Humans have an exceptionally narrow attitude towards nature, the environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote in 1962. "If we see any immediate utility in a plant, we foster it. If for any reason we find its presence undesirable or merely a matter of indifference we may condemn it to destruction," she wrote in her ground-breaking book Silent Spring.
While there have been some improvements since then – in terms of pesticide use and the growth of the organic farming industry – our approach to the natural environment is still the same, generally speaking. We take and use it, and get rid of what we view as valueless. At one extreme there’s the illegal logging of the rainforests or the mono-crop farming industries – all of which do untold damage. And then there’s the smaller, individual decisions we make to pave over garden spaces for “low maintenance”, or the growing industry that is artificial lawns – another example of this singular mindset: how we love the idea and look of nature but not the reality of it.
Web of life
One of Carson’s arguments was the importance of seeing nature as a “web of life” in which there are many relations between plants and the earth, or plants and animals, or plants and other plants. When we interrupt – such as in farming or building houses – we should do so thoughtfully, and with an awareness of potential consequences, she believed.
The predominance of traditional, manicured hedges and lawns seems to be slowly changing too
It's a concept that's worth considering as we reimagine our cities and public zones in the wake of Covid-19. More green spaces – alongside the introduction of more bike lanes and pedestrianised streets – are a good thing for us and the environment. The predominance of traditional, manicured hedges and lawns seems to be slowly changing too – and it's great to see front gardens and roadsides being left to grow wild to encourage biodiversity, or Trinity College Dublin's recent decision to change the lawn at the entrance to cultivate a wildflower meadow. Across Europe, there has been the growing movement of "mini-forests", often planted alongside roads or in public, urban spaces and based on the work of Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. The idea is that these native tree forests become 30 times denser and 100 times more biodiverse than those planted by conventional methods.
The environment has benefited from our reduced activity over the past few months – with a drop in air pollution, for example, or the clear skies without constant air traffic. If we are to have a “green recovery”, as economist Joseph Stiglitz and many others are calling for, let’s make it a meaningful one, that recognises the role and value we place on the natural environment – not just for our own needs but for the planet as a whole.