11 October 2008

Measuring values

By Marguerite Finn

Don't it always seem to go / that you don't know what you've got till its gone / They've paved Paradise / put up a parking lot!

So sang Joni Mitchell in the 1960s and her words are as relevant in 2008 as they were forty years ago – perhaps even more so in a world where paving over the countryside is seen as a sign of the progress essential to endless 'economic growth' and where unsought business parks are supplementing the parking lots.

On our allotment at Great Plumstead the noise of the traffic on the A47 seems to me like an endless succession of aggressive roars. To a county councillor, arguing about the planned Norwich Northern Distributor Road (NDR), much closer than the A47, it's a continuous loud rumble. To my partner, wearing a hearing aid, it is an uncomfortable and constant sibilant hiss. To avoid it, he usually takes off his hearing aid whilst working on the allotment. But then he can't hear the blackbird in the willow tree nearby.

The NDR's arrival would spell the end of any rural peace to the north east of Norwich, as the proposed 'ecotown' at Rackheath already prefigures. Rural villages would become anonymous, indistinguishable suburbs; blackbirds, if they survived, would perch on streetlights, confused by the intemperate light.

In their environmental assessments for the NDR, the planners measure road noise in decibels, and contrarily calculate that these will somehow decrease as the number of vehicles using the NDR inevitably increases! But it is impossible to reduce hearing pollution to a measurement of decibels because we all hear things differently and are not affected by them in the same way. To me, the loss of the blackbird's song isn't just a matter of decibels, nor even of political indignation. Feelings defy technical measurement, but possibly the abuse of our ears could be estimated in sighs and tears, and rural peace in the gurgles of a stream.

In today's frenetic and insecure world, humans appear to have suffered an irrevocable break from nature. Nature is just something to be measured, mapped, modelled, commodified, conserved, used. It is not felt, celebrated, enjoyed, honoured or given gifts. Nature has been neoliberalised and transformed into a spectacle.

The indigenous people of the Americas, invaded by European adventurers centuries ago, had no concept of land ownership. They and the land belonged to each other, and the one was bereft without the other. So it was with them and the sea, the animals, plants and the air; all sustained each other immeasurably. The money invaders offered them for the land was a meaningless unit, incomprehensible to the indigenes. They might as well have been offered decibels for it. So, of course, they were cheated right, left and centre. Now some of us are just beginning to realise what we might lose if those indigenous peoples disappeared, because we could not put a value on their priceless diversity.

You may not have known of it, because it was largely ignored by the mainstream press in the UK and USA, but on 13 September 2007, after twenty five years of negotiation, and despite very strong opposition from some of the most powerful countries in the world, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed the UN Declaration on the Rights of indigenous Peoples.
    "Recognising the inherent rights and characteristics of indigenous peoples, especially rights to their lands, territories and resources, which derive from their political, economic and social structures and their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies…"
Quite a change from the convenient concept of Terra Nullius - developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. This meant 'empty land' and it denied indigenous peoples even the status of humans, falsely entitling European settlers, states and later corporations to claim the land was theirs to use as they liked.

Now that some of the false idols of that western attitude to land, property, wealth and welfare are in disarray and meltdown - land disappearing into the sea, houses prices falling, savings disappearing into black holes, good Samaritans being kicked to death, pensioners dying of cold while footballers are exchanged for millions of pounds – have we perhaps a chance to discover other values?

From whence might come different ways to conduct ourselves that were sustainable instead of self-defeating, life affirming rather than living at someone else’s expense? If the rights of indigenous peoples are observed, we may find good examples of ways and values to help us renew our Western culture. To rediscover our spiritual inheritance, we must reconnect with nature.

Thanks to Peter Lanyon, Resurgence Magazine and the right-hand side of my brain for their input to this column.

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