Catch All Terms – Reductive or Expedient?

You’ve all heard them. They’re there in every public document, press release, management plan and job description you’ve ever read. But do we know what they mean? And do they actually add anything to our understanding of the environment?

With the recent addition of the malleable term ‘Ecomodernism‘ to the lexicon of green-speak, it might be time to look at some of our other favourite buzzwords and ask ourselves ‘what does this really mean?’

Lets start with a big one: Sustainability. It has been rendered almost meaningless by it’s ubiquity. As a little test, I googled three companies at random (ok, not entirely at random). It should come as no surprise that Monsanto, BP and Philip Morris all have sustainability front and centre of their homepage, but when that’s the case, has it lost all sense of significance?

Then there’s biodiversity. What does biodiversity mean to people? Have we, as conservationists, persisted with a clumsy term, inconsistently applied and with no resonance with the public?

These words are becoming vapid. Vacuums. Phrases that take on whatever meaning we need them to. They are loose and ambiguous, with no strict definitions. As a ‘Scientist’ I can’t help but want to go all Linaean on them and define by family, genus, species – just what exactly does sustainable mean?

The theory is that these words help the public to reconnect with green issues by bringing terms and concepts in to facets of our everyday lives and making them more relevant. In many cases these terms do the exact opposite, placing a layer of babble between the people and the issues.

Is the adoption of these ‘catch all’ terms just another form of greenwashing? It’s an easy out for a product to describe itself as ‘organic’ and company to describe itself as ‘sustainable’ or a government to describe itself as the ‘greenest government ever’ without actually doing anything. It’s our duty to hold them to account.

The Purple and the Green – More Nature Writing Guff

You may have heard that these days there is ‘new’ and ‘old’ nature writing, a huge partisan divide exists between the practitioners and followers of the two schools and never the twain shall they reach an accord. Perhaps I exaggerate a touch. Still at least it’s good to see that there is a little discordance in the ‘genre’. Now, apparently, there is ‘new’ and ‘old’ nature writing. For new nature writing read lyrical, verbose and led by ‘personal experiences and emotions’. For ‘old’ nature writing read prosaic, studious and dry. But of course, it’s not that simple, is it?

For starters, I’m going to distance myself from the argument by claiming affiliation to neither sect. I don’t class myself as a writer. What I do here isn’t art. It’s mental diarrhoea through a keyboard. I’ve no agenda, I’ve no book to sell, I frankly couldn’t give a flying one whether you’re reading this or not (sorry), and even less whether you are enjoying it (a good job too, I hear you say). I’m frequently complaining. There’s no subtlety or finesse. I therefore exempt myself, which rather handily gives me free reign to harp on about the failing of both sides without claim of bias.

What I have done though is read. I have devoured nature writing of all kinds for as long as I can remember (although I have bizarrely avoided Macfarlane). So just like every bugger else, I’m entitled to my opinion and I reserve the right to egotistically yell it into the void of the internet through this peculiar little blog. So I think it’s time that I get one thing off my chest for you all. Here it is – hold your breath – I didn’t really like H is for Hawk.

It feels like this whole argument began with H is for Hawk. It has become a behemoth. It has devoured all in its path and woe-betide the reader who does not ‘get it’. But it’s not for me. That’s no bad thing. All sorts of books don’t speak to all sorts of readers, doesn’t make them bad books. To me, Ulysses is gibberish, Harry Potter is for children. I even know people who don’t like Catch 22 (although I reserve the right to dismiss these people as cretins). I don’t think I should be made to feel bad for not really liking H is for Hawk. By saying that I wasn’t overwhelmed by H is for Hawk, I sense it is as though the validity of my opinion itself is being questioned.

To assume that ‘Nature writing’ is a whole, cohesive concept and not amorphous and subjective is a mistake. It is different things to different people, and ultimately the audience are the judge. If people like it, they will read it. It will sell. How can you argue with the numbers? And something like H is for Hawk certainly does have numbers – and awards – on its side.

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An excuse to show-off my library.

My one gripe is that much of the recent output has little point beyond the point of creating output. There is no strive to inform and educate. And you can inform and educate while employing emotive prose and descriptive language. In many ways, this is the best way to do it. Education is a lot easier when the subject is presented in an appealing manner. I want my ‘nature writers’ to do better, not just for the professional audience, but for the layman whose prime interaction with the natural world is the rural idyll-ising of Countryfile or Springwatch.

This is not to say I’ve got my feet planted firmly in the ‘old’ camp. I teeter like a bus perched precariously over an Italian precipice. There’s definitely a hint of elitism to the protestations and dismissals of H is for Hawk and its ilk

I can see why writers get defensive. Is it jealousy? Is it fear? It’s becoming an overcrowded market, particularly as the boundaries of what is and what isn’t ‘nature writing’ blurs. There’s a slightly snarky tone to this dismissal of the ‘new’, and it’s one that anyone who has ever misidentified bird song in the wrong company will know – the notion that ‘this kind of thing’ is only for a certain type of person. There can be nothing more wrong and nothing more detrimental to the cause, but it is something that both ‘sides’ – if these sides even exist – can be guilty of.

The biggest problem that this hullabaloo has created is that now when we discuss ‘nature writing’ we seem to be discussing too much of the ‘writing’ part. To me this detracts from the issues that good nature writing should raise. Be these the mind-bogglingly big issues (a la E O Wilson), or the small species-specific issues.

But hell, in his time even Thoreau was accused of sentimentalising, and if you’ve ever tried to wade through that impenetrable mire I think you would struggle to class it as anything other than very, very old nature writing.

Camley Street – A Revisit

Don’t look back. You can never look back”

Don Henley

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Me loitering outside my previous place of work before the restraining order

If you ever find yourself in London, baffled, as I am, by the sheer vibrant greyness of it all (no that is not an oxymoron), then it’s worth reminding yourself that in amongst all that grim, concrete hustle and bustle, London is one of the greenest capital cities on the planet. Indeed, if you’re rolling straight off the Eurostar at St Pancras then right there, a short stroll from the platform, is one of the best examples of the tiny little green nooks and crannies that exist throughout the frequently overbearing behemoth of England’s capital – Camley Street Natural Park.

I apologies that this post my have begun with all the tepidly verbose prose of a Lonely Planet review. No, I have not taken to heart all the frequent pleas from readers to be ‘less curmudgeonly’. But I do think Camley Street is something worth shouting about.

A brief admission of self-interest here: Camley Street is somewhere close to my own heart, just as it is close to the very heart of London (oh good grief man, listen to yourself would you?). A lot of my formative experiences in urban conservation and outreach occurred there. I volunteered and later worked at the site. My Logan’s Run themed 30th birthday was held there (I did, indeed, ‘renew‘). It is a great example of what I’d phrase ‘shop-front conservation.’ There’s some interesting bits of natural habitat, even the odd notable species, but it is a site most definitely managed with public engagement at its core. This is no bad thing. In fact it is an ideal use of the space. But now, it’s becoming something different.

I recently revisited the site and realised all was not quite as I remembered it. The hills were higher when you were young, and all that. Perhaps it was because I worked and volunteered there with some great people who are no longer there (I’m sure the new volunteers and staff are great, but they are mostly strangers to me), but it seemed less alive and full of possibilities. I found myself ambling around the site pointing at things and saying to myself ‘I made that’ and then picking out the inadequacies in my own handiwork.

It’s possible memories and subsequent experiences have slightly detracted from the place for me, it’s possible I object to the artistic viewing platform that’s been installed at the southern end, it’s possible I’m royally peeved that my kingfisher bank has been flattened a year before it would have finally offered a suitable habitat for the occasional visitors that make it even to this darkened corner of the Regent’s Canal. It’s possible I’m annoyed that there isn’t yet a blue plaque with my name over the gate.

There’s been a major development going on in the old warehouses the opposite side of the canal. The area has well and truly shaken off its rather dubious reputation. Very soon, a footbridge will link the new development to the north of Camley Street. A new visitor centre will replace the ‘charming’ and somewhat ramshackle old cricket pavilion that currently performs the role. Will Camley Street keep its character? No doubt the levels of footfall will increase immeasurably. More people will through-route from the London School of Arts buildings to the railway stations. More people will discover this wonderful sight and the wonderful work the London Wildlife Trust do there. But it will never be the Camley Street I remember. That’s the nature of urban reserves like this and I should be glad.