Mapping a sustainable future

Morgan Parry says Wales now has the opportunity to pioneer an integrated approach to dealing with biodiversity loss and make its mark in Europe

Maps fulfil many different roles. They provide a visual representation of something that is difficult to explain in words. Historically they have been drawn by the victors to show new territories conquered but they can also reveal very different things to people who do not share the same values, traditions or concepts of reality.

This latter point was beautifully captured by one broadcast from a Radio 4 series which, for me, was essential listening. Only the BBC – perhaps of any broadcaster in the world – could produce programmes as concise, captivating and educational as A History of the World in 100 objects in which the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, told humankind’s story using artefacts in the museum’s collection.

On a Wednesday in early October this year, the object in question was a buckskin map of 1774 (pictured above), showing how native Americans perceived the area we now know as the Mid-West.  They had occupied this land “since time immemorial” but were being forced to sell to European settlers, and the map reflected what the native Americans thought to be important – rivers, areas used for hunting, religious and cultural sites – all shared between co-operating tribes. The settlers saw the map only in terms of towns, boundaries of private ownership, and wealth.  That map is a perfect metaphor for a concept that the Welsh Government is currently developing – a new framework for managing our environment called A Living Wales.

Our environment provides us with a wide range of vital services. It creates employment and income worth billions of pounds, offers us health, recreation, sport and learning, provides fresh water and prevents floods, absorbs our pollution, produces our food, energy and timber and sustains our wildlife.  This is our life support system. It is a complex living biosphere made up of many inter-dependent systems which need a healthy diversity of plants and animals to function.

The Native Americans understood this, and we now call it ecology. But we have separated it from that other eco-science, economics. Bringing our contemporary reality of land ownership, industrialisation and wealth creation back together with an appreciation of the value of our ecological and physical resources is the central challenge of the Welsh Government’s new framework.

If we can map these new realities through our spatial and development planning processes, and manage them in a way that is meaningful and relevant to everyone, we can sustain our economic prosperity and conserve our environmental assets in a way we have failed to do in the past.

This is an urgent challenge. Globally, there is deep concern about the fast pace of biodiversity loss worldwide, and the increasing impact of climate change. Ministers, including our own Jane Davidson will meet in Cancun in Mexico and Nagoya in Japan before the end of this year to look for a deal, and many think this our last chance to reverse the trends.

Here is the other big difference between 1774 and 2010. We no longer live on the wild frontier, there are no new territories for us to move into, no new oceans to exploit and no undiscovered lands waiting to be colonised. Our proliferating global population and resource consumption has now exceeded the capacity of our natural systems to support us. If those systems collapse, so does our civilisation. 2010 is a turning point for us in the way that 1774 was for the future of America.

Wales’ response, A Living Wales, looks for a new contract between environmental managers and regulators, industry and commerce, marine stakeholders, landowners and the public. In doing this, Wales can reflect its deep historical and cultural links to the natural environment. We should find a distinctively Welsh approach, based on the best scientific evidence and latest thinking from around the world. We could be the first country to put it into practice.

This is a radical new departure, not just simply another strategy. Our attempts to manage our natural resources have so far been focussed on the component parts of our environment, not the systems themselves. We have conserved attractive species here and threatened habitats there but we can now see reality on a much broader scale. We have identified sites on the basis of their special scientific interest, without always recognising fully their economic and social importance. This way of managing and conserving the environment has had limited success, and limited support from the public.

If we are to rethink the way we manage the environment, we also need to rethink the institutions that carry out that work on our behalf. Here Wales is set to follow a very different path from England. Minister Jane Davidson has set a clear direction of travel towards a new organisation to carry out the functions of the Countryside Council for Wales, the Environment Agency Wales and the Forestry Commission Wales, adapted for the new realities. It promises to be a major addition to the landscape of our national institutions.

Whatever the role of the new organisation, it will need to be given a special place in the debate about public spending priorities, with a strong case being made for why investment now will lead to savings later. And a recognition of the environment as the ultimate source of our wealth should be built into every departmental strategy. This is a challenge for the whole of government.

Decisions taken and policies adopted on the environment need to be based on sound science, and advice given to government will frequently be challenging. The Government in England has convinced itself that it no longer needs independent advice. It has terminated the Sustainable Development Commission and emasculated its main environmental agencies.

Not so in Wales, where Jane Davidson has reasserted her desire to have informed and challenging advice from independent bodies. Of course, it is the Government’s job to make policy. However, the real strength of public agencies is that their advice is not moderated by the sometimes conflicting priorities of other departments of Government and is immune to the overtures of private lobbies and special interest groups. In every sense, they represent the public interest.

The change of Government in London has set up some very interesting democratic dislocations, which are echoed in many areas of public policy.  Since Westminster (acting as the England Government) has chosen to change policies and practice in ways that are in conflict with the views of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it can no longer represent the whole of the UK abroad.

There are many examples of Westminster assuming a UK mandate, when its officials and Ministers cannot distinguish between what is UK and what is England. The interests of Wales are frequently overlooked. More than anything else this behaviour is creating the imperative for further devolution of powers and for direct representation of Welsh interests on international bodies. It is time to assert our own values, traditions and concepts of reality.

On environmental matters, it gives Wales a real opportunity to set the pace in Europe, and to be a trusted partner in the exchange of knowledge and good practice. Whereas England becomes increasingly invisible in the European debate, Wales’s ambition and aspiration is an example to others. In return, we must work within European frameworks and international processes, and contribute to the development of new agricultural, fisheries and land management policies which value public goods and common resources above all else.

Let us mark Wales prominently on the map of Europe and show on that map how we are creating the future while conserving the landscape and seascape that has sustained us ‘since time immemorial’. How we use the map, and in which direction we travel, will then be for us to decide.

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Morgan Parry is Chair of the Countryside Council for Wales.

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