Hubris And Conforming: The Dangerous Duo Killing The Natural World

Crimes can’t be solved when key suspects are taken out of the frame. This is driven home when true crime investigations are re-examined, as is the case with 2019 documentary, The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story.

Between 1975 and 1981, 13 women were murdered by serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, The Yorkshire Ripper. The case would lead to the biggest manhunt in British history. While plenty of good grassroots police work was taking place, the hubris and conforming shown by the leadership team took the investigation in the wrong direction from the very start.  

Conforming came with the attitude of the leadership team not only towards prostitutes, who they decided The Yorkshire Ripper was on a mission to kill, but women in general, as they ignored crucial witness statements and evidence from victims who didn’t fit their theory about the motive. All this was consolidated by accepted attitudes to the first victims, and language describing them as being of ‘doubtful moral character’ and someone who ‘liked to have a drink’ and a ‘good time’.

Organisational cultures evolve based on what is rewarded, what is punished and, most critically, what is tolerated; what is tolerated is the most insidious. When there is no push back on misogyny, it becomes a comfortable consensus accepted by and entrenched in the wider group.  

Then comes hubris, as the officer in charge of the case, George Oldfield, changed the direction of the investigation after being sent the “I’m Jack” letters and tape; the Yorkshire Ripper became Wearside Jack. Ego and pride in believing the killer wanted a personal conversation, and a battle of wits, led to the disregarding of anyone who didn’t have a Geordie accent, even though survivors said their attacker was a Yorkshireman. The Byford Report into the bungled investigation confirmed that the unquestioned acceptance that the author of the tape was the killer was not justified and led the police to make basic mistakes; little comfort for the families of those murdered in the final years of the investigation.

The loss of confidence in the police because of the hoax of Wearside Jack and the community backlash undoubtedly impacted the health of the lead officer, George Oldfield, who died at just 61 years; he is often described as The Yorkshire Ripper’s 14th victim. Media criticism of the thousands of wasted manhours to trace the wrong person was only partly justified, given they were so hungry for the story that they helped create the phantom of Wearside Jack.

All this shows is that the police were hindered as much by their hubris and conforming as they were by the lack of forensic techniques and computing power available today.

While these types of mishandled police investigation are well trodden, from the Yorkshire Ripper and Wearside Jack to Bible John (Creation of a Serial Killer), they offer an insight into what happens when a group of people, and particularly a leadership group, neither understand their own biases nor recognise they are reenforcing clouded thinking by keeping dissenting voices at bay.

Justice can’t be enacted, and crimes remain unsolved, when evidence is ignored, phantom suspects are created, and obvious suspects are taken out of the frame. This is also the case for biodiversity loss.

Even if global conservation organisations hadn’t realised earlier that the legal trade must be investigated as a key suspect in the crimes against wild species, there has been no excuse for taking it out of the frame since May 2019. The landmark IPBES report into the global extinction crisis confirmed that direct exploitation for trade is the most important driver of decline and extinction risk for marine species and the second most important driver for terrestrial and freshwater species.

The illegal trade, while not a red herring, is only a part of the crime perpetrated against wild species, but it is the only part global conservation feel collectively comfortable with. For 30 years researchers have gathered clear evidence about specific species, specific trade routes and specific issues associated with CITES legal trade. All too often the conclusion is that trade records demonstrate vast and consistent data discrepancies, and that the true volume of many traded endangered species is simply unknown. This evidence should sound the alarm about the legal trade and poor quality CITES regulation processes, considering the reason these species are included in CITES is because they are vulnerable to over-exploitation. But this inconvenient evidence is sidelined, filed and left to be forgotten.

Veterans of CITES demonstrate an unjustified belief in the convention’s processes even through there is no real evidence decisions are making a difference on the ground. The hubris comes from presuming the model must work because it is the model and they have accepted it for 20+, 30+ and, in some cases, 40+ years. To anyone not steeped in CITES nostalgia it is plainly obvious that CITES has failed in its objective of protecting nature from overexploitation. Adding evermore species to the CITES appendices is evidence that current model for the international trade in wild species has failed. The current CITES model is a clear suspect but hubris and conforming means that it is taken out of the frame. And this clear suspect has an accomplice, namely the CITES funding crisis which has left the regulator impoverished to the point it is effectively meaningless.  

The unquestioned acceptance of the sustainable use model without any evidence, mirrors the unquestioned acceptance of the Wearside Jack tape and letters. Just how many more wild species will become victims of this blatant investigative mistake before more people demand that businesses prove they know what constitutes a sustainable offtake?

The media myth of wildlife crime kingpins makes great copy, but they are hindering the inquiry by diverting public attention. It is also convenient if the suspects are located far away and not part of ‘us’. Implicit racism and stereotyping are used to deflect attention from those who are the main culprits – luxury producers, with opaque supply chains, and consumers in the rich countries of (mostly) the West, who are afflicted with affluenza. This mirrors the Yorkshire Ripper fiasco were all the focus was on prostitutes and the other female victims were repeatedly ignored as part of the investigation.

This makes it impossible to solve the extinction crisis we collectively face. When this finally comes out it won’t leave a very pretty view of conservation.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary on activism, conservationist Chris Peckham was refreshingly honest about his assessment of the conservation movement saying, “I carry an awful burden of guilt, particularly when it comes to biodiversity loss”, continuing, “Life has vanished, since I loved it”, and that, I have been part of a generation of conservationists who have completely failed to protect the thing that they are meant to love more than anything else”. His support for activism in the documentary highlighting that, like many people, he believes activists have stepped into the void left by conservation.  These statements hint at what is to come.

The ‘doing good’ reputation of the great conservation organisations may come to be seen as a myth, once more people recognise the decades long basic mistakes they have made, in avoiding the legal trade and its ineffective regulation. Like once respected police officers, such as George Oldfield and Joe Beattie, will reputations be challenged and even ruined because of their betrayal of wild species? Their hubris, conforming and biases have made it almost impossible for the extinction crisis to be solved, while the perpetrators of biodiversity loss to get away with it. How do you reconcile conservation agencies perverting the course of justice?

For now, they are safe, because unlike the Byford (and Sampson) investigation and report into the bungled Yorkshire Ripper inquiry no one is calling for an investigation into the systemic failures of the trade in wild species. There is no desire to peer behind the façades and look under rocks. While the public got increasingly enraged about the failure to catch the Yorkshire Ripper, there is no such push from the public on biodiversity loss, as yet. This lack of outside pressure enables the participants to carry on as usual, despite the disastrous outcomes for wild species.

Hubris and conformity of the participants in CITES remains hidden behind convoluted processes and mountains of documents that do nothing to protect endangered species. Until we are collectively willing to look at the systemic failure of legal extraction and consumption of wild species, and how this is regulated, we can’t prove beyond reasonable doubt what is driving biodiversity loss.

Lynn Johnson

Lynn Johnson is a physicist by education and has worked as an executive coach and a strategy consultant for over 20 years.  In her work she pushes for systemic change, not piecemeal solutions, this includes campaigning for modernising the legal trade in endangered species, to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.