Landscape and Sustainability

I was delighted that one of the first exercises in this course involved considering and writing about landscape and society. It’s a subject that I’ve developed a tremendous interest in over the last couple of years, particularly in relation to the politics, history and culture of my own home country Scotland.

The landscape is one of the defining images that people associate with Scotland. From Shortbread tins to Hollywood movies, to sumptuous VisitScotland adverts the majestic Scottish countryside is the backdrop against which we choose to present ourselves to the world. The unspoilt beauty of the country promises a haven of tranquillity for those wishing to get away from it all and bask in the glory of nature.

And yet the truth is that the countryside that we like to think of as a beautiful, pristine wilderness is, in fact, and entirely man-made wasteland. Over the course of millennia human development has stripped away most of the original ecology of Scotland and turned it into one of the most heavily managed and controlled landscapes that I know of.

What now appears to be a rugged and barren country was originally covered from coast to coast by the Great Caledonian Forest. Every inch of Scotland was covered in thick deciduous forest that provided a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife that can no longer be found anywhere in the UK. They include bears, wolves and beavers along with Golden Eagles and many other species.

Over time however the Caledonian Forest began disappearing. In the present day only a few small scraps of the original forest remain, scattered in pockets across the country and often the focus of co-ordinated preservation efforts. There are a number of theories as to why the Caledonian Forest vanished, with the principle theories involving a combination of mass deforestation through human activity and potential catastrophic weather events brought about in the past by natural climate change.

One thing is for sure and that is that the loss of the Caledonian Forest had a severely detrimental impact on the original ecology of Scotland. Once the forests were gone the land was exposed to the full force of the North Atlantic weather systems. The combination of severe wind and rain accelerated soil erosion and left behind the blasted and barren landscape that we know today.

That is the geography that has helped to shape the whole way in which Scottish society has developed. Much of the country’s history has revolved around struggles to control the fertile land of the Central Belt and East Coast. For centuries the society of the Highlands revolved around subsistence farming (or crofting as it is known in Scotland) and fishing. In central and eastern Scotland urban development grew up through the creation of Royal Burghs that had charters to carry out international trade. In contrast the Highlands remained a rural society dominated by the clan system.

Originally the Scottish clan system was a social order in which communities were built around large extended families who held land and other natural assets in common ownership. Each clan was headed up by a Chief who nominally ruled in the interests of the whole clan. From the 12th century onwards this began to change as lowland culture in Scotland started to become heavily influenced by the federalist system introduced by the Normans. Highland society began to follow suit and gradually the clan rulers went from being ‘Chiefs’ to becoming ‘Lairds’ – feudal overlords who laid claim to all land rights and who increasingly seized personal ownership of what had formerly been commonly-held land.

This is a system that continues to the present day. The best studies that are available suggest that scarcely 500 owners control 50% of all the privately-owned land in Scotland. Landowners in Scotland continue to hold extensive rights over development and still exercise a large degree of control over communities that inhabit their land. In Scotland the feudal system only officially came to an end in 2004 following the passing of the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Bill in the Scottish Parliament. Reform of land ownership remains an immediate and pressing political concern and it is an issue that has been extensively highlighted in the course of current debates around Scottish Independence.

No matter what shape future land reform may take the history of feudalism has left an indelible mark on the geography, society, culture and history of Scotland. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the legacy of the period known as the Highland Clearances. This was an era that ran from the late 18th to the late 19th century, running concurrently with the Industrial Revolution and forming the main expression of the 2nd Agricultural Revolution in Scotland.

This was an era in which the philosophy of the European Enlightenment was driving the development of both industrial and agricultural capitalism. Applying the principles of agricultural ‘improvement’ the Highland lairds realised that they could make a greater profit from their land by removing the people who had lived there since time immemorial and replacing them with sheep or cattle.

The Highland Clearances were carried out through a combination of carrot and stick. In some cases the landowners did their best to encourage and facilitate their tenants to leave the land and find new opportunities in Canada, America, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the rapidly growing cities and industrial communities of the central belt.

The clearances remain famous however for the far more notorious forced clearances that place in counties such as Sutherland. Here the full force of the police and military was brought to bear in forced evictions that saw families dragged from their homes and forced to watch as those homes were burned to the ground in front of their eyes – occasionally with other family members still inside.

Once the original Gaelic culture of the highlands had been displaced the way was clear for new interpretations of Scottish culture to take their place. The romantic myth that dominates portrayals of Scotland nowadays was almost wholly the invention of this period of history. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decided to start spending their summer holidays at Balmoral they sparked a craze for all things tartan. Enormous shooting estates grew up across the country as lairds started breeding herds of deer and flocks of grouse for wealthy visitors to come and hunt.

The long-term ecological impact of the hunting estates has been enormous. In order to protect grouse stocks armies of gamekeepers were employed to kill off birds of prey – many of which gradually went on to disappear from Scotland. Meanwhile the active encouragement of the deer population served to speed up the destruction of forest habitats. Deer principally graze on tree saplings, and as herds were allowed to grow to huge sizes (far in excess of what the ecosystem would naturally support) deforestation accelerated, jeopardising many rare plant and animal species.

The whole of Scottish culture became packaged around an idealised caricature of the older highland society – a caricature that was very largely invented by Sir Walter Scott. That particular image of Scotland continues to dominate outside perceptions of the country – in no small part because it provides an extremely valuable ‘unique selling point’ for the tourist industry, a sector which makes up a significant portion of the entire Scottish economy rivalling both North Sea Oil and the entire worldwide sales of Scotch Whisky.

Culture and history do not stand still though, and increasingly Scotland is looking to the future rather than the past. The country is rapidly repackaging itself as a modern beacon of sustainability. The tourist industry increasingly promotes itself as an ideal location for eco-tourism and the country as a whole is estimated to contain 25% of the potential renewable energy capacity for the whole of Europe. Whilst energy policy remains the reserved responsibility of the UK Government the Scottish Government has introduced an effective moratorium on the building of new nuclear power stations by using their control of planning permission to block such projects.

Since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1997 Scotland has become a vibrant test-bed for new models of sustainable development. Inevitably these bring with them fresh debates and arguments and this blog has only allowed me to provide a very brief snapshot of the issues that we face and of the history that has brought us here. If anyone would like to find out more about these issues I would strongly recommend checking out the following sources:

The environmental impact of deer hunting

First up we have a recent Guardian video exploring the environmental questions around the management of deer populations (Warning: contains footage of dead animals)

You can compare that video which has been shot in the last year with this episode of the 1980s STV series Weir’s Way, where presenter Tom Weir visits a re-forestation project in Glen Affric, showing that the issue is by no means a new one.

A more evocative and artistic take on the issue can be found in the following T.S. Eliot poem, which draws parallels between the deer stalking industry and the Massacre of Glencoe that took place in 1692.

Rannoch, by Glencoe

Here the crow starves, here the patient stag
Breeds for the rifle. Between the soft moor
And the soft sky, scarcely room
To leap or soar. Substance crumbles, in the thin air
Moon cold or moon hot. The road winds in
Listlessness of ancient war,
Langour of broken steel,
Clamour of confused wrong, apt
In silence. Memory is strong
Beyond the bone. Pride snapped,
Shadow of pride is long, in the long pass
No concurrence of bone

 Land ownership in Scotland

Over the last decade Andy Wightman has become the leading expert on land ownership in Scotland, both in terms of current patterns of ownership and in terms of the historical development of land ownership.

His book The Poor had no Lawyers: Who owns Scotland (and how they got it) is an essential reference for anyone interested in the subject. He also provides up-to-date coverage of current issues and topics on his blog Land Matters

Renewable energy and tourist development

Renewable energy development is thriving in Scotland and the Scottish Government aims for the whole of Scotland’s energy needs to be met by renewable energy by 2020.

As in many areas there are tensions between the competing questions of environmental preservation and the development of renewable energy sources. Scotland is no exception to this, and an interesting debate took place on the Bella Caledonia website last year between Fraser MacDonald, who took issue with attempts by the John Muir Trust to block wind farm developments, and Alan McCombes who defended the policy.

Even though the Scottish Government boasts of its Green credentials the SNP still continues to fall down in a number of areas. Specifically they operate a policy known as ‘Single Purpose Government’, under which the primary goal of every government department is to look at how they can boost economic growth. This has led to a number of situations where the SNP’s supposed commitment to sustainable development has been rightly questioned.

The best-known area of conflict was around the development of a new golf course by Donald Trump on the Balmedie Sands – a designated site of Special Scientific Interest. The construction project became the source of major controversy in Scotland and was the subject of award-winning documentary ‘You’ve been Trumped'(available via Netflix)

I’ve also spoken and written about the contradictions between the Scottish Government’s Environmental and Economic policies in a previous talk that was delivered as part of Creative Scotland’s Open Sessions in 2013.

Dare to Know

In 1785 [Kant] wrote a short essay in response to a request from the Berlinische Monatschrift for an answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’ He defined Enlightenment as ‘man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage’, tutelage being the inability to make use of one’s understanding without direction from another. It is self-incurred if failure to use one’s own understanding is due to laziness and cowardice.

Kant therefore suggests a motto for the Enlightenment: ‘Supere aude’ – ‘Dare to know’ or, as he paraphrases the Latin injunction; ‘Have courage to use your own reason’.

– Alexander Broadie (Ed), The Scottish Enlightenment: An Anthology

 

Why should we be discussing the idea of a second Enlightenment?

During Chris Barnatt’s talk on sustainability I was struck by how difficult it was to propose answers to the challenges that he outlined. It took me back to a show that I worked on about seven years ago which explored issues around global warming. One of the things that the show tried to express was the general feeling of paralysis and helplessness that we as individuals tend to feel when confronted with such massive global issues – a sensation that came back to me as we tried to grapple with those questions in the workshop.

It occurred to me that perhaps part of the reason why we find it so difficult to address these issues is because we might be framing the questions in the wrong way. Our automatic starting point is to ask ‘What is the solution?’ – as though the ‘solution’ boils down to one simple answer that already exists somewhere out there in the world, waiting for us to discover it if only we think hard enough.

But the problem is that the ‘solution’ isn’t out there just waiting to be discovered – it’s something that we need to create ourselves, building it from the ground up. When we ask ‘What is the solution?’ we immediately feel compelled to produce an answer on the spot, and the problem is that that’s not how creativity or invention works.

A great many writers that I’ve worked with will tell you that if you start writing a play already knowing what ‘the answer’ is then you’re probably going to create quite a didactic and boring piece of work. You’ll probably also find yourself suffering from a continual writers block as ‘the answer’ never seems to come out in quite the way that you thought it would.

All acts of creation, whether artistic or scientific, are fundamentally about exploration. We have to work our way through the questions and challenges one-by-one as they arise. Sometimes you might find yourself following a wrong path, but trial and error is a fundamental part of the process. If you don’t make mistakes along the way then you’re not likely to learn very much.

And that, for me, is where the concept of the second Enlightenment comes in. What interests me about the Enlightenment is the fact that it was founded upon a process rather than being about one particular strand of thought. This meant that Enlightenment values and principles could be applied to any field of study. Indeed one of the defining features of the Age of Enlightenment was that it grew out of philosophy to encompass science, economics, politics, agricultural improvement and every field of the arts. It paved the way for both the Industrial Revolution and the Second Agricultural Revolution and was largely responsible for shaping the modern world.

One of the defining features of the Enlightenment was its attitude towards the democratisation of knowledge and debate, and this is what I believe we have to harness if we are to make any kind of headway in tackling the environmental, economic and political challenges that face us in the 21st century. The only way in which potential ‘solutions’ are going to emerge is if we have tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people all generating and sharing their ideas.

So what is preventing us? A few days after I returned home from Clore I stumbled across the following quote from Scottish historian T.C. Smout. Discussing the rise of Socialist politics in the late 19th century he says:

Perhaps, though, it was the notion that man’s fate rested in his own hands and that he should act to do something about it rather than rest upon the vagaries of fate, God and the ruling classes that linked radical and socialist alike to the Enlightenment, and which most differentiates them from the twentieth-century mood that puts trust so unheedingly in the ‘experts’ of a modern bureaucratic state.

– T.C. Smout, A Century of the Scottish People 1830 – 1950

And that pretty well summed it up for me. The challenge that we face in modern Britain is that every aspect of our society has been captured by a bureaucratic target-driven culture. Instead of having politicians who act as public servants working for the benefit of society we have a society where all of our public services have been harnessed to serve the interests of politicians.

Within the arts we have become consumed with the idea that articulating the instrumental benefits of our work is the only way to justify our existence. We have allowed our minds to become colonised with the language of Key Performance Indicators and Gross Value Added. It’s easy for us to feel guilty about the fact that for many of us a large proportion of our personal incomes are derived from state subsidy. The important thing here is that we’re not alone in this predicament.

In October last year Professor Peter Higgs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for having correctly predicted the existence of the subatomic particle that now carries his name (the Higgs-Boson). When he was interviewed in the months following the award he claimed that it would probably have been impossible for him to make that discovery nowadays due to the target-driven culture that governs academic research. Similarly we can find other examples from the education, healthcare and social work sectors, where the drive to meet externally imposed targets has fundamentally damaged the quality of teaching or the care that is provided to patients.

During the short course we were introduced to the Locard principle that says that every contact leaves a trace. Similarly within science there is a phenomenon known as the ‘observer effect’ that recognises that there are some situations in which the very act of observing or measuring an object or event will fundamentally alter the nature of the thing being observed. My worry is that the instrumental focus that arts organisations are increasingly conforming to will, by its very nature, distort the sort of work that we choose to make or present. This in turn has the potential to limit the range of voices that are able to contribute to the discussions that urgently need to be had.

Culturally we have to realise and accept that ‘more’ does not mean ‘better’. In the last six years we have seen our financial system collapse and water levels start to rise, and yet we still seem to cling to the idea that social improvement is synonymous with increased consumption.

If we are to have any chance of changing direction we need to stop measuring what we do and set about the work of building something new – something which encompasses as broad a range of voices as possible. And some of the things that we build will fail. Many of them may never show a direct return on the investment needed to build them. But if even one of those developments helps us create something like a ‘solution’ then all of them will have been worth it.

We have to have faith in our instincts and courage in our convictions.

We must dare to know.

Writings about Green politics, philosophy and sustainable living