Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Man is a destroyer but can fix things, too

A A A

Our calamitous capacity for damaging and destroying the natural world has become ever clearer in recent years, and is widely remarked on, not least in pages such as these; what is much less remarked upon is our capacity for mending it.

This week I stood on Salisbury Plain and watched through binoculars a huge corpulent bird strut like Pavarotti across the chalk grassland: it was a great bustard, a fabulous turkey-like creature hunted to extinction in England in the early 19th century. In a scheme driven entirely by the enthusiasm of a single man, David Waters, a former policeman, it has been reintroduced to Britain, with the release here of young birds from southern Russia where the species is relatively plentiful, and now is breeding again. The scheme has also won the backing of the RSPB and the University of Bath, and funding from the European Union.

The great bustard is the world's heaviest flying bird and a spectacular sight, and I was duly thrilled to watch it parade, chest thrust out, across the downlands of Wiltshire. But later something dawned on me: this was the sixth successful reintroduction of a vanished bird species I had witnessed in Britain since the turn of the Millennium. I have also seen sea eagles on Mull; red kites in the Chilterns; ospreys on Rutland Water; cirl buntings in Cornwall; and corncrakes in the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire.

All of these were birds that had been driven to local extinction, either through persecution or through changing agricultural practice, and they had been successfully put back into landscapes which once again they could grace, as indeed they did: I witnessed them all. And it struck me that in terms of repairing our increasingly battered planet, this, when you added it all up, was quite a lot of repairing.

That we as a species should have not only the capacity but also the willingness to mend the damage we are doing to the natural world around us seems to me a very unusual quality. No other animal does. I wrote here recently that we are the only species capable of destroying our own home, which you could see as the ecological version of Original Sin; yet even more strangely, you might think, we are also the only species capable of putting it back together, once it has been trashed.

Here are the two sides to our nature, what a friend of mine, a political analyst who is entirely unmystical, refers to as our good angels and our bad angels; and the question for anyone concerned with the future of the natural world in the 21st century is: which of them will prevail?

For although the successful restoration of six lost bird species in Britain is indeed a substantial achievement, it is only the minutest fraction of what would be required to stem the increasing rate of wildlife loss around the world, and that is loss not only of species, but also of habitats, ecosystems, natural resources and at the most basic level, genetic diversity.

Take a hectare of Amazon rainforest. Cut it down and you may cut down 200 separate tree species. In theory, you could replant all 200. But what about the other life of that hectare? What about the beetles in the tree canopy, of which there may also be 200 species, some of them unknown to science? You will never restore them all, and you will never restore, once the chainsaw has done its work, the richness of the inter-relationships they had been fostering, some of which may be crucial for the proper functioning of the ecosystem.

Big or charismatic single species – ones that capture the public imagination and thus attract funding – these can be reintroduced, yes, and let us give thanks; but even this can be tremendously difficult, time-consuming and expensive. The project to restore sea eagles, which had been shot to extinction in the British Isles by 1916, began on the Hebridean island of Rum in 1975 with the release of young birds brought from Norway; but it took fully 10 years, and the release of 81 birds, before on Mull, 40 miles away, a single pair at last nested again.

Yet something even more than time, money and effort may be needed for our repairing talents to be deployed. Certain socio-economic conditions have to be met, and what this has boiled down to, in the past, has been the presence of a bourgeoisie. Unpalatable as the thought may be to some, to save wildlife and the natural world, you need a middle class. Most people living in poverty, and even more, people living in hunger, cannot spare the time or effort to think beyond alleviating their distress, and why should they? So the turning towards a goal beyond immediate human needs has hitherto been facilitated by surplus time and spending power, and has been driven by those who possess them. The single greatest conservation challenge of the coming century will be to get beyond this, and help billions of people grow out of poverty without trashing the natural world. It has a name: sustainable development. Next June, Brazil's government will host a global conference to refocus on it. Defining it is by no means the same as achieving it; perhaps its achievement is beyond us.

But we should not forget that along with our predisposition for trashing the Earth, we as a species are also curiously blessed with an ability, in the right circumstances, to mend it – what we might call, using the words of the American poet Robert Lowell (in a different context), "Man's lovely, peculiar power" to repair the damage we have done.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/mjpmccarthy

Suggested Topics
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker