A future for nature?

Nature is essential for all life on Earth. Its intrinsic value should be built into humanity’s thoughts and actions, so it is not corrupted by consumer preferences.

Our view of nature

Our cultural history has shaped what we perceive to be nature and how we value it. We frequently view nature as countryside – hedgerows and coppice, grazed marshes and heath, chalk grassland and ancient parks, flower rich verges of country lanes, the stone-walled landscapes of the Dales and sunken lanes of Devon – artefacts of human management, as much nostalgia and romanticism as objective reality.

It is the loss of countryside which has exercised much of the conservation movement in Britain, or at least the loss of countryside as it was before modern agriculture.

In part we describe this loss by cataloguing the species and habitats that have declined or disappeared, resorting to scientific rationality which gives us a sense of objective detachment. But I suspect it has more to do with a loss of something more subjective. A sense of being part of a landscape and of nature, a closeness with the land which has passed or is passing.

We also view nature as protected space, though frequently no less managed than the surrounding matrix. Nature reserves have become the ‘treasured jewels’ in a hostile landscape, as the countryside of our youth and of our imagination has been lost to increasingly industrial production. In this view nature is something separate from the human landscape of agriculture and settlements. Apart and a part, held in stasis.

Knowing when to stop

Nature conservation and the natural environment more generally remains an adjunct to a system which seems bound to lead to their demise. Whilst environmental rhetoric has moved closer to centre stage, it remains as a constraint to the economic paradigm of our age.

The ecology of the planet is self-evidently necessary to support life on Earth. To surrender its future solely to the liturgy of monetary valuation is a gross conceit. It reflects a belief that economics can effectively recognise and apportion those elements of the ecosystem which we should take the trouble to conserve, and distribute them in a way which is equitable and just. We should not submit to this conceit.

The words of the 19th Century philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill have a chilling prescience:

“Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature: with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste of natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds that are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasures which it owes to things that the unlimited increase in wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it”.

Necessity is now upon us.

An era of solitude?

It is self-evidently true that we must draw resources from the world around, but we should do this in a way that recognises a value beyond that ascribed by consumer preference.

The contemporary philosopher John Gray sketches a vision of an apocalyptic future:

“if wild habitat is given over to human cultivation and habitation, if rainforests can be turned into green deserts, if genetic engineering enables ever-higher yields to be extorted from the thinning soils – then humans will have created for themselves a new geological era, the Eremozoic, the Era of Solitude, in which little remains of the Earth but the prosthetic environment that keeps them alive”.

More optimistically I believe, or perhaps wistfully hope, we can reconcile our place in the world. That in some great collective self-realisation we will see the delusional premises under which we strive for ever greater growth. That we will take our foot off the pedal when we see we are accelerating towards an abyss.

Citizen of the land

Let us have nature reserves and ‘wilderness’, areas where human influence is less than elsewhere, but not as a unnecessary dialectic. If it is right in describing wilderness that nature should follow a more self-determined path, that it should have intrinsic value, then it is right elsewhere. By recognising intrinsic value in nature we displace humankind from the dominant position in the ecosystem and begin to accept the limits of our knowledge and control. It is this which Aldo Leopold described in a Sand County Almanac when he called for a land ethic which would change the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.

There will be many who regard such a shift in our obligations as fanciful and naive. Maybe so, but for all the good modern progress has brought the few, it has denied the many, and has done little in which nature can rejoice. Insofar as we have knowledge and ingenuity it should be framed in a new narrative, one which acknowledges we are not immune to the rules of evolution we ascribe to the rest of nature, one which respects the ecological limits of the world in which we live and gives credence to the existence of other life.

This is more than reducing the environmental impact of economic development, or compensating its effects, to allow it to be labelled ‘sustainable’. Creating a wetland as compensation for the extension of an airport, or attempting to relocate ancient woodland so as not to impede the route of a by-pass is not sustainability. These are not commensurate values, and we fail in our obligations if we exchange nature for some fabricated measure of ‘consumer preference’.

It is both implausible and arrogant to believe we will destroy nature, but it is certain that we are corrupting its course. A future for nature is more than the satisfaction of consumer preferences. It will be shaped by our attitude to nature, our relationship with it, and an ethic which recognises the fulfilment of wider obligations.

Mike Townsend, Principal Advisor



About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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11 Responses to A future for nature?

  1. John Doidge says:

    When every human believes we are part of nature rather than trying to own it then just maybe we will all find a way forward. Great comments everyone.

  2. Ash says:

    Reblogged this on 8arrows.

  3. Ella-Jo Mehta says:

    Polly Higgins is an inspiring figure on precisely this topic – see http://eradicatingecocide.com/

  4. Kay Haw says:

    Thank you for your comments, this is indeed an emotive issue!

  5. jpeggytaylor says:

    Indeed this is true! We certainly do need a new narrative – humans need to re-learn that they are only one of many many species on this planet and that we are interdependent with those others to whom we give the label ‘the natural world’.

  6. Derek West says:

    You have it spot on Mike,we are increasingly disassociated from the natural world ,economic growth is the name of the game.

  7. Ash says:

    I read all of the above & nod in agreement but if the world’s population keeps growing & everyone wants to remove poverty & famine then the world’s leaders & politicians will just continue to react to the short term. We have lost our connection to the Earth, the Sea & the Sky.

  8. Rwthless says:

    Nature is not an adjunct to human life, but an integral part of it. We as a species will have to take the ecological view and make our decisions accordingly. We can’t just spout about ‘progress’ and ‘feeding the world’ when the world is more than just various kinds of human. Humans seem to have lost their ability to be wise, so sapiens is not the name for what we are now.

  9. Dr Ken Brown says:

    Interesting that you quote that passage demanding limits to human exploitation of nature from J.S. Mill’s Principles of Political Economy of 1848. He is all too often dismissed as an archetypical ‘Nineteenth Century Liberal’. In fact, he was a radical philosopher who anticipated modern totalitarianism, advocated absolute equality between the sexes and played a significant part in the development of the suffragette movement. He also, famously, defended personal freedom and campaigned for equality and democracy though he candidly acknowledging that democracy contains the seeds of its own destruction – something we are witnessing now in the corporate takeover of democracy and the change in our status from citizens to ‘customers’. . His vision was holistic and it is tragic that such comprehensive views of relations between humans and between humans and the natural world have become so unfashionable – now that some of his aspirations have been partially realised.

    Mill’s great unifying obsession was education; a subject that he raised repeatedly in his numerous essays. Ironically, our modern educational systems have failed to heed his recommendations and warnings. The contemporary subordination of highly centralised, bureaucratically organised education systems to perceived economic imperatives is a huge obstacle to achieving a balance between genuine human needs and a healthy natural world. As Mill would say, our preferences must be guided by disciplined, critical thinking.

    • I think your last sentence highlights the paradox of our age. We seem to have the intelligence and ingenuity to achieve amazing things, but not the capacity to use them with discretion or moderation or in ways which might promote the long term achievement of the ‘good life’ rather than diminish it.

  10. Hilary Vivian says:

    Everything I feel and believe put eloquently into words. Thank you. Too much to hope that the world’s politicians and their puppet-masters in big business could begin to understand…

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