Conservation and change in Nidderdale

Here’s the full text of an opinion piece I’ve drafted for the Friends of Nidderdale AONB newsletter – where it did end up, albeit in edited down form. I thought I might as well archive it here. It was a bit of a spontaneous rant inspired by the paradoxical nature of the word ‘conservation’.

The notion of conservation goes far beyond the face value meaning of the word. Conservation can be a dynamic process, which embraces change. As the founding concepts of the AONB reflect, Nidderdale is a natural landscape of outstanding beauty which has been shaped and formed by man for centuries.

Protecting and conserving the AONB is not about preventing change. It is about negotiating the ways in which humans interact with our surroundings; it is about how we keep what made them special in the first place, how we protect the elemental, permanent beauty of the world we live in, and how we develop, energise, experience, value and interact with where we live. It is about seeing the place of humans and their activities as an integral part of the natural environment we inhabit – after all, we are creatures within our habitat, just as much as rabbits, foxes, birds and insects. Our responsibility is to respect that habitat and live in it in harmony with its other inhabitants, and to make sure it stays special.

Conservation need not be about struggling to stand still, or a retrograde momentum fighting against some namelessly threatening concept of ‘progress’. Indeed, conservation projects can use advancements in technological or social domains to protect what we value. Neither should conservation mindlessly protect what is ‘natural’. We decide, instead, what types of equilibrium we value the most: and this in the knowledge that what we value can change from generation to generation.

Bracken spraying on heather moorland, for instance, is a modern, technological way to protect an equilibrium we have decided that we value. Some criticise it, but those who defend it do so along the lines that the power and efficiency of modern chemical technology is necessary. Traditional livestock grazing being in decline, we artificially maintain the cropping of beech and bracken because we want to preserve the rare heather habitat which enables specific and often endangered species to exist. Left to itself, the decline of livestock farming for economical and societal reasons would result in woodland overcoming much of the moor. Now, it is our prerogative to choose to prolong a specific moment when man and nature coexisted with particularly special results.

Conservation is not about standing still, and it is still less about expunging humans’ existence from nature altogether. Some of the changes wrought by humans contribute to what makes the Dales special. Dry stone walls and hedgerows spring immediately to mind as a man-made feature which we now preserve alongside natural features. Towns, villages, churches, barns, farms are considered a vital part of the area’s outstanding beauty: but who is to say what future generations will value, aesthetically speaking, or what they will make of our contemporary architecture in wood and glass? Tastes differ wildly from generation to generation just as, inevitably, our concept of what constitutes ‘heritage’ must naturally evolve. We create new heritage as we forge our own culture, and future generations must decide what to make of it, what to value and how.

The difference between us and other animals is that our intelligence means that we can choose to dramatically shape the environment – we can take from it what we need and adapt it to serve us. The industrial revolution, followed by the technological revolution, has given us great power, and we try to wield it responsibly. Designating such things as National Parks and AONBs is one of the ways our society has chosen to acknowledge the potential for damage that development can cause, and to benchmark certain areas where development is not allowed to progress unchecked. It is the role of those of us engaged in and working for the AONB to communicate those values to the wider society and to make sure people know what there is here and why it is worth caring about.

One of the most useful concepts to explain what we mean by conservation is sustainability. If conservation were about standing still, new generations would become rapidly alienated: the reasons for the conservation would become lost and the values worth preserving by our society would die along with the generation that venerated them.

It is part of the nature of humanity that we desire to teach our knowledge, culture and values to our children, and they pass them on in turn to their own children, accruing whatever else they have learnt along the way. That is how we have evolved, and how our society since prehistory has learnt and progressed. It is when we fear that that knowledge, culture or values may be lost, that we decide to actively protect it in order to ensure that it survives.

By making sure that our behaviour is sustainable, not only do we make sure we do not abuse the natural resources of our environment, but also we do whatever is necessary to pass on what is important to us, and empower future generations to do so too.

Many of us tend to resist change. Change can be a threat – the ‘better the devil you know’ mentality is tempting. But change doesn’t have to be threatening, and in any case, it happens. We are in a constant state of flux, passing on the world to the next generation, over and over again. At the same time, it is the way of things that three or four generations coexist together at any one time, and new people will have new ideas to add and accrue to the tried and tested ideas we pass on to them. We don’t simply hand over our world in one fell swoop. We experience it in different ways at different ages; as we get older, our role changes, just as the new generation grows into its responsibilities little by little. The new ideas that each new generation brings will be tried and tested in their turn, and will either be adopted, or abandoned, just as with the many thousands of forgotten initiatives in the history of humankind. It is who we are, and how we are.

Sustainability is at the heart of that. We want to find ways to help make sure that what we value is passed on to the next generation. That might be through teaching them actively about heritage and about traditional skills that have been overlooked by mainstream education; it might involve campaigning to prevent construction or development which is being promoted by the uninitiated, and which might unknowingly erase something special; it might involve spreading awareness so that beautiful things don’t go unnoticed and get neglected or forgotten. It might involve actively maintaining things which used to happen naturally.

We are teaching children to build dens and hunt for bugs, for instance, when a few generations ago, that was what rural childhood would always entail anyway, with no need for special workshops and activity days to encourage it. Along with managing bracken, it is a facet of our society and environment that we choose to actively preserve. At the same time, there are other traditions where, in the name of conservation and in the name of our shared values, we need to speed up change and erase old habits. We need technology in order to promote clean energy, efficient farming, non-wasteful building techniques, energy saving, and community building. We need technology in order to reach more people, and encourage more of them to start to care about the AONB and help our conservation campaigns.

If we fight against change in order to avoid alienating one group of the population, we risk not only alienating other groups, but we also risk failing in our aim of producing sustainability. Moving with the times involves taking those aspects of technological and societal change which are useful to us and embracing them. And teaching can be done in more than one direction. It would be patronising to suggest that older generations can not, for instance, embrace the new forms of information technology. At what age does this become true – 40? 50? 60? If a new generation has learnt something new, then it is human nature to pass it on to our peers and to our descendants. To not make use of new things because they are new would seem to be anti-conservation: it would be to deliberately blind ourselves to potentially helpful possibilities.

Do new communication technologies hamper real-life conversation, eye to eye interaction? Perhaps, at the moment, they do – they still have the addictive novelty appeal – but the ultimate value of social media and the internet will be to connect people, rather than to distance them. The equilibrium will settle, little by little, and we as a society will decide what to keep and what to discard. We will have to decide which elements of our lives help sustain our values and which hinder us. And it may be that the values of the majority will shift, too – and that’s life. Conservation is about being aware of these things. What do we value? Why do we value it? What do we want to do in order to continue being able to appreciate it? What do we want to communicate to others about it, and how can we best go about that?

At least we care enough to worry about these things, and that’s a start.

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