There should probably be a little disclaimer before I continue with this post… I fully support refugees entering other countries and I believe they have the right to settle somewhere safe. Their homes have been devastated by a combination of forces, none of which are their fault; the question of their religion or culture should not even be entertained. I think most European countries are affluent enough to share with those in need, and I fully support the #RefugeesWelcome movement. With regard to long-term strategy, I’m not a politician and I don’t know enough about world affairs to pose a solution.
What prompted me to write this post is a statistic I’ve seen floating around the Twittosphere, mainly by refugee supporters trying to hush the pesky racists. The meme explains how refugees aren’t trying to steal our jobs, incinerate National Trust properties or turn every fish and chip shop into a mosque… Yet this particular little box grated on me slightly. More than slightly.
It’s this 1% stuff that’s bugging me. The idea that only 1% of the British Isles is developed is undeniably misleading. To the average Briton with little knowledge of ecology or geography, that would imply that 1% of the country is concrete jungle; all that remains is rolling hills and woodland as far as the eye can see, birds, butterflies and bunnies cascading out of every shrub.
While it’s true that urban areas do make up around 1% of British land space, that certainly doesn’t mean that the remaining 99% is fresh grassland ready for bulldozing. According to the World Bank, in 2011 the percentage of British land used for agriculture was 70.95%. We may spot a field of Jersey cows or a bright paddock of rapeseed crops, and think we are looking at quintessential British countryside. The truth is that crops, silage and livestock can cause serious deterioration in biodiversity and not provide much healthy wildlife habitat at all. In the last century we have lost 96% of our hay meadows, one of the most important habitats for bees and insects responsible for pollinating our food. How can we think such actions can continue without serious consequences for our world and ourselves?
I suppose there’s something fundamentally wrong with the term ‘developed’. Britain is a ‘developing’ country; we are supposedly much better off because we have big buildings and a strong currency. The fact that we call urban areas ‘developed’ is baffling to me. We’ve poured concrete over green spaces and filled the surrounding land with litter, and this is ‘development’? This is progress? And now we’re claiming that there’s plenty of room for more people because we can just concrete over the rest of the country…
I do actually believe that we can provide homes for more people in this country through redeveloping wildlife-poor brownfield sites and preventing the rich buying five homes and leaving four empty. But we have to stop seeing our green spaces as blank canvases for more buildings. We pave over flood meadows, designed to naturally absorb water from streams and rivers, and then we wonder why flooding increases? We disconnect ourselves further and further from nature, and we are confused that mental health problems are on the rise. Healthy seas and woodlands provide vital carbon capture services, and if more farmers follow wildlife-friendly farming, our use for pesticides will decline rapidly; yet we continue to undervalue our natural landscapes and we underestimate the power of nature. As Tony Juniper wrote in The Guardian two years ago:
The longer we continue to disregard the roles played by natural systems and to build our economic castles on foundations of sand, the bigger the costs that will fall to future generations. While we might enjoy some comfort now as we degrade and plunder nature, it is our children and grandchildren who will pay.
I think my main point is not to confuse this 1% statistic with genuinely good reasons to help refugees. It’s been wonderful to see how many lovely people took part in the #RefugeesWelcome march through London today – I believe the number is officially ‘tens of thousands’. But last year I took part in the fantastic Climate March along Embankment, where the turnout was only around ten thousand. While it’s brilliant that citizens march for any kind of social justice, it’s quite amazing to see how our priorities can differ.
If you would like to help with either the Climate Crisis or the Refugee Crisis, here are a few useful links: