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I am on holiday in the Idaho Rockies, in a house on the edge of
what is in winter a fancy ski resort, the streets of which are
clogged with sports cars, massive SUVs and even the odd Hummer. The
shops offer all the extravagances a pampered plutocrat needs: from
pet grooming to art galleries. Sent to buy bagels, I was faced with
a bewildering ten different kinds.
Sounds like I am complaining? Read on.
From the patio of our house can be seen a constant procession of
wonderful (and remarkably tame) birds, attracted by the effect of
the the suburb's sprinklers in the usually dry landscape. Squirrels
come to the trees; garter snakes to the wall; butterflies to the
flowers. In the crystal stream at the bottom of the hill, wild
rainbow trout rise to caddis flies and dippers, martins and
sandpipers snack on huge stoneflies. In the woods along the valley
are moose droppings and signs of the occasional black bear.
My point? Well, the book I have just finished reading here is
"Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick, about the
lives of six North Koreans in the city of Chongjin before they
defected to the south. They lived free from the evils of
consumerism, indeed in the late 1990s they were so free of
consumerism that their children or parents starved to death before
their eyes. They never faced the paralysing agony of choosing
between bagel brands, indeed for a lot of the time they ate meals
based on stewing grasses and the husks of corn cobs. They had few
possessions at all, let alone SUVs. Their pets needed no grooming,
because they had been eaten. And they lived as locavores off the
land, in all its organic purity, recycling their waste so that the
local farmland stank of 'night soil'. All around Chongjin by the
1990s the wildlife had been trapped, the wild plants picked, the
grasses cut for food and even the bark of trees stripped to make
How's this for local-sourcing?
They devised traps out of buckets
and string to catch small animals in the field, draped nets over
their balconies to snare sparrows. They educated themselves in the
nutritive properties of plants. They reached back into their
collective memory of famines past and recalled the survival tricks
of their forefathers. They stripped the sweet inner bark of pine
trees to grind into a fine powder that could be used in place of
flour. They pounded acorns into a gelatinous paste that could be
molded into cubes that practically melted in your mouth. North
Koreans learned to swallow their pride and hold their noses. They
picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm
animals...on the beaches, people dug out shellfish from the sand
and filled buckets with seaweed.
Sounds like the ideal way of life as preached by much of the
western environmental priesthood, does it not? Yet between 600,000
and 2 million died of hunger. The wildlife was devastated.
Pollution was terrible.
When the subjects of Demick's book reach China they are amazed
not just by the human prosperity --one finds a bowl of white rice,
a luxury she has not seen for ages, and then realises it had been
left out for a dog -- but by the biodiversity, too. They marvel at
the lush forests:
On the other side of the river,
there was a place where the trees still had bark and the cornfields
weren't guarded by guns. The place was called
There is something terribly wrong with the standard litany we
recite about the environment. It just is not true that extravagant
western lifestyles come at the expense of nature. The more I see of
the world, the more persuaded I am that human prosperity is
actually good for wildlife, because it leads to investment in
things that boost biodiversity. Things like productive farms and
sewage treatment and well stocked stores and fossil fuels and lawn
sprinklers and bird feeders and sport fishing lobbies and national
parks. Things that make it unnecessary to use the local forest as a
source of fuel, the local valley as a source of food and the local
stream as a dump for waste. Things that value a moose as something
other than a meal.
The oft repeated recommendation of the environmental movement
that we live more locally, live off the land, live with fewer
choices, fewer inputs, fewer resources and fewer possessions would
in fact result in devastation not just for human life but for
wildlife too. Going back to nature would be a disaster for
One day, in the mountains of North Korea, birds will be abundant
and tame again, streams will be clean again, deer will refill the
woods - but only if the people get rich enough to get their food
through trade from choice-crammed bagel stores rather than from the