Originally published April 2014
Hello everyone! Before we go any further here is a thought to shed some light on this month’s enigmatic title; what is the difference between a preserve and a conserve? More on that later. When flicking through the newspapers it would be easy to believe that we are destroying the natural world at such a rate that the planet is in danger of turning into the kind of apocalyptic, barren rock that filmmakers are so keen to cheer us up with. Given that the art of destruction is something Homo sapiens have perfected over the centuries, this may well come to pass!
In order to try and combat the effects that our prolific and greedy species inflicted upon the world the Conservation movement evolved in the latter half of the 20th Century, though its roots go back a long way. It may be argued that the first people to practice an organised form of wildlife conservation, as opposed to simply living in a sustainable manner, were the Norman kings; albeit for their own pleasure.
The Conqueror’s Forest Law set aside areas of land where the Venison (any large game animal but predominately Red Deer, Fallow Deer, Roe Deer and Wild Boar) and the Vert (the plants that sustained them) were protected. Several laws were laid down in regard to these new Forests (yes the New Forest was one of William’s first) and a whole host of Officers, operating in a bewilderingly complex hierarchical system, were employed to ensure they were adhered to. Foresters were assisted by Wardens, Rangers, Underkeepers, Bow-bearers, and Under-foresters. So the Kings, presumably when they had time, and their pet nobles had their happy hunting grounds and the rest of the population got on with the difficult business of trying to stay out of their way. It was not until the late 18th and 19th Centuries that a slightly less anthropocentric attitude became evident. From the early days of the classical civilisations art had reflected mankind’s love of itself. Sculptures and paintings showed people in every pose imaginable; even Gods and Goddesses were portrayed in human form.
But suddenly Constable and Turner were painting British landscapes, Van Gogh was busy with starry nights and sunflowers and Monet gave us his Water lilies; the natural world was becoming popular! Wordsworth summed up this feeling when he described the Lake District as a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy. Now of course we have the luxury of copious leisure time and the mixed blessings of multi-media communications to enable us to explore the natural world without even leaving our sofa. As a child my love of the environment was taken to a new level by watching wildlife with David Attenborough, plant life with David Bellamy, marine life with Jacque Cousteau and of course recycling with Steptoe.
Unfortunately this, relatively, newfound love of Ma Nature’s bounty coincided with a rapidly increasing population with a newfound love of technology. By the end of the 19th Century we had the ability to reduce large areas of England to a blackened parody of a Turner landscape where the air was foul and the water ways incapable of sustaining life.
In this Black Country, including West Bromwich, Dudley, Darlaston, Bilston and several minor villages, a perpetual twilight reigns during the day, and during the night fires on all sides light up the dark landscape with a fiery glow. The pleasant green of pastures is almost unknown, the streams, in which no fishes swim, are black and unwholesome; the natural dead flat is often broken by high hills of cinders and spoil from the mines; the few trees are stunted and blasted; no birds are to be seen, except a few smoky sparrows; and for miles on miles a black waste spreads around… Samuel Sidney, Rides on Railway (1851)
Come the 20th Century we had honed our destructive qualities to such an extent that we could obliterate huge numbers of our species within a short period of time and take any species who happened to get in the way with us. We had the ability to destroy the world!
To summarise humanity’s relationship with the ecosystem, the earth’s resources have been, and continue to be, manipulated by one species alone, a species that has successfully colonised 80% of the globe. This has led to a dramatic reduction in the abundance of other species and scientists around the world are now talking in terms of the beginning of the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years. Anything that can be recorded in Human time as opposed to Geologic time is, in the scheme of things, happening rapidly. We do not need to study fossil records to know that major groups of animals are disappearing on our watch. Amphibians have been on the decline over the past three decades and Bee populations have reached critical levels throughout much of the world.
So what exactly is the conservation movement trying to achieve? Well it is back to the question at the start of this rather gloomy ramble about the follies of the human race. In fairness the answer is a matter of etymological perspective and culinary accuracy. Followers of Mrs Beeton may argue, depending on which cookbook you refer to, they are one and the same; a way of prolonging the life of fruit by making it into jams, jellies or curds. As a verb there is a marked difference. To preserve is to protect from change whereas to conserve is to utilise something in an economic manner knowing it may well have a finite lifespan. With this in mind, the numerous environmental groups have had a conflict of interests to contend with, us! As already stated we have used and abused the planet’s resources in a manner that no other species has even approached. However it would be impossible to carry out any form of conservation biology without considering the Naked Ape as we have been an integral part of the Earth’s biodiversity for around 200,000 years.
My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and fought and gobbled until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first.
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)
Next month we shall look at how this problem is addressed and just where our little reserve fits into the overall picture. In the meantime, enjoy the Spring and banish any thoughts of apocalyptic science fiction films, for now!
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