Landscape and privilege

Debates about elites, meritocracy, and privilege are all around us. These debates bear on landscapes too, in different ways.

The appreciation of the beauty of natural landscapes took explicit shape among court nobilities and urban elites, who had the resources and taste to buy and dis-play landscape paintings. Historically, we can witness this development in many societies around the world. If we focus on Europe, well-known examples are Renaissance Italy, 17th century Holland, and romanticist UK. In a similar vein, the nature protection movement in Europe, though not fully an elite af fair, has strong historical ties with privileged groups in society – aristocrat landowners, bankers, industrialists. They played a vital role in lobbying with government, investing in the acquisition of nature reserves, and remolding private estates into valuable nature areas. Thus, it is plausible to say that we thank many of the natural landscapes and much of our ability to appreciate their beauty to privileged elites of the past. But there are more ways in which privilege matters for landscape planning and protection.

One of them is inclusivity. Now that we know how important natural landscapes are for physical and mental restoration and for fully reaching our human potentials, it is only just to support under-privileged groups in having access to nature. This requires that natural landscapes are accessible and attractive for these groups. For realising this, it may be needed to question elite standards of what beautiful and valuable nature is, and more importantly, to include citizens with less resources and less educated voices in decisions on landscape planning, design, and management. Other articles in this special issue elaborate on this theme.

Then there is the ecological footprint. Privilege usually goes together with wealth. And wealth determines, more than anything, our ecological impact. Research by Oxfam and other organisations exposes the depth of ‘carbon inequality’ between and within countries. The share of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the consumption of the richest 1% is disproportionally high – in 2015, it amounted to 15% of total emissions, twice as much as the poorest half of the world’s population – and projected to continue growing in the coming decade. Now combine these figures with the sixth assessment report of IPCC working group 2 (AR6-WG2), published in February, which concludes that climate change already has caused ‘substantial damage and increasingly irreversible losses’ in ecosystems and warns that further delay in global climate action ‘will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all’.

Not privilege per se, but how it is used determines its impact on nature and land-scape. From the available evidence, we cannot but conclude that drastic changes are urgently needed. A good start would be a seriously progressive tax regime that helps redirecting private wealth to public funds for the protection of natural landscapes for all.

Kris van Koppen

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