We need to talk about Kevin

15

The other day I saw the start of one of the Kevin McCloud lifestyle programs “Grand Designs” (a British series which follows people building unusual/interesting houses). I was struck by his opening scene. The camera ran a close-up on his face as he walked along. He said “What do you do in Britain if you want to build a house in the wilderness?” As he spoke the camera panned back to show that he was walking across a paddock, one of hundreds of acres of such paddocks as far as you could see, of pasture for sheep (which were, lambs at foot, dotted across the grass)! It would have been impossible to find a scene less “wildernessy”.

So pause for a moment, as I did, to absorb this incongruity. He isn’t a stupid man, Mr McCloud, so what on earth did he mean? Well, what he meant was that “wilderness” is anything that isn’t in a city. It’s like the ancient Greek sense of “Barbarians” meaning anyone who wasn’t Greek living in a Greek City State (a concept shared with most other cultures, everywhere from England, to China, to Aboriginal Australia, but I digress.

Let’s look at another, related, misused word, “pristine”. Once it meant what “wilderness” once meant – an environment unmodified by humans. Then it was turned on its head, by advertising agencies who decided it had a nice sound, to use, essentially, for a landscape with grass. As in a pristine golf course, a pristine housing development, a pristine farm (see the overlap with McCloud). But then it developed to pristine beaches (with added sand, breakwaters, carefully manicured by sand graders), pristine tropical islands (totally turned into tourist resorts) pristine snow resorts (trees and boulders removed from runs, ski lodges added, artificial snow created by machines), and so on. In this most recent sense it means something like “picturesque” “chocolate boxy” “place that photographs well” or, most simply “special offer, wouldn’t you love to have a holiday here?” Or, in a general sense, places that aren’t the city. Which brings us back neatly to Mr McCloud and his sheep paddock.

In the old days in Britain “wilderness” meant basically “places where we haven’t cut the trees down yet”. They were, consequently, dangerous, and might hide wolves, bears, brigands, ghosts, evil spirits and so on. A farm definitely wasn’t wilderness, but what lay beyond its fence line was.

The Romantics adopted this kind of definition, but turned it into a positive (following the original lead, in a different sense, of Rousseau). Wilderness was where we could get back in touch with nature, get away from the artificiality, indeed evils, of the city, where we were never meant to be, and get back to our roots. Now, instead of being feared, wild places of mountain or swamp or forest were celebrated in art and literature. People went hiking in them, climbed mountains, communed where the wild things were.

And then began creating “wilderness” on their estates – artificial waterfalls, clumps of trees, piles of rocks, fake ruins of temples, and so on. You could visit “wilderness” without the bother of travelling. And paintings, by Constable for example, treated as a single landscape the trees and rivers as well as the farm cottages or watermills or labourers in a field. At the same time the population was on the move as those same labourers tossed it in for more lucrative and perhaps easier work in factories and moved their families into town. The countryside was where they had escaped from, the primitive life, and they had no interest in it. If you needed a holiday from town then you travelled to a seaside resort which was a different kind of town, with a “pristine” beach, but with all the comforts of home. All views, and behaviour, which were exported to Australia with the first convicts and settlers.

So we come, gradually, to McCloud’s definition. Both symbolically, and actually, civilised life is in the city, and all that lies beyond is untamed, and rather threatening and uncomfortable, wilderness. Which people never really see, never want to see. Holidays still involve travel to artificial resorts (either in Australia, say the Gold Coast, or more often these days, in places like Thailand or Bali), the more “pristine” the better. They don’t involve contact with actual wilderness.

Does it matter? Of course it does. If wilderness is an undifferentiated “other” world out there beyond the outer suburbs, and a golf course or resort are “pristine”, then efforts at conservation will make no sense to you. Conversely nonsense like “farmers are the only true conservationists” or “miners restore the environment after mining” or “logging is good for forests” or “you got to choose between frogs and people” will seem to make perfect sense.

If you have no idea that what are trendily called “ecosystem services” these days – clean air, water, pest control, soil conservation – can only be provided by intact functioning ecosystems (wilderness), then you will see no problem in losing them. When populist politicians from Left or Right, or unionists, or big business, call for the felling of forests, the trawling of oceans, the complete use of river water for irrigation, the construction of huge open cut mines, the opening up of the North, shooting or grazing in forests, removal of marine reserves, the culling of bats or crocodiles, the public, in blissful ignorance, will applaud and vote accordingly.

Until the public understands that farmland is an environment little less degraded than cities and suburbs, and that actual functioning wilderness is consequently only in tiny, rapidly disappearing, areas, which are being woodchipped, mined, cleared, developed as I write these words, then there is no hope of trying to develop a public, and therefore political, conservation ethos.

Perhaps I could start with Kevin McCloud. Get him to make a program.

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15 comments on “We need to talk about Kevin

  1. A very thoughtful piece. The headline will guarantee people read it :). I agree with everything you say and will reblog.

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  2. Reblogged this on 8degreesoflatitude and commented:
    Here’s a very thoughtful piece that deserves to be read.

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  3. Mindy says:

    If the presumptive new Federal member gets in here, wilderness will be even more under threat. Apparently he thinks we should just get rid of this environmental rubbish.

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  4. I guess it is the right of people, especially the next generation, to redefine words and concepts.

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  5. Joy Cooper says:

    An enlightening blog, David. The current unthinking use of the beautiful word pristine by the lazy media as in “the pristine beaches of Coffs Harbour” really sets my teeth on edge.

    We are lucky in that we do live very close to truly pristine areas being surrounded on land by two National Parks with the Pacific Ocean out front. Now, of course, both parks won’t be so pristine after Barry O’Farrell’s shooters trample through them shooting at anything that moves.

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  6. roshart1 says:

    Heartfelt applause for this piece, David. Thanks – again.

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  7. Team Oyeniyi says:

    Glad I stopped by. Very good article and so very true.

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  8. fred says:

    We are revegetating, to the best of our ability anyway, what was and unfortunately still is, highly degraded ex-mallee scrub.
    In the last nearly 20 years we have laboriously hand planted more than 15,000 local native trees and a 1000 or more have survived and are maturing -slowly – we will never see them as full adults..
    Its some progress.
    Most people who visit us appreciate our efforts [most have helped in one way or the other] and get a sense of well being just from the partial ‘wilderness’ we have managed to enhance slightly but significantly.

    But some just don’t get it.
    The concept of re-creation and rehab I mean.

    Why not run sheep or cattle and make some money?
    Why don’t you plant lawn in the front of the house?
    I’ve got an idea as to how you can make money [lots of] from this place.
    You could grow Tasmanian Blue Gums for firewood.
    Yes, Proteas are natives.

    And then there are the irrigators.
    Sigh.

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    • f1retree says:

      A lot of people are habituated to behaviour, a world view or whatever you want to call it that excludes anything to do with conservation or the why’s of conservation. Not enough people ask the right questions, their curiosity has been nipped in the bud by the media, their mates, politicians – a decline in wisdom of the world-view kind.
      When enough people are doing what you are doing Fred then there might be less ignorance and more understanding, esp if you can show the benefits of what you and others are trying to achieve.

      This is an oblique item from the Guardian.
      New study reveals how co-operatives boost the local economy: http://www.guardian.co.uk/social-enterprise-partner-zone-the-co-operative/study-co-operative-boost-local-economy?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

      15,000 trees, thats an enormous effort.
      PS, do you have a website?

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      • fred says:

        Ta f1retree
        No website [I'm barely competent at typing this].

        Its actually a fair bit more than 15000. In the last 6 years or so we have tried to plant a total of a couple of thousand but every year, except last year when we planted nothing, has been a drought here and only 1 or 2, we think, of the couple of thousand trees has survived.
        We can’t grow our our seedlings any more cos our water supply, a Murray wetland, went dry for 3 years thanks to our friends the irrigators. It came back 2 years ago but is disappearing again. We have only had 4.5 mm of rain in the last 3 months here so the local irrigators are in the process of draining the river and associated wetlands – again.
        Its not all doom and gloom however, in fact looking at the old photos of the place and comparing to now is a real delight.
        We get lots of visitors, friend and rellies, blow ins of various sorts and nearly all love the place. Several use the place for emotional repair from city life, a night or 2 here, with the aid of some red, does wonders for the soul [oops]. People need nature.
        All are welcome.

        One interesting impact has been the reaction of the locals, this is diehard conservative country but … they are fully supportive and appreciative of what we do – a bit of compartmentalising going on but nevertheless positive feedback

        And some good news, we just returned from shopping and saw a Rainbow Bee-eater here. We used to get them every year migrating from up the Top End in summer but when the lagoon went they didn’t arrive for 4-5 years.
        Maybe they’re back.

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        • David Horton says:

          Bravo Fred. Jolly well done.

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        • f1retree says:

          Hi Fred, just had a thought, (oh-oh another one), instead of a website you could start a blog, like David’s, its a bit easier and its free. Then maybe interested people could see what you’re up to with your plantings, there’s nothing like a bit of networking to get interest up and get support.
          David and I both use the blog service WordPress.
          I’m a writer and I’ve only just started mine, David’s an old hand.
          Just a thought …
          A glass of red sounds nice, I’m having one now.

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  9. paul walter says:

    I see you “get” ecology, the notion of “cornucopia” explains it.
    It proposes that people have learned to regard life as cornucopia, an endlessly flowing and infinite bounty dumped here by an admiring god just to fulfill our whims.
    Chop down a forest and you can grow tobacco there, till the rain washes away the topsoil, for example.
    What s more, you can charge people, “a dollar and a half just to see ‘em (trees) in a tree-museum, so there is the add-on benefit for today’s economy,even if it is on a “never-never” intended for future generations to clean up.
    It’s what you get with the waste catch on mega trawlers where ninety percent of what’s caught is carelessly thrown back into a dying sea, because one or two species are now so rare that it’s worth a buck to trawl for them.
    Cornucopia is the new denialism, in the end. We have known for some time that the earth’s resources are not infinite and there is a price to pay for the waste riddled West and religiously encouraged over-population elsewhere to be attended to off a rapidly declining resource base.
    The response from politicians and media suggests hows how ignorant or wilfully disregarding of reality the modern Rulers of the Universe are.
    Like the miser clutching the gold bar they are drawn to the nether regions and we are to be dragged down with them- all for a few million more in executive bonuses or a new Citation jet for some Mitt Romney, Murdoch or Rinehart type.
    We look to media, starved for news of the real world and all we get is a beat up about an actresses nipples poking through a dress at the oscars.
    Such is the arrogance and lunacy of the age.

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  10. Declan Allison says:

    The UK is fairly small with a high population density. There is little, if any, wilderness left. The highlands of Scotland are about as close as you get, and even there you are never more than a few hours walk from a settlement. Where I live, in Northern Ireland, there’s even less. We have a very permissive planning regime resulting in a bungalow in every field. The Environment Minister has approved plans to build a huge golf course with hotel, holiday homes, bar, restaurant, and carpark, within the landscape setting of the Giant’s Causeway, our only World Heritage Site. I this context, any patch of green seems like wilderness.

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    • paul walter says:

      Ohhh Declan, that is so familiar. He reads Aussie despair as we read Irish despair.
      Its all slash and burn, the more aggressive for the denial driving it and the corrupting of politics globally and within nation and regions.

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