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Monday, 25 January 2016

Publish and be Damned! (Part One)

Back in summer last year I submitted an article to 'the Scottish Mountaineer', the periodical magazine of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland. As I said to the editor in my accompanying letter, I had struggled with a title, but came up with 'To love and protect - a personal view'. I pointed out that some of my views might not be shared by all MCofS members (an understatement....) but that, as an independent member, I felt able to exert the freedom my consciously-chosen position confers. Should he decide against publication, I would understand.

My article has not been published, and I understand. To be honest, it makes little difference to me personally. The MCofS finds itself in a sensitive position, trying simultaneously to take a stand against destructive government policies while remaining in a position to communicate and negotiate with aforementioned authorities. They don't want to upset the applecart too much. At the same time, I felt it to be a shame for the MCof S not to be able to let loose the unorthodox viewpoints of some of its members. It would do the organisation good, I feel. In my opinion it would be beneficial for some 'mountain people' to look a bit more deeply into the political and parapolitical chessboard where the shape of our landscapes is being decided and played out. In addition, I had taken into account the nature of my audience when writing, trying to go softly-softly where I considered appropriate.

Anyhow, I have decided that bits of the article deserve an outing. Some of the stuff echoes things I have written previously on Pale Green Vortex, while some is 'new'. I have therefore included a number of sizeable extracts below for the reader's delectation.....

What's in a mountain?

"In his excellent and wide-ranging article for the May 2015 magazine, 'What's not to like?', Dave Gordon asks a question: 'Why do so many people responsible for Scotland's landscape seem to dislike it so much?' I read it as a plaintive cry from the heart, childlike in its directness. There was also an 'Emperor has no clothes on' quality to the question. It is so obvious and puzzling, yet rarely asked. Maybe the answers are a little uncomfortable......

I recall an evening about a decade ago. I was in the throes of leaving my home in London for a life in Highland Scotland, and was having a farewell evening meal with some friends. Puzzled by my imminent departure for the far north, one of them requested an explanation. I launched into a comprehensive discourse: how out-and-out urban living was no longer a possibility for me; how I needed at least one foot in a more natural world; how my love of mountains had been rekindled, and how I cherished the opportunity to climb a few while my body was still up to the task. There followed a moment's silence. 'I still don't see why you need to move to the north of Scotland just to climb a mountain' was his rejoinder. This friend was not a windfarm developer - he was an artist, dedicated to beauty and expression of the human spirit. But he just didn't get it.

On reflection, I suspect that there aren't a lot of people who actively dislike our mountains. But there are plenty who fail - and fail completely - to recognise their value. To lives wholly encompassed by urban living and human affairs, mountains are simply irrelevant, and therefore entirely dispensible. These are people who, like my friend, don't get it at all.

Wind at any cost

Another recollection, this one from several years ago. I was watching one of those 'great outdoors' programmes on television featuring Cameron McNeish. In this edition, our indomitable adventurer was standing at the entrance to Glen Dessary. This is, he pointed out, one of the great wild spots of Highland Scotland. It had been tamed somewhat by plantation forestry, but that no longer mattered all that much, since we had got used to it, and accepted it as part of the current landscape. 'Maybe' he concluded as he tramped off into the hills 'the same will happen with windfarms.'

Whether Cameron was aware of the implications of his words, I do not know. Flexibility and adaptability have been vital ingredients in the numerical success of the human species. But they turn out to be a double-edged sword. We can learn, over time, to put up with just about anything. All manner of injustic, servitude, indecency can eventually become tolerable and the norm. With a shrug of the shoulders, peoples come to accept what is conceived of as 'their lot'. The relentless blanket promotion of the supposed benefits of windfarms, regardless of location, is a prime example of the process. It serves to gradually erode public resistance. A new sense of 'normal' is established, and what was once viewed as awful is now seen as part of the usual course of affairs. In Stalin's Russia this was called brainwashing. Here, we hesitate to employ such terms. The methods are more softly-softly but the results are similar.

It was while I was considering this article that news came out of the UK government's decision to cut subsidies for onshore windfarms a year earlier than originally projected. Eager to discover the possible consequences for our mountain landscapes, I checked out half a dozen or so mainstream news sites on the internet. I was amazed to find that all the articles I read were almost identical. Sometimes entire paragraphs word for word. The usual suspects were out in force: RenewablesUK with dire warnings about investment; Greenpeace, WWF and FofE dealing out doom and gloom; Fergus Ewing with his 'What about Scotland?' stance. Not a word about the thousands of people anxiously wondering whether their lives might not be thrown into turmoil by the march of the turbines after all. Just to read these articles, we would be led to believe that the government's decision was an unmitigated social, economic and environmental disaster. Thus is public opinion moulded. And the reality, I submit, is far from what was being presented.

Not everyone is aware of the importance of the press release (and it is press release that I had been reading regarding windfarm policy in the previous paragraph). 'News' is often nothing more than a compilation of these instant-newsbite pieces of publicity. In 2008, journalist Nick Davies wrote a revealing article for the Guardian newspaper in which he summarised his research into this area. In a survey of over 2000 news stories, a mere 12% were found to be composed wholly of information researched by the reporters; 80% was completely or partly created from press releases and the public relations industry. And the 'facts' in the stories had been checked in only 12% of stories. This is the woeful situation that, to put it frankly, I believe is exploited with great effectiveness by those who view the mountains with indifference. They are adepts in the dark art of perception manipulation."

OK, so that's Part One of what my fellow Mountaineering Council of Scotland members have missed. Part Two to follow shortly.