“No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.”
So wrote Aristotle .
But it offers little comfort in response to some recent essays that I have been reading. I closed yesterday’s essay from ‘Our unsustainable way of life‘ with the comment, “If it strikes you as utter, complete madness trust me, you are not alone.” The madness is still coming! Stay with me!
George has a new book being published by Allen Lane today under the title of Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. I would offer you the link to the book on the Allen Lane website but at the time of writing this post that link is not functioning. It’s certainly a book I want to read. You may learn more here.
Anyway, some recent Monbiot essays in the UK Guardian newspaper have been setting the scene for his new book.
On the 22nd May, there was an essay published under the heading of What’s Missing from this Picture? (the link is to George Monbiot’s website). The essay starts, thus:
Somehow almost all of us have missed the real story behind the disappearance of our wildlife.
By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 22nd May 2013
Even before you start reading the devastating State of Nature report, you get an inkling of where the problem lies. It’s illustrated in the opening pages with two dramatic photographs of upland Britain. They are supposed to represent the natural glories we’re losing. In neither of them (with the exception of some distant specks of scrub and leylandii in the second) is there a tree to be seen. The many square miles they cover contain nothing but grass and dead bracken. They could scarcely provide a better illustration of our uncanny ability to miss the big picture:
The majority of wildlife requires cover: places in which it can shelter from predators or ambush prey, places in which it can take refuge from extremes of heat and cold, or find the constant humidity that fragile roots and sensitive invertebrates require. Yet, in the very regions in which you might expect to find such cover (trees, scrub, other dense foliage) there is almost none. I’m talking about the infertile parts of Britain, in which farming is so unproductive that it survives only as a result of public money. Here, in the places commonly described as Britain’s “wildernesses”, almost nothing remains. And the “almost” has become radically smaller over the past 20 years.
Then a few paragraphs later, comes this:
The uplands of Britain are astonishingly unproductive. For example, 76% of the land in Wales is devoted to livestock farming, mostly to produce meat. But, astonishingly, by value Wales imports seven times as much meat as it exports. Six thousand years of nutrient stripping and erosion have left our hills so infertile that their productivity is miniscule. Even relatively small numbers of livestock can now keep the hills denuded.
Without subsidies, almost all hill-farming would cease. That’s not something I’m calling for, but I do believe it’s time we began to challenge the system and its outcomes. Among them is a policy that’s almost comically irrational and destructive.
So what was it that came at me as utter madness?
It was this:
The major funding that farmers receive is called the single farm payment, which is money given by European taxpayers to people who own land. These people receive a certain amount (usually around £200 or £300), for every hectare they own. To receive it, they must keep the land in what is called “Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition” (GAEC). It’s a term straight out of 1984.
Among the compulsory standards in the GAEC rules is “avoiding the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land”. What this means is that if farmers want their money they must stop wild plants from returning. They don’t have to produce anything: to keep animals or to grow crops there. They merely have to prevent more than a handful of trees or shrubs from surviving, which they can do by towing cutting gear over the land.
Oh, and then we learn:
The government of Northern Ireland has been fined £64 million for (among other such offences) giving subsidy money to farms whose traditional hedgerows are too wide. The effect of these rules has been to promote the frenzied clearance of habitats. The system ensures that farmers seek out the remaining corners of land where wildlife still resides, and destroy them.
Leading to the bizarre (and that’s putting it kindly) situation where:
A farmer can graze his land to the roots, run his sheep in the woods, grub up the last lone trees, poison the rivers with sheep dip and still get his money. Some of the farms close to where I lived in mid-Wales do all of those things and never have their grants stopped. But one thing he is not allowed to do is what these rules call “land abandonment”, and what I call rewilding. For no good reason, public money is used both to engineer the mass destruction of habitats through grazing and clearing, and to prevent any significant recovery.
There’s nothing I can add. Except this. I am collecting ideas and essays that are going to focus on the positive aspects of this ‘new world order’. I’m going to offer some examples of the power of positive change because as Rebecca Solnit wrote recently there is a case for hope!