Mark Cocker

To Hell in a handcart — again

The more we know about environmental damage, according to Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm, the more of it we seem to do

To Hell in a handcart  — again
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The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy

Michael McCarthy

John Murray, pp. 262, £

Despite the offer of joy proposed in the subtitle, this is a deeply troubling book by one of Britain’s foremost journalists on the politics of nature. Michael McCarthy was the Independent’s environmental editor for 15 years, and his new work is really a summation of a career spent pondering the impacts of humankind on the world’s ecosystems.

The case he lays bare with moving clarity in the opening chapters is compelling stuff. Essentially he argues that the world of wild creatures, plants, trees and whole habitats — you name it — is going to Hell in a handcart as a consequence of what he calls ‘the human project’.

The cultural response to the various well-documented losses inflicted over the 20th century by industrial capitalism and socialist command economies alike has been two basic environmental arguments. The first is sustainable development, which is an optimistic vision of growth but managed within the safe boundaries of the Earth’s natural systems.

More recently environmentalists have presented a harder-headed set of arguments under the heading ‘ecosystems services’. The argument runs that nature provides a suite of crucial benefits and functions. If we were to manufacture these artificially, they would cost us eye-watering sums of money. Pollination, for instance, is a prerequisite for the entire human diet, but is performed for us free of charge by hosts of insects. It is calculated that if we had to stump up for the work of the bumblebee or pollen beetle we’d have to find €153 billion annually. By placing monetary values on parts of nature we’ll come to appreciate what is at stake and, theoretically, work to sustain them.

McCarthy suggests that for many reasons, centred on the fundamental short-term selfishness of us all, both philosophies are doomed. In two case studies he maps out how we are eroding the very basis of life on Earth. His first took him to the shores of China and Korea’s Yellow Sea, which is host to one of the wonders of the avian world, known technically as the East Asia/Australia Flyway — a river of 50 million wading birds that crosses the Pacific twice annually during migration. This astonishing flow of life converges in a small area of the Yellow Sea shoreline for a vital stopover and one Korean spot called Saemangeum was at the epicentre.

Not any more, however. The Koreans out of almost wilful destructiveness built the world’s longest concrete barrage and obliterated the entire estuary. Eight years after its construction they still haven’t even used the reclaimed land.

Before there is time for any kind of smug recoil from the vanity of foreigners,

McCarthy outlines how the British too have fouled their nest. Building on statistics acquired over decades by bodies such as the British Trust for Ornithology, Plantlife and the Rothamsted Institute, he shows how we have lost half of all our wildlife in the last third of the 20th century.

His best illustration of this involves the moth snowstorm of the book’s title.

McCarthy asks those of us over 50 to recall our evening car journeys of the 1960s and earlier. During nocturnal drives one would frequently have to stop to remove the veritable blizzard of chitin as dead moths accumulated on the car’s windscreen and headlights. Not any more. That strangely wonderful indicator of abundance has been sprayed out of our lives by agricultural addiction to what the author calls ‘-cides’ — the herbicides, fungicides and insecticide that are applied on average 20 times to every conventional arable crop.

What is to be done? In the rest of the book McCarthy charts the transformative impact of his own encounters with nature. Sometimes the joys are simple, like the sight of snowdrops in late winter or the first brimstone butterfly of spring or the gorgeous marine haze of bluebells in April. Sometimes they are more private pleasures, such as fishing for brown trout in the gin-clear chalk streams of southern England.

At the heart of all these encounters is deep fulfilment, which McCarthy attempts to elevate to a kind of principle that should shape and govern our relations with nature. The author’s joy looks and sounds very similar to ‘biophilia’, a proposition made by the internationally celebrated naturalist E. O. Wilson that all humanity at its core is nourished and dependent upon contact with the other parts of life — wild plants, ancient trees, beautiful birds, delicate butterflies etc.

Alas, neither joy nor biophilia is making too much head way in altering our relations with nature. One wonders if shock and shame might be necessary for us to undergo a collective change of heart. Either way, McCarthy gives us both barrels in this powerful, heartfelt and compelling book.

Mark Cocker is a writer and naturalist. His books include Crow Country and Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet. Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16 Tel: 08430 600033