Many 'environmental' slogans use or play around with ideas of the local and global, such as 'think global, act local', and variously affirm or invert this mantra. This meeting reminded me of the importance of considering values and frames, which may well be locally-specific. This connects well with work done by Tom Brompton on environmental communication. For instance, according to cllr Alun Williams, the environment is the second most important concern in Ceredigion (after health), which distinguishes this county from many others, where the environment slips far further down the list. A particular approach towards protecting or advocating the environment may work in one locality, but not another, and this should be borne in mind for anyone with an educational or activist remit.
One question put to the panel in this public event (in Llanfarian) was whether 'the environment' must be paramount to all other concerns, and whether in a context like Wales, there is a tension between issues of culture and language and the agenda of environmentalism. In my mind, this is an outdated way of considering the environment as existing separately from other aspects of human society. Many green concerns, such as supporting the local economy, mitigating but also planning for climate-change, have direct relevance for the resilience of many small Welsh-speaking communities in Wales.
If there is a tension, it may well be symbolised (and exacerbated) by the sheep farming debate, with George Monbiot making statements like: “Sheep in the hills cause floods in the flood plains. We are very prone to flooding. One of the major reasons is because all the vegetation has been removed and soil compacted by the hooves of the sheep and water just flashes off the pasture.”
The response from Natural Resources Wales was: “In isolation sheep’s hooves do not make a significant contribution to increasing flood risk. However, any activity which causes upland soil to be compacted leads to increased rainwater run-off.”
The ensuing discussion around issues like sheep-farming and rewilding became extremely emotive, with the NFU naturally defending farmers from blame for flooding. Nick Fenwick, from the Farmers' Union of Wales, compared Monbiot's vision to one belonging to: 'countless rat-race refugees and environmental fundamentalists, all determined to reconnect with rural life and nature, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their new-found paradise is already occupied by people whose connection with the land is deep rooted, dates back thousands of years, and is embedded in their language and culture.' Read more here.
Immediately, the environmentalist and farmer is pitted against each other in unhelpful ways. The 'incomer' environmentalist, according to Nick Fenwick, does not have the same right to voice their opinion as the farmer who is deeply, historically, linguistically and culturally embedded in their landscape. I hardly need to point out that farmers can be environmentalists too, or that environmentalists can also be 'home grown'. In any case, can we really start any healthy public conversation with the notion that some people are more equal than others when it comes to the right to speak? It also reminds us how easy it is to use the word 'fundamentalist' to dismiss someone else's opinion, if different to our own.
The debate may be necessary, but it has at times felt unsavoury. It should be possible to have a rational discussion about issues of huge local and international significance. It is hard to move forward if people can't be defined more broadly as citizens rather than belonging to one camp or another. I think that 'hydrocitizenship' could be a positive intervention in a polarised debate.
It may seem hypocritical, in the context of this subject, for me to write monolingually in English. My next post will be bilingual. Simply because (ironically, again) I have a class to teach in 30 minutes- on language use and the internet! I have run out of time…..
Sara Penrhyn Jones
To read more by Sara visit her page on Hydrocitizens.