Ecological Illiteracy?

As befits a Waitrose-shopping resident of Berkshire, I have a bit of a thing for Radio 4. There’s something about an audio-only medium that encourages attentiveness, such that I find news, current affairs, comedy and documentary all work better on radio than on television. In particular, when I remember it exists (usually stumbling on it whilst driving back from a Saturday morning bird ringing session) I love “From Our Own Correspondent.” It goes against the grain of contemporary news reporting in its deliberate seeking out of untold stories from around the world, and in so doing makes the world seem a better, more interesting place — even as it occasionally reports on overlooked atrocities and injustices.

Unfortunately, a short statement made by the author Tom Fort during Saturday’s otherwise enjoyable episode rather irritated me. Describing the lifestyle and history of the Gaucho people in the remote Chilean Valley of the Cisnes, he recounted how the once vast temperate rainforests had been destroyed by ten years of fire to make way for ranching. He finishes by saying ‘I’d never been to a place where the touch of human occupation seemed so light’. How extraordinary, that total deforestation might be considered a ‘light’ touch!

Compounding this irony, he went on to explain that he had come to Patagonia for its world-class fly fishing, the allure of which rests on the presence of non-native salmon and trout. Introductions began in 1904 and didn’t officially end until 1980, according to this website. I know very little about it but the ecological impacts must have been at least reasonably significant. The Cisnes, then, has been utterly transformed by human habitation, though I’m sure it remains a beautiful and rather awesome place.

The same phenomenon occurs when discussing landscapes much closer to home. Consider how the British uplands — from Dartmoor up to the Scottish Highlands — are often described as ‘wilderness’. If by wilderness we mean a low human population density, fair enough, but in terms of landscape character and ecology the curiously treeless uplands are as altered by the hand of man as any other British landscape. None of this is to say that anthropogenic landscape change is always bad or should necessarily be reversed, but it is telling, I think, how easily we overlook our impact on the world. I can’t think of a better phrase to describe it than ecological illiteracy: a failure to read the signs of our own influence writ large across the face of the earth.

I don’t necessarily blame Tom Fort for his oversight. It was a throwaway remark buried in the middle of his piece, and I’m sure he wasn’t trying to suggest that the burning of the rainforest had all been to the good. But it seems symptomatic of a wider, almost wilful societal forgetfulness that he could have written it into his script for the broadcast and not noticed what a strange thing it was to say.

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