An article from Do or Die Issue 8. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 159-173.
[IMAGE] Kennall Vale: Once the largest gunpowder factory in Cornwall.
"I see what is possible when we stand our ground, our common ground. I see forests and grasslands filled with masses of flowers and the native birds and wildlife that had long ago disappeared from this part of the planet. I see what can be done from the barest beginnings and under the most impossible conditions, with hardly any means or resources. Not by calculating, or waiting for the opportune moment, or the big money, or for a conference to confirm what must be done. I see what can be done by the power of simply doing it. And as I turn toward the starkly contrasting landscape behind me, I see all that is yet to be done."(1)
Ecological restoration is one of the most compelling tasks that we face, if we are to patch up the battered cradle of life that sustains us, as well as renewing our own bruised mental ecologies. Successfully removing the sources of the ongoing destruction will simply bring us round to our first full realisation of the scale of capitalism's ecologically fractured legacy. The challenge will be to steer ourselves to a gentle landing: not only the unglamorous work of clean-up, but the pre-eminent adventure of remaking an idyll from the wreckage. This unfolding process holds out the promise of a new accord: alienation banished, reconciled with ourselves and the world around us.
One obvious question is: why restore at all? Nature is resilient, with an immense capacity for recovery, so long as natural processes are given sufficient space and time to operate freely. (Even in a hostile environment, life still crowds irrepressibly up through the cracks.) History is littered with stories of the detritus of past empires redeemed by the encroaching vegetation. Bill McKibben describes "an explosion of green" in the north-eastern US after farming was largely abandoned in the 19th century - in New York State alone "forest cover... continued to grow by more than a million acres a decade through 1980".(2) Closer to home, "thousands of acres of woodland sprang up on derelict land in south-east Essex in the 1930s and 1940s".(3)
Enabling natural colonisation and regeneration, rather than the artifice of planting, is widely favoured. This will "allow the most appropriate species for each location and site to establish and in the long term will be most likely to develop into healthy, biologically diverse woodland ecosystems". (4) Conversely, the (understandable) "human desire to see instant results or at least appreciable results within our lifetime"(5) risks contriving inferior, 'quick-fix' ersatz ecosystems - or 'quite areas'.(6)
The desire to leave nature to its own regenerative devices is not just sound ecological sense, but a reasonable reaction to the depths of conservation's mania for management. After the Great Storm of 1987, one organisation blithely proclaimed that "Trees are at great danger from nature", and another that "unless... positive encouragement [is] given to owners to restore these woods... they will revert to scrub and never recover".(7) Preposterous statements like "it is important that woodland is effectively managed to ensure its survival"(8) seem to spring more from an insecure need to feel wanted and indispensable - and thus engaging in frenetic busywork to obtain some kind of 'therapy through landscape'. Conservationists often appear to suffer from a paternalist philosophy of 'spare the saw and spoil the tree'.
Others have a valid objection to any energies devoted to restoration, given the continuing onslaught against the vestiges of the natural that still remain - comparing it to "repaint[ing] the kitchen cabinets when the house is on fire".(9) Amongst practitioners however, there is a widespread assumption that restoration is never a substitute for preservation - rather that the two should complement one another, particularly in a country as devoid of healthy ecosystems as ours.(10) Developers, on the other hand, routinely abuse the concept of restoration - and the related 'translocation'(11) - of habitats, as a pretext smoothing the way for further destruction. Talk of 'planning gain', 'end use', 'mitigation' and 'exchange land' is predicated on the spurious assumption that we can 'build a better habitat', as good as new - as if they were just so many interchangeable parts on a Fordist assembly line. This kind of 'habitat engineering' is reminiscent of the environment industry's 'end of pipe' approach to pollution, as applied to physical landscapes rather than toxic chemicals: rejecting any inconvenient changes to their processes, instead concentrating on lucrative 'cures' to treat the problems that invariably arise. (Don't forget that the Department of Transport (now DETR) is, laughably, the nation's biggest tree-planter.) Possibly one of the most repellent examples of this is English Nature (the government's abysmal wildlife watchdog) allowing peat stripping scum Levington to take what it can from the fantastic Thorne and Hatfield Moors SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), only to 'restore' them in about 25 years' time.(12)
However, the fact that nature can and does bounce back unaided should not be cause for complacency. Recovery - particularly back to its original condition - is not inevitable; nature can roll with most but not all of the punches we throw: " 'Forests precede civilisation', it is said, 'deserts follow'...The [Roman] Empire's North African breadbasket, where 600 cities once flourished, is now a desert, as are the forests that were the breeding grounds of Hannibal's elephants."(13) There is a place for human agency in the work of restoration.
"Whether or not a devastated area recovers depends on a number of conditions. Most fundamentally, the site needs its original topsoil... if the top horizon [of the soil] is altered - by adding chemicals, ploughing or planting crops - a different kind of vegetation emerges when the site is abandoned... But if neither fertilisers nor crops are introduced, even heavily used areas can return to the condition of nearby undisturbed areas."(14) Unfortunately for us, since at least 1945, virtually all of lowland Britain (and much of the uplands) has been subjected to substantial soil 'modification'. It may seem odd to define this as a problem, but huge tracts of our countryside are suffering from 'eutrophication', or excessive fertility - either as a result of direct application of chemicals, or indirectly felt on adjoining land through 'drift' of the chemicals. "The intensity of the seed rain (from a once rich countryside) is much diminished, and though the seed bank in the soil may be long-lived for some species, decades of herbicide and inorganic fertiliser use have transformed soils to make a return to the previous norm difficult without a helping hand".(15)
While natural regeneration may, in time, make good some of the losses, without any remedial intervention - including drastic measures such as actually stripping the topsoil(16) - we might find ourselves locked into an intractable spiral of decline. An example of this 'defertilising' work - perhaps better described as rehabilitation than restoration - is the 'biomanipulation' practised on the Norfolk Broads to reduce accumulated phosphate pollution and the accompanying algal blooms.(17) Such intervention has been described as a "kickstart" approach(18) - striving not to prejudice its future direction, but setting nature back down on the launch pad, to go its own way.
Looked at more broadly, our restoration efforts may at least help by "undoing the constraints our industrialism have placed upon [nature]".(19) For instance, while "artificially straightened rivers tend to 'recover' naturally"(20), this can't always be relied upon; extensive work was carried out on the Afon Ogwen (which "resembled a land drainage channel, not the Welsh river it once was") in Snowdonia in 1998, because "the natural... regime of the river had not shown any indication of being able to repair itself from the degradations".(21) (See the profile of the River Restoration Centre in the Restoration Roundup section, p. 180) Rivers and their floodplains have fared as badly as the soil; there is a powerful case for reversing our ubiquitous drainage works, and reinstating coherent hydrological regimes, in "what must have been a gloriously wet natural landscape"(22) - as long as we can keep the ague (malaria) at bay this time! (See RSPB Reedbed Creation profile in Restoration Roundup, p. 181.)
The scanty (semi) natural areas that we do still enjoy are in anything but robust shape - ill-equipped to absorb the threats that future change and upheaval might bring. Much of conservation is dedicated to shoring up these wobbly, fragmented habitat islands - atomised, overcrowded life rafts, whose species are being inexorably worn down by 'biogeographical' attrition.(23) As the National Trust's Rob Jarman explains, "each unit of habitat lost [outside] makes the [ecological] communities on the Trust's properties that much more vulnerable to external change".(24) 'An injury to all is an injury to one' - for example, other 'reservoir' populations are less available to bail out local extinctions.(25) Probably the most critical challenge confronting the fragments in their already weakened and susceptible state is that of climate change(26) - or more correctly, the accelerated volatility of the 'broken thermostat' effect.(27) As climate change brings the crisis of fragmentation to a head, now more than ever the agenda not only should be, but must be one of "restoration, enhancement and expansion... rather than just trying to harm [the environment] less"(28) - 'joining up the dots' to allow for migration in the face of rapidly changing conditions. It is not just the physical movement of individuals and species that is at stake here, but opportunities for the exchange of unique, locally adapted genetic material, which have been so long constrained; basic genetic diversity is the ultimate insurance policy against unpredictable change.(29)
In a country - like Britain - plagued with an advanced state of ecological decomposition, what might be termed 'emergency ward' or 'basket case' conservation also becomes very important - this is, perhaps literally, 'clutching at straws'. It can cover particular regions - eg. the Caledonian pine forest of the Highlands (Glen Affric and Abernethy profiles in Restoration Roundup, p. 174 and 179), or the native woodlands of Orkney and Shetland (Orkney profile in Roundup, p. 184) - where the habitat is at such a perilously low ebb that it is losing its grip on the cliff edge, and may not currently be able to 'help itself'. It can also encompass country-wide habitat types (and indeed species) whose near or total absence leaves a jarring gap in the continuum of the landscape. To pull a few names out of the hat, the following might fall into this category: the natural transitions of woodland up to and beyond the treeline (Carrifran Wildwood profile, p. 175), flooded or 'carr' forest (Gwen Finch Wetland Reserve profile, p. 176), lowland valley mires,(30) and so on.
One must not overlook the inward and social dimensions of ecological restoration - they may even be its most crucial attributes. It is at the least a statement of intent. Without getting too carried away with a sense of our collective power, restoration is ripe with the liberating, even alchemical, promise of transformation - finding its material expression in our immediate surroundings. It offers an exhilarating taste of that most dangerous commodity: hope, and a way out; there's everything to play for, all bets are off. As ever, when people are truly able to make their world - even the tiniest little scrap - the grinding malaise of destruction and loss begins to dissipate, prospects for creation and renewal rebound, and imprisoning notions of 'human nature' go out the window. By getting to grips - down and dirty - with their common patch, so rarely permitted except under the auspices of government and industry, the barren and hostile can become convivial space. We can begin to explore the links between conservation and conversation, between re-creation and recreation. As the Mattole Restoration Council came to realise in Northern California, "through engaging with the fundamental processes of a particular place, we might discover the appropriate models for our own activities and organisation".(31) The restorer restored; the doing (praxis) is as important as the done (it's never 'done'). Tara Garnett writes of the 'emboldening' effect of, in this case, urban farming: it can "stimulate a sense of common ownership and, in doing so, spur a sense of community into existence. This community may then move on to further collective action"(32)... During the riots in Benwell, Newcastle in the early 1990s, the "sense of ownership of the Park [which they had created] by the local community became very apparent... Many houses and the local pub were burnt, but the Nature Park - right in the centre - was untouched".(33)
There is also an argument for efforts to maintain the rich, characteristic cultural - or 'vernacular' - landscapes, whose "patterns in particular places were created locally by the daily work of ordinary people".(34) While requiring potentially problematic 'management', they developed, at least in part, to satisfy local subsistence needs from local means, in the absence of today's national and global economy. In view of the pressing need to wean ourselves off petrochemical dependence, and to avoid stomping our ecological footprints across the globe(35), habitats like orchards, reedbeds, perhaps coppice, etc., could have a lot to teach us. In conjunction with more recent techniques such as permaculture, they could rejuvenate our sorely depleted skills base, and thus our own resilience and autonomy.(36)
Conservation has been described as "a unique enterprise in which industry expands as the resource diminishes, and there is no product".(37) In this respect it is a quintessentially 'post-modern' industry, and conservationists are masters of 'meta-work' (work about work) - ceaselessly networking and strategising within the 'charmed circle' of accredited bodies - and while "ever more effort has gone into conservation of nature... ever greater loss and destruction have occurred".(38) When considered in historical context, the actual effect of most restoration efforts is only to replace the lost with the new - imparting no 'net gain'. At best, depending on the vagaries of the economy, it is a holding operation - managing the crisis, knife-edge stabilising of the rate of decline. By virtue of being 'non-political' realists, conservationists are of course anything but. Refusing to wrestle with the explosive questions of power relations, land ownership and distribution, they are forced to rely upon the fruitless "voluntary principle", and its 'unholy trinity' of incentives, policy and guidance - the beseeching, red-carpet treatment for any landowner gracious enough to change their ways.
W.M. Adams argues that it is "an anathema to many conservationists to consider letting nature go", and that "caution about the abandonment of land is partly about the loss of control. Much of our conservation is based very precisely on the idea of control".(39) He likens it to "gardening on a vast scale"(40) - 'lawn order'. At times, conservationists seem far more forgiving of economic growth than scrub growth - laissez faire for capitalism, zero tolerance for wild nature. (Maybe it is the only thing over which they can exercise control in this society.) Wildness must be quarantined(41) or taken into protective custody - kept in its place and made, literally, 'manage-able'. The ferocity with which they fall upon scrub raises suspicions that it is a displacement activity - anything to divert attention from the uncomfortable realisation that 'You can't restore your way out of a social relationship.' Habitat loss has come primarily through social factors, and can only truly be made good by social transformation - not by swimming against the tide with more acute and technically proficient land management programmes.
Conservationists are incorrigible planners - partly through necessity, as fragmentation demands "an ever more detailed and complex knowledge of the remaining [wildlife] interest"(42) - and its corollary, an ever more specialist and thus inaccessible conservation, reduced to a technical question. Continually sharpening management tools is not a bad thing in itself, but does seem part of the quest for the holy grail of the 'perfect plan', balancing every conceivable need, at which point everything will fall neatly into place. At worst, it smacks of the hubris of the technocrat, inhabiting an ordered, predictable and empirical universe - 'the tyranny of the measurable' - and a reluctance to admit to uncertainty and doubt - 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your management plan'. Not being armed with a plan is to go naked and exposed into the wood.
Market values permeate the conservationist worldview: "From economics have come words and ideas such as 'producers', 'consumers' and 'efficiency', and using them ecologists have interpreted ecological change as working like a modern industrial consumer society... [leaving] conservation with a strong legacy of an instrumentalist view of nature... [and] nature as system".(43)
But it's not quite this straightforward. Traditional ways of 'working' the land did at least enable some natural value to endure intact. Intensification on the other hand has meant the disappearance of even the commonplace(44), and a situation in which those areas which are 'zoned' for wildlife - like reserves - often have "no natural environment left in between them".(45) The archaic and unproductive "1930s agriculture that conservationists practice"(46) has become increasingly alienated from the rest of the countryside. Hence there is a tension in conservation. On the one hand there is an impetus to detach land from (at least) the modern, intensive form of economic circulation. Thus there is an implied critique of economic practices; both because, on a practical level, conservationists are only too well aware of the way in which they thwart and frustrate their best efforts, and philosophically, because of a sense of nature as being, at heart, unassimilable: other than and perhaps diametrically opposed to the economy. On the other hand, conservationists pursue a strategy of safeguarding and justifying ecological value by assigning economic value (the tail wagging the dog?): pricing, or 'enclosing', everything that moves (and some that doesn't) - running around with a butterfly net and a bar coder.(47) From this perspective the problem is not the market itself, but those things that hang in valueless limbo outside it. They must be reincorporated, if only by being enclosed within a policy framework.
As well as being self-serving squealing for more snout-space in the government trough, the following quote illustrates this well: "Neglect is a real issue, because the heathlands play no real role in any economic system and are simply not cared for. What is needed is better funding of conservation schemes which will enable owners and managers to produce the environmental goods that society now demands." (48)
The crisis now afflicting farming is the spectre haunting conservation. Their banal big idea, in response to the looming problems triggered by overproduction, liberalisation of world trade under the GATT Treaty and so on, is to reform the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Apparently our basic structures are sound, it is just the details that need 'tweaking' or fine-tuning - 'this is a job for the policy wonks'! (Some are even still resorting to an 'unfettered' free market - as opposed to the 'distortions' of the CAP - as the answer to all our woes.) CAP subsidies will be redirected towards 'agri-environment' grants, the panacea which will help to reposition farming, and enable farmers to 'diversify'. Agriculture's new identity will primarily be as purveyor of intangible luxury "environmental goods", such as delivering 'biodiversity targets' - 'farming for wildlife' - the food surplus presenting us with "a tremendous window of opportunity for redesigning the countryside for other purposes":(50) in theory, making good those habitat losses. As the Council for National Parks say, "the main product is a wild and sustainable landscape, not stock or timber."(51) (Whether any of this is 'sustainable' is open to question - it hinges upon the continuation of surplus, and a highly sophisticated economy that is able to forego economic return on land and 'set it aside'.)
According to Raoul Vaneigem, "so brutal has the exploitation of nature been that its resources - the very nature of its profitability - are threatened with exhaustion; there is thus no choice but to develop ecological markets in order to get the economy out of its present morass."(52) Central to this is the task of devising 'virtuous products', along with 'virtuous jobs' like conservation - zealous self-alienation - working long hours for low pay, 'for the cause'.
'Farming for wildlife' readily becomes 'farming of wildlife': its discrete commodification (and heaven help those uncharismatic species that are left out in the cold, that can't be commodified). For example, Landlife (see their profile in the Roundup) are administering the "Market Gardening with Indigenous Species" project, under which "local farmers will be planting wildflower crops [sic] thanks to a grant from the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund".(54) (By the way, their National Wildflower Centre's mission is to promote "the creation of new habitats that have economic, environmental and ecological benefits for the nation.")
Many nature reserves already seem akin to 'beauty factories', governed by 'aesthetic productivism'. What are sometimes known as "physical outputs" are maximised; one manager, discussing the merits of non-intervention, bemoaned the fact that "funders [of reserves]... want to see action and colour" - hence coppicing, which "bring[s] about a short burst of bluebells and butterflies"(56) - 'all fluttering, all flowering' habitats, practically on performance-related pay. Nature is "consumed in special places... and made to yield predictable products", becoming "one among a range of commodities that can be purchased by the wealthy to enhance their leisure time."(57)
'Reserve cramming' (like 'town cramming') - or 'high unit productivity' - is partly a consequence of fragmentation. For instance, "woods often act as reserves for the whole landscape, especially in intensively arable regions. Many... should be regarded as grassland reserves, as well as woodland reserves".(58) They must work flat out to be all things to all taxa - to 'please all of the species all of the time'. But "the more effort that is put in to make it rich, the further it departs from naturalness".(59)
With restoration there is also the temerity of 'zoning for wildlife' - striding grandly about the landscape, prescribing 'here a hay meadow, there a salt marsh' (but not there) - or 'this is a wood for butterflies, that one is for lichens' (a kind of 'comparative advantage' - hopefully with 'trickle down effect' benefits for other species.)
Reading RSPB(60) reports I am mesmerised by the dance of the graphs. Conservation is reminiscent of an EPOS (Electronic Point of Sale) stock-taking system, monitoring a steady stream of population data - eg. such-and-such has just made it into the Red Data Book (the species emergency list) - their stock is low - 'Darren, we need more garganey'. The habitat creation trucks then get rolling for this 'just in time' production, bringing new waders on line to match identified need.
Restoration and management for wildlife might actually have detrimental indirect effects on the surrounding area. 'Rewetting' of depleted wetland reserves may exacerbate the serious problem of water abstraction: it can cause the already degraded neighbouring countryside to become even drier and less hospitable, by creaming off what little surplus water there is.(61) These refugia might therefore consolidate habitat fragmentation, monopolising the wildlife, acting like a vortex which strips its hinterland of biodiversity, or like an out of town supermarket, emptying value out of its vicinity. For example, Pulborough Brooks in Sussex's Arun valley (see profile in the Roundup) now harbours "up to 75% of the total Arun valley wintering birds" every January. (62) While "bird counts on the reserve are soaring... counts for the area are still falling disastrously."(63) By concentrating the 'resource' like this, the very visible spectacular displays at Pulborough may be masking the decline rather than reversing it. (Although it seems likely that in the long run the whole of the Arun valley may actually benefit from Pulborough.)
In an era when the dollar is being encoded into DNA - the final, molecular, frontier of enclosure - the question 'what is nature?' is no longer just a matter for dry philosophical discourse.(64) David Helton reported on the 1992 meeting of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), where the doctrine of 'sustainable utilisation' - and by extension, the question of nature's 'identity' - was up for grabs. Like 'farming for wildlife', it involves a species being "taken out of the economics of nature and brought into the economics of man [sic]"(65) and is heralded as "some kind of solution to the problems of human growth, both numeric and economic, without that growth having to stop". The rhino is "the one large mammal in the world whose existence is conspicuously threatened by international trade", and has therefore been purposefully excluded from the economic sphere by CITES. And yet, the proposal in 1992 was still to actually "harvest"' horn from live rhinos and "put [it]... on the legalised, reopened market", with the result that "rhinos would be paying their own way in the world."
Thankfully the proposal was rejected, but as Helton observes, the future foreshadowed by this approach "doesn't look like one worth living in, for people or rhinos either. The reason we save the rhino... is because it's... living wild on its own terms and deserving to. If we have to use emergency measures now... it's only so that some time in the future rhinos can return to their proper existence, in a world made sane again, with humanity under its own control and for the other species a normal wild life, not as livestock in a global barnyard - not with the rhino as some kind of tonic-producing cow, an ongoing business. It would almost be better off extinct." It's a clearcut choice, albeit one that has been foisted upon us: to "either stop growing or go for a desperate long shot and put absolutely everything under human management".(666)
Natural succession is the "process of change in plant communities over time towards a natural climax, for example from grassland to scrub and then woodland."(67) Conservationists have been fighting the 'wars of succession' since at least the 1960s, in an attempt to retain those wildlife values that flow from continuity of traditional management features such as heathland. (It should be pointed out here that it can be very difficult to precisely define the 'traditional practices' that conservation harks back to.(68) Also, that arresting ecosystem change in this way has been pointedly compared to the futility of "trying to hold back a flood with a raincoat.") However, conservationists are now beginning to stage what might be called a 'managed retreat' (a la Dunkirk?) from universally regulating such natural processes - perhaps 'learning to let go'.
The orthodox model of nature emphasised predictability and continuity. Change did figure in the equation, but only as part of an orderly and inexorable progression, with each stage in the succession obligingly laying down the conditions for the next, until it achieved a stable equilibrium - a relatively 'steady-state' (revealing term!) climax vegetation like woodland(71). This is of course at least in part a cultural construct, reflecting the political climate out of which it sprang as much as it does nature. The theory "was strongly rooted in Darwinian ideas of biological evolution, and spin-off ideas of social 'progress' ";(72) redolent of a time of 'eternal verities', a naturally ordained and fixed social order and a linear and cumulative conception of history. Humanity was perched in its rightful place atop the evolutionary tree - the 'Crown of Creation', or 'climax species' - with the imputed hierarchy in nature serving to endorse the ranking of classes and races within humanity itself.
However, we now find that "climax, like the horizon, may be a useful concept, but it... can never be reached... when ecologists examined climax vegetation their studies were upset by disturbance. It soon became clear that disturbance was not an exception, a temporary upset, but a central part of the ecology of a habitat."(73) Disturbance, from grazing, windblow, fire, flooding, erosion and a host of other factors, is perpetually disrupting "the progression towards theoretical climax",(74) resetting the clock back. In a sense, 'there is no beginning and there is no end' - it's all process - an open-ended question. It has been pointed out that people respond to events rather than processes - particularly in spectacular society, where social phenomena are prised loose from their context and reproduced as disembodied and mystifying 'events'. (Conversely, ecology is, if nothing else, the story of context - the antithesis of spectacular amnesia.) Looked at in this light, nature reserves - managed as frozen moments in ecological time - represent soundbite or 'event' habitats.
This new-found taste for disturbance and uncertainty has led ecologists away from "nature as a well-behaved deterministic system"(75) towards "instability, disorder, a shifting world of upheaval and change that has no direction to it"(76) (Mao's 'permanent revolution', perhaps?!) Since "autonomy is [now] viewed as a fundamental characteristic of 'real' nature", it tends to operate as more of "a game than a controllable system".(77) This suggests possibilities of a more gratifying, 'sensuous' character to humanity's interactions with nature - as a 'player within the game', not an engineering outsider - whose role might be to "conserve the capacity of nature to re-create itself".(78)
Disturbance is the engine of ecological variety in the landscape, preventing those species that would dominate under (eg.) a closed canopy climax having it all their own way. There is what might be called a 'dialectic' between structure (such as the canopy) and disturbance here: "Too little disturbance leads to dominance of a few strong competitors, while a heavy disturbance regime [as in most of Britain] is tolerated only by a few hardy species."(79) Our best bet could be the supremely difficult practice of faithfully emulating the effects of natural disturbance - the conundrum of 'planning for chance'. We've already been unknowingly engaged in a form of this for centuries: "As the original wildwood became cleared and fragmented, disturbance from management gradually took over from natural disturbance... which can not operate on the small scale". However, this supplanting of natural processes by management represents a coarsening and simplification - only "some of the attributes of natural disturbance [have] continued"(80) - the effects of our management have been too uniform, and some crucial components have fallen by the wayside.
"The ecological effect of most woodland management is to artificially remove the late mature and decaying elements of the regeneration cycle",(81) including the dead wood "which accounts for 50% of the timber in old forest",(82) and is "one of the two or three greatest resources of the woodland habitat".(83) Without this, we miss out on the "healthy fungal flora [which] contributes significantly to the ecological health of the wood"(84), by breaking the dead wood down and making its nutrients available to other plants. As Hambler and Speight point out, a whopping "70% of the energy flow through a terrestrial ecosystem is through the decomposer community",(85) including fungi. In our woodlands, this flow is blocked.
Another vital element is one that many of us only saw for the first time after the 1987 storm: the "pit and mound" topography formed by the upended root plates of toppled trees, which can cover "14 - 50% of the forest floor in some unmanaged American woods".(86) Ordinarily, rain leaches nutrients away from an undisturbed soil's surface. The upturned trees instead turn and mix the soil, bringing nutrients back up to the surface and encouraging plant germination - acting as "an added degree of soil rejuvenation".
According to Tony Whitbread, "woodland soils would not naturally form, layer on layer, without... [such] mixing."(87) Deprived of such intrinsic features as these, who can now imagine the ensuing richness and vibrancy that our countryside lacks?
Finally, there are the "ecotones" - 'twilight zones' where a palette of habitats melt seamlessly into and out of one another, in a kind of hybridising. "Many species rely on [this] interface between one habitat and another",(88) but not only do roads, intensive farming, etc, dismember this delicate habitat continuum, fluid "change is often prevented by management"(89) as well. For example, "there may be a sharp boundary between a wood and a hay meadow. Scrub invasion, left unchecked, would soon overwhelm the meadow, but the regime that resists it eliminates the ecotone instead. Such harsh zonation is often the only way to preserve habitat fragments, but leaves no room for natural processes to operate."(90) It is difficult to manage for ecotones(91), emblematic as they are of a dynamic, supple 'landscape of flux' - which leaves us with a straight choice between 'zoning' and 'process'. Zoning causes the pattern of habitats to ossify, in a kind of 'habitat reductionism'.
Work, and other 'socially polluting' alienated activities, can be seen as a 'habitat fragmentation' of the time of our lives; with 'management' leading to zoning - artificial disjunctions - and eliminating soft-edged ecotones. As Andre Gorz says, "The way our space is arranged carries on the disintegration of people that begins with the division of labour in the factory. It cuts a person into slices, it cuts our time, our life, into separate slices."(92) If you don't believe me, think about how your lunch hour feels (assuming you are still allowed one), or the slow, ominous countdown of a Sunday night.
[IMAGE] Community Forests: 'screening industry'
The National Forest, the twelve Community Forests, and the activities of the Groundwork organisation (see Wren's Nest Estate profile in "Restoration Roundup") are all examples of a 'restoration' which is as much concerned with the management of people as it is of nature. The National Forest, which aims to create a "multi-purpose forest"(93) over 200 square miles of the Midlands, sees itself as "a model of 'sustainable development'".(94) The Community Forests are situated on the urban fringe of major English towns, subscribe to the same multi-function forestry framework, and constitute, allegedly, "the most significant environmental programme to be launched in Britain this century".(95) Pretty much as you'd expect, they are therefore crap. Both kinds of 'forest' have the superficially laudable goal of increasing Britain's pathetic average tree cover of 7% to around 30% in their area. However, 'multi-purpose forestry' is such that one of them actually thought it necessary to remind itself that "Trees will play a vitally important role in achieving the community forest".(96)
So puny are most of their new woodlands that they deserve to be known as "fun-sized" woods - in honour of the unsatisfying and 'anything but' Mars Bar of the same name.(97) It seems to be a case of drawing lines on a map and designating 'publicity' or 'policy forests', composed of 'enterprise glades'(98), the modern day bureaucrat's equivalent of the treeless 'Deer Forests' of Scottish feudalism. (There's no shortage of (bureaucratic) deadwood in these forests.) Since the objective is to "improve the image"(99), one gets the impression that they would be as content with just the "early impression of forest cover"(99) as with the real McCoy - so long as things are seen to be done.
The true agenda of Groundwork and the various forests is one of 'regeneration' and 'reclamation'. By and large they are superimposed on the former strongholds of heavy industry in the Midlands and the North - those areas most badly abused by and then, in the 1980s, abandoned by capitalism. It is about "managing change"(100) - using trees as a device to bring unsightly 'derelict land' back into economic circulation, and addressing agricultural overproduction through farm 'diversification' into forestry and leisure. It is about trying to ensure a smooth transition to the post-modern 'service' or 'information' economy, where the intangible environmental goods and 'quality of life' issues are paramount - eg. as at the new "Earth Centre", near Doncaster.(101) In the National Forest, "this regenerated coalfield land, which provided the local community with jobs in the past, will serve them in other ways in the future by providing recreational facilities, wildlife habitats and an attractive landscape."(102) It is about tailoring a flexible, 'multi-tasking' landscape for a flexible economy - the (relative) solidarity of the old heavy industries giving way to the (relative) atomisation of the casual, service sector - where, doubtless, we'll all work in "partnership".
The Red Rose Forest (Manchester) claim, in a particularly howling non-sequitur, that "economic, environmental and social regeneration cannot proceed without one another".(103) Providing "an attractive environment in which business can flourish"(104) is the Forests' main weapon in the mad, begging-bowl scramble to attract inward investment, giving them "a competitive advantage over competitor areas" (105) - a pitiful 'Pretty please' to developers. Because, more than anything else, "this forest means business",(106) if all goes according to plan these 'forests' might actually end up more heavily developed than before: "where... [planning] policies allow for increased industrial development, a high quality landscape can be a valuable first step in an area's revitalisation [sic]."(107) As well as having their office premises or surplus sites tarted up - what the Mersey Forest calls "screen[ing] industry",(108) or landscaping as physical PR - usually at public expense, it offers another more subtle service to business. This is the 'philanthropic advantage' that comes when you "display your environmental credentials", helping to "generate goodwill... [and] raise... product and brand awareness".(109) Thus we have Manchester Airport supporting a trifling new tree planting programme - mulched with 'bioregional' Bollin Valley woodchips, no doubt - through the 'Manchester Aviation Tree Challenge', and sanctimonious noises about the "important part [that trees play] in reducing greenhouse gases and global warming."(110)
Nor have the older, more classically industrial uses entirely gone away. Grotesque 'planning gain' and 'end use' scams are rife: "Mining will continue to be a major activity within the Forest... The case for [minerals] development is certainly strengthened if the developer can show a benefit to the National Forest."(111) At Broxtowe in the Greenwood Community Forest (Nottinghamshire), "opencast mining operations" will, in the topsy-turvey world these people inhabit, "ultimately [bring]... about economic and environmental benefits": a new woodland of 14 hectares which will "provide an attractive backdrop" for a "new employment site of 8 hectares".(112) (This is presumably the kind of thing they have in mind when they talk of - in Groundwork's words - "integrating the economy and the environment".)
All of this - particularly in the case of Groundwork - comes robotically decked out in odious communitarian jargon, such as 'stakeholding', 'capacity building', 'zero tolerance' (controlling 'anti-social behaviour' through environmental design), 'participation' and 'partnership'. It is consistent with Blairite 'big tent' politics - subsuming most potential opponents and marginalising those that won't be co-opted.(115) The insidious weed of 'partnership', with its smothering, spurious consensus (like being 'love bombed'), seems to be springing up everywhere nowadays. 'Partnership' mendaciously supposes that we all come to the table as equals, and, conveniently, that we all bear a shared responsibility for what has gone wrong - nasty, disruptive blame and dissension must not intrude on these mature deliberations. Class and other power differentials are submerged in the bland, ostensibly classless interest in 'saving the planet' (a 'union sacree') - political questions are reframed as dispassionate technical ones - the quest for the 'perfect plan' again. It's just a new way - their latest wheeze - for us to get screwed. "The cleverly constructed notion of "sustainable development" with its emphasis on harmonious consensus in decision-making, combined with the incorporation of the environment into the market system, has dissipated the imperative that environmental deterioration once had for social and political change."(116)
"Community" - partnership's medium - seems to be the elusive Philosopher's Stone of '90s politics; the supreme value before which - irrespective of political persuasion - we must all prostrate ourselves. (Interestingly, the term is most commonly used either where it patently does not exist - eg. 'the business...', 'international', the rural 'community' of the Countryside March - or where it is in some way threatened or in question - eg. 'the black...', 'the gay...')
Groundwork constantly brag of their presence in depressed, 'no go' areas - there is more than a hint of the 'community development' troops being parachuted in: "Throughout the western world states are characterised by one of the two symbols of control in capitalist society: the tank or the community worker".(117) The 'environmental' focus of the work also serves to locate the community's problems squarely within its own physical fabric, rather than as emanating from wider, structural forces - as if by simply beautifying the area, you will 'beautify' the social relationships that people experience.
The 'partnership' and 'participation' must only extend so far. The communities must not realise too uppity a sense of their own strength - which is to say, truly become a community - or the development workers and their political masters might become expendable. In the same way that capitalism, from the 1920s on, had to "simultaneously... encourage and repress the 'creation of dissatisfaction' ''(118) if it was to shift its surplus goods, this 'community development' must simultaneously unleash and rein in empowerment. Like derelict land, 'derelict' communities are brought back into economic circulation, and their members enlisted in 'gilding their cage'. Forget building the Situationists' hacienda, mate - you don't want to do it like that - this is building the 'strategic hamlet'.
Local communities are deployed as proxies - a cost-effective means of delivering the desired results.(119) In a hidden subsidy to industry, we do the dirty work of clearing up the 'externalities' they leave behind. "Working in partnership with local authorities and businesses, Community Forests harness the commitment and enthusiasm of local people, mobilising them to regenerate their area".(120) (Oooh, it sounds so good since you put it like that.) Paul Goon (appropriately) of the government's 'English Partnerships' congratulates Groundwork on "their unrivalled ability to co-ordinate local communities, engender enthusiasm and deliver the goods at excellent value for money."(121) It echoes Paulette Goudge's comment on Third World aid, that " 'sustainable development' no longer refers to preserving the environment; it now means developments that communities can financially sustain themselves"(122) - the 'polluted pays' principle.
In contrast to the economy's 'flexible landscape', in which we are obliged to accept the loss of cherished features, as decreed, 'heritage' is constructed as a reassuring beacon of stability - 'that which is forever England'. There is a tension between the frequent appeals to such sentiments of a 'common' heritage' ('our' patch), and otherwise jealously guarded property rights. It only becomes 'ours' when it suits them - we only get to inherit their cast off dregs, and must be suitably grateful when granted that much. (Many of the Groundwork and Community Forest sites are, for instance, former chemical waste dumps and landfills.) Perhaps the residents of the Amazon will one day be exhorted to restore 'their' forest, when it has finally been logged out for tremendous private gain. 'Bottom up' is employed to correct the miserable failures of 'top down'. However they choose to label the bottle it always tastes like shit - instead, we must choose 'praxis' over 'proxy'.
According to Ulrich Beck, the ecological movement is not so much "an environmental movement but a social, inward movement which utilises 'nature' as a parameter for certain questions."(123) While one can quibble with his distinction between the "environmental" and the "social", basically there's a lot of truth to this view. Perhaps the major revolutionary contribution of environmentalism (in the broadest possible sense) is in exploring issues of control over space, the ways in which its use is currently determined, and the ways in which those uses can be radically transformed. These questions may have assumed a greater relative importance in recent years, given the seeming decline of the power to organise and act in the workplace. Like "the Street Party of street parties",(124) our very first need, (the one which prefigures and makes possible the rediscovery of all our myriad other needs), is for "a place in which people [can] gather - a common ground - and focus their attentions on things that could improve the quality of their general existence, and that of wildlife".(125) The act - of occupying a place and remaking it as a space used for interaction and renewal - is an answer to many of our questions in itself. Restoration can be harnessed to make the world safe for capital - by replenishing the regions whose profitability it has exhausted - or can create something which is inimical to it: headstrong communities savouring their own innate resourcefulness. When asked how people might spend their time after the revolution, Marcuse replied that "We will tear down the big cities and build new ones"(126) - whose "districts... could correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters by chance in everyday life",(127) multifarious nefarious space in which hitherto unrequited lives and blighted potential might at last find expression, freed from the monocultural dictates of capital. We are a very long way from that now, but wherever we see "the restoration of whole ecosystems and the empowerment of communities together",(128) its allure beckons, and we are another step closer.
[IMAGE] The only half-decent thing to come out of the horrific M3 extension through Twyford Down was the ripping up, re-contouring and grassing over of the old A33 Winchester bypass. It gave the people of Winchester easy access across the flood meadows of the River Itchen to St. Catherine's Hill for the first time in decades. A mere 5 years after the work was done, however, and the local council already wants to re-tarmac 20 acres of the site as a park-and-ride facility. There is strong local opposition to being robbed of their precious green space once more.