The Sprawl

Every time I visit the USA, I notice a fresh installment of alien objects – lumpen, ungainly clapboard boxes dropped into the landscape, scattering trees and pasture in their wake. Surrounded by a lurid green expanse of ‘lawn’, broken only by ribbons of fresh tarmac driveways, and nary a tree or shrub in sight. Apparently these are houses, and people choose to live in them – at $500,000 a time and upwards. Though, who in near recession ridden 2011 can possibly afford such an asking price? If this is the best way to fix ailing Western economies, then I’m a dodo.

This is, of course, bad news for birds. Bad news for just about every species, us included, with the possible exception of a few grasses – not that they ever get to fulfill their true potential, grow tall, and go to seed.  But for birds in particular it is very bad news, because to borrow a phrase from a book I read this week (‘Silence of the Songbirds’ by Bridget Stutchbury), ‘Birds need neighbourhoods’. Habitat fragmentation has moved beyond ecological theory and into the realms of fact – result after result has been published showing that, on the whole, forest specialist birds like unbroken tracts of forest, not patchy unhelpful little pieces divided by our sterile non-neighbourhoods.

Somehow much of my other reading on this trip (and gosh, do I ever read a lot when I’m here) has also chimed with the ‘march of the suburbs’ theme. A few days earlier I had finished Jonathan Franzen’s sad, haunting and much acclaimed novel ‘Freedom’, which, in what I think is an excellent choice, features a ‘conservationist’ as one of the main protagonists. Appropriately enough for a ‘state of the nation’ novel, nature-loving Walter Berglund eventually turns against the American suburbs which his family had called home for decades. He gets angry. In fact, in a hilarious scene he lets loose in public an astonishing verbal tirade against the middle American ‘way of life’ which he sees destroying the world he loves, losing his job with a controversial industry-linked conservation NGO in the process.

The problem of suburban sprawl seems more current in America. I’m guessing that’s because we Europeans cut down our forests a long time ago – fragmentation is an established fact of the English landscape especially, and our ecosystems have had longer to get used to it as a result. And on the whole, new housing developments on greenfield sites, whilst not a lot more attractive than American sprawl, tend to be crammed into more tucked away portions of land or screened by existing trees. For now they’re generally rarer too (though watch this space as the assault on environmental regulations continues), so we don’t have the impression of countryside under constant attack. You certainly don’t see houses of quite incredibly low visual appeal springing up on every unused parcel of land, as they sometimes seem to here in the eastern United States.

I do try to err on the side of the rational scientist’s approach. Stutchbury is a scientist and it shows – her writing is measured, and whilst her subject matter paints an inevitably gloomy picture of the future of migratory songbirds in the Americas and elsewhere, she deliberately strikes a hopeful note as well, encouraging the readers at home that there are simple steps we can take to turn the tide. Like her, I tend to think speaking positively about why we love wildlife and appealing to people’s better nature to save it is likely to be more effective than chanting, ranting and drum beating. But I’m beginning to wonder lately if things aren’t becoming so desperate that it is time to unleash the radical activist lurking within each of us. Walter Berglund’s anger came, like all of Franzen’s characters’, from deep within his flawed humanity – full of bitterness and hypocrisy, but rooted in something real, a genuine injustice.

Like him I am not entirely absolved of responsibility for the forces which divide forests with monstrous temples of modern living, or the many other environmental ills of our age, but I don’t think that should prevent you or me from expressing outrage where outrage is due either. Perhaps as we enter the final days of the season of Advent, you could think of it as time to get prophetic. Like today’s conservationists, the Old Testament prophets were a pretty odd bunch. As they did, it’s time to speak some uncomfortable truths. The ancient call to repentance was less about personal piety than about all of society changing direction and people reconnecting to each other and to the earth. Not a bad message for Christmas 2011.

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