent organisation, working for the common good and empowered to engage with all stakeholders with a sense of urgency. By never accepting funding from polluting industries or failing governments we can never be accused of greenwash or prevented from bearing our teeth if needed.
I am delighted to be working with incredible organisations like the Rivers Trust movement who so ably generate the evidence of pollution, over abstraction and other pressures on rivers and wildlife we need, while restoring habitats with thousands of boots in the water.
River Action will play a companion role by undertaking some of the things that others may feel somewhat constrained from doing. We are free to campaign vocally to pressure industry to clean up its act and for the Government to be properly funded and resourced. We are free to convene and collaborate, acting as a nimble catalyst unencumbered by bureaucracy and weighty membership, and free to act directly using all means available, including deploying the full weight of the law to force those accountable for the destruction of our rivers to wipe after themselves.
What are the next steps for River Action?
I have drafted with colleagues an ambitious five-year strategy which, we hope, will give our rivers a chance to recover in time. Our approach is systemic, collaborative and locally-led. By developing high-impact campaigns, each one will act as a precedent that can be replicated across the nation and across different polluting industries. For example, by successfully undertaking a judicial review and associated public campaign in one catchment that demonstrates the law has been broken and holds the perpetrators accountable, we will assist other communities to follow suit. Collectively, these actions will pressure change at the nexus of power, by informing elections and encouraging the public to vote with their ecological conscience for river-friendly manifestos. Ultimately, we will see an increase in environmental budgets from the public coffers and our public servants doing their jobs.
Charles and I have spent much of the past few months raising funds, with our first employee Lauren Razek, and spreading the word with the help of Katie Schuster and our partners, Seahorse Environmental. We are now in the position to recruit employees and will soon be announcing key roles. Just as our organisation is a bit maverick and positively disruptive, we will be seeking out talented individuals from all sectors who can bring fresh insight and energy to our national rivers crisis.
Our Advisory Board, with our recently appointed Vice Chair, Feargal Sharkey, will continue to be our guiding lights and inject the wisdom we need to steer our mission forward, and bang the drums of change.
Perhaps most importantly, the communities that we serve will be instrumental in their own success. Our role is to empower local groups with advice, funding and practical solutions like citizen science; to take their evidence and stories and shout them from the rooftops; and then represent their needs to industry and government, advocating for rapid change. The passionate and mobilised people of Britain will be the ones who unleash the help our rivers so desperately need and I look forward to supporting each community in whatever way I can.
It is a privilege to be entrusted with this role and I look forward to working with everyone – from farmers, anglers, conservationists, teachers, swimmers and the media to developers, tourism operators, small businesses, lawyers, policy makers and rappers – to help rescue Britain’s rivers.