This a continuation of the series of blogs stimulated by the re-wilding and conservation debate at the Linnean Society on Wednesday.
I looked at how people’s relationship with nature has evolved to the point now where we can more or less choose which nature we want, and which we do not want. This “can do” freedom means that for the most part, people choose a very limited range of nature, either for pleasure (pets, garden plants), food (just a few species of grass and the odd domesticated animal), fuel and fibre. Much of Nature has been increasingly “engineered out” of our lives at all levels.
At the same time it is becoming crystal clear that we cannot afford to live without nature – this is the basis of the Ecosystem Services argument – the argument goes that we need to place a (financial) value on nature so it can be properly accounted for in society, or perhaps more accurately, the economy. To my mind this is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Nature has not been properly valued by society because there is a fundamental problem with the way Society places value on things ie using financial values. We need to change the way we value Nature, rather than try and used flawed economic tools to value it.
How could we do this? Take land, for example. Land in Britain is incredibly expensive – farmland has trebled in value in less than a decade. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, land is an increasingly attractive asset class for investors looking for a safe haven from global economic turmoil. Secondly the Common Agricultural Policy guarantees that landowners receive a subsidy payment just for owning farmland. Thirdly, farmland is exempt from inheritance tax. All of these three factors combine to increase the value of farmland. What does this increase in monetary value mean for the nature that does or could or used to live there? The increase in value inevitably concentrates land into an ever smaller number of ownerships. As loans are taken out to purchase land, the need to repay those loans drives land-use intensification. As land-use intensifies, there is less room for nature.
Many millions of words have been written about the CAP and its impacts, and I will not revisit them here. Suffice to say, the CAP has been an almost unmitigated disaster for nature, notwithstanding the very limited effects of agri-environment schemes. Once again CAP reform has utterly failed to even slow down the continuing damage done by intensive farming to nature. Without a fundamental reform or indeed abandonment of the CAP, little can be done to mitigate the impact of intensive agriculture on nature.
Not our Inheritance
Why is agricultural land exempt from inheritance tax? Is it simply to enable large rural estates to hang onto their land from one generation to the next? Scotland has the most inequitable land ownership in the western world, but at least there is a vociferous campaign to redress this inequity. Figures are harder to come by for England, but recentish research suggests 0.6% of the population owns 50% of rural land.
George Monbiot in a previous existence ran an excellent campaign called The Land is ours. A reduction in the value of farmland will reduce the pressure to manage it so intensively and let nature back in. So reform is needed of the CAP (how many times…); the freedom of speculators and investors to influence land management just for financial returns, at public cost; and inheritance tax reform to reduce financial incentives to manage land for private benefit at public cost.
Towns and Cities: Bringing nature back home.
Much has been written about the disconnection between people and nature, in particular our children. Yet we can do so much to bring ourselves closer to nature and we can achieve far more for nature in our towns and cities than in rural areas. Nature can be incorporated into new developments for example, through Green Roofs and high quality greenspace. We can, with the political will, transform our public spaces into nature-rich areas. I’m not a great advocate for planting pictorial meadows or beds of cornfield annuals, not because they aren’t valuable and beautiful, but because they are a pain to manage long term. It would be much easier to transform the thousands of hectares of amenity close mown grassland into wildflower-rich areas, either meadow or not – and yes why not have some scrub?
Municipal road verges could explode with a riot of perennial flowers supporting bumble bees and butterflies, cut just once or twice a year saving money too. Such a transformation of our public spaces would not be welcomed by all – as there is a tendency to prefer tidiness over nature. Still, if Local Authorities continue to lose funding at the current rate, they will simply not be able to afford the luxury of close mown grass for much longer.
On Wednesday George suggested that every new housing development should have some wild land incorporated in it. I like the idea – but pointed out how difficult it is to “engineer” the feeling of wild. Effectively what he’s saying is let’s have some naturally-regenerated woodland in new developments – it’s a great idea.
Consumers or Citizens?
What about us, the consumer/citizens/subjects of the UK? What part do we play in this matter. Every decision we take has an impact on nature, whether it is the type of transport and domestic fuel we use, what food we buy, and how many old smart phones gather dust in the backs of cupboards. How can we decide which decisions are likely to benefit nature or not. I think it should be possible to work out a biodiversity footprint for every product, every pound of potatoes, every smartphone. The danger of course is that these get simplified to the point of being counterproductive. Take biodiversity offsetting – please – someone take it away! The “metric” is a habitat-hectare – all the sublety of variation between different sites supporting similar habitats is lost, boiled down to a single metric.
A Biodiversity Footprint
Supposing that it was possible to create a biodiversity footprint metric that was realistic, it should be possible to develop a system whereby those products with the greatest biodiversity footprint were taxed (or banned if their biodiversity footprint was too great), leaving those with the lowest BF to be cheaper and more likely to be purchased. I have to say I am not a great fan of using market-based approaches to benefit nature, but the truth is that products are bought and sold in markets of various types; and this would go some way to redressing the “market failure” where the external cost to nature is not incorporated into the price of a product. The cost to nature extracted through taxation would then need to be ring-fenced and returned directly back to activities which benefitted nature.
Tax and Regulate
Taxation and Regulation seem to be dirty words these days. Governments fall over themselves to adopt this position that regulation is bad for Society, taxation stifles growth and entrepreneurialism. Corporate cheerleaders constantly harp on about the need to remove regulatory burden from businesses. The message seems to be that Regulation (and of course taxation is a form of regulation) is like a disease in the economy – it has inculcated itself into Government and perpetuates itself, vampirically sucking life out of the economy and therefore society. The media happily play along with this charade, all too aware that regulation has come knocking on their door recently.
The truth is somewhat different. At best, Regulation protects public goods (such as nature) from private (and sometimes public) exploitation. The Wildlife and Countryside Act for example, protects our finest wildlife sites (SSSIs) from being turned into intensive farmland, quarries, housing developments and new roads. It took a very long time to actually achieve this (over 50 years since the first Act created SSSIs in 1949). and during that time countless SSSIs were lost to those very things. True, Regulation can become very bureaucratic and the bureacracy can soak up all effort leaving practically no public benefit – the BAP process is a good example of this. However, this is not in itself a good reason for getting rid of Regulation.
The combined effects of land reform and a taxation and regulation system that places nature at its heart, could see the current continuing loss of nature reversed, but this will take a long time.
As I wrote yesterday we can take action now, by re-distributing the land that is already in sympathetic, or at least potentially sympathetic hands.