Constructive Tension?

This deceptively comforting phrase has been lodged in my head throughout my career.  I first came across it when reading the 1972 report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs ‘Land Resource Use in Scotland’.  It’s used several times in the report but especially at Para 426: “…In respect of land uses in rural areas we believe that the four “heavyweight” official institutions each representing a major aspect of countryside land use—the Department of Agriculture, the Forestry Commission, the Nature Conservancy and the Countryside Commission-should continue to flourish, and we hope that a situation of ‘constructive tension’ would exist between them…”.

Wild plants and animals range throughout Scotland, not just in special areas. The largest land uses are farming and forestry, so it is no surprise that the way land is managed has major implications for the health and wellbeing of these species. Getting general recognition of these implications, with concerted, collective action to address them has been, and remains, a huge task.  A lot of progress has been made over the years, but much still remains to be done.  In the meantime, grievous losses of species and their habitats have continued – evidenced, for example, by the Scottish Government indicators 1.

I set out with a belief that joined-up land management, responsive to all the diverse pressures on people and wildlife, is the right approach. Through many twists and turns, I still hold that this is so. Successful conservation of nature is a team effort, not a solo event.

The need for care, to halt and repair the damage inflicted on the planet by human beings, is well-understood and backed up with plenty of evidence. But our collective capacity successfully to deliver care is much more in question. Making the case for the conservation of our natural assets is necessary, but not sufficient in itself. We also need to understand how this can best be achieved, how to make best use of our collective experience and resources, and to act accordingly. So there’s a focus on people, on institutions and how joint effort works in practice.

Over the last century, perhaps the standard response to biodiversity loss has been to designate land for habitats and species deserving protection. There have, as a result, been some successes but also many failures. All designations face a continuing challenge to define appropriate management. Over the same period a huge increase in the human population and living standards has created growing pressure, and now we can see systemic impacts on atmospheric chemistry and especially climate. Wild places have been in retreat, while cities have grown in terms of area and reach, leaving some scope (and enthusiasm) for ‘rewilding’. The idea attracts diverse interpretations, enthusing some while riling others.

A growth in international collaboration has taken place under the broad umbrella of globalisation. But now, in the 21st Century, we are seeing a backlash, an urge to ‘take back control’. This fantasy of control has highlighted the poor performance, sometimes outright failure, of many management interventions. There are underlying questions of power relationships and political economy. Our experience tells us that framing these in win-lose, zero sum terms is wrong. But the terms of a collaborative partnership approach struggle to gain a hearing.

There’s a need, and opportunity, for spaces to explore these challenges, tease out what works and to establish some underlying principles.


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