Category Archive : Biodiversity

‘Who Owns England?

‘Who Owns England?’ by Guy Shrubsole . William Collins (2019) reviewed by David Bangs (co-leader Brighton Defend Council Housing 2005-7
co-leader Brighton Keep Our Downs Public 1995-6)

The remarks I make below about Guy Shrubsole’s book are sharply critical. They are made, despite that, in a spirit of solidarity, and with a wish for a deeper debate on the issue of property forms and their links with the destruction of nature.

In a context of rising levels of global struggle against poverty and ecocide highlighted in Britain by the Corbyn project, renters’ unions like Acorn, and Extinction Rebellion, Guy Shrubsole’s ‘Who Owns England’ is a hugely welcome review of who-owns-what land. His research group’s work is exemplary, and cracks open many well-kept secrets.

I thoroughly recommend this book as an information source. Buy it.

And yet…I struggled to read it through to the end. Lots of it made me uneasy and frustrated. There was something about it that reminded me of reading Sunday Telegraph magazine articles on aristocrats and their stately homes, or the Sunday Times Rich List…a smidgeon of fascination with that which it hates.

It widens the exposure of landownership pioneered by such as Kevin Cahill, David Cannadine , and – above all – Marion Shoard, but theoretically and programmatically it says little. Its prescriptions are timid indeed, and, though it shouts (and I join in) the slogan “This land is ours!” it actually calls for no more than a modernising and tweaking of the system of property relations which power the extinction event in which we live – its destruction of nature and our countryside, the growth of mega-cities, the destruction of land based labour and of our soils, and the impoverishment of our food.

This programmatic timidity is exemplified by the book’s call for “the resetting of the social contract between the landed and the landless, obliging landowners who might otherwise try to make a quick buck from their land to instead look after it for the long term”. This recycled liberalism grossly under-estimates the cultural power and agility of capital, the ramified links between its patterns of ownership and its dynamic in-built destructive drive for expansion and control. We mustn’t waste time attempting to put lipstick on the face of this monster.

The book’s depressing accommodation to modernising landowners is exemplified by its adulatory remarks on the Knepp rewilding project, which I know well, having walked that countryside for some 55 years. For sure, it is a good place to hear Nightingales, Cuckoos and Turtles, but it was even better birding (as was the whole of that Wealden countryside) when it was a place of mixed small farms, producing the ordinary foods we need, up until the triumphant completion of agri-business’s productivist revolution some half century ago.

Global capitalist agriculture abandoned the moderate soils of the Weald, preferring to turn the countryside of eastern and central England into a barley barons’ desert. On those better soils, and in the land-grabbed poor world the rich now make their profits. In the Weald, the Highlands, and the African national parks they spend their profits.

They ‘safari’ in Africa and they ‘safari’ too at Knepp, in a model of countryside usage which should be inimical to any advocate for nature, for whom the ending of our deep alienation from nature surely must mean returning the natural world to our humdrum living environments, not making nature a place to ‘safari’ out to.

Yet Shrubsole argues that we should ramify this division between nature-on-peripheral-wastes and food-productivism-at-the-centre, when he tells us that “to free up large tracts of land for wild nature, it makes sense to do so in areas of sparse population, and where agricultural productivity is low”. Abandon hope all ye who think that our human home is in a palimpsest with nature!

Shrubsole wastes space in nostalgia for ‘gavelkind’ (partible inheritance) and the end of landowning male primogeniture, like some 18th century rationalist, though the partible division of our woods under the dreaded sign “Woods for Sale” presages the proliferation of “Private Keep Out” signs, and the partible division of one great estate near me has meant the dereliction and destruction of ancient meadows and rides. It is social ownership, socially managed, that we need, not partible land division.

Instead of fiddling with the reintroduction of land covenants (now no longer sought by the National Trust) and nibbling at the edges of the problem (which is what even the end of secrecy, land value tax, and a community right to buy mean) we need an emergency approach – for we live in an extinction emergency, not just a climate emergency. That language of ’emergency’ is something that resonates even with the owning class, for they used such measures during world war two, requisitioning “almost a quarter of the country” – in Shrubsole’s words, though he does not build upon that evidence.

We need demands that relate to current levels of consciousness, but have a dynamic which moves beyond capitalist relations – and the language of “emergency”, “requisition” and “extinction” does resonate with the homeless and the witnesses of nature’s destruction. Councils should be obligated and funded to requisition enough under-occupied dwellings (preferably better quality ones) to meet housing need. Councils and the national state should be obligated to requisition and restore all land where ecosystems are damaged or neglected. Council’s should be obligated to assemble sufficient farmed land that it be cooperatively organised to directly address local food needs for locally grown products (by retail, not wholesale distribution). All open land should be covered by compulsory agri-environmental measures, with democratic oversight, and funding should be means tested. No landowner who can afford to do that work should be paid by us to do it.

And please, let’s forget the language of ‘fair’ prices for public land acquisition. If you do not need the land you own, you do not need market recompense for losing it.

After all, the earth is a common treasury, as Gerard Winstanley said.

UN Report warns of catastrophic biodiversity crisis.

We as human beings — homo sapiens – have only been on this planet for 200,000 years, which is a blip in its 4.5-billion-year history. Yet we have had a far greater impact on its ecology and ecosystems systems than any other species, writes Alan Thornett. Moreover, it continues apace. Around the globe, we continue to cut down the forests, use too much water from rivers, pollute the land, choke our oceans with plastic, destroy habitats, and push other species into to extinction at an ever increasing rate.

It is this disastrous situation that is addressed by a new Report published in Paris on May 6th 2019 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), entitled Nature’s Dangerous Decline; ‘unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates Accelerating.

The Report is the most comprehensive ever completed. It is the first intergovernmental Report of its kind and builds on the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, introducing innovative ways of evaluating evidence. It was compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the Report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature. It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades.

Based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources, the Report also draws, for the first time ever at this scale, on indigenous and local knowledge, particularly addressing issues relevant to Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. It puts it this way:

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina), who co-chaired the Assessment with Prof. Josef Settele (Germany) and Prof. Eduardo S. Brondízio (Brazil and USA). The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”

The Reports central massage is that disastrous as climate change is, with its melting ice sheets, rising sea level, and expanding deserts, and extreme weather events, the biodiversity crisis poses an equally catastrophic threat to the life support systems of the planet. It confirms, once again, that what we are witnessing during our life-times is the greatest extinction event since the event that brought about the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

It puts it this way: ‘Despite the profound threat of biodiversity loss, it is climate change that has long been considered the most pressing environmental concern. That changed this week in Paris, when representatives from 130 nations approved the most comprehensive assessment of global biodiversity ever undertaken.’

We have entered, the report stresses, an era of rapidly accelerating species extinction, and are facing the irreversible loss of plant and animal species, habitats and vital crops, while coming face to face with the horrific impacts of global climate change’. It goes on: ‘One million species are currently threatened with extinction and we are undermining the entire natural infrastructure on which our modern world depends.’

The number of wild mammals on the planet has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – the vast majority as a result of human impact.

In his review of the Report the Guardian environment editor, Jonathan Watts, points out that two in every five amphibian species are at risk of extinction, as are one-third of reef-forming corals, while other marine animals by down by close to one-third. The picture for insects – which are crucial to plant pollination – is less clear, but conservative estimates suggest at least one in 10 are threatened with extinction and, in some regions, populations have crashed. In economic terms, the losses are jaw-dropping. Pollinator loss has put up to $577bn (£440bn) of crop output at risk, while land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of global land. The knock-on impacts on humankind, he says, including freshwater shortages and climate instability, are already ominous.

He quotes Sir Robert Watson, the chair of IPBES, as saying: “The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. “We have lost time. We must act now.”

The Report tells us that whilst we still have time to do something about it, it won’t be easy. It will require massive changes, from removing subsidies that lead to the destruction of nature and future warming of the Earth, to enacting laws that encourage the protection of nature; from reducing our growing addiction to fossil-fuel energy and natural resource consumption, to rethinking the definition of a rewarding life. Our current agricultural system is broken.

It builds on the important work that had been carried out by the World Wild-life Fund with their Living Planet Reports. Its 2018 Report warned us that “we are the first generation to have a clear picture of the values of nature and the enormous impact we are having on it. We may also be the last that can act to reverse it”.

It stresses that we simply cannot afford the cost of inaction. Change of the magnitude required will mean a different life for everyone, but the costs of doing nothing will be much higher.

The world, it argues, needs to recognise that loss of biodiversity and human-induced climate change are not only environmental issues, but development, economic, social, security, equity and moral issues as well. The future of humanity depends on action now. If we do not act, our children and all future generations will never forgive us.

Fortunately, important new things are happening in terms of the fightback. Both the humbling global eco-strikes by school children and the inspirational actions by Extinction Rebellion have widened the struggle beyond climate change to embrace, in particular the issue of the extinction of species and the protection of wildlife. These are the movements that can give us confidence that serious change is indeed possible and the silent spring Rachel Carson wrote about so stunningly in the 1960 can still be avoided.