Happier and greener

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting at Nagoya, which finished on Friday, opened by admitting defeat. The promise made at the UN Johannesburg conference in 2002 substantially to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010 had been comprehensively broken. The UN’s Global Biodiversity Outlook report, published earlier this year, showed “multiple indications of continuing decline in biodiversity in all three of its main components – genes, species and ecosystems”. The meeting was inauspicious in other ways; it came a year after the disastrous Copenhagen climate change summit, which for many was the final nail in the coffin of hope that intergovernmental action might halt environmental degradation.

But perhaps the relatively low profile and reduced expectations of Nagoya (only five heads of state, as opposed to 120 at Copenhagen) might have some advantages. Previous meetings and pledges on biodiversity have been marked by dishonesty and denial. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit may have performed a service in flagging up the losses being sustained by the natural world, but the pious promises made subsequently were worth little more than the paper they were written on. Paradoxically, admitting defeat may be a good start.

Another paradoxically good sign may be the shift in emphasis from nature itself onto the human activities: fertiliser and pesticide-heavy agriculture, reckless over-fishing, logging and deforestation that are endangering and damaging it. It is not much good setting targets for the preservation of nature, and then putting the onus for meeting them on bodies with no real clout, while the real destructive forces are allowed to continue unchecked. We need to go even further into the human and look at language, values, poetry. The word “biodiversity”, for a start, seems not to carry enough of an emotional charge. It is a strange hybrid, as the environmental writer Paul Evans has pointed out, of the language of science and that of “choice”. “Biodiversity” might suggest one of those interminable restaurant menus – you could strike out half the dishes and no one would know the difference.

I had a fantasy of the Northamptonshire peasant-poet John Clare being miraculously resurrected and transported to Nagoya. Though well-read in the scientific literature of his time, Clare, I suspect, would not have felt comfortable with the language of biodiversity, and still less with the economics-speak of putting cash value on “eco-system services”. For Clare, biodiversity was not something external, or an interesting topic for debate, but the intimate, intricate, essential reality of the natural world he lived in.

Birds such as the peewit and the pettichap (chiffchaff) mattered to him not because they were providing eco-system services, but because they were part of the texture of life, an irreplaceable string in the harmony of nature. Hearing the utterly distinctive call of the peewit, Clare, on a random wander through the countryside, feels impelled to seek out the nest of the noisy, flapping bird. Eventually he finds, unprotected on the ground, “four eggs of dingy, dirty green/ Deep-blotched with plashy spots of chocolate stain/ Their small ends inward turned as ever found/ As though some curious hand had turned them round”. It is this last touch that tells and moves; the detail that discloses an improbable care and order in the workings of nature. Clare does not take the eggs, either for food or for a scientific collection; having noted them, with his eye made up equally of attention, wonder and love, he lets them be.

This valuing of nature for itself, not for any service it may provide (peewits and pettichaps are not much good for anything except being themselves) is what is missing from most of the current discourse on biodiversity. One thing you can say about John Clare’s valuing of nature is that it is obstinately local.

Seeing that the big environmental problems – global warming and biodiversity loss – are global in scope, we seek global solutions. But the greatest successes in combating biodiversity loss, or restoring nature, are happening on a local level, in conservation projects. In the UK we have seen the reintroduction of bird species such as the red kite, white-tailed eagle in Scotland, and, more recently, great bustard on Salisbury plain. The Great Fen project between Peterborough and Huntingdon is opening the dykes to recreate more than 9,000 acres of wetland habitat. Thus is fulfilled the prophecy of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “O let them be left, wildness and wet;/ Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet!”

Projects such as these are happening all over the world and, apparently, make citizens happier as well as greener. The great thing about conservation, as Jane Smart of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said recently, is that “it does work, we increasingly know what to do”. Now to do more.


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