Let’s bring back Britain’s missing rainforests, and create
national parks worthy of the name.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 25th
The forests still burn, but the world now looks away. In both the Amazon basin and the rainforests of Indonesia, the world-scorching inferno rages on, already forgotten by most of the media. Intricate living systems, species that took millions of years to evolve, are being incinerated in moments, then replaced with monocultures. Giant plumes of carbon tip us further into climate breakdown. And we’re not even talking about it.
But underneath the grief and frustration, I
also feel disquiet. We rightly call on other nations to protect their stunning
places. But where are our rainforests? I mean this both metaphorically and
literally. Out of 218 nations, the UK ranks 189th for the
intactness of its living systems. Having
trashed our own wildlife, our excessive demand for meat, animal feed, timber,
minerals and fossil fuels helps lay waste to the rest of the world.
Among our missing ecosystems are rainforests. Rainforests are not confined to the tropics: a good definition is forest wet enough to support epiphytes: plants that grow on other plants. Particularly in the west of Britain, where tiny fragments persist, you can find trees covered in rich growths of a fern called Polypody, mosses and lichens, and flowering plants climbing the lower trunks. Learning that Britain is a rainforest nation astounds us only because we have so little left.
Where we would expect rainforests to grow. Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1470160X16303016
We now know that natural climate solutions – using the mass restoration of nature to draw down carbon from the air – offer, alongside keeping fossil fuels in the ground, perhaps the last remaining chance to prevent more than 1.5°, or even 2°, of global heating. Saving the remaining rainforests and other rich ecosystems, while restoring those we have lost, is not just a nice idea: our lives may depend on it. But in countries like the UK, we urge others to act, while overlooking our own disasters.
Foreigners I meet are often flabbergasted by
the state of our national parks. They see the sheepwrecked deserts and
grousetrashed moors and ask “what are you protecting here?”. In the name of
“cultural heritage” we allow harsh commercial interests, embedded in the modern
economy but dependent on public money, to complete the kind
of ecological cleansing we lament in the Amazon. Sheep
ranching has done for our rainforests what cattle ranching is doing to
Brazil’s. Then we glorify these monocultures – the scoured, treeless hills – as
“wild” and “unspoilt”.
When the International Union for Conservation
of Nature sought to classify our national parks, it had to invent a new
category. Most of the world’s national parks are Category I or II: set aside principally
for nature. But all of ours are Category V: places where, in
practice, business comes first and nature last. Much of the land in our
national parks is systematically burnt. In the northern parks, this destruction
is wreaked by grouse
estates, and in Snowdonia by farmers. But on Dartmoor and
Exmoor, the park
authorities do it themselves, torching
wildlife, roasting the soil, pouring carbon into the skies: everything we
The government’s new Landscapes Review is better than I
expected, but its positive proposals are in no way commensurate with our
ecological and climate crises. It suggests that England’s national parks and
other protected landscapes should “have a renewed
mission to recover and enhance nature … simply sustaining what we have is not
nearly good enough.” But it does not argue that any of our parks should aim for something
better than Category V. Nor does it recommend that burning should cease, or
that farming should withdraw from some places, to allow rainforests and other
rich habitats to recover. Where is the ambition our emergencies demand?
It does suggest more trees, but appears to believe that the only means
of restoring them is planting. We have a national
obsession with tree planting, which is in
danger of becoming as tokenistic as bamboo toothbrushes and cotton tote bags.
In many places, rewilding, or natural regeneration – allowing trees to seed and
spread themselves – is much faster and more effective, and tends to produce
far richer habitats.
All over the country, I see “conservation woodlands” that look nothing
like ecological restoration and everything like commercial forestry: the ground
blasted with glyphosate (a herbicide that kills everything), trees planted in
straight rows, in plastic tree guards attached with cable ties to treated
posts. It looks hideous, it takes decades to begin to resemble a natural forest
and, in remote parts of the nation, it is often the primary cause of plastic litter,
much of which is never recovered. There are no woodland creation grants in this
country supporting natural regeneration: government money is pegged exclusively
to the number of trees planted. This is one of the reasons for the shocking
failure to meet the UK’s targets for new woodlands.
The government should follow the hierarchical
approach suggested by the conservationist Steve Jones. It
should fund natural regeneration wherever possible. Where trees struggle to
establish themselves, it should finance assisted regeneration (clearing
competing vegetation). Only where those options won’t work should it offer
grants for tree planting. But while
nature loves a mess, officialdom abhors one: instead of natural exuberance it
seeks neat industrial rows.
Don’t expect much help from the government.
Michael Gove’s successor as environment secretary, Theresa Villiers, seems
tongue-tied, apparently terrified of offending vested interests. Labour’s
vote for a Green New Deal, with a 2030 deadline
for decarbonisation (20 years before the government’s) is exciting. Now we need
to see its commitments on industrial emissions matched by ambitious proposals
for ecological restoration.
Nor are the big conservation
groups filling the void. Ours is an extraordinary situation: a nation of nature
lovers, obsessed by wildlife programmes, represented by gigantic NGOs, but
apparently incapable of preventing the precipitous decline of wildlife and
habitats. The conservation groups have manifestly failed to translate our love
of nature into action.
They betray their radical
roots. The National Trust arose from the Commons Preservation Society, that tore down fences to return land to the people. Now it allows the
forces it once contested to ride roughshod over its land, allowing trail hunts
and exclusive grouse shoots to erode the sense of national ownership. On its Exmoor estate, in the
resource book it publishes for school teachers, it celebrates burning the land.
The RSPB was founded by women seeking to ban the import of birds’ plumage for
hats – they eventually succeeded. Now, as independent ecologists raise massive
petitions to ban
driven grouse shooting,
the RSPB undermines their campaigns by calling for this devastating practice to be, er, licensed.
Hesitation and appeasement reign.
We should continue to mobilise against the destruction of the world’s great habitats, and its terrifying implications. But the most persuasive argument we can make is to show we mean it, by restoring our own lost wonders.