Natism: How we discriminate against the natural world

We have words to describe discrimination based on race, sex and age, so why not have a word for prejudice against the natural world? Dave Clark explores how naming the problem could lead to awareness, behaviour change and even legal recognition.

Weed or wildflower?
Weed or wildflower?

One person's weed is another's wildflower.

Dave Clark

We use, abuse, control and destroy nature. At our bigoted worst we treat nature as a minority or inferior group that has unfortunately (for nature) transgressed into our kingdom. Somewhere along the line we ceased to work with nature and ventured onto a rocky road of abuse, control and obliteration leading us to the precipice of the sixth mass extinction, ecocide and the negative effects of climate change. I’m calling this ‘natism’: discrimination or antagonism directed towards the natural world.

We have words to describe discrimination based on race, sex and age, so why not have a word for prejudice against the natural world? Racism, sexism and ageism are not only part of our everyday lexicon but are used in guiding and forming our values, morals and laws: the Race Relations Act 1968, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equality Act 2010. Perhaps the same could one day be said of natism.

Natism is all-pervading and reveals itself in subtle and not so subtle ways. I walked by a commercial gardener eradicating the moss from a hundred-metre stretch of six foot-high iron railings, a particularly daunting and labour intensive task with just a scrubbing brush and a bowl of water; apparently, the railings look better now. The same ‘gardener’ was seen a few days later with one of those industrial weed-killer packs strapped to his back, squirting his poison around the base of trees. Unadulterated, visible natism.

The domestically and commercially common practice of cutting lawns to within a millimetre of extinction in regimented straight lines, destroying all wildflowers along the way: natism. Somehow the suburban bucolic aspiration is that of the drone of a mower rather than the buzz of a bee. And it’s something we all seem to buy into.

The largest loss of green space in Greater London is not through land grab for commercial or domestic development but through hard surface takeovers of gardens. Not content to make the back streets of our cities more like car parks than thoroughfares, we also cover the front gardens with concrete to create even more space for our vehicles. There may be a formal planning application hurdle to overcome, but for formal read formality.

Natism; it’s everywhere… like dog muck. I recently read a report on dog walkers in the South Downs National Park, which revealed that over 70 per cent diligently picked up dog mess from the paths, yet only 30 per cent did so from anywhere else within the areas.

Natism is even displayed where you least expect. Walking by a development of award winning eco-homes, I was admiring their cubist brutalist aesthetic when I realised the most remarkable feature of the estate was the despairing lack of vegetation in front and back gardens.

Natism can be indirect, disguise itself and be full of irony. I was asked to write a short piece on bird life in a local park only to find my efforts had been reduced to one sentence because of the furore surrounding the introduction of car parking fees that had dominated the local ‘green space’ agenda.

It’s even in our language: the word weed is loaded with natism. I’m sure sales of weedkiller would plummet if renamed wildflower killer.

Lest you feel that in the grand scheme of things, these are minor issues, just consider what happens when we let things drift. Natism can then take much uglier and darker forms: shooting animals for sport, water companies putting raw sewage into rivers, destruction of the insect population through overuse of pesticides, the replacement of sea nutrition with plastic, maiming and killing rhinos for their horns, the land grab of rainforests, still exploiting the Arctic for oil while it not so slowly melts into the sea…

Nature is in need of a powerful voice. Wild Justice, created by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay, is a valiant attempt to provide such a voice. Their recent success in bolstering the process to obtain bird shooting licences caused the inevitable ferocious backlash, symptomatic of how deeply entrenched and institutionalized natism is.

However, to give nature its full-throated, magnificent roar, it is important to recognise that we need to name this problem; we can argue endlessly about what we call it, natism is just my attempt. Naming leads to recognition, self-awareness, behavioural change and ultimately to enshrinement within our language and legislation.

Dave Clark is an ornithologist and environmental campaigner with a particular interest in the interactions between birds and humans. He holds  an MSC in Ornithology from the University of Birmingham, and has recently published a study into our motivations for feeding wild birds.