Colouring the Fields
I always pause before signing online petitions. It’s so easy to put you name to something, it could become a reflex, and I would end up supporting causes I didn’t agree with. There’s also the risk of petition saturation – there are so many going on at any one time, all going in different directions, they might eventually lose their effect. Some government departments must have a “petition junk” mailbox that they empty out a couple of times a month.
Many causes I understand, and sign up to without too much deliberation – I supported many in the aftermath of the EU referendum in the UK. For others I feel that I don’t know enough about the case. Petitions against housing developments are often in the second category.
The most recent I received carried comments from those who’d signed, many along the lines of “Don’t build on greenfield, protect the greenbelt, use up all the brownfield sites first.” There are a lot of assumptions in there, and it is clear that the UK needs far more – affordable – housing. In particular I wasn’t happy about eh binary opposition of “greenfield” versus “brownfield”.
These opposing positions might take some of their origin from the terms used. “Greenfield” connotes a verdant lushness, bursting with pristine life. “Brownfield” – rust, bare mud and worse sticking to your boots and clothes. Animals dance along the “green”. The “brown” is scarred with the tracks of HGVs and pooled with stagnant, chemical waters.
One example of the excellent “green” might be Chimney Meadows, a large nature reserve owned by the Wildlife Trust, by the Thames in Oxfordshire. As I write, late June, it is in its fullest flush – dozens of species of grass are in flower, and petalled blooms are a glitter between them. Blues, reds and yellows drift through with butterflies, and bees weigh down stems. There are birds; there may be lizards if I don’t tread too heavily on the duckboards.
This land has been cultivated for a long, long time. “Chimney” might derive from “Ceomma’s Eye”, a Saxon name indicated that it rose above the Thames floodwaters enough to be settled (a few dwelling; there are not many more now). When the air is still, pollen hangs in clouds. Even a long-term hay fever sufferer like me can admire that.
Here’s a brownfield site: a pub failed not far from where I live. It had many rooms and a large car park, backing onto a disused petrol station. For years it stood, decaying, beside a major road. Eventually it burned down and rotted even more. Blackened, sagging, poisoned with smoke from the paint and other fittings, it was ripe for development – and it became a Tesco, with a few (full market price) flats tagged on top.
But green is not always good. Consider this – a field I walked through recently, though many others in all parts of England and beyond might do as well. The soil is powdery, collapses underfoot. The path is a straight line (y=mx+c) between wheat stems, but cracks in the ground bend and jag. No birds are audible. A few trees stand glowing in the distance, but across the field’s expanse the sun is all, like walking carrying a hot steel plate.
Is this land zombie earth? Almost all the life in it – crops – is preserved by fertilisers and pesticides. Their predecessors prevented global starvation in the 1940s, just as they do now. There is no way that the UK could be even close to what it is now without the high crop yields enabled by these chemicals.
But the chemicals become ever stronger to compensate for their own effects. They strip organic matter out of the ground, causing great cracks through which rainwater runs, barely touching the soil. They kill pollinator insects – neonicotinoids are implicated in bees’ population drops. The gases emitted in their production contribute to climate change, altering the conditions in which the drops have to grow. Without pollinators, unable to retain water, this land will eventually fail.
As for “brown”, it is often beautiful. A few hundred metres up the Limehouse Cut in London, the towpath starts to run alongside a high, deep brown brick wall. Warehouse ends are built into it. Window frames far above my head punctuate the line. From them sway buddleia flowers, bust with hoverflies and sometimes an angular butterfly. Robins claim the ground, between great and blue tits. Swallows fire over the walls as from cannons. Coots and mallards thread through reeds in the neglected banks.
There are numerous studies that show that brownfield sites can have far greater biodiversity than greenfield (read “greenbelt”; see British Wildlife for details). Unlike the productive arable land they are self-sustaining. It’s not a binary opposition.
The UK needs land for housing. The UK needs land for farming – how do we get out of the chemical impasse? Via GM, hydroponics and other high-tech solutions? The Earth needs other species than just homo sapiens. Falling easily into “green” versus “brown” will not fix any of the problems.
There are possible practical solutions, just suggestions. Councils could publicise comparative environmental effects of particular developments. Conservation groups could examine brownfield sites more carefully, and be open about the lack of biodiversity in conventional countryside. Developers should come under pressure from both groups to ensure that a new development incorporates space for other species – gardens and parks are often more like nature reserves than the cropfields beyond. Where farmers are able and willing to ease back on intensive farming in some places to enable wildlife to survive, “greenbelt” could be more rigorously protected than elsewhere.
The paper “Ecological consequences of human niche construction: Examining long-term anthropogenic shaping of global species distributions”, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argues that pristine landscapes have not existed anywhere on Earth for thousands of years. If that is so, then all futures have to involve the human in the natural.
Some parts of the environmental movement want to dethrone humanity from the centre of the world’s attention. But perhaps it’s not a question of displacing – to use a loaded term – but of starting to consider other forms of life alongside the human in ethical considerations, and to bring those ethical considerations to the heart of decision making, rather than debased “economic laws”. “Of”, rather than “from” the land. The land is in the city as much as in the fields. Its value cannot only be given in pre-set terms.