Oats, Peas, Beans and Barley Grow

January 3rd, 2017



1  Artes Mundi 7: Storytelling

In 2016 the shortlist for ‘Artes Mundi 7’ brought together, competitively, six international contemporary artists who directly engage with everyday life through their practice and who explore contemporary social issues across the globe.  They presented their messages through the agency of installation artworks in the Welsh National Museum in Cardiff, which hosted the Artes Mundi 7 competition.

Fig 1  Seed Journey: Artes Mundi 7 (2016)

Each artist brought their own unique perspective to present stories that explore what it means to be human in contemporary society (Fig 1). Whether introspective and deeply personal or engaged with broader social and cultural issues, each artist demonstrated the importance of art and culture in our everyday lives.  Their stories challenged our preconceptions of the meanings of culture and ecology, to open up new ways of engaging with the future survival of a globalised society with seriously failing ecosystem services.

Storytelling was once the most ambitious mission of Western painting.  Renaissance artists told the life of Christ and the saints using sequential panels on the walls of churches. Michelangelo presented the sweeping drama of the Old and New Testaments across the vast expanse of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Closer to our own era, Diego Rivera celebrated the struggles of the Mexican people.   However, with the rise of abstract modernism, the storytelling impulse among artists seemed to disappear, dismissed as exhausted, irrelevant, or embarrassingly academic.  But the drive toward narrative, and an art audience’s fascination with stories, have resurfaced in recent years, often in video, but more evocatively in installations, which invite comparisons with developments in contemporary fiction—shuffled chapters, meandering plot lines, mash-ups of genres, and elusive or unreliable narrators.  

Installation art is a story telling practice and a catch-all term that describes any arrangement of objects in an exhibition space. This could vary from a room full of sculptures to a space filled with video monitors. What sets an art installation apart from sculpture or other traditional art forms, is its emphasis on a total, unified experience, created by an individual or a group rather than a display of separate, artworks of individuals.  Art installations also tend to veer towards the experimental, aiming to shock or unsettle the viewer.

The term installation first came into use in the 1960s to describe the way in which an exhibition was laid out, hence there is an emphasis on the artist as curator. The artist curated exhibition was particularly popular with Minimalist artists who were acutely aware of space and the ways in which their work related to it. Their work was often sensitively selected, arranged, or installed, to create a dialogue with its surroundings in order that viewers could take in both their work and its environment as one overall, immersive story. Documentation of this work was often referred to as an ‘installation shot.’  and the art work is archived as a series of photographs.

Artes Mundi 7 showed clearly that artists working today continue to explore the possibilities of installation art and blur the boundaries between arrangements of art objects, the display of museum artifacts and their inclusion in installations.  Also, the challenge for the installation artist, as opposed to the filmmaker or writer, is that he or she is free to choose from so many mediums to realize a completed project.  These range from text, video, sound, ready-made props, photography, conventional approaches like drawing and sculpture, to occupying the great outdoors. No longer do works of art exist solely for the sake of our experience of them.  Artists are creating a discourse; critiquing society and culture through their art.  Installation art takes the aesthetic experience away from formal unity.  The viewer has to tackle a new kind of disjointedness created by the juxtaposition of diverse multimedia elements.

What is expected of the viewer of  an installation often goes beyond the demands of more traditional art forms. The experience can be either an exhilarating mental trip or an exercise in frustration because the meanings of the objects and their contribution to the overarching story are not always obvious.  Inevitably the baffled visitor seeks a written description of the artist’s message or finds a gallery attendant who is in the know.

As an aid to creativity, many artists who make installations start with a two dimensional mind map of their story.  The narrative is then told graphically by making connections between facts or concepts, which are expressed as objects, created, or selected, for presentation as a three dimensional display.   The goal of the mind map is to make the items all cohere in a gallery or museum setting, and in the viewer’s mind.

Definitions of an installation and a mind map are interchangeable. Both arrange words, ideas, tasks, or other items around a central key word or idea, and are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas.   The common aim is to aid the study and organisation of information, communicating it to solve problems and pointing out ways of taking action to improve a social condition.

Artes Mundi 7 brought together six social themes reflecting on ‘the human condition’.  This document is the response of a visitor who selected one of these works , ‘Seed Journey’, to build a personal mind map out of the experience, and curating it on line to extend the story as an internet webquest.  As an exercise in cultural ecology it can be taken as an educational legacy of Artes Mundi.

Curating is often seen as a mediation between artist, work, and audience, with the curator firmly at the centre. Artists working with installations are increasingly realising the importance of providing detailed information to the gallery to ensure that aspects such as size, placement, and technical specifications of the installation art are understood. This provides parameters within which artist and gallery maintain a consistency to the installation each time it is shown.  The artist can therefore be described as the primary curator.  The central role of artist as the curator in charge of the process of selection and placement has thereby been further emphasized, because he or she has to work directly with the institutional and physical limitations of museum or gallery spaces.  Because the viewer can enter a three dimensional space created by the artist, an installation can be visualised as a microcosm of the human ecological niche.


2  Seed Journey: The Story

Of the six social themes presented as Artes Mundi 7 installations ‘Seed Journey’ is the one that connects directly with the future survival of Homo sapiens.  It  taps into a  vital thread of human history that began with the origins of agriculture in the Near East, where the process of domestication can be attributed to multiple centres, with the eastern Fertile Crescent playing a key role.

‘Seed Journey’ was produced by Futurefarmers.  Futurefarmers is a multi-disciplinary collective headed by Californian artist Amy Franceschini. The collective was founded in 1995 as, a group of art and farming practitioners  A consistent line through Franceschini’s work reveals sustained questioning about how “nature” and “culture” are perceived.

Franceschini  gives the following reasoning for her works:

“Through farming, I saw the connection of politics and power. I saw how the politics of marketing and trade and commodities all tied in. But I also started to see about the environment. I saw how the chemical water that went into the creeks started making the frogs become deformed and Silent Spring [a book by Rachel Carson, published in 1962, that warned of the dangers of pesticides to the environment] was written, which was a big eye-opener to a lot of people. It’s kind of simple: I want to be alive and I want to breathe.”

“By working collaboratively,” we are told, Franceschini and Futurefarmers “visualise and understand the way systems interact and control our everyday lives and begin to question and deconstruct social systems such as food policies, public transportation and rural farming networks.”

Since 2013 Futurefarmers have been leading the Flatbread Society, a project centred on the creation of communal spaces in which people from diverse cultures gather to make flatbread. ‘Seed Journey’ focuses on the very seeds of grain used to make bread that were brought to Europe from the Fertile Crescent thousands of years ago. The seeds have been “rescued”, grown and distributed by the collective since 2013 from a range of sources, such as seeds saved during the Siege of Leningrad and those discovered by archaeologists in an abandoned sauna in Hamar, Norway. As part of Artes Mundi 7, in an act of reverse migration, Futurefarmers are taking these seeds by sailing boat from Oslo to the Middle East. They will stop along the way to meet like-minded farmers, artisan bread makers, and organisations, and to collect more seeds; Wales is one of these ports of call.

Regarding the historical objective of the voyage, the prehistoric settlement of Chogha Golan on the eastern edge of the Fertile Crescent is a key archaeological site dating to the end of the last Ice Age roughly 11,700 years ago. In horizon II of the Chogha Golan dig, dating to 9.800 years ago, domesticated emmer wheat appears.  Over a period of two millennia the economy of the settlement shifted toward the domesticated species that formed the economic basis for the rise of village life and subsequent civilizations in the Near East. Plants including multiple forms of wheat, barley and lentils together with domestic animals later accompanied farmers as they spread across western Eurasia, gradually replacing the indigenous hunter-gatherer societies. Many of the plants that were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent form the economic basis for the day to day survival of world population today.

Since at least the time of the Roman Empire the human population of Europe has eaten mass produced grain, some of which was stored to guard against bad harvests. Over the centuries supply has risen with human demand but the storage margin has always been relatively small.  For example, during the 1980s and early 1990s global grain reserves averaged about 100 days of consumption. The peak of 130 days was reached in the mid 1980s. Since then, grain reserves have declined, when measured by consumption, through the first decade of the 21st century. More recently global grain reserves have averaged only about 70 days.  The world has eaten the grain surplus of history and now eats crop-to-crop regardless of the size of the U.S. corn crop, which supplies between 40-50% of the world demand.

Alongside this trend there has been a decline from state-owned strategic grain reserves, in favour of a more market-oriented approach that is dominated by a handful of powerful multinational corporations who maintain sophisticated supply chains. Because data on the amount of food these corporations hold in storage are proprietary secrets, it is really impossible to assess how resilient or vulnerable this makes the global food system.

This is brief account of the geopolitical background to the Seed Voyage installation.

Futurefarmers arrived in Cardiff on the first leg of their journey from Scandinavia to the Middle East with a big story of about what cultures share, and how they develop. Their cargo of seeds in the restored sailing boat Christiania, which were once “weeds”, represent the food grains that have been domesticated over tens of thousands of years.  Grain farmers were change-agents, cultivating crops by hand and exchanging seeds and know how through a complex hand- to-hand network.  Seed Journey refers to this process as ‘hand to mouth’:

“We don’t need a museum to preserve varieties. What we want is to plant them in the soil.”

This can be taken as a critique of the massive technological investments in seed banks, because the associated concepts of living sustainability are really maintained and developed through living networks.

The seed carrying vessel Christiania has become a “laboratory” where the collective continues its research.  The Seed Journey installation is therefore an interactive “base camp” and visitors are invited to become part of the journey and to consider the possibility of social change and different futures.  In this context, Futurefarmers are interested in preserving ‘the commons’ as it relates to land use, biological matter and the sharing of knowledge. Therefore, Seed Journey can be seen as a gesture towards the relatively recent cultural departure of humanity from self-sufficiency and the ecological loss of local genetic controls on plant breeding in relation to the impossibility of the human condition returning to a Neolithic way of life.  Seeds are now a vital element of Earth’s natural capital.


3  Seed Journey: Mind Mapping

Starting from the first view of an artwork, the brain begins to work backwards seeking to touch the mind of the artist who created it.   The viewer attempts to trace its origins in the mental processes of the maker, thereby acquiescing to the brain’s natural preference to scan a visual space in a non-linear fashion. The viewer transcribes what comes into the mind as a two-dimensional tree-like diagram. This mind map enables him or her to more easily sort through different details and recognize relationships among these details. Mind mapping is a natural expression of what the brain does to allow a person to organize and understand information faster and better.  It is an expression of radiant thinking, which helps unlock the mental potential of the brain to interact fully with the complexities of the environment .

It is argued that there are important alternative spaces of meaning to be developed through the creation and placement of an installation between object and audience.  The archiving of an installation like Seed Journey, as a mind map, gives the creative act more permanence than an ‘installation shot’.  Digital curating, in particular, allows for greater audience participation, both by expanding the potential audience and by allowing visitors to navigate through virtual galleries under their own direction. By facilitating visitors’ creation of their own visual arguments, a new level of audience participation in visual analysis appears and a fundamental intellectual and intuitive aspect of curating is made possible.

The transcribing of Seed Journey as a mind map web quest is actually a research activity.  The objective is to explore how digital resources can be used for storytelling at its most basic core as an art practice using computer-based tools to create interactive mind maps encompassing digital documentaries, computer-based narratives, digital essays, electronic memoirs, interactive storytelling, etc.  In general, all these creative acts revolve around the idea of combining the art of telling stories with a variety of multimedia, including graphics, audio, video, and Web publishing.

At a first glance Seed Journey can be seen as an art installation that juxtaposes five concepts:

  • The seeds
  • The boat
  • The shared eating of flat bread
  • Smoke signals from a bread oven
  • The voyage and its records

See a mind map at https://www.mindmeister.com/812854749/seed-journey-amy-franceschini-futurefarmers


4  Seed Journey: Narratives of Change

“Experience of a place can act to transform the local landscape, imbuing it with personal meaning and significance through life experiences. The local landscape becomes a symbolic extension of the self, acting dialectically to create a relationship between people and place.  In this way, the identity of members of a community can be reaffirmed and reproduced in regular activities, rituals, stories and the meanings of a landscape that give rise to a sense of belonging and familiarity.”



This meditation on Seed Journey deals, in general, with the dependent relationships existing between different parts of the environment and the human beings who inhabit it.  The environment has the ability to affect the individuals and groups living in its midst. In particular, it asks what role is given to environmental agents, such as domesticated wildlife and political events, that people attribute to the forces of the world that surrounds, invades or abandons them?

Whether an agent is an object or an event, it is defined as something with the ability to initiate or influence human lives in its close surroundings. A cereal seed is one such agent of change that produces an aesthetic type of satisfaction from contemplating its role in everyday life.  Probably this is  why the spread of domesticated seeds was promoted as an aesthetic experience by Futurefarmers.

A narrative of change demonstrates how a feeling of community emerges through experiencing a shared aesthetic of the human ecological niche.  The human niche is the ‘space’ that humans as a species utilize and transform to survive and reproduce.  It is largely sociocultural, constructed and enacted within, across, and by social groups and societies.

John Dewey’s major writing ‘Art as Experience (1934)’  has had a great influence on contemporary work in everyday aesthetics. Dewey suggested that the experiences of aesthetic exaltation associated with art can be traced back to processes that pre-date art and that both humans and other animals partake in. Aesthetic experience, according to Dewey, is on a continuum with the deep feelings of fulfillment that arise from interacting with the commonplace environment i.e. the human ecological niche, to satisfy one’s needs. He says an aesthetic experience can belong even to simple experiences like that of lifting a stone, as long as it is done with sufficient attention.  Dewey’s view  is thus highly amenable to the application of aesthetic concepts throughout everyday life where they build feelings of well being into a sense of place .  Art valued for its beauty does not enter into Dewey’s world.

Dewey held that the sources of aesthetic experience are to found in sub-human animal life.

“Animals often attain a unity of experience that we lose in our fragmented work-lives. The live animal is fully present with all its senses active, especially when it is graceful. It synthesizes past and future in the present. Similarly, tribal man is most alive when most observant and filled with energy. He does not separate observation, action, and foresight. His senses are not mere pathways for storage. Rather, they prepare him for thought and action. Experience signifies heightened life and active engagement with the world. In its highest form it involves an identification of self and world. Such experience is the beginning of art”

Sense of place is a behavioural expression of the  modern human ecological niche which reflects the structure and functioning of human societies and the long term transformation of local environments. Here, aesthetics is an essential  part of the social processes by which communities are formed and value their environment through associating knowledge, reflexivity, and communication.  In this sense, it is a matter of seeing which types of aesthetic, or ethical, challenges are at work in making and contemplating community environments. These are the physically existing environments in which characters live and move.  We may call them “settings,” but this intuitive notion of setting needs to be further refined.

In the theatre, we can distinguish the stage on which events are shown from the broader world that is the setting alluded to by the characters.  In a written/visual narrative we can distinguish the individual locations where narratively significant events have taken place from the total space implied by the sum total of these events.  It is the individual locations and the wider behavioural setting that constitute the human ecological niche within which people  gain sustenance and other necessities,  It comprises complex social relationships among unrelated and unknown individuals.   Thus, a narrative of change is the product of evolution by natural selection acting on individuals and groups via modes of sociocultural niche construction.  Perception of cultural heritage has a big part in developing a sense of place.

To exemplify this aspect of a narrative of change, which may be used as a blueprint to produce a sense of place in an otherwise placeless population, a small obscure area of the UK county of Lincolnshire is being investigated as a case history.  This comprises 16 modern communities on a former prehistoric area of estuarine fenland at the southeast margin of the River Humber. To the west it is bounded by the geological division between fenland and the chalk upland of the Lincolnshire Wolds.  This boundary is now marked by the railway line between Cleethorpes and New Holland.  Agents of change are varied and include, for instance, decisions to build the railway in the 19th century, the award of lands and their feudal communities to one of King William’s henchmen for services rendered in the Norman Conquest and the discovery of a 4,000 year old wooden Bronze Age track across tribal hunter-gatherer  wetlands

The communities included in this area, designated the Cleethorpes-New Holland Niche Lands (CNNL Fig 2), are as follows;

New Holland



East Halton

North Killingholme  

South Killingholme







Great Coats




Fig 2  Topographical map of the CNNL

A mind map of the CNNL is being developed at:



5  Seed Journey: Equilibrating with Natural Capital

It has already been pointed out that Amy Franceschini’s work consistently reveals sustained questioning about how “nature” and “culture” are perceived.  Her contribution to Artes Mundi 7 uses the domestication of seeds to illustrate the need to value and conserve global natural capital and so equlibrate culture with the productivity of ecosystems.  Natural Capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of humanity’s natural assets, which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things.  It is from this Natural Capital that humans derive a wide range of cultural services, often called ecosystem services, which make human life possible. The most obvious ecosystem services include the food we eat, the water we drink and the plant materials we use for fuel, building materials and medicine (Fig 3 ). There are also many less visible ecosystem services such as climate regulation and natural flood defences provided by forests, the billions of tonnes of carbon stored by peatlands, or the pollination of crops by insects. Even less visible are aesthetic ecosystem services such as the experiences of joy and wonderment we take from wildlife and the natural landscapes.

In their Artes Mundi installation Futurefarmers and the Flatbread Society point out that seeds contribute to the aesthetic experiences we get from encountering the elements of global capital that underpin conservation, food security, healthcare and natural regeneration in the wild.  In particular, seeds are time capsules of life connecting the ‘now’ with the ‘future’ because of their ability to survive dormant in a dry state. Therefore, there are many reasons why individuals may prefer to protect a natural capital asset such as seeds, some are related to an individual’s’ own self-interest while others relate to the implications for other individuals, now or in the future. These motivations may be organised into a simple typology of Total Economic Value:

  • Use values – direct and indirect uses people make of a natural capital asset now and may do in the future; and
  • Non-use value – preferences to protect a natural capital asset for the benefit of others who are using it now (altruistic value), for future generations (bequest value) and for its own sake (existence value).

Economic analysis does not make a judgement about which motivation is more ‘valuable’  Rather, in an aesthetic encounter with an environmental agent it enables relative values to be measured by looking at what individuals are willing to give up for the thing they value – the more they are willing to give up, the more valuable the thing is. Where what’s given up is money,  expressing value in a monetary economic context has the advantage of comparing like with like within the framework of financial and other costs and benefits aimed at maintaining natural capital assets (Fig 3).

Therefore, the seed-bearing vessel Christiania is freighted with much more of value than cereal seeds.  She carries the educational seeds of an interdisciplinary knowledge system for overcoming the barriers to living sustainably.  Effectively, overcoming such barriers requires commitment by society as a whole to sustainable development. Such commitment would involve all of society’s stakeholders to work collaboratively and in partnership, to develop policies and processes which integrate social, economic, cultural, political and conservation goals. To advance such goals, a curriculum reoriented towards sustainability would place the notion of citizenship among its primary objectives. It has to be recognized that many of the world’s problems, including environmental problems, are related to our ways of living, and that solutions imply transforming the social conditions of human life as well as changes in individual lifestyles. This draws attention to the economic and political structures which cause poverty and other forms of social injustice and foster unsustainable practices. It draws attention to the need for people to learn the many processes for solving these problems through a broad and comprehensive education related not only to mastery of different subject matters, but equally to discovering real world problems of their society and the requirements for changing them.  This kind of orientation would require, inter alia, increased attention to the humanities and social sciences in a curriculum for living sustainable.

Fig 3  Natural capital and its benefits


The natural sciences provide important abstract knowledge of the world but, of themselves, do not contribute to the values and attitudes that must be the foundation of sustainable development. Even increased study of ecology is not sufficient to reorient education towards sustainability. Even though ecology has been described by some as the foundation discipline of environmental education, studies of the biophysical and geophysical concepts are a necessary – but not sufficient – prerequisite to understanding sustainability. The traditional primacy of nature study, and the often apolitical contexts in which is taught, need to be balanced with the study of social sciences and humanities. Learning about the interactions of ecological processes would then be associated with market forces, cultural values, equitable decision-making, government action and the environmental impacts of human activities in a holistic interdependent manner.

A reaffirmation of the contribution of education to society means that the central goals of education must include helping people learn how to identify elements of unsustainable development that concern them and how to address them. We all need to learn how to reflect critically on our place in the world and to consider what sustainability means to us and our communities. People need to practice envisioning alternative ways of development and living, evaluating alternative visions, learning how to negotiate and justify choices between visions, and making plans for achieving desired ones, and participating in community life to bring such visions into effect. These are the skills and abilities which underlie good citizenship, and make education for sustainability part of a lifelong  process of building an informed, concerned and active populace. In this way, education for sustainability contributes to education for democracy and peace.



A Participatory Virtual Museum About the Cultural Ecology of Ceramics

November 25th, 2016

A Production of the Hyperbox Club

“But beyond leisure and entertainment, our perception of a museum, and its moral value, still has to do with our desire for sacred space, even if we are reluctant to put it that way. Museums exist to offer us something that we can’t find anywhere else: an encounter, whether with an object or idea (or even with something on the Internet if we consider virtual museums) — an encounter we deem true and authentic in a place respectful of this private transaction. Otherwise, museums are just fancy storage facilities and gift stores?’ (Kimmelman 2001)

1 Affiliations with social objects

Fig 1 Welsh dresser: Carmarthenshire County Museum

The industrial revolution marked a major turning point in Earth’s ecology and humankind’s relationship with the environment.   There was cultural transition from a society primarily dependent on hand tools produced by individual craftsmen to one with machine and power tools driving large-scale mass production. In Western society this began to occur during the last half of the 18th century. It resulted in increased individual wealth, progressive urbanisation, and globalisation of the economy. One indicator of this great cultural change was the mass production in Britain of blue and white patterned pottery. The most famous style is the ‘willow pattern’, which was designed by Thomas Minton of Stoke-on-Trent in about 1790. The most popular pattern features a willow tree, a bridge with three figures crossing, a boat, a pagoda or two, a garden and a fence. Mass production of pottery featuring this pictorial pattern made items more affordable to middle and working class households, and established a demand for furniture to mount decorative crockery displays in homes. The Welsh dresser, which had basically originated as a 17th century upper class kitchen unit for preparing food, was adapted for this purpose (Fig 1).

The upsurge in the market for affordable domestic pottery required the juxtaposition of technical, chemical and social innovations. However, the understanding of how it all happened followed the dominant method of scientific inquiry into an organised system, which was to reduce it into separate elements, and to study each element individually. Underlying this reductionist approach was the notion that the whole is no more than the total sum of its parts. However, during the 1930s and 1940s, it was gradually realised that a complete understanding of a such a system not only required holistic study of the individual constituents of the system but also their inter- linkages and the relationships with the wider system. Underlying this systemic approach is the idea that additional characteristics emanate from the whole which are not attributable to any particular part of the system; in other words, the system is more than just the total sum of its parts. Systems thinking then is ‘the scientific exploration of “wholes” and “wholeness” which, not so long ago, were considered metaphysical notions transcending the boundaries of science. The truth is we can only meaningfully understand ourselves by contemplating the whole of which we are an integral part.’

Fig 2 Part of a mind map of that explains origins of affordable domestic pottery


This kind of systems thinking is behind the development of cultural ecology as an educational framework for humanity to learn to live, year on year, within the limits of Earth’s ecological productivity. In particular, the educational framework supports the cross curricular delineation of resource flows starting from any point in an industrial production system. Such an approach was first demonstrated in the 1980s by students and teachers working with the Natural Economy Research Unit in the National Museum of Wales, where they modelled the system of porcelain production brought to Wales at the start of the industrial revolution by William Billingsley (Fig 2).

It was In 1813 that William Billingsley with his two daughters and a son-in-law, Samuel Walker, leased an isolated cottage and outbuildings by the side of the Glamorganshire Canal at Nantgarw in the heart of the South Wales Coalfield. The canal had been completed two decades earlier to carry coal and ironware from Merthyr Tydfil to the port of Cardiff for global distribution. Nantgarw and the canal presented Billilngsley with opportunities to import the raw materials for making ceramics and export the finished products to the wider world. His aim was to start his own pottery business from scratch and make beautiful porcelain that would stand comparison with the best then being made in Europe and China. William Billingsley’s story is significant in that it is a landmark in the history of the early entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution and the increased domestic wealth that allowed ordinary people to purchase beautiful, affordable manufactured items as social objects to furnish their homes. They became points of interest to display a family’s wealth and hold conversations about the collection of goods and materials in excess of their basic needs.

The term “social objects” and the related phrase “object-centred sociality” were used by Jiry Engeström in 2005 to address the distinct role of objects in online social networks He argued that discrete objects, not general content or interpersonal relationships, form the basis for the most successful social networks. For example, on the picture-sharing site, Flickr, you don’t socialise generally about photography or pictures, as you might on a photography-focused website. Instead, you socialise around specific shared images, discussing discrete photographic objects. Each photo is a node in the social network that triangulates the users who create, critique, and consume it. Just as the website ‘LibraryThing’ connects people via books instead of reading, ‘Flickr’ connects people via photos instead of art-making.

The objects don’t have to be physical, but they do have to be distinct entities. Engeström explained object-centred participatory learning networks in this way:

Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.

Imagine looking at an object not for its artistic or historical significance but for its ability to spark conversation. Imagine a space that is wholly participatory, one that uses participatory engagement as the vehicle for responding to the experience of collecting and seeing a social object;

  • where visitors and experts share their personal interests and skills with each other;
  • where each person’s actions are networked with those of others into cumulative and shifting content for display, sharing, and remix;
  • where people discuss the objects on display with friends and strangers, sharing diverse stories and interpretations;
  • where people are invited on an ongoing basis to contribute, to collaborate, to co-create, and to co-opt the experiences and content in a designed, intention environment.
  • where communities and experts measure impact together;
  • where a place gets better the more people use it.

Fig 3 A domestic cabinet of curiosities

The understanding and control of nature was the goal of the early collecting practice that led to the birth of museology.   This is an important consideration in that it makes clear the fact that the collections resulting from this process were founded on an organizational principle, which, although foreign to the modern collector, was dependent on philosophical considerations relevant at the time. In line with this principle, collectors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries devised strategies which included the systematic categorization of the objects in their possession. In most cases, these objects were recorded and displayed privately in an organized manner in what were called ‘cabinets of curiosities’. The criteria for organization were at times subjective; differing slightly from one collection to the next. No matter what the criteria, the purpose of each exhibit was explained verbally to the viewer within the context of a social intercourse with the owner (Fig 3). These items were social objects with which to think. The cabinet remained consistent in its role as a site of collection and display. It was an item of interior decoration where the whole of nature could be brought together in microcosm for the benefit of closer and more detailed analysis. Within the structural parameters of the cabinet space, the collector set out to comprehend nature through the control of its various parts. The collecting hobby is a modern descendant of the “cabinet of curiosities” and every collector builds a personal body of knowledge to guide the assembly of his/her personal collection.

2 China clay: an ecosystem service

In the 1740s, William Cookworthy, a Plymouth apothecary, happened to read a description of Chinese porcelain manufacture written by a Jesuit missionary.  This accidental find aroused his curiosity, which was further enhanced when he was visited by businessmen from Virginia with samples of potting clay in 1745. The Virginians wanted him to import their clay and make porcelain in England. Cookworthy decided to look for these minerals locally, and he found them at Tregonning Hill in Cornwall in 1746. However, it took him until 1768 to file a patent specification for “Making porcelain from Moorstone, Growan and Growan clay.”

Tregonning Hill stands some 6km West of Helston, and rises to 194 metres, overlooking Mounts Bay to the SW.   The hill is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the biological importance of the site is the occurrence of an extremely rare liverwort, Western Rustwort (Marsupella profunda), which is found growing on bare outcrops of weathered granite within and around the old china clay workings. Tregonning Hill is the only known British location for this liverwort and it is restricted to this site in Cornwall and a few locations in Portugal and Madeira.   The Hill is part of an extensive granite landscape. Granite is exposed as moorstone and rocky tors and where it has decayed the granite forms pockets of china clay which can be mined at the surface (Fig 4)

Fig 4 Mining of china clay at Hensbarrow, Cornwall.

Humans have always depended on nature for environmental assets like clean water, nutrient cycling and soil formation. These natural resources have been called by different names through human history, but are presently gaining global attention as ‘ecosystem services‘. The concept of ecosystem services has been instrumental in establishing humankind as part of nature in all that we do. Ecosystem services may be defined as the conditions and processes through which natural ecosystems, and their species, sustain and fulfil human life. The clay provided by Tregonning Hill for porcelain production is therefore part of a much broader mind map that integrates the whole of nature, including biodiversity, into society.   Making ceramics is an example of cultural ecology, relating raw materials and technologies available for potters to the functions of the products that are fashioned.

The use of clay by societies to make ceramics has taken many forms. ‘Earthenware’ is glazed or unglazed, non vitreous pottery, which has normally been fired below 1200°C. ‘Stoneware’ is generally defined by how it differs from earthenware and porcelain. Stoneware is more vitreous than earthenware, but less than porcelain. Stoneware is a very heavy duty ceramic that is named because of the stone-like appearance after firing. Stoneware, which, though dense, impermeable and hard enough to resist scratching by a steel point, differs from porcelain because it is more opaque, and normally only partially vitrified. Historically, across the world, stoneware has usually been developed after earthenware and before porcelain, and has often been used for high-quality as well as utilitarian wares.

Porcelain is made with kaolin clay. Kaolin is white clay that retains its white colour when fired. It is fired at temperatures in excess of 1300 C and is more fully vitrified than stoneware. It is usually covered with a clear glaze, which allows the white body to show. The fired colour tends to be more of a “cool” white as opposed to China ware that is usually a warmer white colour. Porcelain becomes vitrified during the second firing of a two fire process. The second firing of porcelain typically is hotter than that used for China ware. This finish tends to be harder, but more brittle. This higher firing, hard surface can make decorating more difficult that stoneware or china. The composition of the porcelain clays is usually more malleable than the clays used for china ware. This allows for forming of more intricate and detailed shapes.

China ware differs from porcelain not only in color shade, but also in the way it is fired. Where Porcelain becomes vitrified during the second firing (second firing is hotter than first firing), china ware is vitrified during a single firing. With the china, there is only a single firing. Generally, the temperature of this firing of china is a little less that that used for porcelain. the resulting finish is more warm in colour than porcelain. This lower firing temperature finish may make china slightly more easy to decorate than porcelain. China ware can be decorated using Under-Glaze, On-Glaze, or In-Glaze techniques. Under-Glaze decorating is most commonly the preferred method of decoration used for china.

Bone China is made using a translucent white ceramic clay containing at least 25% bone ash. In England, the percentage of bone ash must be at least 50% for a piece to be considered Bone China. Bone China tends to be slightly translucent in nature and is often used in thin display pieces, exhibiting a delicate, refined look. Billingsley’s formula for required the addition of bone which was ground at a nearby flour mill.

3 Democratization of Luxury and Beauty

In the late eighteen-sixties and early ‘seventies a new style of interior decoration arrived which tapped into taxophila of the newly rich. It was within the Aesthetic Movement and was given the name `art’ to indicate that its exponents were opposed to the crude commercial colours and vulgar display of High Victorian decoration. Starting with the expression of this new aesthetic for the upper class buyer (Fig 5) the conception filtered down the socio-economic scale and was applied to all forms of household equipment. As far as can be judged from the surviving evidence and from first-hand descriptions ‘art furnishing’ by the prosperous in the first part of Queen Victoria’s reign continued until the end of the century in many middle-class homes. Manufacturers in the latter part of the nineteenth century began to compete in selling ornamental domestic paraphernalia of all kinds to the humbler householders whose early Victorian forebears had only rudimentary furniture and had eaten from wooden trenchers or pewter plates.The term ‘art’ furniture seems traceable to C. L. Eastlake’s ‘Hints on Household Taste’ first published in England in 1867. For different reasons both the furnishing trade and the buying public were conservative in their tastes and understandably preoccupied with increasing domestic comfort. With regards the former, furniture designed primarily for the display of ceramics as furnishings was a conservative feature which continues to the present day (Fig 6).

Fig 5 The dining room at 18 Stafford Terrace, Kensington (1874)

Fig 6 Modern marketing ‘‘Ways with Plates’ (2016)

The most notorious promoter of this new aesthetic in the 1880s was Oscar Wilde, who became in his early twenties the butt of most of the fun poked at aesthetes and he was lampooned as one of the central figures in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera ’Patience’. This notoriety was remarkable in that Wilde was not the originator of any of the ideas then current; though he did claim some responsibility for initiating an artistic movement. He designed nothing and painted no pictures. His involvement with interior decoration as art began in his Oxford undergraduate rooms where he displayed a collection of blue and white porcelain.On this basis he became an effective apostle of aestheticism, writing and lecturing on all aspects of the decorative arts and on dress reform..

The Art or Aesthetic Movement of the eighteen-seventies and ‘eighties was an age when it could be said that ‘there has assuredly never been since the world began an age in which people thought, talked, wrote and spent such inordinate sums of money and hours of time in cultivating and indulging their tastes’. The movement, beginning with the work of a few architects and designers in the ‘sixties, gathered force until, in the ‘eighties, it embraced every art form from the greetings card to domestic architecture. It introduced Japanese art to children’s story books and red brick Queen Anne architecture to the streets of London; it led to changes in fashionable dress, to the first garden suburb and to the vogue for painted dark green or Venetian red front doors and railings which lasted for half a century in England. By the mid ‘seventies the London Trades Directory lists ‘Art Furniture Manufacturers’ quite separately from ordinary cabinet-makers and furnishers. The tone of the whole movement is recorded in a conversation which William Morris had with a lady who said, ‘You know I wouldn’t mind a lad being a cabinet-maker if he only made Art Furniture’. In terms of architecture and the applied arts the movement was confined to the British Isles and the United States.

William Billingsley’s arrival in Nantgarw marked the beginning of the democratisation of porcelain to become an important element of ‘Art Furnishing’ through its mass production in the factory system.

4 The search for perfection

Billingsley had several years experience managing English porcelain factories and had at least one abortive attempt to set up a business on his own account. He had started his working life as as an outstanding apprentice flower painter at the Derby pottery. His latest venture before moving to Wales had been an association with the Worcester factory, where his son-in-law had installed the latest type of enamelling furnace. Over several years the family had accumulated sufficient skills and know how to run a pottery: from using state of the art kilns to the formulation of the ingredients necessary to make high quality hard paste porcelain and decorate the final product to a very high standard.

Fig 7 Nantgarw Pottery and Canal circa 1900

Once he had built the kilns at Nantgarw (Fig 7) the major limiting factor of production was matching the composition of the clay body to the firing process. This was a general issue across the industry because British porcelain production was still an empirical process, and there was much secrecy regarding formulating the clay and operating the kilns. Large losses during firing could make or break a small scale enterprise. Indeed break rather than make seems to have happened at Nantgarw, where up to 90% of the ceramics could be lost in a single firing.

The small amount of family capital with which Billingsley and Walker had established their Nantgarw enterprise ran out in a few months but they managed to persuade a local entrepreneur William Weston Young, who was associated with the Cambrian Pottery at Swansea, to provide the necessary financial backing to continue the Nantgarw operation. However, Walker’s injection of finance proved inadequate to compensate for the continuing large losses during firing. A year later, in 1814-15, in an effort to make a fresh start and eliminate firing problems, Billingsley and Walker entered into a partnership with L W Dillwyn then owner of the Cambrian Works. He financed them to begin making porcelain at Swansea.

The Cambrian Pottery was founded in 1764 by William Coles. In 1790, John Coles, son of the founder, went into partnership with George Haynes, who introduced new business strategies based on the ideas of Josiah Wedgwood. The company employed Thomas Rothwell to engrave copper plates for transfer printing, George Bentley as a modeller, and Thomas Pardoe, who painted landscapes, birds and animals. William Weston Young was a part time painter at Swansea.

Billingsley and Walker constructed two new kilns at the Cambrian site. However, production problems continued to plague profitability and in this respect the Swansea operations were regarded as being experiments to improve the stability of the clay body. In 1817 Billingsley and Walker were back at Nantgarw with new investors.

During this time, much of the plain white stock that survived firing at Nantgarw was sent to London for decorating and sold to the top end of the market while the rest was decorated in Wales by Billingsley himself, as well as William Weston Young and Thomas Pardoe.

Despite making beautiful products (Fig 8)), “superior to anything of the kind ever made before or since”, the Nantgarw factory was still unprofitable and the money provided by the new investors eventually ran out. In 1822 the works and its stock was put up for sale, an event that marked the end of large-scale porcelain production in Wales.

The next investors to take up a lease at Nantgarw began making clay pipes for smoking tobacco, which had once again became fashionable. The population of smokers was increasing with a decrease in the price of tobacco. This was but one example of the spread of former luxurious behaviours from the rich to a steadily increasing wage-earning population engaged in industrial mass production. The middle income sector of this population was itself driving a demand for beautiful home furnishings: an increased market for cheap mass produced ceramics was an example. The invention of the Welsh dresser is a marker of this remarkable upsurge in the purchase of ceramics for domestic display.

The dresser defines the home as a personalised feature of the human ecological niche. Along with the purchase of mass produced porcelain came the need for a glass-fronted cabinet to display it. These collections reigned supreme in the parlour or front room, the social spaces reserved for special family gatherings.

Fig 8 Swansea cabinet cup and saucer, attributed to William Billingsley
Swansea Museum Collection

This brings up a focus on human ecology to highlight the bridge between the impact of the industrial revolution on the home and the wider environment, emphasising that we are part of nature in everything we do. For example Gaston Bachelard in ‘The Poetics of Space’ calls the home ‘our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word’.

‘Home, Akiko Busch writes in ‘Geography of Home’, comprises a host of ‘interior systems’ – a ‘network’ of ‘habits, beliefs, and values.’. To Mary Douglas, ‘The Idea of a Home,’ characterises the home as a moral economy designed to ensure the perpetuation of the family. Similarly Daniel Miller argues in ‘The Comfort of Things’, that home is in fact a ‘little cosmology,’ an ‘order of things, values and relationships’ expressed by the household material culture.

Such statements define the cultural ecology of the home as an ethical system, a moral economy, and a miniature world. These ideas about the home as a small world consider objects and spaces of a domestic interior as the core of the human ecological niche. In particular, the decorative arts within the home are to be seen as part of an integrated environment of people, things, and spaces linked together by social objects and processes binding people to place. Furnishing the home is thus defined as an evolved pattern of human behaviour. A good Welsh example of domestic decoration as raw settlement behaviour is the way Irish immigrant families who settled at the Blaenavon ironworks in East Wales sought comfort in an alien land by papering the bare walls of their cramped cottages with copies of the Irish Times.

Fig 9 The Spode factory Stoke-upon-Trent (1820-35)
Harold Holdway, from an earthenware model in the Spode Museum

It is ironic that when Nantgarw bowed out of porcelain production the Staffordshire potteries were gearing up to supply the worldwide demand for cheap porcelain to decorate homes in Britain and its Empire (Fig 9). The aim of porcelain mass producers was to make affordable, thin-walled shiny colourful items that were mass produced facsimiles of hand-crafted 18th century originals. This reflects the value system of the 19th century European middle class

Today it is interesting that in China, the centre for production of cheap facsimiles of Western luxury goods, demand for luxury items has now to be satisfied by the purchase of originals. In Mainland China, one may see a person carrying an authentic Louis Vuitton bag while riding a crowded, public bus somewhere in the rural countryside. Luxury goods are consumed on a mass level, and are not confined to a select few.

The cause for an increased Chinese consumption of luxury products results from the country’s socialist value system. During the transitional period from a pure planned system to a market-driven economy, consumers inherently retained the idea of equality. Socialist government authorities also try to maintain and communicate that equality in Mainland China because it is crucial to national identity. Based on steady economic development and a newfound consumer confidence towards the future, mainland Chinese consumers believe that they are, in essence, the same as each other. Even if they cannot afford a luxury brand item today, they will save up several months of savings to eventually have it. The cultural ecology of the home is always in complex state of equilibrium with the political economy.


5 Collecting behaviours: the bigger picture

School children can often be heard complaining about the vast quantities of seemingly useless information they are forced to memorise as part of their education. Had they been the children of Stone Age hunters, they would have learned their lessons first hand, where the practical value in everyday life would have been obvious. Prehistoric people had to become masters of observation, with an acute knowledge of every plant and animal shape, colour, pattern, movement, sound and smell in so far as knowledge of these aspects of their environment enabled them to survive in a hostile world. This urge to find memorable pattern and harmony in the environment is called taxophilia. The human prehistoric taxophilic imperative was so important that it evolved to become as basic and distinct as the need to feed, mate or sleep. Originally our ancestors may have classified berries or antelopes as part of their food-finding activities. In the abstract world of the modern classroom, botany can seem remote, geology boring, and entomology meaningless. Yet despite these complaints, the taxophilic instinct remains as an urge to voluntarily commit to memory huge assemblages of facts on topics that will hardly ever encounter a need in the future. Information is not just simply accumulated; it is classified, particularly where there is a current social context, such as the latest football statistics, scores and titles of pop music, and the makes and dates of manufacture of motorcars. Taxophila is the driver of what we call the collecting instinct.

In a pre-human world the top systematic collector has to be the Bower Bird. The following account records an encounter between a male Bower Bird and the Rev.J.G. Wood rambling through the Australian Outback in the 1860s. (Fig 10).

“……. I saw a very glossy bird, of a deep purple hue, running about, and occasionally uttering the sound which had attracted me. Soon, it was evident that this was a Bower Bird engaged in building the assembly-room, and after a little while he became reconciled to my presence, and went on with his work. He went about it in a leisurely and reflective manner, taking plenty of time over his work, and disdaining to hurry himself. First he would go off to the further end of the compartment, and there inspect a quantity of twigs which had been put there for his use. After contemplating them for some time, he would take up a twig and then drop it as if it were too hot to hold. Perhaps he would repeat this process six or seven times with the same twig, and then suddenly pounce on another, weigh it once or twice in his beak, and then carry it off. When he reached the bower he still kept up his leisurely character, for he would perambulate the floor for some minutes, with the twig still in his beak avid then perhaps would lay it down, turn in another direction, and look as if he had forgotten about it. Sooner or later, however, the twig was fixed, and then he would run through the bower several times, utter his loud cry, and start off for another twig. Why these birds should trouble themselves to make this bower is a problem as yet unsolved. Had the structure served in any way as a protection from the weather, there would have been a self-evident reason for its existence, but the arching twigs are put together so loosely that they cannot protect the birds from wind or rain. Whatever may be the object of the bower, the birds are so fond of it that they resort to it during many hours of the day, and a good bower is seldom left without a temporary occupant.

Fig 10 A bower bird with its bower

Ornament is also employed by the Bower Bird, both entrances of the bower being decorated with bright and shining objects. The bird is not in the least fastidious about the articles with which it decorates its bower, provided only that they shine and are conspicuous. Scraps of coloured ribbon, shells, bits of paper, teeth, bones, broken glass and china, feathers, and similar articles, are in great request, and such objects as a lady’s thimble, a tobacco-pipe, and a tomahawk have been found near one of their bowers. Indeed, whenever the natives lose any small and tolerably portable object, they always search the bowers of the neighbourhood and frequently find that the missing article is doing duty as decoration to the edifice”.

We now believe the decorated bower is an essential device to attract a mate, but we appreciate the bird’s keen sense of balancing mass against variety of shape and colour. The outcomes chime with our instinctive attention to placement that we associate with our own artistic creativity, particularly when we position plates on a dresser and stand back, being fond of the achievement.

The human brain functions as a magnificent classifying machine, and every time we walk through a landscape it is busy feeding in new experiences and comparing them with the old. The brain classifies everything we see, and the survival value of this procedure is obvious. It is also the case with other mammals. A monkey, for instance, has to know many different kinds of trees and bushes in its forest home, and needs to be able to tell which one has ripening fruit at any particular season, which is poisonous, and which is thorny. If it is to survive, a monkey has to become a good botanist. In the same way a lion has to become a first-rate zoologist, able to tell at a glance, which prey species it is, how fast it can run, and which escape pattern it is likely to use.

Taxophilia is the basic behaviour of scientists. In biology it is dignified by the subject of taxonomy. Taxonomists have outstanding skills in observation and depiction to describe and communicate anatomical features that are of significance in placing individuals and their body parts in unambiguous categories. Their illustrations often have pleasing aesthetic qualities, and it is ironic that their early engravings of assemblages are now collected as works of art

As an aspect of human social evolution the pathway may be defined by processual analysis which begins with its legacy of social objects. Processual means relating to or involving the study of processes rather than discrete events. Most of the processual studies related to systems theory, particularly those focused on archaeological remains can be broadly included in a theoretical trend known as ‘Ceramic Ecology’. Processual analysis in ceramics starts with the overall shape of a pot, together with the character of component parts such as rims and handles, and also the technique and style of decoration. This can indicate when and how a pot was made and used, as well as serving to define cultural affinities. The term originated in archeology where the aim is to understand the progress of technology, methods and patterns of distribution, modes of consumption and processes of deposition. Those conclusions will go on to inform an understanding of the people who occupied an archaeological site, including their social, economic and cultural circumstances and the ways in which they interacted with material culture, as well as the chronology of the activities represented by the surviving evidence.

The term ‘processual’ means relating to or involving the study of processes rather than discrete events. Most of the processual studies are concerned with to the application of systems theory to archaeological collections (Fig 11), but processional analysis can be applied to any research project where the aim is to speculate on the way individual artifacts or events can be assembled theoretically to become part of a process. For example, the universal biochemical process by which energy is produced in living organisms emerged as a cyclic process by Hans Krebs who connecting up eight individual chemical reactions to make a cycle. Two molecules of carbon dioxide derived from dietary glucose are released at each turn of the cycle (Fig 12).

Fig 11 Archaeological finds in and around Williamsburg, Virginia

Fig 12 The citric acid cycle or Kreb’s Cycle

6 Postscript

The following statement was made in 2016 by Tristram Hunt M.P. to the House of Commons regarding the economic state of the ceramics industry in his constituency, Stoke-on-Trent Central. He was acknowledging the Government’s financial support of the potteries and it sums up a story of the British ceramics industry as cultural process, which had stalled in the beginning of the 21st century.

“The history of pottery in Stoke-on-Trent is long, stretching back a good 500 years. Out of the brown and yellow north Staffordshire clay came butter pots and flower pots. In the sun kilns of Bagnall and Penkhull, local artisans started to glaze their wares and develop a reputation for craftsmanship. But Europe’s ceramicists remained in the shadow of China, which had long mastered the magic of porcelain, the famous white ceramic formed by kaolin, named after the hill just outside Jingdezhen. Only in 1768 did the Plymouth apothecary William Cookworthy crack the recipe. With the help of Cornish clay, Britain joined Meissen and Sèvres in porcelain production. China—Britain’s new word for pottery and porcelain—became the eighteenth century rage. No one exploited the new era of industrial production, design and innovation more than Josiah Wedgwood. From his Etruria factory, he unleashed a volley of fashionable new designs that caught the attention of Queen Charlotte and Britain’s expanding middle class. His trademark jasper and basalt production followed.

In 1934, J.B. Priestley visited Stoke-on-Trent on his celebrated English journey. He, too, fell for the elemental, timeless attraction of ceramics. He celebrated the fettlers, the mould-makers, the dippers and the master potters for:
“doing something that they can do better than anybody else…Here is the supreme triumph of man’s creative thumb.”

Priestley caught the industry at its peak. The decline of the British ceramics industry arguably began with the Clean Air Act 1956 and the dismantling of some 2,000 coal-fired bottle kilns. For all the benefits of open skies and modernised plant, the law imposed sudden and significant costs on the manufacturing process. In an attempt to offset those costs, the industry embarked on a round of mergers and acquisitions, resulting in an over-concentrated ceramics sector. The high interest rates and exchange rates of the 1980s hammered exports. The rise of takeaways and the end of wedding lists undermined demand. Most damaging of all was the growing threat of the far east. Labour and energy costs in China put British production at a marked disadvantage.
Wedgwood went bust and Spode went into receivership, and between the early 1980s and 2010, some 40,000 jobs were lost in the ceramics industry. With them went Stoke’s cityscape and parts of its culture. The Minton factory, where Pugin’s tiles were fired for the Houses of Parliament, was turned into a Sainsbury’s. Then the final insult: in 2010, the entire collection of the Wedgwood Museum was threatened with disposal.

Six years on, the Wedgwood Museum has been saved and the industry is making profits, creating jobs, finding export markets and coming up with new designs. There is excitement and enthusiasm about British ceramic design. There is a new competitiveness in great companies such as Steelite, Churchill and Portmeirion. There is a new culture of partnership”.

7 Internet references

Ceramic ecology
Processual archeology
Nature of American Archaeology
Cultural anthropology terms
Material resonance and site specificity
Hyperbox Club: Porcelain WebQuest

WebQuest: Cultural Ecology

October 25th, 2016

1 Cultural ecology

In the late 1980s the head of the zoology department in the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff, Peter Morgan, decided that the old way of presenting animals to people visiting the zoology gallery should change and that visitors should interact with exhibits through the new medium of touch-screen computers (Fig 1).

Fig 1 Exhibiting mammals in the age of taxidermy:National Museum Cardiff


This idea coincided with the development of the concept of ‘natural economy’ by Prof Denis Bellamy in Cardiff University, as a cross-curricular learning framework for world development education. The work was funded by the educational directorate of the European Commission and was launched internationally as a cross-curricular GCSE subject by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate. Natural Economy deals with the technical organisation of resources for human well being. It complements Political Economy which deals with the political organisation of people for human well being. This novel conjunction established the Natural Economy Research Unit (NERU) in the museum’s zoology department to explore the use of computers as tools for engaging learners in reflective, critical thinking about the ideas they are studying. In particular, it addressed the question, How can learners analyze and organize what they know, or what they are learning, to make their own personal body of knowledge?. One of the best known semantic organization tools is concept mapping.

Concept mapping requires an ideational framework and natural economy serves this purpose. As a subset of the much bigger concept of cultural ecology it deals with the social relationships between people and the management of their natural resources. To be effective the framework must accommodate people, going beyond the narrow circle of “authorized personnel” to follow their own cognitive process of building a personal body of knowledge.

A highlight of these pioneering days was the networking of natural economy across Europe as a Welsh contribution to the Schools Olympus Satellite Programme, which was uploaded from Gwynedd County Council ‘s North Wales terminal at Llangefni.

Cultural ecology is best approached through landscapes which have been moulded by humans wresting a living from local rocks, soils and ecosystems. Learning about the limits of this effort to boost human wellbeing begins with a specific landscape and its various elements as a heritage menu. A landscape’s component biological and physical elements are cross-curricular historical markers of past cultures. These are the artefacts presented to learners of all ages in museums. In fact every element on a museum’s public gallery is the tip of an information iceberg in the ‘sea’ of cultural ecology and the starting point of concept mapping as a quest for knowledge.

NERU was funded by the EU to explore the use of computer assisted learning as part of the process of mind mapping gallery artefacts upon which visitors could build their own story. The phrase electronic gallery guides (EGGs) was coined to describe the connections, available with touch screen computers, that placed an artifact in an augmented reality. This form of cross curricular mindmapping offers great opportunities for establishing individual learning routes, which are best described as personal quests, each starting with a cultural element. As the world-wide web developed, NERU worked with Welsh and English schools and their communities to produce a series of mind maps, called bioscopes, as quests outlining routes from the past and present to living sustainably in the future. These were created with the Apple Macintosh Hypercard system and MindJet’s MindManager. These learning routes are called epistemic games. Their focus is on helping learners to think like professionals, such as engineers or journalists. Epistemic games are anchored in an apprenticeship learning model in which students are confronted with a real-world issues that require creative solutions. The purpose is not necessarily to steer them towards a certain profession but rather to have them learn to think innovatively and understand the complexities of solving meaningful problems in the modern world. Although these games are not designed to train students for specific professions, they do provide an opportunity to explore a potential job. This is a valuable approach to enriching transition planning for students with disabilities and students in schools where actual internships are impractical or unavailable.

Although the visitor experience in museums is often the result of passing through subject barriers at high speed to make the most of a day out, this passage offers opportunities to increase levels of scientific understanding in the context of a particular object’s wider cultural significance. For example, the Cardiff art galleries are rich in 18th century landscape paintings and EGGs were produced linking ‘ecological exhibits’ in the arts and zoology galleries through the topic of conservation management, where environmental aesthetics and mindfulness in the presence of Nature made the bridge (Fig 2)

Fig 2 River at Penegoes c 1750, National Museum Cardiff: depiction of ancient oak woodland


This connection to a neighborhood through a mindful approach is one of the pillars of a community ecomuseum. In the 1980s the idea of ecomuseums emerged as a local focus on landscape elements that define the identity of a place. An ecomuseum is assembled with volunteer participation, and has the objective of enhancing the welfare and development of local communities. These community museums originated in France, the concept being promoted by Georges Henri Rivière and Hugues de Varine, who coined the term ‘ecomusée’ in 1971. The term “éco” is a shortened form for “écologie”, but it refers especially to a new idea of holistic interpretation of cultural heritage as a landscape quest. It may be contrasted with the focus on specific items and objects defined by expert curators of traditional museums. An ecomuseum, coupled with epistemic games is a community ‘big history’ for generating a local pride of place and action plans for environmental improvements..

Examples of digital ecomuseums produced by NERU in partnership with local communities are;

Denbigh Area


Nine Parishes




Community Landscapes: North Wales

2 WebQuests

Fig 3 WebQuest:’Teeth’


Nowadays the ideas behind the NERU EGG have been developed as the on line WebQuest (Fig 3). The first WebQuest used simply paper and pencil, when San Diego State University’s Bernie Dodge was working on a lesson for second-semester student teachers concerning an educational software package. But Dodge didn’t have access to the software, so instead he accumulated as much information on paper as he could about the product: evaluations, printouts of Web sites devoted to the topic, and even a transcript of a Web chat with one of the developers. He organized this material into thematic sections, and then handed them over to the students. Their job was to internalize the information, then collaboratively develop a working plan for determining whether or not the software was viable for the school where they were teaching (Fig 4).

Fig 4 A paper WebQuest in the classroom


Dodge told Education World magazine that he knew from the beginning that he had stumbled onto something special: “It was great! Having done my part ahead of time by organizing the resources, I had to speak very little during the two hours they worked on it. I enjoyed walking around and helping where necessary and listening to the buzz of conversations as students pooled their notes and tried to come to a decision. The things they were talking about were much deeper and more multifaceted than I had ever heard from them. That evening I realized that this was a different way to teach —and that I loved it!”

In 1995, Dodge and Tom March developed a type of lesson plan, which they termed a “WebQuest’ that incorporated links to, from, and along the newly born World Wide Web. Students were presented with a scenario and a task, usually a problem to solve or a project to complete. The students were given Internet resources and asked to analyze and synthesize the information and come up with their own creative solutions. Over the next three years, teachers wrote their own WebQuests, and instructors began to teach WebQuests in their workshops and classes. Fortunately, this proliferation of curricular materials convinced many teachers that it was all right to publish their own WebQuests on line for others. Most teachers have included their e-mail addresses, which allow a WebQuest user to contact the teacher and discuss quest results. Additionally, WebQuest sites have sprung up and continue to grow on the Internet.

Dodge defines a WebQuest as an activity that pulls together the most effective instructional practices into one integrated learner activity. These Web-based projects use World Wide Web sites to help students develop problem-solving and decision-making skills, on their own or collaborative groups..

An effective WebQuest develops critical thinking skills and often includes a cooperative learning component. Students learn as they search for information using the Web, following a prescribed format that focuses on problem solving and authentic assessment. A well-written WebQuest requires students to go beyond simple fact finding. It asks them to analyze a variety of resources and use their creativity and critical-thinking skills to solve a problem. WebQuests help students analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. The ultimate learning experience is for a student to produce a WebQuest to teach other students what they have learned.


A Cardiff EGG and a Dodge WebQuest are both classified as epistemic learning games; an inquiry-oriented lesson format, in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the Web. These can be created using various programmes, including a simple word processing document that includes links to websites. The following programmes are examples of software tools for making WebQuests.


The following quests were made with the Zunal and Spiderscribe software systems.

Rescue Mission Planet Earth
Equal Rights
Envisage the Future
The Porcelain Project

3 Resource-guided learning pathways

A WebQuest is distinguished by two outstanding characteristics of inquiry-led education.

First, it emphasizes higher-order thinking (such as analysis, creativity, or criticism) rather than just acquiring information. Second, the author preselects the resources, emphasizing smart information use rather than information gathering. Thereby a webquest goes beyond data and information accumulation and the resources are used as a guide toward the generation of useful and applicable knowledge, a process supported by inquiry learning.

Questing is more relevant today than ever. In the past, the UK’s success depended on the education of narrow subject specialists to tap the country’s natural resources. Today, it depends upon a generalist workforce that “works smarter.”

Through the process of resource-guided learning individuals construct much of their understanding of the natural and human-designed worlds. Inquiry implies a “need or want to know” premise. Inquiry is not so much seeking the right answer, because often there is none, but rather seeking appropriate resolutions to questions and issues. For educators, inquiry implies emphasis on the development of inquiry skills and the nurturing of inquiring attitudes or habits of mind that will enable individuals to continue the quest for knowledge throughout life.

At the centre of a WebQuest is Bloom’s cognitive system with the educational outcomes structured in a hierarchical order (Fig 5 ).

Fig 5 The cognative system according to Bloom


A lesson objective based upon the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is presented for each of the six levels of BLOOM’s Cognitive Process. Remember: Describe where Goldilocks lived. Understand: Summarize what the Goldilocks story was about. Apply: Construct a theory as to why Goldilocks went into the house. Analyze: Differentiate between how Goldilocks reacted and how you would react in each story event. Evaluate: Assess whether or not you think this really happened to Goldilocks. Create: Compose a song, skit, poem, or rap to convey the Goldilocks story in a new form.

At the lowest level students are required to know, memorize, repeat and list information. At the higher levels students are required to judge, criticize, resolve, invent, and make recommendations. Each of the levels builds in complexity from the previous level. Carefully selected verbs are used to involve students in thinking differently at each level. A WebQuest is therefore a resource guided learning pathway.

A WebQuest is different from a “scavenger hunt,” a much simpler approach that is as old as the Web itself. In a typical scavenger hunt, students are given a list of items they must find answers to questions, for example, or instances of data and are set loose on the Web. WebQuests are much more structured and focus heavily on an ideational framework with links to websites researched by a teacher.

Fig 6 A Zunal WebQuest about making conservation management plans



It is recommended that every WebQuest has six basic components (Fig 6).

(i) Introduction.
This is an overview of what is to come; it describes the rationale of the course, its vocabulary and learning context.

(ii) Task
This section details the course objectives in the form of packages of resources that must be accessed in sequence to complete the Quest.

(iii) Process.
It is here that students use the resources in each package to develop a personal compilation of ideas and information, often working in groups, to meet the objectives. This may involve role-playing and other off-line methods.

Learning resources are texts, videos, software, concepts and definitions that teachers have selected to assist students to meet the expectations for learning. Links to resources are added to each page of the on-line presentation..

The Process section spells out step by step what learners will do, how they will interact with, each other, and with information. The teacher may want to have everyone reading one set of pages, and then break them into groups with separate roles, each with a different set of links to look at.

After the students have examined the information they need to transform it in some way. Here is where they play with ideas, make decisions, and so on.

Finally, learners actually produce something that reflects the thinking they did. They may be writing a position paper, preparing a debate, creating a model or applying their learning to solve a practical problem. The teacher might want to provide some writing prompts or other forms of guidance to help them act more skilled than they presently are.

Every step should be clearly stated. Activities should be clearly related and designed from basic knowledge to higher level thinking. Different roles are assigned to help students understand different perspectives and/or share responsibility in accomplishing the task

(iv) Evaluation.
The evaluation of a student’s progress centres on a “rubric,” a carefully designed chart listing goals for the quest and the standards by which performance will be measured. This can be thought of as a great widening of the typical letter grade usually given to classroom assignments. Rubrics are highly annotated “grades” with extensive annotation detailing many aspects of the project. There can be an evaluation of the Quest by students which is similarly structured.

(v) Conclusions
This is a brief summary, usually congratulatory in tone, that wraps up the project.

(vi) Teacher Page.
Instructors are provided with their own subsection of the WebQuest site, with instructions for each of the above sections. Teachers who develop WebQuests often fill this section with information to help other educators adapt the quest to their own class.

6 Why bother?

Ultimately, the WebQuest idea is about more than simply using the Web for research. It is a structured process for introducing concepts, problems, building methodical approaches to solving those problems, and then getting students to tackle them.

From this perspective using WebQuests can help build a solid foundation that prepares students for an adult world.

Why should a teacher take the time to create a WebQuest? The best reason is that, like any carefully planned lesson, a good WebQuest makes learning interesting for students. Beyond that, however, several other factors make WebQuests powerful learning tools. First, a good WebQuest puts the power of the web behind a topic. A teacher can show students – or let them discover for themselves, not just tell them. Web sites can take students anywhere in the world. WebQuests are a way to let students work at their own pace, either individually or in teams. A WebQuest lets students explore selected areas in more depth, but within limits that you have selected. This makes WebQuests ideal for classes which combine students with different ability levels. WebQuests offer a different, more dynamic approach to teaching the value of research. WebQuests can also increase the “comfort level” of students using the Internet for learning activities. While students are probably already computer literate, a properly designed WebQuest can help them become creative researchers rather than simply “surfing” from one site to another.

WebQuests are based on the ideas of inquiry and constructivism. WebQuests also incorporate cooperative and collaborative learning, since students can work on projects in groups. These concepts can play a role in teaching with WebQuests. WebQuests can also help students meet standards focused on critical-thinking and analysis skills. Alternative kinds of assessment can be used to judge the results of WebQuest projects. And, obviously, WebQuests are one way to use the Internet in education. WebQuests are tools, not educational theories, so they can be used in virtually any classroom with appropriate computer access. However, above all a WebQuest releases the teacher and students from the intellectual tyranny of national curricula based on old subject boundaries. It is unfortunate that most schools lack the freedom to use them in mainstream teaching. In addition, a recent survey has revealed teacher-perceived drawbacks of the use of the Internet , viz. students’ cheating, unreliable information, technical problems, and students’ extracurricular activities during lessons.

Landscape, Mind and Meaning

September 19th, 2016

Electric encounters’ with cultural heritage

“Landscape and identity are inherent components of our culture, one informing the other … access to, and freedom to enjoy the landscape as well as respect for spiritual and symbolic meanings people ascribe to their landscape, are some of the components that will support dignity and well being of communities”.

‘The Right to Landscape: Contesting Landscape and Human Rights’ – Cambridge (2008).  Workshop, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

1  An expression of cultural ecology

Academic definitions of landscape invariably encompass an area of land containing a mosaic of scenic patches.  These patches are landscape elements that are discerned by eye, singly or in groups.   We enter the countryside with a predisposed sense of attentiveness to make mental connections to these elements and their patterns.  The discernment of visual heterogeneity is the initial response and in 1986 Forman and Godron defined landscape as a heterogeneous land area composed of a cluster of interacting ecosystems that is repeated in similar form throughout. Again stressing the importance of heterogeneity against a uniform background, Turner et al, in 2002 defined landscape as an area that is spatially heterogeneous in at least one factor of interest. To understand a landscape meaningfully  therefore involves focusing on the management of factors, past or present, that produced the landscape elements. No landscape is pristine so in responding to the pictorial elements in this way we go back in human history.   We pass through a sequence of historical periods each representative of the local human ecological niche at a time when the place provided an important ecosystem service for the people who had integrated their culture with its ecology.

In this broad cross-subject context it is desirable to widen the old ideas of nature, with its expressions of ‘awe’, ‘absolute’ and ‘distant from human capacities’, to a more complex and dynamic view of the reality of environment as a collection of natural processes to which are assigned human values and aesthetics.  Landscape then becomes nature. Its elements are groups of ecosystems, including the human ecosystem, but there are interactions among them, which again places a cultural focus on spatial heterogeneity and the processes maintaining it, then and now.

To summarise, landscape is a universal pictorial facet of the human ecological niche linking culture with ecology, because there is now no place on Earth that humankind has not incorporated into the cultural traits of societies; their behaviours, beliefs, and symbols.  In this respect, landscape has permeated the management of cultural heritage, leading in 1992 to UNESCO recognising the following three categories of cultural landscapes of outstanding universal value for world heritage listing.

(i) Landscape designed and created intentionally by man. This embraces garden and parkland landscapes constructed for aesthetic reasons which are often (but not always) associated with religious or other monumental buildings and ensembles.

Fig 1 Duffryn Gardens: home of the Cory ‘coal owning’ family


(ii) Organically evolved landscape. This results from an initial social, economic, administrative, and/or religious imperative and has developed its present form by association with and in response to its natural environment. Such landscapes reflect that process of evolution in their form and component features. They fall into two sub-categories:

– a relict (or fossil) landscape is one in which an evolutionary process came to an end at some time in the past, either abruptly or over a period. Its significant distinguishing features are, however, still visible in material form.

– a continuing landscape (Fig 2) is one which retains an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life, and in which the evolutionary process is still in progress. At the same time it exhibits significant material evidence of its evolution over time.

Fig 2 Griffith St, Maerdy, Rhondda Fach

grifith street maerdy

(iii) Associative cultural landscape. This is defined by virtue of the powerful religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element rather than material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent (Fig 3).

This three part categorisation was predicated on the understanding that landscapes are the outcome of social processes at the interface of culture and nature, tangible and intangible heritage, biological and cultural diversity.  In this respect  they represent a closely woven net of relationships expressing the essence of culture and people’s identity.

Fig 3 St Mary’s Well, Penrhys, Rhondda Fach


  The UNESCO world heritage listing inevitably devalues all landscape that are not so listed.  Also the selection process is biased towards rural landscapes, which devalues the urban places where most people now live.  In fact, landscapes, beautiful or ugly, urban or rural, all reflect a collective past and determine the future quality of life of the people who live there. Landscapes are about contemporary people and places.  Wherever we live, they are fundamental to our health and well-being, and are an important part of our identity. It is critically important that the value of landscape is recognised in decision making locally as well as internationally.

Intimately connected with landscapes are people’s stories and the things of which memories are made.  These stories make up the cultural richness that promotes a sense of local distinctiveness.   Locals and visitors alike can be given a sense of participation with the past through presentation of appropriate interpretative material.  Thereby people’s surroundings can be appreciated as a human right in terms of access to encourage personal fulfillment through states of mindfulness and meaningfulness.

2 Attentiveness to heritage

“I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me, those who are to come. I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers, and in front, to see my son, and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond.- Richard Llewellyn. How Green Was My Valley 

The past has always been with us, but heritage is a recent invention. The word “heritage” in its present English usage carries a complex of cultural, economic and political associations. These associations articulate social drives such as the need for a sense of connection with the past, the desire for the reassurance of identity and a sense of place which includes humankind’s dependence on nature.  Richard Llewellyn took up the latter theme in his novel  How Green Was My Valley;

‘The quiet troubling of the river, and the clean, washed stones, and the green all about, and the trees trying to drown their shadows, and the mountain going up and up behind, there is beautiful it was.’    

Llewellyn gathered material for his novel in the 1930s  from conversations with local valley mining families in Gilfach Goch, which he contrasted with an imagined pastoralism of the preindustrial wooded valleys of South Wales.

The possessive passion is universal. ‘It’s our land’, say the tenant farmers in  John Steinbeck’s novel, Grapes of Wrath. ‘We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours — being born on it, working it, dying on it.’  Set in the US during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought and economic hardship.   

We cannot help but make contact with heritage through landscape because no matter how academics define it, our local environment is our heritage,  Even when we enter a stretch of countryside for the first time in a recreational mode we define it pictorially as a scene  that opens up a discourse about nature through images.  The discourse starts with the visual cropping of one’s surroundings as if taking a snapshot.  This isolates areas that we feel make satisfactory pictorial entities. Invariably, these pictorial entities are also cultural ones upon which we inevitably have to cogitate.

Random mental connections with landscape elements may be made through a sense of wonderment:  e.g. an unexpected rainbow, a flock of birds.  Usually these elements are described as beautiful expressions of nature. These have been described as ‘electric encounters’.   The other reaction is a response to having prior information for interpreting the landscape and its elements that draws a person to visit it, either to reinforce personal knowledge or to amplify it.   

An unexpected surprising encounter may or may not trigger a desire for information. It is akin to a state of mindfulness.  The visible and invisible come together as a spiritual experience.  Often, the latter response results in, or augments, a sense of meaningfulness. This characteristic relates to an individual’s sense of who they are and how they navigate their way through life.  This is directly related to the answers a person has to what are traditionally thought of as life’s ultimate questions:

        Who am I?

        Why am I?

        What is the meaning of life?

        What is the meaning of my life?

These are the questions that humankind has pondered since it became self-aware and developed the capacity for critical reflection.

In chance encounters with landscape elements there seems to be a general fear of not understanding what one sees and this search for meaning often tips people away from cultivating and holding on to a sense of mindfulness.  Mindfulness in this context involves accepting that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we are sensing in the present moment rather than rehearsing the past or imagining the future.  For there to be a shift from mindfulness to meaningfulness there has to be a quest for information about the past and future.

Although a state of mindfulness may be triggered by a natural phenomenon it can be induced by a man-made object that is an element of the landscape whose purpose is unknown.  For example, “applied art” refers to the application (and resulting product) of artistic design to utilitarian objects in everyday use. Whereas works of fine art have no function other than providing aesthetic or intellectual stimulation to the viewer, works of applied art are usually functional objects which have been “prettified” or creatively designed with both aesthetics and function in mind. Applied art embraces a huge range of products and items, from a teapot or chair, to the walls and roof of a railway station or concert hall, a fountain pen or computer mouse. For the sake of simplicity, works of applied art comprise two different types: standard machine-made products, which have had a particular design applied to them to make them more attractive and easy-to-use; and individual, aesthetically pleasing but mostly functional, craft products made by artisans or skilled workers.  Applied art is a feature of landscape heritage,which is often exemplified by  a piece of left-behind applied art that is slowly decaying  (Fig 4) . In this connection architecture, too, is best viewed as an applied art.  

Fig 4 A piece of unlabelled mining machinery:  Rhondda Heritage Centre, Trehafod


3  Access and interpretation

“How can there be fury felt for things that are gone to dust.”

-Richard Llewellyn, ‘How Green Was My Valley’

As people increasingly seek out meaningful activities in the outdoors, heritage conservation seeks an every increasing grip on scarce public finances.  Questions are being asked about the purpose of heritage sites.  A central question is how can people use heritage sites to seek and maintain meaningful lives. This has been taken up by the Dutch nature conservation organisation Staatsbosbeheer (National Forestry Service) which discovered that its constituents are increasingly seeking out meaningful activities in nature.  However, the focus is not on the ultimate meaning of human life but rather on what are the conditions in which a person experiences that his or her life is meaningful?   In other words, there is a process of self searching about how he or she feels that life is fulfilled by meaning.  The search for meaning in life or for meaningful nature experience, requires some kind of meaningful activity as a prerequisite. But what is actually considered a meaningful activity in nature? What do people consider to be meaningful and how are these questions to be addressed by organisations involved with heritage conservation?

Opening up access and the interpretation of what there is to see are integral parts of an overall landscape management plan. Virtually every management decision has a direct or indirect impact on these two goals. Interpretation of the site must include its social and historical significance: which social groups built the site? What were their links with the surrounding countryside? What materials, know-how and  techniques did they use?  In what historical conditions was it built?  What were the economic, aesthetic or strategic purposes of the site? What problems were encountered when it was being built? etc. These are some of the questions interpretation must answer, and which the management of the site must be designed to elicit.

Access and interpretation of any aspect of landscape as heritage should motivate the visitor to assist in conserving it. This is expressed in the U.S. National Park Service formulation of visitor interaction as a linear process. “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection”.

Regarding the benefits of heritage conservation, which also includes nature conservation, the following quotations about interpretation from UK conservation management  exemplify the positive approach which is needed on the ground.

Firstly from Michael Hughes: “For many years Oxwich National Nature Reserve was perceived as a fragile site in need of a tightly controlled access policy.  In the early eighties however, we recognised the inherent robustness of the reserve and much of the dunes, woodlands and marshes became open access”

Secondly, from Dan Hillier, on wildlife tourism: “The long term aim should be to make watching wildlife a small element of as many people’s holidays as possible”.

Finally two quotes from Richard Sharland, on the approach of the UK Wildlife Trusts:

(1) “Discovering the importance of the wider public has meant creating more access to sites of wildlife importance, so that people can realise the significance of their heritage through direct experience”.

(2) “The awareness generated by interpretation is also recognised as having importance in its own right. If people know more about their local wildlife, their quality of life is enhanced, they will make better citizens, they will have a better understanding of the world and their responsibilities within it”.  These comments refer to wildlife conservation but they can also be applied to all kinds of landscape elements.

4  Benefits as management outcomes

Before public access can be properly assessed and desirable outcomes turned into measurable management objectives, heritage landscapes must first be recognized as indispensable to our own well being.  People have been discussing their profound experiences in nature for the last several 100 years—from Thoreau to John Muir  and many other writers. Now we are seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally more healthy when we are interacting with nature.

The fundamental aim of a landscape management plan is to develop connections between the visitor/observer and then obtain feedback on the way the landscape was valued and utilised mentally and physically, once a connection was made.  In their study of the psychological rewards from nature connectedness Miles Richardson and Jenny Hallam related values and functions of biophilia to the psychological rewards of engaging with the natural world. The rewards cover aspects such as restoration, personal growth, creativity and inspiration. For example, there are reports of the amazing feelings of happiness and inner calm of being close to nature. Similarly, self-reports of nature connectedness, which included a wide range of descriptions, including calmness, wholeness, wonder and peacefulness. These responses are included in Kellert’s nine values of biophilia (Table 1).

Table 1  Kellert’s nine values of biophilia

values of lanscape

However, this research relates to interaction with ecosystems and the value of relating to human heritage artifacts was not examined.

Nevertheless it has a bearing on the move by some educationalists to replace the traditional goals of knowledge and understanding with personal and social objectives concerned with enhancing and developing confidence and self-esteem in learners.  In this connection, Terry Hyland believes that the concept of ‘mindfulness’ can be an immensely powerful and valuable notion.  This is because it is integrally connected with the centrally transformative and developmental nature of learning and educational activity at all levels.  For example, Wordsworth was in a state of mindfulness when he wrote the following poetic lines, the outcome of contemplating the landscape of the dramatic limestone gorge of the River Wye above Tintern Abbey.

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of thought,

And rolls through all things.

In a mood of secular spiritualism, Wordsworth looks beyond surface appearance to gain insight into a deeper level of existence. which fuses mind and nature in a living whole.

5  The Rhondda Fach model

Rhondda, or the Rhondda Valley, is a former coal mining valley in South Wales consisting of sixteen pit-head communities that settled along the course of the River Rhondda during the 19th century. The area is, in fact, made up of two valleys: those of the larger Rhondda Fawr valley (Welch: mawr = large) and the smaller Rhondda Fach valley to the East (Welch: bach = small).  The latter valley has been selected for modelling people’s interactions with landscape heritage because of its relatively small size and because it represents a semi rural cultural landscape densely packed with scenic heritage, from prehistoric times to the post industrial period. A skeleton management plan targeting mindfulness is structured according to the following logic.


Residents and visitors as individuals and groups interacting with the visual elements of landscape heritage using maps and interpretation material, cogitating on what they discover.  Then uploading pictures with comments describing their feelings, relating the experience to their place in a grand scheme of things.


The objective is to involve residents and visitors in highlighting their personal selection of landscape heritage elements, with their reasons for selecting them, online.


Informed by community heritage values, the rationale of the plan is to encourage the uptake of William Wordsworth’s view of landscape beyond its surface appearance. Thus, residents seek important landscape elements that are representative of their identity. Visitors investigate heritage pertaining to the character of local communities through which they pass.  The elements and commentaries will have beneficial outcomes for residents and visitors alike.  They will help people utilise landscape as an ecosystem service to to interpret outdoor experiences, probe identities, interrogate cultural/urban assumptions and understand historical, social, economic and political contexts.  In these respects these outcomes will become an important stakeholder input to local plans for conserving landscape heritage as a facet of sustainable development..


The methodology will show how landscape elements can be selected for online display and viewer interaction that have contemporary historic/cultural significance in the minds of residents and visitors.  A freely accessible community IT system for interaction and display will be used.


The outcome is the inculcation of environmental awareness down to the deepest levels of mindfulness and meaningfulness that can be displayed online through personal creativity with pictures, poetry, fable, myth and story.  

The planning procedure is based on the following sequence of actions:

1 Map an inventory of heritage landscapes.

2 Define access routes

3 Provide interpretive material.

4 Define the barriers preventing the establishment of 1-3.

5 Scedule work has to be done to overcome the barriers.

6 Monitor progress 1-5 with performance indicators.

7 Monitor the outcomes using site statistics to assess the level of meaningfulness..

Fig 5  Installation (2016) commemorating Tylorstown Pits 8 (Cynllwyn-Du) and 9.


Fig 6  Pits 8 and 9 (early 20th century) and the Tylorstown community that served them.

pits 8 and 9


This Rhondda Fach model is being developed further at:



5  References




Emrys Pride, Rhondda My Valley Brave  (Stirling Press,

1975)  942.972 PRI

E D Lewis, The Rhondda Valleys (Phoenix House 1959)

942.972 LEW

John and Norah Morgans, Journey of a LIfetime (John and Norah Morgans 2008)



Life by Numbers

Celebrating the Deaths of Heroes


1 Foreword

One of 2 tributaries of the Rhondda River.

No.1 colliery of the Ferndale group,

Alias Blaenllechau Farm,

First of 9 pits in the Ferndale cluster

2 The Heroes

Here in the slowly regreening valley of the Little Rhondda,

Contemplating an artistic tram brimming with coal,

We focus costing the black gold

And the wealth promised by a grocer,

David Davis of Blaengwawr,

Sinker of Ferndale Pit No 1 in 1857.

Penetrating with scientificl hope

Deep into the unprofitable wildness

Of pastoral bracken

With its own money-making plant lore

For farmers:

Under gorse – copper.

Under brambles – silver.

Under fern – gold.

Day 6 of the week dated 8-11-1867.

2 consecutive explosions.

With Christian hope

It took a month of long days to recover

The unidentifiable remains of 178 men,

And an unknown number of dead horses.


Subheading 1

An unmeasurable accumulation of gas,

Due to the neglect of the manager,

And inaction

Of an unrecorded number of colliery officers.


Subheading 2  

Gas fired by 1 or more of the colliers

Carelessly taking off the tops of their lamps

To work with naked lights.


17 months later 10-6-1869

No 9 colliery of the Ferndale group

Companion to Ferndale  No 8

Alias Cynllwyn-Du, in a pastoral past.

Another killing recorded as 53 men and boys.


Subheading 1

Managers ignored  recommendations after 1867.


Subheading 2

Failure of the pit’s fresh air ventilation system.

3  A Final reckoning

Pit No 8 provided 77 years of employment

Pit No 9 provided 53 years of employment

1913: Peak coal output from South Wales;

56 million tons.

Or, to put it another way,

127.000 tons were won per miner killed

That year.

Coal is long dead,

Hope is now a political commodity.

4  Postscript

No 5 pit 13-2-1908,

Here is

55-year-old former Private

Thomas Chester,

An uncrossed hero,

Who 29 years earlier,

Helped forge an Empire.

At Rorke’s Drift

Where rifles enriched by Rhondda coal,

Killed Zulu  warriors,

Thrusting spears and leather shields,

Thomas is working in the washery,

Trimming coal,

He allows two wagons to pass,

Then steps onto the  tracks

Leading to No.1 pit screens,

To break up a lump of coal,

Fallen by chance onto the empty


He is crushed to death by a wagon,

Being lowered towards the screens,

Unaware that other wagons were to follow.

Elsewhere is Everywhere: cultures of mental ecology

July 7th, 2016


Marketing to the emotions: UKIP’s leader with his ‘battle bus

“Mental models are personal, internal representations of external reality that people use to interact with the world around them. They are constructed by individuals based on their unique life experiences, perceptions, and understandings of the world. Mental models are used to reason and make decisions and can be the basis of individual behaviors.

Natalie A Jones, Helen Ross , Timothy Lynam , Pascal Perez  and Anne Leitch (2011)


1  Mental cultural ecologies

Two weeks before the 2016 British European Union referendum, Helen Pridd, North of England editor of the Guardian newspaper, interviewed young men among 1,000 apprentices employed by Nissan in their Sunderland car plant.  About 8000 local people are directly employed in the vast manufacturing complex, with 32,000 more jobs in the supply chain. More than 70% of the half a million cars produced in Sunderland each year are exported to Europe, mostly to EU members.

She writes:

“Taking a cigarette break outside the enormous Nissan factory in Sunderland last week, Martin Winyard was adamant he would be voting to leave the European Union.  Never mind that his bosses at the car plant had made it clear they would much rather see Britain stay in the EU.

The 19-year-old apprentice wanted out.

“We’re being taken over by foreigners,” he said. “People from Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria; they all end up living here.”

A colleague, Mark Willshire, pointed out that none of those countries were actually in the EU.

But Winyard’s mind was made up: “My great grandad fought for British independence. We shouldn’t let foreigners take over now.”

Helen Pridd continues,

“Sunderland is a city ranked as among the most Eurosceptic in Britain. Despite the north-east of England receiving large amounts of European funding and its buoyant car industry exporting most of its vehicles to the EU, widespread Europhobia is causing the remain campaign serious jitters two weeks before the referendum.

Kevin Guthry, 59, who is on the Nissan apprenticeship scheme as a condition of collecting jobseeker’s allowance, said he too would be voting to leave.

“Look at all these lads,” he said, gesturing with his lit cigarette, “these lads are here because they can’t get real jobs because of all the immigrants.”

Guthry is a life-time Labour voter, but not any more. “I don’t like the new leader. It’ll be Ukip for me next time.

The actual result of the Sunderland referendum was  82,394 for Leave to 51,930 for Remain – a majority of 61% on a 64% turnout.  What we don’t know is how many off Nissan’s work force voted to leave the EU. Nor do we know how many of NIssan’s workers actually live in Sunderland.

The facts are that migrant asylum seekers in Sunderland and its surrounding communities are in their hundreds within an indigenous population of thousands (Fig 1  ).

Fig 1 Presenting the facts


At about the same time that Helen Pridd was interviewing Nissan’s apprentices in Sunderland, the ‘New Scientist’ predicted that uncertainty over the future and contradictory political information will mean voters in the UK’s EU referendum would be swung even more than usual by emotional feelings and biases in data presentation.  In their article ‘Brexitology: What science says about the UK’s EU referendum’, Michael Bond, Jacob Aron and Hal Hodson stated that the EU referendum could be the most irrational yet. They said that uncertainty over consequences, and contradictory economic and political information, mean that voters will be swung even more than usual by feelings and biases that have nothing to do with the issues at stake.  They quoted John McCormick an American expert on EU politics: “Polls show that knowledge about the EU in Britain is low.  To a large extent it’s going to be a domestic protest vote”. He predicted that instead of EU considerations, many voters will be guided by their entrenched views on immigration, the Conservative government and political figures such as David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

Post referendum surveys show that McCormick turned out to be right on all counts.  Furthermore, only 22% of voters understood the implications of what they were voting on.  Referendums are not elections, but because of their rarity, parties campaign as if they were, elevating personalities and emphasising differences.  Voters in referenda like to see parties and experts from credible civil society organisations working together, offering insights and sharing analysis, and calling a lie a lie, rather than bickering or one-upping each other by meeting  facts with unsubstantiated assertions in sound bites.

2  An illusion of shrinkage

During the past 30 years, it has become a cliché to declare that ‘the world has become a smaller place.  Climates have changed, water levels have risen and mass tourism, for some, continues to expand and proliferate. This has had an effect on popular perceptions of time and space which, fanned by the effects of the digital revolution, the speed of the internet and the pervasive influence of social media, have created an illusion of shrinkage.  Vast shifts of capital and production, from West to East, from North to South, have changed the world’s economic map and their ultimate political, economic and cultural effects are far from clear.  However, one thing is certain, inequalities have not been eliminated  It is estimated that 17% of the world’s total population is living in extreme poverty. Furthermore,  extreme poverty is only a fraction of a much larger cycle of deprivation in which the gap between the majority and the super-rich is becoming ever larger.   Its impact is already clear and growing. As  environmental and political instability spreads across the globe there is little doubt that it will continue to feed into social and political conflict.

According to recent figures, just under half of Sunderland was ranked as being among the 20% most deprived areas in England, and more than a fifth of Sunderland ranked in the bottom 10%. Many of Sunderland’s children grow up in income deprived homes. Unemployment in the North-east of England is the highest in the UK, and the number of long-term unemployed in Sunderland continues to rise.  Yet in terms of the UK well-being survey Sunderland is not exceptional, returning unremarkable lifestyle statistics on  anxiety  3/10, happiness  7.3/10, a worthwhile life 7.7/10, satisfaction with life 7.4/10.  There is not one general reason for people voting to leave the EC!  The referendum required only a tick against ‘stay’ or ‘leave’, whereas people had a variety of reasons for wanting to stay or leave.  These different reasons are now emerging through surveys of why people voted the way they did. However we will never know, for example, how many people voted against immigration, or, for that matter, any of the freedoms the EU guarantees for members of what it calls its community.

Most historians think of community as formed mainly within a bounded area in which virtually everybody knew each other, to which people felt that they belonged, and which commonly had administrative functions.  Now, more than ever, people are subjected to misinformation, disinformation and propaganda every single day. Many of the decisions individuals make will be based on that person’s misperceptions of life and the way they see it, either because of misinformation or the absence of information.  Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change. Basically it happens when reality does not match up with our behaviours.

It would be amusing if it weren’t for the destructiveness that wrong perceptions of people and situations can cause. What is amusing is that, like the Nissan apprentices, we are all convinced of the truth of our perceptions and act on them accordingly, despite the inaccurate and incomplete way the brain works to give us these perceptions. The sad reality is that most of our perceptions of other people and situations are very distorted.  Even if we do not move our body, our thoughts and consciousness are constantly moving away to find a life elsewhere. Yet we now have location-free ‘imagined’, ‘communication’, ‘simulated’, or ‘virtual’ communities and there are some theorists who believe that these are communitarian improvements on, and better substitutes for, the past. So many people now live outside territory and community as defined by local space, at least for part of their time. Indeed, to be local is thought by many to be a sign of social deficiency and degradation, of marginalisation and constraint. Measures of ‘the quality of life’ even stigmatise localism and a failure to be mobile as ‘deprivation’, and seriously formalise that judgement in the form of quantitative indicators.

In response to mental irrationality, barriers between individuals and groups have been torn down, while others of different kinds have been erected. Differences between past and present in respect of ‘belonging’ are now so great for many people, as ‘organic’ communities and forms of local territorial thought and practice disintegrate worldwide before waves of cultural contact, rapid transport, economic extension and financial speculation. In particular, the 2016 UK referendum has revealed the existence of local diversity between communities, where a common factor is fear of strangers

3  The working community

Fig 2 The beginning and end of Sunderland’s heritage


There is widely accepted belief that having a strong cultural heritage is necessary for local well-being.  The Royal Society of Arts think tank, in collaboration with the UK Heritage Lottery Fund has produced a Heritage Index that reveals which areas enjoy the most physical heritage assets; how actively residents and visitors in those areas are involved with local heritage; and,  by comparing the two,  the indices show where there is potential to make more of heritage.  When comparing the combined ‘overall’ heritage scores of all 325 English districts against the national Index of Multiple Deprivation, the RSA found there to be no correlation. Several places were found to be rich in local heritage and involvement despite being relatively poor communities with low self esteem.  Sunderland’s Heritage Index falls into the bottom 30%.  A few miles down the coast, the area around the fishing port of Scarborough,  which also includes Whitby, has an Index falling in the top 1%.  Yet in 2015 Scarborough’s Index of Multiple Deprivation indicated that it was the most deprived district in North Yorkshire. Three areas in Scarborough town are within the most deprived 1% in England (parts of Woodlands, Eastfield and Castle wards).

There can be no doubt that Sunderland’s cultural heritage has a very rich narrative, from Bede to Nissan (Fig 2).  Sunderland was once known as ‘asunder-land, that is land cut asunder, separated or put to one side. This is probably a reference to the fact that the community developed from Saxon migrants taking up opposite positions on the north and south banks of the River Wear where it enters the North Sea.  Although there is continued dispute over whether Sunderland is a city of Roman origins, we do know that by the early medieval period there were three small settlements along the River Wear: South Wearmouth (opposite the Saxon monastery, which later became Sunderland fishing village), Bishopwearmouth (probably a Saxon village) and Monkwearmouth Village on the north bank, based around the monastery founded by Benedict Biscop in 674.  In 1835 the three settlements were officially merged to become the Parliamentary Borough of Sunderland, now the City of Sunderland.

Biscop’s monastery was the first to be built of stone and is one of the oldest ecclesiastical buildings still being used in England. While at the monastery he employed glaziers from France and in doing so he re-established the skills of glass making in Britain, which were lost with the end of the Roman occupation. In 686 the monastic community came under the rule of Ceolfrid,an Anglo-Saxon Christian abbot and saint. He is best known as the guardian of the most accomplished monk of Saxon times, St Bede. Ceolfrid was the guardian of the young Bede from the age of seven until his death in 716.

Fig 3 Communities fishing the North Sea East cost


By that time Wearmouth had become a major centre of learning and knowledge in Anglo-Saxon England with an exceptional library of around 300 volumes  The Codex Amianatus, that has been described as the ‘finest book in the world’,was created at the monastery and was likely worked on by Bede.  Bede himself completed the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) in 731, a feat which earned him the title ‘The father of English history’.  

Sunderland is not mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086.  By 1100 there was a fishing village at the mouth of the Wear, one of several small communities, dotted along the north east coast of the North Sea centred on families subsisting on inshore fishing (Fig 3 ).

The early 19th century saw development of Sunderland with new technology to sink deep shafts into the Durham Coalfields and Stephenson’s pioneer Hetton Colliery Railway carried coal to the Hetton Drops staithes at the mouth of the Wear. By the mid-C19th Sunderland was the biggest shipbuilding port in the world, with 65 shipyards in operation.

One of the industries which once thrived on South Tyneside, was glass-making.  This was a lucrative trade, dating  back to the 17th century, which was established by French Huguenot refugees fleeing persecution. In 1762 the Malying pottery was founded in Sunderland also by Huguenots (Fig 4 ).

Fig 4 Plan of Sunderland and Bishopwearmouth 1785-1790 showing the bottle and window- glass factory and shipbuilding yards

glassmaking sunderland

 In remembrance of this glass making heritage Sunderland houses the National Glass Centre, an adjunct to Sunderland University.

The concept of a ‘working community’ of fisherfolk and its reciprocal networks, as historians sense it, is a mental construct. The French call it ‘an ecomene’. On the north east coast it is focussed in the mind through the pioneer photography of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe in Whitby, and the fiction of Leo Walmsley, who based his novels in Robin Hood’s Bay just south of Whitby.  Thus, Sunderland and its neighbouring coastal communities provided the place models of strangeness, which arose from visits of 19th century  photographers, artists and authors to the coastal fishing communities of the north east. At the turn of the 19th century, the artist Laura Knight described her mental attachment to the otherness of the fishing community of Staithes, a small village to the south of Sunderland:

“The life and place were what I had yearned for- the freedom, the austerity, the savagery, the wildness.  I loved it passionately, overwhelmingly   I loved the cold and the northerly storms when no covering would protect   you.  I loved the strange race of people who lived there, whose stern almost forbidding exterior formed such contrast to the warmth and richness of their natures…. It bordered on the theatrical”.

The inward looking Victorian ecomene described by Knight  has now ceased to exist. Indeed, most of those visiting such places were themselves documenting the decline of the unified working community. However, the concept of ‘working community’ still exists as a desirable mental ecology in the minds of those who have seen pictures and read some of the novels. It stands in the words of Knight as a counterweight to the urban lives most people are immersed in yet are seeking something better,  They are pondering questions of what kind of real living should replace this mental localism and  how viable for human needs the engineered replacements will be.


Mental localism

“All good people agree,

And all good people say,

All nice people like Us, are We

And everyone else is They;

But if you cross over the sea,

Instead of over the way,

You may end by (think of it!)

Looking on We

As only a sort of They.”.

— Rudyard Kipling, The fifth and last verse of “We and They,” 1926.

Geographically, the East Coast settlements of Staithes, Runswick, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay, Scarborough, and Filey, comply with the principal constraint of ‘them’ as models of mental localism.  They are discrete settlements linearly arranged along the cliff-girt coast wherever there is a break in the cliff face to access a beach suitable for launching small family owned sailing boats.  They are but a few of the links in a much longer chain of coastal settlements which stretched from Brixham in Devon to John o’Groats in Scotland. Migration is restricted on one side by the sea, and on the other by the North Yorkshire moors. However, it was by sea that migrants arrived.  They were families moving up from the English Channel fishing grounds, with their innovations in engine powered boats and more effective fishing tackle.  It was at this point of social interaction of the old with the new that Leo Walmsley set his novels ‘Three Fevers’ and ‘Sally Lunn’ that describe the rivalry between backward looking fishing families and the southern migrants with their new ways.  A process of mental localism was also at work when Frank Sutcliffe pointed his camera at places and people to produce images set in Staithes, Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay.  He was a leading award winning naturalistic photographer in Victorian England. Working during the last three decades of the nineteenth century, he operated a portrait studio in Whitby, but was better known for his sensitive images of its port and everyday people. Sutcliffe also photographed abbeys and castles throughout Yorkshire for the country’s leading commercial firm, Francis Frith and Company. Because of the low sensitivity of the camera a plates of the time he posed his human subjects in carefully designed positions they had to hold for minutes at a time (Fig 5 )

Fig 5  Whitby fishermen (circa 1890) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

suttcliffe fishermen

Pictures of grouped figures such as Sutcliffe’s Whitby fishermen are not only attractive because of the way they have been composed, interlocked in their gazes indicative of a decisive moment and a time of heightened social tension, but also because of their strangeness in dress and surroundings. As a general rule, “difference” is associated with “strangeness”  and can lead to the dread of foreigners as a group, whether defined legally, as immigrants, or by their strangeness as a visible group which the observer cannot join.

Social tension that can be read into photographs projecting the strangeness of grouped figures, is the basis of Mohamed Bourouissa’s art works (b.1978, Blida, Algeria).  He is a contemporary artist whose practice explores social tensions within European migrant society.  After moving to France from his native Algeria, he grew up in ‘les banlieues’, the suburbs of Paris that have become a byword for the ghettoisation of migrant communities. This experience shaped Bourouissa’s approach to image making, which is primarily concerned with representations of the contemporary urban environment and, in particular, geographic and social spaces prone to negative stereotyping.

‘Peripherique’ (2005-08), Bourouissa’s best known photographic series, directly addresses many of these preoccupations (Fig 6 ). Utilising a documentary photography aesthetic, Bourouissa defies the notion of a ‘decisive moment’ by carefully constructing scenes that use the residents and high-rise housing of the banlieues respectively as his protagonists.  Like Sutcliffe’s compositions they are carefully arranged with people as set pieces.  Bourouissa was influenced by the works of French romantic painters, such as Delacroix and Gericault (Fig 7),  retaining what he describes as ’emotional geometry’ to display the natural interaction of his subjects to reveal moments of heightened tension. Sutcliffe and Bourouissa both deal with the interplay of truth and fiction acting as a provocation, creating a sense of apprehension and threat. The title of Bourouissa’s series refers both to the ring road encircling Paris and to those who are marginalised, physically and socially. The works of both  photographers can be used as societal lenses to explore issues of exclusion, isolation, immigration and class.

Fig 6 ‘The Bite’: (photographic series 2005-8) Mohamed Bourouissa

Fig 7 The Murderers Carry The Body Of Fualdes: (1818) Theodore Gericault


5  Mental ecology and hatred

A survey of values and attitudes supports the common view that economic deprivation and its attendant social problems seem to promote anti-foreigner feeling.  In the light of such surveys it is important to ask what critical perspectives might nurture the ability and the desire to live with difference on an increasingly divided, but also convergent planet?  We need to know what sorts of insight and reflection might actually help increasingly differentiated societies and anxious individuals to cope successfully with the challenges involved in dwelling comfortably in proximity to the unfamiliar without becoming fearful and hostile.

In his book, ‘The heritage crusade and the spoils of history’, David Lowenthal argues that academics evaluate heritage using the same criteria they use to judge “good” history, such as verifiable observation. Yet because heritage and history are distinct ways of knowing the past, he believes that such assessments of heritage are baseless. “History explores and explains pasts that have grown more obscure over time; ‘heritage’ clarifies pasts so as to infuse them with present purposes”.  By confusing these different routes to reclaim the past, he says, critics forget that heritage, no less than history, is a way of understanding our humanized worlds and that, as such, it provides individuals and groups with a sense of identity as well as the opportunity to forge common stewardship of a cosmopolitan heritage.

Lowenthal’s writings have focused on the paradoxical nature of attitudes and representations of the past. Although cultural expressions of heritage are produced to console groups and individuals with the presence of tradition, the production of heritage can also result in xenophobic hatred and chauvinistic nationalisms. Clarifying such problems and potentials of heritage is his main goal. Another more implicit goal is to criticize academics for their negative and cynical appraisals of the cult of heritage. Lowenthal suggests that the heritage industry in and of itself is not “bad”; rather, the actions that individuals perform in the name of heritage can promote tolerance as well as genocidal hatred of other peoples.

Despite its widespread usage, xenophobia is an ambiguous and contested term in popular, policy and scholarly debates. The interchangeable or complementary use of similar terms such as nativism, autochthony, ethnocentrism, xeno-racism, ethno-exclusionism, anti-immigrant prejudice and immigration-phobia further demonstrates this conceptual vagueness. Some scholars consider it to be intense dislike, hatred or fear of others, others only recognise it when it manifests itself as a visible hostility towards strangers or that which is deemed foreign. There are also ongoing debates on whether xenophobia emanates at the individual or collective level. While these approaches are unified by a generalised acceptance that xenophobia is a set of attitudes and/or practices surrounding people’s origins, the specific locus of debate and work is highly contextualised and often generally incomparable. Xenophobia for one analyst may be only tangentially tied to the xenophobia discussed by another.

Xenophobia becomes part of cultural ecology as the fear or hatred of foreigners and strangers; it is embodied in discriminatory attitudes and behaviour, and often culminates in violence, abuses of all types, and exhibitions of hatred. Studies on xenophobia have attributed such hatred of foreigners to a number of causes: the fear of loss of social status and identity; a threat, perceived or real, to citizens’ economic success; a way of reassuring the national self and its boundaries in times of national crisis; a feeling of superiority; and poor intercultural information.  According to the latter argument, xenophobes are possessed by the past and presumably do not have adequate information about the people they hate and, since they do not know how to deal with such people. They see them as a threat.  Xenophobia basically derives from the sense that non-citizens pose some sort of a threat to the recipient’s’ identity or their individual rights. It is also closely connected with the concept of nationalism: the sense in each individual of membership in the political nation as an essential ingredient in his or her sense of identity. To this end,  notions of citizenship and political control can lead to xenophobia when it becomes apparent that the government does not guarantee protection of individual rights. This is all the more apparent where poverty and unemployment are rampant.

Whilst xenophobia has been described as something of a worldwide phenomenon, closely associated with the process of globalization, it has been noted that it is particularly prevalent in countries undergoing transition. This is thought to be because xenophobia is a problem of post-coloniality, one which is associated with the politics of the dominant groups in the period following independence. It is to do with a feeling of superiority, but is also, perhaps, part of a ‘scapegoating’ process, where unfulfilled expectations of a new democracy result in the foreigner coming to embody unemployment, poverty and deprivation. Theoretically, the best, and only, solution is to remove enemy images; however, it is debatable whether this can be done. Enemy images may have their origin in a variety of genuine or perceived conflicts of interest, in racial prejudices, in traditional antagonisms between neighbouring competing tribes or groups, in imagined irreconcilable religious differences and so on.

With respect to human social diversity, xenophobia is seen as a biological imperative in our hominid ancestors, ensuring the greatest degree of altruistic co-operation within social groups developing in isolation. Shunning outsiders would lead to the evolution of different languages and traditions which tend to stabilize tribes and ethnic groups. War, as the extreme outcome of xenophobia, sparks values of solidarity, egalitarianism and self sacrifice into tribal life.

Detaching the UK from the EU then comes down to how we can manage the behavioural mechanisms by which we humans define and protect our ecological niche.  We see protection rests on mental differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’, which depend, paradoxically, on the social  power of strangeness to fascinate us.  However, there is a world of difference in the outcome of hanging one of Sutcliffe’s photographs of Whitby fishermen on the wall and abusing someone in the street.  In the coming years, political effort will be devoted to negotiating a deal with the EU to opt out of the free movement of labour.  The government’s intention is to release extra funding to tackle hate crime, to boost reporting of offences and to provide security at potentially vulnerable institutions.  It is impossible to see how this will dampen division and fear that has surfaced by some in the “Leave” campaign who have stoked xenophobia and racism within the UK’s mental ecological niche.

6  Internet references














World development: a process led by consumerism

June 26th, 2016

Fig 1 Queuing for ‘the sales’ at Howells department store in Cardiff.



“In the 1860s, twenty-year-old Denise Baudu and her two younger brothers, recent orphans, emigrated from a provincial French village to Paris, to live with their uncle.  Arriving at daybreak after a sleepless night on the hard benches of a third-class railway car, they set out in search of their uncle’s fabric store. The unfamiliar streets opened onto a tumultuous square where they halted abruptly, awestruck by the sight of a building more impressive than any they had ever seen: a department store. “Look,” Denise murmured to her brothers. “Now there is a store!” This monument was immeasurably grander than her village’s quiet variety shop, in which she had worked. She felt her heart rise within her and forgot her fatigue, her fright, everything except this vision. Directly in front of her, over the central doorway, two allegorical figures of laughing women flaunted a sign proclaiming the store’s name, “Au Bon-heur des Dames” (“To the Happiness of the Ladies”). Through the door could be seen a landslide of gloves, scarves, and hats tumbling from racks and counters, while in the distance display windows unrolled along the street”.

From ‘Dream Worlds’ by Rosalind H Williams (1982)

1 Beginnings

The advent of mass consumption in South Wales represents a pivotal historical moment. Once people enjoy discretionary income and choice of products, once they glimpse the vision of commodities in profusion, they do not easily return to traditional modes of consumption. Having gazed upon the delights of a department store, Denise would never again be satisfied with the plain, unadorned virtues of Uncle Baudu’s shop. The hackneyed plot of the young innocent in the big city receives a specifically modern twist, for now the seduction is commercial. We who have tasted the fruits of the consumer revolution have lost our innocence.

In the domain of economics “consumerism” refers to economic policies placing emphasis on consumption.  In an abstract sense, it is the consideration that the free choice of consumers, as dreamers of better things to come, should strongly orient the choice by manufacturers of what is produced and how, and therefore orient the economic organization of a society.  In this sense, consumerism expresses the idea not of “one person, one voice”, but of “one dollar, one voice”.  The outcome may or may not reflect the contribution of people to a sustainable society.

For many in the 19th century, it was the South Wales Coalfield that was the dream world for satisfying pent up desires to become a consumer.  The expansion of the coal industry in the second half of the nineteenth century saw a huge increase in the population of the South Wales Valleys. Inequalities were greatest at the turn of the 18th century.  For example, in 1760,  Merthyr Tydfil, at the heads of the valleys, consisted of only 40 houses amidst a few farms of 30 to 35 acres worked by a single pair of horses with a basic set of cultivation equipment.  This was considered sufficient to support a man and his wife without the need for a supplementary income. A large family, on the other hand, could hardly be sustained on a holding of this size unless some members took up by-employment and/or resorted to seasonal migration to the harvest fields of the English border counties.  But four decades later, several thousand people had settled in Merthyr earning their living in the newly constructed mines and foundries.  

According to a report on the town published in 1841, some 1,500 people lived in poorly constructed stone huts, often built on top of waste heaps of industrial waste.  There were no toilets; the streets were open sewers; people were infested with lice and in such overcrowded conditions infections and diseases such as typhus, dysentery and cholera spread at terrifying speed.  The cholera outbreak of 1848/49 killed 3,000 people in the county of Glamorgan. In Cardiff there was a total of at least 350 deaths.   Merthyr Tydfil was the worst affected town, suffering a total of 1,389 deaths from cholera.  The dead were quickly buried with little fuss, but public prayer meetings were constantly held.

Within the town, two thirds of the deaths occurred in Upper Merthyr, which had the highest levels of poverty and overcrowding: 160 died here in 1832; nearly 1700 in 1849, and 400 more in 1854.  Even this understates the magnitude of the crisis in the town. Between 1851 and 1865, there was only one year (1860) when there was no epidemic.

Cholera was only one problem, coexisting as it did with typhus, smallpox, scarlet fever and measles. In the dreadful years of 1864 and 1865, all four of these diseases hit together; in 1866, cholera returned. The appalling sanitary conditions naturally contributed to high death rates. The Welsh rate was 20.2 per thousand in 1841, 22 in 1848, 25.8 during the cholera year of 1849. Not until the 1890s did the figure fall below 20.

Infant mortality, told a similar story of inequalities.  It ran at 125 per thousand live births in 1839, and improvement was slow. The figure was at or over 120 until the 1880s, and fell below 100 only after 1910. The situation was also much worse in particular locations. In Cardiff, the death rate between 1842 and 1848 was 30 per thousand; and within such high-risk towns, there were still more unhealthy pockets, such as the Irish sections of Stanley Street and Love Lane. Merthyr recorded an overall rate of 30.2 per thousand in 1853, but this was far exceeded in neighbourhoods like ‘China’ or Tydfil’s Well.

For children dying before their first birthday, infant mortality in Merthyr was rarely below 190 per thousand in the 1820s or 1830s. However, the first five years of life were an exceedingly dangerous period. In the very worst years, such as 1823, burials of children under five were 713 for every thousand baptisms, 40 per cent above the normally dreadful rates.

But still the migrants came and things began to improve,  Between 1851 and 1911, it is estimated that some 366,000 people moved into the Coalfield. The peak of this migration occurred between 1901 and 1911 when 129,000 people moved into the area.  At this time South Wales absorbed immigrants at a faster rate than anywhere in the world except the United States of America. The goal of urban life was betterment of person and family, powered towards purchasing goals set by surplus income chasing the visions projected by mass advertising.

Up until the 1890s, many of the people who moved into the Coalfield were from other counties in Wales, such as the the totally rural areas of Cardiganshire, Montgomeryshire and Merioneth. After the 1890s, many more immigrants came from Somerset, Gloucestershire and Cornwall. People also came from further afield, such as Ireland, Scotland and even Australia. In Dowlais and Abercrave, there were communities of Spaniards. In Merthyr, there were small communities of Russians, Poles and French and in many of the Valley towns, Italians opened cafes to serve these newly forming valley communities with time on their hands.

Two statistics tell the story: in 1801 the population of Glamorgan was 70,879;  in 1901 it was 1,130,668.   In 1851, the population of the Rhondda coal community was 1,998 ; in 1911 it was 152,781.

Initially, for these settlers there was only the local pithead store stocked by the coalowner, who also rented them his newly built, tightly packed terrace houses. There was no choice but to take what was available on the owner’s terms. Freedom of choice came with the arrival of specialised shopkeepers; such as the butcher, the baker, the shoemaker and the milliner. The huge variety of jobs in the local economy at that time is evident from the numerous community trade directories that were published annually.

The next stage in economic freedom was  the coming of the market hall in the nearest town and the stores of the national Cooperative Movement in smaller communities. These developments were evidence of a thriving consumer culture and an increasing demand for non-essentials that are purchased by choice rather than need.

Around this time the shopping arcade and the department store were French inventions.  In Paris they were associated with the first appearance of poster advertising, with subtle hints that connected pleasure with a product to be purchased (Fig 2).  Necessities and luxuries of all kinds were available in endless variety under one roof.  These ultimate palaces of consumerism, finally reached Wales in the form of the massive Cardiff department stores of two local self-made retail entrepreneurs, James Howell and David Morgan.  Shopping in a glamorous department store had become the goal of the newly arrived urban middle classes.

Fig 2 Advert for ‘Job’ cigarette papers Alphonse Mucha (1898)

much job cigarette papers

2 Legacies

Then came the decline of the coal industry.  Peak output of coal In South Wales occurred just before the First World War.  During the period 1919 to 1939  there was mass unemployment. As a result, almost 500,000 people left the valley communities during the inter-war years seeking work elsewhere. The Rhondda, for example, lost around 36% of its population between 1921 and 1951. Many people went to towns in England such as Wolverhampton and Slough, where new manufacturing industries were developing. Others went further afield to the United States of America, Canada and Australia.

Now there are no deep mines but there is a legacy of pockets of neighbourhood deprivation, many of which are occupied by the descendants of those families that did not move away.  These areas are defined by the Welsh Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD).  This is the official measure of deprivation within small geographical areas, where it is a relative measure of concentrations of deprivation.

Deprivation is a wider concept than poverty. Poverty means a lack of money. Deprivation refers to wider problems caused by a lack of resources and opportunities. Therefore, WIMD is constructed from eight different types of deprivation. These are:

  • income
  • housing
  • employment
  • access to services
  • education
  • health
  • community safety
  • physical environment.

Wales is divided into 1,909 Lower-Layer Super Output Areas (LSOA) each having about 1,600 people (Fig 3).  Super output areas are a geography for the collection and publication of small area statistics. They are used on the official Neighbourhood Statistics site and across National Statistics.  Deprivation ranks have been worked out for each area: the most deprived LSOA is ranked 1, and the least deprived 1,909. One area has a higher deprivation rank than another if the proportion of people living there who are classed as deprived is higher.

An area itself is not deprived: it is the circumstances and lifestyles of the people living there that affect its deprivation rank.   Not everyone living in a deprived area is deprived and not all deprived people live in deprived areas.

Fig 3 Distribution of deprived areas in Wales (2014)

communities first

Red = most deprived areas; Blue = least deprived areas

As the industrial legacy of South Wales began fading rapidly from sight and living memory there appeared a landscape of industrial despoliation and dereliction.  Since the 1960s  the growth of industrial archeology has rapidly transmuted spoil heaps, old mineral lines and pitheads into a post-industrial landscape envisioned as an environmental service for recreation and tourism.

As far as the global legacy of Welsh mining is concerned, in the wake of life with coal  we now see that our burning of fossil fuel has released and continues to release enormous quantities of ancient carbon into the atmosphere.  This has taken place with a relative suddenness, causing local, regional and global ecosystem harm and threatening abrupt and irreversible shifts in the state of the planetary ecosystem as critical ecological thresholds are approached. South Wales coal is the ancient remains of plants and animals alive in the Carboniferous Era, which was sequestered over millions of years underground under enormous pressure, over such long periods that the carbon comprising their structures was made into coal, oil, or natural gas   During the heyday of the coalfield’s prosperity South Wales pointed the world towards fossil fuels as the dominant ecosystem service for boosting wellbeing.  Exported through the port of Cardiff, Welsh coal supplied Homo sapiens world wide with energy to support its expanding culture of mass production with increased wealth to stimulate the purchase of its goods and services from afar.

By the 1850s, the people of South Wales was already consuming more natural resources than the valley’s could produce.  Today we express this in terms of our ecological footprint being stamped on distant environments.  Here is written a deeper message from the rise and fall of ‘King Coal’.  It is a simple basic spiritual affirmation that we are all members of humanity and share a collective destiny beyond individual life. The morale of the solidarity of humankind echoes the ancient cross-cultural religious imperative to love one another.  Within this cosmopolitan perspective, great possibilities for technological, social, and moral invention lie before us. But these are only possibilities, not predictabilities. The real is explicable and capable of change only in connection with the immensity of the possible. As we survey that immensity, we can allow ourselves hope but not optimism.

3  The Future

People of the Welsh valleys now face a global economy that is increasingly competitive.  Key baseline indicators are new product innovation, broadband penetration, and educational attainment among younger generations.  A competitive edge and a creative edge go hand-in-hand to support economic prosperity in today’s globalised economy.  Business location decisions are influenced by factors such as the ready availability of a creative workforce and the quality of life available to employees. In this working environment  a district’s arts and cultural resources can be assets that set a desirable context for economic development. The arts and heritage industries provide jobs, attract investments, and stimulate local economies through tourism, consumer purchases, and tax revenue. Perhaps more significantly, they also prepare workers to participate in the contemporary workforce, create communities with high appeal to residents, businesses, and tourists, and contribute to the economic success of other sectors. Creative economies depend in a variety of ways on the composition and character of businesses, nonprofit organisations, individuals, and venues that exist in any given area.

The creative economy may include human, organizational, and physical assets. It also includes many types of cultural institutions, artistic disciplines, and business pursuits. Industries that comprise the arts and culture sector may include advertising, architecture, the art and antiques market, crafts, design, fashion, film, digital media, television, radio, music, software and computer games, the performing arts, publishing, graphic arts, and cultural tourism.  This is the present postindustrial multi-skilled condition for generating prosperity and wellbeing.  It rests on what is called the ‘Foundational Economy’. This is the sheltered sector of the economy that supplies mundane but essential goods and services such as: infrastructures; utilities; food processing, retailing and distribution; and health, education and welfare. The foundational economy is unglamorous but important because is used by everyone regardless of income or social status, and practically is a major determinant of material welfare . The UK foundational economy employs around 35% of the working population; whereas current industrial policy focuses on manufacturing which employs just 8 per cent, of which the steel industry consists of only 1 per cent.

Most foundational activities involve branches and networks with some degree of natural monopoly reinforced by implicit or explicit state guarantees.   The Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change suggests that the state should use this leverage to treat such activities as ‘social franchises’ and thereby increase the local benefits for the communities whose purchasing power sustains foundational activities.   Under social franchises, large public and private foundational organisations would be obliged to offer social returns such as: supporting local communities and firms; living wages; sustainable supply chains; import substitution; and/or energy and resource sustainability.

However, the present could just as well open out upon a future of increasing instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals and frustration, of the breakdown of solidarity rather than its strengthening, of more ennui and envy and guilt rather than less. The growing awareness of scarcity may not lead to a more equitable distribution of resources but to an even more unjust one.  This seems to be the situation in Wales which is languishing on the threshold of a new economy for life after coal..

Future history of consumerism is still being shaped, and all we know for certain is that the history of the consumer is entering a new phase. As explorers destined to set sail on uncharted seas of thought and action we should muster the courage to move in an unfamiliar direction reappraising values stemming from the foundation economy. Until now we moderns have assumed that the promised land of global social harmony lies in the direction of an ever-increasing standard of material well-being. Now we should try to sail toward the future on the opposite tack, in quest of a creative, shared austerity that will emphasize equity among humankind and harmony with nature. If we change our course and brave the unknown, we too may arrive on the banks of a new world where our demands on ecosystem services match the rate at which they can be produced without resort to fossil fuels, such as coal..

Mongolia, meanwhile, is advertising itself as “the Saudi Arabia of coal”. International mining companies have just started ripping off the tops of mountains to get at the world’s largest deposits of coking coal, most of which will go to feed the steel mills of China. What is happening in Mongolia dwarfs the cultural transformation of the South Wales valleys in its historical rush for coal.  The profits from Mongolia’s superabundance of coal will propel a country of nomadic herders towards the living standards of the global middle class, tripling the size of its economy within a few years (Fig 4). The environmental effects are equally great.  Huge opencast mines in the Gobi desert will increase water scarcity in an already arid zone; grasslands will parch under the clouds of dust thrown up by columns of lorries moving coal to the railheads; ancient ways of life will be lost. But, from a Mongolian perspective, these are minor consequences to live with when set against boosting the process of consumerism for the benefit of 2.6 million people.

Fig 4 The State department store: Ulaanbaatar



4 Internet extension materials



Poetic blueprints for the human ecological niche

June 9th, 2016

With special reference to nature metaphors in the works of

William Blake, Dylan Thomas, Graham Sutherland and the pupils of Halesworth Middle School.


1 Blake’s ecological legacy

‘I am in the path of Blake’, wrote the 19 year old Dylan Thomas to Pamela Hansford Johnson on 15 October 1933, ‘but so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight’.  On Christmas Day of the same year, Thomas wrote again to Johnson, telling her that he was reading Blake’s letters for the first time and also listing his Christmas gifts, among which was `the complete Blake’.  The image of a poetic master who was not standing authoritatively in front of a rapidly developing young poet but flying ahead of him defines Blake as a living presence which Thomas was eager to pursue.

Born in 1757, Blake lived in relative poverty, was considered an eccentric by his generation, and died with little acclaim. Yet his influence has grown through the decades. The Pre-Raphaelites admired his poetry and artwork, as did W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, the French surrealists, and the American beats. To be a follower of William Blake means taking on a prodigious output of verse and accept that from his youth much of it was based on spiritual visions. When he was nine years old he told his mother that he had seen “a tree filled with angels,” and not long after, in a field of workers gathering hay, a vision of “angelic figures walking.”  Following Blake also meant following a trail of “illuminated books” written in a range of forms:prophecies, emblems, pastoral verses, biblical satire, and children’s books and addressed various timely subjects such as poverty, child exploitation, racial inequality, tyranny, religious hypocrisy. Not surprisingly, these works rank among Blake’s most celebrated achievements.  They represent the interplay between youthful innocence and hard adult experience and for Dylan Thomas Blake’s swinging moods chime with Thomas’  oscillations between memories of childhood happiness and the harshness of adult relationships to which he was in thrall.

The role of poets in an ecological sense is to establish metaphorical bonds between people and the variant things of the environment. This is part of the cognitive blueprint whereby we ‘naked apes’ establish a mental ecological niche. The philosopher and ecologist David Abram points out that all poets engage in a process of incorporating elements of their surroundings into a cultural context.  In particular, they use their imagination to animate the inanimate, because “the fundamental unit of poetry, metaphor, is a kind of active participation with the interplay of variant things. Metaphor is a kind of perceiving, and this perception requires an isomorphic exchange.”  We assemble a home by replacing things around us with others that have the same appearance but express a different ancestry.  

As a primordial and embedded cultural mode of perception, poetry also “admits to no clear distinctions between that which is animate and that which is inanimate”; what is natural and what is supernatural.  This casts the modern terminal ecological assaults we make on planet Earth, like clear-felling, overfishing, oil spills, and carbon emissions, in a very awkward spotlight. The damage we incur on nature becomes nothing less than a reflection of a very sick society with a self-harming complex. If we are unable to self-identify poetically with our physical and social surroundings, then we experience an amputation from our cosmic origins. We embrace nature as ‘Us’ and ‘ It’.  Our affinity with environment is non adaptive, moving automatically  towards polarization, rather than towards the spectrum offered by a perspective of humanity rooted in ecological evolution.

This modern view was encapsulated by William Blake two centuries ago.

“I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing which stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity, & by these I shall not regulate my proportions; & Some Scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers. You certainly Mistake, when you say that the Visions of Fancy are not to be found in This World. To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination”.

Blake’s vision is simple and universal; we are part of nature in all we do and there are surely few of us who have not at some time seen the simplest things imagined “apparel’d in celestial light”—a  phrase of the 17th century English poet, Thomas Traherne.  For him the simplest pebbles on the path were radiant with that light. In the modern era, it is not the pebbles or the trees that have changed: it is we who no longer participate in that light of poetic vision. Brian Keeble believes that there are poets, such as Larkin, who at best regret its absence.  There are few indeed who attempt to re-kindle that vision at the source, though there have been some such as Eliot,  Yeats and Rilke.  Then there is Dylan Thomas, who, chasing after Blake, used that unfashionable word “holy” and wrote many poems about the sacralization of his homeland of West Wales.  He took an inspirational path which, is also traceable from Blake to the painter Graham Sutherland, whose creative life in West Wales overlapped that of Thomas.

William Blake is a romantic poet. The sparks of romanticism are vividly marked on his poetry. His poems and pictures deal with ecological dynamics and are characterized by reliance on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, and an idealization of nature.  Similarly, Dylan Thomas may be regarded as a romantic poet, along with his Welsh contemporaries, Vernon Watkins and Leslie Norris.  The output of all three, together with the works of another contemporary, Graham Sutherland, deal firmly with the sacralization of nature.

Nowadays the sacralization of nature is defined as expressing eco-wisdom which is one of the literary criticisms created by American scholar William Rueckert in 1978. He advocated applying the concept of ecology into literary research.  Although many people struggle to define ecocriticism, at its simplest level it encompasses an interest in place-making; how we position ourselves cognitively in the world and the biological, social, and political ways in which we define where we are.


2  The human cognitive niche

The term “niche”, coined by the zoologist Charles Elton in the late 1920s, refers to “the place a species occupies in the biotic community” or the environmental structure and condition which can maintain its life.  The ecological niche of human beings is much more complicated than that of any other creature.  Like other species, humans need an ‘ecological niche’ or ‘habitat that provides food and shelter.  But over and above that, humans require an imaginative ‘sense of place’ for their flourishing. To put it another way, situating humans within a suitable physical niche is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for their well being. Humans may survive within such an environment, but without a mental picture of where they live, which includes its past, present and future, they will not take root. Part of this distinction between ‘survival’ and ‘flourishing’ applies to all living things but the human ecological niche relates people to their local natural environment in cognitive or symbolic-cultural ways.

At the same time, from the perspective of the late twentieth century, the environments faced by human societies have been transformed by past and current human behaviour. There is a real, material basis to the claim that the global environment is now ‘socially constructed’. It is not just that our understanding of the environment is mediated by human social relations and culturally symbolic meanings, but the environment faced by human culture is often partly the ‘product’ of previous social modification which resulted in new norms for making human relationships  It is therefore difficult to maintain a strict division between a ‘natural’ environment and one which is the outcome of human purposive action in conjunction with that of a prehuman era.

The ecological niche for humans is as much a ‘humanised’ one as a ‘natural’ one.  A naturalistic social theory views this transformative activity as central to understanding human nature and human culture. The significance of this cultural dimension is that the human ‘ecological niche’ is both culturally and biologically-ecologically determined.

Regardless of how habituated or conditioned the organism may be, individuals are engaged in the transformation of the environment through desire and the impact of their actions. The unique character of humankind is an ability to use language and culture to redirect and channel individual and collective desires and actions to accommodate their impact on the environment. This capacity for conscious and intentional creativity or change makes all the difference. For humans, such cognitive appropriations of nature provide the mental resources to stabilise the ecological niche and include the scientific and aesthetic appreciation and experience of the natural world, and other cultural modes of apprehension, valuing and experiencing the natural environment.

Because we are social animals with an imagination, an important aspect of place-making is the process of bonding with others with which we share the same physical environment. The writer Paul Shepard once suggested that human beings underwent an epigenetic process of maturation which occurred in stages, each stage representing an activity of bonding. The first of these stages is social bonding with family and neighbours.  The next most significant bonding involved becoming one with Nature, a period of sensate curiosity and exploration in which the concept of a self-identity became acquainted and synonymous with the natural world. It is at this stage that poetry can be an expression of ecological wisdom.  An individual who had fully experienced this stage can not only acquire a kind of recognition of his or her surroundings, but could identify with it in such a way that damaging it would equate to self-mutilation.  Modern living and urbanity does not allow for this experience of bonding through affinity, and the handful who are given the opportunity are often only able to experience it superficially. It will occur from time to time with those people whose vocations take them into the deep places of the world – loggers, environmentalists, treeplanters, wilderness guides, and the like. What about the rest of us?  

Ecological wisdom can come soon, as in the following poem by 10 year old Robert Filby  of Halesworth Middle School.  


‘A shrew’ (1993)

A shrew

is fierce.

A versatile sort of chap

with a long pointed nose,

like a pen nib with a black pimple on the end,

which sniffs its way through pebbles, stones or wire netting-

or gives each obstacle a nudge in a temper.

Its long brows hang over its eyes with a sharp look.

It’s like the water trickling over pebbles in a stream

as it scurried about.

Just bones

with a short covering of fur and a long pink tail.

The trap goes.

The shrew was fierce.

The Chinese academic, Jingcheng Xu who has studied the mature poetry of the American writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, goes so far as to declare the view that Longfellow, expresses ecological wisdom to remind us of respecting, protecting and caring for nature.  He is convinced that through his writings we can reconsider the relationships between nature and human beings, between nature and society, and between nature and human spirit. Thereby, Jingcheng Xu believes that Longfellow’s ecological wisdom will provide a spiritual blueprint for human beings to create a low carbon economy of sustainable development, and help us dwell poetically on Earth.

The poetical creativity of Filby and Longfellow demonstrates that there is no doubt that our conceptions of nature are reflected in our language and that nature-friendly language has the power to create a sense of kinship with the natural world. Conversely, the opposite kind of metaphor is capable of separating us from nature and keeping us from peaceful coexistence.

Unfortunately, many of the metaphors we unconsciously use are violent and anti-nature, militaristic, or mechanistic and devoid of any talk of ecological unity.  Several authors have lamented the evolution in our language away from nature-connected terminology, such as “mystery” and “wonder”,  love for the Earth, and references to the Earth Mother.  We in the West have, by and large, rejected the language and experience of the sacred, the divine, and the animation of nature and we distrust the language of reverence, spirit, and mystical connection.  Our worldview shapes the language and root metaphors we use, and language holds them in our worldview and its ideologies. In Euro-American cultures, our largely unquestioned root metaphors are based on the view of science as the most powerful and legitimate source of knowledge about place. A culture incapable, or unwilling, to utilize a loving metaphor as a daily instrument for grounding itself in a place will instinctively distance itself from that place because the bonding capacity of those metaphors is absent.


3  Living in a poetic ecological equilibrium

When we normally speak of poetry we think of written “works”, poems which have been written by poets. Poets receive their title by virtue of the fact that they have produced such works.   Kenneth Stickkers uses the example of the life of the great American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, to make the point that the poetic does not  lie within any works. Instead, it resides within Nature.  Poetry, for Thoreau was the song of Nature. Thus, says Stikkers, the poet is not one who necessarily created works, but rather one who listened to the poetry of Nature by living a life in harmony with her song. The word-crafting of what was heard was not of primary importance. Thus, the communication problem Thoreau faced, as a poetry mute, was not one of writing poems, but rather a question of how to live his life poetically and wholly  ‘according to nature’. Here, the principle is that an individual’s, works are judged “poetic” by the way in which they reflect the poetic life of their creator; they are outcomes  flowing from the poetic life rather than conscious achievements of the individual. Thoreau at his small-holding by Walden Pond sought for himself a poetic life.

If one were asked to name the cardinal virtue of Thoreau’s environmental philosophy, it would be hard to identify a better state of mind than ‘awareness’. He attests to the importance of “being forever on the alert,” and of “the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen”. This exercise may enable one to create remarkably minute descriptions of a sunset, a battle between red and black ants, or the shapes taken by thawing clay on a sand bank: but its primary value lies in the way that awareness affects the quality of our experience. “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look” .

Awareness cannot be classified as exclusively a moral or an intellectual virtue, either, since knowing is an inescapably practical and evaluative activity—not to mention, an embodied practice. Thoreau portrays himself not from a presumably neutral or impersonal vantage point, but from an embodied point of view in which his somatic sensory experience puts him knowingly in touch with his surroundings. For such reasons as these, he has sometimes been interpreted as a philosopher of the senses, who offers an original response to the central problem of modern living sustainably as a consequence of recognizing that knowledge is dependent on the individual’s ability to see, and that “the world as known is thus radically dependent on the  character of the individual”.

Nevertheless, we have to ask where the impulse to write a poem comes from.  In particular, is the poetic muse latent in us all and if so can it be permanently released through education?.  Here, the model is a UK teacher of English by the name of Jill Pirrie.

In the 1980s the London bookseller WH Smith sponsored an annual poetry competition for schools with a set of judges chaired by the UK  poet laureate Ted Hughes.  In 1987 the judges were astonished to find amidst the many thousands of poems received from schools all over the British Isles 60 poems came from a single school. They were written by pupils of the English teacher, Jill Pirrie.  They represent the work of this extraordinary teacher and the young poets she called into existence.  These were children who had in common only the fact that they were pupils of Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk.   Their poems were of great quality, true poems, exciting in their phrasing, startling as a good poem must be, but never startling for the sake of it, all strongly individual, all clearly from the same stable.  This in itself was an unusually massive block entry.

That year the total intake, from schools all over the country, was just under 40,000, with the main bulk of this number falling within the two upper age categories. In these two categories, the competition offered 40 prizes. And of these 40 prizes, Halesworth Middle School took ten. In other words, Jill Pirrie’s pupils carried off 25% of the prizes for the entire country. This is by no means the whole story. Of the remaining Halesworth entries, 50 received Commendation Awards. This division of ten prizes and 50 Commendation Awards, out of Halesworth’s 60 or so entries, conceals something even more remarkable, which confronted the judges as a problem. This problem was an immediate, practical one, how to fit the volume of Halesworth’s achievement into a competition that had never encountered anything like it before; but it anticipates the much bigger question which Jill Pirrie’s example poses to English teaching in particular and perhaps to education in general.

Eventually the entries were published as an anthology, entitled ‘Apple Fire’, by Bloodaxe  in 1993. Edward. Blishen, children’s author and broadcaster, in his introduction said:

“Unless there is something in the air of this corner of Suffolk that under encouragement makes

ready poets of its natives — and that plainly is nonsense ~ then what is proved is that most children, certainly between the ages of ten and thirteen, are able (and, as it turns out, most seriously and unfussily eager) to make the response to experience that we recognise as poetry. But a feat of teacherly magic is required, of an obviously rare order”.

Jill Pirrie has given her own account of the achievement But the judges felt that she had invented for herself, out of a passion for originality that becomes the children’s passion for it, the form that work in the classroom will take.  This is a combination of the character of her own presence in the classroom, her relationship with the children and theirs with her: the pace at which they work, and the way in which their eagerness is tapped.

She knows how to cause children to be eager. And that, like everything else she does, lies in the work. They are eager because from the moment they enter the classroom they are at work, and because an atmosphere is created in which it is obvious to everyone present that the work is deep and worth doing, and leads to an extraordinary sense of well-being (Fig 1).

Fig 1 Imaginative Interplay in the classroom between poetry and art


Edward Blishen after visiting the school went on to say:

“Jill Pirrie talks of peer expectation being as important as teacher expectation. The fact is that here is a room in which you cannot imagine the teacher ever saying, in whatever refined form, what some perfectly decent teachers commonly say: You have let me down, or You have done well by my teaching. In Jill Pirrie’s class-room that is never the point. After sitting there for a memorable day during which the presence of an intruder was absorbed into the busyness, I could not explain how she made herself the plain mistress of the occasion without ever causing her power io dwarf or lessen the power of the children. But I guess it is a political matter, partly: her whole conduct, out of which theirs springs, makes it seem desirable to the children that they should have high expectations of each other, and that each should attempt to justify those expectations. Add to this a curious and very robust delicacy in her. She does not thrust an observation at her children. As I felt it, what she did was to enfold them in it: it was hers, but it was instantly theirs. A great courtesy — but, as I say, robust. She simply and convincingly takes it that they are with her.

I’ve never seen a teacher so close to those she’s teaching, without reducing herself in any way. Her language is at times quite grand. It’s one of the reasons for the success of her teaching, I think: that the children know she’s giving herself as she is, not some teacherly simplification of herself. I was reminded of those marvellous lines of Lawrence’s, in the poem he called ‘The Best of School’:

I feel them cling and cleave to me

As vines going eagerly up; they twine

My life with other leaves, my time

Is hidden in theirs, their thrills are mine.

Except that in Jill Pirrie’s classroom you feel that it works both ways: the teacher’s thrills are also theirs. It is an order of reciprocity I haven’t encountered elsewhere. And a swiftness and attentiveness of it: nothing is spilled, because there’s a constant readiness to receive. Nothing priggish about it. They’re too honestly busy for that. Their being country children, many from working backgrounds in which it would be daft not to be down-to-earth, may help in providing that ‘robust commonsense’ that Jill Pirrie points to as an essential ingredient of their work: but I would guess that this is a teacher who could just as well tap the commonsense in urban children.

Another point about what I saw: she roots what she and the children do together in the plain — or fancy — facts of their experience. That’s where the commonsense comes from. They may send their imaginations far beyond the daily scene, think of ghosts, or of looking down on the earth from space: but it’s the need to note what’s really felt, what might really be seen — the practicality of it — that is clung to even when, perhaps specially when, the aim has some touch of exaltation about it. They form a guild whose business is the making of poetry, and the exchanges between them, provided by Jill Pirrie with a quite tense timetable, are craftsmen’s exchanges. They struggle privately with a subject: switch urgently to swapping news of work in progress: return to privacy. It’s all urgent, but easily urgent: all tense, yet relaxed. They’ll switch again, to reading aloud completed or half-completed work, and discussing it. There’s a floating of ideas and principles and perceptions and guesses and suggestions sometimes instantly withdrawn and replaced…about handling an image, finding the useable items in an experience, borrowing from one experience to enrich another. It’s poet’s talk, not a doubt about it. Theirs is a poetry of images, resemblances, connections. Audacities are admired. I said they didn’t startle for the sake of it: what Jill Pirrie constantly says in the classroom, in one way or another, is that the seizing of attention is everything, and that attention can’t be seized unless you discover what is fresh in your response, or locate the oddness there is in everything. Their alertness to this notion provides some of the tension there is in what they do.

A feature of a lesson, if that’s what it is, is the exorcising of cliché: a running labour, but sometimes attempted by giving attention, for a packed ten minutes or so, to a poem or story that demonstrably has no laziness or staleness in it. Because what they create together is so unusual and stirring, and one wants to celebrate and insist on that, as well as to think about the extraordinary implications (for instance, how much of this can be copied, and what there is to copy), it’s easy to make Jill Pirrie and her pupils sound like prodigies and paragons, which is exactly what they are not. I remember that classroom in terms of the ‘state of concentration, dreamlike in its intensity’ that Jill Pirrie says is her aim. I remember it rapt and unlazy as no other classroom I’ve ever been in. I remember realising that they’d all been infected, with complete success, with the habit of looking hard at what they saw, registering keenly what they felt, and finding words and images for sight and feeling (and clearly doing it all the time, and not just in the classroom), and that they’d very simply become intolerant of idleness of language. But the classroom was full of the usual human stuff. They rallied each other amusingly (though never with irrelevance to the matter in hand. The irrelevant had ruled itself out).

The secret of it is not to be sought in the phenomenal. It is an astonishing achievement: but one thing certain about it is that it springs out of a very great diligence in the matter of being ordinary, everyday, plain observers of the world, plain recorders of what is observed. The ultimate excitement of it is that, working with children who are like other children, and making poetry her medium (and no one should under-estimate the professional strength and courage required in doing that), Jill Pirrie has demonstrated that plain literacy is an infinitely larger affair than most of us ever allow it to be. You can aim to promote it through cautious banalities, anaemic exercises, dullnesses and smallnesses of every kind, believing that if you know one thing about those you teach it is that grandness is not for them: they are incapable of it and do not seek it. Jill Pirrie works on the perfectly opposite principle: and gives her children, by way of literacy, a fantastic measure of what makes a poet: and habits of language and outlook that must, for a lifetime, be grander than they would ever otherwise have been. This happens to be a moment in the history of education in Britain when it is a particular joy to celebrate the achievement of a defiantly original teacher of English”.

From the example of Jill Pirrie we know the classroom recipe for releasing a latent poetic ability that is present in everyone.   The sad thing is that we do not know how the experience of being with Jill Pirrie, stayed with her pupils nudging, their behaviour towards living poetically as adults.  Particularly with respect to their growing up in a society that worships possessions and acquisitiveness we would like to think that poetry insinuated its way into their lives staying on to make them think again about how we live and what we are capable of changing for the better.


4  Internet references


















Appendix 1

A trail of some nature metaphor makers


Metaphor is traditionally defined as a type of trope, a transmission of the properties of one object (or phenomenon or aspect of life) to another because of their similarity in any aspect or by contrast (in Greek, metaphora is a figurative meaning). For some authors metaphor is defined as a hidden comparison in which the words ‘like’ and ‘as if’ are omitted but implied. Metaphor is remarkable for its conciseness and reticence; thus, it activates the reader’s perception. Unlike comparison, in which both of the objects that are being compared remain independent, even though the degree of independence differs, metaphor creates a single image.  In other words, it reduces the difference between objects or concepts..

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish, a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. On the contrary, metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system that defines our ecological niche, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think about what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

But our conceptual system is not something we are normally aware of. In most of the little things we do every day, we simply think and act more or less automatically along certain lines. Just what these lines are is by no means obvious. One way to find out is by looking at language. Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like.  Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, most of our ordinary conceptual system, from analysing human relationships to defining landscape, is metaphorical in nature.  This truism is evident from the following examples.

William Blake

Although he made his living through visual art and practised it all his life Blake is remembered today first and foremost for his poems.

The principal theme of Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree” is not anger itself but how the suppression of anger leads to the cultivation of anger. Burying anger rather than exposing it and acknowledging it, according to “A Poison Tree,” turns anger into a seed that will germinate and grow. Through the cultivation of that seed, which is nourished by the energy of the angry person, wrath grows into a mighty and destructive force.

‘A poison tree’ (1794)


I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.


And I watered it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles.


And it grew both day and night.

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.


And into my garden stole,

When the night had veil’d the pole;

In the morning glad I see;

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


Nathan Cervo describes the metaphorical structure of another of Blake’s poems, ‘The Sick Rose’, as “one of the most baffling and enigmatic in the English language”   The rose and worm have been considered by critics as “figures of humanity”.  Blake believed that inhibitions within human relationships lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy. Here, repression and prohibition mean that love has to be associated with secrecy and with forces that are perceived as destructive.  A second, related theme is the effect on human relationships of a divided selfhood which jealously defends its pleasures, denying them to others – the love is ‘dark’ and ‘secret’. One chief pleasure is exerting control over others, which can often masquerade as showing affection. This makes love devouring and destructive, as we find in this poem.


‘The sick rose’: (1789)


O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:


Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.


Dylan Thomas


The imagery of Dylan Thomas’ poetry owes much to his walking the estuarine environment of the river Towy in West Wales.  The temporal context of Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘I make this in a warring silence’ is a marital row and temporary break-up. The speaker registers the temporary collapse of his confidence in the couple’s splendid sexual world, and the qualities of the beloved are then recounted in terms of the opposites of fire and ice, innocence and guilt, pride and humility. This is succeeded by his histrionic reaction to her ‘absence’, involving his imaginary murder of her,

In the section starting ‘I make a weapon’, the narrator’s destructive impulses suggest murdering her with the ‘ jawbone of an ass’, an idea taken from The Bible:(Judges 15: 15) with which Samson slew a thousand Philistines, as the author presents himself as a blustering, asinine figure.


Extract from ‘I make this in a warring absence’, (1937)


… I make a weapon of an ass’s skeleton

And walk the warring sands by the dead town.

Cudgel great air, wreck east, and topple sundown,

Storm her sped heart, hang with beheaded veins

Its wringing shell, and let her eyelids fasten.

Destruction, picked by birds, brays through the jaw-bone,


And, for that murder’s sake, dark with contagion

Like an approaching wave I sprawl to ruin.


The poem ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’, came from the contemporary threat of global weapons of mass destruction It rests on the horrors of war and from his mourning not just the deaths of individual children or of his own childhood in the blitzed town of Swansea, but once the idea of childhood from the violation of that war is constituted, he develops a pastoral sense of the green planet, of the green world, of restoring a kind of Eden.


Extract from ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’ (1949)


Flash, and the plumes crack,

And a black cap of jack-

Daws Sir John’s just hill dons, and again the gulled birds hare

To the hawk on fire, the halter height, over Towy’s fins,

In a whack of wind.


Where the elegiac fisherbird stabs and paddles

In the pebbly dab-filled

Shallow and sedge, and ‘dilly dilly,’ calls the loft hawk,

‘Come and be killed,’

I open the leaves of the water at a passage

Of psalms and shadows among the pincered sandcrabs prancing


And read, in a shell

Death clear as a bouy’s bell:

All praise of the hawk on fire in hawk-eyed dusk be sung,

When his viperish fuse hangs looped with flames under the brand

Wing, and blest shall


Green chickens of the bay and bushes cluck, ‘dilly dilly,

Come let us die.’


Graham Sutherland


Graham Sutherland (1903 – 1980) started his career as engraver and teacher at Chelsea Art School. As an artist, he showed great interest in landscapes, the open landscape of the extreme south west Wales in particular.   At the beginning, he was inspired by English neo-romanticism, but from the 30s his painting could be described as disturbing and impregnated with visionary dramatic power, getting close to Surrealism.  Sutherland was clearly inspired by Romanticism and William Blake’s sublime poetics, but he reinterpreted it in a negative, malevolent and bitter viewpoint.  Blake’s Prophetic Books deal with the revolutionary spirit of the age, not historically or realistically, but metaphorically in the emergence of Orc who is the embodiment of energy.  Blake’s bitter awareness of the evil of the world led him to a dualist belief, which introduced an original force of evil called URIZEN.. The name “Urizen” comes from the Greek oriezein, “to fix a limit” and is identified with the Jehovah of the Old Testament by Blake in opposition to Jesus of the New Testament, whom he identified with the force of good. This basic opposition he extended by adding to Urizen-Jehovah the attributes of reason, restraint, and law, as opposed to imagination, freedom, and love for one’s neighbour, which he associated with Christ.

Fig 1 Birth of Urizen’s Daughters, William Blake (1795)

078Urizen's Daughters in matter

Sutherland’s take on Blake is the warning that nature’s forms, which should satisfy our hunger for beauty, are only mental reconstructions which are imposed on us by our need for certainty; reality is destabilizing, hard, mechanical in its being: almost a romantic “pleasurable terror”, a real threat and not only a literary fear. Sutherland catches and depicts the metaphor, looking into organic life, in which the mystery of existence is held: he analyses forms and recognizes their ambiguity and disturbing cruel essence, contrasting with colour’s intensity and sometimes its mildness. He manages to take out nature’s poetry and drama, giving his work a surreal, and sometimes, gloomy atmosphere (Fig 2)..

Fig 2  ‘Welsh Landscape with Road’, (1936) Graham Sutherland


‘Welsh Landscape with Road’, by Graham Sutherland, depicts a lane through a valley in the hills near Porthclais on the outskirts of St David’s, Pembrokeshire. Sutherland wrote that paintings like this expressed the ‘intellectual and emotional essence’ of a place, a sense of the ancient past hinted at here by the inclusion of the animal skull and the standing stones in the distance. Sutherland painted icons of deep country, but, as Alexandra Harris writes in Romantic Moderns, ‘in a manner so abstract that all sense of a through road disappears, leaving concentric forms that both embrace and repulse’.  Sutherland remarked: ‘Surely if English painting is to gain strength it will do so in the open … and not behind the sheltered wall’.

The use of nature metaphors is also illustrated by Sutherland’s ‘thorn tree’ paintings made in Pembrokeshire in the immediate post-war period.  Sutherland experimented relentlessly with the motif of thorn trees, bushes and thorn heads of the ecosystems he discovered in roadside verges and common land  (Fig 3):

“About my thorn pictures: I had been thinking of the Crucifixion (I was about to attempt this subject), and my mind was preoccupied by the idea of thorns, and wounds made by thorns. In the country I began to notice thorn bushes and the structure of thorns, which pierced the air in all directions, their points establishing limits of aerial space. I made some drawings and in doing so a strange change took place. While preserving their normal life in space, the thorns rearranged themselves and became something else – a sort of paraphrase of the Crucifixion and the Crucified Head – the cruelty”.

Fig 3 ‘Thorn Head’ (1949), Graham Sutherland,

(c) Dr Robert Karrer; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Dr Robert Karrer; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Conservation communities

April 4th, 2016

1  Man and the biosphere

Fig 1 Summary of UNESCOs Man and the Biosphere Programme

man and the biosphere

UNESCO’s ‘Man and the Biosphere’ programme (MAB) proposes an interdisciplinary research agenda and education for capacity building aimed at improving the relationship of people, as citizens, with their local environment viewed as community capital in a global context.  Launched in the early 1970s, the programme targets mass consumerism through the ecological, social and economic dimensions of biodiversity loss with conservation management to counteract this loss. It uses its World Network of Biosphere Reserves for knowledge-sharing, research and monitoring, education and training, and participatory decision- making in plans for sustainability.

MAB was launched in 1970 and initiated work in 14 Project areas covering different ecosystem types from mountains to the sea, from rural to urban systems, as well as more social aspects such as environmental perception. MAB’s work over the years has concentrated on the development of the World Network of Biosphere Reserve Areas.

2  Biosphere Reserve Areas

Biosphere Reserve Areas were the outcome of the “Biosphere Conference” organized by UNESCO in 1968. This was the first intergovernmental conference examining how to reconcile the conservation and use of natural resources, thereby foreshadowing the present-day notion of sustainable development. This Conference resulted in the launching of the UNESCO MAB Programme in 1970. One of the original MAB projects consisted in establishing a coordinated world network of sites representing the main ecosystems of the planet in which genetic resources would be protected, and where research on ecosystems as well as monitoring and training work could be carried out. These sites were named “Biosphere Reserves”, in reference to the MAB programme itself. Sub sectors of Earth’s biosphere, which were geographically and governmentally distinct, were to be eligible for biosphere reserve area status.

The biosphere reserve concept was developed initially in 1974 and was substantially revised in 1995 with the adoption by the UNESCO General Conference of the Statutory Framework and the Seville Strategy for Biosphere Reserves. Between these two dates, ‘Our Common Future’, also known as the Brundtland Report, from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, was published (1987).  Its targets were multilateralism and interdependence of nations in the search for a sustainable development path.

Today, with more than 600 sites in over 100 countries, the network provides context-specific opportunities to apply scientific knowledge about conservation of natural resources to planning at all levels, from government to community, with the objectives of:

  • Reducing biodiversity loss
  • Improving livelihoods
  • Enhancing social, economic and cultural conditions for environmental sustainability

UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Areas (BRAs) are centred on species-rich, core protected sites.  The high level of core biodiversity requires conservation management of habitats and species and which integrates cultural values of traditional natural resource management systems. The objective is to emulate the conservation management system for the core protected sites in the biosphere area, applying its logic to the management of ecosystem services in surrounding homes, businesses and community organisations for living sustainably.

The UNESCO BRAs are generally large rural areas, with most of the core in a semi natural condition under sustainable natural resource management.   One of the main features of the surrounding buffer area is the low-level, non-industrial use of natural resources compatible with the principles of management for nature conservation.  The BRA concept is presented diagramatically in Fig 2.

Fig 2 Pantanal model of a biosphere reserve area

pantamal model

The local adoption of the BRA model of UNESCO’s MAB Programme reflects a shift towards more accountable conservation and the creation of conservation communities.   The programme evolved to put communities first with regards maintenance of their ecosystem services, which may be far removed in distance from the BRA.  In attempting to reconcile environmental protection with sustainable development BRAs explicitly acknowledge humans, and human interests in the global conservation landscape while still maintaining the ecological values of locally protected areas upon which they are aesthetically and scientifically  focussed.  Thus the biosphere reserves contribute to the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals, in particular MDG 7 on environmental sustainability.  Conceptually, this model is attractive. Yet the practical reality of implementing dual ‘conservation’, ‘development’, ‘educational’ and ‘research’ goals, based on the local conservation management system of the core’s biodiversity, is challenging, with few examples successfully conforming to the model’s full criteria.  

2  Time for a rethink?

Since its inception in 1968  the Biosphere Reserve programme has only recruited a few hundred reserves into its portfolio, which prompts the question, What is its present day value? This question was at the heart of a paper published in 2013 by L Kaera and colleagues entitled ‘Reviewing Biosphere Reserves globally: effective conservation action or bureaucratic label?  

For a start, UNESCO BRAs are too few and far between to influence most people.  More importantly, by emphasising that only a few places are special, the official designation of a BRA by UNESCO inevitably  downgrades most of the places inhabited by people, mainly urban dwellers, whose biodiversity does not attain the status of a National Park, or a National Nature Reserve. In this respect, the use of the term ‘reserve’ to describe a geographical area signals that protectionism is the major objective of the designation.  Indeed, this was the original basis of the biosphere idea five decades ago and although there has been a shift to stress their role to educate the local population for living sustainably, the high biodiversity core tends to be managed in isolation.  On paper, biosphere reserves appear more like the ‘transition’ communities which emerged to define towns in the UK that were moving towards economic self-sufficiency in 2006.  However, having a low biodiversity is not a barrier to joining the Transition Towns network.  

Therefore, to get more people to embrace plans for living sustainably it is very important to adopt a wider definition of community outside the UNESCO scheme to include those centred on urban parks, open spaces and local nature sites, using their management plans as urban conservation models. In this context, the local designations of ‘Conservation Communities’ would integrate plans for living sustainably in home and neighbourhood with management of their biodiversity assets. In this wider nature conservation context the objectives of the Conservation Community would be similar to those of a biosphere reserve, namely:

  • To promote sustainable use of natural resources, considering ecological, economic and social dimensions;
  • To promote social and economic benefits to local communities where relevant;
  • To facilitate inter-generational security for local communities’ livelihoods – therefore ensuring that such livelihoods are sustainable;
  • To integrate other cultural approaches, belief systems and world-views within a range of social and economic approaches to nature conservation;
  • To contribute to developing and/or maintaining a more balanced relationship between humans and the rest of nature;
  • To contribute to sustainable development at national, regional and local level (in the last case mainly to local communities and/or indigenous peoples depending on the protected natural resources);
  • To facilitate scientific research and environmental monitoring, mainly related to the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources;
  • To collaborate in the delivery of benefits to people, mostly local communities, living in or near to the designated protected area;
  • To facilitate recreation and appropriate tourism.

These objectives would be the basis of a comprehensive community action plan, like that produced by the UK’s first Biosphere Reserve (Fig 3).  In this respect, conservation communities have the aim of encouraging people to get involved with the management of these functions and replicate them as exemplars to other communities following a similar pathway.

Fig 3 http://www.culturalecology.info/version2/Manandthebiosphere.html

northdevon bioisphere

A community conservation management system is needed that is open, integrative, evolving and adaptive, in order for the local community to better respond to external political, economic and social pressures, which would affect the ecological and cultural values of the area.  This can best be achieved through organising the community system of ‘people and environment’ as an interdisciplinary knowledge framework of cultural ecology. Cultural ecology then opens up routes to engage people with:

  • managing consumerism to reduce inequalities;
  • managing resources to improve livelihoods;
  • managing resources for environmental sustainability;

As a process of enablement, the aim of cultural ecology is to encourage people to create self-made knowledge maps to position themselves within local and national plans for sustainability in work, school, community, neighbourhood and home. The practical objective of cultural ecology is to promote managerial solutions to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use. Therefore, involvement in making and operating a management plan, presenting local issues in their wider interdisciplinary aspects of a Conservation Community, promotes both local and global citizenship

Fig. 4 highlights the mutual interdependencies within Conservation Communities between land cover, land use and biodiversity to support human well-being. The various components of biodiversity (at the individual, population and community levels) and the ecological services that they provide have a central place in the emerging understandings of how people and ecosystems are connected,  through land use and land cover. The physical aspect of land cover depends on, and is influenced by, the uses to which land is put and its biodiversity. Similarly the range of potential uses that an area of land can support constrains its contribution to human well-being.

Fig 4 Connections between well-being and ecosystem functions.



  • Land cover is the physical characteristics of the land surface determined by both its biological and physical features.
  • Land use is determined by the purposes of active and passive management of land by people and the material non-material benefits they derive from it.
  • Biodiversity is the variety of ecological elements present in a place(genes, species, communities and habitats,etc.).
  • Land and ecosystem functions are the potentials or capacities that land and ecosystems have to generate useful outputs for people.
  • Ecosystem services are the specific and final contributions that ecosystems make to human well being.

3  Categorisation of ‘community conservation areas’ (CCAs)

As an important historical definition, the term “biosphere” was coined by the geologist Eduard Suess in 1875 as the global sum of all Earth’s ecosystems. It is the zone of life on Earth; the planetary ecosystem which integrates all living beings and their relationships, including their interaction with Earth’s distinct zonal elements of  lithosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere.  Earth’s biosphere is postulated to have evolved, beginning with a process of  biogenesis at least some 3.5 billion years ago.   

In a more general sense, ‘community conservation areas’ are any spaces with a well defined boundary, enclosing distinct habitats and species, which are maintained through some kind of conservation management system where local biodiversity and community plans for living sustainably come together. This includes engineered biospheres for education and research (Fig 5).

Fig 5  Categorisation of community conservation areas


In 2008, for the first time in history, the world’s urban population outnumbered the rural population. This milestone marked the advent of a new ‘urban millennium’ and, by 2050, it is expected that two-thirds of the world population will be living in urban areas. With more than half of humankind living in cities and the number of urban residents growing by nearly 73 million every year, it is estimated that urban areas account for 70 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product and has therefore generated economic growth and prosperity for many.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development tackles this challenge through its Sustainable Development Goal 11, which aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.  This has been taken up by planners to design new transition economies.  

The concept of the transition economy has gained currency to a large extent because it provides a response to the multiple crises that the world has been facing in recent years – the climate, food and economic crises – with an alternative paradigm that offers the promise of growth while protecting the earth’s ecosystems and, in turn, contributing to poverty alleviation. In this sense, the transition will entail moving away from the system that allowed, and at times generated, these crises to a system that proactively addresses and prevents them. There is no unique definition of the transition economy, but the term itself underscores the economic dimensions of sustainability or, in terms of the recent UNEP report on the ‘Green Economy’, it responds to the “growing recognition that achieving sustainability rests almost entirely on getting the economy right”. It also emphasizes the crucial point that economic growth and environmental stewardship can be complementary strategies, challenging the still common view that there are significant tradeoffs between these two objectives – in other words, that the synergies prevail over the tradeoffs. This underscores a view  that the concept of transition economy should be seen as consistent with the broader and older concept of sustainable development.

The specificities of the broader concept are its holistic character, as it encompasses the three pillars of development – economic, social and environmental – and its particular focus on inter-generational equity. This is reflected in UNEP’s definition of a green economy as “one that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.  Indeed, growing urbanization can be a plus for the environment, because people who live in dense cities drive less, their living spaces use less energy, and they require fewer resources. But there are also troubling trends, like increased traffic congestion, smog, and blight. Beijing’s per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are higher than China’s national average, and many U.S. cities are surrounded by suburbs with large carbon footprints. On the other hand cities are hubs for ideas, commerce, culture, science, productivity, social, human and economic development. Urban planning, transport systems, water, sanitation, waste management, disaster risk reduction, access to information, education and capacity-building are all relevant issues a programme of transitional  urban development.

“Promoting sustainable human settlements development” is the subject of Chapter 7 of Agenda 21, which calls for

  • providing adequate shelter for all;
  • improving human settlements management;
  • promoting sustainable land-use planning and management;
  • promoting the integrated provision of environmental infrastructure: water, sanitation, drainage and solid waste management;
  • promoting sustainable energy and transport systems in human settlements;
  • promoting human settlements planning and management in disaster-prone areas;
  • promoting sustainable construction industry activities; and 8) promoting human resource development and capacity-building for human settlements development.

These issues are the targets for, urban conservation communities in transition (Fig 6).

Fig 6 Conceptual model of an urban biosphere reserve area

4  Who is going to be the first to blink?

Natural Capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets, which include rocks, soil, air, water and all living things.  It is from this natural capital that humans derive a wide range of services, often called ecosystem services, which make human life possible.

The term natural capital implies an extension of the economic notion of capital. Just as all forms of capital are capable of providing a flow of goods and services, components of natural capital interact to provide humans and other species with goods and services that are wide-ranging and diverse. The collective benefits provided by the resources and processes supplied by natural capital are known as ecosystem goods and services, or simply ecosystem services. These services are imperative for survival and well-being. They are also the basis for all economic activity.

The most obvious ecosystem services include the food we eat, the water we drink and the plant materials we use for fuel, building materials and medicines. There are also many less visible ecosystem services such as the climate regulation and natural flood defences provided by forests, the billions of tonnes of carbon stored by peatlands, or the pollination of crops by insects. Even less visible are cultural ecosystem services such as the inspiration we take from wildlife and the natural environment.

In practical terms, a biosphere reserve area represents community capital for understanding how to integrate land cover, land use and biodiversity to support long-term human well-being.  The management plan for conserving its core biodiversity is actually a model for meeting the goals of the 1992 ‘Report of the The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio environment summit).  Chapter 2 deals with promoting sustainable development through trade and making trade and environment mutually supportive.  In the latter area it summarised the basis for action as follows:

“Environment and trade policies should be mutually supportive. An open, multilateral trading system makes possible a more efficient allocation and use of resources and thereby contributes to an increase in production and incomes and to lessening demands on the environment.

Agenda 21 sees environmental protection as the key to sustainable development. On the other hand the report says that a sound environment provides the ecological and other resources needed to sustain growth and underpin a continuing expansion of trade. We can’t have it both ways because in the end, Earth’s natural resources are not limitless.

When Karl Marx spoke of religion as the opiate of the masses he might well have been referring to the catechism of contemporary economic theology that an expanding economic pie will bring universal prosperity to everyone. This widely espoused article of faith then becomes the foundation of arguments for a whole range of policies to sustain economic growth, that almost invariably favour the strong over the weak.

A simple bit of arithmetic demonstrates the point. Let us assume that the call of the Brundtland Commission for a global growth rate of 3% without redistribution were to be realized. In ten years time the average Ethiopian would be earning an additional $41. The average American would enjoy an additional $7,257.20

Without concurrent redistribution, an expanding pie brings far greater benefit to the already wealthy than to the poor, increases the gap between rich and poor, and increases the power advantage of the former over the latter. This advantage becomes a life and death issue in a resource scarce world in which the rich and poor are locked in mortal competition for a depleting resource base.  In both scenarios, there is no doubt that we need to use natural resources more efficiently, a change in approach known as dematerialisation (Fig 7).

Fig 7 Increased efficiency of resource utilisation is key to living sustainably


Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek, from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, first proposed the dematerialisation concepts in the early 1990s. He concluded  that 80% of the world’s resources are distributed among ‘First World nations’, which contribute 20% of the global population, so those nations are prompting an unsustainable system of development. Six years after the Rio Environment Summit, Hunter and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and Ernst von Weizsäcker, founder of the Wuppertal Institute, published ‘Factor 4’, a book that explains how relatively easy it is for businesses to operate more efficiently with existing technologies. It has many examples of real-world projects that save money and reduce pollution simultaneously.

The goal of being twice as productive with half the resources (materials and energy), leads to a factor 4 improvement in efficiency. Alternatively, practices which are just as productive with 1/4 of the resources or 4 times as effective with the same resources, also count.  Another way of phrasing the Factor 4 efficiency gain is that it reduces energy and materials usage by 75%.  

While ‘Factor Four’ is a common term representing a minimum four-fold increase in economic efficiency for transition plans, ‘Factor Ten’–ten times as much productivity from the same inputs (ranging to the same productivity with 1/10th the resources)–represents an even greater challenge. ‘Factor Ten’ equates to a 90% decrease in resource usage. ‘Factor 10’ evolved from the less dramatic ‘Factor 4’.  It also requires the creation of new technologies, policies, and manufacturing processes along with sociocultural change to create a global economy that is sustainable for a long period of time.

The goal of ‘Factor 10’ is to assure that nations do not exceed the planet’s carrying capacity but leave sufficient resources for future generations.  ‘Factor 10’ goes further as a response to the United Nations’ Environment Programme call for a tenfold reduction in resource consumption in industrialised countries as a necessary long-term target if adequate resources are to be released for the needs of the developing countries.  With the predicted rise in population and economic growth so as not to exceed the level of pollution we have today, we need to be able to produce the same output for 10% of the impact.

In terms of which nation will be the first to adopt Factor 10 wholeheartedly,  F. Schmidt-Bleek, President of the Factor 10 Institute, writing at the start of the new millennium, put it this way:

“Sustainability requires that environment and economic development be made mutually supportive at the front end of the cycle when the goals and policies are being set, not at the tail end after society has already incurred the damage costs of unsustainable development.

Dematerialization creates synergies for changing values of society, particularly in western countries. Indeed, the Factor 10 concept offers in itself a valuable stimulus and basis to advance structural change toward a more innovative and service-focussed economy and provokes sustainable consumer choices. Thus, Factor 10 emerges as a key component to guide development in the new Millennium.

Despite the prevailing uncertainties I remain convinced that if the process of dematerialization does not begin soon, both the social fabric of our societies and the global ecosystem are seriously at risk in the medium term. Furthermore, by starting now, we would have the option of achieving a transition slowly by evolution rather than being forced to change suddenly through revolution”.

Fifteen years later the world is still fixing its sights on annual growth rates that cannot be maintained!.

L Kaera and colleagues referenced the fact that continuing to emphasise ‘development’ as a core function of Biosphere Reserves is deflecting from the importance of the roles of biosphere reserve areas as ‘learning sites’ for sustainable development.  That critique prompted this blog.  It will be continued as comparative study of conservation communities, particularly in relation to their management plans, as a comparative concept map and wiki.  The central question is how can transition communities, large and small become, established.



5  Web references


Kaera L. Coetzer∗, Edward T. F. Witkowski and Barend F. N. Erasmus  









The gentle struggles of ecologism

March 20th, 2016

‘Wise consumption is a far more difficult art than production’. John Ruskin


1 Ecology and culture

Ways of thinking based on the assumption that human beings hold a privileged or central position in the social evaluation of our use of natural resources are on the sidelines of radical environmental politics.  However, future historians may well look upon the years 1978-80 as a revolutionary turning point in the world’s social and economic history towards rectifying this.  It was certainly a time when the relationship between culture and environment entered the political discourse regarding the future course of world development.

Four significant political events acted like epicentres in the unfolding of the transformation of the post war economic order: in 1978, Deng Xiaoping took the first steps toward liberalising the Chinese economy; in 1979, Paul Volcker took command of the US Federal Reserve and changed monetary policy, whilst in that same year Margaret Thatcher took on the power of the unions and pledged to end inflationary stagnation with a burst of neo-liberalism. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President of the USA, and armed with Volcker’s policies, set about implementing a set of reforms that were aimed at curbing union power, deregulating industry, and creating more liberal conditions for finance to operate freely on the national and the global stages.

“From these several global epicentres, revolutionary impulses seemingly spread and reverberated to remake the world around us in a totally different image” (Harvey, 2005).

The distinction between ecologism and environmentalism now has a wide currency among ecologists.  Indeed, it  was already in being when ‘The Ecologist’ published an editorial entitled ‘Down with Environmentalism!’ In 1972.   As Jonathon Porritt and David Winner argued at the time when the term was gaining wider recognition, ecologism is radical for it seeks nothing less than a non-violent revolution to overthrow our whole polluting, plundering and materialistic industrial society. The economic system was portrayed as dehumanising, making decisions on the basis of profitability rather than human need: a revolutionary  argument that was played out most dramatically in the UK 1980s coal miner’s strike.

The revolution that E.F. Schumacher advocated in his book ‘Small is Beautiful’‘,  was a people-centred economics because that would, in his view, enable environmental and human sustainability.  Accordingly, the term ‘ecologism’ applies to positions that are both more radical and more complex than environmentalism.

Andrew Dobson is keen to distinguish between environmentalism and ecologism. His standpoint is that environmentalists do not necessarily subscribe to the limits to growth thesis, nor do they typically seek to dismantle industrialism.  They are likely to argue for the intrinsic value of the non-human environment but would balk at any suggestion that we as a species require ’metaphysical reconstruction’ as proposed by Schumacher.  Environmentalists will typically believe that technology can solve the problems it creates and they will probably regard any suggestions that only frugal living will provide for sustainability as wilful nonsense.  Dobson therefore makes the point that what passes for green politics in the pages of today’s newspapers is the philosophy of environmentalism, not the ideology of political ecology properly understood’ and distinguished by the term ecologism.

However, both Schumacher and Dobson fail to specify the institutions required to support the controlled metaphysical reconstruction demanded by ecologism.

The economist, James Robertson has no such qualms.  His first involvement with practical  political economy covered the period from 1957, and Prime Minister Macmillan’s ‘never had it so good’ speech, to working as a civil aide on Macmillan’s 1960 ‘wind of change’ African tour, which kick started decolonisation.  He was witness to the rapid unravelling of the post War economic boom and the failure of the following labour administration to halt the boom bust cycle.


2 Robertsonian economics

Roberson says that the 20th century showed that a centralised socialist economy cannot work efficiently, justly or ecologically. On the other hand, the idea of a free market economy based on objective prices that can continue for ever is a fantasy. His view is that we need to rediscover the purpose of money, which ought to be to facilitate fair participation in the production and exchange of goods and services, within the planet’s capacity.  His stance is that it is our money system that is propelling us toward self-destruction.  Further, he proposes how it could be gently reformed so that it acts for the benefit of people and society rather than the opposite, and describes the obstacles that currently prevent that reform.

“If we were now starting from scratch to arrange how money should be supplied to a democratic society,” Robertson says, “nobody in their right mind would dream of setting it up as it is right now.”  What they would not dream of doing is creating the money supply by giving private banks the authority to create money out of thin air and put it in their customers’ bank accounts as a loan on which they are obliged to pay interest.  In this way roughly 97% of the money circulating in the economy passes into the bank accounts of other customers while we are using the original loans to do our business.  Further, as we do our business we pay interest to the bank as we are also repaying the capital.

“When customers repay their loans to their banks, the banks write off the money and return it to the ‘nothing’ from which they had originally created it.  But the money that has been paid on it as interest remains in existence as the property of the banks.  This makes it continually necessary for enough money to be lent into existence to replace both what was originally lent but has now been written off, plus what has gone into the banks as interest on it. Otherwise there will not be enough money in circulation to support the non-financial activities of the economy.”

In summary, to maintain the banking system the economy must grow continually and it must continually expand (economic growth) to keep up.  Moreover, because this arrangement requires people and businesses to continually take out loans from the bank, it automatically causes rising indebtedness in societies.

“You don’t have to be the proverbial rocket scientist—or even a professional economist or statistician,” says Robertson, “ to figure out who, apart from the banks themselves, will benefit most from increasing indebtedness in society and who will suffer most. In general, those who benefit most will be people and businesses with enough spare money to lend or invest it and get back more money for doing so.  Those who suffer most will be those who have to borrow money at interest, and so pay more in order to meet the needs of themselves and their families.  In short, the present way of providing the money supply systematically works to increase poverty and widen the gap between rich and poor.

Robertson then goes on to point out that in addition to creating economic and social inequality, the current system, because it requires growth in debt and growth in economic production, “has the general effect of making us earn our living by extracting and wasting more of the Earth’s resources than would otherwise be needed.

Robertson makes a final point about the problem of allowing the banks to be the prime source of money creation.  This essentially allows the banks to decide how the money they create will be used on its first entry into circulation, which leads to problems like excessive lending for speculative purposes (like land and buildings), and ignoring projects that have a high long-term value to society (like preventive health and public services).

So the framework provided by the state institutions that deal with money must be redesigned to encourage ways of using money that serve, not damage, the interests of citizens now and in the future. Within such a new revolutionary framework:

  1. The market economy, freely responding to money values, would tend to deliver outcomes which combine economic efficiency with social justice and environmental care;
  2. The government would be able to let the market economy operate more freely, with less intervention than most economies today; and
  3. Citizens, who wished to do so, would find it easier than now to reduce their need for goods and services bought from the market economy, and also therefore to reduce the amount of money they need to earn by working as employees.

The state’s new role towards the market and the citizen should thus be to decolonise and empower. Robertson says that whether to call this a basically capitalist or basically socialist approach is a matter of personal choice. It will aim to integrate economic efficiency with economic justice. So you could call it both capitalist and socialist or neither, whichever you prefer.


3 Free lunches

Robertson firmly believes that Milton Friedman’s teaching that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”  is false. Starting with the enclosure of the common land, whether it be in an English village or the vast tracts of central Africa, modern economies have given massive free lunches to powerful individuals, organisations and also nations. In the sustainable way of doing things the value of these commons, as inputs to local economic activity, should be shared as a source of public revenue, to be divided between the local commoners in place of the economically, socially and environmentally damaging taxes we have now.  This is the main principle of ecologism.

This will involve a shift from the idea of redistribution to the idea of predistribution. Whereas redistributive taxes aim to tap into the outcomes of economic activity, predistributive taxes and charges will share the value of essential inputs, ‘the commons’, to economic activity. Whereas redistribution is dependency-reinforcing, predistribution will be empowering. It will correct an underlying cause of economic injustice, inequality, exclusion and poverty.

In a globalised world economy, we need to evolve institutions of governance embodying those principles at supranational and subnational levels, as well as national level.

In particular, Robertson argues that we need to reform national money systems. He believes that governments should be at the heart of the money system by deciding (a) how the money supply should be created, (b) what is taxed and not taxed, and (c) what public expenditure is spent on and not spent on.

Concerning the money supply, he argues that the money creation should be transferred from commercial banks as a source of private profit for themselves to a public agency – the central bank – as a source of debt-free public revenue to be spent into circulation by the government for public purposes.

Robertson believes the practical key to sustainability lies in changing the tax system.  In developed countries today taxation takes a third of the total value of the economy (GDP) out of some activities, and public spending puts it back selectively into others. The taxes add to the cost of what is taxed and the public spending subsidises the cost of what it supports. This affects relative prices all through the economy and does nothing to even out the distribution of wealth. Therefore,  the price structure of any economy is bound to be skewed in favour of some things and against others. The proverbial ‘level playing field’ for investment and returns is a mirage.

For reforming taxation, he argues that we should;

  • take taxes off incomes, profits, value added and other financial rewards for useful work and enterprise
  • put taxes on to value subtracted by people and organisations for private profit from common resources (such as land) and from the environment’s capacity to absorb pollution and waste (such as carbon emissions); and
  • reduce the present opportunities (through tax havens, etc) for rich people and businesses to avoid paying their dues to society.


4 Tragedy of the commons

In 1833 the English economist William Forster Lloyd published a pamphlet which included a hypothetical example of over-use of a common resource. This was the situation of cattle herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze, as was the custom in English villages. He postulated that if a herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing could result. For each additional animal, a herder could receive additional benefits, but the whole group shared damage to the commons. If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin explored this social dilemma in his article “The Tragedy of the Commons”, published in the journal Science. The essay derived its title from the pamphlet by Lloyd, which he cites, on the over-grazing of common land.

Hardin discussed commons in relation to the growing awareness of Earth’s loss of its ecosystem services.  The loss of the commons cannot be solved by technical means, as distinct from those with solutions that require a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values. Hardin also pointed out the problem of individuals acting in rational self-interest by claiming that if all members in a group used common resources for their own gain and with no regard for others, all resources would still eventually be depleted. Overall, Hardin argues against relying on conscience as a means of policing commons, suggesting that this favours selfish individuals – often known as free-riders – over those who are more altruistic. In the context of avoiding over-exploitation of common resources, Hardin concludes by restating Hegel’s maxim, “freedom is the recognition of necessity.” He suggests that “freedom” completes the tragedy of the commons.  By recognizing resources as commons in the first place, and by recognizing that, as such, they require management, Hardin believes that humans “can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms.”

Hardin’s article was the start of the modern use of “Commons” as a shared resource term. Like Lloyd and Thomas Malthus before him, Hardin was primarily interested in the problem of human population growth. But in his essay, he also focused on the use of larger (though finite) resources such as the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, as well as pointing out the “negative commons” of pollution (i.e., instead of dealing with the deliberate privatization of a positive resource, a “negative commons” deals with the deliberate commonization of a negative cost, pollution).  The commons metaphor illustrates the argument that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. This occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of the resource to the point in which they become reliant on it.  The costs of the exploitation are borne by all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than those who are exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball until the resource collapses (even if it retains a capacity to recover). The rate at which depletion of the resource is realized depends primarily on three factors: the number of users wanting to consume the common in question, the consumptiveness of their uses, and the relative robustness of the common.


5 Modern commons

The tragedy of the commons can be considered in relation to environmental issues such as sustainability. The commons dilemma stands as a model for a great variety of resource problems in society today, such as water, forests, fish, and non-renewable energy resources such as oil and coal.

Actual situations exemplifying the “tragedy of the commons” include the overfishing and destruction of the Grand Banks, the destruction of salmon runs on rivers that have been dammed – most prominently in modern times on the Columbia River in the Northwest United States, and historically in North Atlantic rivers – the destruction of the sturgeon fishery – in modern Russia, but historically in the United States as well – and, in terms of water supply, the limited water available in arid regions (e.g., the area of the Aral Sea ) and the Los Angeles water system supply, especially at Mono Lake and Owens Lake.

In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Negative externalities are a well-known feature of the “tragedy of the commons”. For example, driving cars has many negative externalities; these include pollution, carbon emissions, and traffic accidents. Every time ‘Person A’ gets in a car, it becomes more likely that ‘Person Z’ – and millions of others – will suffer in each of those areas.   Economists often urge the government to adopt policies that “internalize” an externality.

More general examples (some alluded to by Hardin) of potential and actual tragedies include:

Planet Earth’s ecology

    • Uncontrolled human population growth leading to overpopulation
    • Air, whether ambient air polluted by industrial emissions and cars among other sources of air-pollution, or indoor air
    • Water -Water pollution, water crisis of over-extraction of groundwater and wasting water due to over-irrigation
    • Forests – Frontier logging of old growth forest and slash and burn
    • Energy resources and climate – Environmental residue of mining and drilling, Burning of fossil fuels and consequential global warming
    • Animals-Habitat – destruction and poaching leading to the Holocene mass extinction.
    • Oceans – Overfishing
    • Antibiotics – Antibiotic Resistance Misuse of antibiotics anywhere in the world will eventually result in antibiotic resistance developing at an accelerated rate. The resulting antibiotic resistance has spread (and will likely continue to do so in the future) to other bacteria and other regions, hurting or destroying the Antibiotic Commons that is shared on a world-wide basis

Publicly shared resources

    • Spam email degrades the usefulness of the email system and increases the cost for all users of the Internet while providing a benefit to only a tiny number of individuals.
    • Vandalism and littering in public spaces such as parks, recreation areas and public rest-rooms.
    • Knowledge commons encompass immaterial and collectively owned goods in the information age.  Including, for example, source code and software documentation in software projects that can get “polluted” with messy code or inaccurate information.


6 Taxing the commons

James Robertson takes an economic view of commons as a collection of common resources whose value is due to Nature and to the activities and demands of society as a whole, and not to the efforts or skill of individual people or organizations’. Robertson gives as an example the sudden increase in the value of properties located near the Jubilee line on the London Underground after the route was published, an increase which he valued at £13 billion. Although land is the most obvious and important example of a commons there are others, of which the radio spectrum is one that is now the subject of government fees rather than taxation. EU governments raised considerable revenue by auctioning off the right to use various bandwidths, some £22.5 billion in the case of the UK government.

Such commons are shared resources, the bounty of nature, whose value should be shared. If it is to be exploited by a few then they should pay for that privilege. The Land Value Tax, or as Robertson refers to it, the ‘Land-Rent Tax’: is a tax on the annual rental site value of land. The annual rental site value is the rental value which a particular piece of land would have if there were no buildings or improvements on it. It is the value of a site, as provided by nature and as affected for better or worse by the activities of the community at large. The tax falls on the annual value of land at the point where it enters into economic activity, before the application of capital and labour to it.

A new approach is clearly needed, based on collecting the value of common resources as public revenue for the benefit of all citizens.  Common resources are resources whose value is due to Nature and to the activities and demands of society as a whole, and not to the efforts or skill of individual people or organisations. Land is an obvious example.  The value of a particular land-site, excluding the value of what has been built on it, is almost wholly determined by the activities and plans of society around it. For example, when the route of the London Underground Jubilee line was published, properties along the route jumped in value. Access to them was going to be much improved. So, as a result of a public policy decision, the owners of the properties received a £13bn windfall financial gain. They had done nothing for it; they had paid nothing for it; they had been given a very large free lunch.   In 1994, based on 1990 values, it was calculated that the absence of a site-value tax on land was costing UK taxpayers £50bn to £90bn a year in lost public revenue

By contrast, the auction three years ago of twenty-year licences to use the radio spectrum for the third generation of mobile phones raised £22.5bn for the UK government. The governments of Germany, France and Italy also raised very significant sums from that common resource. Important common resources include:

  • land (its site value)
  • energy (its unextracted value)
  • the environment’s capacity to absorb pollution and waste
  • the use of limited space (e.g for road traffic, airport landing slots)
  • water – for extraction and use, and for waterborne traffic
  • the electro-magnetic (including radio) spectrum
  • the value created by issuing new money – on which I shall say more.

The annual value of these is very great. Collecting it as public revenue would remove the need for many damaging existing taxes

Land tax

Greens share with libertarian economists a fondness for the land tax because of its extreme simplicity and efficiency. According to classical economists rents were to be eschewed since they encouraged decadence and idleness: increasing the value or quality of a piece of land, or producing something from it was to be encouraged; merely living from its wealth should be discouraged, preferably by high rates of taxation. This simplicity is the object of obfuscation by many writers on economics. Their argument is that economic rent cannot be quantified and hence is not a secure basis for taxation.

Richard Bramhall provides an amusing critique of their argument concluding that economists have ‘dumped a valuable fiscal tool on the scrap-heap of history, leaving the burden of tax to fall on labour and enterprise, while the landowner grows fat doing nothing’.

In today’s planning environment, where local authorities have the legal right to decide what land can be used for, vast quantities of value can be generated by the stroke of a computer keyboard, as when agricultural land undergoes a ‘change of use’ and becomes development land.

Those who argue for a land value tax claim that this value is democratically created and hence should be shared between all the citizens of the local authority. For many proponents of a land tax it can be a single tax, simply because of the vast sums it can generate.

Robertson’s calculation for the potential revenue from site-value tax on land in the UK was between £50 billion and £90 billion annually in 1994.  Other taxes in the green economist’s knapsack can be justified on the basis of being taxes on commons. For example the streets of a thriving city belong to all; if only a few choose to use them for private transport then that right can be charged for and the proceeds shared with others through a congestion charge. By a similar argument the right to pollute the Earth’s atmosphere with greenhouse gases, causing economic disaster for others, should be paid for with a carbon tax.


7 The congestion charge

A carbon tax can be considered a ‘commons tax’, since it attempts to reduce behaviour that adds to the amount of CO2 pollution in the atmosphere, which is a shared commons. There are several variants of the scheme, but the basis of the tax is that it should be a unified tax on the carbon content of fuels to replace the complex array of fuel-related taxes that are in effect in many countries. Such a tax would provide a strong incentive for both businesses and individuals to reduce their energy consumption, their driving, and to switch to non-fossil-fuel heating as well as renewable electricity supply. In the mid-1990s the EC considered a proposal to introduce a carbon tax throughout the European Union. This was rejected, although Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark introduced related taxes. The Swedish carbon tax achieved a reduction in CO2 emissions of 7 per cent, while the Danish energy tax resulted in a 10 per cent reduction in energy use.

Rather than taking a view that automobiles were polluting London’s atmospheric commons, the congestion charge in London was motivated more by irritation at the slow pace of traffic in the city than by environmental concern, but it has none the less been an important example of how taxation money can be redistributed locally in one of the world’s largest cities. By the 1990s traffic was moving more slowly in the UK’s capital than it had been at the beginning of the 20th century before cars had been invented! Following his election as mayor in 2000, Ken Livingstone launched an 18-month period of public consultation and the outcome was a decision to introduce a congestion charge based on area licensing rather than parking levies.

Considerable research and modelling were undertaken to predict the correct level of the charge to deter the desired number of people (30 per cent) from continuing to drive into the capital. In February 2003 a daily charge of £5 was introduced between 7.00am and 6.30pm on weekdays; this was increased to £8 in July 2005. Research had predicted that, at a rate of £5, car miles travelled in central London would be reduced by 20–25 per cent and total vehicle miles would be reduced by 10–15 per cent. Car traffic was actually reduced by 33 per cent representing up to 70,000 journeys no longer made by car on a daily basis.

‘Transport For London’ estimates that about half these journeys are now made by public transport; a quarter divert to avoid the zone; 10 per cent have shifted to other forms of private transport including bicycles; 10 per cent have either stopped travelling or changed their time of travel. There have been sharp rises in journeys by bus, taxi and bicycle. Meanwhile, travel speeds have increased by some 17 per cent. The reduction in vehicle usage within the charging zone was greater than expected, leading to less revenue than had been predicted.

The London Congestion Charge appears to have been a political and environmental success. It has encouraged changes in behaviour towards less polluting forms of transport, reducing CO2 emissions. It is also an example of a tax which is flexible, since the rate can be increased or decreased depending on the relative balance of traffic and public transport desired by the city’s residents.


8 Shale gas commons

In 2014, the UK Government announced that councils who support fracking will get to keep 100 per cent of the business rate generated from any shale gas projects in their area. The mining industry will also offer local communities £100,000 for test drilling, and transfer 1 per cent of revenues to them if shale gas is found.

Fracking is strongly supported by the Government (for its potential to bring in new investment, support thousands of jobs and reduce energy bills) and strongly opposed by environmentalists and many local communities (due to potential risks relating to water contamination, earth tremors and other environmental hazards).

Notwithstanding the difference in perspectives, fracking is an example of how the pursuit of the national interest requires action at the local level which is likely to have mainly negative impacts on local areas and communities (the expansion of Heathrow is another example, as is HS2 and nuclear power plants).

In these circumstances, national government has two broad choices. One is to impose the national interest on the local area through the law or regulation, while the second is to offer incentives that encourage and reward local communities to accept the proposed actions. Most commonly, these take the form of financial payments. In the case of fracking the Government has taken the second approach, and local councils (possibly in consultation with local communities) now have to assess whether the ‘value’ of the compensation on offer outweighs the risks that accompany fracking (for economists this is a typical cost-benefit analysis approach).

The decision that each council will make will be determined by a number of factors including: strength of local opinion (for or against); the number of people who could be affected; and, the amount of compensation on offer. Whilst the significance of the first two will depend on the circumstances and priorities of each council, the third criterion can be more objectively evaluated.

Transition modelling

The transition to sustainability entails maximizing human development and wellbeing as much as possible, and minimizing ecological impacts as much as possible, in a manner that leads to economic and ecological stability. Clearly, maximizing human wellbeing and minimizing ecological impact are mutually contradictory goals as long as human wellbeing is measured in terms of material consumption per capita. Since there are resource limits, and there are limits to efficiency improvements via technological innovation, something must give: humans must adapt by shifting expectations of wellbeing from economic affluence to other human development goals. It is impossible to predict how this adaptation process will unfold, but the following synopsis of the transition phases has been proposed as a point of reference:

The first phase is concientization to enable incentivation. The objective is to create widespread popular support for the required revisions of tax codes and energy subsidies. In other words, the first phase is about creating a collective mindset of global citizenship and social responsibility, strong enough to translate into political will to face the inevitable transition and implement required reforms. Gender equity is key.

The second phase is incentivation to enable redistribution. The objective is to reform tax codes and energy subsidies to expedite the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. Applicable reforms include shifting taxes from earned income to the usage (extraction) of unearned resources and the release of pollution, as well as taxing financial transactions of dubious social value. Gender equality is key.

The third phase is redistribution to enable democratization. The objective is to institutionalize democracy with gender balance and distributive justice. This may entail adopting a Universally Guaranteed Personal Income (i.e., a basic minimum income rather than a minimum wage) and a Maximum Allowable Personal Wealth (i.e., an upper limit on financial wealth accumulation) that can be democratically adjusted periodically.

The fourth phase is worldwide democratization. The objective is democratization of global, national, and local governance with deeply ingrained gender balance and widely institutionalized implementation of the solidarity, subsidiarity, and sustainability principles. Decisions are to be made at the lowest possible level consistent with governance capabilities and the common good of humanity.

*The four phases are not envisioned to be strictly sequential. They most probably will overlap, with recursions and convulsions along the way.

*The term “gender equality” is not to be understood as “gender uniformity.” By gender equality is meant equality of dignity and personal development opportunities across the entire gender continuum. In other words, full equality in all dimensions of human life: physical, intellectual, psychological, vocational, spiritual.

*The term “clean energy” is to be understood as “clean renewable energy” that is naturally replenished and does not produce GHG emissions when used. It does not include absurdities such as “clean coal.”

*The combination of gender balance and energy balance is hereby proposed as the necessary and sufficient driver for a civilized (i.e., humane) transition, and are expected to have a multiplying effect throughout the global human system.



9 Web references











Subjects of the Sea Empress: the 20th Anniversary of an Oil Spill

February 14th, 2016

1  The spill

The Sea Empress oil spill occurred at the entrance to the  Milford Haven Waterway in Pembrokeshire, Wales, on 15 February 1996.  Sailing against the outgoing tide and in calm conditions, at 20:07 GMT the tanker was pushed off course by the current and became grounded after hitting rocks in the middle of the channel. The collision punctured her starboard hull causing oil to pour out into the sea.  The Sea Empress, a state of the art supertanker, was en route to the Texaco oil refinery on the shores of the Haven near Pembroke.

Tugs from Milford Haven Port Authority were sent to the scene and attempted to pull the vessel free and re-float her. During the initial rescue attempts, she detached several times from the tugs and grounded repeatedly – each time slicing open new sections of her hull and releasing more oil (Fig 1).

A full scale emergency plan was activated by the authorities.

Fig 1 The site and scale of the problem


During the next few days, frantic efforts were made to pull the vessel from the rocks.. Tugboats were drafted in from the ports of Dublin, Liverpool and Plymouth to assist with the salvage operation.  Over the course of a week, she spilt 72,000 tons of crude oil into the sea. The spill occurred within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – one of Europe’s most important and sensitive wildlife and marine conservation areas. It was Britain’s third largest oil spillage and the twelfth largest in the world at the time (Fg 2).

Fig 2 Sensitive areas around Milford Haven

milford map

2 The place

The Sea Empress disaster occurred in Britain’s only coastal national park and in one of only three UK marine nature reserves. The tanker ran aground very close to the islands of Skomer and Skokholm – both national nature reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Protection Areas and home to Manx shearwaters, Atlantic puffins, guillemots, razorbills, great cormorants, kittiwakes, European storm-petrels, common shags and Eurasian oystercatchers.  The whole area is one of National Park and Heritage Coast, with over 30 SSSIs, 2 of the UK’s 3 marine nature reserves (Skomer, Lundy), and sites of European conservation importance.

Birds at sea were hit hard during the early weeks of the spill, resulting in thousands of deaths. The Pembrokeshire grey seal population didn’t appear to be affected too much and impacts to subtidal wildlife were limited. However, much damage was caused to shorelines affected by bulk oil. Shore seaweeds and invertebrates were killed in large quantities. Mass strandings of cockles and other shellfish occurred on sandy beaches. Rock pool fish were also affected. However, a range of tougher shore species were seen to survive exposure to bulk oil and lingering residues.

Bird counts by the RSPB, CCW and other groups had revealed 12-13,000 birds in the Haven estuary on 13 February. Outside the Haven, guillemots were returning 2-3 weeks early to their colonies of which Skomer, Stack Rocks and Ramsey Island are the largest. There were also over 60,000 gannets and 10,000 seaducks (scoters) in the adjoining bays and sea areas. Manx shearwaters had yet to return and are were generally beyond the range of the oil. Birds in the area were very vulnerable to the many patches oil and by  Feb 27, over 1,200 oiled birds were in treatment and some 400 bodies had been picked up (some experts consider these are likely to have represented only 10% of the total number so affected). In addition, some 5,000 of the birds that were flying were seen to have been oiled to some degree.  A rescue centre for oiled birds was set up in Milford Haven. But, according to the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), the government’s conservation organisation in Wales at the time, over 70% of cleaned, released guillemots died within 14 days. Just 3% survived two months and only 1% survived a year.

The Pembrokeshire coast is home to common porpoises and bottlenose dolphins. Significant numbers of both species were recorded in the waters off the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve during the spring and summer of 1996.  But he effects of the oil and chemical pollution on these species remains unknown.

3 The effects

Oil spread some 10km up the estuary. Mortality of intertidal fauna was  100% near the main spill and oil also spread over wide areas of coast to the north and south of the Haven entrance; additional contamination is likely to have taken place with onshore winds. Potentially sensitive estuaries were boomed by the  river authority , but the foreshore could not be so protected.The main commercial resources at risk outside the Haven were coastal crab and lobster fisheries and offshore fin fisheries – both from the reality and perception of contamination.  Most vulnerable were the Haven’s shellfisheries (mainly mussels).  Fishermen applied a voluntary ban on sales from the area and there was an immediate ban on fishing off the coast of Pembrokeshire and south Carmarthenshire, which had a devastating impact on the local fishing industry. The ban remained in place for several months and was lifted in stages. Many local fishermen received financial compensation for the loss of income due to the ban.

The major problem encountered initially with the Sea Empress was the failure to offload the oil from the vessel until it had been badly damaged and lost over half its cargo. Offloading to tankers was thwarted by the heavy weather and the inability of the tugs available to prevent the Sea Empress from repeated grounding. The tanker was removed from the rocks and berthed to allow off-loading the remaining oil on February 21/22, but not before 70,000 tonnes had been spilt. The oil was Forties (North Sea) crude, which is comparatively light and therefore contains a substantial proportion of volatile components. This is amenable to dispersant spraying provided it can be attacked within several hours, after which ‘mousse’ (water in oil emulsion) can be formed, rendering it less amenable to dispersion.

In view of the richness of the local marine life the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, (MAFF) withheld approval for the use of dispersants within Milford Haven, in a coastal strip one nautical mile from the shore and within one nautical mile of Skomer Island National Nature Reserve. Six aircraft were able to spray the bulk of the slick as it moved into the outer Bristol Channel, and reported success (combined with the generally active sea conditions) in dispersing much of the oil in open water.  After the vessel was moved inside the Haven on 23 Feb, spraying was discontinued because there was no oil outside the Haven amenable to dispersion. By this time, some 440 tonnes of detergent had been sprayed – perhaps dispersing 4-8,000 tonnes of oil.

With evaporation removing perhaps 30-40% of the oil, many thousand tonnes of weathered oil and mousse remained to contaminate seabirds and the sandy and rocky shores. Remnants in the form of sheens and weathered oil/mousse were widespread, affecting waters and shores from North Devon to north of Skomer, and as far as Porthcawl into the Bristol Channel.

4 The outcomes

The main containment and dispersement of the oil slick at sea was completed within six weeks. However, the removal of oil on shore took over a year until the late spring of 1997. Three years after the spill, small amounts of oil were still found beneath the sand on sheltered beaches and in rock pools.

Bad as they were, the effects of the spill on local wildlife were not as serious as initially predicted. This was due in part to the time of year when the spill occurred. In February, many migratory birds had not yet arrived back in Pembrokeshire for breeding. Along with stormy weather, which helped break-up and naturally disperse the oil, the effect on wildlife would have been much worse if the spill had occurred just a month later when the prodigious colonies of sea birds would have been nesting.  The spill would undoubtedly have been catastrophic for both the environment and local economy if it had occurred during the summer months.

The spill occurred just a few weeks before the Easter break when many holidaymakers would be visiting the area. Some sheltered beaches and tidal estuaries were still covered with oil (Fig 3), but the main tourist locations of Tenby, Saundersfoot, Pendine, Manorbier and Bosherston were superficially cleaned .

A large clean-up operation began as soon as the Sea Empress started spilling oil. Volunteers and paid hands alike, came together to restore the beautiful beaches of Pembrokeshire. In the immediate days and weeks that followed, one thousand people, including local celebrities, worked around the clock to rescue oiled birds and remove oil from beaches using suction tankers, pressure washers and oil-absorbing scrubbers. The main clean-up operation lasted several weeks and continued on a reduced scale for over a year.

Fig 3 Clean up at Tenby


Almost three years after the spill in January 1999, Milford Haven Port Authority was fined a record £4m after pleading guilty to the offence of causing pollution under the Water Resources Act 1991. The MHPA was also required to pay a further £825,000 prosecution costs by agreement.

The cost of the clean-up operation was estimated to be £60m. When the effects to the economy and environment are taken into account, the final cost is estimated to have been twice that, at £120m.

By 2001, it was officially accepted that the affected marine wildlife population levels had more-or-less returned to normal.

5 Resilience

The rapid recovery of the ecosystems affected by the oil spill illustrate ecological resilience, also called ecological robustness,  the ability of an ecosystem to maintain its normal patterns of nutrient cycling and biomass production after being subjected to damage caused by an ecological disturbance. The term resilience is a term that is sometimes used interchangeably withrobustness to describe the ability of a system to continue functioning amid and recover from a disturbance.

The resilience or robustness of ecological systems has been an important concept in ecology and natural history since Charles Darwin, who described the interdependencies between species as an “entangled bank” in  On the Origin of Species (1859). Since then, the concept has come to hold special importance in the areas of environmental conservation and management. Its significance to the well-being of humans and human societies has also been recognized. The loss of an ecosystem’s ability to recover from a disturbance—whether due to natural events or due to human influences such as overfishing and oil pollution—endangers the benefits from ecosystem services (e.g., food, clean water, and aesthetics) that humans derive from that ecosystem.

Despite the scientific evidence that is available to the contrary, there is frequently a basic presumption that long-term damage must have been caused by an oil spill. Predictions of an environmental disaster therefore frequently accompany the first reports of a spill, long before any assessment of the true impacts and their likely duration has been made.  It is in this sense that oil spills as ecological experiments’ do not generate principles of ecological resilience, because of possible underlying ecological processes from an unknown pre-spill baseline.

6 The responsibility

The official 1997 report into the Sea Empress oil tanker spillage in Wales blames the pilot for the initial error – but also catalogues a whole series of subsequent mistakes. In a separate move, the Milford Haven port authorities were prosecuted for their handling of the incident.

The report, by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, says that the pilot, failed to keep the 147,000-tonne Liberian-registered tanker in the deepest part of the navigation channel. This was partly due to inadequate training and his lack of experience with such large vessels. One of the MAIB’s recommendations is improved training and examination of pilots.

The pilot was found guilty of incompetence by the Milford Haven Port Authority and was demoted. But he successfully appealed and was able to resume working with large tankers.

After the tanker had run aground, however, the report says there were not enough tugs of the right power and manoeuvrability available to refloat her. In addition, the authorities did not understand the effect of local tidal currents, the MAIB concludes. This led to the vessel being swept aground for a second time.

It was this second grounding which caused most pollution. The initial accident spilled some 2,500 tonnes of oil compared to nearly 70,000 tonnes in the second incident.

The MAIB also criticises Milford Haven Port Authority’s disaster planning. The accident was outside the scope of its emergency plans and the crisis management team became too unwieldy for effective action in a rapidly-changing environment.

National authorities also come in for criticism from the MAIB. The Marine Pollution Control Unit’s national contingency plan is described as “deficient”. It did not deal clearly with the unit’s involvement in the salvage of a vessel within harbour waters and it did not cater sufficiently for an incident which quickly worsened.

7 The culture shock

Natalie Beyer, who was living in Germany at the time, but who had relatives in the local community, wrote a dissertation on the disaster.  She described the reaction of the people living in and around Pembrokeshire to the disaster was one of anger and sadness first of all which was followed by a ground swell of public opinion to prevent it happening again.

‘They saw all the beaches they loved to visit covered with thick black oil and they could smell the stinking fumes. The newspapers were full of letters from the public, in which people expressed their bitterness and frustration about the situation and called it “shameful” and “a complete tragedy”. Even young children were obviously very upset and touched, as they were forced to realise that their former “playground” beaches, with all their rock-pools, containing interesting creatures like sea anemones and water fleas and the occasional crab or star fish, with their huge variety of shells they loved to collect, the rocks and cliffs they enjoyed climbing on, the safe clear water for bathing in and with all the adventures these beaches had to offer, had turned into horrible, oily, ugly places covered with dead fish and birds and other sea creatures. During my visit in Wales I talked to many parents who told me they had been too worried to let their children go to the beaches, as they had been afraid that they might be harmed in their health by the oil lying everywhere, not to mention the problem of removing the oil stains from their clothing. The children wrote down their feelings or expressed them in paintings, composed poems, wrote little stories and also sent letters to the Prime Minister to tell him their disgust and sadness at what had happened. Everyone was upset and angry that the disaster had occurred in the first place and that, when it had taken place, the salvage operation had been so slow and full of mishaps. Most local people I talked to were demanding an independent public inquiry, so that those responsible for the catastrophe would also be made responsible for it with all consequences. Action groups were formed and these involved themselves in the clean-up processes. Local collections to support these groups raised high sums of money. One housewife in Freshwater West, a magnificent beach, which was particularly badly polluted, started collecting signatures against the use of single-skin tankers, in order to reduce the risk of another similar disaster.

Natalie Beyer’s account in full

8  What happened next

Following the spill, the Sea Empress was repaired and renamed five times. In 2004, she was sold and moved to Chittagong as a floating production, storage and offloading unit. In September 2009, she was acquired by Singapore-based Oriental Ocean Shipping Holding PTE Ltd, renamed MV Welwind and converted from an oil tanker to bulk carrier. In 2012, she was renamed for a fifth time and is currently known as Wind 3.  She remains prohibited from entering Milford Haven.

Since the Milford Haven disaster, globally, there have been about 100 more oil spills up to 2015.

The disaster happened when the schools of Pembrokeshire had opted to take part in the Schools and Communities Agenda 21 network, the Welsh educational initiative outlined in the previous blog. The young people were very upset and these emotions sparked a burst of creativity to express their feelings in poems and pictures. This is exemplified by the following poem by Bethan Swaine.  The National Museum in Cardiff hosted SCAN fora for children, affected and unaffected to discuss the issues of dependence on an oil economy in a pristine nature conservation area.


A Fisherman’s Life

A lonesome figure at the clifftops being battered by the sea.

Hands in his pockets, shoulders shrugged, head bowed, weeping unashamedly.

Thinking of how for all his life, he’d fished around the Pembrokshire coast,

And how with pride when asked what he did  “I’m a fisherman” he’d boast.

What now for his future?   What would become of the team?

What would be moored in the harbour,  where his fishing boat had been?

No other life had he ever known – the sea set him free.

No seabirds flying,  no seals playing,   no dolphins for company.

Then he turned his head and looked at the crowd.

And realised they too were sharing the sound.

Instead of the sea crashing full of life onto the shore,

It crept in carrying its burden of oil,  each wave bringing more.

The air reeked of oil, of death, of human sorrow.

We all knew that today was the same recipe for tomorrow.

The desperate fight to clean oil off the beach.

Crying with frustration for the wildlife just out of our reach.

This thick black stuff – the produce of modern man’s needs.

This stuff called oil,  at what cost for man’s greed?

To take another man’s living,  to spoil our beautiful coast,

And leave its memory behind like a sorrowful ghost.

                                                       Bethan Swaine  Yr.9

                                                               Ysgol Gyfun Dewi Sant

9  Newspapers and reports

A database of newspaper cuttings was produced as a memorial resource for the Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network (SCAN), which had the aim of encouraging pupils to engage in the problems, issues and challenges of cultural ecology associated with local economic development.  It was part of the response of children trying to understand, and come to terms, with the oil spill which had assaulted their coastal paradise (Fig 4).

Their cuttings can be accessed as a Google document from HERE

Fig 4 Oiled seal on Skomer Island NNR: pictured by Warden Mike Alexander

seal skomer