The Green Economy in the UK… What’s Missing

According to Wikipedia, the green economy is one which “aims at reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, and… aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment.” I went to a celebration of it this week, hosted by Business Green.

The Green EconomyWe’d been shortlisted for an award and I had a cracking night. The food was great and the wine flowed. Fab people and inspiring stories. Lots of enthusiastic young, and a lot of companies represented. There were 25 awards, and a short list of 136 finalists for them, ranging from large household names to small companies like us*. There was a real buzz and enthusiasm about the evening. We heard a lot about low carbon, zero emissions, renewable energy, battery storage, energy efficiency, clever building, recycling, and sustainability generally. Business Green is a good publication, and they’d taken a lot of care to host a very enjoyable event. They launched their Net Zero Now campaign on the night, which helps business and government develop net zero emission strategies.

There was, however, something missing.

It’s something which is generally missing from events like these. Given the rest of the evening it almost seems churlish to mention it, but I just have to. It’s the ecological scarcities bit of Wikipedia’s definition. Biodiversity loss didn’t get a look in.

In fairness, there was an award for Best Environmental Awareness Campaign. This did include one project which seemed to be about ecology. That meant that 2 out of the 136 finalists were directly concerned with reversing biodiversity loss – including us, who are so small we don’t really count!

This is entirely typical of the green economy in the UK. Reversing biodiversity loss just isn’t a priority; not for government, NGOs, policy wonks, business, and specialist media. Climate change and sustainability generally completely dominate their agendas. I suspect in years to come this will be as baffling to most people as it is to me now.

*no, of course we didn’t win. I was thrilled to be on a shortlist, though.

Sustainable Landscapes For The Future

I had an interesting day at Bristol University last week, learning about “sustainable landscapes for the future”. I still don’t know what “sustainable” means, particularly when used by landscape architects, but I did learn a lot else.

Two of my regular bugbears came up repeatedly during the day. The first is the lack of good quality science relating to the relationships between flora and fauna. As a non-scientist trying to do the right thing I’m finding this increasingly frustrating. The Urban Pollinator Project, run out of Bristol, Leeds, Edinburgh and Reading Universities, should help address at least one element of that. It is looking at pollinator biodiversity in different landscapes. Results are out shortly, and should be fascinating.

The second issue relates to my recent post about the RSPB’s Ad campaign, in a way. Nigel Dunnett, he of pictorial meadows, was one of the speakers. If you get the chance to listen to him lecture do take it. There are things he says I don’t agree with, but his passion and belief in the importance of reconnecting people with nature through flowers is spot on. I also absolutely agree with his view that there is a chasm between ecologists and horticulturists. The wildflower seed market, for example, is pretty much exclusively set up to service landscape restoration projects. Planners award BREEAM ratings for new urban developments if they’re planted with native as opposed to non-native plants. Garden designers won’t use plants native to the UK in formal design. They still plan gardens without thinking about their potential ecological value. Landscape architects seem to do the same with landscapes!

Wildflower roof
Attractive and biodiverse…
People want to live in landscapes which are aesthetically appealing. The knack is combining that with biodiversity, which means they’ll also be engaged with their environment.

Dry Stone Walls

I had a very jolly and remarkably sunny weekend on the Mendips on a beginner’s course on dry stone walls, hosted by the South West England Dry Stone Walling Association. Like hedge laying, it turns out the basics of walling are pretty straightforward but the practice is a real art, and there are different regional styles. These reflect local geology and use, from simple Brathay flags (flagstones set vertically into the ground) in Lakeland to the Cornish hedges I wrote about recently. Up on the Mendips the stone is relatively difficult to work with, which produces its own distinctive and irregular look.

I discussed the virtues of dry stone walls in that earlier piece; they combine aesthetic appeal with great habitat for wildlife, and of course they’re completely sustainable. Our group took down a partly collapsed section of wall to rebuild it, in the course of which we came across all manner of fauna, including toads and lizards. I was surprised the wall was “only” a couple of hundred years old, but of course that was just its current incarnation; the stones would have been used for a good deal longer, and repeatedly reworked. It was an odd thought to be leaving our own signature on the landscape in the same way unknown hands had done over many generations.

Sadly dry stone walls are gradually disappearing from the countryside. Our instructor Phil Smith reckoned on building around 3m a day. Us beginners could reckon on 1/2 to 1 metre. In the past, of course, there would be gangs of cheap farmworkers whose entire lives were spent hedging, ditching, and walling. Today a metre of dry stone wall is going to cost you over £40, as opposed to up to £10 to lay a hedge or £5.50 for wire fencing. Although there are grants available to cover some of the cost, and in the long run they are economically sensible, the initial outlay is just too big for most to contemplate and there isn’t the skilled labour on hand to tackle larger lengths. If we remember how to plant or build sustainably for the next generation perhaps there might be again. The farm we were working on is a modest 200 acres but has 4 miles of walls, or something like 6 years construction time if my maths is right.

The Dry Stone Walling Association are doing great things to keep the art alive though. Judging by the weekend, they’re keen, friendly and well organized. Some of us doing the course wanted to build a dry stone wall in their garden – like me – but others wanted to either take it up professionally or wall for pleasure with the Association at weekends. I can well understand the attraction for amateur wallers. It’s an immensely satisfying thing to do and gives you a decent workout (although not recommended for those with back problems!) in lovely surroundings.