Biodiversity Offsetting – biophilia or biophobia (love nature or loathe it)?

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.

Image: WTPL

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:

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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!

About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
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24 Responses to Biodiversity Offsetting – biophilia or biophobia (love nature or loathe it)?

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  4. Moray says:

    Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking article John. We cannot replace habitats that have taken hundreds of years to develop. If the habitat and species destined to be trashed to enable five bedroom luxury homes to be built is worthy of protection in the first place, then it shouldn’t be lost to development. You cannot recreate an ancient tree or its parkland habitat, and even if you could (which you can’t), your not going to be able to recreate it where its needed e.g. where it is currently. The loss of vast swathes of planning policy in England recently was bad enough, but this proposal is the final nail in the coffin of our habitats and biodiversity. Everyone who cares about wildlife and our green and pleasent land needs to actively oppose these government off-setting proposals.I will do all i can do make people aware of the need to oppose this.

  5. Michael says:

    I assume you live in a house?

    • John says:

      I do. And that’s not a hypocrisy given the perspective I’m advocating (which is not anti-development but anti seeing biodiversity as a bothersome hindrance – as if it’s a disposable ‘asset’ that can be discarded purely at will without even a smidgeon of moral consideration)

  6. Roderick Leslie says:

    What we need to do is turn this threat into an opportunity. What we must oppose is what I suspect the Government will try: we’ll take a chunk of your greenbelt and do something nice several hundred miles away in the uplands’.

    What we should do is plan to build new environments around development – maybe 9 hectares of ‘wild’ land for every hectare developed. The models are already there in places like the Thames Gateway where wetland reserves like Rainham marshes and the new woodlands of the Thames Chase Community Forest have brought accessible countryside right up to people’ doorsteps and turned some of the most dam,aged land into beautiful and biodiverse places right on people’s doorsteps. Re-connecting children with nature ? You’ve got it. Improving physical and mental health, combatting obesity and heart disease ? it’s there. We have the opportunity to completely re-invent the setting of our cities in the countryside – from the total dereliction of the worst green belts to superb multi-purpose land.

    That’s the challenge – if our politicians want changes to the way we plan, we should go for it – whilst the Green belts have succeeded magnificently in their principle aim of preventing urban sprawl they are far from perfect – lets grab this opportunity to improve on the best and create wonderful living environment for everyone, not just the rich currently intent on pulling up the drawbridge against the rest of us.

    • John says:

      I used to work for and manage a number of wildlife conservation organisations that shared this ‘go for it’ philosophy, even though it was not perhaps immediately obvious. I think the next leap of faith is to create developments which embrace the environment rather than live alongside it – visions of every house having a garden with a tree within it, and the walls not just being to keep the heat in and the roof up but also as living spaces where we freely share our space with wrens, swifts, bees and bats, for example.

  7. Reblogged this on thinkingcountry and commented:
    Another look at biodiversity offsetting, this time from John Clarkson, lecturer in Wildlife Conservation at Nottingham Trent University. He effectively mixes scientific and humanist arguments for opposing biodiversity offsetting. Trees are indeed individuals whose lifespans cover many human lifetimes. If you want to tell Mr Paterson what he needs to believe about stepping down such a slippery path as this please fill in one of the surveys that DEFRA will (hopefully) take in to account – available at http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/en/campaigning/our-campaigns/Pages/bio-offsetting.aspx#.Uneb3fk7128

  8. Peter Wilding says:

    Agree this was a very good article; and sadly that BO as favoured by this Government is all about drawing the wool over people’s eyes and allowing more developments to go ahead faster and with less regard to consequences.

    Other fundamental problems with BO are that:

    In Britain there are relatively few sites where offsetting can take place without damaging something else that’s already living in the place to be “improved”;

    The offsetting process will tend to produce the replacement of habitat that’s unusual, long-standing, rare and valuable by something that’s well intentioned but more ordinary.

    • John says:

      Many thanks for the compliment. You make a good point about the risk of the unintended but possibly inevitable consequences – if we don’t have the skill (or luck?) to recreate the truly complex and most at-threat/irreplaceable systems then we need another approach which respects their presence and ensures their future.

  9. The government has forgotten that we are stewards of the planet and not masters of it. The Forestry Commission was set up in 1919 to redress the damage done when the need for trench props destroyed our woodland during the 1st World War, followed by dig for victory in the 2nd WW. Almost 100 years later (2014) we are still hell-bent on destroying the balance of nature and the spiritual beauty of our landscape.

    • John says:

      Today I was showing students the excellent but scary Living Planet Report http://www.wwf.org.uk/what_we_do/about_us/living_planet_report_2012/ A deep-green biophiliac would argue though that we are not stewards but one of many passengers sharing this space-ship we call Earth, and that without recapturing our spiritual connections we may be heading for trouble even before the end of our lifetimes (let alone for those of our children’s children).

  10. Ash says:

    We really do need to step back from the economics & political agendas. Unfortunately we have very small voices amongst the law-makers, just look at the numbers in the recent Commons HS2 debate: 350 for – 34 against! That is 91% IN FAVOUR OF DESTROYING our landscape. John Clarksons article is exceptional & should be read by everyone.

    • John says:

      Many thanks for the compliment. It would be very interesting to see the results of a biophiliac designing major infrastructure projects like HS2 – assuming, of course, that people agree that they are necessary in the first place. I can’t help but thinking that some projects are potentially an opportunity to make significant biodiversity gains should we not be so narrowly focussed on immediate profit margins rather than life-time environmental sustainability.

  11. Clive C says:

    I happen to value the current environment that surrounds the area where I live ~ I am very wary about any suggestion that threatens to change the overall nature of the the Suffolk Sandlings.

    In particular I object to suggestions which could result in deforestation so as to create more open heathland habitat. It’s not for me a question of disliking open heathland ~ It’s beautiful especially when the heather and gorse is flowering. But trees , even conifers (!), have their place and also support a diverse variety of wildlife species. There should therefore be a balance within the environments which supports bio-diversity.

    Government, through the management and distribution of HLS funding is able fuel “flavor of the month” initiatives. The accords signed at the Rio Conference gave the green light to those environmentalists who seek to re-establish a landscape in Suffolk which , in the 1800’s, supported sheep walks and rabbit warrens.

    But times and needs have changed ~ farming prioritiies and practies have evolved. Moreover, over the last 100 years forests and woodlands have planted, new habitats have been established and people have grown to utilise these areas as a leisure and recreational asset.

    Mankind has therefore created a rich diverse patchwork of habitats across our County which the current residents have taken to their hearts. That was why so many folk came out to protest when the Government tried to dispose of their current responsibilities to maintain the public Forests.

    Biodiversity Offsetting (BO) appears to be very seductive ~ it the right hands it could be used to advantage by ensuring developers make good , by a “like for like” local investment, following devastations caused by infrastructure and housing developments. But once you move to place a “value” on particular habitats you risk opening the flood gates to those who seek to justify their own narrow objectives. One persons idea of relative value could be very different to another.

    NGO’s, as well as farmers, are attracted by funding. BO, once established as a planning criteria, could enable Governments, and Councils, to transform our landscape by sanctioning large scale switches in land use (such as deforestation) which are not suppported locally. At worst the replacement of an area would not be on a “like for like” basis. I am therefore very wary of the motivation behind this proposal.

    I value what I have , I appreciate the diversity we have within our County and whilst happy to see areas being managed to a higher standard, do not want to see dramatic changes to the overall appearance of our area.

    There needs to be balance of habitats across a landscape.

    There must be local agreement to any new proposal which is put forward where the switch has been justified by BO criteria.

  12. Jim Clark says:

    As ar as I understand it BO has been going on for years with the full help and co-operation conservation NGOs. Until recently the attitude of developers and councils has been it’s OK to destroy this habitat as there’s a nature reserve down the road. Conservation organisations have marketed their reserves as the only places to go and see wildlife (and have a bun and cuppa or buy a gift) it do and the rest of the country can turn into a wildlfe desert. Wildlife and habitats in Britain are in crisis and a “Million Voices for Nature” have let it happen.

    • Sue says:

      l believe that the reason why Government departments have been able to systematically destroy Britain’s natural environment is because there has not been enough pressure to stop them. Most people are totally unaware of what is happening and if they are, because the destruction has been gradual, they have not grasped the full extent of it. As with the issue we are presently discussing, how many people are aware of it? Only those who have the inclination to find out. I think more resources need to be put into reaching out to people via the TV or internet then possibly more would be done to curb this kind of activity. For example a short then and now comparison of previous areas of beauty that are now lost, may make people realise just how much has been lost.

      • Jim Clark says:

        I feel the reason for this is as stated above, these honeypot sites run by conservation organisations create an impression that all is OK. The average member of these organisations goes nowhere else but these reserves and only reads the glossy magazine supplied to members which puts a positive spin on the reserves, so is unaware of what’s really happening in the wider countryside. They are being duped. The Million Voices for Nature have been useless. Gone are the days when “Jonnie Foreigner” could be blamed for shooting our birds on migration whilst they are silent about the migrating and wintering birds shot in Britain. They should be honest with their members and themselves and get their million voices to start shouting

  13. Peter Kyte says:

    Owen Patterson wears blinkers in his approach to the environment, so that his vision is totally tunnelled into finance and profit alone.

  14. daphnepleace says:

    Reblogged this on daphnegonewild and commented:
    How cool, clear and desperately relevant. Please say NO to BO.

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