Miles King has been causing trouble in nature conservation for over 25 years and is currently Senior Ecologist at Footprint Ecology. He has been variously, head of conservation at Plantlife, The Grasslands Trust and Buglife. At other times Miles has worked for English Nature, Natural England, Dorset AONB and as a freelance conservationist. Miles lives in Dorset with his family.
We are living in the age of Can Do. We haved moved on from “I think therefore I am”, and now we are “I do because I can”. Smart phones are a good example. Not so long ago, people on trains or the tube would read the paper, listen to music on their walkmans, read a book or stare at their feet. Now most of them play games, listen to music, read the paper, stare into space, all on their smart phones (or tablets). Not because it is a better thing to do, but because they can. It’s the path of least resistance.
The same is true of our relationship with the rest of nature. We used to depend utterly on nature in a real and very direct way – if we didn’t gather wild plants and hunt wild animals we starved. We muddled along before and after the Neolithic, learning to live with the nature we could live with (domestication); avoiding the nature we couldn’t live with – with varying success – and cursing the nature that created problems for us. Weeds, that were originally wild food, became things that prevented us growing better crops; predators that once threatened to eat us, became demonised and/or worshipped, but still ate our livestock. Disease took our children, crops and livestock – and we created gods to channel our grief, assuage us and allowed us to express our desires to control that which we could not. We made sacrifices, precisely because we could not afford to, of our children, animals, harvest, and material goods, in the hope we could appease the deities we had created, to avoid further loss or perhaps to provide favour. Providence held sway in our minds.
It wasn’t all bad. We also gloried and wondered at nature and its beauty (when we weren’t cursing it) and created deities to explain the inexplicable pleasure and wisdom nature provided us. That relationship with nature also created music, art, dance, poetry and epic stories to encapsulate that glory, pleasure and pain and to provide explanations for the inexplicable. What we know from that which has survived from eg Palaeolithic art (like my favourite, the spotty horses of Peche Merle) indicates this relationship has been there for over 30,000 years, possibly far longer.
That relationship has gradually changed. The changes started at a pace we would now think of as glacial. It’s difficult to know just how far back, though Palaeolithic peoples were already managing drylands by fire 50,000 years ago (and previous species of Homo used fire many millennia further back). Even in the UK only a few short steps after recolonising the land after the Ice, the first tentative efforts to manage the land included the creation of hunting grounds by burning areas of upland heath that were already partly open, to encourage prey animals to visit or improve sight-lines for missile-based hunting. Before cereal crops arrived with the Neolithic, there is evidence we were already increasing the production of key wild plant resources, favouring hazel growth over other understorey shrubs in the Holocene forest.
The Neolithic certainly speeded things up. Though there were plenty of setbacks along the way; and with each ebb and flow as civilisation rose and fell, techniques were developed then lost, then returned. By the enlightenment there was a clear philosophical (and theological) basis to “improve” the land, to break out of the Malthusian trap of development, overpopulation, starvation and decline. With each technological improvement, the relationship between us and nature (not a balance but a dynamic interplay) has shifted incrementally in our direction. What, for example, did the shift from the Ox to Horse power in the 18th century do, for our heaths, woods, cereal fields and grasslands? What did the introduction of gunpowder to Europe from China do for our effectiveness at hunting down and finally exterminating those denizens of our Palaeolithic nightmares, the Wolves.
Fast forward to the 20th Century where on land the creation of potent agrochemicals combines with the shift from horse to Tractor; and at sea, sailing trawler gives way to steam trawler then diesel trawler in a historical eye blink; monofilament plastic replaces hand woven fabric nets and horsetail, silk or linen lines.
After all those centuries of having to make do, of toiling to grow more crop than weed, of watching cattle die of the mysterious Murrain, of making sacrifices to appease the gods, of losing fishermen to storms and watching woven-grass nets disintegrate: Now we are in charge! We have reached that sunlit plateau, we have the dominion over nature the Bible (other religions are available) has taught us is our birthright.
We can choose to evict nature from “our” spaces, and increasingly all spaces. We don’t have to accommodate wild flowers in our meadows – we can create meadows and pastures of pure grass, full of the nutrients we know produce more meat, more milk, faster and cheaper. We don’t have to bother with wild trees in forests, we can produce pine rapidly and cheaply, in neat rows that are easy to harvest. We can forget about all those pesky weeds (many of which started out as our wild harvest remember) in our crops and focus on producing more of the plants with the highest levels of energy. We will not go hungry or die from devastating infections like our forebears did.
In our gardens we can choose whether we want dandelions and daisies in our lawn, or not. We quickly chose not to harbour parasites in and on our bodies (no surprise there) and we can consign many infectious diseases to the history books if we choose to: Smallpox is already consigned to a Level 5 biosecurity facility or two – Polio will be next.
For some elements of nature, such as Smallpox, we have deliberately chosen to eradicate this species. The same is true of those elements we call diseases of livestock and crops. But in the totality of nature, these are an infinitesimally small proportion of the lost or disappearing species. The others are just collateral damage to a greater or lesser extent. There is no conspiracy to exterminate nature, we just do because we can.
Farmers can choose whether to have wildflower meadows or not. Not surprisingly they choose not to – And 98% of all the meadows that existed just 75 years ago, when they did not have that choice, have gone. Fisherman can now choose whether or not to remove all the fish from the sea. Not surprisingly they choose to do so; not because they actively want to see the seas devoid of fish, but because it provides them with a living. They can and therefore they do.
I think this can-do approach is leading fairly rapidly to the end of an age; the age of the semi-natural, when human endeavour combined with nature to create post wilderness landscapes and seascapes. The habitats and communities of species that co-existed in this semi-natural realm were mostly derived from what went before; and would re-emerge in slightly less tangible form with each civilisational collapse, plague, war or agricultural depression. Such post-war “wildernesses” have emerged in Europe, as described in George Monbiot’s book and this essay. How long they will survive is anybody’s guess, but history would indicate their all too temporary nature.
This semi-natural age was not some Romantic ideal of harmony, more like a long battle front, some places seeing little action, others with skirmishes and occasional full-scale battles along the way. The semi-natural age, that has lasted, 15000, 30,000, perhaps 70,000 years is coming to an end. We can now choose which of nature to retain – for example we can create a cacophony of different versions of the ancient Denizen Canis Lupus, from forms which help us protect our stock against their wild cousins, down to infantilisms like the tiniest Chihuahua – how about that as a testament of our Success? Or we can choose to re-create a modern version of the pre semi-natural Pleistocene age, perhaps re-engineering a few extinct megafauna, like the Straight-tusked Elephant or the Glyptodont. We can do what we like. Or at least we think we can….
Where does that leave nature conservation? What are we trying to conserve and why? We are certainly trying to conserve the last vestiges of the semi-natural, or at least its most recent incarnations – perhaps to assuage our guilt at what we now know we have done. We try and conserve farmland birds, even though they have been engineered out of the system. Just like the farmland birds, desperately seeking some place vaguely reminiscent of the niches they occupied just 50 years ago, our meadow flowers have already found there is nowhere to go; maybe the odd churchyard, or road verge, but mostly now just living in the leaky-lifeboats we call nature reserves and protected areas. I say leaky lifeboats because they are all too small to sustain populations of any but the most mobile and adaptive; they gradually leak the more demanding species away. Extinction debt is I think one of the most powerful concepts to arise for nature conservation in recent years. Climate Change is magnifying its impact.
So we grasp at straws such as landscape-scale conservation. Yes there are success stories (butterflies), but mostly we talk aspirationally and airily. We believe that through the power of persuasion and with the Righteousness of the enlightened, we can turn back this tide and that, magically, farmers and other landowners will willingly reduce their income and output, fighting against every sinew in their body and soul (helped by their High Priests in the NFU and CLA) telling them to produce more. In truth Society offers scant compensation for these losses, through Agri-Environment Schemes for example (another sacrificial offering?), and offering badges of honour. Wealthy landowners who have excellent cashflow and the motivation of long-standing paternalism, are happy to make sacrifices of production to see nature return, albeit temporarily and on their terms. But watch them take the lion’s share of those compensation payments, divvied up with the conservation charities which campaigned so vociferously for their creation “to support hard-up farmers to protect nature”.
Is it wrong of nature conservation to wish to conserve the semi-natural? Or course not. Apart from anything else that is what we have, and why would we not want to try and protect and cherish things of great beauty and wonder, things that provide meaning to so many of us? To criticise nature conservation for trying to conserve the semi-natural is like criticizing an apple for not being an orange. We all live in this age where nature, other than the domestic and their close companions the adaptive, is ebbing away, being forced into ever darker and smaller corners. And we do what we can to slow down the process, perhaps occasionally achieve a small reversal. Arguably what’s left of the semi-natural are indeed museum pieces – but is that really a pejorative? Museums, libraries and their ilk are essential repositories of culture and collective memory; they can teach us so much about our past and help us influence our future for the better.
We are starting to appreciate that nature provides our life support system and without it we will perish. Ecosystem Services are fashionable and the other neoliberal market-based approaches to valuing nature are modish now, but they are a side show. It really doesn’t matter how much something is worth economically, if you’re not there to realise its value. You can’t take it with you, either as an individual or as a species. Until we change our attitude to nature, as individuals, societies and as a species, we will continue down the road to a point where our extinction debt is called in.