“Not now George?”

With thanks to Joyce Grenfell.

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I’ve a lot of time for George Monbiot and I often find myself agreeing with almost every word he’s just written while contrarily wishing that he’d found a different way of writing it. It concerns me that I feel this way, because it forces me to examine that part of my history that makes me averse to harsh words.  My friends will breathe a sigh of relief that there is at least someone in the brake-van, and the people I’ve sparred with over the years will continue to think what they do.  There is a place for indignation and anger about our present conjoined crises of mass extinction and global heating and to hold back on that anger might feel like tacit support for the guilty.  Do we really have time for the niceties of civilised debate and a coming together of minds towards agreed collective action. Well we’ve had over fifty years of debating time since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published, and my entire adult life has been punctuated by warnings about our abuse of the environment. From the terrible post-war smogs in London and other industrial cities during my childhood onwards, the power of legislation and enforcement has been thwarted and emasculated by powerful vested interests. Surely they’ve had their chance.

And I think that sense of urgency is a powerful defence of the language that’s sometimes used in the debate. George Monbiot is just one among the many powerful voices who’ve spoken out and challenged the culture, and if by shouting loudly about the dangers they’ve brought it to the top of the political agenda then we’ve a lot to thank them for.  If our political system (and this is – ultimately – a political and economic issue) is so tin-eared, or wilfully deaf to the mounting scientific evidence, then our leaders can hardly complain when the debate is taken into the streets, because it us who have to breathe the polluted air and our children whose lungs are invaded by diesel particulates and will never hear a nightingale or a curlew.

The problem is that if it comes to a slanging match, the powerful vested interests have by far the loudest voice, and they have not been above using dirty tricks and deliberate lies to prolongue their hegemony. Stupidly, though, they don’t seem to be able to understand that we all breathe this air, we all drink the water (when there is any) we all eat the chemically compromised food. The rise in sea-level will drive millions of people away from their vulnerable homes, including those who can afford to own tropical islands. The problem is that there isn’t a column for the environment on a profit and loss statement, and so the polluters don’t pay. They’d soon stop if it hit their profits.

So yes there’s a bit of me that would like to make them suffer for the damage they’ve done, but if they were all locked up for eternity it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the crisis. George’s article above particularly takes aim at farmers and the big environmental NGO’s, and reserves special hatred for grouse moors – there’s a picture of one the I took a few weeks ago at the top of this post.

IMG_5321We know the whole environmental culture has to change, and so let’s take the example of tree planting. Should we plant a million trees, say? Well yes, but where should we plant them? – and what trees should we plant? whose land shall we plant them on? who will pay for them, maintain them and keep them healthy? Can we tackle the climate crisis and the extinction crisis at the same time with the same plan – or will the two sides of the larger crisis require a plan modulated to meet both? This is where I part company with some of Monbiot’s comments because one obvious solution is to use the presently indefensible agricultural subsidy system to change the farming culture. To say to farmers “you can do what you like (within the law) with your own land, but we won’t pay you to do it if it doesn’t bring about any public good.”  I’m pretty sure that most farmers would be only too pleased to stop damaging their land so long as it didn’t bankrupt them in the process. Most hill-farms get 80% of their income from subsidies. Monbiot is quite right to say that the hill-country landscape has been turned into a wildlife desert by overgrazing sheep, but whose fault is that when, until recent years, farmers were paid according to the size of their flocks so, of course, they overstocked the sheep. Millions, if not hundreds of millions of trees could be planted on some of that unproductive land but the best possible workforce and custodians of the new forests would be the farmers who presently farm sheep. They’re in place already and they know their land as only farmers do. Calling for an end to sheep farming only makes a dangerous situation worse.  Do we even know what numbers of sheep might constitute a sustainable national flock? Aren’t there economic and ecological benefits to maintainin a much smaller national flock thereby retaining the best of the hill farming culture and reducing overproduction to the point where the market for sheep and wool improves. Would a revival in woollen cloth be a sustainable alternative to more plastics?   I don’t see the point in alienating and threatening farmers with the expropriation of their livelihoods when we know we’re going to need them onside. The grouse moors are much harder to defend, especially when the cost of shooting is so great that only the wealthy can participate, and amid the costs to wildlife by heather burning are the sinister statistics around the shooting and poisoning of birds of prey by gamekeepers who know when to keep their mouths shut.

But this too is where we’ve seen that not all big landowners are capitalizing on their land by running shoots. Neither do they all allow hunting and stalking.   Inevitably some will argue that any change will amount to an attack on their whole “way of life”. Well yes, so was the abolition of slavery and the end of public executions – we can’t go on excusing the destruction of our ecosystem because someone might get upset about not being able to wear their plus fours. I think the majority of landowners, if they are faced with the prospect of losing millions of pounds of revenue unless they change their ways, will grumble a lot and comply, because deep down they do understand. The biggest obstacle to change will be those industries that can’t adapt. The ones that will really go bust if farmers stop using chemicals! The manufacturers of the behemoths that straddle the fields and crush the life out of the soil will find ways of serving a less extractive agriculture, and no-one’s attacking the principle of using farmland productively and efficiently. It might be that instead of half-million pound machines, human beings could do more.  Some of my happiest winter mornings were spent laying hedges on a playing field that didn’t possess or want to flail the hell out of them.

I’m arguing two things simultaneously – firstly that the crisis is so severe that we must take immediate action and secondly that the best strategy for achieving that end is to use both carrot and stick to change farming culture. Aggression, rudeness and threats of expropriation will just make it harder.  I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I always felt able to question why things were done in the way they were. Apart from one instance where I was shouted at by a (non farming) local councillor who’d got completely the wrong end of the stick, I found the farmers overwhelmingly open to new ideas. They loved their land and they neither wanted to poison it or lose it altogether by going out of business.

George Monbiot’s next targets in the article are the large NGO’s like the National Trust, the RSPB and the other powerful charities.  Again, it’s always better to change what you’ve got than abolish it all and start again. With the National Trust, Monbiot’s main target is the policy of allowing even drag hunting on its land. If this crisis is ever going to be resolved, then dog whistle tactics will have to be set aside.  The very word hunting carries a whole complex of polarizing imagery that makes resolution almost impossible, and lines the opposing views up with an angry chasm between them.  Better let the whole practice die of disgust, like bear baiting and cockfighting did in their day. Where the National Trust can help is in the management of its huge land holdings, and there it’s not heped by it’s foundational ethos of preservation and conservation. It’s not good enough to use huge sums of public subscription to preserve some notional bucolic landscape for sightseers.

The same problem on a larger scale happens within the National Park authorities who can be a positive nuisance when it comes to changing farming practices. Many of these charities and NGO’s encourage a narrow (especially in terms of diversity) view of passive participation in the scenery. Charities supporting single issues like birds, butterflies or  whatever else are not known for their collaboration, and can be positively hostile when other groups with different interests impinge on their “territory”.

So my plea to George Monbiot is to deal with his understanable anger and pursue the goal we all share by reaching out rather than acting out. It really does work better. To use a useful cliché once again, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’  but it’s not invincible. We can’t save the earth by making vote-winning policy announcements, but it can be saved by implacable determination, never losing sight of the goal and never accepting second best delaying tactics from vested interests. The farmers aren’t the enemy, it’s us with our insatiable appetites.

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I guess I’m an alien too!

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Sometimes the gentlest put-down is a tiny work of art.  My son, for instance, was at a party once and recounted an overheard conversation that went something like this:

She: Where do you work then

He: Oh I’m a physicist, I work in Cerne

She: On the Hadron Collider?

He: Yes

She: You mean that big one that goes for miles underground?

He: No I work on the small one.

She: How sweet!

 

One of my many come-uppances came when I was a curate at St Mary Redcliffe.  I was introduced to a very well dressed woman wearing the kind of understated clothing that announces itself silently and tells you exactly where you belong in the great scheme of things. I was wearing an extremely expensive silk cassock that was bought for me as a gift and which lifted me out of my mongrelry into another category of humanity. It was a useful disguise.  When she discovered my name she demanded (no really, she demanded in a voice like melting pack ice) “are you one of the Somerset Poles?” “no”, I replied airily “I’m one of the Kingswood Poles”.  Part of my dad’s family did in fact come from Somerset but they most certainly weren’t part of the Somerset Poles and I didn’t feel obliged to enlarge on my reply.

However my quarry today is a different branch of the put-down family that relates to the way we perceive and value the natural world.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that we had a break in St Davids a few weeks ago and I got going on a list of plants I found while we were there – there were well over a hundred in the end. Several, though, turned out to be a bit of a rarity and so I emailed a local botanist with  their names just so he could check them out (referee them) and add them to the records. Yesterday, after a long silence, I had a charming reply to my email thanking me and mentioning in passing that this was the second record for Sedum forsterium he’d received and that the other, found a couple of streets away, was – the finder believed – the garden form, ssp. elegantissimum.  I was instantly deflated, notwithstanding the fact that I’d identified it properly, but a garden plant? 

So how is it in the great scheme of things that a large hadron collider is more important than a small one, a Somerset Pole is more worthy of conversation than a mongrel Pole from Kingswood, and a rare wild plant more important than a hybrid of the same family that manages to escape from a garden and eke out a miraculous living on a streetside wall.  Who is it that determines these things? and does it even matter?

Well yes, it matters a great deal when our environment is becoming more and more degraded, because sympathy, money and research tends to flow to the places determined as ‘more important’ and away from those determined to be less so. I was disappointed with myself that I had fallen into a lazy way of thinking about priorities that had been handed to me as a ‘faite accompli’ and lurked unchallenged at the back of my mind for goodness knows how long.

Opposite where we live there used to be an old industrial site complete with gasometer and suchlike. In Bath there is a desperate need for more housing, and the local council have no money and so like so many other councils they had to allow the desperately needed houses to be built by a developer. But first there was a legal requirement to conduct an environmental impact survey – which I’ve read, along with the promises of low-cost housing, a doctor’s surgery and a new primary school. Here’s a retrospective environmental assessment of what actually happened –

The trend is for steady loss of this habitat type. When Bath Western Riverside was cleared for redevelopment, invertebrate communities of Regional importance that were associated with this habitat were lost.

The school and the surgery were quietly dropped because they impacted on the profits, and the first-time housing that had been so loudly trumpeted as a sweetener started off at £500,000 a flat. The ‘regionally important’ habitat was bulldozed away and replaced by a miserable “park” of municipal ryegrass. Little notice was taken of a wildlife corridor connecting the centre of the city to the countryside to the west and crucially all this was assisted in its passage because the development was taking place on a ‘brownfield site’. Who goes out to demonstrate over a derelict gasworks when there are homeless people living on the streets? Our use of language and imagery really does matter because it colours our priorities, and wrong priorities take us further away from our desired objectives.  Clearly we all agree that the environment is increasingly important because all the evidence stacks up behind that proposition. But expressions like ‘brownfield site’, ‘alien’, and ‘invasive’ subtly embody a hierarchy of  significance that can subvert our behaviour. What if the ecologically diverse environments are now the brownfield sites and the ‘green belt’ land we’re so desperate to protect is so doused in chemicals and so overcropped that the soil is all but dead? In a ‘battle of the priorities’ homes, surgeries and schools will always win over spiders and bryophytes.  It all changes, though, if the schools and surgeries are never built, the houses are utterly beyond the reach of first time buyers and the ecologically diverse environment is destroyed in any case, in the pursuit of profits for developers.

 

It matters that this isn’t an argument about aesthetics, although the riverside development is known among the locals as “The Gulag” and it certainly looks like a Soviet era bonded warehouse. I thought the gasworks site with its abundance of Ragwort and Buddleia looked better and the wildlife certainly thought so! But we’re not facing a crisis of beauty, we’re facing a crisis that entails the death of thousands of species, the destruction of the soil that feeds us and the air that we’re forced to breathe. “We have seen the enemy – it is us”, and we can’t solve the crisis unless we accept that more of the same can only make things worse.

 

Let’s imagine I own the wall with the Sedum forsterianum in St Davids and I want to knock the wall down, dig up the garden and build a car port for a holiday rental. The local council are minded to grant the permission because it knows the city relies absolutely on the tourist trade. A local and enthusiastic amateur botanist comes along and says “you can’t do that it’s a three star rarity”. I appoint an independent enviromental consultant who says – yes you can it’s ssp. elegantissimum which is just a garden escape.  The County Recorder joins the fray and says “not only is it a garden escape it’s an invasive garden escape that’s driving out all the real (i.e pure) Sedum forsterianum from the inaccessible cliffs hereabouts. The local Friends of the Earth get involved and start a petition to prevent any more car ports while the Gardening Club are incensed at the marginalisation of a favourite rockery plant. Plaid Cymru demand an end to holiday lets because the local people can’t affotd to buy houses any more. A local independent councillor says “something must be done!” without specifying what exactly that might be. Meanwhile a tidy minded council worker spots the offending weed in the wall and sprays it with Roundup while he’s doing the cracks in the pavement. 

 

It’s a rare plant, it’s an invasive menace, it’s a garden escape, it’s a hybrid, it’s a weed, its a meal ticket for a host of experts and it’s a vote winner too. It’s the gift that goes on giving for me, the lucky developer because every specialist interest group in town is so engaged in this turf war about a plant that they can’t agree what to do, and I get my application through without any effective opposition. The environmentalists all get to keep their virtue intact and the environment takes another small step in the wrong direction.

 

No amount of home baking, kefir production, artisan gin and allotmenteering is going to save the environment unless we learn to collaborate and that means watching our language and engaging seriously with a flood of data that may feel difficult and counter-intuitive at times. Sometimes I feel like withdrawing to the allotment or propping up the Potwell Inn bar until it’s all over but in my heart I know that the only chance we have is to engage.  The Sirens with their dark money will say we can have it all – but it’s not true and it never was. The sun’s shining and the insects will be out and about this morning so our neighbour Trigger will be up at the allotments with his little hand spray.  He doesn’t tell his wife he’s spraying and she will sometimes say “d’you know these beans were covered with blackfly last week and now they’re all gone.”  He doesn’t tell her about his little secret spray because he knows she’s trying to garden organically and because he loves her, he wants her to succeed. Damaging the evironment doesn’t require evil or malice, just lack of thought will achieve the same end.