LINKING CULTURAL AND NATURAL CAPITAL
“BUILDING A COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE”
Delivered 4th June 2015
Perhaps even before and certainly by the beginning of the Enlightenment Europeans had gradually altered their attitude to nature, under three influences:
• first, the ever more rapid advance of scientific knowledge and its technological application,
• second, the decisive opening of the world to mercantilist trade and intensive extraction of resources by trading and colonial powers, and
• third, the ever more sophisticated pursuit of pleasure, power and profit.
The change was never as radical in Europe itself, where older attitudes survived, as in the subjected colonies. Nature was increasingly seen in general however as the inert provider of resources to satisfy the needs of the ever more dominant human species.
Such a model of nature underlay the series of technological revolutions that have since reshaped human civilisation to make it, for better or for worse, what it is today. Production and prosperity increased for the benefit of human power and profit: many localities were however stripped of their beauty, a beauty which had flowed from a synergy between natural elements and human beings’ creative response to them.
This confident, long-lasting and self-serving world view has suffered a body blow in each of the last two centuries, but staggers on in punch-drunk stupor nevertheless. The first blow was conceptual : the firm reimplanting of the human species within the natural world, resulting from the widespread acceptance of the theories of evolution and natural selection. The second blow is more existential: realization, as a result of ongoing climate change, that there is no spot where we can place a lever to move the earth. We are simultaneously objects and subjects within the whole and must soon endure the perhaps radical consequences of our collective actions and inactivity over the centuries. With every year that passes, we are becoming more aware of a dangerous void beneath our apparent achievements, many of which may prove unsustainable.
Some of our initial responses to the second body blow have been thoughtful. There is an ongoing effort to make production technologies far less intensive in their use of resources, energy and water above all. Furthermore in one of its most enlightened decisions the European Union createdthe NATURA 2000 network, an impressive contemporary act of respect for other species and the rich variety of the natural world.
Such a bold initiative could not however be faultless. The contribution of human culture in moulding nature has come to be appreciated almost a generation later than nature in itself, and this even though it is the daily experience of every rambler or trekker on our continent, and even though scientists have indicated a likely impact on wildlife already by palaeolithic hunters, let alone an effect on climate and landscape alike from the Neolithic agricultural revolution. Only with the European Commission’s Communication of July 2014 to the other European institutions, strongly promoted by then Commissioner Vassiliou and the whole Culture Directorate, as with the statements of the Council of Ministers under the Greek and Italian Presidencies, has the significance of culture been given greater recognition.
Acknowledging the importance of human culture for nature is to acknowledge the innate human ability, whether destructive or creative, first to imagine and then to implement a different vision of what might be. If this process works just to extract value from natural elements for humans’ pleasure, power or profit, it is likely to debase the natural world, but when combined with an acceptance of the inherent value in other beings and a willingness to question our deeper motivations, has frequently provided precious examples of synergy and symbiosis between human culture and elements of the natural world.
This is what Europa Nostra’s ENtopia project is about: it sets out to build a community of practice based neither on nature being distinct and separate from human influence nor on human beings draining nature of its value. Rather it posits a coordinating but never a dominant role for human beings in enhancing the value and meaning of the natural world through synergy and symbiosis. And it treasures existing examples of such synergy and symbiosis as models for a better future.
The process of building a community of practice such as the ENtopia network aspires to become began at an Europa Nostra Council meeting in Bruges in 2010 and has been throughout under the oversight of the architect Professor Philip Geoghegan, an Europa Nostra Council member, Director of the ENtopia Programme and responsible for the initial Irish nominations, two of which are: the windswept Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast and the mild cultivated landscapes from Westmeath in its interior.
In response to these nominations, others have come in from ten European countries thus far, as from the bare hills of Cantabria, from the forested landscape of southern Albania, from a riverside wetland from Serbia and from Sikinos, a Cycladic island, 70% of whose territory forms part of a NATURA area. Its dry stone wall terraces built over the centuries, its newly signposted network of footpaths and villages that are both distinguished in themselves and in harmony with their natural environment, not to mention the little chapel that Odysseas Elytis, the Nobel prize-winning poet, requested be built in his memory, suggest that here is the quintessence of the Aegean.
Philip Geoghegan’s search for “Our Places in Europe”, the project’s official title, has been guided throughout by a Greek concept, pioneered by the distinguished town and country planner, Constantine Doxiades. He wrote a book entitled “Entopia”, contrasting a concept of respect for the beauty of real places with “Utopia”, which in Greek means literally “no place”, even if since the work of the sixteenth century humanist St Thomas More, the word refers to very different creations of the human imagination. By contrast with “Utopia”, ENtopia honours beauty as manifested in real landscape and townscape as a result of the collaborative action of human beings with elements of the natural world.
If “utopia” can, by definition, exist only in the human imagination, “entopia” has another antithesis, one we all too commonly witness. This is “dystopia”, the destruction of the incarnated beauty resulting from the interplay of human imagination and human activity with the varied elements of nature, and simultaneously also of the communities that have created and maintained such beauty. How is this achieved? Through the exploitation of one or more of its constituent elements to the detriment of its varied preexisting values, in order to increase some human beings’ pleasure, power or profit. “ENtopia” and “dystopia” are in never-ending conflict in the contemporary world.
The Europa Nostra banner to be given to localities nominated for ENtopia will neither be permanent like the European Union/Europa Nostra awards, an honour (“aere perennius”) more lasting than the bronze plaque which goes with the award. Nor an acknowledgement of imminent danger, as in Europa Nostra’s “7 Most Endangered” partnership with the European Investment Bank Institute and the Council of Europe Development Bank, although in one instance the two have been combined. ENtopia is rather a process that requires three partners: a NGO member of Europa Nostra to initiate and review nominations, a locality willing to be nominated and a local authority keen to collaborate over a three-year period. To find all three together is not easy and it is for that reason that Europa Nostra banners will be given for just three years, after which any of the three parties may withdraw.
Every nomination brings with it some problem. As an example where landscape and townscape merge with a traditional method of production to create an exceptional quality of place, let me take the fourteenth century mastic-producing villages of southern Chios. The houses themselves formed the outer perimeter fortification against marauding pirates, while their traditional object of cultivation, the mastic tree, unknown outside Chios and hence a natural monopoly, has been inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humankind by UNESCO. The mastic bushes form the landscape of the higher hills around the five villages, while the lower ground provides more usual agricultural produce. In this locality wild fires have proven the most common threat. There are also planning issues, such as the need for an inconspicuous network of dirt roads in the plains and some already existing and unsightly contemporary building sprawl. There is also the need to promote local seeds and varieties if the culinary tradition of Chios, one of the finest in Greece, is adequately to benefit these villages’ tourism. The fact that the recently elected mayor of Chios, himself a politically independent architect restorer, is a keen conservationist represents an important positive consideration, since here it is the balance of internal opinion and action that will make the difference.
Very different is Rosia Montana in Transylvania, where Europa Nostra and indeed Rumanian public opinion have encountered one of the clearest present-day examples of destructive instrumentalism, with a foreign gold corporation determined within sixteen years of intensive and extensive exploitation to destroy not only the best example of Roman gold mining galleries in existence but a rich mining landscape and townscape that over the centuries of Austro –Hungarian reuse had acquired an enviable quality of place capable also of providing ongoing sustainable development for local communities. Instrumental development works precisely by stripping monetary value from long-term quality: only two years ago this seemed an unavoidable outcome.
Rosia Montana proved instead however a parable of modern Europe. Politicians both at local and at national level, were initially favourable to the gold corporation. Against it were ranged only the local inhabitants themselves, intellectuals, conservationists and, significantly, the law courts which very early, as in several other environmental causes célèbres, saw through the winning words of contemporary public relations experts to the degradation and destruction that would imminently follow.
When Europa Nostra chose Rosia Montana as one of the “7 Most Endangered” in 2012, most of us believed it was an unavoidable battle of principle that would ultimately be lost. Later that year however, I met not some left-wing rebel but a young Rumanian businessman visiting Cyprus who showed on his laptop with simultaneous commitment and pride the street demonstrations against the gold mining project in Bucharest. People came out neither in their hundreds, nor yet their thousands. They were there in their tens of thousands, in perfect order and with a clearly non-partisan purpose, the clearest proof for anyone who may have doubted, of the vast gap that has opened between Europe’s politicians and its people, as also of the depth of popular resentment at the extractive model of development, destructive alike of community, of the environment, and of long-term economic sustainability.
The nomination of Rosia Montana for ENtopia represents a conscious challenge to the old model of extractive development and a recognition that admiration for a mining landscape of the past does not entail the acceptance of total degradation and devastation through extractive mining in the future.
The nomination of Skyros demonstrates that an instrumental approach to nature can be almost as dangerous when it accompanies an attempt to mitigate climate change as when it carelessly contributes to that problem.
Skyros is unique in many ways. The only Aegean island that combines in itself the landscape of the heavily forested north Aegean, like Pelion and the Northern Sporades, and the bare but beautiful hills of islands further south, it is rich in endemic plants, hosts the largest colony of the falco eleonorae in the world, and is the home of the child-friendly small Skyrian horse. Its architecture has been praised as outstanding by no less a judge than Le Corbusier. Skyros’ tourism provides a healthy and sustainable future for its inhabitants. Why would anyone wish to threaten such an eminently sustainable community? Because Skyros has strong if irregular winds, and thus became the unwilling object of an investment proposal for 111 massive wind turbines – many in a NATURA area directly above the main township – on an island which needed just two or three. Here again the purpose was to exploit one natural feature so as to extract monetary value while destroying or demeaning the rest, however rich the mixture of natural and cultural capital it might represent. The environmental movement itself was initially divided between those whose exclusive aim is fighting climate change and those committed to biodiversity and the synergy of natural and cultural capital.
The vast majority of the local community resisted financial inducements and with the support of the Hellenic Ornithological Society and Elliniki Etairia (Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage), won the public argument, thus preserving Skyros and adding to its many positive attributes a stronger environmental consciousness among its citizens.
There are of course many other windy sites in Greece that could host wind turbines. There was never valid justification for sacrificing such a well-balanced and sustainable community, economy and environment, to create a post-industrial wasteland. Nor for fighting climate change that threatens biodiversity by destroying the very biodiversity which fighting climate change is meant to protect!
As to Amorgos, I might dwell on its hardy mountainous beauty or its traditional villages, which explain its nomination, but instead shall concentrate on a dramatic picture of symbiosis between nature and culture, the Hozoviotissa Monastery. It is perched between hard rock and a precipice, one of the most impressive symbols of those dark centuries when the European spirit, inspired by Athens, Jerusalem and Rome, was assaulted and battered on all sides. The stunning present building is of the eleventh century but the monastery was founded here as early as the ninth by monks fleeing persecution in Palestine. One lesson this remarkable example of synergy between nature and culture teaches us is that when we must live on a precipice it is best to cling to firm rock.
Today the European cultural and natural heritage may represent a rock in our today’s Europe of all too many stormy seas, murky marshes and shifting sands. Our cultural and natural heritage are absolutely necessary, though not perhaps sufficient, to help hold Europeans together in times of ever-increasing conflict and uncertainty, scarred by open displays of hatred and contempt. Our challenge is to build a community of practice that will help bring back to Europe the confidence in genuine creativity that can give the European idea renewed life.