Storied Landscapes: The Narrative Approach to Conservation

Landscapes are storied: they are the embodiment of the narratives of the human and non-human lives that have shaped them. Deliberations over how to manage ecosystems – for example, whether to preserve upland landscapes associated with sheep farming or to allow natural processes to ‘rewild’ them – should be oriented around the following question: given the natural and cultural histories of the landscape in question, what would constitute an appropriate continuation of its narrative thus far? 

Athnamulloch 1 exclosure and Athnamulloch Bothy, Glen Affric, May 2006

This is an idea that originates in the work of Alan Holland, who was one of the examiners of my PhD thesis. Together with co-author Kate Rawls, in a 1994 report for the Countryside Council for Wales, he argued that ‘conservation is…about preserving the future as a realisation of the potential of the past’. But how can we determine the best continuation of the narrative or its most appropriate future trajectory? In the 2008 book Environmental Values, Holland and co-authors John O’Neill (my PhD supervisor) and Andrew Light argue that

‘we believe this to be a matter for reasoned debate and reflective judgement on the part of those who are involved in, or have studied, a given situation carefully and thought hard about it: it is a matter, in short, of deliberative judgement, not a matter of algorithmic calculation according to some formula that we, or others, have supplied.’ 

This position – unsatisfying as it may be – is in defiance of the dominant ‘itemising’ approach to environmental decision making, whereby a list of the values associated with particular natural places is compiled, each of which is assigned an economic valuation (often in the form of a monetary figure) in order that they are commensurable with one another on a cost-benefit balance sheet which is used to determine the ‘optimal’ option which maximises benefits over losses. Such a process is beguilingly scientific, but fails to appreciate that if we are to take the plurality of values associated with nature, landscape and place seriously then we must admit that it is just that; a plurality of incommensurable values which cannot be traded off against one another. Decisions (for decisions must be made) involve tragic losses of some values in order to preserve or restore others, and attempts to minimise the ‘net’ loss of value masks this.

Bringing the silage in, Erringden, June 2018

The narrative approach to environmental decision making accommodates value plurality and incommensurability, and does not attempt to substitute algorithmic, calculative procedures for hard, political judgement. It is this approach that is central to how I approach thinking about the past, present and various potential futures of the landscapes I love.

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