A Dark Shade of Green

Conservation is too often taken at face value. Criticise it, and you may find yourself accused of wanting to concrete over the entire countryside, and to have all the creatures that live within in slaughtered for fun.

The truth is, however, that even a country as densely-populated as the UK is less than 10% developed, and the majority of its population live in cities that are strangled by ‘green belt’ — rings of land protected by law. This furthermore means that only the wealthy can afford to live or build outside the city limits, meanwhile, house prices within it rise inexorably, and the size of properties gets smaller, and the local facilities and infrastructure struggle to cope. What price ‘conservation’, then? Freedom… mortgages that few people can afford… escalating rents… state-sponsored landlords and spiralling benefit costs… increased cost of living… decreasing living standards. Conservationists then argue that we need MORE green space to help us mentally recover from the stresses of modern life.

The green-space-as-public-amenity argument is thus shown as so much bunk. Conservation comes at a price, and that price is rarely discussed. Rather it is assumed that we’re running out of space for all things bright and beautiful, while we create prisons for ourselves.

There’s another kind of conservation too — the idea that without a conservation effort, species of flora and fauna will disappear. I put these arguments into two categories. The first is the ‘web-of-life’ or ‘biodiversity’ argument, in which ‘species’ are valuable because they exist as part of a network or ecosystem which has both intrinsic moral and material value — a natural order– on which our own existences depend, and that we should observe. The second is the idea that we like there to be creatures and some kind of wilderness. I have some sympathy with the second insofar as I think this subjective valorisation of ‘nature’ deserves a hearing in discussions about development; there should be a public discussion about the value of nature, since most people seem to like and value it. The former, however, I believe is an attempt to bypass that discussion, but to create political value of natural processes through blackmail: ‘conservation or death’.

Then there’s an even darker side of conservation. Just as conservation has its human cost in the UK, it has greater consequences where the humans it displaces are less wealthy and more excluded from political life. Many have commented on the ‘neocollonialist’ tendency of conservationists. A new Channel 4 documentary considers some of its excesses.

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I’m not sure if this film will show here, or if non-UK readers will be able to see it. Here’s the link, if the above player does not work.

The film itself unfortunately takes a few tenets of conservation at face value, and doesn’t quite get to the bottom of it. Nonetheless, it makes some valuable, shocking points that remind us what conservation in its unchecked, political form really looks like: it puts humans below nature.

13 thoughts on “A Dark Shade of Green”

  1. 10% of the UK is used for housing. 70%+ is used for farmland. We do kind of need the farmland, for, you know, food and stuff.

  2. Less than 10% of the UK is developed, let alone used for housing. Even if we doubled that amount of development — which would be quite a challenge — there would still be another 10% remaining before it ate into ‘farmland’.

    And given that we pay subsidies to farmers for set-aside and for biocrops it’s hard to sustain the idea that we need all of that 70% for ‘you know, food and stuff’. And we could make the arable land yet more productive — but don’t tell the organic lot that.

    Moreover, though, your comment makes no difference to my point about the green belt, and conservation.

  3. This is a value judgment, they are making a value judgment and so are you. This means that you don’t have much of a scientific leg to stand on here, it is pure preference and personal philosophy. You can dress up your argument in the cloak of left wing ideology all you want but you must recognize that this is not skepticism, this is not about science, this is about values and how different groups hold different sets of values.

  4. Anon: This is a value judgment, they are making a value judgment and so are you.

    Well, d’uh… did you not read the part:

    The first is the ‘web-of-life’ or ‘biodiversity’ argument, in which ‘species’ are valuable because they exist as part of a network or ecosystem which has both intrinsic moral and material value — a natural order– on which our own existences depend, and that we should observe. The second is the idea that we like there to be creatures and some kind of wilderness. I have some sympathy with the second insofar as I think this subjective valorisation of ‘nature’ deserves a hearing in discussions about development; there should be a public discussion about the value of nature, since most people seem to like and value it.

    This means that you don’t have much of a scientific leg to stand on here

    What has science got to do with it?

    You can dress up your argument in the cloak of left wing ideology all you want but you must recognize that this is not skepticism…

    I have to confess, I don’t know what you’re on about. My guess is that neither of us do.

  5. Did you know that during a famine in 2002, Friends of the Earth bullied the Zambian government into refusing food aid from the West, because said aid included GM produce?

    Murdering bastards…

  6. George, one of the things they did was to tell politicians that if they accepted GM crops, it would contaminate their domestic agriculture with GM, and they would be forever prohibited from European markets. Nice.

  7. Brilliant. Start with conservation (we need green belts around our cities)… wait until that starts to affect our lives (we get locked in by our leafy prison bars)… then we arrive at the solution: we need more conservation.

    Isn’t it funny how our assumptions often affect our conclusions?

    But is the converse true? Take out the green belts and let the cities spread. Would we need less ‘conservation’? I suspect (without any evidence whatsoever) that we would naturally build greenery into the spread. Just a hunch.

  8. Ben, much as I agree with your article, I must take issue with your take on farming subsidies. The ludicrous set aside scheme has, thankfully, been abolished. No subsidies there. And the term ‘biocrops’ does you no favours, since you’d be challenged to grow any other sort – as far as I’m aware there’s no ‘subsidy’ available for biofuel production, although you may get get some assistance for planting willow, etc. for short rotation coppice for biomass production.

  9. To what extent are measures which obstruct housebuilding – supposedly for the protection of the natural environment – actually all about keeping house prices high for the benefit of existing homeowners?

    I’d say a more obvious (and even less environmentally beneficial) version of this practice are the regulations in many US neighbourhoods that require houses to have huge front lawns. I suspect in the US case racism had something to do with it – requiring that everyone moving into an area buy a quarter-acre of land and two cars was probably (at least at the time) an excellent way of keeping the n***ers out.

  10. It seems to me that humans have always liked – and had a felt need – to live in groups. And, looking at our modern cities, we don’t appear to have reached the limit to how large those groups can be. I suppose the word ‘settlement’ comes from a sense of being settled (or at least, of wanting to be).

    Perhaps we have always valued the ‘wilderness’ not only for the resources we harvest from it, but also as a place we can sometimes visit to remind ourselves of the insularity of being human… a valuable truth which can easily get lost in the constant give and take of life in the group. These retreats were biblically named ‘forty days and forty nights’ and now we prefer to call them ‘holidays’ or ‘vacations’. Vacation is an interesting choice of word because it describes leaving something behind rather than going to something – as if the most important need the act meets is a manageable and contained experience of relative emptiness (and an absence that would, it is hoped, be mutuality felt by those left back in the group). The real value of a vacation might be that it makes the space in which we can remind ourselves of what we are missing.

    With this in mind, an ‘environmentalist’ might simply be a person who fetishises holidays – or at least, the place where they are usually taken. But his privileging of wilderness as a replacement for settlement – rather than as a temporary retreat from it – suggests that the use and value of both are lost to him. If being settled has no value (or if its value is refused), then being vacant from it fails to provide the very emotion which only the wilderness can… that of something being missed.

    The paradox in all this of course (and that which affirms the Green neurosis), is that the same environmentalist now demands to litter the wilderness with giant, phallic totems to the modern settlement he has rejected. It is as if, in one stroke, he wants to sabotage for himself and the rest of us that awareness of insularity (and its real needs) which is perhaps the empty wilderness’s most valuable human resource.

  11. George Carty,
    I suspect that big lawns were to exclude poor people, or recent immigrants. Keeping out the n****s could be done explicitly as we discovered when we read the “covenants” in property we bought which had been subdivided before 1960.

    Sometimes these restrictions find their way into local ordinances. Coral Gables Florida has (had until recently) some dandies. No trucks may be parked on private property including, until recently, pick-up trucks, no RV’s may be parked in front of residential garage. Cars may not be parked overnight on street in front of house, garage doors may not be left open unattended more than 30 consecutive minutes, no boats stored outside on premises, exterior paint colors subject to permit, etc etc.

    It’s not very hard to see who the truck restriction is aimed at. Very large, very expensive, leather lined, diesel Pick-up trucks have become all the rage with those (still) having excess substance and for this reason are now likely legal in the Gables.

    I may have some of this wrong. The Gables are typical of the “up-scale” close-in suburbs in the states where when you indicate moving to Miami, you get to hear from all the usual types “Of course, you’ll be living in the Gables.” Like Hell. We chose Coconut Grove where apparently anything went, although the property still conveyed with proscriptions of both Jews and Negroes.

  12. I deny (yes, I am a denier 🙂 the very concepts of “balance of nature” and “natural sustainability”.

    If these two things were actual, then not even amoeba would have developed.

    Listen, life expands to fill the space available in a desperate, losing, struggle for survival, a least for the individual. But life goes on, as they say. This is the miracle of life that should be celebrated, not some despotic ideology based upon suburban bourgeois romanticism.

    I hope I’ve made my point clear 🙂

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