Last night Karin and I returned from two weeks of field work plus a period of writing in Tenerife. The first week was devoted to our annual University of Northampton undergraduate field course which I’ve written about before – see this recent book review for instance.
I don’t normally watch much television when I’m in Tenerife; we tend to get back from field work early evening, jump in the shower, then go for a beer and a meal, then early to bed for field work the next day. But there were two bits of TV that I made a point of viewing, and actually for the same reasons: news reports about the fire that severely damaged Notre Dame Cathedral and David Attenborough’s documentary about the current effects of climate change. Both of these were about the destruction of heritage (cultural and natural) and how this affects people. I have to say that I shed a tear watching them.
The response of some billionaires and large companies, offering millions of Euros towards Notre Dame’s restoration, was criticised by some environmentalists and others concerned with social justice. Here are some examples:
Over at the Ecology for the Masses blog, Sam Perrin in turn criticised these responses, suggesting that “What environmentally-minded people need to start doing is examine the other cause. Why do they get more attention? How have they gone about making their issue so ubiquitous? Try and examine WHY the Notre Dame Cathedral has received over 1 billion USD in reconstruction pledges when the Great Barrier Reef languishes every day.”
Jeremy Fox of the Dynamic Ecology blog clearly agrees with this sentiment (read his comments) and posted a link to Sam’s piece. I have to say that I got a bit irritated at Jeremy’s use of the phrase “pet causes”, and responded that: “I wouldn’t describe wholesale destruction of habitats, over-exploitation of natural resources, species’ extinction rates orders of magnitude higher than the background, environmental degradation that is affecting people’s health and livelihoods, and the accelerating effects of climate change as a “pet cause”. We’re not talking about raising funds for new books in the local library here!”
If you follow that series of comments and replies on Dynamic Ecology you’ll see that Jeremy pushed back strongly against my response, and I replied in return. I stand by what I said though, that people do not react to these sorts of events logically, they react emotionally. Hence the initial emotional outpouring of offering millions of Euros to restore Notre Dame is matched by an equally emotional response of “think of all of the other things that we could do with that money”. The response from environmentalists and others was a reasonable one, as was the offer of millions of Euros for Notre Dame. Both are equally valid. Whether both are equally “important” is something that we could debate forever and I urge you to read through the posts and comments and make up your own mind.
On our last full day in Tenerife Karin and I explored an area of xerophytic scrub vegetation that surrounded a small rocky hill (see image below). On top of the hill is a set of ancient rock carvings produced by the indigenous Guanches, one thousand years ago or more (the image at the start of this post). The Guanches had positioned some of the rocks so that they produced different notes when struck. It was clearly a site that had deep significance to these people prior to the European conquest of the islands. However the site is completely unprotected and there’s been no effort to interpret what is a culturally important bit of archaeology – such carvings are not common in the Canary Islands. In addition the surrounding vegetation is being slowly degraded by illegal tipping of rubbish. These struck me as a depressingly fitting accompaniment to the subject of this post.