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Top down command is not the way to improve the environment

My Times column on the government’s 25-year plan for the environment:


The government’s 25-year environment plan is more than a piece of virtue signalling, despite its chief purpose being to persuade the young to vote Conservati(ve)onist. It is full of sensible, apolitical goals and in places actually conveys a love of the natural world, which is not always the case with such documents.

The difficulty will be putting its ambitions into practice. It is all very well to want cleaner air and water, more biodiversity, less plastic litter and richer soils. How are these to be achieved? Except in a few places, such as the discussion of “net environmental gains” in the construction industry, the plan is worryingly vague.

The word that bothers me most, appearing often, is “we”. “The actions we will take . . . we will protect ancient woodland . . . we will increase tree planting” and so on. Who is we? This is the language of the central planner, who assumes that the government decrees and the passive population obeys. There is relatively little sense here that the vast majority of our environment is managed by people or organisations other than the government and that the vast majority of actions that damage or improve it are taken by people other than civil servants.

People do not foul their own nests, on the whole, so the role of government is to create as much sense of real environmental ownership as possible. If the de facto owner of the environment is the state, through too many rules and restrictions, then people will not volunteer to help. Communised assets lack a sense of ownership: look at the litter in laybys, for example, or the terrible state of the environment in Soviet Russia under the state planning committee, or Gosplan.

At the micro level it’s easy to create sense of ownership. Private property is a powerful motivator. At communal levels it’s harder, but not impossible. There are many local conservation charities and private organisations looking after a woodland and a flower meadow here, a stretch of river there: small groups of people who take pride in the responsibility.

Now, you cannot always use a commercial market in environmental matters, because people do not willingly pay for the things they want (though sometimes they do — most winter bird seed crops are planted by shooters). But you can at least try different things in different places to learn what works.

The big green pressure groups forget all this. They are more comfortable with a centralised and top-down policy, amenable to lobbying. The reaction of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) to Michael Gove’s plan is telling: “But these commitments will only become a reality if they are backed by the force of law, money and a new environmental watchdog.” In other words, a green Gosplan, a Goveplan, which would be counterproductive for the same reasons that Gosplan didn’t work.

Take the agri-environment schemes under which farmers are rewarded for doing things that, say, make yellowhammers happy. Most agree, and this plan notes this, that under the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) the schemes have been wasteful, spending fortunes on things that work poorly and too little on things that work well. Talk to smaller research organisations such as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and you will find that they have learnt through experimentation how to stop yellowhammers starving at the end of the winter (non-dehiscent plants that don’t shed all their seeds too early). It is the same with wild flowers, woodland and clean water. Good practice spreads by word of mouth in the countryside after practical people discover it through trial and error. The rewilding of the Knepp estate in West Sussex by Sir Charles Burrell, for example, has shown that nightingales are attracted to breed in unkempt thorn hedges.

In the inflexible world of the CAP, with its pillars and schemes and schedules, experimentation is impossible. To the extent that the vagueness of Mr Gove’s plan is a tacit recognition that government’s job should not be to tell people what to do, but to encourage a thousand metaphorical (and literal) flowers to bloom, good. To the extent that it sets out an agenda for the pressure groups and corporatist quangos to colonise with their tick-box mentality, bad. We will have to see which turns out to be true.

In this respect, another welcome feature of the plan is the focus on local environmental goals: plastic, clean water, clean air, soil, wildlife, trees. The big global issues that have dominated the professional environmental industry for so long — global population, resources, acid rain, ozone, climate change — are in the document, but no longer crowding out the local ones as they did for years, and in many cases actively making things worse.

There are still problems. The plan mentions in one breath both climate change mitigation and the prevention of international deforestation, yet fails to spot that the burning of wood for “renewable” electricity and the cultivation of palm-oil biodiesel plantations have been inspired and justified entirely by misguided climate policies. Wind farms do kill birds, as well as trashing landscapes; hydro on free-flowing rivers does harm fish, and so on. Environmental objectives do conflict but the plan shows little recognition of this. The main omission, however, is science. There is no sense in the plan of the technologies becoming available to protect the environment: the biotechnology that has already made agriculture so much greener elsewhere in the world and is limiting land-take; the gene editing that promises to enable us to grow better crops with fewer chemicals; the British breakthroughs that promise to give us contraceptive vaccines to control invasive species humanely; the new techniques for eradicating rats from oceanic islands to save seabirds.

The good intentions of Mr Gove’s plan are obvious and welcome, but they could have been written down any time in the past century, while the means hinted at are regrettably tinged with an anti-scientific and potentially authoritarian puritanism that just won’t work. Five out of ten.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times