It is hard to imagine an area of policy more future-orientated than environmental policy. Whether deciding the destiny of forests, nature reserves, protecting species, or seeking to arrest climate change, the policies we set now are shaping the world for generations to come.
At the heart of much of our policy-making is a concern for how to value the needs and aspirations of our descendants. This future-orientation has been built into the concepts of 'environment' and 'sustainability'. The short history of these terms only stretches back a few decades. However, we do find that most environmental problems of today were already known about in the 1940s and 50s. Looking back to see how the past thought we might value things in their future back then is a lesson for our assumptions about what the future will truly value.
But this isn't just a case of history repeating itself. The 'nature' we value is itself historical, the product of the interaction of humans and their environment over millennia. Species and landscapes we value and want to preserve are there because of what our ancestors did and the way past societies lived. The choices we make about conserving nature are choices about valuing the environments that our ancestors created; if we fail to understand this, we will not be able to devise conservation policies that work.

The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website:gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/choosing-a-past-for-the-future-why-todays-environment-policy-is-also-history-but

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