With a scathing view of the Government’s proposals, John Clarkson provides our final guest post in this series about plans for a Biodiversity Offsetting scheme. Having spent twenty years working for conservation NGOs, John has been a lecturer in Wildlife Conservation for the last 5 years at Nottingham Trent University specialising in the understanding of natural processes and human/wildlife interactions.
” ‘Offsetting is an exciting opportunity to look at how we can improve the environment as well as grow the economy. There is no reason why wildlife and development can’t flourish side-by-side.’
And with this statement the Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Paterson, appears to suggest that the process of ‘offsetting’ is one which has nature in mind; that it is a ‘we-care-for-the-environment’, biophiliac approach.
Which got me thinking…is this a biophiliac ‘wolf’ in a biophobic ‘sheep’s’ clothing? Because what he then didn’t go on to say was that, when the wildlife gets in the way (of the economy) we need to have a politically acceptable means to rid ourselves of the burden that such inconveniently located environmental assets pose to the mantra of facilitated and free-market economic development. For that is surely what the objective of biodiversity offsetting is, because to simply trash the troublesome wildlife in order to allow the development to proceed will be socially (and therefore politically) unacceptable (as well as environmentally short-sighted).
At its worst, offsetting is a mechanism which will both ease and indeed speed-up the process of allowing development to continue, and perhaps handily reduce the burdensome costs of environmental and social negotiation over its relative merits. When Paterson talks of improving the environment flourishing side-by-side with development, that is more likely in the sense of making sure less of it is in the way, and that the environment can ‘get on with being the environment’ without interrupting our business. This biophobic approach is one which is the extreme, where we perhaps see these other life forms either as a threat or with complete disdain.
The fact is that we live on a planet and we share it with 7 billion people, each of whom wants, deserves and perhaps has an equal right to a quality of life and economic development is an integral part of giving rise to that. But we also share this one planet with countless billions of other organisms, of several millions of species. Each of those organisms is an entity like you or me, adapted to living in some fairly specific circumstances, but one which goes through the same (daily) processes of living, breathing, gaining nutrition; maybe even communicating and socialising.
Trees, of course, are just a specialised version within that panoply of organisms, and ones which have adapted and exploited their environment just like we have. That their adaptations include a stationary and sedentary life-style in order to maximise (optimise?) their ability to harness the sun’s energy and to draw the necessary gases from the atmosphere and the nutrients from the soil is no less important than our ability to do so.
Indeed, arguably, it is far more important than that, because we are heterotrophs and rely upon the photosynthesising autotrophs to give us life; without them we would not exist! Part of the problem is that, whilst our human life-span could now be about 100 years our horizons of awareness are hours, days and handfuls of years, whereas for many species of tree their natural and functioning life-span could easily be 400 years. We should be looking at ourselves in the context of their time on this planet, not upon them as being within the dominion of our shorter-life span.
If you can’t relate to trees in this biophiliac way, perhaps your interest is in the woodland. The woodland is, of course, a collection of these life-forms, providing structure, shelter, food and certainty for a whole host of other organisms, each with their own processes of surviving as a result of the environmental conditions that surround them. The presence of this vast array of organisms is dependent upon the functioning of the system, the ecosystem functions as we now call them. As Chris Packham said in his Desert Island Discs interview, “the functioning is the most beautiful thing”; whether it is the dynamics of predator-prey interactions such as the tawny owl and the woodmouse, the social interactions of flocks of tits sweeping through winter woodlands in search of much-needed food, or the decomposition of organic matter and release and recycling of nutrients as fungi do what they do; there is a beauty in these interactions. These interactions are also dynamic, having been subject themselves to waxing and waning changes of constituents and of relative importance to the system over the life-time of operation; and their future in that place is both certain (the process of succession, for instance – that change is inevitable) and uncertain (the direction in which that change will travel).
Of course, we all look at the world differently, and some might find it difficult to relate to trees as individuals but that’s what they are. And if we can look at it from their perspective, they are awesome; almost perfectly adapted to exploit their individual niche. What right do we have to decide that an organism which has caused us no harm but brought us life should arbitrarily be removed from the planet and that it is ok to replace it with another somewhere else purely for our convenience? They have the same right to exist as we have – they are not an inconvenience to be dispensed with on the whim of a few paper ‘metrics’ which bear no reference to their biological life and presence.
Firstly, the original tree ‘chose’ to live and grow where it did – it didn’t choose, of course, but it has become successfully and naturally established – whereas we are ‘forcing’ the replacement to live where it does.
Secondly, there is no guarantee that the replacement tree will not be similarly torn down in the name of progress before it has had its time to live and flourish for the benefit of itself and of everyone.
As a humanist, my interest is in the trees and animals (and every other organism) as a biological entity to marvel at, as something with which we are sharing this planet. As a scientist, I see the beauty in the functioning and marvel at the interactions, some of them delicately balanced and others harsh or robust – but all of them in a way necessary, and if we don’t see how necessary they are for our existence then more fool us; more fool us, indeed, for thinking that we can somehow use a metric to …to provide a cook-book recipe in the belief that we can somehow create a living, breathing, properly functioning complex collection of organisms of similar or greater value in 25 years to replace the one that may have taken millennia to evolve to the point at which it has reached on its long-term journey with us on this island (or indeed that we might have started the new/replacement one heading in the same direction as the direction that the one that we have just removed was heading in)… just to salve our conscience.
Why don’t we ask the wildlife of its opinions about offsetting and the ‘metrics’ – after all, if someone was forcing us to move home, or to have our lives sacrificed for the so-called greater good (of another life-form) wouldn’t we want to have a say?”
We all have until November 7th to get our consultation responses in about a potential offsetting scheme:
Trust bloggers Frances and Kaye will be discussing one final key issue – management and compensation packages – as well as sharing a personal view of ‘value’ before your chance to get involved in this consultation ends. Please add to the debate below and make sure you tell Defra what you think too by getting involved in our campaign!