Still Wasting the Rain?

It is exactly 30 years since I started to write the book that became Wasting the Rain (eventually published in 1992).  I have been thinking about this book a lot in the last couple of years, as Chris Schulz and I have been working on the history of the World Commission on Dams as part of the FutureDAMS project.  How different, I finding myself asking, is the world of dams today to that three decades ago?

When I sat down to write Wasting the Rain, I had been working for more than a decade in dam construction, river basin planning and irrigation.  I had done a PhD on the downstream impacts of the Bakolori Dam in Nigeria on floodplain agriculture, worked for an engineering company on a dam resettlement project, and studied the economy and ecology of African floodplain wetlands.  I had seen several dam projects and irrigation schemes from the inside.  I knew a little about the way development projects worked, and why sometimes they didn’t.  I had learned what the people affected by large-scale development projects thought of them, and how they responded to the changes the projects caused.

The title of Wasting the Rain was taken from the comment of a young civil engineer in Nigeria on the ways in which floodplain people used seasonal river flows.  The drylands of northern Nigeria were rainless for about nine months of the year, and the river was in spate only during the short rainy season.  To my friend, this floodwater simply ran to waste.  It seemed obvious to them that a dam was needed to hold it back, so it could be properly used, both for irrigation through the long dry season and for hydropower.  Enter the helpful engineers stage right, with hydrological models, design blueprints, the surgically accurate application of concrete and steel, their dams, canals, roads and power stations, to make all new, and better.

Wasting the Rain was written to offer an alternative view of people, rivers and development in Africa.  It looked at water and land from the perspective of the people who live in floodplains. It focused on the ingenuity of floodplain farmers in adapting cropping systems to variations in floodplain soils and flood depth and duration, and their skilled integration of agriculture, fishing, livestock and off-farm income around the annual flood.  In Africa, as elsewhere, floodplain communities and ways of life are built around, and sustained by, the seasonal dynamics of rain and river.  Floodplain people across Africa do not waste the rain at all, they use it very cleverly.  They do not build dams (at least, not large concrete ones), but they build adaptively on the opportunities offered by river, soils and rain. 

By contrast, the book argued that the true wastage too often lay in the construction of dams.  Dams are expensive, complicated and exciting projects to build.  In a country like Nigeria in the 1980s, after a decade of drought in the North, the federal government was looking for ways to invest spiralling oil revenues from the South: dams and irrigation schemes looked like a perfect development solution, a one-shot inoculation of modernity that would transform the country.  There were also rich pickings, both legal and illegal, from the many contracts to study, design and build projects. 

The Bakolori project in northern Nigeria was a classic in this respect.   Its dam was technically effective, built soundly, and more or less on time and to budget.  But the irrigation scheme that it was built to supply was (like other large scale irrigation schemes then being developed in Africa) completely uneconomic, offering far lower yields and rates of return than had optimistically been promised in the cost-benefit analysis.   Meanwhile the dam had the range of social impacts on floodplain people that have become depressingly familiar.   Those farming the floodplain upstream, whose homes and land were flooded by the reservoir, were moved to resettlement villages built on barren laterite hills above the dam, and promised irrigation water once the project was finished.  Those living for hundreds of kilometres downstream found the floods they depended on changed – floods came late (because the reservoir was filled before water was released), were smaller than previously, and unpredictable in timing.  The communities in the irrigation area itself, below the dam, had their land bulldozed as irrigation canals were put in, but had to wait until the dam and supply canal were finished before getting it back, or receiving water and staring to farm again.  It was a long hungry wait, and there were angry blockades of the dam in protest, and an undocumented number of protestors were killed.

When I look back now, I see that Wasting the Rain was romantic about the life of toil and poverty in the un-dammed floodplains of Africa.  I was young and naïve, and arrogant in presuming to write from the perspective of the people I had met working the land along Nigerian rivers.  But I think I was right to point to the effectiveness with which local people adapted to the spatial and temporal variability of environmental conditions in African river floodplains.  The way they used land contrasted sharply with the ideas that drove dam projects.  At Bakolori, the project’s designers promised economic ‘development’ (even if this never materialized), and in its name they completely restructured the landscape to fit their blueprint. They tried to lock future development into a straightjacket of concrete, and gtheir plans did not work.

This line of argument in the book owed a lot to the work of Californian Anthropologist Ted Scudder, who had studied dams and irrigation projects all over the world.  He started by working with Gwembe Tonga people of the floodplain of the Zambezi displaced by the Kariba Dam in the 1950s.   From the 1960s, he and Elizabeth Colson followed evacuees in Zambia through from one generation to the next.  In the process they, and their students, showed how long the negative impacts of resettlement could last.  In the 1980s Ted began to set out a more holistic approach to river basin planning, building in particular on studies of the River Senegal.  Ted was not opposed to dams in principle, but urged that they be used to support and improve floodplain agriculture rather than to attempt to transform it.  He argued that dam projects should be designed to address the needs of both reservoir evacuees upstream and those suffering from disrupted floods downstream.  He became very interested in the idea of drawdown agriculture and irrigation  around reservoir margins, and planned releases to provide predictable floods for downstream farmers (drawing in particular on the work of Jackie King, and what have become known as ‘environmental flows’). 

In 1998, Ted Scudder became one of the Commissioners of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), and his ideas (and his breadth of experience and charismatic enthusiasm) meant that his approach had quite an influence on the Commission’s findings.  One of their seven strategic priorities was ‘recognising entitlements and sharing benefits’.  In particular, the Commission suggested that ‘people adversely affected by a dam project should be among the first to benefit from the project ( p. 243).  That was classic Scudder.

When the World Commission on Dams’ report,  Dams and Development, was published in 2000, I felt that at last there was a clearly laid out approach to dam planning that could render unexpected negative social and environmental impacts something from the past. It did not, of course, work out like that. 

After 2000, my own research took me away from water and dams to look at the social dimensions of biodiversity conservation projects.  It has been very interesting to turn back to dams as a member of the FutureDAMS consortium.  So what has happened in the 30 years since I sat down to write Wasting the Rain?

Frankly, it feels like groundhog day.  After a short lull after 2000, dam planning and construction surged in the developing world, and there are an awful lot of new dams.  Some things have changed.   Different sources of funding dominate the sector, and different corporations (notably from China) are designing and building dams. The negative impacts of dams are better recognised, and there are new frameworks for dam planning to guide dam developers to avoid them, notably the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.  There is a growing interest in the identification and management of ‘risk’ in hydropower projects from lenders and investors.

However dams are still mired in controversy.   Negative social and environmental impacts have not gone away.  Far from it.  New large dams come with all the problems familiar from the old pre-WCD world – downstream impacts unrecognised in technical planning, or ignored; people displaced by reservoirs whose resettlement left them permanently disadvantaged; grassroots movements demanding environmental justice; economists struggle to find a rule-based approach for navigating benefits and costs.  Irrigation schemes in sub-Saharan Africa today are failing to deliver in just the same ways as their predecessors: overpromising, underperforming, and expensive. 

Why has so little changed?  Every observer has their own preferred list of reasons, just as they have their own assessment of how skewed the balance between benefits and impacts of large of dams really is.  For what it is worth, here is mine.

The problem today, as in the 1980s, is that dams epitomise ‘development from above’.  They emerge from a technical development planning complex that sits outside the societies that they chiefly affect.  They are designed in terms of national or international development needs, not the needs of floodplain people.  They are conceived of as a way to increase the size of the national economy, and to bring the maximum number of people within that economy out of poverty.  Questions of the distribution of the economic pie are treated as secondary. 

Too often, riverine societies are therefore treated as eggs that have to be broken to make the omelette of development.  Dam planners essentially see the ideas of floodplain people as irrelevant to development decisions, believing that their needs and interests can and should be traded off against national need, or that by some alchemy they will be transformed into sophisticated wage workers thriving in an expanded urban economy.  To those planning dams, knowing what floodplain people think and feel about the future is only important if it is useful in negotiations to persuade them to move quietly from their land.  Their dissatisfaction, or plight, is a project risk that needs to be managed. Compensation for losses due to the project is a costly necessary evil, to be minimized to protect the positive balance of the cost-benefit analysis.

Politically, many dams are built as if riverine people do not matter, because the unfortunate truth is that those people actually do not matter very much in political terms.  They are not wealthy or powerful; often they are not literate, their villages are often remote and they can often be fobbed off with promises.  If there are protests, these can easily be contained and localized (unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when groups like Narmada Bachao Andolan in India pushed back hard against the state).  It also really doesn’t matter greatly what anti-dam activists in industrialised countries think, because in the end they also have little influence on dam decisions on the ground.  Opposition and legal battles may slow dam projects down and make them more expensive, but they rarely stop them altogether.

At best, the calculation of costs and benefits is done well enough and early enough in the planning process that the dams built have a plausible chance of delivering net benefit.  But very often such assessments are formulaic, sometimes merely box-ticking exercises.  Large dams remain risky projects for fragile developing economies, dogged by cost overruns and negative impacts, and fuelling debt and inflation.  Moreover, if the benefits promised to affected people do not materialise, or are smaller than planned, while costs (financial, social, environmental) are larger than expected, nobody will know: economic assessments of completed projects at maturity are often done by interested parties such as funders, but they are rarely published anywhere that is subject to peer review.  There is much too little learning from mistakes, because such learning is painful and threatens too many vested interests inside and outside the country where the dam is built.

OK, so if I was naïve thirty years ago, I accept that I am cynical now – at least about dams (and irrigation schemes).  Nonetheless, it has been both shocking and depressing to come back to the dam world and find the same mix of problems, arguments and protagonists, the same kinds of impacts and injustices, as in the 1980s and 1990s.  Too many dams are still being conceived and planned without adequate consideration of issues such as long-term impacts on resettled and downstream communities, reservoir methane, or the long-term sustainability of growth-based economic development models.  Their legacies will be the damage they do to the long-term productivity of floodplains and the welfare of their people, the accumulation of national debt (which will trigger further grandiloquent projects in future whose supposed benefits are calculated to repay it), and the burden of costs of dam removal at the end of their lives.  This is a Faustian bargain today, just as it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

What can be done?  Well, reading Dams and Development would be a start.  It got at least some things right.  As it said, we need an approach to dams that makes those affected into the main beneficiaries: not bought off, moved and forgotten, but treated as the key stakeholders.  We need to treat floodplains as the heart of future development, not raw material to be consumed to feed endless economic growth elsewhere.   We need joined-up thinking about rivers and their waters, not narrow attempts to find sites to build dams.  We need a river industry, not a dams industry, willing to consider rivers from an interdisciplinary perspective, and capable of holistic planning. 

We also need an approach to development that does not assume that water is being ‘wasted’ unless a river is dammed.  ‘Options assessment’ was another key proposal of the World Commission on Dams: what is the development problem, and is a dam the best solution to it?  Development planners need to stop operating as if they still believed that economies could ‘take off’ into soaring and sustainable flight (as the anti-communist economist Walter Rostow assured generations of development planners it could).  We need an approach to development that treats climate change as important, and does not sacrifice rivers and their people in the name of a pumped-up energy grid.   We need an approach that does not see development as a transitive verb, something done to people, but instead sees it as helping people bring about change themselves. 

So, cynicism married with idealism: perhaps a disastrous mix.  Nonethetheless, I see a world of dams that is as coercive and dysfunctional as it ever was. 

I am reminded of a Hausa proverb used by my old boss in Nigeria about the implications of development for small farmers whose lives were upended by the dam and irrigation project at Bakolori: hauka ne ga kaza ta auri kyanwa.  It means ‘it is madness for a chicken to marry a cat’.   The cat is the development planner: woe betide those swept aside by the cat’s paw in the name of the greater good.

Thanks to David Hulme, Chris Sandbrook, Chris Schulz and Jamie Skinner for comments.  They bear no responsibility for the views expressed. An abridged version of this blog appears on the FutureDAMS project website.

Thinking post-Covid

We started writing Thinking Like a Human back in 2012.  That now seems a long time ago, in our own lives, and in the world around us.  At the time we had adjacent offices in the Department of Geography in Cambridge, and lots of opportunities to meet and chat.  Since then, Chris has moved to the new Cambridge Conservation Initiative building, and taken over as Director of the Masters in Conservation Leadership.  Bill has retired after a period as Head of Department.  In 2020 and 2021, Covid has made a shambles of all routines of academic life: we are working from home, and the idea of being able to meet in person and spark ideas seems something from a remote world. 

It has been replaced with a world of all-digital communication. This feels very different.  It is pretty good for some things – seminars or committee meetings, for example, or conferences attended by people from all over the world, no longer constrained by visas and costly air flights.  But it has been bad for others.  We have found it especially poor as a medium for conversation. And so, while the world of blogs, and social media of all kinds, has blossomed under Covid, we have found ourselves lonelier and more isolated.  We miss being able to talk about things we have noticed, or what we feel about things happening in conservation or the wider world.  We miss the opportunity to urge each other on to develop and write some passing thought (or to stop being silly about others).  We have found ourselves more easily drowned by the onrush of digital stories.  We have both been challenged by the simple logistic and emotional demands of lives under lockdown.

And so, ironically, in a time of digital supremacy we find we have written less since the early days of Covid-19 than at any time since we started.  It is not (we hope) that we have stopped thinking or dreaming, or being irritated, or rejoicing, but that we have found it harder to find the space to reflect and to write.  Doubtless both urge and opportunity to write will return, and Thinking like a Human will be back to business-as-usual.  Until then, we will be self-indulgent.  Our output has always been episodic (neither of us is a diligent digital animal).  But now, more than ever, we will ignore the siren call of ‘more is better’ – more words, more ideas and arguments and more readers. We will write when we see opportunity or a need, or have an idea that won’t stop bugging us.  We hope you will understand, and stay with us through what seems to be emerging as a bit of a fallow period.

Green Development?

Recently I held in my hands a printed copy of the new Fourth Edition of my book Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in a Developing World.  It had been a long while coming.  The contract I signed in 2012 set a submission date of December 2014: the manuscript was finally submitted in 2019, a cool four and a half years late.

In my defence, revising it was hard.  When I blithely agreed to do a new edition, both I and Routledge thought in terms of a quick update, with maybe a few new bits of writing to meet some of the more enthusiastic suggestions of reviewers.

It did not turn out like that.  Too much had changed – and too much was wrong with the previous edition (not least that I found it long-winded, choked with quotations that made it hard to read).  I ended up rewriting almost every paragraph, restructuring the argument and adding new chapters.  I cut words and references fiercely, like a gardener clearing brambles.  But as hard as I cut, behind me new words took root and grew.

I should have known it would be difficult to do justice to the field of sustainability and development.  I had made exactly the same mistake twice before. This was the fourth edition of the book.  The original was written in the 1980s and published in 1990.  It was written in a world without email or Internet: I spent my small advance on my first ever word processor (the remarkable Amstrad PCW).  At that time, systematic thinking about environment and development depended on the World Conservation Strategy (1980), and the Brundtland Report (1987).  The second edition appeared in 2001 and the third in 2009.  These had to respond to the 1992 ‘Rio Conference’ and the explosion in international debate and policy that followed it (not least about the UN Conventions on Climate Change and on Biological Diversity) and the Millennium Development Goals.

Everywhere there was more to say: more case studies, more theories, more contrasting ways of looking at the problems, more arguments about what ‘the problems’ were and what perils lay in particular ways of defining them.  Everybody had an argument to make about sustainability, nature and human futures. There had been endless meetings and reports, generating well-intentioned statements that ranged from the visionary to the self-serving, the heartfelt to the platitudinous.  A huge crop of new academic writing had sprung up, with new disciplines (for example ecological and institutional economics or conservation biology) flowering and new ideas setting seed (for example ecosystem services, natural capital,  resilience and governance).

In the face of this growth industry, the second and third editions of Green Development grew fatter, slower, less sharp.  By the time I finally turned seriously to the new edition, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development had taken place back in Rio in 2012, and the Sustainable Development Summit in New York in 2015.  The Sustainable Development Goals had generated their own explosion of scholarship. The challenge of dealing with all this material seemed overwhelming.

Curiously, as I hacked my way through thickets of old writing and new, it was the first edition to which I turned for the heart of the new book.  Not just because it was shorter and better written (or at least I thought so), but because of the critique of the conventional model of development that it built upon.  These were the debates of my youth.  I was doing my A Levels in 1972 when The Limits to Growth appeared, and the new Ecologist Magazine produced A Blueprint for Survival.  The following year saw publication of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People MatteredThe very title of Only One Earth by Barbara Ward and René Dubos, also 1972, summed up the impossibility of accepted ideas of growth.   Like others of the generation who watched the Apollo missions unfold, I took for granted the idea that the Earth was a unique and limited place in an inhospitable universe.

Doing my PhD on the impacts of development projects on small farmers in the African Sahel, I discovered Robert Chambers’s Rural Development: Putting the Last First, and later the works of Murray Bookchin and Robert Goodland. I realized that development as often brought problems as solutions.  And that was what I meant by ‘green development’ in the title of the first edition.  As I wrote in my first blog for Thinking Like a Human in 2014, the word ‘green’ is so loosely used that it might seem meaningless, a rough label for any kind of ‘environmental’ argument or action.  But to me the word seemed useful to draw together challenges to the conventional development model of unceasing economic growth, of unconstrained production and consumption, and the appropriation for profit of non-human nature.

In the 1990s and 2000s, as sustainability became a mainstream idea, critiques of Western developmentalism got rather drowned out in the torrent of academic and popular debate.  Now it has come into its own again.  In the 1970s, environmentalists spoke rather piously of existential challenges to human futures.  Today such challenges are unmissable, particularly in the form of climate change.  Moreover, the poverty of international policy responses has drawn attention to the structure of the world economy, to failures and limitations of governance and the pervasive inequalities and injustices that characterize and entrench them.

The standard model of development that served industrialized countries so well for so long is once again understood as a problem, not a blueprint for the future. In the 1970s, the key concept to frame this understanding was ‘limits to growth’.   This time around, attention is focused forwards,  on degrowth.  Can we build an economy of care, of the commons, of simplicity and conviviality, of cooperation?  Can we achieve prosperity without growth?  Can we rethink economics to deliver happiness?

When you are writing a book, you can keep tinkering with the text (indeed, that is one reason why books get delayed!).  But as soon as the manuscript is delivered, that window closes.  As an author you suffer agonies until publication day, watching new publications appear, and the world you have written about start to change.

So it was with the new edition of Green Development.  In the months after submission in 2019, the newspapers were full of Extinction Rebellion protests in the streets of London and other cities, and Greta Thunberg lecturing jaded politicians about their responsibilities to the earth.   The new edition of Green Development finally appeared in print back in January 2020.  Holding the finished book my hands then, I measured it against this explosion of interest about new ways of living.  I had re-centred the book on critiques of developmentalism, but I wished I had done more.

But now even January 2020 seems a lifetime ago.  The Covid-19 pandemic, with its cascade of closed economies, locked down people, and death stalking ordinary lives, has changed the debate again. Some commentators have drawn hope from responses to the pandemic, seeing vision, courage, empathy, care, a respect for science, and sheer hard work in the common good.  To some, the radical policy innovation demanded by Covid-19 arguably shows what might be done to build a sustainable and just world. Climate change may be a slower burn crisis than Covid-19, but, as Greta Thunberg points out, it demands as serious a response.

Yet radical change is scary.  The familiar exerts a huge pull, particularly for those who have been doing well out of the existing system.  Calls to re-establish ‘business as usual’, global trade, high street shopping, cheap air flights and holiday travel, are strong.  To re-imagine human futures is one thing, to lead or even follow the policy change is unnerving and takes courage.

And some Covid-19 policy-making is not encouraging, marked by short-sightedness, greed, selfishness, and aversion to risk.  We sense the pulling up of drawbridges, the closing off of sympathy for those who are different from ourselves.  The Black Lives Matter protests have focused global attention on structural injustice and inequality, and the bloody and coercive histories behind the wealth of ‘developed’ countries.

Thinking about Green Development, I recognise that it probably does a better job of explaining problems than offering solutions.   I comfort myself that if you don’t understand problems you can’t fix them, although this is an easy cop out.  Thinking about the book in the light of this extraordinary year, the Covid-19 pandemic holds up a mirror in which we can look at ourselves and our societies.  If we gaze into it, we see not a world easily remade, but a set of intractable challenges and tough choices.  Many of these are horribly familiar, even if they strike us as new.

Old entrenched problems are often the hardest to solve.  But one thing is very clear: never has bold thinking about what matters in the world been more urgent.

Silent Spring

The freedom to take an hour’s walk or bike ride each day has been one of the unexpected pleasures of the Covid shutdown.   April was scarily dry, with day after day of blue skies. Blackthorn bloomed in the hedges, and the nettles, docks and rye grass began to cover up the winter’s accumulation of plastic and cans. The occasional cowslip and jack-by-the-hedge appeared, just holding their own. Repeating the same routes, you get to remember where these flowers are and look out for them, like neighbours suddenly become friends.

The most remarkable thing about cycling under Covid has been the emptiness of the roads. This has been a silent spring, although not at Rachel Carson foresaw it. The silencing this spring has been of human engines. The roads lack their usual freight of hustling SUVs, the thrusting executive saloons, zippy commuter bubbles and trucks. There have been a few delivery vans, hunting for addresses like queen wasps checking out the roof tiles for a place to nest. But the exurbia of the Cambridge countryside, the outer commuter land, has been silenced. Cars lie parked up in front of new refurbished and extended houses, suddenly redundant. Rat runs have turned into country lanes, and those vehicles that pass announce their coming, pass and fade away, leaving silence behind them.

The Covid countryside is spookily empty, like a film set for an episode of Poirot, or Lark Rise to Candleford. To travel in it is to feel the experience of previous generations, before the roads became a Scalextric track for commuters, before the roads were metalled, before the internal combustion engine drove out the horse, before even the routes between villages were turnpiked. Roads lead past the site of a Roman villa, past Saxon villages, medieval churches galore, inter-war bungalows and postwar council houses. In every village there is a war memorial. The contemporary world momentarily silenced, a bike ride traces a landscape of former neighbours, ancestors and ghosts.

And, joyously, that landscape is not silent. Blackbirds and robins fill the air with song, woodpigeons, jackdaws and rooks shout heartily about their affairs. On one back road, there is a particular telephone wire where a yellowhammer sometimes sings, and over several woods a buzzard has been circling and calling. Stop by a flowering blackthorn or, now, hawthorn (the appropriately named May tree), and the air is filled with the buzzing of bees and hover flies, a deep hum that speaks of Summer’s own engine spinning up.

This year, spring has moved ahead, but it is as if the human world is paused.   It is disconcerting to walk along a road and hear bird song; to stand on a junction at commuter time and see not a trail of cars rushing homeward nose to tail, but the road empty in both directions; to smell not exhaust fumes but hawthorn blossom; to hear not the grind of car tyres but a robin’s song. Overhead, no planes fly. The other evening, watching a skylark sawing away a hundred feet above a wheat field, I was slightly shocked to see a movement behind it – an airliner 30,000 feet higher, heading northwest, presumably on the great circle route to America.

Not only is the countryside quieter, it is also cleaner. With the lack of vehicles comes a new clarity to the air and ground. No particulates, no NOx, no sulphur, no ozone in the air. No microplastics ground from tyres, no hydrocarbons or heavy metals in road runoff. Do this for long enough, and maybe the nitrate pollution that has become such a pervasive homogenizer of lowland floras in the UK would fade away.

Lockdown offers a window into an ecological past, a vision of a possible ecological future. As Chris Sandbrook pointed out when he read a draft of this blog, lockdown’s fortuitous timing, on the cusp of a warm spring, offers the chance to appreciate the year’s ecological unfolding, at a time when it is a delight to be outside. Nature provides a solace for our suddenly grounded and enclosed lives.

This closeness to nature, and our new appreciation of each other, might lead us to imagine a different future, one where we live more frugally, we care for each other, we appreciate the support of previously unsung heroes of ventilator machine, dustbin and delivery package. We might imagine a world not built around the motorcar, where the skies are not crowded with airplanes, where nature can be found and appreciated outside our front doors, in gardens, parks and roadsides.

This is not the world we came from scant six weeks ago. It is also not the one being demanded as pressure grows to ease lockdown. The dominant concern of governments and businesses is to restore the economy, to bring the old world back. And so, while commentators like George Monbiot have urged the government to use the economic shock of covid to rebuild a different economy – a greener economy – this is not what is in prospect. Back at the start of March, the boss of Ryanair condemned ‘irrational panic measures’ in response to Covid.   At the star of April, Easyjet received a £600m loan from the government and the Bank of England to tide over losses from grounding its fleet. In the middle of April, the BBC reported that US airlines would receive a £20 billion rescue package.

As the government considers lifting lockdown, there seems little chance that the economic machine might be restarted in a mellower and less destructive gear. Nature has, briefly, thrived this spring. Restoration of the status quo will end the ephemeral rapprochement with nature, and leave only its echo behind.

The real and horribly familiar silent spring is still the default model. Agricultural sprayers are still at work. Even now, the fields of wheat and rape are largely stripped of unprofitable life. The great ecological silencing goes on, and the industrial vice around nature still tightens. Alternative visions are likely to prove mere mirages, swept away when this season of lockdown is done and the toiling machinery of our lives clanks back into action.

And yet the questions are persistent. The world we know may be one where ecosystems are routinely squeezed and run down, but can the world not be made to work a little differently? Perhaps we have become less ‘socially distanced’ from nature as we have watched this spring unfold? If so, maybe we will remember this closeness in the months and years to come, and – each of us, as we can – seek out new ways to live. Covid has scrambled all our systems of provisioning, employment, socialisation and health. We have had to live differently, and relate to people differently. Can we keep the best of that and weave it into the recovery to come?

Meanwhile, the day is again blue, woodpigeons are making scuffling love on the roof and the blackbirds are doing their best to sing all the parts of the dawn chorus. The evenings are still drawing out, and there skylarks over the field near the church. The first swifts have made it back from Africa, even if they come now as single spies and not battalions. There is a world to build, but for a moment I need to go out and listen to the sound of silence. And build up the fierce heat of remembrance for the times to come.


COVID-19 and Conservation

These are strange, scary and fascinating times. Watching the COVID-19 pandemic grow throws us into the fantastical world of films or games. It brings disaster close to home, and to the people we know and love. Courage, altruism, ignorance and fear are all on show on our screens and in our hearts.

COVID-19 has temporarily come to dominate many other concerns, especially for those (like me) who were previously largely insulated from the life-threatening challenges of war, hunger, poverty and disease.  Reflecting on the evolving crisis, I find myself wondering whether it might change our thinking about the things we were worrying about before it hit, and if so how? When we get back to them, will we see them differently? What, for example, might the crisis have to say about conservation?   Here are some first thoughts. Continue reading

Brexit Political Ecology

Now that the UK’s exit from the European Union is but days away, it seems an opportune time to reflect on what the new regime might mean for nature and the countryside.

The future of nature did not figure prominently in what passed for debate before the 2016 Brexit referendum, although conservation organisations put on record their belief that Brexit would damage nature in the UK. This lack of attention might seem surprising, since for EU sceptics the Common Agricultural Policy has long symbolized the bureaucracy, waste and arbitrariness that they associated with EU membership. Moreover, British farmers contrived to combine dependence on EU subsidies with grievance at the bureaucracy and constraints involved in getting them.

And it turns out that Brexit has strong rural roots. I recently read a fascinating paper on this by Sally Brooks of the University of York, published in the journal Sociologica Ruralis. While much has been made (particularly since the disastrous showing of the Labour party in the December 2019 elections), of the tendency of ‘left behind’ working class voters in northern cities to vote for Brexit , Brooks notes that rural England also voted strongly to leave the EU. The rural vote was 55% to 45% in favour of leaving, with the highest ‘leave’ polls lying in the East Midlands, on the borders of East Anglia: the two highest Leave votes were in rural South Lincolnshire constituencies (Boston 76% and South Holland 74%), a region of good soils and productive farms heavily dependent on EU migrant workers.

Behind this vote, Brooks argues, there lay a vision of English (rather than British) nationalism that drew heavily on nostalgic ideas of rural England. This imagined countryside was a feature conservative nostalgia through the twentieth century, from Kipling through Stanley Baldwin or Churchill to John Major. The Conservative Party presented itself as the protector of rural tradition.

This image of an unchanging rural world survived the progressive transformation of the countryside, its communities and nature: estates were broken up and farms amalgamated, machines replaced farm workers and the hedges and ditches of inefficient old landscapes were reworked into the factory floor of the productive British farmer. Through it all, the imagined English countryside, of hedgerows, cricket, old churches and pubs, seemed to offer a sense of continuity. Rural was ethnically homogenous (meaning white) and spoke of permanence, even as Suez and small bitter colonial wars marked the end of imperial dreams. The rural scene was a refuge from the cultural and economic changes emerging in Britain’s increasingly diverse, cosmopolitan and multicultural cities.

Sally Brooks argues that this changed in the 1990s, as counter-urbanization brought affluent urban in-migrants to rural areas. From green wellies to fine dining, the rural became fashionable, and villages sprouted fancy cars in front of former farmworkers’ cottages. The old agrarian ruralism was challenged by newer and more complex ideas of the rural.

There was a powerful politics of reaction. In 1995, the Countryside Alliance was founded to campaign for the threatened ‘rural way of life’. They built on issues such as the proposed ban on fox hunting to create a much wider agenda opposed to rural transformation. A series of London protests culminated in the Countryside March: Liberty & Livelihood in September 2002, which attracted 400,000 people.

The rural/urban fault line exploited by the Countryside Alliance built on the idea of a threat to rural England (and therefore England itself, and by extension the UK) that came from the cities, and from immigrants, and, above all from ‘Brussels’ and the European Union under the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

In the years of Labour government (1997-2009), this idea of a battle between the rural/tradition and urban/modernity provided an ideological banner under which disenfranchised Conservatives could organise. It was fertile ground for the rise of UKIP (the UK Independence Party). The idea of an imperilled English ways of life, of ‘Europe’ as a ‘foreign’ threat, was red meat to the rising Eurosceptic right wing of the Conservative Party.  It was their power that led David Cameron to promise a referendum on EU membership before the 2015 general election, and to hold it a year later, triggering the years of rancorous debate that have followed.

What I have been trying to think about is this: if Brexit came in part from a particular vision of rural England, what ideas are likely to shape the future of rural areas in Brexit Britain?  Policy choices have been well signposted. Very quickly after the 2016 referendum, environmental organisations turned to lobbying for nature in the post-Brexit future that is now upon us. Under arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove, the government started to ask some surprisingly open and novel questions about how agricultural and environmental policy should be organised. In 2011, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government published a White Paper on the natural environment, The Natural Choice and a ‘strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services’, Biodiversity 2020. In 2018 it published A Green Future: a ‘25 year plan to improve the environment’, and Parliament passed the Agriculture Act, which promised a new ‘Environmental Land Management’ system, which would replace the old system of agricultural subsidyies with payments for environmental benefits (better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding).

This is not place to get into the details. But despite the optimism among some conservationists, I find myself reflecting on what ideas and principles are likely to shape the post-Brexit ecology of the UK. What will be revealed by the new governance regimes? Which interests will be best served by the new policies? Where will nature find space as the new political economic regimes unspool?

First, I think it is clear that British conservation policy will continue to be Balkanized, with separate policies for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland dealt. This has been a growing trend since the old Nature Conservancy Council was broken up in 1990. It has been an important part of the sense of identity in Wales and Scotland created by devolved governance, and brought some conservation benefits (notably Scottish national parks). It has allowed a variety of policy experiments, but reduced the consistency of conservation policies across the UK.

Second, British conservation policy is likely to become more parochial. It will lose its European horizon. The hope of many Brexiteers is to free the UK from ‘Brussels bureaucracy’ and from pan-EU agreements. Although EU nature policy (notably the Habitats and Water Directives) has drawn heavily on previous British experience, Brexit Britain wishes to be shot of it all, able to make its own rules. However good those rules are, and however effectively we concentrate on protecting species and habitats characteristic of these islands, the idea of nature in Britain managed as a coherent part of a continental whole will be weakened. In an era of rapid climate change, threats to migratory birds, or invasive wildlife diseases, policy isolation brings risks, however alluring it looks.

Third, paradoxically, Brexit Britain looks likely to pursue an aggressive policy with respect to nature outside Europe. The nature we are encouraged to be concerned about is increasingly understood as ‘global’, in tropical rain forests or African savannas. A Brexit British government might well hope to please a nature-minded electorate by ‘standing tall’ internationally. The cynic might see control of deforestation or the wildlife trade in the tropics, or the creation of vast protected areas in UK Overseas Territories, as much easier targets than (for example) regulation of scallop trawling, salmon farming, neonicotinoid pesticides or foxhunting. The protection of global nature offers politicians ample opportunity for good grandstanding with limited danger of political blowback at home.

Fourth, Brexit conservation policy will be carried forward under continued austerity. Whatever happens, economic forecasts suggest there will continue to be little money for the everyday grind of governance. And much though British people may love nature, when laid alongside other priorities for a shrinking tax base (the National Health Service, roads, public transport, social services – the list is endless), it is likely that government conservation investment will continue to shrink. It is also likely to be dominated by novel and experimental projects: the 25 Year Plan points to small dollops of new money for tree planting, for ecological restoration, a ‘nature recovery network’ and ‘green infrastructure’. These are all good ideas, but unless funding is sufficient to take them beyond the photo opportunity and Twitter story, they will not be worth much. The government has found a neat mantra in ‘public money for public goods’, but the bottom line will depend on how much public money there proves to be. The key decision here will be how much of the money that formerly went on agricultural subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy is directed to conservation. Future spending plans will be revealing.

Fifth, in the context of ongoing austerity, Brexit conservation will be increasingly private, dependent on philanthropy, the Lottery and corporations to secure and manage wildlife-rich land. In 2010, the Lawton Committee called for conservation landscapes to be ‘bigger, better, more joined up’. Those looking for exemplars of such strategies inevitably point to big private estates, either owned by wealthy individuals (e.g. Knepp or Glen Feshie), conservation organisations (e.g. RSPB, National Trust) or corporations such as water companies. Luckily, there have always been enlightened wealthy landowners who have favoured nature, and British conservation policy has always been a pragmatic mix of stick and carrot, working with the owners of private land to conserve nature.   Government spending on nature conservation dates back to the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. In the heat of planning during the Second World War it was accepted that it was in the national interest to conserve nature, and this should not be left to the whim of the wealthy, or done entirely at their expense. It will be interesting to see how nature governance evolves in our Brexit future.

Sixth, it seems increasingly clear that in future nature will only survive in the UK where the market finds space for it. The politicians creating Brexit Britain are opposed to ‘big government’. They want low taxes, and are happy to live with limited government revenues and limited controls.   The idea of ecosystem services and natural capital now pervade all UK government thinking about nature. The idea of nature as something that can be destroyed or restored or created opens up a neat link to the working of markets. Whether formally managed in terms of ‘biodiversity offsets’, or more loosely treated in terms of ‘net gain’ (a central idea in the 25 Year Plan), we are likely to see nature pushed around, destroyed by development here (in Green Belts or transport corridors) and created there (new ‘village greens’ or urban flood-control ‘wetlands’). There will be good-news stories to offer social and formal media, but there are already too few government scientists to measure ecological change. And I fear that once-powerful government bodies will have teeth that are only good for smiling in photo-ops.

I have written about my own complex feelings about the 2016 referendum elsewhere.   My sense of loss and alienation in the country I grew up in has not yet eased to any great extent. Yet I accept the need to live in the moment. I try sometimes to do as our Brexit enthusiast leaders urge and look forwards.   But when I do, I see a bleak picture, of nature reduced to what a shrunken state can pay for and what the elite can buy and chooses to manage well. Meanwhile, I see us fed stories of nature and countryside made good and flourishing, of private vision and corporate wisdom. I fear we may be beguiled by weak versions of the old myth of an unchanging countryside, without either the scientific capacity to measure how things are changing or awareness of non-human life thinning around us.

These are not predictions. To follow Margaret Atwood, in her introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale, they are more like ‘anti-predictions’. Perhaps, if I describe the future I fear, it won’t happen like this.  I hope not.  For the moment, I can but wait and see.

Listening and loss

Recently, on a run in the fields around the village where I live, I realised that I could not hear a skylark. At one level, this is not surprising, because the agricultural landscapes of Cambridgeshire are as species-poor as any ecosystem short of a car park. But this was a place where I had heard skylarks last year, and the year before. A farm access track through wheat had created a kind of accidental skylark plot, giving the kind of open weedy ground cover that scientists have shown that skylarks like, providing a slim toehold in the sea of pesticide-perfected arable crops.

My first thought brought a familiar lurch of anxiety – were there perhaps no skylarks this year? Was my rather barren corner of England not to be enlivened by the lark’s heart-stopping seesaw song, rising above the agricultural prairie below? It seemed all too possible. Skylarks have been declining in the UK since the 1970s, and no amount of agri-environment spending or skylark plot design has made much difference. Skylarks are simply disappearing from our skies and fields.

But a second thought followed, almost equally unwelcome. Was the problem with me and not the landscape? Were there in fact skylarks singing away, but I simply couldn’t hear them? This was, unfortunately, also quite likely. In recent years my hearing has deteriorated. I have struggled to hear quietly spoken students in lecture halls, and indistinct colleagues in meetings. More depressingly, I have stopped being able to hear birdsong.

For me, hearing loss was a gradual process, an imperceptibly slow change that involved a narrowing and a thinning of soundscapes. My mind did not register the change, and my brain adapted. I got good at listening, I got quite good at lip-reading, and found myself choosing to sit so that peoples’ faces were not shadowed. I did a lot of guessing what people said from context (not always successfully I have to say). And I no longer heard many of nature’s sounds: the subtle chuckle of stream water, the thick whisper of wind in poplars, bumblebees on the rosemary.

With birds, it was hopeless. Vaughan Williams did his best with the violin in The Lark Ascending, but the reality is more varied, more exhilarating, and to me almost completely inaudible. I found myself scanning the sky for singing birds so that I could cup my hands behind my ears and maybe hear a faint wisp of song: a mug’s game. In Nature Cure, Richard Mabey describes movingly the sense of loss he experienced when he could no longer hear birdsong. I felt some measure of the same loss, a small extra sad erosion of my sense of nature.

Last year I bit the bullet and was fitted with hearing aids, courtesy of the National Health Service. They were brilliant.  Indeed my hearing was at first too brilliant, and I was deafened by the running washing up water, disturbed at hearing conversations across coffee shops and on trains. I also discovered that meetings are not necessarily more interesting when you can hear everything.

I thought I would be self-conscious about having hearing aids, and surprised myself that I wasn’t. They were an unwelcome indicator of senescence, but they felt like just one more age-defying prosthetic. I like to think of them as enabling devices that offer new powers – like a wetsuit, binoculars or a bicycle.

The big win of having hearing aids has undoubtedly been that I can hear birdsong again. Back garden songbirds have been a deafening delight this spring, and I have started once more to hear birds before I see them. But last summer it was undoubtedly the endless improvisation of the skylarks that gave me the most delight.

Losing and regaining hearing has made me more sensitive to the sound worlds people live in. I learned how impatient people can be at those who cannot hear, or hear badly. And I realized how many people choose to live in a world of curated noise. People walk the streets, talk to friends on the trains and run the bare footpaths between Cambridgeshire fields, with earphones plugged in place. Their phone, podcast or music streaming service is a constant companion. The continuous stimulation of ear and brain seems a necessary prop a sonic backcloth to life, a kind of aural comfort blanket. What drives this dependence on recorded and transmitted sound? A concern that without stimulation we will die of boredom? A fear that that incoming sound will be disturbing, or discordant? A refusal to have our sound world will be penetrated and spoiled by that of someone else? Do we have a fear of silence?

The natural world is never silent, any more than it is ever truly empty. Acoustic ecologists analyse the complex soundscapes that life creates. Clever algorithms tease apart different species from their sounds, calls or song, separating and identifying different species and sometimes individuals from the apparent chaos. The machines work perfectly happily beyond the human register, as anyone who has played with a bat box knows.

But acoustic ecologists also tell us that we live in a world that is gradually losing natural sounds as species are lost from familiar landscapes and populations shrink. Soundscapes are as vulnerable as smellscapes, and almost everywhere more transformed. Human made sounds overlie all others. Traffic, garden machinery, aeroplanes provide a roaring carpet of mechanised sound, against which we pour endless music into our ears in search of pleasure and meaning, not knowing and not caring what we listen to, happy to have the streaming algorithms curate and armour our sonic defences.

Every spring, I suffer what I have come to anticipate as a regular anxiety of the turning year. I sense a fear that the natural world will not kick-start itself again after the short cold days of winter, that bumble bees will not re-appear on the rosemary, that swallows will not turn up by the pond, that swifts will not burn their way through the skies above the streets.

There isn’t a word for this anxiety, although I think many people attuned to nature suffer from it. It reflects the stress of ‘living in a world of wounds’, which Aldo Leopold described. I think of it as a kind of ‘spring fear’ (perhaps something of it is captured by the delightful German word torschlusspanik, the fear of time running out). It is a consequence of knowing too much about the homogenisation of ecosystems and the destruction of natural diversity in the modern world.

My gradual loss of hearing has taught me something about the gradual loss of biodiversity that we are experiencing. Year by year, non-human life is thinned out, losing numbers and diversity, leaving only the familiar co-habitants, the tough and hyper-adaptable, the parasitic and the domesticated. These changes seem unstoppable, endless, a slow decline of a vibrant world into some shadowland of uniformity.

The opening paragraphs of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring described the world refashioned by organochlorine pesticides in terms of lost sounds. She wrote of ‘a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh’.

I usually don’t wear my hearing aids when I am running. So, there I was, on a field corner, with no skylarks to be heard, and two questions running round my head. Were skylarks really singing, and I simply could not hear them? Or were they missing, marking one more step in their long decline? Could my prosthetic ears conjure skylarks back into life, or were they gone? Was this spring perhaps to be the first of many such springs, or even the first of all future springs, without the skylark’s song?

Silence, and how we deal with it, are key challenges for conservation. In a world of wall to wall noise, we need to take time to listen. We must talk about what we can hear, and what we are missing. Otherwise we will remain oblivious to the growing silence around us. And we may miss the fact that no neat device exists to bring lost soundscapes back, except in sad recorded archives of a once rich natural world.

Earth Algebra

It is the time of year when newly arrived students gather around the university in uneasy groups, shuffling like swallows waiting to migrate. All have passed, quite recently, through the trial of school exams. Meeting them, I remember all too well the shock of exam papers whose questions bore little relation to anything I had learned. The key thing my teachers told me was not to panic: read the rubric on the paper, check you know how many questions to answer, and finish each question off as best you can.

I had a particular dislike of maths tests at school: complex questions constructed around unlikely scenarios such as a baths with running taps and the plug out, or a weightless block sliding down an inclined plane with strange frictional qualities. Who could arrange such a thing, and why would they do it? That was not, as successive maths teachers explained, a relevant way to think. It was the units, the numbers and the equations that mattered.

The New Scientist Feedback column has had a lot of fun over the years with the odd units people use – lengths expressed in double decker buses, or weights in whales (clearly a highly variable unit), or areas as multiples of Wales. Their correspondents rejoice in the bizarre, but the underlying message is always the clarity that sensible SI units and a bit of careful thought would bring.

Environmentalists love to cite statistics of all kinds, and they too like striking metrics. They too have fallen in love with a new mega-unit: Earths. Ever since the moon shots of the 1960s, the idea of Only One Earth has been at the heart of environmentalist argument about the shape of human economy and society (a ‘one world environmental ontology’ as Chris Sandbrook calls it).   But the current fashion for the earth as unit is a little more specific. Two framings have become particularly dominant.

The first is the idea of ‘Half Earth’. Nature, we are told, needs 0.5 Earths. The 20% of land in protected areas that comprises the CBD 2020 target is too little: conservationists are urged to place 50% of the earth in protected areas. As Chris Sandbrook has pointed out, and as the wider literature has discussed, this wonderfully disguises a lot of tricky politics (since people already own and live on most of the land conservationists want, so ‘saving’ those areas is likely to be expensive and unpopular as well as being unfair and unjust).

The second is the idea of measuring human consumption in Earths. Humans, we are told, are using 1.7 Earths a year: the Global Footprint Network calculates that ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ was 1 August in 2018. The idea of Global Footprint provides a metric of the ecological resources and services consumed by the economy through pollution, overfishing, unsustainable agriculture, overharvesting of forests, and emission of carbon dioxide.

The metrics behind Half Earth or Earth Overshoot Day are complicated, and you probably have to be a bit of a science geek to dig in to the algebra.   But in a sense the detail does not matter greatly. Neither is really intended to be scientific. They are both metaphors, framing devices in environmentalist arguments about future actions.

The problem is the mathematics pushes in two very different directions – the two ‘Earth’ metaphors reflect very different ideas about the future direction of human society and economy.

Half Earth proposes a separation of nature and human society, half an Earth of dense human settlement and efficient production, and half of biodiverse ecosystems and little human presence (an essentially ecomodernist vision). The Global Footprint proposes a reduction of the energy and material basis of production and consumption with a redistribution towards poor countries (a kind of degrowth vision).

The tricky thing is that both these equations need to be solved at the same time. It is no good trying to pretend that one is more important than the other. Conservationists running the numbers and supporting the idea of Half Earth are doing the arithmetic right. But so are other environmentalists calculating the Global Footprint.

There is only one Earth to play with. Nature needs space, but it also needs a significant reduction in human consumption. Space where non-human lives can flourish needs to be doubled. But net consumption (in all its forms) also needs to be halved.

The calculations we need to navigate forwards are much more complicated than either crude ‘Earth Unit’ headline might suggest. Earth mathematics is going to be complicated: tessellating economic production and countryside, trading off reductions in energy and material use and the restoration of ecosystems, the integration of human society with non-human nature at every scale from the biotechnology vat to the productive ocean, the garden to the biosphere.

The Twenty First century offers a tricky exam paper for humanity, and we need to get the answers right if we are to make it through with any space for human and non-human flourishing.

The alert student would be well advised to tackle more than one question.


The Cyborg Conservationist

Haze from the 2015 forest fires in Southeast Asia may have killed about 100,000 people. It was also really bad for wildlife. Benjamin Lee and colleagues recently showed these effects by measuring acoustic activity on an ‘eco-overpass’ between two areas of forest in Singapore before, during and after the haze event. The data showed that acoustic activity dropped by 37% during the haze, and had showed only partial recovery 16 weeks later.

I learned of this research through the excellent BBC World Service Inside Science Programme on 12 October 2017. What caught my attention was the serendipitous nature of the study. Lee was supposed to be surveying bats to assess the effects of the overpass. But the haze triggered his asthma, and he had to stop work: but his acoustic recorders stayed in place. And hence a dataset was collected that spanned the haze event, recording not just bats but also birds and insects, and showing how they were silenced by the conditions.

This neat paper highlights the extraordinary power of remote devices to record biological data. Digital acoustic recording is widely used to survey bats (e.g. the iBats programme) and increasingly birds and insects. Moreover, archived sound recordings made for one purpose can be mined later for another. Citizen science recordings of bats in the UK have been used to identity stridulating bush-crickets. Continue reading

The Conservation of Smellscapes

Recently, I cycled back late from town. There was no wind, almost no traffic, and no moon. I was struck by the power of smells in the dark: first some splashed diesel near the garage, then lilac in a garden, pine trees at the motorway bridge, and the warm ammonia of bullocks at the farm. Finally, home, and then, suddenly, the smell of my neighbour’s washing, hung out overnight: an overpowering and entirely artificial scent, a radical shift of smellscape.

I first came across the concept of ‘smellscape’ in a paper by the cultural geographer Douglas Porteus in 1985. He pointed out that smells tend to be place-related, and that the nose perceives smellscapes just as the eye sees landscapes. Porteus describes sampling smells on ‘smellwalks’, not unlike my cycle journey home. Different continents, countries, regions, neighbourhoods and houses have their particular smellscapes. As Victoria Henshaw pointed out in her book Urban Smellscapes, cities have characteristic smells.   Kate McLean, an artist and designer, makes ‘smellmaps’ of cities around the world. Continue reading