Monday, 26 March 2007

Does Nature mind litter?

I, like many people, probably hate seeing the litter and rubbish that now seems to find its way into many miles of hedgrows and ditches around where I live. In the mornings I often have the pleasure of walking around the industrial estate where I work where there are a surprising number of hedgerows, trees, fields and even a disused railway line. All the vegetation seems to act as a net to catch wind-blown litter and there is always, of course, the rubbish dumped on purpose by those who seem to have little contempt for their environment. I admit to having a vague fascination when walking of looking in hedgerows and ditches to see what people have thrown away. It disturbs me to see such waste. My response is that I wish I could forever have a supply of bin-bags and be able to clear up bit by bit whenever I am out for a walk. Practicalities make this unworkable - sofas and fridges don't really fit into bin-bags!

We want to clear up litter but, looking at the problem from a different perspective, does Nature itself see it as a problem in the same way that we do? Clearly, at an individual, micro-habitat level the effects are immediate. Plants may suffer light and water deprivation, they may get squashed to varying degrees or they may get killed. But plnats are resilient things and to them litter may be only the same effect as a fallen branch or being trampled on by a cow. They will probably adapt to the new situation and grow on as best they can. Insects, animals and other creatures will be inconvenienced to varying degrees. Rubbish may well provide an enhancement to a local ecosystem by creating, changing or enhancing microhabitats to enable more flora and fauna to grow in that location.

To our eyes, litter is an immediate pollutant. Is it any more disagreeable than a weed growing in a vegetable patch? We are probably guilty of picking up more weeds in our gardens than items of litter. To Nature litter, on a biospheric timescale, is likely to be insignificant. Much will decay in the soil within the lifespan of even a single tree. Metals and plastics will take a while longer and obviously more toxic pollutants will have their own effects.

Nature, from its concious viewpoint as a whole being (?) may just see these man-made intusions as just inconvenient - an annoying consequence of having to share the planet with with other (human) beings who are always 'gardening' Nature and the landscape. But does that absolve us of any responsibility to the environment? Can we litter and fly-tip at will? What does it matter? Is it not just a continutaion of the great cycle of creation and decay. After all, trees produce leaf 'litter' each autumn. I believe that resource extraction, consumption and disposal should be a continual process that respects the producer (Earth) at each stage. A tree does not waste energy on producing leaves that are of no intrinsic value or use to its survival - unlike man's creation and production of goods to satisfy 'wants', not needs. Throwing away rubbish disrespectfully means we don't care for the environment in that locality. It is just another way we can show our dominance and superiority over consumable items and Nature. It is about self-satisfaction. The cardboard disposable coffee cup is not now our problem. It is out of our sight, but not out of the sight of others, or for the wild arum or dogs mercury that suddenly has its sunlight blocked out.

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