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Road to Perdition

June 26, 2020 - 23:54 -- Admin

How did wildlife
groups start collaborating in the destruction of nature?

By George
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 24th June 2020

Out of this
horror comes hope. In the backwash of the pandemic’s first wave, we see the
shingled ruins of the old economy, and the chance to construct a new one. As we
rebuild our economic life, we should do it on green principles, averting a
crisis many times greater than the coronavirus: climate breakdown and the
collapse of our life-support systems.

This means no
more fossil fuel-based infrastructure. Even existing infrastructure, according
to climate scientists, could push us past crucial
thresholds
. It means an end to megaprojects whose main purpose is enriching
construction companies.

Perhaps the
definitive example of such projects in the UK is the Oxford
– Cambridge Arc
. It’s a plan to build a conurbation twice the size of
Birmingham (1 million homes) from Oxford to Cambridge. This is far beyond the
region’s housing demand. Its purpose, government
agencies admit
, is not to meet the need for homes, but “to maximise [the
area’s] economic potential”.

Originally, the
Arc was to be built around an Expressway: a new motorway linking the two
cities. After a furious public backlash, the Expressway, according
to Highways England
(the government agency promoting the project), is now
“paused” while it explores “other potential road projects”. In either case,
there would be a massive expansion of the road network and the traffic it
carries, though air pollution in the region already breaks
legal limits
. The new housing would mean a huge increase in water use.
Already rivers in this area are running
dry
, as demand exceeds supply.

Even before the
pandemic struck, this megalomaniac scheme was in trouble, due to the strength
of public opposition. The pandemic, some of us assumed, would be the death
blow. Why would the government spend money on this grandiose nonsense, when
there are so many other priorities?

But last week, a
new campaign came to the rescue. It has rebranded
the project
“Nature’s Arc”. Apparently, with some adjustments, this massive
exercise in concrete pouring “could show how development can restore nature,
rather than destroy it”. Building up to a million homes, the
new PR blitz tells us
, is “the perfect opportunity to invest in nature,
improve people’s lives and realise the green recovery.” There’s no mention of
traffic, no mention of the Arc’s contribution to air pollution, climate
breakdown, resource consumption or water use. It’s suffused with the kind of
corporate-Maoist exhortations you see in brochures for new estates: “Nature’s
Arc: Be part of it”.

It’s one of the
most outrageous exercises in greenwashing I’ve ever seen. But I haven’t told
you the worst of it. This guff was not published by the government or the
housebuilding companies. It was published by a consortium of wildlife groups:
the RSPB, the Woodland Trust and the region’s two Wildlife Trusts. All of them
once fought the Arc and its associated developments. The two Wildlife Trusts
once mounted
a legal challenge
to the Expressway. This looks to me like a switch from
opposition to collaboration.

There’s a
remarkable, distressing similarity between their campaign and Highways
England’s own PR materials
. The wildlife groups use the same dismal,
instrumental language. They call nature “natural capital”. They rebrand nature
reserves and woodlands as “green
infrastructure
”. They uncritically deploy one of the most controversial
concepts in development planning: “net gain”. This is the principle that
established wildlife habitats destroyed by a project should be replaced by a
greater area of new habitat. It has been used repeatedly as an excuse to
destroy ancient and precious wild places, replacing them with uniform saplings in
plastic guards
. Government newspeak appears to have framed their language
and shaped their thinking.

Both the Wildlife
Trusts in this consortium, in response to my questions, tell me they have
applied for funds from Highways England, for other projects. The boundaries
blur and the objectives mesh, until it seems hard to tell the difference
between protectors and destroyers. But I don’t think this is about money. I
think it’s about power.

The four groups
all tell me that, despite the statements in their press materials, they still
oppose the housing target. They say they want to lay down green principles for
construction in the Arc and ensure it “respects environmental limits”. But by
rebranding the Arc as the potential saviour of nature, I believe they are
playing straight into the government’s hands.

To make matters
worse, none of them consulted the local campaign groups who have been leading
the fight against the Oxford – Cambridge Arc. Deborah Lovatt of the Buckinghamshire Expressway Action Group
tells me she had no idea Nature’s Arc was coming. “When I saw that they were
describing this scale of destruction as ‘a perfect opportunity’, I felt sick.”
They have “completely undermined community campaigns”. This is ironic, as one
of the many complaints against the government’s proposal is the lack of public
consultation.

The bigger and
more established an organisation becomes, the more timid and conformist it
seems to get, until it’s almost indistinguishable from the interests it should
be confronting. In this age of environmental crisis and collapse, of government
lies and corporate power, we need our nature defenders to rise like lions after
slumber. Instead, they queue at the abattoir gate like sedated lambs.

As commercial
propaganda seeps into every corner of public life, trust collapses. No one
knows what or whom to believe. We need campaigning groups that stand on
principle, mobilise their members, use their own words and think their own
thoughts. Instead, they swing in the winds of power.

www.monbiot.com