Over the coming days and weeks The Clearing will be publishing Lie of the Land, a series of responses to the Referendum exploring what leaving the EU could mean for conservation, wildlife and our relationship with the land. Please add your voice by posting comments below or submitting a longer contribution – either in images or words – to The Clearing editors.
I usually shudder at generalisations, for generalisations are the mechanism we use to pigeon-hole people into stereotypes, and reduce complex issues to sound-bites. It’s obvious why we do it – the world is extremely complicated, and that can feel overwhelming. Much easier therefore, to fall back on simpler things: gut feelings, lazy assumptions, and gross generalisations.
Which of us can actually say we understood the full ramifications: politically, economically, socially and so on and so on, of the vote they made on the referendum, whichever way it was we voted? I found myself wincing time and again over the ridiculous argument about ‘experts’ – it ought to go without saying that specialists are who we consult because the world as we find it is too much for any one human to understand. Whether those specialists are doctors, dentists, mechanics, or yes, politicians, we go to them because they are meant to know more about the subject in hand than we do, and this is part of what it means to live in a society. That the Leave campaign made a virtue out of a return to ignorance is bad enough, but the tragedy of the Remain campaign was that it failed to blow such assertions away as the self-apparent nonsense they are.
Of course, experts can be wrong too. They can simply make mistakes, or they can be working to an agenda, either self- or un-consciously. Economists, to take one area, are very good at considering the macro effects of fiscal policy, less good at realising what happens to people on the ground. I’ve recently been looking at the effects of a thing called NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), signed between the US, Canada, and Mexico, which came into effect in 1994. Supporters point to the beneficial effect on the Mexican economy of NAFTA – the volume and value of trade between the US and Mexico has increased significantly as a result of the agreement. However, overall economic growth over time has remained sluggish and income per capita has moved very little at all. What these numbers tell us is that the wealth of Mexico is increasingly concentrated in a small number of hands, and what that proves is that neo-liberalism does not necessarily produce solutions that are good for everyone.
When it comes to environmental matters, how are good solutions obtained? Since the land cannot speak for itself, who will speak on its behalf? The argument that corporate self-interest, recognising its own long-term needs, will ensure that it seeks to maintain a healthy planet is laughable at best. We only need to think of VW and their emissions cheating (probably a company many of us might have placed among the more responsible of big businesses) to see what happens in practice: capitalism is by definition the drive to accumulate capital, ie money, and any corners that can be cut to increase that money very likely will be.
The environment is one area where I’m more than usually likely to want to trust an expert, in this case we might consider remarks by Dr. Charlotte Burns, of the Environment Department of the University of York, and an ‘expert’ in European Union environment policy. Two years ago, she warned:
“from an environmental perspective even contemplating leaving the European Union is an astounding piece of political folly: EU membership has led to a cleaner and healthier UK environment.”
And went on to conclude:
“From an environmental perspective, whilst it is not inevitable that an EU exit will lead to a weakening of UK environmental legislation, the frequent attempts by UK ministers to weaken progressive environmental policy at the European level, and the on-going refusal to implement important air quality law suggest that in the absence of external pressure there will be a weakening of environmental policy.”
Or we might look here, in a 2013 report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy:
“In spheres as varied as air and water pollution, waste management and recycling, nature conservation, noise and impact assessment, EU measures have augmented or moved beyond previous UK measures with substantial environmental benefits.”
Whether we’re talking about our bathing waters, our forests, our bird life, or the protection of habitats, such as those for fresh and salt water fish, the EU has until now ensured that the UK took adequate action in each area. The future is now uncertain.
The planet cannot speak for itself, not in the short term. In the long run, of course, it will. It will find a new way of being, it will adjust to whatever we have made of it, environmentally, and the only questions are: what species will have been eradicated as a result, and whether we are one of them.
Marcus Sedgwick is an author and illustrator. His many books for adults and children include Floodland, The Dark Horse and The Ghosts of Heaven. He has many prizes for his work, including the Branford Boase Award and the Booktrust Teenage Prize.He lives in the French Alps, in an old chalet d’alpage, high in the Haute Savoie, where he became obsessed with snow, which is the subject of his forthcoming book.
Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley (1865 – 1931), whose image featured above, perfected a process of catching flakes on black velvet so images could be captured before they either melted. One of the first known photographers of snowflakes, he described snowflakes as ‘tiny miracles’.
Read more Lie of the Land articles.