The Loss of Nature and The Nature of Loss
Michael McCarthy

We are gathered here to explore and celebrate the presence in our lives of other living things, particularly birds, which inform and nourish our imaginations, and inspire us, and to affirm their importance for our culture as a whole, in an undertaking which I am sure everyone here considers timely, relevant, necessary and utterly worthwhile. Yet at the risk of seeming perverse right at the outset, I feel it is necessary to point out that what we may have to deal with, increasingly, is not their presence in our lives, but their disappearance.

We live in a remarkable and troubling time, for the natural world. Its defining characteristic is increasingly, not beauty, nor riches, nor, if you like, life-force, but vulnerability. It is under threat, as it has never been before, from the ever-more-oppressive scale of the human enterprise, from the activities of a world population which doubled from three to six billion in four short decades, between 1960 and 2000, and which in the four decades to come will probably increase by three billion more.

The enormous rise in our numbers simply means that the human activities which have always impinged on the world to some degree, are now doing so to an extent which affects it globally, leading to declines and losses of species and ecosystems everywhere, at an ever-increasing rate; and this human role in reshaping the planet, like you can reshape a turnip with a carving knife, is now so pronounced as to be dominant.

There are probably about five major causes: habitat loss, overexploitation and hunting, pollution of ecosystems, the effect of invasive species, and more and more looming on the horizon, the threat of climate change. And the combination of all of these has made for a situation so singular that it has led, in the last ten years, to the creation of two wholly new metaphors, in response.

One is the Sixth Great Extinction. In the geological record researchers now recognise five earlier cataclysmic events of the Earth’s prehistory, when most species on the planet died out – five great extinctions, the most recent being at the boundary of the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, 65 million years ago, which may have been cause by a meteorite striking the Earth, and which saw the disappearance of the dinosaurs. But the rate at which species are now disappearing makes some biologists consider we are living in a sixth major extinction comparable in scale to the others, except that this one has been caused by humans – by us.

The other metaphor is also inspired by the idea of geological periods, specifically by analogy with the present period since the end of the last Ice Age, which is known as the Holocene, from the Greek for “most recent.” The suggestion is that the modern era is characterised above all by human influence, by such a significant global impact by man on the Earth’s ecosystems, that it should therefore be referred to not as the Holocene any more, but as the Anthropocene.

You may say that there have always been extinctions, and there have. But the actual damage we are doing to the natural world, it scale and its rate, has become clearer than ever before during 2010, as this was declared by the United Nations to be the International Year of Biodiversity. I personally think that biodiversity is an awful word, and I avoid it whenever I can, but it is something. I’m afraid, which we now have to engage with, as it is the term now used in the policymaking debate.

In May the UN produced its Global Biodiversity Outlook which confirmed that the world had failed to meet the target of reducing biodiversity loss by 2010, and said that natural systems across the world were at risk of degradation and collapse. And last month the IUCN produced a report on the world’s vertebrates, the first time they had been assessed as a whole. This looked at the conservation status of 25,780 species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish, and found that one fifth of the total were now threatened with extinction, this ranging from 13 per cent of birds, to 41 per cent of amphibians. The world’s frogs are disappearing at a rate of knots. And the situation, in spite of some notable successes in bringing very rare species back from the brink, is getting steadily worse. The situation is very similar with plants; as report from Kew two months ago calculated that there was a growing extinction threat to about one fifth of the world’s plant species.

This year has also seen two notable and disturbing assessments of the conservation status of wildlife in the British Isles: one, from Natural England, called Lost Life, looked at everything that has vanished in England: 492 species are known to have gone extinct, nearly all in the last 200 years. The other, called Silent Summer, produced by a team of eminent ecologists, some of whom are here today, looked at the state and prospect of wildlife in Britain and Ireland and said it was disastrous; Norman Maclean, the editor, was quoted as saying: “The evidence is that we could be in the middle of the next great extinction of wildlife, both globally and in Britain.”

Just to look briefly at what is happening in this country: everybody here probably knows that just in the time since the Beatles stopped recording, we’ve lost half our farmland birds; but we’ve also lost at least a third of our moths in the same period, About three quarters of our butterfly species are declining, and our aquatic insects, like mayflies, are in freefall.

There’s been a great thinning; there’s just less of everything, everywhere, and we can see that very clearly with wildflowers. During the 20 th century about a dozen plants have gone nationally extinct, ranging from summer lady’s tresses to swine’s succory, and from thorow-wax to narrow-leaved cudweed. And you might think, that’s not that bad, 12 over the course of a century.

But that gives an entirely false impression. For in the millennium year, Peter Marren looked at it in a different way; he analysed all the county floras for extinctions, and if you do it at that level, the picture is dramatically different. Northamptonshire, for example, had no fewer than 93 native species go extinct between 1930 and 1995; Gloucestershire lost 78 species between 1900 and 1986; Lincolnshire lost 77 species between 1900 and 1985; Durham lost 69 species between 1900 and 1988; and so it went on.

Perhaps the most dismaying aspect of all of this loss of nature is the large-scale public indifference which has accompanied it, That might sound strange to this audience, composed of people engaged with the natural world, but it is nonetheless the case that, faced with this unprecedented assault on the planet’s fragile web of life, most people, across the world, do not care.

That is dramatically evident in the very low political priority which biodiversity loss everywhere carries; for politicians’ concerns are merely a faithful reflection of the concerns of their electors. We can understand why. Most people in the world are poor, and have pressing concerns of survival; and a majority of people in the world now live in cities.

But for anyone who does care deeply about the survival of nature, there is a pressing problem. What are we to do, faced with this indifference?

It seems to me that the answer is simple: we need to show why it does matter. To show, what is the true nature of the loss. What is the nature of the loss of nature?

Well, one way of showing how nature matters is already substantially under way, and that is the concept of ecosystem services. The idea is simple but compelling: that undeveloped nature provides services to human society such as clean water, flood protection, fuel wood, carbon dioxide storage, oxygen production, fish, rain, and many more, which can be valued in financial terms which are large enough to justify protecting it. It may be very much worth your while to spend the money to save a mangrove swamp, as it is protecting your shoreline from tidal surges which if not held back, would do enormous financial damage to your coast.

This idea is now gripping the world of … biodiversity, if you like. We can put a precise date on its arrival: it was launched in 1997 with a book called Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems edited by a young German-American biologist at Stanford University called Gretchen Daily, who is really the godmother of the ecosystem services concept. And it took off immediately: in the same year, 1997, a paper was published in Nature which estimated the economic worth of 17 of the Earth’s major ecosystem services at 33 trillion dollars annually; and from there, the idea was at the heart of the UN’s Millennium Ecosystems Assessment, which was published in 2005, and it was at the heart of the recent meeting of the UN Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan, which was presented with a major report on the subject of TEEB – the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity.

The political advantage of the TEEB report, like the Stern report on climate change, was that it talked about cash values, and this attracted the attention of finance ministers, and once you do that, your issue is much more firmly on the agenda, and you’re starting to get political leverage. You can see absolutely why people are so keen on the ecosystem services idea: because it provides a rationale for preserving nature in the face of development imperatives which, in many parts of the world, may seem overwhelming.

But I cannot be the only person who looks upon this concept, necessary as it is, with a sinking heart.

Is this crude, utilitarian measure to be the only defence of the natural world in the face of the ever-increasing mortal threats to it? Is that all nature is worth to us? Flood defence, etcetera? Is money to be the only way of assessing its loss?

It seems to me that it is imperative now, and overdue, that we start asking, and asking loudly: what does the loss of nature mean to us in a deeper way?

If the human imagination is founded in the natural world, has its roots in the natural world and takes its very scale from the scale of the natural world, as many of us believe – what does it means, when the natural world begins to be destroyed, and to vanish … to our spirits?

What does it mean, to the human imagination? What does it mean to our souls? Can we articulate this? What is the other mattering? What is the other value, the deeper value?

I have tried myself to attempt some sort of answer to this question, and my way has been to look at our summer migrant birds, some of which are sharply declining, and try to work out what their loss might represent.

Migration is a fertile field for reflection. The phenomenon of the birds that come to us to breed every year from Africa is a remarkable one: about five billion of them are thought to journey annually from the African continent to Eurasia, of which about 16 million come to Britain, in a vast aerial river which is one of the winders of the natural world, a staggering, enormous event on the scale of the Gulf Stream, or the Indian Monsoon.

But it is also a remarkable event culturally, because the coming of these birds has been celebrated by people for thousands of years, for the principal reason that with their arrival, they bring the spring. They signal the change in the year. And because of this, they resonate in every European society, and have done since Greece and Rome, and even before.

You may well know this:

“For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

The turtle of course is the turtle dove, and that’s the Hebrew poet who wrote The Song of Solomon, the loveliest book of The Bible, celebrating the bird’s springtime return to ancient Israel, in about 900BC. Yet many of our other migrants have been celebrated for almost as long. The nightingale doesn’t just go back to Keats; if you remember, Keats himself said, in the famous Ode

This voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown

And the nightingale is, for example, at the heart of one of the loveliest and most mysterious of Latin poems, the Pervigilium Veneris, the Eve of the Festival of Venus, where the anonymous poet spends a hundred lines praising the springtime and then suddenly bursts out that the nightingale is singing but that he cannot sing, and we never find out why, only that his silence is destroying him. And the cuckoo goes back to the beginnings of English: the oldest extant song in the language is Summer is icumin in, with the chorus of Lhude sing cucu! which was written in about 1250, probably by a monk in Reading Abbey.

In fact, all these birds figure hugely in European folklore, legend and literature, And all these birds are disappearing.

The turtle dove has dropped in numbers by 70 per cent since 1995, but by 89 per cent since 1970, so there are now vast tracts of land in England which once held turtle doves which are bare of them. The nightingale has dropped by 53 per cent since 1995, but also, according to an unpublished figure calculated this year in this building [Headquarters of the British Trust for Ornithology] by 91 per cent since 1970, so for every ten places which held singing nightingales in England forty years ago, nine have now fallen silent. And the cuckoo has dropped by 44 per cent since 1995 and 58 per cent since 1970, a figure which actually means that in many parts of southern England especially, cuckoos are no longer heard.

Other migrant birds have shown similar drastic falls. According to the latest figures, spotted flycatchers are down by 85 per cent since 1970 and tree pipits by 73 per cent; and just since 1995, wood warblers are down by 61 per cent, whinchats are down by 57 per cent, pied flycatchers are down by 50 per cent, and swifts are down by 29 per cent.

I talked to many people about these losses, and my experience was that to people who were aware of the birds, they often mattered very greatly, even if they couldn’t always explain it. There is no conventional response to the situation of not hearing a cuckoo, where a cuckoo has always been heard; it is new, and on the face of it trivial, but the people who are experiencing it sense profoundly that it is not trivial, even if they are unable to say why. A man or woman who laments that they have lost the spotted flycatchers from their garden will like as not be treated by society with amused condescension, society not appreciating that the loss is symptomatic of something much greater going awry in the working of the world.

These disappearances will clearly mean many different things to different people, although I did take what to me were two dismaying general meanings from the migrants’ decline.

The first was that this was not just the loss of species, but the loss of one of the profoundest motions in the world, a living announcement of the spring. For the arrivals of the migrants mark the most significant of all changes, not just the change from the cold dark times to the warm light times, exhilarating though that is, but the deeper change, from death to rebirth. Their return, year after year, has always been a testament to the earth’s great cycle; they show that although all life ends, new life comes as well; that although death is certain, renewal is eternal. Or at least, renewal has been eternal; if the turtle doves and the nightingales and the cuckoos come no longer, where is renewal then?

The other meaning I took was an extension of this, which was really based on a line in Ted Hughes’ wonderful poem about swifts, the one which has a shout near the beginning, of “Look! They’re back!”

And Hughes wrote

They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working…

He meant that such was the incredibly difficult nature of their tremendous journeys against all the odds, that to have them arrive successfully meant that the world was still working properly – and I looked at the idea that if they don’t arrive, maybe the world isn’t working any more.

But what these losses may mean is different for each of us, especially if the creatures which are disappearing have meaning for you already. If you’ve always had a cuckoo and you lose your cuckoos, you can articulate that any way you want, you can mark it any way you want – what is important is that you do mark it, and you do articulate it.

For loss of nature is enormous. Loss of nature is everywhere. And loss of nature is only going to get worse as the century progresses. Yet I personally don’t think that creative writers and artists have come to terms with or properly engaged with loss in the natural world.

We say here, in this gathering, that we want to reclaim concern for nature, back from just the scientists, and put it at the heart of society; yet my own view is that if loss is the key thing about nature at the moment, scientists are dealing with this loss, biologists are dealing with this loss, even economists are beginning to deal with the loss of nature – but writers and artists aren’t.

You can quote me Rachel Carson, and Silent Spring, the book which 48 years ago sparked the environmental movement, but I will say to you that Rachel Carson was a marine biologist first, and a writer second. There is poetry of nature, a deeply established poetry of nature, which we have had for hundreds of years and which continues, but not yet a poetry of the loss of nature (although there is a wonderful poem by Philip Larkin called Going). I think, as everyone here does, that the natural world is wonderful, but it sometimes seems to me that people are so busy explaining how wonderful it is that they are ignoring the fact that it is disappearing before their eyes.

You might think that this is an exaggeration. You might think that much of nature is still here, enough to inspire an essay or a poem, or to stimulate a painting or a sculpture – but some things really have gone. And I’ll tell you one. Abundance has gone – and the beauty of abundance, and the thrill, and the wonder of natural abundance: showers of skylarks, clouds of butterflies, seas of poppies, and less obvious things, such as snowstorms of moths in the car headlights at night.

They’ve gone.

D’you think they are coming back? Because they are not. They’re not coming back. They’re gone. But where are the elegies? More than that, where are the laments? And where’s the anger?

This meeting is I suppose about creating a movement, to articulate newly, through literature and art, what nature means to all of us, to the human animal. But given the circumstances, articulating what its loss may mean seems to me one of the most important endeavours that such a movement could undertake. I think in fact it’s essential, because loss is the unhappy background music to nature in the 21st century: it is now an overt background theme to almost everything, just as the organochlorine pesticide poisoning of raptors in the 1960s was the unspoken background to JA Baker’s magnificent obsession with his peregrines.

But there’s another reason why we should try to say out loud what the loss of nature means, and that is, to fight back. Not to accept the loss. To defend the natural world, not sit there mutely while the Sixth Great Extinction rolls around us, not to be the passive spectators of the arrival of the Anthropocene Age. The scientists are fighting it, the biologists and the ecologists, and now even economists are fighting it and I cheer them on – but ultimately, I think if creative writers and artists properly take up the cause, they can do it even more effectively.

Joseph Conrad pointed out in a famous preface to one of his short novels that the enterprise of the scientist or the intellectual may have more immediate impact, but that of the artist is more enduring, because it goes far deeper; the statement of fact, however powerful, does not take hold like the image does.

We need to create those images.

Let literature and art, let writing and painting and sculpture, and music too be put to the defence of the natural world, alongside the concept of ecosystem services, and monetary value.

Let us try to articulate the other value – the deeper value.

For we as humans need that articulation of what the loss of nature means to our souls, and the natural world has never more needed that defence.

Thetford, Friday 19th November, 2010