ECOS 40(3): ECOS Revisited: 1991-2010 sustainability slowly emerges

Editions reviewed:
ECOS 24(1), 24(3/4), 26(1), 29(2)

In 2001, and mid-point of this ECOS review period, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins addressed the former Environment Foundation on the theme of “sustainability doesn’t come naturally” [1]. Whilst not erstwhile a Dawkins fan, I have to agree with him about the time since 1979: a year when my nascent environmentalism was galvanised by spell as a voluntary Nature Conservancy Council warden in North Wales. Forty years on, and I have a growing interest in evolutionary anthropology, partly with the hope that human nature may evolve more sustainably in the future. However, between 1991-2010, I was mostly engaged in diverse spatial planning, urban regeneration and environmental initiatives, including several featured in my ECOS back copies. These are discussed below in reverse chronology using issue titles or main themes as headings and their subject matter is revisited with a current perspective. Although sustainability does not come naturally in the larger narrative, there are some important successes on the ground, and maybe the age of natural sustainability has now dawned [2].

2010 31(1) : An uncertain climate

My review period ends and begins with two major economic recessions: one in the late 2000s the result of a global banking crisis; and another in the late 1980s and early 1990s the consequence of an international property boom and bust.  As these tend to reduce consumption of natural resources, recessions (of which more later) can be mixed blessings for the environment but are not so good for people and organisations who work in conservation as ECOS 31(1) recognises. It also provides a reminder that employment and livelihoods are deeply connected to broader economic and sustainability agendas which often place humans and nature in conflict. Such tension has been a feature of UK policy responses to climate change, which along with invasive species and the  role of Britain’s National Parks are the other main themes covered in this issue.

ECOS 31(1) came out shortly after the flawed 2009 Copenhagen Accord [3] which provides the basis for contributions by Simon Ayres, Kate Rawles, Richard Smithers and Mike Townsend that highlight the importance of land use in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. Ayres is a founder of the Wales Wild Land Foundation which runs the Cambrian Wildwood ecological restoration programme in partnership with the Woodland Trust.(4) Such initiatives embody important local conservation successes, but the big picture is more difficult. In 2009, I attended hearings on the now defunct West Midlands Regional Spatial Strategy to which the Welsh Assembly had objected  because of unsustainable water demand: a key issue once again in the news.(5)

ECOS 26 (2)

2005 (2/26): Carbon and conservation

In the same year, I also went to a conference entitled “Zero Carbon Britain” at the Mid-Wales Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) and unintentionally became embroiled in “the renewable energy discourse” which is the focus of ECOS 26(2). The editorial comes from the veteran environmentalist and energy campaigner Peter Taylor. Although a long-term advocate of renewables, he sounds a cautionary note against their “industrial scale development” in natural landscapes. Whilst CAT’s Peter Harper argues passionately for onshore wind power, other contributions range from circumspection to hostility. Since 2010, the policy environment for renewables has changed in England and Wales, with only Scotland pushing ahead with the type of development earlier planned for the UK as a whole [6]. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s “Renewable Heat Incentives Scandal” has fuelled popular scepticism of ill-conceived and maladministered public investment in some so-called green energy projects [7].   

ECOS 26(2) concludes with a review of Peter Taylor’s Beyond Conservation – A Wild Land Strategy, a book commissioned by the British Association for Nature Conservationists which tackles the themes of largescale ecological restoration and rewilding. This was a forward-looking project, although the word “rewilding” remains as controversial amongst some sections of the UK rural community as “renewable energy” does amongst others. Environmental policy makers in Scotland have tended to eschew the term altogether in favour of the rather clumsy “landscape-scale conservation”[8], although a book published last year maintains that “nature depleted Scotland needs a new era of re-wilding”[9], along with the rest of the Britain.

1996 (17(2)): Nature and biodiversity

This ECOS issue ends with “An Earnest Request for the Re-Capitalising of Nature” in correspondence from one Geoffrey Platts of Carefree, Arizona. His letter proposes that “Nature” should be treated like “God”. However, the request is a reminder that we should be careful what we wish for. In recent years, nature has been converted into ecosystem services and natural capital whilst recognition of its more intrinsic worth and, for some, spiritual value, have probably diminished within increasingly technocratic governments [10]. The potential dangers of replacing a “culture of Nature” with the science of biodiversity are anticipated in Rick Minter’s opening editorial.

Nevertheless, like many at the time, I welcomed the advent of biodiversity, especially when in 1994 the UK became the first country to produce a national action plan following the Convention on Biological Diversity signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 [11]. This seemed to give central government policy-makers on nature conservation renewed political importance and access to funding. Similarly, local biodiversity planning appeared to offer real opportunities for giving nature “more leverage”, as set out in Bill Butcher’s ECOS 17(2) article on “the lessons from Mendip”. Sadly, such potential was quickly subsumed in to bureaucratic ecosystems with a penchant for corporate rebranding (English Nature becomes Natural England etc) combined with diminished real action and investment on the ground. These shortcomings are all too evident in the depressing UK “State of Nature” reports where Britain has been branded “one of the most unnatural countries in the world” with agricultural systems identified as one of the main causes [12].

1992 (3/13): Agriculture and the environment

The early 1990s reform of the European Community – before it became a “Union” – Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) provides the focus of this issue. These years represented a serious attempt by the Bloc to harmonise aspects of Europe’s economic and environmental policies, following measures such Environmental Impact Directive of 1985. However, the CAP reforms fell rather short of the UK conservation movement’s expectations, representing “missed opportunities” which are set out in an article by the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s Paul Wynne. Another piece on agriculture and the environment, by Charlie Arden-Clarke of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, discusses the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT): again a topical subject as Britain wrestles with Brexit and talks of World Trade Organisation (post-GATT) rules.

Other contributions explore in more detail the impact of agriculture on the British countryside, including environmentally-sensitive farming, the use of set-aside, and the protection of hedgerows, in an ECOS where Britain’s national land use policy is at the forefront. Nevertheless, the global scene in never far away. For 1992 was the year of “The Earth Summit”, the seminal United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Various publications associated with this event are mentioned, together with a “supplementary report to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scientific assessment”, entitled “Climate Change 1992”, which highlights “the Concept of Global Warming” (ECOS capitalisation).

1991 (4/12): Sustainability – why it matters

Michael Jacobs’s guest editorial on ‘Sustainable Development – Making it Count’ opens my final ECOS instalment. In some respects, the decade after the 1987 Brundtland Report on Our Common Future [13], which popularised the concept of sustainability, represented a peak in environmental consciousness. Jacobs’s comparison of sustainable development to “key political principles”, like “liberty, democracy, justice” strikes this note of optimism. The reality at the time for many environmentalists struggling to conserve nature was a stark contrast with the rhetoric of what would by the late 2000s become labelled “sustainababble”: “a  cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable” [14]. The current ironic use of “Sustainababble” for a podcast about the environment attempts to restore the word’s original message [15].

Two stories in ECOS 12(4) draw attention to a tendency for principles, policies and practice to diverge. These involved two grassroots campaigns: one to prevent construction of the final section of the M3 motorway through Twyford Down in Hampshire, and another to stop development of an East London River Crossing through the Green Chain on the borders of Greenwich and Bexley. The latter was spearheaded by People Against the River Crossing and Dave Black’s ECOS article on ‘Oxleas Wood: A Common Inheritance’ describes the state of play at the end of 1991. Two years later, the Conservative government unexpectedly abandoned this scheme, in part due to post-recession spending cuts [16]. As a result, an important green corridor in outer London has been conserved and ecologically restored [17]. Despite even more determined opposition, construction of the M3 through Twyford Down went ahead, but the scale of protest here and elsewhere helped secure a massive reduction in the road-building programme for a nearly a generation [18].

ECOS 12 (4)

Conclusion: uncertain climate continues

Since 2010 when my journey through the ECOS archive ends, “Austerity” (deliberately capitalised) has been central government’s mantra. In fact, it has been an era of feast and famine in which promoters of an expanding series of financially and environmentally unsustainable development projects and programmes have received unprecedented public spending [19], whilst swathes of the country have been impoverished by sweeping government cuts. One of the many casualties has been Natural England, whose decline is documented by the trade union Prospect [20]. Meanwhile, anti-government sentiment in England has been a significant factor in a Brexit that, whatever one’s views on EU membership, has become an enormous political distraction from issues such as the environment [21]. Unfortunately, distraction seems to encapsulate an Internet Age zeitgeist making it difficult to see how many of the unresolved challenges of sustainability described in ECOS between 1991-2010 will unfold.

Nevertheless, my ECOS reading has been a considerable education – as well as re-education – process and I have been struck by the high quality and deep thinking of many contributions. Such thinking is an attribute apparently much valued by the present Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove. The key message I take from the ECOS archive is the need to put not just nature conservation but largescale ecological restoration at the heart of the sustainability and climate change agendas. This requires concerted and long-term action by government in partnership with other organisations of the kind recommended by the United States Nature Conservancy as “Natural Climate Solutions”[22]. George Monbiot has recently popularised this concept in the UK [2]. Incidentally, his campaign The Land is Ours (23) appeared in ECOS 17(2).

Finally, I would like to dedicate this review to the memory of Jeremy Cotton who died in late 2010. A BBC “Brain of Britain” and “Brain of Brains” in the 1990s, the Cambridge-educated botanist played a major voluntary role in London wildlife conservation and was a long-standing opponent of  development which threatened the ecology of Greenwich and Bexley.

References

1. http://www.environmentfoundation.net/reports/richard-dawkins-questions.htm

2. April 2019 launch of Natural Climate Solutions https://www.naturalclimate.solutions

3.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copenhagen_Accord

4. Wales Wild Land Foundation; Cambrian Wildwood https://www.cambrianwildwood.org/

5. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/mar/18/england-to-run-short-of-water-within-25-years-environment-agency

6. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/energy-trends-september-2018-special-feature-article-renewable-electricity-in-scotland-wales-northern-ireland-and-the-regions-of-england-in-2017

7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_Heat_Incentive_scandal

8. https://www.environment.gov.scot/our-environment/people-and-the-environment/landscape-scale-conservation/

9. https://treesforlife.org.uk/news/article/nature-depleted-scotland-needs-new-era-of-rewilding-says-landmark-book/

10. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/natural-capital-and-ecosystem-service-approaches-to-management

11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_Biodiversity_Action_Plan

12. https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/nature-wildlife-species-extinct-britain-countryside-state-of-nature-report-2016-rspb-farming-a7256441.html

13. 1987 Brundtland Report https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Common_Future

14. Beyond Sustainable https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.5822/978-1-61091-458-1_1

15. Sustainababble Podcast on environmental issues http://www.sustainababble.fish/

16. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/road-plans-threatened-as-wood-is-reprieved-m25-widening-under-scrutiny-after-london-river-crossing-1483492.html

17.  https://www.thewoodlandsfarmtrust.org/

18. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twyford_Down

19. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/liamhalligan/10790313/Now-is-not-the-time-for-grand-vanity-projects-like-HS2.html

20. https://www.prospect.org.uk/blog/index/2019/March/12/Situation-at-Natural-England-exposes-impact-austerity-on-our-environment

21. https://greenallianceblog.org.uk/2019/03/05/brexit-chaos-shouldnt-distract-the-government-from-the-climate-crisis/  

22. http://naturalclimatesolutions.org/

23. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Land_is_Ours

Cite:

Mackinnon, Janet “ECOS 40(3): ECOS Revisited: 1991-2010 sustainability slowly emerges” ECOS vol. 40(3), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/ecos-403-ecos-revisited-1991-2010-sustainability-slowly-emerges/.

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