We get a very bad press about our treatment of the environment, but not all of it is deserved. Perhaps it is time to begin to accentuate the positive aspects of the human ecological footprint.
Again and again, the message goes out from Green advocates that we are the bad guys and gals and that nature, left to itself, would do a much better job of managing the earth’s ecosystems.
The human mark on the landscape is thus often thought of only as a wound or a scar: the toxic dump in the Wicklow hills, the ugly casinos in the Nevada desert, the plastic detritus along a pristine tropical beach.
But this is not the whole story: in fact, until we lost the run of ourselves a couple of centuries back, our impact on the landscape was often a lot more beneficial than we now remember. And it could be again, if only we could get a clearer focus on what it is we need, and what it is we want, from life on earth.
Think of the Mediterranean: there is hardly a square centimetre in that whole region that has not been altered, often many times over, by the hand of man or woman. And until recently, the changes we made were not always for the worse
Forget the Costa del Development, just for a minute and drive (or, better still, walk) through the Alentejo region of Portugal or cross the invisible border to the Spanish province of Caceres. At this time of year especially you could be forgiven for thinking you had died and gone to a natural paradise.
Broad meadows sparkle with carpets of wildflowers. Cork oaks and evergreen oaks stud the plains, stretching out to horizons as infinite as an east African savanna’s. The trees provide welcome shade for you and the occasional family of wild boars, but they never obstruct your progress.
A patch of rocks on a meandering stream breaks up and swims away as you approach. Terrapins, freshwater turtles, seem almost as common here as the mud they bask on.
If it is early morning or early evening, the trees, grass and sky are teeming with singing birds. Many of them have vivid, exotic plumage — iridescent azures, golds, greens and scarlets.
Come midday, a dozen species of birds of prey — eagles, kites, buzzards, falcons, vultures — will be patrolling the rising currents of warm air. You can judge the wealth of an ecosystem by the number and variety of top predators it can support. This one is obviously blue chip.
Paradise it may be, but if we look at it a little more closely we will find that what lies spread out before us is not the unaided work of nature — unless we relax a bit about our separateness from the rest of the world and count ourselves as one more species produced by evolution, albeit a highly influential one.
This classic Mediterranean landscape, known locally as dehesa or montado, has been sculpted over many centuries by farmers. They laboriously cleared — partially — millions of hectares of oak forests, opening up great spaces between individual trees.
This made it easy to harvest the cork oak’s bark, but also created excellent pasture for livestock, especially the Iberian pigs which, fattened on the evergreen oak’s acorns, produced the best ham in Europe.
And in the process, this agricultural system enriched the diversity of the ecosystem. The dehesa is home to a much greater variety of plants, mammals, birds and reptiles than could be supported by an endless oak forest with a closed canopy. This was not the farmers’ intention, but there is no doubt nature here has been enhanced, not defaced, by human intervention.
Something very similar is true of Ireland, if we take a long and broad view of the history of the island since mankind first showed up here. The standard narrative, exemplified by that lovely lament, Cill Chais, shows an admirable concern for sustainability, but in doing so it misses an important point.
“Now what will we do for timber,” asks the poet in the famous first line, translated here by Thomas Kinsella, “with the last of the woods laid low?”
Certainly, no one should be complacent about the massive destruction of our ancient forests, reduced to a few remnants in Kerry, Wicklow and a handful of other sites.
But let’s try and imagine, for a moment, that no deforestation had ever taken place here. How would nature be doing today if we had never cut down a single oak tree and a squirrel could still travel, as the saying goes, from Donegal to Bantry without touching the ground?
Those plants, animals and birds that thrive in forest systems would do very well, to be sure, but those that need bogland, meadow, hedgerow and wetland would be in big trouble, where they could exist at all.
The reality is that the patchwork and mosaic landscapes created by traditional agriculture are good for biodiversity. They offer opportunities for a great variety of species to find niches to flourish in.
And — particularly crucial in our times — they provide the resilience to respond flexibly to changes in climate, where a landscape dominated by a single system is likely to face collapse.
That is why programmes like the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS), where we recognise and pay for the role which farmers can have in maintaining healthy and varied landscapes, are so promising. And this is not just because these landscapes are pretty or attract birdwatchers and botanists with tourist dollars.
THESE landscapes provide vital — and still chronically undervalued — ‘ecosystem services’ for all of us, like fresh air, clean water and fertile soil.
All too often, when we think of nature we still think of some kind of wilderness whose defining feature is the absence of any trace of human activity. Yet the more we learn about so-called wilderness regions, the more we find evidence of the human footprint.
The high meadows of Yosemite national park in California were once thought to be nature at its most pristine, God’s handiwork unpolluted by humanity. We know now they were created by regular and deliberate burning by native Americans. They needed to increase the space available to bison and antelope, and they changed whole regions in the process.
In his great book, Landscape and Memory, the historian Simon Schama reminds us that “even the landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product”. And that, he concludes, is “a cause not for guilt and sorrow, but for celebration”.
It is often said we need a shift in perspective if we are to stand a chance of resolving the huge environmental challenges that this century will bring to us. Perhaps the first step is simply to remember that we do not stand outside nature, we are at the heart of it, for good or ill.