George Orwell warned that “the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle“. This is a story of how it happens.
On the outskirts of Sheffield there is a wood which, some 800 years ago, was used by the monks of Kirkstead Abbey to produce charcoal for smelting iron. For local people, Smithy Wood is freighted with stories. Among the trees you can imagine your way into another world. The application to plant a motorway service station in the middle of it, wiping out half the wood and fragmenting the rest, might have been unthinkable a few months ago. No longer.
When the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, first began talking about biodiversity offsetting – replacing habitats you trash with new ones created elsewhere – his officials made it clear that it would not apply to ancient woodland. But in January Paterson said he was prepared to drop this restriction as long as more trees were planted than destroyed.
His officials quickly explained that such a trade-off would be “highly unlikely” and was “very hypothetical“. But the company that wants to build the service station wasn’t slow to see the possibilities. It is offering to replace Smithy Wood with “60,000 trees … planted on 16 hectares of local land close to the site“. Who cares whether a tree is a hunched and fissured coppiced oak, worked by people for centuries, or a sapling planted beside a slip-road with a rabbit guard around it?
As Ronald Reagan remarked, when contemplating the destruction of California’s giant redwoods, “a tree is a tree”. Who, for that matter, would care if the old masters in the National Gallery were replaced by the prints being sold in its shop? In swapping our ancient places for generic clusters of chainstores and generic lines of saplings, the offsetters would also destroy our stories.
So we turn for relief to Natural England, the official body whose purpose is “to conserve and enhance the natural environment”. Whoops. Its new chair, Andrew Sells, a major donor to the Conservative party, made his fortune in housebuilding, the industry most likely to benefit from biodiversity offsetting. Its deputy chair, David Hill, is also chair of Environment Bank, a private company set up “to broker biodiversity offsetting agreements for both developers and landowners”. The success of Environment Bank is partly dependent on decisions taken by Natural England. How many people believe it is acceptable for Hill to hold both posts?
But this is the way it’s going now: everything will be fungible, nothing will be valued for its own sake, place and past and love and enchantment will have no meaning. The natural world will be reduced to a column of figures.
That is the hope expressed in the latest report by the government’s Natural Capital Committee, whose chair, Dieter Helm, claims that “the environment is part of the economy and needs to be properly integrated into it so that growth opportunities will not be missed“. This, to me, is the wrong way round. The economy is part of the environment and needs to be steered so opportunities to protect our world of wonders will not be missed. Integrating the environment into the economy, Helm believes, is hampered by a lack of “proper accounting for natural assets”, which is what his committee seeks to redress.
So come with me into the faery realm. The government’s targets for protecting freshwater ecosystems, the committee claims, would deliver an aesthetic value of about £700m. The enhanced wildlife value of well-managed semi-natural grasslands is £40m. An appropriate disclaimer would be: these figures are rubbish, but we’re printing them anyway.
I can understand the temptation. I can see how a financial case might be heeded by people who otherwise take no interest. But it’s not just that the output is mostly gibberish. More important, like the offsetting of ancient woodland, it re-frames the urge to protect nature – an urge that springs from wonder and delight – as something completely different.
In his interview with the Guardian a few weeks ago, George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist who has done so much to explain why progressive parties keep losing elections they should win, explained that attempts to monetise nature are a classic example of people trying to do the right thing without understanding frames: the mental structures that shape the way we perceive the world.
As Lakoff points out, you cannot win an argument unless you expound your own values and re-frame the issue around them. If you adopt the language and values of your opponents “you lose because you are reinforcing their frame”. Costing nature tells us that it possesses no inherent value; that it is worthy of protection only when it performs services for us; that it is replaceable. You demoralise and alienate those who love the natural world while reinforcing the values of those who don’t.
To expect the committee’s phoney figures to swing the argument is worse than naive in a world in which cost-benefit analyses are systematically rigged. For instance, the financial case for new roads in the United Kingdom, shaky at the best of times, falls apart if you attach almost any value to the rise in greenhouse gases they cause. Case closed? No: the government now insists, in its draft national policy statement, that climate change cannot be taken into account when deciding whether or not a road is built.
Do you believe that people prepared to cheat to this extent would stop a scheme because one of the government’s committees has attached a voodoo value to a piece of woodland? It’s more likely that the accounting exercise would be used as a weapon by the developers. The woods are worth £x, but by pure chance the road turns out to be worth £x +1. Beauty, tranquillity, history, place, particularity? Sorry, they’ve already been costed and incorporated into x – end of discussion. The strongest arguments that opponents can deploy – arguments based on values – cannot be heard.
This is why the government set up the Natural Capital Committee. This is why it promotes biodiversity offsets, even for ancient woodland. It is re-framing the issue. Those who believe they can protect nature by adopting this frame are stepping into a trap their opponents have set.