There is perhaps no more dangerous idea abroad in our times than the notion that a solid border – a wall, if you like – can be raised between human culture and the natural world.
It’s a wall that has, ironically enough, sometimes been erected by those most passionate about conservation. Intellectual exiles from industrialised societies have fantasised about “pristine wilderness” unsullied by humankind. This idea became manifest in the American national park model: expel the indigenous inhabitants from a remote place, and designate the area inside the fence as “nature”.
This radical human-nature separation puts our very survival at risk. As Julian Hoffman says in this remarkable, illuminating book, our dominant consumer capitalist culture is built on a related fantasy: “the quixotic notion that we can live outside the planet’s natural systems and verifiable parameters”.
But Irreplaceable is not just another well-documented account of how our global behaviour is pushing us rapidly towards our own extinction. It is something much more powerful. Hoffman’s main focus is not on loss, though he is acutely conscious of just how much we are losing, and how fast.
Instead, he has written a sustained hymn to human engagement with nature in particular places over many centuries. This engagement has created many of the “wild places” that the diverse communities and individuals he encounters on his journeys love so deeply.
Our culture continues to raze the particular and the local from our landscapes, replacing it with an ever more impoverished sameness
He is clearly driven by his own passion to celebrate the exquisite variety of plants and wildlife that these “eco-cultural landscapes” sustain. He makes a sustained case for the intrinsic value of every species we are so carelessly erasing. He is not immune to the attraction of the few relatively pristine landscapes that remain, like the old-growth redwoods of California.
But the core of his book explores those “enduring fusions of the natural world and human activity that have enabled a remarkable diversity of wildlife to flourish within them over an extraordinarily long period of time . . . the venerable offspring of joint parenting.”
These places, he argues, are vitally important to the well-being of their local communities and individuals, especially to children. He cites research showing that “significant places spark greater emotional resonance in people than personally valued objects, a particularly surprising find in a largely material culture . . . that upholds the acquisition of things as almost the primary purpose of being on this planet.”
Nevertheless, our culture continues to raze the particular and the local from our landscapes, replacing it with an ever more impoverished sameness. Intensive farming bulldozes away the patchwork mosaic of our countryside, while homogenous urbanisation tears the specificity out of villages, towns and cities.
Hoffman visits an Indonesian island whose mangroves and coral reefs are threatened by mining, and an Indian rainforest where the indigenous community has been remarkably innovative in adapting its cherished cultural practices to protect iconic birds. He is moved by efforts to restore the vanished prairie of the American Midwest (and here I should acknowledge that he makes a generous reference to my own writing in this area).
He spends a lot of time in Greece and the Balkans, where he has made his home for many years, looking at heroic efforts to recover vanishing populations of the lynx and Egyptian vulture.
But he returns again and again to places in Britain where motley coalitions of locally-rooted individuals, many of them not environmentalists in any stereotypical sense, are fighting defiantly against hubristic plans for yet more infrastructural development.
There is the plan to build a mega-airport on the culturally and naturally invaluable North Kent Marshes, and a motorway on the Gwent Levels in Wales; Watford council builds a car park over a small allotment and woodland that gave joy over generations to its citizens.
One of his most disturbing themes, and bitterly familiar in this country, is that local, national and EU environmental regulations provide hardly any protection against the avarice of developers and the wilful ignorance of politicians - Boris Johnson figures largely in the airport story.
Nevertheless, Hoffman’s vivid, immediate and lyrical evocation of all these places, their people, their plants and wildlife, brims with the hope that our love for them may save them yet, even expand and connect them.
He starts and ends the book with a characteristically evocative account of the transformative power of a starling murmuration, “an incandescent sky dance”, on random promenaders along Brighton’s Palace Pier. He has made a very strong case that such experiences are as vital to our humanity as nature itself is to our survival.