Ecomodernism – Widening the Great Divide

He may have his occasional porcine peccadilloes, but our spam-faced overlord might have been onto something. Looming down on us proles from those giant posters, declaring ‘We can’t go on like this’, he may as well have been talking about the gaping void between agriculture and environmentalists.

Owen Patterson is back and he’s brought a new trick with him – Ecomodernism. It’s the latest shot fired in an escalating war that guarantees only a pyrrhic victory. Oh Owen. There’s something about his face. He has the look of a cat that not only got the cream but has also, against all logic and reason, found himself running the dairy. Smug doesn’t come close to describing him.

Cameron v Patterson: Let the 'smug-off' begin

Cameron v Patterson: Let the ‘smug-off’ begin

But my new resolution is to take a more measured view of an idea or statement, regardless of its provenance. Yes, we all know Owen is a stooge, but even stopped clocks, and all that. The general notion of Ecomodernism isthat the more technology human beings adopt, the more they can decouple from dependence on the natural environment and live lives that are prosperous but green’, that only through economic growth can the environment be saved. It is basically…erm…rampant capitalism. This will result in a ‘decoupling’ of production and the environment which will have huge benefits for wildlife. Indeed, it is, apparently, improvements in business and industry that has led to the recent boom we have seen in many species…wait, what?

I’m not going to pick apart the errors in Patterson’s assumptions in his latest barely-disguised rant against the sector (we could be here a while, and people keep shouting the word ‘brevity’ at me in the street). There’s a bit of everything in his Telegraph sulkathon – thinly veiled climate change denial, confusion over the term ‘non-renewable’, ludicrous statements like ‘Europe and North America, are now teeming with far richer wildlife populations than for many centuries’ – but what there is mostly is a sense of injustice for poor old Owen.

By trumpeting ecomodernism, Owen is once again putting himself forward as defender of the natural environment. This is clearly codswallop, and I should know, I’ve walloped a lot of cod in my time. If he was serious about the environment, he wouldn’t continue to blame the ‘Green Blob’ for his demise, he’d try and build some ruddy bridges. Instead he continues to wear his persecution complex like a badge of honour. He has the bearing of someone who obviously believes that if it weren’t for a malevolent conspiracy against him, conducted by his own supervillains – a hyper intelligent cotterie of badgers with a 70’s Scottish Football fans penchant for mucking about with football furniture and their sidekick, an amorphous Green Blob – he’d be King of the Countryside by now. But don’t cry for Owen, he seems to be doing alright for himself.

They'll be the death of me

They’re coming for you, Owen…(I’m getting a lot of use out of this stock image)

Now, I think there’s actually something to be said for the underlying message here – I’m not a complete luddite. Improved technology will reduce so many of the outputs that can be detrimental to the environment, there’s even a case for ‘letting go’ some areas to more intense agricultural practises – let’s be realistic here, peoples gotta eat. But as an argument, I find this ‘the future will save us’ line as weak as my Gran’s tea. It’s the same kind of argument that has delayed any serious action on climate change, this idea that ‘technology will develop’ so we don’t need to act now.

The problem with ecomodernism (the Patterson redux) – well, one of them – is that the onus is entirely on the environmental sector to adapt and fit themselves in somewhere (as it has always been). Even worse is Patterson’s apparent assertion that environmental benefits will just happen somehow, irrespective of the ‘Green Blob’.

Ecomodernism takes the agriculture/environment antipathetic relationship to it’s logical conclusion – a ‘decoupling’ of the two. You just can’t decouple nature from agriculture (and visa-versa), and that’s something that both sectors just need to grow up and accept. It benefits the ‘ecomodernists’ and the agricultural sector as little to claim they can carry on with no consideration for their environmental impact as it does for the environmental sector to continually exist in a head-butting relationship with farmers and landowners. A common feeling in the environmental sector was expressed to me recently:

‘This whole ethos of having to work with the landowners to be effective, has really been a millstone around the neck for British conservation NGOs.’

For me, this argument that we can produce positive outcomes for the environment without working with the people who actually own the land is as pointless as a midday firework, all sound, no show. It just can’t happen.

As ever, the answer to a healthy environment and a fed and healthy populace is a complicated one that will involve cooperation and a certain degree of coercion for our landowners. However, Owen has declared that the ‘cure’ for all our environmental ills was there all along, and funnily enough it lay precisely in what we were doing in the first place, only more so. It would be reassuring to think the answers were so simple, but ecomodernism is a comfort blanket, a ‘greenwash’, a smoke and mirrors magic trick conducted with smart words and irrelevant stats. It takes some gumption to argue for the exact opposite of what your opponents are recommending and then telling them it’s actually the magic bullet they’ve been searching for all along. Now that Dr Patterson has proscribed his medicine, we need to take care he doesn’t poison us with it.

Not bored? Want to learn more about just what the heck on ecomodernism is? Interested in productivity, yields per sq metre, and ‘decoupling’? Here’s some links:

Patterson sulking in the Telegraph

Ecomodernism is bad – George Monbiot

George Monbiot doesn’t know what he’s talking about, Ecomodernism is great – The guys behind Ecomodernism

Ecomodernism – home website

Dark thoughts on Ecomodernism – The Dark Mountain Project

Aliens and Alcohol – A Beery Diversion

As a subscriber to a London-based ecologist internet group, I get a lot of emails that pertain to important conservation developments and findings in the Capital. I also occasionally get emails about beer. Unsurprising, we’re ecologists after all. This week, someone pointed us in the direction of Bexley Brewery – complete with shiny new Ring-Necked Parakeet logo.

Perfect, I thought. What better way to decide whether an alien species has become ‘naturalised’? No more tricky questions about land-bridges, Ice Ages and Romans – you know the British have taken you to their hearts when you turn up on their alcohol labels.

A tasty new measure of invasiveness

A tasty new measure of invasiveness

So what’s in? A quick scrawl through the internet reveals that along with Parakeets we should be removing Ruddy Ducks, Muntjac and Grey Squirrel from Schedule 9. But what else? Have you seen any others? Apparently people have been making beer out of Japanese Knotweed

This alien species business could be more fun – and more headache inducing – than I ever imagined.

Badger Backpeddling

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice, but the badger cull is back. This prompted me into one of my infrequent forays into the murky world of social media ‘engagement’, resulting in a degree of soul-searching on my part. Perhaps soul-searching is over-egging things a tad. I don’t generally go in for much in the way of self-evaluation. I don’t spend countless hours noodling about feeling glum and listening to Exit Music (for a film) on a loop (not for years now, anyway). But sometimes I have to accept some pretty unpalatable truths, the hardest of which is that occasionally, just very occasionally, I might be wrong.

Naughty badgers

Having set this article up in such a way that you are now expecting me to figuratively prostrate myself before you and admit my error, I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint. This is not so much about me admitting that I was wrong, as admitting to myself that the possibility of me being wrong might actually exist.

Back to the point – There’s a lot of science out there on the Badger cull. Perhaps too much science1. But what there is a shortage of is consensus. What I think we all know and can agree on is that the case for the cull is dicey. There’s little evidence that targeted removal will effectively reduce cases of bTB in cattle. It’s also unarguable that considering the potentially devastating effects of bTB on herds and, scaling up, the farming economy, we should be considering all means at our disposal to reduce cases. If this involves the reduction in numbers of a charismatic, yet abundant, mammal, then so be it. I don’t think conservation does itself any favours by refusing to be realistic and perpetuating an anti-farming rhetoric.

Now if I can be brutally honest, I’m not radically opposed to the badger cull. I do think it is rather a ‘shoot now ask questions later’ approach (which, in my opinion always leaves you without anyone to answer your bloody questions), I think it’s knee-jerk, I think there are other factors involved (does the resurgence of bTB in the last two decades correlate to an increase in badger population or a decrease in regulation?), but if it is proven to be the best method of reducing incidence of bTB in cattle then it should not be dismissed.

Where I’ve recently had my own moment of self-doubt regards the rather more one-sided argument for badger-cattle bTB transmission. I managed to get my knickers in a twist when I saw a statement from a vet that a 50-60% reduction in bTB where badgers were proactively culled was all the proof that was needed of badger to cattle transmission. I objected to the assertion – and despite what follows, I still do. It’s bad science. Correlation not equalling causation and all that. Predictably, I was asked ‘what more proof do you need?’2 Well, science, for one. So they gave me science. Science I had – perhaps due to the media circles I frequent – not seen before.

If you only read the Daily Mail, you can start to see the world in a very Daily Mail-esque way. It’s worth remembering that this works with papers like the Guardian, too. So it was with the environmentalism – because of my own interests, I do tend to only be exposed to papers and studies that make the case for transmission less than conclusive. When it comes to science, I should certainly know better. There’s some pretty strong evidence out there that transmission is not only possible, but likely.

That’s not to say I’ve completely come around to the notion that badger-cattle bTB transmission in the wild has been irrefutably proven – transmission has not been recreated to a decent standard in non-artificial settings. My issue, and it’s an issue with myself as much as anything, is that though I still don’t find this utterly conclusive I suspect there would probably be enough evidence to convince me if the species were reversed. There would probably be an ‘acceptable’ level of probability, given the stakes, had it been a question of saving badgers.

So what’s my point? Read wider, don’t be afraid to discuss what you don’t understand, give as much scrupulous attention to the arguments that match your ethical standpoint as those that don’t – all good advice. Or perhaps it’s that I’m suffering from sun damage this week and have become even more incoherent than is usual.

1Sorry, that’s just a ridiculous statement, I’m not sure what I was thinking. There’s no such thing as too much science

2I was also asked if I had any experience of farming (I do, as it happens) as ‘living with the outcome of your decisions looking after a large herd of animals gives you an insight others don’t have.’ I can’t say that I think much to this ‘unless you’ve farmed cattle, you can’t understand’ argument. It’s the kind of logic that builds closed-shop industries that wither and die through lack of innovative thought, but that’s by the by.

How the Public View Conservation Works – the Need to Improve our PR

As conservationists, many of the practical measures we take on our nature reserves and green spaces are often unsightly and can appear drastic. When reserves are popular with visitors, and in particular long-standing local residents, this can lead to negative perceptions of the organisation if the rational behind such actions are not thoroughly disseminated to the public and where possible, the local community consulted on the need for interventional measures.

Scrub is a particular area of contention. Scrub cutting and clearance is an everyday part of environmental management, and despite recent leanings towards rewilding it will more than likely always be so. Deciding which areas of scrub to be cleared and which areas to leave for songbirds and invertebrates is a key consideration when working towards enhancing biodiversity. This can lead to dual, competing issues amongst our visitors and managing their reaction is pivotal in gaining the good will that strengthens the long-term future of reserves.

‘Public opinion towards scrub is ambivalent. On the one hand some can perceive it as symbolising neglect and untidiness, while on the other it is valued for high densities of songbirds, its attractiveness to butterflies and the colourful displays of flowers, foliage and fruits. One of the great challenges is to raise public awareness and understanding of the value of scrub and the need to manage it. Better interpretation of its traditional uses and value for wildlife and the landscape will help to achieve this’

The Forum for the Application of Conservation Techniques

In an overly simplistic representation of our two competing issues, we can characterise public reactions to conservation works as inclusive and exclusive. Neither is wrong and both opinions must be respected and addressed appropriately. A third position, ignorance, is one that we have all encountered, but is usually easily disabused through education. These two stances amongst visitors exemplify the ‘park’ vs ‘wilderness’ debate that many of us will encounter. Family visitors and those outside the local area often express inclusive reactions to practical measures, reacting favourably to improvements in infrastructure that aid the visitor experience.

‘I was really pleased to see the investment made to (the site) in parking, pathway & structures around the lake which I feel has been some time in coming (the same can also be said of parking facilities). I hope more of this can be done to other parts of the forest to encourage broader use of the area as I feel it is often under used even by the local community.’

Visitor Survey response: example of an inclusive response

pollard

Ugly trees

For some members of the public, scrub (particularly bramble, gorse) can often be seen as untidy and as a barrier (physical and psychological) to fully enjoying green space. For example, a recent questionnaire survey of visitors to a site I worked at flagged up statements about the woodland looking ‘untidy’ and ‘unkempt’ because of the prevalence of scrub. The site is a huge public space, should it not therefore be managed with these opinions at the forefront? This would be foolhardy and in all situations due consideration should be given to the overall biological health of the forest. The flipside to this is the reaction to freshly cleared and strimmed areas of scrub which can initially be a visual shock to those acquainted with an area and look more unkempt still to newcomers, aggravating those of both a inclusive and exclusive bent.

Visitors with exclusive opinions are often locals and long-time visitors with an interest and knowledge about the site. To them, new facilities, footpaths etc. are often anathema and risk despoiling their own private reserve by encouraging other visitors. This is perhaps overly harsh, and many opinions can be centred around concern about loss of biodiversity or impacts on a favourite species. Any new conservation work is viewed with suspicion and responses can be actively hostile with active sabotage not uncommon.

Pollarding, coppicing, grazing, tree felling, tree planting; they can all result in negative reactions, often through lack of understanding fostered by poor communication and publicity. Pollarding is a key historic component of managing some ancient woodlands. However, judging by some reactions I have come across, there is a level of anger, distrust and confusion about the important role it plays in preserving trees and creating habitats:

Why are so many old trees being felled? Ordinary people are not allowed to build on green belt but many old oak trees are being felled. This is a disgrace!’

I hate the way you’ve lopped the branches off trees.’

‘What is this current craze for butchering trees by cutting branches taking place? it looks awful’

We must improve social knowledge about interventionist conservation measures through the tools we have available; social media, updated and accessible websites and clear interpretative panels for our inclusive visitors, consultations and face-to-face discussions for our exclusive visitors. If our visitors are not given the information about practical conservation works in a proactive, not the more traditional passive approach, we risk losing the PR war. Without the support of our local communities and even irregular visitors, we will be resigned to battling for their ecological future alone, an inevitably futile endeavour.