by Roger Hutchinson

Generation Kill

September 2, 2009 | by Roger Hutchinson

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Generation Kill – Roger Hutchinson


IN FEBRUARY THIS YEAR the adult population of Harris took an auspicious decision. By a majority of more than two to one, they voted in favour of the whole of their island becoming a National Park.

It was a significant ballot not because its result registered the importance of its natural environment to a small Hebridean community, but because it posted their preparedness to delegate authority over the hills, beaches, peat-bogs and machair of Harris to national, outsider conservation organisations.

Some members of the No camp suggested that the people of Harris had been beaten into submission. The island’s population has been falling for decades. Harris has attracted few job-creating developments. Those that have been proposed, from a quarry in the south-east of the island to three community-owned wind turbines in the north, have been routinely opposed by the full range of conservation bodies from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds through Friends of the Earth, the Ramblers Association Scotland, the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland and of course Scottish Natural Heritage.

Once upon a time the interference of such anti-bodies in the ordinary right of a working Hearach to earn a crust was viewed with annoyance. By early 2009 their irritation had apparently evaporated and been replaced by dull resignation. The Yes campaigners in the National Park ballot half-conceded the suspicions of the No lobby. Harris, agreed the Yeses, is already so thoroughly hamstrung by restrictive environmental designations that we might just as well go the whole hog, become a National Park and try to get something back from the publicity and extra tourism. They’re never going to let us do much more than bird-watch around here anyway, so let’s get paid for bird-watching.

How did we travel, in a few decades of the modern era, from a place where environmentalists were regarded as eccentric but irrelevant and usually only harmful to themselves, to one in which their salaried second generation exercises control over the livelihood and future of large tracts of the country?

In seeking the answers to that question and others we can be glad that the Historiographer Royal has carved out a second career for himself as an environmental historian.

Since his focus shifted in the 1980s from social to natural history, T.C. Smout has published a handful of books on Scotland and its surrounding sea, its earth and (his favourite) its woodlands. Exploring Environmental History is a collection of essays and papers which distil the professor’s latter-day researches and reflections. They are characteristically acute and uncompromising. They also help us to understand how the people of Harris got to where they are in 2009.

It is not new to observe that the first seeds of British ‘environmentalism’ were planted roughly 200 years ago. Before the Romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, mountains – especially Scottish mountains – were popularly regarded not as beautiful objects best adored at sunrise or sunset, but as “monstrous excrescences”, wet, cold and dangerous obstacles upon which it was impossible to grow crops.

Admiration of Highland scenery “among polite and educated southrons”, and of its flora and fauna if not its human inhabitants, grew steadily throughout the nineteenth century. A slow sea-change in popular opinion began to occur. As Smout says, for all of recorded history before the late eighteenth-century attitudes towards regions like the Highlands “had been entirely utilitarian. Woods were cut and planted, ores were mined, land was farmed, seas were fished with no eye except for profit or subsistence”.

The Victorians came to love their wild places as recreational sites. As far north as Sutherland and as far west as St Kilda they trooped to shoot, fish, climb, goggle at the natives or simply admire the view. Those natives were of course the very last to alter their utilitarian attitude towards their environment. They could not afford it.

As the shooting and fishing part of the previous paragraph suggests, nineteenth century man and woman may have come to enjoy the mountains but they had little serious concern for preserving its living organisms. Quite the opposite. They shot game birds on a heroic scale, shot birds of prey which might also attack game, and shot cormorants and seals for target practice. They introduced herds of deer to ecosystems which had not previously sustained such beasts. They planted Himalayan shrubbery on hillsides in Wester Ross and watched with pleasure as it smothered the landscape. They shipped the locals to New Brunswick.

But the Victorians, most of whom would be astonished to know it, nonetheless laid the foundation stones of the environmentalist edifice at the end of the twentieth century, when a third of the entire Highlands and Islands of Scotland – which comprise most of the land-mass of the country – was “either designated or under consideration for designation” as an area of obligatory conservation.

Nineteenth-century recreational exploitation of the glens and lochs gave way in the twentieth century to what could be termed the ‘Oh, what have we done?’ school of thought. In the 1920s and 1930s people from the Central Belt and further south – people whose grandfathers might happily have bagged a stag or two and a few hundred grouse each August – began to regret the bloodshed and to wonder if the primitive regions north of Stirling might be better served if they were merely walked upon, rather than used as a slaughterhouse of fauna and an experimental laboratory of flora.

It is portentous to note with Professor Smout how much the early conservationist proposals – which chiefly took the form 70 and 80 years ago of advocating some kind of national park – crossed party political boundaries. From the very beginning this was a movement without a single parliamentary home. Socialists liked it because it promised to open up the healthy countryside to the urban poor. Conservatives liked it because it offered to … conserve. Protonationalists like Erskine of Marr liked it because it celebrated the national landscape.

Equally, both left and right of the political spectrum had good reason to be suspicious of conservation. Farming and landowning Tories would not appreciate the idea that the state could manage large acreages better than themselves. Labour politicians were dubious of anything that might hinder development. (Smout suggests convincingly that conservation measures were imposed on the Highlands and Islands more slowly than would have been the case if the Labour Scottish Secretary Tom Johnston had not been nervous about them obstructing his hydro-electricity programme.)

By and large, those agreements and doubts are still present today. But in the intervening years the environmentalists have grown ever more rich and powerful, have slipped over the garden wall, and with soft words and silky promises have had their earthy way with each successive government, whatever its political persuasion.

roger

What do they want? They want, obviously, to conserve. But exactly what they wish to conserve varies from person to person and changes with fashion and the seasons. As Smout points out, it has recently become an environmental commonplace to subtract human beings from the perfect conserved area. This Christian, pre-Darwinian notion of ourselves as being “apart” from the rest of Gaia is the logical destination of the ‘Oh, what have we done?’ school. Humans have intentionally or unintentionally destroyed both habitats and species, the reasoning goes, therefore the environmental Eden cannot possibly offer bed and board to humans, in case they get up and do it all again. We have identified ourselves as the serpents in the garden.

As well as being scientifically flawed – over the aeons humans have not eliminated nearly so many species as has ‘natural’ climatic change, for instance – this is morally dubious. Its ethical weakness is illustrated by a close look at the essential environmentalist attitude which is teased out expertly by Professor Smout. This attitude does not discount all humans. It only really dismisses modern, industrial humans – contrarily, humans such as those who have developed and now hold the attitude themselves – especially if they have guns. Pre-Colombian Native Americans are acceptable, as are Neanderthals and even Cro-Magnon people in Europe, despite the fact that such folk had not a single conservationist cell in their brains.

So the ideal environmental timeframe in the United States is round about the fifteenth century AD, which is at least comprehensible. But in Europe, where some among us hunger for the realisation of such mythologies as the Great Forest of Caledon, it can reach back as far as the Mesolithic. T.C. Smout is surely right to doubt whether it is possible or desirable to recreate a 7000-year-old landscape in 21st century Scotland. By a similar totem, others may wonder if we should attempt to preserve in aspic a late-twentieth century landscape in modern Harris.

The rise of environmentalism closely shadowed, and may be inseparable from, the developed world’s fascination with the Arctic and Antarctic regions of our planet. There surely, where the climate and habitat ensure that vanishingly few humans ever survive, are our enduring Elysian Fields.

People have however managed to scrape a living near to the poles, particularly within the Arctic Circle. In True North Gavin Francis travels among those who are, at least nominally, Arctic Europeans.

They have always been with us, those inhabitants of the frozen tundra. The ancient Greeks knew them as Hyperboreans, or People of the Far North Wind, and assumed them to be a perfect race, living free from famine, disease and war.

We have inherited some of that Homeric opinion. We of the balmy south are inclined to wonder at the incomprehensible fortitude of those who live under Ursa Major. We can occasionally overlook the fact that Inuit and Saami suffer from hunger and sickness and sometimes lose their tempers – that they are human.

Our wonder is mixed with a strange, contorted envy. Homer did not really wish to leave his olive groves for a long and healthy life on the ice-sheet, and nor do we. But our kind has always looked north for the purity of a cold desert. St Brendan the Navigator sailed that way in the sixth century AD, seeking the polar equivalent of the monastic silence of Judea. W.H. Auden saw it as an uncontaminated world, beyond “the Moral Circle”. In our own time Gavin Francis met a family in Iceland whose enthusiasm for their environment reminded him of T.E. Lawrence’s worship of the “so clean” desert sands: “The deserts and the edges of the earth seem to be joined in the hearts of so many of us who live in the cities of the south”.

Francis is good company and a good writer. He focuses more on people than on landscape, which necessarily takes him south of the Arctic Circle for much of his journey. (Only small fragments of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and northern Iceland are technically within the Circle, whose line is defined by the spot where it becomes night for 24 hours in midwinter and light for 24 hours in midsummer.)

It is worth going with this twenty-first century travel writer, this child of the environmentalist age, who skips joyfully between the present and the past with the alacrity of any of his celebrated seniors, but who frets about his carbon footprint in a way that would never have occurred to Richard Burton, Evelyn Waugh or Patrick Leigh Fermor.


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Exploring Environmental History
T.C. Smout
Edinburgh University Press, £60
pp208 ISBN0748635130

True North: Travels in Arctic Europe
Gavin Francis
Polygon, £10.99
pp266 ISBN 1846970784

 

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