Is the angry response of (some) environmentalists in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire reasonable?


Last night Karin and I returned from two weeks of field work plus a period of writing in Tenerife.  The first week was devoted to our annual University of Northampton undergraduate field course which I’ve written about before – see this recent book review for instance.

I don’t normally watch much television when I’m in Tenerife; we tend to get back from field work early evening, jump in the shower, then go for a beer and a meal, then early to bed for field work the next day.  But there were two bits of TV that I made a point of viewing, and actually for the same reasons: news reports about the fire that severely damaged Notre Dame Cathedral and David Attenborough’s documentary about the current effects of climate change.  Both of these were about the destruction of heritage (cultural and natural) and how this affects people.  I have to say that I shed a tear watching them.

The response of some billionaires and large companies, offering millions of Euros towards Notre Dame’s restoration, was criticised by some environmentalists and others concerned with social justice.  Here are some examples:

Over at the Ecology for the Masses blog, Sam Perrin in turn criticised these responses, suggesting that “What environmentally-minded people need to start doing is examine the other cause. Why do they get more attention? How have they gone about making their issue so ubiquitous? Try and examine WHY the Notre Dame Cathedral has received over 1 billion USD in reconstruction pledges when the Great Barrier Reef languishes every day.”

Jeremy Fox of the Dynamic Ecology blog clearly agrees  with this sentiment (read his comments) and posted a link to Sam’s piece.  I have to say that I got a bit irritated at Jeremy’s use of the phrase “pet causes”, and responded that: “I wouldn’t describe wholesale destruction of habitats, over-exploitation of natural resources, species’ extinction rates orders of magnitude higher than the background, environmental degradation that is affecting people’s health and livelihoods, and the accelerating effects of climate change as a “pet cause”. We’re not talking about raising funds for new books in the local library here!”

If you follow that series of comments and replies on Dynamic Ecology you’ll see that Jeremy pushed back strongly against my response, and I replied in return.  I stand by what I said though, that people do not react to these sorts of events logically, they react emotionally.  Hence the initial emotional outpouring of offering millions of Euros to restore Notre Dame is matched by an equally emotional response of “think of all of the other things that we could do with that money”.   The response from environmentalists and others was a reasonable one, as was the offer of millions of Euros for Notre Dame.  Both are equally valid.  Whether both are equally “important” is something that we could debate forever and I urge you to read through the posts and comments and make up your own mind.

On our last full day in Tenerife Karin and I explored an area of xerophytic scrub vegetation that surrounded a small rocky hill (see image below).  On top of the hill is a set of ancient rock carvings produced by the indigenous Guanches, one thousand years ago or more (the image at the start of this post).  The Guanches had positioned some of the rocks so that they produced different notes when struck.  It was clearly a site that had deep significance to these people prior to the European conquest of the islands.  However the site is completely unprotected and there’s been no effort to interpret what is a culturally important bit of archaeology – such carvings are not common in the Canary Islands.  In addition the surrounding vegetation is being slowly degraded by illegal tipping of rubbish.  These struck me as a depressingly fitting accompaniment to the subject of this post.



21 thoughts on “Is the angry response of (some) environmentalists in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire reasonable?

  1. Matthew Holden

    I think it’s reasonable for many people to be upset that, collectively, the repair of a partially destroyed object of huge cultural significance received more donations than the entire yearly revenue of all environmental NGOs combined and also more than the aid in response to most global catastrophes, which kill hundreds of thousands of people. Collectively it does suggest that we as a society value cultural objects more than the environment or even people’s lives. I think it’s fair to be upset about this. But, in my opinion, what’s not fair is to blame individual donors. Donations are very personal, and objects can have massive personal value to folks. Yes, these donations could go to things that better match our values, but then its time to focus on changing what folks value. That would be far more productive but that of course is hard.

    1. Helen

      It occurs to me that the donations to Notre Dame could in part because people have been there. On the whole, people have not been to the South Pacific, so the emotional attachment might be different because of that.

      1. Helen

        Yes, but ND is one incident, so it is easy to focus on and any money donated is not being spread across many issues. I’m sure the amount donated to all issues aside from ND will be exponentially larger. I haven’t donated any money to the cathedral but I have donated to the Woodland Trust, Women’s Aid, Reprieve, Friends of the Earth, the Permaculture Association… recently (yes, they are not all about the natural environment either but beheading or sexually abusing children cannot surely be considered less important that climate change, can it?).

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        There’s been suggestions that the amounts promised to restore Notre Dame are greater than the total amount given to all conservation charities, globally, last year. But I’ve not seen that verified.

        I think that “importance” of an issue is a difficult one to judge. If runaway climate change results in millions of people dying of disease and famine in the future, some would argue that makes it a more important issue. But it is very subjective and, as Matthew says, a personal choice as to what to donate money to.

      3. Helen

        Yes, it is a subjective issue. Besides, it isn’t just about money it’s about actions – so conservation, for example, can’t necessarily be measured by donations alone.

  2. michaelrwhitehead

    There’s also a problem here on how tractable the problem is with money as a solution. Whether perceived or real, if I threw a million bucks at Cathedral renovation it feels like a short route to using it to build a new roof. On the other hand, a million bucks given to a Barrier Reef fund presents a more nebulous route between problem and solution.

    Where we can have immediate and clear impact is land purchase. When I become a multi-millionaire, the first, second, and third splash-out uses of my immense wealth will be to buy land with biodiversity value and lock it up for the future. Some of the wealthy do this, but not enough. How do we make that a more desirable use of money for the billionaires of the world?

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Good points. I think your last point relates to Matthew’s question about how we change people’s priorities of what they value. Work by IPBES and others showing the links between conserving biodiversity and human well being are certainly one way to approach this.

    2. spamletblog

      Sadly, town hall conveyancing departments are littered with the defeated covenants of previous generations of benevolent donators to future generations. Most of them have tin box superstores, or tiny homes with barely room for rabbits on them now.

      Nothing stops developers save lack of customers for their wares: that is why they insist on infinite growth of both population and ‘economy’.

  3. spamletblog

    People who see architectural landmarks as mere replaceable occupiers of space, have no souls. These landmarks are vitally important for our senses of who we are, and reminders of the incalculable amount of work, and the unrepeatable tangled web of coincidences, that led to those people being able to build that monumental work of human endeavour in just that place, with just those materials, at just that time. These buildings came to be in much the way that random mutations over time led to the evolution of the species we also must protect, and for much the same reasons.

    Those with no feel for the living history of buildings would do well to read some of Oliver Rackham’s works, tracing the origins of the timbers used in houses from the poorest cottage to the grandest cathedrals, who’s size was largely determined by the height of the available oaks that were both still living, and lucky enough to have escaped being made into pollards by poor men after firewood (‘by hook or by crook’), and ‘Spring’ leaves to feed their domestic animals before the grass was high enough to feed them. The rings in the timbers of some of these buildings helped correct the ‘carbon clock’, and even map out the changes in the climate that their descendants are still quietly recording for a posterity that will likely be without Men. They should also check out the late and sadly missed, Aubrey Manning’s ‘Landscape Mysteries’ and ‘Talking Landscapes’. Anyone who doesn’t begin to ‘get it’ after that, is beyond redemption.

    Our landscapes are as impoverished by the loss of the memories that were locked up in thousands of lost pubs and churches, as they are by the loss of the species that lived in and adorned them, and whose fossil remains make up the very stones that carry them upward, and hold them there.

    The modern ‘bulldoze and be damned, and then bulldoze the same spot as often as possible ever after, for a quick profit’; in disposable soulless machine made boxes– we design packaging for biscuits with more soul than we do modern buildings–can never remake the blood and sweat that went into every inch of an old cathedral like Notre Dame.

    There are unlikely to be any oaks big enough to repeat the roof, and, if there were, they might turn out to be the living brothers and sisters of those that were sacrificed to make those works of art that must surely be one of the best possible excuses, for the murder of trees that have only seen a few generations come and go since the last Ice Age.

    We don’t allow for fully grown trees any more: they are as disposable as our buildings, and most never make it past the sapling stage, due to ringbarking by careless overworked strimmer men. In New Zealand, the biggest timber comes by prospecting for fallen giant Kauris, long buried by earth movements and forgotten floods. I doubt that even the so-called ‘billionnaires’ can find enough to make another giant cathedral in the old style.

    A building like Notre Dame was a gift to future generations, given in perpetuity, and this one miraculously lasted longer than most (not for nothing are our most lasting monuments simple pyramids of massive stones!). There is nothing like that being built now–and ‘planners’ would probably object to such permanence ‘sterilising the land’, if there were!

    We may not be able to gift many great buildings to our descendants nowadays, but we may still stand a chance of gifting them with the continued existence of what living Nature still remains. Luckily, this mostly takes stopping doing harmful things–many of which do cost billions (subsidies to oil cos for example), and letting Nature adjust to repair the damage or make the changes that prepare a newer biodiversity to match the warming planet. She’s done it many times before.

    Let the other good causes be paid for by withdrawing funding from the bad ones that are driving both extinctions and climate change. Only politicians and their paymaster kleptocrats are preventing the resolution of *all* these problems.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Wow! Thank you so much for that long, passionate and considered comment. Yes, I agree, these buildings are important. Perhaps in a thousand years people will say the same of the Empire State or the Shard?

      I especially like your final point: “Only politicians and their paymaster kleptocrats are preventing the resolution of *all* these problems.”

      1. spamletblog

        Thank you for giving me the space and the prompt to express my grief over the loss of local distinctiveness, and even continental distinctiveness, that will certainly result in all cities looking the same, and all land being neatly carved into ‘pixels’, for easy packaging to developers and transfer between faceless landholding corporations. Certainly, that is, if we are not vigilant in trying to preserve the best of the buildings and street plans that mark cities created on a human scale for need, rather than the greed and narcissism of developers–like Trump for example, who treats landscape, Nature, and Humanity with equal contempt. [Try looking at Florida in Google Earth, for an almost totally obliterated landscape of ‘Borg assimilated’ pixels, where Nature used to be: the whole World could end up looking like that if the ‘economic’ system isn’t changed completely.]

        It doesn’t have to be this way, and it is quite encouraging to see that the Trump outrages seem to have actually helped to galvanise opposition to the ‘business as usual’ model of human development. Even the actual meaning of socialism is now being quite openly discussed–in the US online media at least. Imagine what might be accomplished with a 2020 Presidential team of Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, and with ‘AOC’ surely set to be the next President after that! These are visionary people who really are carefully thinking out viable and practicable solutions to both US and World problems. If only Trump’s excesses prove to be the last straw…

        [It’s a shame there seems to be no way to include pictures in these responses. I’d have included pixellated ‘Borg’ terrain, and, a tray insert from a box of biscuits, which could be used, as is, as a developer’s model for a new town centre!]

    2. Gail

      I think what you say here is really important. Many of our ancient and historic buildings and monuments were built with a sense of gratitude and wonder for the natural mysteries and richness around us. I think being able to marvel and be thrilled at them is a part of the same emotions that I feel with the natural world, a wonder at possibility and beauty and creativity. It’s a two-sided coin, though – they were increasingly built to reflect status and power and that sadly seems to have become the dominant theme.

      1. spamletblog

        I share your feelings for the irreplaceable value of the thought that went into creating buildings in the ages before machine tools and powered cranes and bulldozers.

        Also I wonder how many people think about how ancient building could have been organised when there was no electricity, no communication infrastructure, no maps, no economics, and very little in the way of an exchange system! That’s what I wonder as much as anything when I look at ancient wonders like Stonehenge. Can you imagine the mentality that led people to light fires around some of the stones of Avebury, and then shatter them with water to make for smaller pieces to use in farm walls? And what to feel when, in St Albans cathedral you find your fingers tracing the outlines of the numerous Carboniferous period solitary coral fossils, polished by generations of trailing fingers, that are an ancient environment frozen in time, used to mark the ‘final’ resting place of some long forgotten monk? With a good knowledge of our landscape, you can have a fairly good guess at where exactly these stones were quarried: if they have escaped the dreadful roadchip market, you might even find the other halves of some of the fossils still in the native rock as if it was only yesterday that the great church was built.

        I was actually concerned that the heat of the ND fire might have cracked the stones and turned them into lime to be washed out by the fire hoses. I hope they did escape such damage, as seemed to be being suggested the day after the fire.

        It is true to say that many monuments were put there to mark battles, or to stake out territory for a conquering king, or religion. Even the Old Testament has the Israelites commanded to tear down the ‘sacred poles’ of earlier religions!

        Conquering kings like Alexander the Great, are typically described/measured, by how many peoples they slew and how many ‘cities they built’–and all before dying ridiculously young! It’s amazing they were such dab hands with a trowel as well as a sword! 😉

        I feel, not so much for the original purpose of the buildings, as for the ordinary people who must have spent so much of their short lives painstakingly carving the stones and working the timbers, and slowly fitting them together, all with only the power of their own bodies and those of their draught animals–if there were any: Inca work really does look impossible!

        Now we can just brush them aside in a shockingly short time with just a handful of men and bulldozers. It’s a total obscenity, just as much as when we do the same to forests and ancient survivor trees. 😦

  4. Gail

    I think that ND feels like a ‘project’ that can be (relatively) easily restored. Its iconic and historical importance provide something that it is easy to emotionally engage with and hence to support restoration of.
    The environment is, for me, significantly more important because its condition has such an enormous impact on the lives of so many, many things, now and for the future.
    However, I feel overwhelmed by what needs to be done and the small things that I can personally achieve just don’t feel as if they can possibly make any difference. So I think scale is one factor in why money isn’t equally given. Also, there’s the wallpaper effect. The environment is always around us and many people sadly just don’t seem to notice or engage with it; other than perhaps when they are, say, on holiday and see surroundings that they aren’t familiar with.

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  6. Matthew Holden

    I should say that I made up that Notre Dame received more money than the revenue of all conservation NGOs. Assuming Notre Dame received a few billion, this is true. But if they only received one billion, it’s probably false. TNC, WCS, and WWF, combined, barely crack 1 billion. Most other nature-based NGOs are on the order of 10 million. I’m pretty confident that combined they don’t crack more than 2-3 billion or so.

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