Sadly, I will never get to visit Antarctica. Most of us will never visit Antarctica. Imagine for a minute that this area of immense natural beauty, ecological richness, wonderful biodiversity, uninhabited by humans (other than researchers) is to be developed commercially for human habitation to satisfy an increasing human population and its associated demands. Development includes residential areas, business sites, shops and warehouses, motorways and service stations, leisure parks and so on. Penguins, whales, seals, albatrosses and a range of other seabirds and wildlife are endangered.
How do you feel about that? Do you think such a (hypothetical) proposal for development on this scale should be evaluated anthropocentrically? Or, despite never having seen it, do you feel an almost spiritual attachment to areas of natural beauty, a 'deep’ emotional and moral response difficult to articulate? It is with the latter response I am interested as it has recently been stirred much closer to home in Scotland where we have our own tiny Antarctica: in Airdrie.
A designated greenbelt of immense beauty exists between Faskine and Woodhall estates, an undeveloped area of environmental and historical interest.
Painting by David Fagan
Woodhall House was built by a Daniel Campbell in the 18th century and demolished around 1924. Campbell commissioned from the botanist William Aiton (who became director of Kew Gardens) a designed landscape around the site of Woodhall House. But little of the original ornamental or feature planting remains other than the walled garden and idyllic 'Lliy Pond’ set in the surrounding woodland area.
My interest in this area was sparked by the work of three members of the 'New Glasgow Realists’ – David Fagan, Brian McFie and Karen Strang – who have sketched and painted numerous works based on the site. Like Antarctica, I had never seen the area; unlike Antarctica, I didn’t even know of its existence. I was impressed by the artists’ work, and believed at first that the photos, videos and artwork were of a beautiful area somewhere in the Highlands. I was astonished to discover that it was half an hour’s drive away in Airdrie. It is also home to otters, badgers, a range of plants and trees as well as the 'Lily Pond’, all of which attracts hundreds of local people to an area of peace and tranquillity.
Painting by Karen Strang
Painting by Brian McFie
It is also of enormous attraction to developers. One development company, Orchard Braes, thinks this greenbelt land should be converted into a 'Europark’ because this ‘represents an outstanding strategic development opportunity which makes best [my italics] use of existing transport infrastructure (M8). Over one million people live within 30 minutes of this site’. Those in support of the development claim the site has few remaining areas of interest and has deteriorated too far to be worthy of preservation. But local campaigners, including the artists, hold a different view. 'Deterioration’ of the ornamental gardens is, rather, a wild regrowth over the last 60 years, as nature reclaimed the gardens. A Facebook campaign, 'Stop the Europark – save our Greenbelt', has been set up desperately trying to save this area of outstanding natural beauty from a plan to build 3,000 houses, a shopping mall, office units and commercial units.
Do you think this is probably the 'best use’ of this site? After all, it does offer an economic boost to the area, will provide thousands of jobs, and integrate Glasgow with Airdrie in a seamless corridor linked to the new motorway. Planning applications to North Lanarkshire Council have not yet been submitted, but are likely to be sought by the developers. The campaigners are fighting to prevent building on the site. They are not against development and house building per se, but there are many brownfield sites across North Lanarkshire which could be developed without removing such a valuable, precious, local and natural resource. So the council will face a genuine moral conundrum, for there are competing and incompatible moral intuitions regarding the value of the environment. How are we to adjudicate between competing environmental demands?
On the one hand there are the claims of what is termed 'shallow ecologists’ who maintain that the environment does indeed have value, but valuable because it supports human life. Of course we had better protect the environment from undue damage, says the shallow ecologist, but only because our own welfare depends upon it.
On the other hand, there is a widespread, gut-level intuition that living species and the ecologies that support them, including the inanimate physical geography, are things of intrinsic value. The environment itself and the other species it supports are not valuable just because they support human life. This 'deep’ ecological approach gives voice to the ineffable feelings we have in regard to the earth’s natural environment whether it is Antarctica or Airdrie. A deep response acknowledges the spiritual, psychological and aesthetic attachment to a place we hold dear.
At best the 'shallow ecologist’ is the view that human needs trump non-human needs. Only the misanthrope denies this. But the deep ecologist is no misanthrope: instead, she does not accept that human wants necessarily trump non-human needs. This view was developed systematically by the Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer Arne Naess (who coined the phrase 'deep ecology’ and is the author of 'The Deep Ecology Movement', 1995). Deep ecology is essentially a non-anthropocentric approach to the environment which tries to do justice to the emotional, moral and aesthetic response we frequently have to the natural environment.
Naess makes eight crucial claims (broadly and briefly below):
1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life have value in themselves ('intrinsic’ value.)
2. Diversity and disparity of life forms contribute to the flourishing and well-being of human and non-human life, and so are to be valued.
3. Humans have no right to reduce this diversity and disparity except to satisfy vital needs.
4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantially smaller human population.
5. Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive (wants, rather than vital needs are the demands of an ever increasing population and the situation is rapidly worsening).
6. Policies must therefore change to affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures.
7. The ideological change will be mainly that of appreciating life quality for a significantly diminished population rather than striving for an increasingly higher standard of living for an ever increasing population.
8. We have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.
How can we apply these to the Greenbelt in Airdrie? The first question is whether the proposed Europark development project is necessary in order to meet vital human needs. No doubt it meets human desires, but that it another matter. If the proposals meet no vital need then the project fails on deep ecological grounds. And since we all at times feel the tug of the deep ecologist’s fundamental intuition, this is not insignificant. However, is the diversity and disparity of Scotland’s ecology really compromised? If not, then perhaps the shallow ecologist is on a firmer footing. This is where the environmental and moral 'bean-counting’ begins.
For what it’s worth, my own view is that Glasgow and Lanarksire as a whole can do without another shopping mall, another parking lot, another cinema. When placed in the balance, the ethic of the deep ecologist outweighs the profit-driven desires of developers. But I don’t say this glibly or lightly. The world of the deep ecologist is not warm and 'huggy’, it is hard-edged and brutal in its prescience.
As is often said, few think that sawing away merrily at the branch upon which we all sit is wise. Most of us accept that we live in a world of finite resources and cannot exhaust them any further. But when confronted with the competing demands of developers, it is often difficult to argue the 'deep’ case. Here is Randall Curren, chair of philosophy and professor of education, University of Rochester, New York:
'[We need to educate] everyone for a world with fewer human beings. The human population of earth will be far lower at the end of this century than it is today. That is all but certain. What is uncertain is how large a human population is sustainable, and how humane or catastrophic the path of descent will be. This is not what I would wish for my children or yours, but it is what they must be prepared for.'
In times of real trouble, humans have shown remarkable willingness to unite in genuine solidarity, to make necessary sacrifices and changes. But the race to ever greater wealth by countries, governments, institutions, businesses and individuals seem as strong as ever. Saving Airdrie’s Greenbelt, this tiny scrap of immense beauty, gives us an opportunity not only to explore and articulate our deep concerns about the proposals to destroy the area, but contribute to the wider discourse around the necessity for 'deep’ thinking about the future of this planet.