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.
Amid the political clamour of the last three weeks since the Referendum, a disturbing silence. No one in power has yet spoken of the implications of Leave for more-than-human nature in these islands of ours. For conservation, for wildlife, for landscape in its broad sense. Perhaps we are naive to expect anything more.
As the farce unfolds in Westminster, as our party system self-decapitates into a headless hydra, and the full extent of Leave’s ‘Goodbye, Good Riddance And We’ll Work Out The Details Later’ ethos becomes clear, nature has been booted even further down the political priority list than before. Cameron is gone, Theresa May crowned, the motley-Cabinet appointed, and the signs all suggest that Brexit will offer the perfect mandate to dispose of the ‘green crap’ that Cameron famously disdained.
Each day here in the island group we precariously call Britain, the UK or the British Isles, we wake to strange new smoke signals, wafted above Westminster rooftops, mostly resistant to interpretation or futurology, but alarming in their outlines. July 11th, 2016, Ken Clarke on the Today programme notes that Theresa May will deal with the important issues first, and ‘the things she knows backwards, like the environment’, last. July 14th 2016, the Department for Energy and Climate Change is abolished and Andrea Leadsom is appointed as the new Minister for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which The Evening Standard describes as “a relatively minor Cabinet post”. Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Environment – who is pro-fracking, pro-forest sell-off, pro-fox hunting with dogs, and who in 2015 asked her officials “if climate change really exists”.
Oliver Rackham more than once observed that “The most difficult task in the whole of art is to draw a tree.” “Any picture of a tree,” he continued, “has to leave out most of the detail.” The same can be said of bees, otters, raptors, reptiles…all are beyond our drawing. Our record suggests that we are just too pre-occupied with our own needs, our ambitions, unable to focus politically and in detail on the other forms of life with which we share the land.
It is still shocking to read that 46 per cent of ancient semi-natural woodland in the UK was either destroyed or replaced with conifers between 1933 and 1983. Individual trees were killed by being pierced with large ‘Jim-Gem’ injectors containing ‘2-4-5 T’ (a derivative of ‘Agent orange’), or by the hacking of billhook-wounds into which Ammonium Sulphamate crystals were rubbed. Yet the visual and historic loss during those notorious “locust years” is abstract to many of us, to those who didn’t grow up in those woods, through those times. The same can be said of elm, as Rackham (again) pointed out: “Since the last Elm Disease a new generation has grown up to accept the absence of big elms as normal.”
Can we only mourn what is known to us, lost in our lifetime? Is that really how far our empathy and anxiety stretches? Perhaps ours is a generation twice estranged: estranged from the physical knowing of certain species in the landscape, estranged again from the thinking that justified and planned the mass-poisoning of woodland trees. What our generation does know, however, is the consequences of habitat loss across these islands: as the RSPB’s recent State of Nature report made chillingly clear, we are now living through the drastic decline of woodland species of butterflies, birds, invertebrate species and flowering plants.
The impact of human actions on a landscape and on nature is unpredictable, difficult to anticipate, and can take generations to express itself. The certainty that politicians sell in order to grab our votes does not fit the natural world, where nuance and complexity thrive. It is possible to revive the remnants of a once-poisoned ancient woodland, to ‘right’ the mistakes of the past – as is the case of Chalkney Wood, in Essex, which today “looks for all the world like an unmolested ancient wood” (as Simon Leatherdale of the Forestry Commission says). But the full impact that one generation of leaders and policy-makers has on wildlife and different habitats cannot be accounted for or tidily measured by the next.
This is one vital value of creating durable legal frameworks for the environment. They are not – or should not – be created to squeeze tax from business and industry. They are meant to disembody each generation from the ideas and needs of their time, protecting wildlife from the unchecked exploitation of those human neighbours.
The UK’s framework for environmental legislation, and much of the funding for conservation in the UK, comes from Europe. The system as it stood was far from perfect, and there is a troubling contradiction in the idea that attitudes towards nature and its ‘management’ can be centralised. Yet 70% of safeguards protecting what is left of the living world in the UK are EU in origin; so too some of the most ambitious and successful international conservation initiatives – EU Natura 2000, say, or the Birds and Habitat Directives. EU money has poured into conservation projects and research in the UK: successful marshland habitat creation projects on Orford Ness, for instance, or the €12m granted last year to help conserve critical English upland wetland areas. Natural England, a body set up in 2006 as “the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, helping to protect England’s nature and landscapes for people to enjoy and for the services they provide” receives up to 80% of its funding from the EU. The EU-wide moratorium on neonicotinoid use, fought against so hard by the NFU, will surely now be revoked in Britain. Air pollution, water quality, biodiversity loss, climate change, habitat destruction: these are Anthropocene-scale problems that need cross-border solutions – and in which human well-being and more-than-human well-being are inseparably entangled.
The signs and portents of the past three weeks suggest that more-than-human life will be of little concern in the coming politics and that ‘nature’ will be sent – to paraphrase Obama – right to the back of the queue. Some EU legislation – like the Birds and Habitats Directive – may remain as UK law, simply because it is too expensive and bothersome to untangle and replace with something home-grown. But as Britain shakes itself down legislatively, in advance of building itself up again, losses will be felt, pressures will grow.
We need – urgently need, more than ever before in our lifetimes – progressive voices to speak up for the importance of nature in Britain’s future. Should UK’s grassland, hedges, woodlands or rivers, like the Whanganui River on North Island in New Zealand, be entitled to a legal identity? Other than rewilding, what other attitudes to land management can recognise the autonomy of nature? How can we shift the human horizon, both culturally and legally, to see beyond the immediate needs of each generation? Greenpeace has just launched an appeal for questions about the environment to be put to Theresa May: you can add to the list here. Join charities and pressure groups large (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF) and small (Action for Conservation, Common Ground). Be active in your home and in your community: read, write, talk, walk, argue, lobby, work out where opportunities exist for advance (the reform of the CAP) and where ground must not be given (air pollution legislation). Add idea to idea, voice to voice, make a murmuration: create some sense, perhaps, of hope or of traction or of action. The least we can do is make noise, fill the silence.
Robert Macfarlane is a writer known for his explorations of the relationship between people and place, and a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
Adrian Cooper is a publisher at Little Toller Books and director of the arts and environmental charity Common Ground.
Beuys’ Acorn (the artwork above) was created by Ackroyd and Harvey, who have been exhibiting in contemporary art galleries, museums and public spaces worldwide for 25 years.
Read more Lie of the Land articles.