Cultural Revolutions

Why is biodiversity always treated as the bad guy? When there’s a conflict between nature and industry it is the supporters of nature who are portrayed as the Luddites, the nimbys, the anti-people brigade… with the developers being portrayed as the forward-looking part of the equation. 

And yet the Government’s own Natural Capital Committee disagrees with this view, in their first State of Natural Capital report they clearly stated: 

“There is no inherent incompatibility between preserving and enhancing natural capital and economic growth, as long as growth is properly measured.”  

So why does this conflict, and strongly held belief, still persist? Part of it is the process by which development decisions are made. 

So many ancient and native woods face this fate

So many ancient and native woods face this fate

In making any decision about planning, the planning authority has responsibility to weigh up the need for the development and the benefits it will bring to the community against any damage it may cause whether environmental or social. The problem is that all too often the decision is made on perceived economic grounds with the environmental implications being ignored or relegated to the side lines. 

This is perhaps not surprising. Planning assessments are made by people trained to be town planners; only a third of planning authorities have any ecological expertise anymore. And when we are constantly being told that environmental considerations are a major barrier to getting the country back on its feet, then it is a brave assessment that would put the environment first. 

Woods are lucky, ancient woodland is specifically mentioned in the National Planning Policy Framework as a habitat to be avoided – unless the need for, and benefit of, the development is significantly greater than the harm it will do to the woodland. And yet, currently in England we have 380 ancient woods threatened by development. If that is happening to a habitat specifically mentioned as one to avoid, what is happening to all our meadows or wetlands or heathland? 

So if we accept that the current system is not working what would we suggest to improve it? 

The biggest barrier is the cultural one; environment is seen as something with no measurable value, nice to add on at the end but the first thing to be slashed when there is a shortage of money. 

The UK National Ecosystem Assessment was the first analysis of the UK’s natural environment in terms of the benefits it provides to society and continuing economic prosperity. Following international guidelines, it looked at the ecosystem services that are provided by habitats and species and attempted to put a value to them. The Natural Capital Committee is taking this further by identifying where our use of these resources is becoming unsustainable. But there seems to be little connection between what is happening at a national level and local implementation of decision making. 

Is there a method by which we could place a value on the environment which would be understood by developers and planners? Biodiversity offsetting is claimed as a mechanism to do this, recently touted as a cure all by the Ecosystems Markets Task Force, amongst others, we are expecting a Government announcement soon about the possible roll-out of an offsetting scheme. 

Offsetting is an emotive subject but even its most ardent supporters admit that it cannot solve biodiversity loss on its own. If we are going to make a real difference to the UK’s ecosystems then far more work needs to be done to join up the academics with the industrialists, the decision-makers with the Local Nature Partnerships, and the people with their local environment. We need a new cultural revolution.

Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Officer

About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
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18 Responses to Cultural Revolutions

  1. Pingback: Biodiversity Offsetting

  2. Pingback: Biodiversity Offsetting – lose a wood, gain a wood | Woodland Matters

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  4. Marcus says:

    It’s governmental spin and greenwash to seriously suggest that the natural world doesn’t have to pay the price for our endless quest for growth. Whether economic or population, habitat and biodiversity pay the price for the human growth fetish…

  5. Some excellent points being made here. Can I suggest that there may actually be something in our psyche that makes us fearful of nature in the raw, and especially of forests? You just have to look at how they have been portrayed in the past, in folk and fairy tales right through to even gentle books like ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Forests and ‘wasteland’ have, throughout history, been the habitats of pagan deities, outlaws, ‘masterless men’ and those outside or on the fringes of mainstream society. Conservationists, environmentalists and ‘tree-huggers’ are often portrayed in the same light today – dangerous revolutionaries who seek to disrupt society.

    Since the time of the first settlements, man has sought to clear and cultivate the wilderness, supplanting the hunter/gatherers who lived as part of the natural system, and there has always been the fear of nature returning to reclaim her land. In his revolutionary 1744 book ‘New Science’, Giambattista Vico, wrote: “This was the order of human institutions: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies.” This idea of man against nature goes right back to prehistory. The first great “hero” of civilisation, Gilgamesh, took it upon himself to slay the guardian of the forests of Cedar Mountain. Today, capitalists and industrialists, who see themselves as the heroes of our current civilisation, are waging war on the ‘guardians’ of our natural environment who have the temerity to stand in the way of progress and the pursuit of profits.

  6. Julie Taylor says:

    I too think some of the previous posters are making a very important point – the need to find a way for the ‘conservation’ side to really communicate effectively with the ‘planning’ side. It always seems to me that government/developers/planners can only ever see anything in terms of money – how much will this cost? how much will we make out of it? etc. It is as if the ‘environment’ is just there to be exploited, regardless of any negative impacts.

    I know the Woodland Trust and other groups do try to get across the message from the ‘green’ side to the ‘developer’ side, but the Oaken Wood decision demonstrates again that our message is not considered sufficiently important.

    Can we somehow involve the government/planner/developer people more in conservation work so that they can actually learn about and appreciate the value of the ‘environment’ out in the field?
    … or is that ridiculously naive of me😦

    Perhaps we need our own version of those military PSYOPS people that Josh Fox was talking about lately (heavy duty PR to convince the populace of the need for fracking – Gaslands 2). Anyone speaking out against fracking is now being labelled as an “insurgent” apparently!!

    • I’ve just cross-posted with you, Julie, but your comment about anyone opposing so-called developments being branded as ‘insurgents’ it so true. To those vested interests, we are a danger to progress and civilisation. Yes, more concerted, organised and even militant action is required.

  7. Ash says:

    Finn has a really good point. It would be very difficult to pull all the conservation/environment groups together & have them speak with the one voice. The big national trusts right down to the small local neighbourhood trusts need to speak BIODIVERSITY, the same biodiversity that has always been there to aid the development of humanity.

    • Finn says:

      Hi Ash, it will indeed be extremely difficult but the consequences of failure are that the corporations with the cash will always win out. And that’s a bad place to be.

  8. Finn says:

    I think the point made by Steve Hallam above is a good one.

    A constructive dialogue has to be put in place to ensure the input of all interested parties from both sides of the argument are heard and factored into the decision making process. After all, we live in a democracy. As things stand currently the primary consideration is financial because it is the easiest parameter to quantify and the most important one in the minds of the politicians who ultimately sign off on any ‘development’.

    The environmental movement is made up of a myriad of organisations and individuals with as many opinions and desires. But there appears to be no concensus between them which could be encapsulated in an environmental manifesto encompassing the views of everyone which could form part of an informed debate and influence policy and decisions.

    It seems our ‘greenest ever’ government has little or no interest in woodlands, meadows, rivers, the seas ot any other aspect of the environment, so they need to be convinced to take it seriously. And it seems the way to make that happen is by environmentalists getting organised and working together to present the arguments in a scientifically rigorous fashion that also includes the other side of the argument and can ensure everyone understands that environmental conservation has direct and significant financial benefits too.

  9. Peter Kyte says:

    I think that the powers that be are only seeing planning decisions from a very short term view, ie “look at how many houses/roads/factories, we have built in our term in office and look how well the economy is doing now”. Long term considerations are not in their remit and this will be true of any government, growth always come first and environment second (unless money can be made).

  10. Patricia Clawson says:

    Lose a species and the whole ecosystem is upset with the possible loss of other species including pollen carrying species. A lost plant in particular, is the loss of a possible new drug and its benefits in fighting disease. Once a n ecosystem is lost it takes years to regenerate – if at all. With the loss of industry there are many brown sites that could be used for housing and when i look around towns and the countryside there are numerous derelict buildings that could be demolished and the site redeveloped or empty buildings just needing renovating or change of use without the need for uprooting ancient woodland, which is also beneficial for walking in and resting stressed souls. Woodlands are also useful for absorbing CO2 and re-oxygenating the atmosphere. The opposite is true of destroyed trees and other plants – they release CO2 into the atmosphere. To destry an ancient wood is to be short sighted

  11. Ancient woodlands are safe with us harrumphed this government (that laughably (or rather tragically) claims to be the ‘greenest government ever’). Well the cold dead paw of the Secretary of State for Community and Local Government, Eric Pickles MP, rang the death knell for Oaken Wood in Kent – he decided to set the precedent for all ancient woodland across the country and grant planning permission to destroy it – basically, death by quarry. death by greed and stupidity and to hell with nature and biodiversity and the needs and feelings of people. Kill badgers, chop down woods, populate the uplands with wind farms, overfish and pollute left right and centre – the only people who will moan are silly old tree huggers and ageing hippies and their views count for nothing when ‘they’ can hear only the rustle of a crisp bunch of notes over the jeremiads of the protesters.

  12. Roderick Leslie says:

    Biodiveristy has been very much set up as fall guy for a Government whose destructive, confrontational approach simply isn’t working. Time and time again the question is where is the evidence ? Biodiversity only gets in the way through stupidity – landing on a site that any well organised developer should realise is going to cause trouble – currently the Lodge Hill Nightingale site is a prime example – or downright greed – that the ancient wood may be cheaper than alternative development land and its worth the risk to try and force it through planning.

    I’d suggest there are two fundamental problems facing planning – its basically as negative system, about stopping (bad ?) things happening rather than encouraging the good – it tends to provoke safety and mediocrity, and punish originality and innovation. And, second, like our whole legal system, it is confrontational, forcing participants into corners – which is why so many disputes end up with arguments over near-irrelevant fine detail, whilst the elephant of the really big issues – should this be happening at all ? – sits quietly in the corner.

    Noone is winning – it may look from a conservationists point of view that the developers are – but they aren’t. Look at wind farms – the clumsy approach of the industry, stupidly believing that government backing would blast farms through planning has backfired dramatically to the point where communities object automatically to wind farms and there is violently anti wind farm Conservative energy Minister. It didn’t have to be like that – had there been some sort of national framework and more sensitivity and co-operation with the people who have to live with wind farms I suspect there would be potential for at least double the turbines we’ll end up with – and if you want the prime example, remember that the Forestry Commission was where wind farms and HS2 are today after the Flow Country in 1988 – but it listened and worked with people – including, of course, the Woodland Trust, and look what happened when the Government tried to sell our Forests.

  13. Ken Brown says:

    The most massive assault on the UK’s biodiversity is currently taking place in Scotland with the wholesale trashing of much of Britain’s wildest land by multinational wind farm developers, an opportunist Scottish Government grasping at the chance to portray itself as uniquely ‘green’ and landowners who make millions for doing nothing but renting out their estates. And the worst irony of all is that this vast, corporate money-raking bonanza is achieving absolutely no significant reduction in carbon emissions at either the crucial global level – nor, indeed, the national level.

    On optimistic figures recently released by National Grid and Scottish Renewables, ALL the windfarms in Britain to date failed to mitigate the global increase in carbon emissions for 2012 by as much as 1%. They didn’t even get anywhere near eliminating the increase in CO2 emissions for the same year by a flatlining UK economy.

    Despite this, wind turbines enjoy the status of religious icons amongst so many of those who preach the virtues of protecting biodiversity. It is time for all environmentalists to take a long, critical look at the enormous damage caused by these huge, financially unsustainable industrial developments – and the negligible environmental gains attributable to them.

    Ken Brown

  14. It’s also the (excuse the bad pun!) ‘chipping away’ of woodland as I so vividly remember the local planning officer here in Rochford many years ago vehemently pushing forward a planning application for a few houses on the edge (and part of) Hockley Woods in Essex.

  15. Nick A says:

    Biodiversity offsetting is very much a two-edged sword. One danger is that the Environment Bank has a vested interest in doing as much offsetting as possible — that’s how they make their money. On the other hand, with sufficiently large multipliers, there is potential for creation or expansion of habitats that will help prepare for climate impacts, although it could (and should) be argued that this needs to happen anyway and not linked to development.

  16. Steve Hallam says:

    I think that the question you pose is a very important one that strikes at the heart of the current dysfunctional situation. We have a shouted ‘dialogue of the deaf’ between the conservation community and the proponents of development, with the general public caught in the middle. This is due, in part, to a lack of a common language that the two groups can use to have meaningful conversations about the trade-off’s that will inevitably have to be made if our society is not to stagnate.
    This is really another way of making the point that you quote Frances on in your post.
    At the risk of making an ‘uncomfortable’ point, I believe that the conservation community has a role to play in developing a more rationally based conversation. I think that many peoples’ answer to the question you pose (why are we seen as the bad guys?) is that conservationists’ knee jerk reaction to any proposal appears to be to loudly decrie it, resist it at all costs, and state / imply that its implementation will be a disaster. The tone of voice used can be dramatic and emotive, going on hysterical. Over time such interventions can lead to an impression evolving that conservations will never be satisfied, will always complain, and are not reasonable. It’s arguably similar to the ‘boy who cried wolf’ syndrome.
    Tragically, such a view may be justified. It may even be right! But your question did not address this – it addressed why others see us in a negative light. Until such time as conservationists have a more ‘balanced’ way of making our points we will continue to be seen as the bad guys.
    This is, of course, much more of an issue when so many people are worried about the economic prospects for both them and their children. Conservationists can come over to the general public as lacking in empathy in these worrying times. Referring back to Frances’ point, the lack of a more rational evaluation system means that we appear to disregard such concerns, which does little for our public perception.

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