The Wood Wide Web and a Bill of Rights

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Today, the Guardian’s Review section carries a piece by Robert Macfarlane about a growing movement to grant rights to parts of the landscape, seen by some as one way to protect and preserve them. It opens by describing how in December 2018 the Ohio city of Toledo passed a ‘Bill of Rights’ for Lake Erie, which for years had been heavily polluted and reached a crisis point in 2014 when for three days, during the hottest part of the year, it had been impossible to extract drinkable water from the lake.

The piece goes on to discuss the pros and cons of these laws, especially the potential problems of recognising, say, a river or a forest as a ‘person’ in law, and how that might play out in legal disputes.

At the heart of the Extinction Crisis we are currently suffering, in what is now recognised as the Anthropocene – the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. – is the way that we, as a society, view the world we live in and those we share it with. And this has powerful consequences at a time when we are directly causing the extinction of so many plant and animal species, and thence the wholesale destruction of ecosystems and the consequent changes to the climate this triggers.

I have always thought of the Earth as consisting of two distinct layers; a rocky planet – a core – wrapped in a mantle of life, a mantle whole and made up of countless billions of organisms all influencing and influenced by each other; a true web of life that we are all part of, but no longer seem to recognise. And by the same token when we think of somewhere as a ‘place’, we commonly imagine it in isolation, as though it existed somehow despite its myriad neighbours. For example, if I ask you to imagine ‘London’ you may have an image of Central London with its familiar landmarks, filled with hurrying people and buses and cars. Or it might be the Docklands area, the West End – any one of thousands of parts of the city. But would you have an image of a city connected to the counties around it by roads, by streams and rivers, by areas of woodland and fields, the flight paths of birds, the daily migration of commuters or the dominant weather patterns, and then this greater area connected even further to the rest of the country, and then this country connected by seas filled with life to other countries and continents?

And this same lack of imagination frequently makes us see everything around us with the blinkered eyes of our own vested interests. Some will view a landscape as something to be exploited purely for financial gain, be it to extract oil, perhaps, or to maximise the yield of farmland by destroying woodland and hedgerow, infilling ponds and killing wildlife. Some may feel it imperative to build more and bigger roads, covering dozens more square kilometres with concrete and asphalt, as though it were so necessary that we should always be able to travel faster than we do already.

It is still quite controversial, but botanists are just beginning to understand the extent to which trees communicate with each other and the remarkable way their roots are all connected through networks of fungal threads – the Wood Wide Web, as it is sometimes called. It is supposed that trees communicate to each other through these threads about things such as insect attacks, which may trigger defence mechanisms in individuals before they are actually under attack. In that way alone, it is appropriate to think of a forest as a single living entity.

To return to the laws that might protect the natural world, what we really need are laws that recognise the importance of this mantle, and how every part of it relates to every other. And this includes our own part in this relationship, since we are very much part of it, and in the end we depend upon it for our own lives.

31 thoughts on “The Wood Wide Web and a Bill of Rights

  1. Western society has become so short-sighted and self-focused that far too many are unwilling to give up even the smallest convenience in order to preserve the environment for future generations. It’s about profit, it’s about having fun, it’s about feeling superior to all other species. Rather the theme of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. And, it’s partly about complacency … “It will all work out, for it always has”. We don’t often understand the science, cannot see, feel or hear CO2 being put into the air we are breathing, so it’s rather an unreal concept to us. Much easier to just go on living the lives we always have, and leave it for “somebody” to figure out. Sigh.

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    1. It does make it more difficult when it’s not always easy to see the consequences, even when they are happening right in front of us. This strengthens the doubts of the doubters and makes it easier for the deniers to say everything’s fine.

      The evidence is there, but easy to ignore if one is minded to. And the reliance on technology is worrying. We might come up with something, yes, but it’s hardly a given. And even if we were to do so, we might still be left with a world in which it would hardly be worth existing.

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  2. Wise words indeed Mick, what a shame that so many can’t see what is happening all around them. Unfortunately western society seems to be becoming far more selfish and short-term-focused. Money controls the world and it’s not financially sensible to do anything about climate change and the planet. Who makes a profit from that? I’m always dumbstruck by all of our American friends who vehemently deny that climate issues are real. Unbelievable.We all need to act now.

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      1. Lots of interesting points – the concept of trees communicating will be hard to grasp for many, but that is because we see things from a limited mamalian viewpoint! The fact that octopuses turn out to be highly intelligent is a clue that life is more complex than we can imagine. I like the image of the earth with its mantle.

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  3. I agree that the “natural” world needs representation at the table when it comes to plans that involve trees, rocks, animals. But I’m not so sure that we humans are the best candidates to represent the cause since we are so easily persuaded by greed. But if not humans, who, then? A dilemma, for certain.

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  4. My neighbor who owns a piece of land that I like to call The Minnesota Mosquito Refuge, recently received a 3 inch thick document in the mail. It looked official so he devoted several hours to pursuing through it to figure out what it was all about.

    Somewhere about two inches into the document, the federal government threatened him with a $650,000 fine. A quarter of an inch later, the reason why was revealed. The Dept of Agriculture was accusing him of parking the back half of his old aluminacraft boat on The Minnesota Mosquito preserve land.

    The truth was,they were wrong. He wisely had left 50′ strip of his own property unmowed as a buffer between him and the feds. But examining a satellite photo, they saw grass then prairie and thought they had a “gotchya”.

    Rather than calling him up, (they have his phone number and email) and saying, “hey, could you move your boat six feet?”, they spent countless hours preparing a lawsuit.

    To put things in perspective, in the old days (30 years ago) when the Dept of Ag was not controlled 22 year old environmental activists from ivy league schools on the east or west coast, they came to him and offered to put the swamp in a federal program to protect a rare sedge (grass).

    He said, ‘sure, it would be an honor.”

    Nowadays, that would not happen because of the hostility between landowners and bureaucrats and the blame for that lies completely with the government.

    To give another example of a 50′ buffer strip. A few years ago, our governor proposed a 50′ set back (green strip) along stream beds to protect the water from agriculture run off.

    Great idea. However, nowhere in the plan was there mention of compensation.

    At a townhall meeting with the State Commissioner of Agriculture, the Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and several state representatives, a young farmer stood up and asked a simple question.

    “You say we have to leave a 50′ green strip on each side of a stream?”

    “Right.”

    “50’ from where?”

    “Huh?”

    “From the middle of the stream? From the edge? From the top of the bank? And what exactly is the ‘middle’ of a stream or the ‘top’ of a bank? Streams move around and the banks can rise half a mile.”

    “Uh, I dunno.”

    “Really?”

    “It’s in the proposed law, I think.”

    “So let’s get this straight. I have to hire a lawyer to interpret the law, a hydrologist to set the boundary. I lose several acres without compensation and still have to pay taxes on them. Now I am looking at losing approximately 10 acres which is going to cost me north of $60,000. Are you going to explain this to my banker?”

    There are good actors and bad actors in farming, government and in the environmental movement – but what is happening around here is a seething hostility to a subject that was once embraces by almost everyone.

    And I blame this entirely on the activists who cannot see beyond their own passion.

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    1. I know next to nothing about the law in the US, but it sounds a ridiculous waste of time and resources to send a huge document like that without even checking up on the facts first, and clearly also ridiculous to enact a law without deciding upon the parameters first.

      Clearly your Department of Agriculture is a very different beast to our own Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That is run by Civil Servants and probably the very last thing they might be accused of is being activists. And although they have teeth, they are frequently accused of being soft on those who break the laws. An example being a recent case in Yorkshire where a company caused severe pollution of a river but was only fined a tiny sum.
      This may be because the department would rather work with farmers and companies where possible, rather than antagonise them. And perhaps that is generally the right way. There are a huge number of farmers working in environmentally friendly ways, now, especially as they can see there are many advantages in doing so, not least in improved soil fertility and greater numbers of beneficial birds and insects.

      All our activists tend to be outside of government, and their activities are intended to raise public awareness and to put pressure on the government and on big businesses, to change both laws and business practices. Certainly, in the UK, if it were not for these activists – primarily the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion – the government would never have passed a resolution declaring a climate emergency. And although this wasn’t something they wanted to do, and it has no particular legal ramification, it does make it harder for the government not to begin to put in place better laws and regulations, and so it has had a positive result.

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  5. As an addendum to my previous comment, our family has turned over approximately 700 acres (in multiple plots) to wetlands and prairie over the last decade. In recent years, we sold it all off rather than keep it as a legacy. The new buyers are typically developers who destroy a wetland in the metropolitan area and have to buy wetland out here as a swap. That and city people who like to shoot things.

    The reason the land was sold is that working with the government is simply unsustainable.

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    1. Again, perhaps it is in my interpretation of US law, but for developers even to be allowed to destroy a wetland site just by agreeing to purchase another wetland site is bat-shit crazy. That obviously does nothing to prevent these sites being destroyed, and makes even less sense than the ridiculous carbon offsets and trading indulged in by individuals and governments in the pretence they are doing something positive to reduce damaging emissions.

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    1. I have indeed, Stuart. I read one of his books about fifteen years ago (I forget the title, but I think it’s a well-known one. It’s probably got ‘Gaia’ in the title!) and I agreed with a lot of what he wrote. He was probably the first person to publish a book that really talked about the world as a complete, holistic system.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Quite possibly, Stuart. Unusually for me, I got rid of the book as soon as I’d read it, even though I’d enjoyed it and would have probably re-read it later. I have an excuse, though, I was trekking in Nepal and I just wanted to reduce the weight in my rucksack if I could!

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      1. Oddly, I can’t find my copy either. You at least had a good reason to get rid. I suspect mine went to the charity shop in one of my occasional ‘tidy up’ sessions I suffer from when the shelves start to overflow!

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  6. Here’s what it all comes down to as you so beautifully said, Mick: “imagination frequently makes us see everything around us with the blinkered eyes of our own vested interests.”
    Also, Wide Wood Web?! Never heard that term before and now I am going to use it all the time! ;0)

    Liked by 1 person

          1. It’s one of the first – maybe from the 70’s or 80’s? – and recounts much of the scientific testing that was done to determine that plants have a consciousness. Truly fascinating and inspirational, Mick.

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