George Monbiot was in tremendous form at the University of Exeter on Thursday night. In a double-header with Alan Watson Featherstone of Trees for Life, sponsored by the Network of Wellbeing and Exeter Community Initiatives, he was passionate, incisive, witty and erudite in turns on rewilding Britain. His central thesis: that the bare, upland landscapes of Wales, the Lake District, the Highlands of Scotland, Dartmoor and elsewhere are not natural environments of deep ecology but "sheep-wrecked" wastelands, the constant grazing of which ensures that nothing of significance is allowed to grow.
True wilderness contains a hierarchy of flora and fauna, from mighty oaks to gentle mosses, and from large mammals to tiny insects and microbial life forms. Despite the association of the terms, wilderness is not barren, but replete with the fullness of a diverse and inter-connected nature. That is what you get if you leave land to do its thing, unmolested by sheep or red deer which nip off the shoots of young trees and bushes long before they have a chance to establish themselves.
Upland sheep farming, we were told, is a loss-making activity, made viable only by the agricultural subsidies that cancel out those losses, with enough left over to provide an income. In effect, farmers are paid to maintain a form of scenery that we have learned to regard as archetypical of rural beauty - the undulating, smooth, green emptiness that inspired the landscape designs of Capability Brown.
The principle of paying farmers to conserve the landscape is not at issue. The approach, however, is deeply questionable. Monbiot points his finger squarely at a system in which the availability of land for agricultural activity is the only criterion for subsidy payments. It doesn't matter whether sheep are actually grazing the land, provided sheep can graze it. The presence of any "permanent ineligible features" - such as trees, dense vegetation or ponds - that prevent sheep from grazing reduces the area on which the subsidy is paid.
In other words, the terms of the agricultural subsidy are designed explicitly to prevent the reemergence of a truly natural landscape, since it is only in those permanent ineligible features that such a landscape can begin to re-establish itself. And since this is an outcome of government policy the economic logic is not hard to find.
Even loss-making hill farming makes a contribution to GDP. But, just as the destruction of a rain-forest for logging or cattle-ranching counts as economic growth in a system that takes no account of the loss of habitat or CO2 storage capacity, so, conversely, does a re-wilded landscape have no value whatsoever in GDP terms.
The whole point of recreating a wilderness is that you do not exploit it for extractive gain. You value it for its natural diversity, which GDP will never do. Yet another reason why anybody with a serious interest in the natural environment should join the Stop GDP movement. We deserve something better - a measurement of wealth that takes account of the human and systemic wellbeing that a truly natural environment bestows.