Custodians of our Common Home: a new approach to Britain’s wildlife policy after Brexit
Post-Brexit Britain has the chance to redefine her wildlife policy away from state control and market commodification towards new forms of custodianship for the common good.
During the forty-year period of membership in the EEC and later the EU, the dominant approach to wildlife has combined ever-greater bureaucratic regulation aimed at protection with the progressive introduction of market mechanisms into hitherto untouched areas. This approach reflects the fusion of state and market forces that underpins the European project since the creation of the Single Market in 1986. It is important to recognise that EU wildlife policy privileges top-down protection over self-management, which has helped to conserve biodiversity but also added a regulatory burden and costs. For example, the EU Habitats Directive increases the costs of housing building that is so desperately needed across the country.
However, it is equally important to realise that the alternative to state regulation is not more market freedom. One danger with opening up wildlife to the forces of capital is that they consider the natural world to be a commodity, just like the state views it as an administrative unit. This denies the intrinsic value of nature, its beauty and the good it embodies and represents for people.
Another danger is that a market-driven approach seeks to maximise either individual liberty or aggregate utility (such as economic growth) at the expense of the common good. Far from being utopian and therefore hopelessly vague, the common good is about blending individual fulfilment with mutual flourishing – the good of all as they are in their families, communities and workplaces.
A third danger with a market-driven approach to wildlife is that it promotes vice over virtue – greed, selfish, distrust of others and a tendency brutally to exploit the environment.
Virtue, by contrast, is about common benefit, generosity, a measure of trust and prudent action. To invoke virtue is not some pious demand for more morality in public life. Rather, it is to go with the grain of our humanity – our capacity to discover and pursue the goods that the internal to human activities – being a good parent, friend or farmer. As the eighteenth-century Neapolitan thinker Antontio Genovesi wrote in his lectures on civil economy, “virtue is not an invention of philosophers but instead a consequence of the nature of the world”.
Connected with the principles of virtue and the common good are cognate concepts of reciprocity, relationships and self-rule. Reciprocity is about the balancing of interests and power in pursuit of shared prosperity. Relationships are more fundamental than economic transactions or bureaucratic regulation; they also give meaning to people as social beings who are constituted by an inheritance of institutions and relationships and who have the capacity to honour old ones and forge new ones. Self-rule is the ability to relate one’s needs and interests to those of others and to pursue mutual benefit based on coordination and cooperation.
Reciprocity, relationships and self-rule operate best through decentralised civic institutions that uphold particular goods in the sense of preserving them by applying inherited knowledge and providing restraints on vice through internal institutional incentives and rewards – not external prohibitions (as with EU regulations).
How does this relate to the future of Britain’s wildlife post-Brexit? Based on these principles, we need to remember that it is the countryside and the organic relation of the city to the countryside, which most guarantees our humanity. The countryside is basic in terms of food provision, ecology and our sense of beauty. It remains, therefore, the focus of prime concern as to how we maintain our human creativity and sustainable economic innovation alongside our sense of wonder and purposive place within reality.
A failure to comprehend the primacy of the land threatens the integrity of cities most of all, because a false primacy of urban space has encouraged an over-concentration of population and the rise of the sprawling mega-city (symbolised in London by the dwarfing of the sublime spires of the people’s churches by the monstrously vulgar temples to Mammon), which inevitably destroys its real function as the fulcrum of trade, craft and artistic flourishing as well as democratic debate. Instead, the mega-city has often become a site for debased modes of mass production, monopolistic and self-serving financial services, middle-brow culture often masquerading as the avant-garde, and media diversion of our attention from the real issues of human existence towards a trivial politicisation of personal life.
The intellectual failure to understand our place within nature has also a physical equivalent. The more that land is enclosed, the more also local ecologies are destroyed. But in the end, the global ecology itself depends upon the various local ecologies, and their decline threatens the very conditions for human and animal life. Britain, like other advanced economies, needs to develop new lighter and green technologies that can bring to life remote, rural areas – while cities can recover their functions as centres of human meeting and concentrations of technological innovation.
The pursuit of human flourishing suggests that technology should be used to extend rather than to displace individual human creativity, which is inextricably intertwined with our common home in nature. For example, Britain needs to renew the best of its common law traditions by strengthening corporate bodies that can act as custodians of our shared natural habit such as meadows, wetlands and forests. Rather than national state control or private management, the common land should be entrusted even more than it is already to democratically self-governed intermediary institutions that bring together farmers, residents, local government and businesses.
Second, Britain would benefit from a new approach to land ownership with a better balance between rights and duties. Land owned for pure prestige or mere private enjoyment should be heavily taxed, compared to land being put to good uses of all kinds that benefit the community. The intention is not to expropriate existing landowners but rather to make sure that those who control large estates do not treat them as commodities but rather as a relational good entrusted to them for the benefit of others. The framing of any such measures would attempt to discriminate between genuinely rooted, responsible and ecologically and socially beneficial owners on the one hand, and distant, irresponsible and highly wealthy owners, on the other.
The third example is the need to blend craft with automatic processes in order to achieve outcomes that are economically and ecologically more viable – better quality and a more careful use of resources. This is most abundantly true with respect to wildlife management and agriculture, where food quality and environmental sustainability benefit from a more labour-intensive approach that resorts less to drastic and rapid ‘solutions’ such as crop-spraying. On the basis of a wider distribution of property, Britain needs to reinforce intensive small-scale farming requiring crop rotation, common grazing, a much greater number of agricultural workers and many practices of mutual assistance.
Fourth, there is a case for is local owning and organising of energy companies, geared whenever possible towards renewables, in order to undercut giant private companies, which would be either mutualised or, if necessary, broken up. Such local economies are more stable and resilient and more productive of excellence and social solidarity. At the same time, their existence can drastically reduce global transport costs, which are only ‘efficient’ in terms of an economistic search to reduce the price of labour.
These things would increase the appeal of staying on the land in order to achieve a more stable agriculture and to sustain that rural beauty which is ultimately our cultural lifeblood. All in all, this beneficial circulation would allow the emergence of a good natural and social ecology: a fine balance of interaction between person and person and between person and nature.
Today it is possible to restore the primacy of land and craft in an extended ecological sense of a primacy of nature as a whole, and of humanity taken as a part of nature, albeit as custodians who have a duty to conserve the common home of our shared natural world. The aim is to guard against further bureaucratic control and market commodification that lead to a loss of meaning and purpose.
Dr Adrian Pabst
Dr Adrian Pabst is Reader in Politics at the University of Kent. He is the author (together with John Milbank) of The Politics of Virtue: Post-liberalism and the Human Future (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016).