Yesterday, my nemesis Jeremy Clarkson wrote an article in the Sunday Times newspaper, outlining his travails in attempting to “re-wild” part of his farm in Oxfordshire. He describes the irony of the way that environmental wisdom now endorses simply ‘letting things go’ in our gardens or farms instead of ‘actively managing the land’ as we have done for centuries. He tells the tale of how projects in Chile to incentivise tree planting had the opposite effect as farmers cut down the existing trees just so they could obtain the subsidies offered for planting new saplings. And he goes on to berate the Environment Agency’s excessive bureaucracy for erecting endless barriers to his attempts to gain approval for what amounted to a tiny project to create a wetland area by damming a watercourse in order to encourage wildlife to return.
As we all know, Jeremy has a somewhat contorted relationship with nature, more recently having undergone what some in the media described as an almost Damascene conversion from devoted petrol head and Greenpeace hater to an apparently more palatable countryside sage. But his article got me thinking about the inherent tensions between our efforts to understand and control nature (even when motivated by a desire to protect it), and nature’s stubborn ability to defy and ultimately prevail over us. To what extent must we accept that it is nature that is most likely to prevail over the fallibilities of the human race?
For the first few years of my conversion into becoming ‘an environmentalist’, I was wedded to the idea that we must “save nature”, because without human intervention, it would be damned to hell. And whilst I’m still an ardent believer in the critical importance of respecting, protecting and above all, understanding nature – today I am of the view that the main beneficiary of this strategy is not nature itself at all, but rather us.
Why is this distinction important? Well, because it is only when we understand our own vulnerability and co-dependence on nature for the survival of our own species, that we can truly find the right path (and the appropriate urgency) in starting to live in harmony with our planetary boundaries.
We have all seen the footage of the wildlife returning to Chernobyl just five or ten years after the nuclear disaster which took place made it toxic for human life for millennia. We have learned about the planet’s remarkable emergence from various ice ages. And we have most recently witnessed the remarkable and rapid recovery of the air quality during the lower carbon usage period of the Covid crisis. Nature’s capacity for replenishment and dominance is legendary.
By contrast, the news today is laden with apocalyptic predictions about the future of survival of the human race, rather than the demise of the planet itself. Last week, yet another grisly vision of the future came to light, in a BBC article outlining how in the next few years, summers may become too hot for humans to survive them. Millions of people around the world will live in conditions which will expose them to ‘dangerous levels of heat stress’ it asserts.
Many of my friends and colleagues who trained as ecologists, biologists and the like are firmly wedded to the view that if we do not tackle and manage to reverse catastrophic climate change in the decade or less we have left, it is in fact our own destruction we are presiding over. If likes of Jeremy Clarkson are to be motivated to make changes to their lifestyles and publicly express opinions more in line with halting climate change, then surely it is more likely if motivated by the prospect of our own demise, than by an abstract desire to ‘save the trees’?