When Queen Victoria came to the throne, the area that is now Alexandra Park in south Manchester was a lowland raised bog, a mossland. The neighbourhood next to the park is not called Moss Side for no reason! It seems the land was not very suitable for farming although we can see from the 1848 map that the area was divided into fields. People used to wash thatching rushes in the pools, according to one account. Interestingly with the high rainfall in recent months, areas of the park are reverting back to their former state.
Then development started to happen. In the mid 1800s the area nearby was drained and developed into Whalley Range, one of the first Manchester suburbs by banker and businessman Samuel Brooks as a “desirable estate for gentlemen and their families”. And in 1870, with the swampy areas drained and streams culverted, Alexandra Park opened to the public.
These developments happened in a socio-economic context of rapidly expanding industrial growth and imperial power. It was an age that believed in the forward march of progress and civilisation, in the ability of humans to harness the power of nature through science and technology. God had given humans (or at least Christians) dominion over nature – it was there to be controlled and exploited for human ends.
This theme of control and domination over nature and over less civilised people – lets not forget slavery had only recently been abolished – is evident in both the stated intention of the park and in its design. According to one source, the intention was to “promote a simple moral purpose – to keep families together in shared recreation. The reality, however, was probably more mundane – to dissuade men from spending their day of rest in alehouses”. In other words, it was intended as a form of social control. The park is typical of a Victorian aesthetic, the formal design seeks to instil order on nature, to tame its wildness, to provide a safe manicured version.
150 years later Manchester City Council plans to ‘restore the park to its former Victorian glory’ reintroducing formal areas and increasing the amount of recreational areas at the expense of the wilder natural areas, felling around 400 trees and clearing over 3 acres of habitat currently supporting protected and priority species.
Despite huge local opposition to the proposed scale of tree felling and habitat destruction (over 3500 people to date have signed an e-petition), the council intends to march on with its plans regardless, all the while claiming it has local support but without actually supplying any verifiable evidence of this. Hardly a shining exemplar of participatory democracy.
As a local resident and coordinator of a voluntary community wildlife group, I’ve joined others in voicing concerns to the council and in raising awareness of the implications of the council’s plans for the wildlife living in the park. However, it was through research I was doing for my PhD that it dawned on me what was actually going on: a fundamental clash of values and ethical perspectives.
Biophilia values + intrinsic
On one side there are people, including me, who recognise that nature has intrinsic value, in and of itself, regardless of its usefulness or otherwise to humans. They care about individual plants and animals as much as they do ecosystems. People feel psychologically connected to and part of nature and seek to live with it. This has been called ‘biophilia’.  Wild nature is to be revered, it is awe-inspiring and full of mystery.
In terms of ethics, human prioritisation is not a given and so there will be situations when human interests don’t win out, and we act in service to other species, habitats or ecosystems. This is an ecocentric ethic.
Biophobia values + instrumental
On the other end of the spectrum are those, including I would argue the council, who see nature in instrumental terms – it has value only in as much as it serves human needs and desires. If it’s in the way or otherwise inconvenient then the answer is to get rid of it. People perceive themselves as separate from nature, and regard humans as having primacy and superiority over nature. In this way it echoes the Victorian mindset, which perhaps explains why the council is so keen to restore the park back to its Victorian design.
This way of seeing nature has been called ‘biophobia’ because in contrast to above, it is founded on a fear of nature, of its wildness and mystery, but it is also generated by greed. It is destructive and exploitative . Unfortunately for the planet, this mindset is dominant in our society – indeed it is this very mindset that has brought us to the point of ecological crisis.
A further characteristic of the instrumental mindset is how nature is thought about in the abstract as ‘biodiversity’ and so the suffering of individual plants and animals is often dismissed as relatively unimportant. This is essentially a utilitarian ethic – the overall good of the community trumps individual rights. What matters is not the means but the end outcome, measured by a totalling of gains minus losses. This approach underlies ecosystem services valuation, which I’ll talk more about in another blog. There is an argument that the marketising of a common good such as nature corrupts and degrades it. 
Who do we think we are
Psychology research finds that there are 3 key aspects of human identity that influence our behaviour towards the environment: (i) values, (ii) perceptions of who or what is part of our in-group and out-group, and (iii) how we cope with fears and threats brought on by environmental challenges.  So for example:
- Seeing nature as part of your in-group leads you to accord inherent value to nature and to treat it better
- Concern with gaining power, status, financial success and external reward make you less likely to care about nature
- People may cope with negative emotions triggered by environmental problems through various defence mechanisms such as denial, apathy, seeking diversions, limiting their exposure to information that may create anxiety, projecting blame or responsibility onto others, and by denigrating the out-group to try to justify negative behaviour towards it
These are all things that can be seen in the situation with Alexandra Park. There is a lot of money involved, £5.5 million of public funding in fact, and for sure there are egos in the council who want the kudos of making this happen and the economic benefits that ensue. Denying our legitimate concerns, ignoring the petition, projecting blame onto others (the council is still trying to claim the Heritage Lottery Fund insisted they fell trees as a condition of funding even though the HLF has denied, in writing, the truth of this) could be understood as tactics that help those at the council who are forcing these plans through to feel better about themselves. Some local residents who support the plans, based on their comments that I’ve read, appear to have deliberately limited their exposure to information that would cause them to challenge their position.
So how do we overcome this clash of values? I don’t know. Acknowledging that this is what is going on is a start, though I’m not convinced the council would admit to biophobia – not when it has an espoused goal of being the ‘greenest city in England’. So instead we each try to influence the media and the public, and to outmanoeuvre the other. In the meantime contractors are moving in to fell healthy trees that have lived a lot longer than we have, and clear habitats where hedgehogs are hibernating, bats would soon have been foraging and birds nesting.
These losses are terrible, not just for the wildlife concerned but also for us – our health and sense of wellbeing is closely related to how connected we feel with nature, as a now substantial body of evidence is proving . Tree felling is painful to witness: there is something special about trees as the only living thing in an urban environment that lives longer than we do. And some of the trees in the park are very old, from before the time the park was even built.
And for what exactly are these losses? For restoring a park to some idealised idea of Victorian design. Unlike us today, the Victorians were not experiencing the biggest extinction of species since the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The magnitude of the ecological crisis of the 21st century would have been simply inconceivable to people 150 years ago.
I’d like to say I feel hopeful, but the approach of the council towards nature is echoed in their treatment of local residents who have voiced concerns and seek further consultation. We have become their ‘out-group’ that they denigrate. Dismissing and ignoring the objections of over 3500 people, the council (and indeed our local councillors) seem intent on forcing these restoration plans through, no matter what the cost to democracy. Sadly, I can understand why so many people don’t see the point in voting.
A further bit of theory:
Lakoff (2010) identifies 2 main contradictory moral systems in political discourse about the environment: conservative and progressive, which broadly match the two positions outlined above (the conservative frame also regards the market as the highest authority). Dunlap (2008) thinks we are in the midst of a ‘paradigm war’.
Lakoff argues that a large proportion of the public is bi-conceptual: we have versions of both of these value systems in our brains, but apply them to different issues. The paper by Crompton & Kasser (2009) goes into detail about the practical interventions we can make to help shift society away from a destructive mindset and towards one that supports pro-environmental behaviour. More info at http://valuesandframes.org/
As Giles Hutchins just reminded me “we are all of like-mind/heart just some are more inured in the prison we call civilisation than others”.
So it’s about uncovering and bringing forth that part of ourselves that has always been connected with the rest of nature. Which links beautifully to recent articles by Jo Confino with zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on Guardian Sustainable Business on mindfulness, sacredness and love. If you haven’t read them yet, I highly recommend you do – a real delight to see spirituality being discussed in a sustainable business context. 🙂
 Wilson, E. O. 1984. Biophilia. Harvard University Press
 Crossman, J. 2011. Environmental and Spiritual Leadership: Tracing the Synergies from an organisational perspective. Journal of Business Ethics. 103 pp. 553-565; Holst, W. 1997. Aboriginal Spirituality and Environmental Respect: A Perspective on Traditional Amer-indian Views of Nature with Special Reference to the Meaning of ‘‘The Land’’ in Northern Cultures’, Social Compass 44(1), 145–156.
 Sandel, M. 2012. What Money Can’t Buy: the moral limits of markets. Macmillan
 Crompton, T & Kasser, T. 2009. Meeting Environmental Challenges: the role of human identity. WWF
 For example see: MIND Ecotherapy report 2007; The National Trust Natural Childhood report 2012; also this blog on nature +wellbeing