You would have had to book well in advance to get a seat in Exeter University’s Forum last week. The auditorium was packed, and an air of quiet expectation permeated the room. We weren’t disappointed. Within minutes, George Monbiot’s powerful and passionate polemic lead us from the bald, treeless dome of Dartmoor and the barren highlands of Scotland directly to the corridors of power in Brussels and the stately homes of England. His carefully researched arguments showed how the subsidies farmers receive from the Common Agricultural Policy and the desires of rich landowners to increase their wealth have led to massive deforestation and the kind of catastrophic flooding we’ve recently seen in Yorkshire. Even the humble shepherd was singled out as an agent of environmental disaster. The ecology of the hills has been “sheep-wrecked,” he pointed out, and went on to argue that the hill-farming of sheep isn’t even economically viable. The farmers who do profit only do so because of subsidies.
One key concept is the problem of “shifting baselines” where we continually revise our image of what is natural depending on what was around when we were young – even if that environment was already a disaster zone. Monbiot argued that many conservation groups actually collude with this process by trying to preserve what is, rather than re-create what was.
With only 6% of our native woodland left, the most depleted in Europe, both speakers were keen to show that recovery is possible. In contrast to, but in harmony with, Monbiot, Alan Featherstone gently explained how, in many cases, all we need to do is fence off areas to prevent grazing. Nature does the rest as the natural succession of species re-wilds the landscape. Ultimately, the trees will return and much Britain could again be covered with life-sustaining rainforest. Moreover, none of this need cost much. All we have to do is re-allocate the existing subsidies to reward landowners for allowing large mammals to live on the land – as they do in Sweden with wolves – rather than rewarding them for their currently environmentally disastrous practices. It’s even easier with the marine environment. It simply requires “no take zones” where fishing is banned and marine life can flourish and move back into our badly depleted fishing grounds.
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Image by Herbythyme via Wikimedia Commons