The Conservation Cringe

Heard of the Cultural Cringe? As someone who is half English and half Australian I have an inkling of what it is about, a cultural inferiority complex derived from colonial times when “Colonial” culture was looked down on. Gladly those times are gone (are they?).

Thinking about George Monbiot and the Re-wilding debate – with his branding of current conservation practice as “The conservation prison” and “The Naturalists who are terrified of nature”   started me thinking – is George suffering from a conservation cringe?

Is this actually all about feeling an inferiority complex about other countries which have “wild nature” whatever that is, that have rich and complex ecosystems full of – well charismatic megafauna – Lions, Tigers, Wolves and Elephants, to name but a few. I think it might well be.

The truth, whether sad or not, is that we live on a small island that was scraped almost nature-free by ice and floodwater just an Augenblick ago in ecological and geological terms. When nature returned, so did people – people who had most likely already killed off some of those megafauna who never came back (Mastodons, pigmy hippos). People who immediately set about transforming the British landscape long before the Neolithic farming culture arrived. The Wildwood? A romantic fiction. Mesolithic people used fire to create hunting chases to kill off yet more megafauna. Mesolithic People  cut down the forest to build houses and fishing platforms.

Yes we can all look to the Tropics and wonder at their unrivalled biodiversity – but then places where evolution has continued for millions of years without being scraped away by ice would be much richer and more complex, wouldnt they. We can make up stories about how “natural” these places are, although these also hark back to Colonial times when the natives and their impacts on those landscapes were an inconvenient truth to be ignored or denied. We can all dream of that prelapsarian Eden and get out the psychic scourges to ease the pain of The Fall into the purgatory of a world where humanity has become the greatest invasive species of our time (all time?).

OR we can accept what has happened, what has been done, by us. And we can try and think about a new path that brings humanity back closer to the rest of Nature, celebrate the Semi-Natural and develop a new understanding of our place within Nature. I think I would prefer this approach, partly because it is rooted in reality – and involves less psychic masochism.

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in anti conservation rhetoric, biodiversity, Cultural Cringe, George Monbiot, Mesolithic, rewilding, self-willed land and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Conservation Cringe

  1. John Kay says:

    My grandmother used to say, of things less than perfect: “A blind man would be pleased to see it. Eat yer cake!”

  2. Gary Grant says:

    Doesn’t have top be either or. I think we could have both – semi-natural habitats in farmlands and towns and re-wilding with some large herbivores and predators where space and people allow

    • milesking10 says:

      I agree Gary. I think conservation should be about conserving what we have left, from wherever it originated; and creating new areas for wildlife to enable those species to survive. How one goes about creating those new areas is where I think the debate is at the moment – how interventionist to be. And like everything it’s a continuum from ultra re-wilding through to highly engineered nature areas like green roofs.

      • David Dunlop says:

        Try addressing that one in the Irish Sea – an unfathomable envisioning I have to attempt from time to time in the day job – and Really Big Questions emerge from the depths. That small but multi-juisdictional Sea is certainly semi-natural these days. Is it too semi-natural to be sustainable and to function ecologically (Yes?); and, if so, where should “we” be creating new areas for wildlife in it? (Marine Protected Areas? But those are, ipso facto already quite “wild”, aren’t they…?) Should the “new” areas attempt to mimic the situation before the decline of sail, insofar as one can envision what that was on the basis of evidence? Or before the invention of boats? Should one embrace new structures like hydrocarbon rigs, offshore wind turbine arrays, cables and piplelines; and even seabeds reguarly disturbed by bottom trawling as providing new “marine-urban” wildlife habitats? I’ll stop now before my head hurts.

      • milesking10 says:

        Yes that’s gone straight into the “too difficult” tray.

  3. A well reasoned piece. There ius very little mof the world that is truly wild. The Amazon, the Andes, the Chacop – all show signs of human interventions, And re-wilding in various forms is what most conservationists actually do. But the problem is nothing to do with introducing a few charismatic mega fauna. It is the loss of invertebrates, which is on a pretty catastrophic scale

  4. milesking10 says:

    Thanks John. Yes I do get a bit frustrated when I see suggestions that reintroducing megafauna will magically create healthy functioning ecosystems, without any thought for restoring healthy soil biota, fungi, invertebrates and plants – the fundamentals of all terrestrial ecosystems.

  5. I think George had to create a straw man in order to promulgate an idea that lacks real substance or logic. But in fairness, he may have made a few poeple think

  6. Tickets will soon be on WLT Website, and I’ll be tweeting when they are avaible. Will try and come to Linn Soc, but depends if I am in London that day. But are Monbiot’s polemics a really enought to sustain a debate ? And are that many conservationists against his ideas? The idea is the easy bit , it’s how you actually do it, which is not half as easy as his book implies! And that’s true of most conservation. Doing something is difficult. Writing books, blogging, twittering is all easy. Been there done it.
    But doing conservation on the ground is another matter!

  7. Mark Fisher says:

    Miles – this is far more interesting than the boring stuff I really have to get on with!

    Do the published papers you reference really support your contention that there was no Wild wood! Aren’t they just good evidence of activity amongst Mesolithic peoples? For instance, in the paper – The Ecology of Late Mesolithic Woodland Disturbances – it has this in its discussion:
    “The pollen data indicate fire disturbance of oak–alder woodland followed by successional regeneration until the re-establishment of alder carr and oakwoods. Regeneration was interrupted by a minor phase of disturbance pressure not caused by fire. The ecology of regeneration conforms with expected post-fire plant community succession”

    The fact that there was evidence of regeneration and re-establishment suggests that the landscape matrix was woodland, and it is consistent with many studies that show cyclical disturbances in woodland at that time.

    In the other paper – Substantial settlement in the European Early Mesolithic: new research at Star Carr – it has this:
    “Mobility is also likely to have varied between different task-groups: it is still possible that some people moved over large territories, while others occupied the site on a more permanent basis. While Star Carr appears to indicate longer-lasting and more substantial occupation than many contemporary sites, it is likely to have been generated through different modes of occupation”

    That suggests some heterogeneity in approaches to settlement and seasonal movement. What neither of the papers address is the population size in the Mesolithic, and the capacity of the land and shore in supporting it.

    Humans don’t browse and can’t eat grass! It has to be the case that a biophysical wilderness existed in Britain in the period after the last glaciation, when the ice that covered a large part of Britain receded, allowing the land to re-vegetate and thus support a returning mammalian herbivore then carnivore life. Then, the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer cultures could also return since they would have required an ecologically-rich wilderness composite to have been restored before those lands could be occupied by them again. Because the numbers that sustained themselves solely from what wild nature provided were so low, it would have appeared that vast areas of Britain were without people – scattered humans in a predominantly wilderness landscape. Moreover, their influence was likely transient anyway as wild nature regenerated and restored the locally small and probably impermanent clearings in the woodland matrix made by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers as they “managed” resources or tended their quarry. Even if these Mesolithic people had returned to the de-vegetated landscape after glaciation, they had no crop species nor domesticated mammals. Thus they had no need to arrest the development of that wild wood as the ice receded! More importantly, it would have been against their interests to do so!

    So how many people were there in the Mesolithic? In considering a likely population of Mesolithic lowland Britain based on the food resource available to them, Jacobi worked through the density of deer available (one per 40ha), the potential success of hunting (1 in 6) and the nutritional value arising from deer kills; the density of coastal shellfish beds; and the distribution, harvest potential (30%) and calorific value of hazel nuts, a vital part of Mesolithic nutrition. His estimate for one southern lowland area of 6,500 square miles was that the landscape would have supported some 396 five-member family groups, a total of 1,980 individuals. Others have estimated the population of Britain around 9000 BC to be 1,100-1,200 people, rising to 2,500-5,000 by 7,000 BC, but I think Jacobi’s analysis on capacity indicates the likelihood of higher numbers than those..

    In 3,200 BC, the early period after farming reached Britain, the estimate of population is between 30,000 – 50,000, and was probably boosted by inward migration as new settlers sought to exploit the resource extraction that agriculture had brought. Thus the agriculturists did not arrive until many thousands of years after re-vegetation had occurred, and thus were not there to exploit and maintain that initially denuded landscape with their own crops, livestock etc. They would denude it themselves, when they cleared land to allow grass to grow for their livestock. Even so, in the absence of farming, a sustainable population for Britain, supported by the biophysical wilderness that existed, may have been somewhere up in the tens of thousands. Clearly, this could be taken as a baseline, the natural ecology where humans were part of the natural value, and did not markedly change the landscape. As farming bit harder and wider, the population that could be supported rose, but at the ever increasing expense of wild nature, and with the loss of a hunter-gatherer way of life.

    Jacobi, R. M. (1978). Population and landscape in Mesolithic lowland Britain. In (S. Limbrey & J. G. Evans, Eds) The Effect of Man on the Landscape: the Lowland Zone. London: CBA Research Report 21, pp. 75–85.
    Smith, C., (1992) The population of Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Britain. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 58: 37-40
    Fowler, P.J., (1983) The Farming of Prehistoric Britain. Cambridge University Press
    Pryor, F., (2003) Britain BC: Life In Britain and Ireland before the Romans. Harper Collins

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