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November 28, 2014
A Vision for Nature
By George Monbiot
As governments tear down the rules that defend our wildlife from extinction, here’s a
positive attempt to stop the wreckage.
By George Monbiot. posted on the Guardian’s website, 21st November 2014
One of the fears of those who seek to defend the natural world is that people won’t
act until it is too late. Only when disasters strike will we understand how much damage
we have done, and what the consequences might be.
I have some bad news: it’s worse than that. For his fascinating and transformative
book, Don’t Even Think About It: why our brains are wired to ignore climate change,
George Marshall visited Bastrop in Texas, which had suffered from a record drought
followed by a record wildfire, and Sea Bright in New Jersey, which was devastated by
Hurricane Sandy. These disasters are likely to have been caused or exacerbated by
climate change. He interviewed plenty of people in both places, and in neither case –
Republican Texas or Democratic New Jersey – could he find anyone who could recall
a conversation about climate change as a potential cause of the catastrophe they had
suffered. It simply had not arisen.
The editor of the Bastrop Advertiser told him “Sure, if climate change had a direct
impact on us, we would definitely bring it in, but we are more centred around Bastrop
County.” The mayor of Sea Bright told him “We just want to go home, and we will deal
with all that lofty stuff some other day.” Marshall found that when people are dealing
with the damage and rebuilding their lives they are even less inclined than they might
otherwise be to talk about the underlying issues.
In his lectures, he makes another important point that – in retrospect – also seems
obvious: people often react to crises in perverse and destructive ways. For example,
immigrants, Jews, old women and other scapegoats have been blamed for scores of
disasters they did not create. And sometimes people respond with behaviour that
makes the disaster even worse: think, for instance, of the swing to UKIP, a party run
by a former City broker and funded by a gruesome collection of tycoons and
financiers, in response to an economic crisis caused by the banks.
I have seen many examples of this reactive denial at work, and I wonder now whether
we are encountering another one.
The world’s wild creatures are in crisis. In the past 40 years the world has lost over
50% of its vertebrate wildlife. Hardly anywhere is spared this catastrophe. In the UK,
for example, 60% of the 3,000 species whose fate has been studied have declined
over the past 50 years. Our living wonders, which have persisted for millions of years,
are disappearing in the course of decades.
You might expect governments and officials, faced with a bonfire of this magnitude, to
rush to the scene with water and douse it. Instead they have rushed to the scene with
cans of petrol.
Critical to the protection of the natural world are regulations: laws which restrain
certain activities for the greater public good. Legal restrictions on destruction and
pollution are often the only things that stand between species and their extinction.
Industrial interests often hate these laws, as they restrict their profits. The corporate
media denigrates and demonises the very concept of regulation. Much of the effort of
those who fund political parties is to remove the regulations that protect us and the
living planet. Politicians and officials who seek to defend regulation will be taken down,
through campaigns of unrelenting viciousness in the media. Everywhere the message
has been received.
The European Commission has now ordered a “review” of the two main pillars of the
protection of our wildlife: the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive. It’s likely to be
the kind of review conducted by a large tracked vehicle with a steel ball on the end of
a chain. The problem, the Commission says, is that these directives could impede the
“fitness” of business in Europe.
But do they? Not even Edmund Stoiber, the conservative former president of Bavaria
who was appointed by the Commission to wage war on regulation, thinks so. He
discovered that European environmental laws account for less than 1% of the costs of
regulation to business: the lowest cost of any of the regulations he investigated.
“However, businesses perceive the burden to be much higher in this area.” So if these
crucial directives are vitiated or scrapped, it will not be because they impede
business, but because they are wrongly perceived to impose much greater costs than
The UK chancellor, George Osborne, claimed in 2011 that wildlife regulations were
placing ridiculous costs on business. But a review by the environment secretary,
Caroline Spelman, concluded the claim was unfounded.
In the United Kingdom, whose leading politicians, like those of Australia and Canada,
appear to be little more than channels for corporate power, we are facing a full-
spectrum assault on the laws protecting our living treasures.
The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, now passing through the House
of Commons, would oblige future governments to keep deregulating on behalf of
business, regardless of the cost to the rest of society. The government’s Red Tape
Challenge at first insisted that no new regulation could be introduced unless an
existing one is scrapped. Now two must be scrapped in exchange for any new one.
Cameron’s government has set up what it calls a “Star Chamber”, composed of
corporate executives and officials from the business department, before which other
government departments must appear. They must justify, in front of the sector they
regulate, any of the rules these business people don’t like. If they are deemed
insufficiently convincing, the rules are junked.
Usually, governments go to some lengths to disguise their intent, and to invent benign
names for destructive policies. Not in this case. A Star Chamber perfectly captures the
spirt of this enterprise. Here’s how a website about the history of the Tudors describes
the original version (my emphasis):
“The power of the court of Star Chamber grew considerably under the Stuarts, and by
the time of Charles I it had become a byword for misuse and abuse of power by the
king and his circle. … Court sessions were held in secret, with no right of appeal, and
punishment was swift and severe to any enemy of the crown. Charles I used the Court
of Star Chamber as a sort of Parliamentary substitute during the years 1628-40, when
he refused to call Parliament. Finally, in 1641 the Long Parliament abolished the
hated Star Chamber, though its name survives still to designate arbitrary, secretive
proceedings in opposition to personal rights and liberty.”
Yes, that is exactly what we’re looking at. I suspect the government gave its kangaroo
court this name to signal its intent to its corporate funders: we are prepared to be
perfectly unreasonable on your behalf, trampling justice, democracy and rational
policy-making to give you what you want. We are putting you in charge. So please
keep funding us, and please, dear owners of the corporate press, don’t destroy our
chances of winning the next election by backing UKIP instead.
Then there’s the Deregulation Bill, which has now almost run its parliamentary course.
Among the many ways in which it tilts the balance even further against defending the
natural world is Clause 83, which states this:
“A person exercising a regulatory function to which this section applies must, in the
exercise of the function, have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth.”
So bodies such as the Environment Agency or Natural England must promote
economic growth, even if it directly threatens the natural wonders they are charged
with protecting. For example, companies could save money by tipping pollutants into a
river, rather than processing them or disposing of them safely. That means more
funds for investment, which could translate into more economic growth. So what
should an agency do if it is supposed to prevent pollution and promote economic
Not that the government needs to bother, for it has already stuffed the committees
that oversee these bodies.
Look, for example, at the board of Natural England. Its chairman, Andrew Sells, is a
housebuilder and major donor to the Conservative Party, who was treasurer of the
thinktank Policy Exchange, which inveighs against regulation at every opportunity. Its
deputy chairman, David Hill, is also chairman of a private company called the
Environment Bank, whose purpose is ”to broker biodiversity offsetting agreements for
both developers and landowners.” Biodiversity offsetting is a new means of making
the destruction of precious natural places seem acceptable.
The government has recently appointed to this small board not one but two Cumbrian
sheep farmers – Will Cockbain and Julia Aglionby – who, my encounters with them
suggest, both appear to be fanatically devoted to keeping the uplands sheepwrecked
and bare. There’s also a place for the chief executive of a group that I see as a
greenwashing facility for the shooting industry, the Game and Wildlife Conservation
Trust. And one for a former vice-president of Citibank. The board members with
current or former interests in industries that often damage the natural world
outnumber those who have devoted their lives to conservation and ecology.
So what do we do about this? You cannot fight assaults of this kind without producing
a positive vision of your own.
This is what the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have done with the publication of their
Nature and Wellbeing Green Paper. It’s a proposal for a new act of parliament
modelled on the Climate Change Act 2008. It obliges future governments to protect
and restore the living world. It proposes targets for the recovery of species and
places, a government agency (the Office for Environmental Responsibility) whose role
is to ensure that all departments help to defend wildlife, and Local Ecological
Networks, which devolve power to communities to protect the places they love most.
I have problems with some aspects of this proposal, not least its enthusiastic embrace
of the Natural Capital Agenda, which seeks to persuade us to value nature by putting
a price on it. This strategy is, I believe, astonishingly naïve. To be effective, you must
open up political space, not help to close it down by accepting the premises, the
values and the framing of your opponents. But I can see what drove them to do it. If
the government accepts only policies or regulations that contribute to economic
growth, it’s tempting to try to prove that the financial value of wildlife and habits is
greater than the financial value to be gained by destroying them, foolish and self-
defeating as this exercise may be.
But I’ll put this aside, because their proposal is the most comprehensive attempt yet to
douse the bonfire of destruction on which the government is toasting our wildlife like
marshmallows. The Climate Change Act and its lasting commitments are just about
the only measures that oblige this government to restrict greenhouse gases. It
remains a yardstick against which the efforts of all governments can be judged.
Should we not also have similar, sustained protection for wildlife and habitats? Only
lasting safeguards, not subject to the whims and fads of passing governments, can
defend them against extinction.
The Nature and Wellbeing Act is a good example of positive environmentalism, setting
the agenda, rather than merely responding to the policies we don’t like. We must do
both, but while those who love wildlife have often been effective opponents, we have
tended to be less effective proponents.
It will be a struggle, as the times have changed radically. In 2008 the Climate Change
Act was supported by the three main political parties. So far the Nature and Wellbeing
Act has received the support of the Liberal Democrats (so after the election both their
MPs will promote it in parliament) and the Green Party. The Conservatives, despite
the green paper’s desperate attempts to speak their language, are unreachable. And
where on earth is Labour? So far it has shown no interest at all.
If you care about what is happening to the living world, if you care about the assault
on the enthralling and bewitching outcome of millions of years of evolution for the
sake of immediate and ephemeral corporate profits, join the campaign and lobby your
MPs. The Nature and Wellbeing Act will succeed only through a movement as big as
the one that brought the Climate Change Act into existence. Please join it.