Bonfire of the Verities

Academic standards go up in smoke in a wildly biased paper on burning in the British uplands.

By George Monbiot, published on, 10th March 2016

I am supposed to be taking a break from journalism, but several people have asked me to comment on an opinion piece due for publication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. It is called The role of fire in UK peatland and moorland management; the need for informed, unbiased debate. The paper (by Matt Davies et al) names me, and the associated press release boasts that it contains “criticism of the journalist George Monbiot”. So here, briefly, is my response.

There is certainly a “need for informed, unbiased debate”, but you will not, unfortunately, find it in this paper. It frames the questions it seeks to address so narrowly as to render them meaningless. It fails to acknowledge the fundamental arguments against burning. It treats concepts that are highly charged and contested as if they were uncontroversial.

For example, the authors argue that moorlands in the UK are “cultural landscapes that owe their existence to the use of fire as a management tool”. They appear to be unaware that the concept of cultural landscapes, in the context of the UK’s highly concentrated and class-dominated pattern of landholding, provokes more questions than it settles. Whose culture? Whose landscape? Which history?

The arguments that some of us have made forcefully in recent years – that “cultural landscapes” in the British context are a reflection of cultural hegemony, that they are and should be highly contested, and that the valorisation of certain land uses (and resultant landscapes) is of greater benefit to particular interests (such as grouse moor owners) than to the nation as a whole – are unacknowledged by this paper. Whether this is the result of ignorance or discomfort, I cannot tell.

The same applies to conservation designations. Underlying my critique of burning as a land management tool is the belief that our conservation priorities are misplaced and mistaken, that they privilege and preserve highly degraded and impoverished ecosystems, and that heather moorland in particular has been fetishised at the expense of much richer habitats. I have drawn attention, for example, to a study in the Cairngorms which shows that wooded habitats are 13 times richer in nationally important species than moorland*. There are 223 species on the massif which are found nowhere else in Britain. Of these, 100 are associated with woodland or trees. But just one – a fungus that lives on bilberry leaves – is believed to require moorland for its survival (and even this turns out to thrive in forests in Norway). Burning and grazing sustain an impoverished habitat (heather moorland) at the expense of the richer ecosystems that would otherwise recover.

Yet the paper by Davies et al starts with the assumption that our conservation priorities are correct and that heather moorland (which is maintained by burning) is the desirable state of much of our uplands. If you begin with that assumption, your conclusions are pre-determined. Is fire good for “landscapes that owe their existence to the use of fire as a management tool”? Er, let me get back to you on that.

The article of mine they purport to criticise opens up these questions. Yet their critique is confined – wait for it – to the headline. They do not address, attempt to answer or even acknowledge the arguments it contains or the facts it puts forward. This leads me to the extraordinary conclusion that they have either failed to read it, failed to understand it, or ignored it because they have no answer. I find it remarkable that a paper to be published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society appears to be ignorant of the arguments it claims to address. Was it peer reviewed? If so, were the reviewers fast asleep?

The way you frame your question determines the answer it produces. In this case, the principal issues that should inform this debate have been left outside the frame, and the answer it produces is an artefact of this restriction. So much for “informed, unbiased debate”.

I knew that standards were slipping. I hadn’t realised that they had fallen so far.

* P.Shaw and DBA Thompson, 2006. The nature of the Cairngorms: diversity in a changing environment. TSO: Edinburgh. 444 pp. ISBN: 9780114973261