The Great Blank

I’ve just rediscovered this very funny rant by John Ruskin, speaking in 1853 to the citizens of Edinburgh, about how their architecture was tasteless because they failed to allow themselves to be inspired by nature. You might not agree, but if you compare buildings built in Edinburgh after 1853 to those built before, you’ll see that they took his words to heart.

In your public capacities, as bank directors, and charity overseers, and administrators of this and that other undertaking or institution, you cannot express your feelings at all. You form committees to decide upon the style of the new building, and as you have never been in the habit of trusting to your own taste in such matters, you inquire who is the most celebrated, that is to say, the most employed, architect of the day. And you send for the great Mr. Blank, and the Great Blank sends you a plan of a great long marble box with half-a-dozen pillars at one end of it, and the same at the other; and you look at the Great Blank’s great plan in a grave manner, and you dare say it will be very handsome; and you ask the Great Blank what sort of a blank check must be filled up before the great plan can be realized; and you subscribe in a generous “burst of confidence” whatever is wanted; and when it is all done, and the great white marble box is set up in your streets, you contemplate it, not knowing what to make of it exactly, but hoping it is all right; and then there is a dinner given to the Great Blank, and the morning papers say that the new and handsome building, erected by the great Mr. Blank, is one of Mr. Blank’s happiest efforts, and reflects the greatest credit upon the intelligent inhabitants of the city of so-and-so; and the building keeps the rain out as well as another, and you remain in a placid state of impoverished satisfaction therewith; but as for having any real pleasure out of it, you never hoped for such a thing. If you really make up a party of pleasure, and get rid of the forms and fashion of public propriety for an hour or two, where do you go for it? Where do you go to eat strawberries and cream? To Roslin Chapel, I believe; not to the portico of the last-built institution. What do you see your children doing, obeying their own natural and true instincts? What are your daughters drawing upon their cardboard screens as soon as they can use a pencil? Not Parthenon fronts, I think, but the ruins of Melrose Abbey, or Linlithgow Palace, or Lochleven Castle.

The Year of Life

My New Year’s Resolution is to be a biodiversifier. It makes a good twitter hashtag too, look: #biodiversifier.

In 2014 we discovered that world populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish had declined by 52% since 1970. If you haven’t read the WWF Living Planet Report which announced this, you should have a look at it. It’s vitally important.

Sometimes biodiversity or ecosystems and their troubles can seem remote from our real life and concerns. Often they are discussed in scientific or romantic terms which cements this unreality. Yet this is a deep and dangerous misunderstanding. The natural world provides our food, our clothes, our shelter, our medicines. It provides the only available alternatives to mineral building materials and solid fuel. Most importantly, in its very diversity, it provides the robust systems which ensure rivers run, pollution is cleaned, even that the atmosphere stays wrapped around the earth and doesn’t burn off into space as happened on Venus.

We might not like to admit it, but biodiversity would survive just fine without social justice, without feminism or gay rights, without literature or the arts, even without peace (the area around Chernobyl is famously biodiverse). The depressing moral reality is, unless humans can change their relationship to nature, can, as an old book says, “work it and take care of it” instead of exploiting and demolishing it, the best prognosis for biodiversity would be a swift war or plague amongst the rogue species homo sapiens that would cull us sufficiently to allow nature to recover.

So, we must change our relationship to nature. We must do it urgently and profoundly. This does not require great leaps in scientific knowledge. We know a tremendous amount about the natural world, and more importantly we are aware of our ignorance and limits: that nature recovers well when we stop interfering, and ecosystem “experiments” (for example pouring carbon dioxide or CFCs into the atmosphere) often carry vast and unpredictable risks.

We need to become biodiversifiers. By protecting forests and oceans; by better land-management and agriculture; by “green cities” which replace traffic, paving and domestic cats with green roofs, sparrow-filled hedges, insect-buzzing parks and gardens; by strong and immediate measures to curb climate change, we need, person by person, nation by nation, day by day, year on year, to create more biodiversity than we destroy.

We need to question our Romantic and “scientific” attitudes which can hamper strategic action to allow nature to diversify. Giving money to the RSPCA and enjoying country walks, but hating spiders, killing greenfly and using fossil fuel wastefully is not being a biodiversifier. Creating seedbanks or maintaining a firm optimism in human ability to solve problems may be important, but unless they are only sideshows to a main event of allowing biodiversity to flourish, they will not prove to be the intellectual legacy of advanced minds but only the last ravings of self-destructive fools.

52% of nature has gone since 1970. How far can we push the experiment until we watch life on earth collapse? Another 50 years? Another ten? Another two? We face a planetary emergency: but it is one in which are by no means powerless. Every one of us, in fact, can and must be a superhero. In 2015 all our attitudes, our charitable giving, our consuming, our political campaigning, the way we use our homes and gardens, should be directed to restoring nature: to becoming biodiversifiers.

But what about the other issues? Maybe in the process a few of those — injustice, intolerance, poverty, mental health, cancer — will begin to sort themselves out. But one thing I’m sure of: without biodiversity, all the things we presently worry about will be the least of our worries.

So my 2015 New Year Resolution is to be a biodiversifier: to allow ecosystems to flourish more than I damage them, and encourage others to do the same. I can’t measure it, but I know the kinds of places to begin. Here are a few and I hope to add more over the year:

  • Buy organic milk to support insect-friendly agriculture
  • Preserve and plant forests via Woodland Trust and World Land Trust
  • Install the most low-carbon heating system I can in my Highland field centre Blair House
  • Use local and eco-friendly materials in the refurbishment of Blair House
  • Fill the window boxes at my Edinburgh flat with insect-friendly plants
  • I don’t own a car but they are necessary to reach Blair House: set up a “mitigation scheme” for myself and others to donate to an afforestation charity on each journey.
  • Use my political connections to help develop and promote policies to make Edinburgh a “green city”
  • “Fast for the Climate” on the first day of each month, in company with people around the world, to show political leaders my commitment to the need for a strong climate deal in Paris this December (More information about this here)

Rethinking my relationship to nature, committing myself to restoring it, understanding its underpinning importance to all the civilization, religion, prosperity and meaning that we know, makes sense of John Ruskin’s famous but strange statement, “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE”. If we believe that to be true, as surely we must, today is the time not merely to nod approvingly, but to put our backs into it, and act accordingly.

Eleanor M Harris is on twitter @eleanormharris. If you’re on twitter please get in touch, and make use of #biodiversifier.