On Sunday, 24 January, the Oxford MSc-BCM class took a break from readings and took a walk in the 18th century. The Stowe gardens, we were told, are the birthplace of conservation science and practice. After the study day, I sat astounded on the way back in the bus. After witnessing the manner in which conservation began as a practice, it is no surprise that it is on the precipice of radicalisation today; I, for one, am of the opinion, that we should have found ourselves critically questioning our story much sooner than a 150 years after conservation came to be.
In brief, this is what the birthplace of conservation practice looks like – a garden whose visitors were only elites; a temple built for ‘men only, to get away from the ladies’ to sit together and decide what is best for all of society over a drink; a valley that is the result of hundreds of labourers digging out a mountain so as to make a lake – all for one person’s political ambitions; and lastly, a stream into which black sand was poured so as to symbolise evil . This manipulation of land, exclusion of common people and decision making in the shadows is how our story began. So is it really surprising that conservation is infused with political agendas and monetary connotations – all directed at the profit of a few at the cost of many?
The gardens scream of the ambition of human dominion over nature, man’s mission to gain complete control over his surroundings even though he can’t achieve an ounce of it over himself. However, all hope is not lost. Despite being everything I have stated above, the place is beautiful. It serves as an education ground for students from schools and universities all across Britain and is a landmark of cultural importance in British Conservation history. This puts the responsibility back into our hands. Though history has undoubtedly shaped a lot of the attitudes and tendencies of conservation science that have today become its fallacies, the future lies in our hands. And Stowe – the garden of virtue and vice, does a good job of bringing forth the urgency with which we need to act.
The light at the end of the tunnel, a better, more inclusive conservation practice?