Compensating for loss

markersWe need to think more ecologically about compensating for loss. Much environmental and cultural heritage is being lost but somehow, because it is often virtually reproduced and we’re surrounded by commodities, we feel we are living in an abundance of stuff to entertain and distract us. Also, most people who make decisions that lead to destruction are isolated from the effects of loss – they can simply change their holiday plans from Madagascar to somewhere still untouched. Or people who agree to destroy heritage in the interests of an ideological battle are hardening themselves against that loss by holding out the promise of other future gains.

What if we listen to people who really feel this loss? What does loss mean and what can compensate for it?

This morning I heard a BBCR4 feature about how to compensate the Caribbean descendants for their enslavement and transport to another land. (The slavers had been compensated for loss of business, but not the slaves for their losses of peace, land, freedom and health.) The advocate for reparations, Sir Hilary Beckles, made clear this wasn’t a demand for cash but for dialogue, and recognition of how slavery was still having an impact generations later. He used the word ‘horrendous’ many times, as if the injustice evades words.

Destruction of places continues apace today. Nixiwaka Yawanawa gave an interview on BBC World Service about how the destruction of Amazonian forest impacts on his people. He explained:

“The destruction of our rainforest land is terrible, because the forest is alive. It is our life, and the animals’ life. We don’t separate our existence from it, we are all one body and one being: the plants, water, trees and Yawanawá. When we see harm come to the rainforest, it is as if a part of our own body has been hurt. It feels like an illness that rises up in us and needs to be cured.”

The loss of thriving places, or displacement from home, is a loss of life, soul, peace and the continuity of history. This is impossible to compensate with new places or money.

Less extreme than Caribbean slave legacy and threats to the indigenous Amazonians, urban development in London is also causing losses. There are alarming plans to build towers over the heritage sites of Deptford’s Convoy’s Wharf, including the remnants of John Evelyn’s 17th C garden at Sayes Court. At Elephant & Castle, Southwark Council have enabled developers to demolish Heygate estate, dispersing its community across Greater London and replacing it with more luxurious and commercial buildings. This includes the felling of the Urban Forest at the centre of the estate. There are many plans to compensate, somehow, for these losses with landscaping and artistic programming. But their planning is not taking account of the rhizomatic complexities of place, the slowness of ecological and human connections that build a place. See this piece which describes a proposed major artwork for the site as ‘something akin to a stunt, papering over real life cracks: art as amnesia’ (and which is also very interesting on the rhizomatic dimension).

The theme of loss has intensified today since Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, said in an interview that biodiversity offsetting, planting new trees, would allow for the compensation of the loss of ancient woodlands.

The best response to this is from Mark Diacono, who explained how ancient woodlands should not be part of biodiversity offsetting, or if they have to be, how difficult it is to compensate for the loss. Crucially, you have to account for time lag – the amount of time it takes for replanting to start to deliver similar benefits.

He explains that “If any woodland is to be lost, it should only be lost when compensated for not by a similar area of new plantation but by replacing ALL of the benefits that would be lost.”

And also: “Amongst many things, ancient woodlands give us:

  • highly developed, established ecosystems
  • particular and often rare biodiversity
  • historic value
  • cultural heritage
  • carbon sink
  • fuel
  • aesthetic/sensory value
  • recreational value”

I particularly appreciate that this complex methodology tries to account for cultural heritage and aesthetic value. These are, of course, very difficult to replace. How do you compensate for the many centuries of meaning and experience, accrued both by human and non-human animals, around a particular thriving diverse place?

This is a cultural and not just a technical issue. The Cultural Value initiative is hosting some interesting debates around what cannot be quantified and valued in monetary terms. For example, Simon Ravenscroft has helpfully written about Illich’s concept of ‘disvalue’. “He coined the term to describe a cultural ‘loss’ of a kind “that cannot be gauged in economic terms”. Ravenscroft’s point is that debates about cultural value should not be limited to the remit of the Arts Council, and the kinds of output we think of as art, but that we should recognise the cultural dimension to all areas of policymaking such as housing, transport and the environment.

So, if the cultural is complex and ecological, so is the question of cultural value.

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2 thoughts on “Compensating for loss

  1. I agree. I’ve been reading recently about various approaches to capturing ecosystem services which try to account both a wide range of ‘services’ provided by the environment, including (for example) contributions to the wellbeing of local populations through access to rich and diverse natural environment. The goal of these approaches seems to be to foster a more informed and nuanced discussion around the probable impact of any policy decision. (More informed than we’re currently seeing, I hope.) I wonder whether, if the cultural sector began to get involved in these programmes, it would produce the sorts of discussion / frameworks you have been talking about..?

  2. The cultural sector is beginning to discuss cultural value in these terms, in some networks such as Julie’s Bicycle’s work on the future, a Case for Optimism, Emergence and the Happy Museum. There’s also the work of the Forestry Commission, Canal & River Trust and National Trust in partnering on contemporary arts programmes, where they are thinking together about evaluating impact. Perhaps needs to be more thorough from the environmental perspective, more of a symbiotic approach to thinking about benefits, but it is good that is starting to happen.

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