23 MAY 1992, Page 8


What has the Earth done to deserve a Summit?


The earth is the Lord's, and all that therein is, and so it ought to be good news

that the leaders of the world want to save it. Why is it, then, that one's heart sinks every time one reads about the forthcoming Earth Summit in Rio?

In part, one's reaction is against the great non-sequitur of democratic politics that, because one is in favour of something, one ought to be pleased when the government comes in and 'supports' it. You are in favour of the arts and of looking after old buildings, aren't you, the argument goes, then why aren't you pleased that they now have a minister in the Cabinet to look after them? The answer is that it is precisely because one likes such things that one fears the approach of politicians bearing gifts (as well as, in my case, a suspicion of Mr David Mellor because he thinks opera is high art).

So with the environment. The very word signals the takeover of officialdom. It was never called the 'environment' by anyone who celebrated it in verse or simply went for a walk and looked at it. Now it forms the most platitudinous section of every party's manifesto, and one feels the resent- ment of someone who has climbed up a mountain alone, only to find the view from the top obscured by a posse of German tourists.

Besides,' it is government, far more than business, which has despoiled nature. Any horror that may have been attributed to Shell or Union Carbide is as nothing beside the Soviet government's destruction of the Aral Sea or the Kazakh steppes. If the world does end, it will be because politi- cians have blown it up, not because multi- nationals have over-produced. So when politicians profess concern for the environ- ment one feels uneasy, as when a property developer exclaims, 'What a beautiful field!'

But even if one did have more faith in politicians, is the current obsession with the environment really so uncontroversially admirable? I do not know whether it is true that unless we save the rainforest we shall all stop breathing. If it is, we must obvious- ly do our best to keep it going. One only observes, in passing, that scientists with pet projects are just as likely as anyone else to exaggerate the importance of what they are doing in order to get government money to go on doing it.

What I am certain of, however, is that we have no particular duty to preserve wilder- nesses and virgin forests for their own sake. Until very recently, men regarded them with aversion. The reason was simple: men had much more experience of them than they do today. They knew that swamps car- ried diseases for which there was no reme- dy and jungles contained animals which killed and oceans drowned mariners and deserts burnt the traveller and mountains froze him. The reason why people now like such places is that it is so much easier to survive them. We can be injected against them and carry provisions through them and telephone from them and be airlifted out of them, and so our pleasure in them is the pleasure of a child running through a blizzard: the exhilaration only lasts so long as one is quite confident that one will soon be home and safely by the fire. The moment when one is genuinely lost is utter- ly terrifying.

As a result of this well justified fear, no one used to think that wildernesses were beautiful either. It is not easy for a modern reader to take in the full horror of the mad scenes in King Lear, because we have a post-romantic excitement about cataracts and hurricanoes where Shakespeare saw only their pitilessness. He saw that expo- sure to nature was degrading: `Unaccom- modated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.'

He was right. What nonsense it is when a television camera noses its way up the Amazon, discovers a tribe of Indians who have never seen a white man before and invites us all to revere their superior under- standing of their environment and contrast it with our own rapacity. In fact, these tribes are pathetic. Their lives are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. They have no freedom, no law, no architecture, no lit- erature, no universities, no churches, not to mention all the rather more mundane things which make life more pleasant, like public transport and lavatories that flush and electric kettles and McVities digestive biscuits. Of course these Indians will have some special knowledge of their surround- ings which we lack, and it is sad to think that the arrival of the caring television cam- era will begin the forgetting of that knowl- edge, but one can get too sentimental about the loss of old skills. When my grand- father was a young doctor, only old doctors could perform amputations very fast, be- cause they had been trained before anaes- thetics. One can scarcely be sorry that their expertise is no longer required.

Anyone who claims to find superior wis- dom in the Bushman or the Amazonian or the Aborigine is not telling the truth, because the way he lives his life denies it. No one with the power of choice lives like these people: it may be interesting to live with them for a bit, but that is something else. I read in a special ecological supple- ment of the latest Observer that the Mayans created 'the New World's greatest civilisa- tion' by living 'in balance with the forest, growing shade-tolerant plants and harvest- ing food, like the nutritious bread nuts of the ramon tree'. One has nothing against the Mayans, but surely the New World's greatest civilisation is not theirs, but the United States of America, which has creat- ed a rich and free country largely composed of the poor of the earth and did so, as the same supplement complains, 'with an axe in its hand'.

Why should we preserve a wilderness, then? Only, surely, because it serves some human purpose. If it is true that the Mada- gascan rosy periwinkle can cure leukaemia, someone should save it. But we should also be grateful that our remote ancestors destroyed the British forests and drained the marshes and made the place habitable for their descendants. 'Destruction', any- way, is often the wrong word. Almost the whole of the British countryside is made by man, and it is beautiful, more so than the impassable, mastodon-infested thickets and bogs that it replaced.

People like the Archbishop of Canter- bury, who flies to Rome next week to explain to the Pope why condoms are in harmony with nature, says that the Western tradition has misunderstood the biblical teaching of man's dominion over the beasts of the field: man should not exploit cre- ation. What is exploitation? Is a gardener exploitative? He certainly interferes with creation. He understands its potential and harnesses it to provide order and delight for himself and other human beings. The biblical description of the origin of the nat- ural world is of a garden, not of a rainfor- est. Our duty to creation is not to leave it alone, as if its contact with man sullied it, but to respect it as an artist respects his materials. Its interest lies in what we can make of it — imaginatively, artistically, medically, economically. Lovers of nature who think differently are disguised haters of mankind.