Those who reduce nature to a column of figures play to an agenda that ignores its inherent value – and seeks to destroy it
The Guardian, Monday 21 April 2014
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.