Natural Balance

It struck me last night, as I was watching the new BBC programme that reconstructs our human ancestors, just how precarious our situation is.  We were once one of several species of hominids co-existing on Earth, but recently, very recently, all the others died out, except for Homo sapiens.  We are not the climax of evolution on this planet.  We are a tenuous final relic of an evolutionary grouping that has all-but died out, or, in the case of the Neanderthals, been incorporated into our North European DNA.
What I found disturbing about this was that the assumption is that we are better, and will adapt better and survive because we are cleverer than those hominids that died out.  But are we?
How do we interact with our environment?  Do we use our intelligence to learn about what is out there, study it, listen to it, value our time in the environment and what the environment gives to us, nurture the environment, preserve its resources, work with it so that every species can prosper?  Or do we seek to modify, dominate, apply technological fixes, eliminate those things that don’t suit us, marginalise species to the ever-diminishing bits of the planet that people don’t want to exploit?
There are many, many people out there who would like to live in the former way – in harmony, in natural balance with the environment.  But there seem to be many more who want to exploit and control it.
Agriculture used to be about working with the land – using the right bits of land to grow the right bits of food.  Now global markets determine what is grown where for maximum profit, regardless of whether the land is suitable.  So we modify, drain, irrigate, apply chemicals, cut down trees, clear scrub, create terraces, canalise rivers, remove hedgerows and wildflower margins.  In doing so we upset the natural balance created over millions of years.  Our interventions in turn upset the ecosystems, and lead to certain species that are tolerant of our activities dominating – only to be condemned as pests and attacked again with chemicals, with culling, with shooting, poisoning, trapping.
There seems to be a great deal of thought and technology applied to the mechanics of agriculture and environmental management, but not a great deal of strategic intelligence.  It does not take a great deal of intelligence to realise that if we upset the natural balance too much, we will suddenly find ourselves in a crisis of our own making.  We were never given “dominion over all the creatures on the Earth”.  We are just another one of them – a perilous relic of a group of species, all of which, apart from us, have failed.  We absolutely rely on the natural balance for the production of our food, for materials for our housing, for our energy, for our medicines, and for our lives.
Humans seem to think that we can simply force the world to our will.  We cannot.  Sooner or later the natural balance will tip against us, and none of our intelligence or technology will be able to cope.  We are the last of the hominids.  We have to wake up and think about what this means and how we can get back into balance with nature.
At the woods, we try to keep things in balance.  It is not easy, and we have made mistakes.  But if you respect the cycles of life, and seek to help them achieve balance, rather than constantly throwing them into disarray, it is remarkable what a difference you can make to the wildlife, and the richness of the environment.
Most people love the countryside, and enjoy being there.  Very few see the complexity of what is around them, and even fewer understand the key processes that go into making it the wonderful place it is.  If Homo sapiens is to avoid the fate of other hominds, then we have to re-acquire this understanding quickly, and learn that if we work with nature, it will help us many times over, but if we try and fight it, the battle is already lost.  Ecological processes are beautiful – few human interventions are, and they are mostly those interventions that work closely with nature – windmills, solar panels, water-wheels.
So here is a message for those in charge:  stop destroying the countryside.  Stop shooting things that happen to be in the “wrong” place.  Stop spraying “weeds” but start encouraging wild flowers that in turn will bring beneficial insects that themselves control the “pests” that we encourage by our hundred-acre monoculture crops.  Start managing forests and woodlands sustainably.  Stop building on valuable habitat just because the land is cheaper.  Stop tidying up the countryside.  Put the hedgerows back and sell the huge machinery – go to a smaller scale.  Look at the principles of permaculture, and learn to make the land a great place for every creature, including humans.  Stop seeing nature as something that is OK provided it doesn’t cause any inconvenience for anybody.  Stop denying the human contribution to global warming and start doing something about it, rather than paying lip-service and carrying on as before.  Stop pandering to globalised vested interests, corporate greed, corruption and cover-ups, and start being open and honest.  Value every living thing, including humans who don’t come from the same country, background, religion or point of view as yourself.
Or lose the natural balance, and lose out.  Other creatures will come along and take our place.  We are not God’s anointed and never were.  We are just another endangered species, the difference being that we are endangering ourselves.  We must acknowledge this quickly, and do something about it, before it is too late.

Nature at the Centre

Nature conservation.  We all (well most of us, anyway) think it is a good idea.  Making sure that nature is preserved, conserved and kept in good condition for the next generation.  Except, of course, despite decades of dedicated work, nature is not being conserved.  It is shrinking.  That is not to decry the efforts of those involved in conservation work – I am sure the situation would be a lot worse if we had done nothing – but it simply isn’t holding back the tide of human influence on the landscape and on the species that live there.
There are some species that are doing well, particularly those that are adaptable and can live with humans in towns and cities.  But mostly, numbers are falling, particularly of specialist species that need a habitat that has taken thousands of years to develop – woodland butterflies, woodland birds, farmland birds, grassland flowers and plants, whole hosts of other insects and the creatures that feed upon them, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, fungi.  Nature conservation feels like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a leaky bucket.
The problem is, nature conservation is seen as something that you do on nature reserves.  But these will never be enough.  They are too diverse, too scattered, not connected to each other, and much, much too small.  And vulnerable.  Nature cannot be preserved by keeping it limited to special areas.
Whenever I travel about, I very much get the feeling that human activity is only borrowing land from nature – the trees, bushes, grassland, shrubs, flowers, hedgerows and other habitats are sitting there, just waiting to reclaim what we have borrowed from them.  Occasionally, you come across an old building, completely overgrown with trees, flowers and plants, providing homes for foxes, rabbits, birds and insects.  Very frequently, it seems these buildings have been occupied until quite recently.  We are only borrowing from nature, and borrowing for a short while.  Nature has the power to take things back.
What we cannot do is borrow too much, in the wrong places.  We need to recognise that we are borrowing, not taking, or dominating, or controlling.  Nature needs to be put at the centre of everything we do, not shifted out to the fringes, where we grudgingly make space for it.  It needs to be seen as a benefit for everybody, not a cost, not a regrettable overhead, not an unnecessary expense, not a drag on business and a brake on development.  Putting nature at the centre means that everybody, in their daily lives, and in their businesses, need to think what they can do to make their lives friendly for nature.  And the thing is, it doesn’t need to cost much, or anything at all.  Even taking a human-centred view, there is plenty of research showing that a pleasant working environment, and an environment full of greenery and trees and plants, results in less sickness, better staff morale and better productivity.

We need to see development, such as houses and businesses, as fitting in around nature and not the other way round.  They also need to be fitted in in the best way possible, and where damage needs to be offset, this needs to be high quality habitat, provided in the right place, preferably locally, and result in a net gain, and improvements in connectivity of habitats, so people can enjoy the benefits if they have paid the price of habitat being lost.  And no habitat that is irreplaceable should be lost.
Ambitious targets for conservation will not be met without a fundamental shift in thinking.  We fit in around nature, not nature around us.  If nature is not put at the centre, then nature conservation efforts will repeatedly fail, and will habitat loss will turn into a rout.  We will continue to bail out the sinking ship with a leaky bucket.  Nature at the centre of all we do.  It is the only way to stem the tide.