Ringbarking the Tree of Life

The destruction of cultural treasures by ISIS has parallels in ecological cleansing around the world.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 12th March 2015

Journalists are meant to be able to watch and read dispassionately: to face horror with equanimity. I have never acquired this skill, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s true that we seek out bad news, but there is some news that many of us find hard to face.

This is why I write about extinction less often than I should: most of the time I just don’t want to know. It’s one of the reasons why I have turned my gaze away from the Middle East. I’ve been unable to watch, or even to think very much about the bombing of Gaza, the war in Syria or the slaughter of hostages by Isis.

But, reluctantly, I’ve forced myself to read about its destruction of the ancient wonders at Nimrud and Hatra.

The war Isis is waging against difference has many fronts. Just as this rebarbative movement is engaged in the ethnic cleansing of the peoples whose lands it has occupied, it is also involved in the cultural cleansing of the pre-Islamic past. Anything that deviates from its narrow strictures must be destroyed.

The magnificent buildings at Nimrud and Hatra and the precious sculptures and friezes they held were, to Isis, nothing more than deviance. Marvels that have persisted for thousands of years were levelled in hours with explosives and bulldozers. These people have inflicted a great wound upon the world.

But while this destruction, as Isis doubtless intends, is shocking, for me it is also familiar. Almost every day, I find in my inbox similar stories of the razing of priceless treasures. But they tend to involve natural marvels, rather than manmade ones.

The clearing of forests and savannas, the trawling or dredging of coral reefs and seamounts and other such daily acts of vandalism deprive the world of the wonders that enhance our lives. A Great Global Polishing is taking place, eliminating difference, leaving behind grey monotonies of the kind that Isis appears to love. But while the destruction of those ancient citadels in northern Iraq has been widely and rightly denounced as a war crime, the levelling of our natural wonders is treated as if it were a sad but necessary fact of life.

There are countless examples, but I will mention just one: the current proposal to flood the Areng Valley in Cambodia.

The indigenous people of this valley have a powerful conservation ethos. They have protected the huge trees and the rare animals it contains. As a result, the valley’s mosaic of deciduous and evergreen forest, swamps, lakes and grasslands is a refuge for species that are either found nowhere else or are now endangered wherever they occur. It is the last significant habitat for the Siamese crocodile, of which fewer than 200 still exist in the wild. It is an important redoubt for Asian elephants, for the very rare white-winged duck, for a fish called the Asian arowana, for the smooth-coated otter, the elongated tortoise and the mangrove turtle.

Like infrastructure projects in many parts of the world, this scheme is also likely to open a wider area to destruction. The roads associated with it will help loggers and poachers to penetrate the Cardomom Protected Forest, a natural wonder just as entrancing as the buildings at Nimrud and Hatra.

Need I point out that the hydroelectric dam the Cambodian government hopes will drown the Areng Valley is likely to be almost useless? Hundreds of dams have been built around the world, either for hydroelectricity or for irrigation, that have failed to deliver their promised benefits, while inundating natural marvels and the livelihoods of local people. This will be no exception, as the valley is wide and shallow, which means that the hydroelectric potential is small.

We deceive ourselves when we imagine that such projects are built to advance human welfare. Sure, they will enrich certain people, principally those with construction contracts. The purpose of much of the world’s construction is construction: its primary function is to provide contracts for the companies who build it and perks and backhanders for the officials who commission it. What happens to these projects after they have been built is often of little interest. This disease is by no means confined to the poor world; there are plenty of white elephant projects in the US, Britain and other rich nations.

But there are other motives at play as well, and some of them are not far removed from the ideas that animate Isis. That old missionary project, “conquering the darkness”, invoking both the biblical struggle between good and evil and the colonial imperative to demonise and destroy the resistance of dark-skinned peoples, enabling settlers to seize their land, their labour and their resources, still drives the destruction of precious wild places.

For many people with a crudely extractivist mindset, forests and other functioning ecosystems represent darkness and backwardness. They sustain the lives of indigenous peoples, who in some countries are treated as a stain on the image governments would like to project. The clearance of forests in Malaysia, in Indonesia and in the occupied territory of West Papua, for example, has been accompanied by sermons about the need to drag “backward” peoples and regions into the light of progress. The same sentiments prevailed throughout South America until quite recently, and are still used to justify deforestation in some parts of the continent. Forests are dark, ranches are light, and for some people this is a metaphor as well as a fact.

In the United States, clearing forests was perceived as a sacred duty, consonant with the task of eradicating or converting heathen peoples and heathen places. This worldview persists in the continued sale of trees on federal lands to lumber companies at prices below even the cost of processing the transaction, let alone any market value. The forests are given away in the name of progress, and the state also pays for the roads required to clear them.

Bison were wiped out, thousands at a time, not only to supply skins and bones for fertiliser (the rest of the carcass was abandoned) but also to deprive Native Americans of their subsistence. Eradicating the species from most of its range was considered a patriotic necessity.

In New Zealand until a few decades ago, ringbarking picnics were organised at weekends: people took their families into the countryside to kill trees for the good of the nation. They believed that they were doing the world a favour by destroying a dark and primitive wilderness. Cultural cleansing and ecological cleansing are driven by the same impulses, in some cases to serve the same ends.

Sometimes the destroyers see themselves as fighting a war against nature. Derrick Jensen and George Draffan’s book about deforestation, Strangely Like War, takes its title from a passage by a historian of the north-western US, Murray Morgan:

It was strangely like war. They attacked the forest as if it were an enemy to be pushed back from the beachheads, driven into the hills, broken into patches, and wiped out. Many operators thought they were not only making lumber but liberating the land from the trees.

While purging the species and habitats they considered barbarous and alien, colonists have often sought to replace them with familiar wildlife. In several British colonies, for example, acclimatisation societies imported wild animals and plants, releasing them sometimes for instrumental purposes, sometimes for “moral” reasons. Often the consequences were disastrous: think of the starlings these societies introduced to North America, or the stoats and weasels they brought to New Zealand. In some cases, they made an explicit link between replacing native wildlife with species brought from home and replacing native people with settlers. Take The Old-World Sparrow, for example, written in 1869 by the Massachusetts poet William Cullen Bryant.

… A winged settler has taken his place
With Teutons and men of Celtic race;
He has followed their path to our hemisphere
The Old-World Sparrow at last is here.

The sparrow, he maintained, would eat American crop pests, which he described as “a swarming, skulking, ravenous tribe”. In case the connection between barbaric wildlife and barbaric people wasn’t obvious enough, he portrayed one of these insects, that leaves a crescent-shaped marking on fruit, as a “little Turk” that uses “sly devices of cunning and fear”, reflecting the racist stereotype with which Turks at the time were characterised in Anglophone nations.

Sometimes the destruction carried out in the name of commerce looks identical to the destruction carried out in the name of religion. Consider, for example, the razing of a 4,000 year-old pyramid by a property developer in Peru in 2013. Or the repeated intrusion by construction companies into ancient sites in Libya. To those trying to protect our common heritage, the ideology that motivates destruction is less important than the fact of that destruction. Whether you are bulldozing an ancient site to advance jihad or to turn a profit, the results are the same.

None of this is to excuse in any way what Isis has done. Rather, it is to show that its acts of vandalism are by no means unique, and arise from a mindset that is common to many cultures. Collectively, through our intolerance of difference and lack of respect for beauty, we are waging war on the wonders of our small planet. Needlessly, mindlessly, we are ringbarking the Tree of Life.