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

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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

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