A large faux bunny (left) and Boris Johnson.  (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
A large faux bunny (left) and Boris Johnson. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

SocietyDecember 17, 2019

The English care deeply about the environment. But that caring is tied up in colonialism

A large faux bunny (left) and Boris Johnson.  (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
A large faux bunny (left) and Boris Johnson. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

A big win for the Conservative Party ushers in another five years of the same environmental policy for Britain, and England especially, which conceives of the natural world as a collection of resources to incorporate into the economy. Aotearoa is brave enough to go another way, writes Carys Goodwin

In a deafening election, a handful of issues became frenzied battlegrounds. The NHS. Poverty. Xenophobia. Above all, Brexit. One of the problems with a campaign structured around these big, loud issues, however, is that the quiet ones got barely a look in. We saw no in-depth evaluation of the policies that have crept up and been layered atop each other over the course of years – platforms which we’re now locked into for the next five years, with little room to step back and evaluate why these policies exist in the first place.

One of those areas is environmental policy.

Unlike in Aotearoa, Britain’s Conservative government has long had a reputation for being “forward-thinking” when it comes to the environment, anchored in a philosophy of preserving landscapes in the image of a kind of English-countryside identity. Under the leadership of former secretary of state for the department of environment, food and rural affairs, Michael Gove, environmentalism moved up the political agenda; resulting in pieces of work like the 25 Year Environment Plan, which is seen as a landmark commitment to the future of the natural world, and will ensure targets are put in place to increase everything from air quality, to river health, to biodiversity.

Even Brexit has been used as an opportunity. Detaching the UK from much of the policy of the European Union has resulted in the introduction of two significant bills: the Environment Bill and Agricultural Bill. These signal a shift towards being able to quantify and measure the improvement of each individual component of the natural world.

It’s a very specific type of environmentalism. One that reckons with degradation and crisis in terms of economic rationality, and market mechanisms. One where the solutions involve breaking down natural processes into their disparate parts, and then making judgements about how useful these parts are. In truth, it’s incredibly ideological – but as many things in economics are, it tends to be framed as objective. Net gain, net benefit.

When I first moved to England, I found the focus on the natural world, and the willingness to address climate change, refreshing; a stark contrast to an Aotearoa where environmentalism is divided along party lines. Indeed, a lot of progress has been made – at least in terms of ensuring the environment is a significant concern. In Boris Johnson’s acceptance speech, he promised “to make this country the cleanest, greenest on earth, with the most far-reaching environmental programme”.

But it also makes me uncomfortable. The trajectory outlined in government policy, which accelerates the incorporation of natural resources into markets and economic models, has become concrete, barely up for debate. A general acceptance that the environment should be cared for has bypassed a much-needed conversation about how to do that, and why. There’s tinkering around the edges about what should be measured and what the targets should be, but there’s very little evaluation about whether or not that’s how it should actually be done.

I, perhaps too optimistically, hoped the election would be a chance to examine this ideology – breaking past the collective relief that anything has been done at all, and beginning the processes of truly challenging our way forward. But it didn’t.

To really examine where the environment is heading, we have to step back in time for a moment. Because nothing we do now is without history, and without context. And like most aspects of modern-day neoliberalism, the genealogy of western environmental policy can be traced back to colonialism.

A lot of academic research has been devoted to understanding this journey, including my own. It’s a field that reckons with knowledge, and memory, and power, and the dirt beneath our feet. I feel drawn to it – because, at its heart, it tries to understand why we think about the natural world the way we do; about how all the things that make us who we are become imprinted onto landscapes and seascapes.

It does away with the objectivity and rationality that defined 20th century politics and political economy, and delves into what makes us feel. What makes our lungs clench and heart swell and limbs relax when we see the ocean after a long absence from the waves; and how we translate that into policy.

The story it loosely boils down to is this: once upon a time, post-enlightenment thinkers in Western Europe made the assumption that the natural world can be considered, and thought about, as separate from human society; as an object, an “it”.

Then, these Western European powers went forth and conquered, destroyed, and plundered other parts of the world. Of course, the forces at play were varied and complex, but two core ideas are particularly important here:

First, that these imperial powers conquered knowledge as well as people and places – enshrining their way of thinking, and demarcating non-western knowledge and understanding as less important, less valid. The Western man represented his way of thinking as inherent, and the only one that mattered; dismissing others as particularistic, not universal.

Second, that thinking about nature as an inert object, and separate from people, formed the basis of imperial environmental policy and management. Nature became natural resources, quantified into the monetary value you can gain from using them, and destroyed in the name of profit. All other ways of considering the environment – like as part of who we are, and as inseparable from society, were crushed.

Fast forward into the present day, and we’ve realised that we’ve exploited the natural world to its breaking point. But while we’re starting to reckon with errors like only valuing trees for timber, we’ve yet to collectively reckon with something much more important: that the thinking that got us here in the first place was never inherent.

For Aotearoa, this conclusion isn’t surprising or new. We have long had discussions about the impacts of colonialism on who we are as a country, and on how everything from healthcare to the legal system is built on particular sets of Western European knowledge. There’s bitterness, pain, and anger at the forefront, which is where it should be if we’re ever going to truly reckon with our national identity.

But in Westminster policy, there’s nothing of the sort. Instead, these ideas have endured – becoming just as central in finding solutions as it was in creating problems.

So, what do these policies look like? Essentially, they’re about tearing apart the natural world into “ecosystem services”, which describe the functions that the environment “performs” for us. There are provisioning services, like food or raw resources; and regulating services, like carbon sequestration or water purification; and even cultural services, like recreation.

And then, once you are able to understand these services, you’re able to ascribe them an economic value. In British policy thinking, an idea called “natural capital” is in its prime. Natural capital accounting allows you to calculate how much monetary value a healthy environment can add, such that you can more accurately represent the costs and benefits of whatever it is you’re doing – like picking options for a major infrastructure project. Further, by accounting for the natural capital you currently have, you’re better able to quantify improvement to the environment.

Dieter Helm, a prolific economist who’s particularly passionate about natural capital, describes it as “all about assets – the assets nature provides us with for free; it forces us to see the environment as a (or indeed the) key input into the economy – ending the apartheid between economic growth and protecting and enhancing the environment; and by focussing on capital maintenance, it makes a clear distinction between renewable and non-renewable assets.”

These ideas form the basis of the 25 Year Environment Plan, the Environment Bill, and the Agricultural Bill – encapsulated in the idea of environmental or biodiversity net gain. Which means that soon, they’ll be enshrined in legislation, hurtling us towards an economic valuation-style way of quantifying restoration. It’s all about externalities, costs and benefits, appraisal, markets, and the god-awful phrase “natural infrastructure”.

People who’ve followed international climate change will find this rhetoric familiar. They’ve been thrown into sharp relief throughout the most recent climate negotiations, and the opposition to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which set up a global carbon market. The idea is that countries ought to be able to make up for their polluting follies by trading carbon units, removing part of the impetus for reducing pollution in the first place. It’s all about net gain and net zero.

Therein also lies the problem with the ideology behind natural capital and UK government environmental policy. A focus on net gain and net benefit erases what actually happens to places where the natural world is being altered in favour of trade-offs. It’s the same style of economic rationality that caused the climate and environmental crisis, and I find little reason to believe it will succeed in solving it.

More importantly, it rarely considers people. Or, more accurately, the thoughts and opinions who aren’t white, aren’t wealthy, aren’t the Western European man.

Earlier in this essay, I said I felt drawn to my field of academic research because it tries to understand why we think about the natural world the way that we do. It’s about knowledge, and memory, and power. It’s personal, because as long as I’ve been working on climate change and environment I’ve had to reckon with the idea that the way I think and feel has been demarcated as particularistic because I’m a young woman.

And that says nothing for the other intersections that’ve been shunted out the way by those in power – like race, class and geography. Who we are intimately shapes how we see the world.

No, it’s more than that. It’s the foundation on which we create our own worlds.

In England, the people who’re heard on environmental issues have been the same for generations – those who’ve been in power for hundreds of years, and who decided their way of seeing the world wasn’t particular, but inherent. Those who decided the natural world should be considered an object, an “it”, and who’ve never truly stepped back and considered if that might be the source of our problems.

The crux of it is that, essentially, Britain is trying to fix the largest issues the world will ever face with more of the same ideology that got us here in the first place; distancing people from nature and trying to quantify and commodify everything it is and means for us. Using the natural capital approach, even the personal, emotional connection you have with a river that’s drenched in nostalgic, irreplaceable memories of your childhood is considered a cultural service.

This means environmental policy doesn’t take into account the people who live in the places that are changing. The people who feel for these places; the people who aren’t middle class, middle aged, white, and who don’t think of the economy as a religion; the people who are suffering and will suffer from droughts and floods as a result of what happens when things go wrong; and the people like me, who have grief seeping and settling into their bones because they’re 26 and facing the possibility of a planet commodified and altered and broken beyond repair.

England has yet to confront its colonial past, and the effect it has had on how it thinks, feels and functions. For someone who has grown up in a place where the residues of colonialism on the natural world are discussed at length, and where place is so important, it feels as though history could repeat itself.

The results of the election mean a few truths have been laid bare. Brexit will happen. The left will have to regroup and start again. Electoral reform of the First Past the Post system is sorely needed. Jeremy Corbyn’s dream of a country run for the every-person didn’t resonate enough.

And the current way of thinking about the environment – as a collection of resources, as something to incorporate into the economy – will endure.

But unpicking these ideas and theories offers a possibility of a world run differently. Aotearoa is brave enough to confront them, and to have the conversations that some of us uncomfortable.

Looking into a future where the planet could collapse around us, I think it’s important that England has them, too. To question the policies that have slipped through into law as a result of an election dominated by division, and recognise they’re cut from the same cloth.

Only then, I think, can we truly overcome the crises we’ve created.

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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