This year Guardian contributors such as myself were advised to alter the language we use to write about long-standing environmental issues. “Climate change” is no longer adequate to the hour. “Climate crisis” is the paper’s preferred phrase. “Fish stocks” are now “fish populations”, while “global warming” has become “global heating”.
Small in themselves, the linguistic revisions indicate something major: that the message about humankind’s overwhelming impact upon the rest of life on Earth is not only hardening, but breaking through into public consciousness. The issues of wildlife loss are no longer sectoral matters; they have become daily headline news.
Now comes another lyrical and hugely intelligent book to present this story, but through a very specific pair of lenses. Rather than tackling the issues of environmental destruction with a barrage of powerful but impersonal statistics, Julian Hoffman is interested in its effects upon the individual.
He’s not concerned, though, with any old state-funded scientist or campaigner astride the global stage. What he reveals is the impact of environmental degradation upon shopkeepers, school children, factory workers, taxi-drivers, fishermen, or mothers who have never worked outside the home. None of his central characters is anything other than “ordinary”, although through Hoffman’s generous filter we see how exceptional each of them is. When faced with the loss of a beloved landscape, almost all of them have taken action at enormous cost and, sometimes, at personal risk.
One of them is the late Gill Moore, parish councillor on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent and founder of a group to save her thumb-shaped promontory of marshland from plans to develop it as London’s next airport. That this indefatigable dynamo helped to thwart both the then London mayor Boris Johnson and the Norman Foster architectural partnership is part of Hoffman’s hope-filled message that “ordinary” people can and do change the world.
The second lens at work is the power of place. The Anglo-Canadian author lives by the Prespa lakes on the Albanian border with northern Greece. Remote and little-known, it is among Europe’s richest wetlands and was saved from overdevelopment by a group of local champions. Hoffman’s home territory clearly informs his understanding of the appeal of the particular.
The locations he spotlights are mixed. There are internationally recognised or famous habitats, such as the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia, home to some of Europe’s last Balkan lynx, or India’s Pakke Tiger Reserve. Yet he also tackles the fate of allotments in Watford or a tiny green space in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Glasgow, a plot that had been little more than a dump for fly-tippers and drug users.
What matters in these places is not just topography or ecological significance, but human emotion. As the late author and conservationist Alan Gussow suggested, each such place “is a piece of a whole environment that has been claimed by feelings”. It is this subjective terrain that motivates people to cherish the local, but also to defend it from corporate powers.
A key merit of the book is the way that the author moves between the specific and the generic. A good example is his account of the efforts by the Cowley Residents Action Group to save a small patch of ancient woodland on the edge of Sheffield from becoming another motorway service station and retail park.
Hoffman splices into this story a precis of how California’s magnificent redwoods were spared historically from the timbermen’s saw. These overlapping episodes emphasise that, for the Cowley group, this is the same fight. Their wood may not involve the tallest trees on Earth, but it is a place with a history of human contact dating to the 12th century. Ancient woodland is irreplaceable; Hoffman cites the late, great Oliver Rackham: “To re-create an ancient wood is beyond human knowledge.”
His linking of Watford and Assam, or Kent and Macedonia, brings out the underlying commonalities in all these scenarios and emphasises that the efforts to invest nature with a value other than the econometric is a very old campaign. Hoffman is an eloquent writer but he has a tendency to load his palette with rather heavy colour. Ironically the lush prose is used to maximum effect in the most powerful and troubling part of the whole book – his account of a tiny Indonesian island called Bangka.
The place forms part of the Western Pacific “Coral Triangle”, an area that represents just 1.6 per cent of the planet’s ocean surface – albeit 5.7 million square kilometres – but includes half of all coral reefs and three-quarters of all coral species. But how do you convey the biological importance of all this astonishing marine life as a personalised encounter? Hoffman achieves it in one of the finest descriptions of coral I have read:
Underwater, in a vale of light, the reef stretched like a kingdom of unimpeachable pageantry, invested with mobility, colour and lucency. It was like dropping into a psychedelic dream, some mind-altering fantasy of forms so stupefying as to feel suspended not solely in water but within the current of a baroque imagination.
His guides to this underwater paradise are its island champions Ulva and Owen Takke. Despite going to the highest court in Indonesia and invoking national legislation, over and over they find themselves fighting to save Bankga’s reefs and mangrove forest from the Chinese-based mining conglomerate Aempire Resource Group, which wishes to destroy it for iron ore.
What you finally take from this heartfelt book is that the issue of the Sixth Extinction may have dawned on the world’s media, yet the need to safeguard wildlife has just partial support in the corridors of power, whether in Sheffield or Jakarta. Its real champions are not governments or politicians, but extraordinary ordinary individuals, like Ulva Takke and Gill Moore.
Mark Cocker’s most recent book is “A Claxton Diary” (Jonathan Cape)
Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places
Hamish Hamilton, 416pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 10 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in