ECOS 40(1): ECOS revisited – the shape of things to come?

Editions Reviewed:
ECOS 8(1), 8(2), 8(4), 10(3), 25(1), 28(1)

How to make people love; how to persuade the unloving

Travelling back through the ECOS archives created a number of impressions and perhaps raised a few unwelcome spectres. But while episodes ended and new chapters began, the stories relived mostly inherited the same plot; of the fabric of life being continually eroded, charted in high quality writing from well-known and experienced authors and practitioners. Some of the more technically oriented papers were replete with phrases such as ‘set-aside,’ or acronyms like MAFF, ALURE, NCC that no longer exist. I preferred those fuelled by impassioned reportage, such as Roger Smith’s criticism of woeful planning decisions led by worse people [1]. Several naturally focused on dramas of the day; in the 1980s chief concerns included acid rain and the ‘tax avoidance’ afforestation of the uplands [2], issues which have either in part been resolved – such as upland conifer plantations when between March 1988 and May 1989 tax relief for new planting and alterations to the grant regime meant planting on moorland ceased to be commercially viable [3] – and others which most certainly have not, as discussed by Alison Ross’s article on fish farming, where she, inter alia, laments for the “richness and vulnerability of the marine environment… in terms of its own value and right to exist” [4].

Although these issues were hardly parochial, compared to the scale of species’ declines being experienced as we move towards the third decade of the new millennium, they seem like opening skirmishes in the ‘war on wildlife’ being waged today [5]. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), for example, believed that the number of houses being planned for the south east were ‘huge’ [6], but compared to now look pretty tame, and cognisant of the onslaught to come I sense that I may imminently become another of nature’s refugees – about to have my home taken away. I exaggerate, but in dark moments that is how I feel, and were I to live another 100 years this would cease to be hyperbole.

What I liked most about ECOS Revisited, however, was not so much the contemporaneous reflections of largely foisted change, but rather insightful articles into a then new area of conservation which is now becoming more established if still resisted and argued over – rewilding.  Even better, there were two authors whose words if penned in the next year or decade would still have a deep resonance.

Rewilding – the great debate

In the 2004 ECOS 25 volume there are diverging contributions from James Fenton, Peter Taylor and Mark Fisher, followed up with an article by Keith Kirby et al. A re-reading of these discussions could hardly be more timely; in 2018 Isabella Tree published Wilding, which in part sets out to explain why the Oostvardersplassen (OVP) experiment in the Netherlands, championed by Frans Vera, was the template she and her husband, Charles Burrell, would adopt for their 3,500 acre Knepp estate. At the beginning of her book Tree also sets out to explain, following Vera, why the climax wildwood we all envisage for old England of yore, is a “myth” [7] as the UK’s early landscape was originally dominated by an approximation of wood pasture.

I find it slightly odd that the Vera hypothesis seems to have become the hegemonic view; people I speak to seem almost glad that England was not once covered in primeval forest – perhaps it makes us feel slightly better to think we had no hand in destroying something that never was. But I am not so sure. In 2004 I attended a course in Oxford’s Wytham Woods led by Keith Kirby, and he volunteered that on balance he did not agree with Vera’s hypothesis, a view Tree omits to mention when she discusses Kirby’s involvement with Knepp in its early years when he was employed by Natural England [8]. And learning as we recently have, perhaps mainly through the pioneering work of Professor Suzanne Simard, and as popularised by Peter Wohlleben in his The Hidden Life of Trees [9], Vera’s thesis almost seems to suggest that the rich communication and co-operation between trees is anomalous.

I would emphasise that I am not qualified to come down on either side of this debate, but I rebel slightly against Fenton’s view that Scotland’s tree denuded highlands are “relatively natural” [10]. But if someone were to ask me where to turn for ‘rewilding advice’ I would recommend these essays, if for no other reason than when delving into the deep past we can only ever see through a glass darkly. In my judgement, the degree of certainty asserted in Tree’s book commits a disservice to conservation; far better to acknowledge diverging views, assimilate, ask fundamental questions concerning why rewilding for this landscape, and if answers are in the affirmative, rewild in a context specific way. A forthcoming publication led by Helen Kopnina [11] explores these issues, and particularly the OVP experiment, in more depth.

Yesterday’s articles written for tomorrow

I have often reflected that one of the problems with environmentalist discourse is that proponents seem tethered to their rubric of ‘the environment,’ meaning varying things to different people, not very much to others, and perhaps encouraging our detractors. What if we instead concerned ourselves with ‘life,’ and more particularly its precipitous erosion. By life, I naturally mean all life, not just human life, and I don’t believe people should exert precedence over other life forms. Perhaps surprisingly I have only recently, in the last year, come to realise this represents an ecocentric perspective. But here too I struggle with the notion that all life has parity. If something is rare or vulnerable it might be assigned greater importance, and in some cases or senses sanctity. I veer on believing nonhuman life is more significant than human life because it is vulnerable and threatened in ways that human beings are not. I also cannot help but feel that nonhuman life is somehow sacred. This forms part of my growing conviction; not something I am going to exclaim as if I know, or as if supported by unassailable reasoning. What I am struggling to convey is my visceral quest and dawning ‘intuition’ [12]. And this is where two ECOS authors helped illuminate my path.

The first was James Fenton and his The Ecology of Environmentalism: Some Ideas for Discussion [13] and Beyond the Faustian Bargain [14]; one of the key points he articulates is the anthropocentric worldview versus ‘the intrinsic value of all life forms’ [15]. He starts with what I believe to be the Artistolian creation of an anthropocentric and zoocentric hierarchy based on the ‘ladder of nature’ in which people come above animals followed by plants, the latter of which just ranked above inanimate objects [16]. And if we then realise that there is nothing innately correct about this position, but rather it represents a debate won in the ancient world, which we have continued to unquestioningly accept, then I say, we should unlearn the past [17], which crucially means ditching our anthropocentric assumptions about the order of the world. Common ground is found in Caddy’s editorial view of the journal Tears in the Fence; “we believe that people are not separate from or above the natural world” (Caddy’s emphasis) [18].

Fenton’s articles are a very good introduction into underlying worldviews and philosophies, which more often than not people hold without realising. He also perceptively suggests that when we appeal to ‘higher’ rationales we become exposed to ridicule [19]. For example, arguments against greenbelt development are couched in terms of challenging developers’ claims about housing demand and attesting the ecological value of the site. However, the real reason CPRE and other conservation groups don’t like to see fields converted into – not infrequently – anonymous ugly housing estates, is because they love the countryside; but degrees of love are not material considerations in planning decisions, and indeed in any conservation issue. Inevitably we fight and win the occasional battle (in a losing war) by deploying our enemies’ technical arguments against them, but what really drives us are the ‘higher’ arguments for conservation; the inherent value in nonhuman life, abstract and subjective concepts like beauty, untamed, wild, spiritual. But the greatest of these has always been, and will remain, love.

Love versus the unloving

Twenty years later, and in my view the finest of many fine pieces, comes Martin Spray’s Also he loved a tree [20], asking what we mean if we claim to ‘love’ nature. His is a panoramic treatise, stretching from the poet Edward Thomas, to Aldo Leopold, E O Wilson, Wendell Berry and Krishnamurti, not forgetting the contributions of Saint Francis of Assisi and the goddess Artemis along the way. Ultimately he asks; “is it possible to save what we cannot love?” (to which I think the answer is no) and persuade the unloving (Spray’s emphasis) [21]. In so doing Spray reveals the underlying raw unsolvable problem throughout all these pages. If people loved marine environments, either there would be no fishfarms defacing Scottish lochs or they would take on a very different form; if people loved our wild uplands, no one would dream of carpeting them with suffocating conifer monocultures. If people loved life, all life, we would live in a transformed world.

Martin Spray has settled on the most important question; how to make people love… I wish I knew. But if I might venture to suggest what ECOS has achieved over the last 40 years, it has been to try to make people love and to persuade the unloving. Our articles have varied tremendously, from being technical to impassioned and raging, lamenting, pleading even, but always well argued. Some salve our bereavement for life’s diminution, others inspire to cherish what remains; all have been expressions of love. And that is an enduring achievement, which readers, authors and editors alike should celebrate.

References

  1. Smith, R., ‘The Green Fungus Syndrome,’ ECOS 8 (2) pp. 18 – 21, 1987
  2. Price, C., ‘The Economy of Forestry: Any Change?’ ECOS 8 (1) p. 32, 1987
  3. Minns, D., ‘Forestry in Scotland,’ ECOS 10 (3) pp. 5 – 6, 1989
  4. Ross, A., ‘Marine Fish Farming – Scotland’s Pride or Problem?’ ECOS 10 (3) p. 12, 1989
  5. Packham, C., et al., (2018) A Peoples Manifesto for Wildlife
  6. Dawson, E., ‘Quality of Life in the South East – raising the stakes,’ ECOS 25 (1) p. 90, 2004
  7. Tree, I., (2018) Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, Picador p. 82
  8. Tree, cit. p. 93
  9. Wohlleben, P., (2016) The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World, Greystone Books
  10. Fenton, J., ‘A new paradigm for the uplands,’ ECOS 25 (1) p. 5, 2004
  11. Dr Helen Kopnina, Coordinator Sustainable Business Programme, The Hague University of Applied Sciences: https://thehagueuniversity.academia.edu/HelenKopnina
  12. See Fenton, J., ‘The Ecology of Environmentalism: Some Ideas for Discussion,’ ECOS 8 (4) p. 29, 1987
  13. Fenton, J., ‘The Ecology of Environmentalism: Some Ideas for Discussion,’ ECOS 8 (4), 1987
  14. Fenton, J., ‘Beyond the Faustian Bargain,’ ECOS 8 (1) 1987
  15. Fenton, J., ‘Beyond the Faustian Bargain,’ ECOS 8 (1) p. 29, 1987
  16. Gagliano, M., Ryan, J.C., Vieira, P., Editors, (2017), The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature, University of Minnesota Press, p. ix
  17. Leadbeater, S.R.B., (2019) ‘Ancient Roots to Untruths; unlearning the past and seeing the world anew,’ Quarterly Journal of Forestry, January 2019 Vol 113 No.1
  18. Caddy, D., ‘Tears in the Fence,’ ECOS 8 (1) p. 16, 1987
  19. Fenton, J., ‘The Ecology of Environmentalism: Some Ideas for Discussion,’ ECOS 8 (4) p. 32, 1987
  20. Spray, M., ‘Also he loved a tree,’ ECOS 28 (1) 2007
  21. Spray, cit. p. 37

SIMON LEADBEATER

Simon Leadbeater is a small woodland and meadow owner living in Hertfordshire.

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Cite:

Leadbeater, Simon “ECOS 40(1): ECOS revisited – the shape of things to come?” ECOS vol. 40(1), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/ecos-401-ecos-revisited-the-shape-of-things-to-come/.

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