Milner Blog #9: “Faith and Reason”

Credit: Public Health Notes
If there’s anything that defines the 21st Century it is perhaps the disturbing rise of evidence-free decision-making, ‘not driven by reason at all but by emotion’ as the influential British novelist Jonathan Coe has it, or that people “have had enough of experts” as UK MP Michael Gove has claimed. Instead of reasoned argument, decision-makers seem increasingly wanting to make reality bend to their will, as if constancy of belief was sufficient and optimistic promotion a substitute for hard evidence. In the face of overwhelming scientific findings, measures to counter global heating or the biodiversity crisis are regarded as optional, with decisions determined more by political timetables than observable facts on the ground. While hardly a recent phenomenon, the dismissal of ‘experts’ and scientific evidence seems in recent years to have become the norm, especially where expert evidence conflicts with political dogma. As a result, actions which should have been started decades ago can be side-lined in favour of more electorally palatable matters, as if what US Vice-President Al Gore once referred to as the ‘inconvenient truth’ of climate change can just be wished away. Meanwhile the arguably equally serious biodiversity crisis is accorded even less attention than global heating – in fact it continues to be exacerbated by political decisions. Although Britain is acknowledged to be one of the most nature-depleted nations on the planet, the Government is currently promoting legislation to abandon a raft of environmental regulations specifically designed to maintain and protect national biodiversity. 

In spite (or perhaps because) of this, threats to biodiversity at a local level have at least spurred some debate. I recently took part in a discussion about planning and ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ (BNG), hosted by a local Council in South London. BNG is a buzz- phrase which has developed from ‘environmental mitigation’. Like ‘carbon offsetting’ it sounds like a good thing, but I believe that too often it falls into the same category of obfuscation – a greenwashing process to pull the wool over the eyes of the public about environmental damage caused by modern development. The problem with most aspects of modern life – energy generation and use, food production, transport of goods and people, housing, waste-disposal – is that they are all extremely damaging to the global environment in their present form. They don’t have to be, but the way ‘development’ has worked historically means that they are. This is why, two hundred years or so since the industrial revolution, there is an urgent need for many of these damaging aspects of modern life to be halted, curtailed or substantially rethought before the planet’s biosphere ceases to function in the many ways we have come to depend on – such as a reliable climate, manageable weather and predictable food sources.

New terms such as biodiversity net gain have a pseudoscientific ring about them as if they were subject to precise measurement and general acceptance. Certainly, the concept of biodiversity net gain has some potential merit – but not as it is currently applied. At its simplest level, the idea is that if, say, a swathe of ancient natural forest has to be sacrificed to make way for a road or a new railway line, compensation for the damage can be arranged by some habitat in the local area being ‘enhanced or created’. Where there were once aged trees and ancient woodland, young saplings can be planted, new ponds can be dug and wildflower seed spread across the land. Irreplaceable habitat replaced by landscaping or even ‘blandscaping’. And of course, the resultant fragmentation of the local habitat may also cause the permanent loss of those species which require a minimum single block of habitat. All this ‘mitigation’ activity can be dressed up as ‘leaving the natural environment in a better state than before’ according to a government booklet produced to sell the concept of BNG.

Sadly, of course, these actions do not actually compensate for the loss of long-established habitat but replace it with something young, un-formed and possessing none of the biodiversity and ecosystem processes which have taken centuries or even millennia to develop. By concentrating on one or two target species like a rare butterfly or protected newt, a ‘biodiversity score’ can be concocted (by developer-funded ecologists, not independent assessors) promoting the dangerous belief that all is well, that the proposed development isn’t harmful at all, and that developers, planners and politicians are all really on the side of nature. ‘Carbon offsetting’ schemes are somewhat similar but with even less scrutiny. This is because they are usually located in remote parts of the global South. A metal mine in Madagascar was recently ‘offset’ by claiming to have ensured the protection of a standing forest from future clearance; so not actually enhancing anything but assuming credit for preventing possible, and so far theoretical, future damage.

Particularly alarming is the emphasis on ‘enhancing or creating’ new nature rather than ensuring the protection of existing habitats, surrounded as such approaches are by considerable promotional froth. In fact it is often impossible to replace like with like, and instead of pretending that this is possible we should approach such challenges from a different perspective. For example, instead of clearing an ancient forest, we should choose a less environmentally sensitive route for a road or railway line, one that avoids the destruction of rich natural habitat.

A further issue is the concentration on individual poster species such as particular butterflies or, in the tropics, large carnivores, due to an apparent misunderstanding of the idea of biodiversity. Such focus on the charismatic has a tendency to produce what might be termed the ‘zooification’ of nature, namely the creation of isolated, remnant natural ‘exhibits’ more as a PR exercise than an actual contribution to protecting natural biodiversity. This is fine for publicity posters or spectacular postage stamps, but often results in realities that are not for celebration – the soya field with the single brazil-nut tree too far from the nearest forest for pollinating bees ever to reach it; the fragments of woodland left too small for populations of small mammals or woodland birds to survive; the attempts to create new habitats by transporting loads of topsoil to a new site with different drainage. Rather lesspublicity is thus accorded to the damage done – the canopy destroyed, ancient trees lost, biodiverse meadows damaged, local watercourses polluted, public opinion ignored.

The discussion with the environmental team from south London was interesting as far as it went, limited to a focus of individual small sites considered in isolation. Yet these sites are not isolated. They sit within the context of a changing climate, with the likelihood of droughts and higher temperatures, as well as more frequent storms and possible flash floods. Tackling the biodiversity crisis needs a more holistic approach, one that takes not just the rare butterfly but also its whole dynamic habitat; the community of its food plant as well as all the other associated organisms, considering all of these in climatically changing conditions and including interconnectedness with other similar sites. Biodiversity Net Gain and Carbon Offsetting could become useful concepts, but only if far more sophisticated (and expensive) means of assessment are employed, depending less on optimistic belief and bluster but rather on the complexity of inconvenient scientific truth.

Edward Milner, London, England (December 8, 2022)

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