Derailing HS2’s Ecological Train Robbery

Against a tide of urban expansion, the UK grows ever devoid of ancient forests in comparison with the majority of mainland Europe. Although consequences are forming to a many-headed hydra of ecological disaster – such as a shameful 56% decline in wild species, and air pollution now declared a ‘public health emergency’ in the UK – there seems to be no mainstream adversity to the policy of persistent industrial growth. Placed upon the altar of progress, trees are swiftly sacrificed for superfluous increases in efficiency or financial profit that predominantly benefit an ultra-wealthy minority.

Although the issue delves much deeper than pure wilderness protection – going to the malignant economic, political and social system that functions on aggressive environmental appropriation – preservation and protection of existing life is key to an ecological future. A future that exists within our planetary means, whilst respecting nonhuman life and providing an environmentally-sustainable source of production and purpose for human culture. But despite the now irreversible threat of climate change, promising an unprecedented mass extinction that would make the dinosaurs pale with fright, our industrial-capitalist culture presses on with uninhibited development.

This focus flaunts in the undeserving face of the nonhuman, through a conscious disregard for ecological interdependence and interspecies equality. Despite efforts such as the new Northern Forest (which is painfully legitimised as ‘natural capital‘ by the government), existing trees and the wider natural web they support are largely decimated as if mere dispensable chattel. For example, the recent ‘enhanced clearance’ by Network Rail, which has the potential to remove millions of mature trees. Absurdly excessive even by mainstream standards, the clearances have been described as a ‘barren eyesore‘, leaving an ecological wasteland in their wake.

© Ray Watson

But perhaps nothing is more emblematic of this toxic attitude to trees and the wider ecology than the controversial development of the High Speed 2 (HS2), a planned railway connecting London to the Midlands and Northern England. Snaking its gleaming track over a planned 330 miles, the railway will tear through a total of 108 ancient, diverse, and irreplaceable woodlands. It will directly destroy at least 56ha of woodland, and collapse biodiversity – despite the aim of no net loss.

Furthermore, according to the Wildlife Trusts, the whole project is set to affect an additional: 153 local wildlife sites, 9 of the charity’s own sites, 10 SSSIs, 42 proposed wildlife sites, and 4 government-funded Nature Improvement Areas. In addition, 300 sites will also be indirectly affected due to close proximity. Again, they feel a loss of biodiversity to be almost impossible – with grim consequences for the UK’s already declining wildlife.

Indeed, in a recent scandal, privately outsourced engineers have been using dangerous nets to cover hedgerows that are crucial to birds and other animals. The reason is to stop birds nesting during season, and ensure planning permission for hedgerow demolition is streamlined. Described as ‘sickening‘ by the Woodland Trust, it sets a sombre tone for the project that betrays the government’s greenwash rhetoric.

HS2 Phase 2
© Woodland Trust

Therefore, it is difficult to deny that we face an unprecedented threat to British woodland trees in the 21st Century – casting an ominous, anthropocentric shadow on the wall of our planetary future. The development of HS2 is not only materially exploitative, but also helps perpetuate and reinforce a suicidal culture of ideological growth that is contrary to our ecological reality.

Despite energetic campaigns by the Woodland and Wildlife Trusts, their gains have been relatively small compared with the proposed destruction, and it largely seeks to mitigate the damage incurred, as opposed to a complete blockage of the development. Caught between a rock and a railway, orthodox conservation organisations desire good government relations to influence funding and policy, whilst avoiding more radical tactics to ensure mainstream appeal.

Although their efforts are laudable, they do not seek to challenge the fundamentals of the project or its underlying values of progress and economic expansion, but only advocate to ‘avoid’ or ‘minimise’ the level of environmental devastation wreaked by HS2. Indeed, neither the Woodland nor Wildlife Trusts denounce continued development, instead advocating for ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ development; capitalist notions that are gradually being proved a slower but still certain death for our ecosystems.

By buying into the economic language used to frame these debates, it reinforces the neoliberal ideal that nonhuman rights can be determined through financial or material value as opposed to intrinsic worth. This corrosive sentiment is hugely responsible for our current ecological crisis, validating them as societal norms as opposed to a ruinous ideological option.

This turns the task of disruption to groups such as Stop HS2 and Extinction Rebellion. At the weekend, twelve committed activists scaled trees in Colne Valley Park, a protected nature reserve covering 43 square miles in south-east England, to prevent felling operations for HS2. Estimates of at least 2,000 mature trees have been cleared by subcontractors near the site, and pressure is mounting to protect the reserve from HS2’s onslaught.

With 22% of London’s drinking water coming from Colne Valley, the risks are immediate to humans and nonhumans alike. Thanks to the activists, felling was halted, with leaders proclaiming it a resounding victory and the first of many such disturbances for the HS2 development. As activists and thinktanks argue, the mounting billions for the project should be spent on updating existing lines for more renewable infrastructure.

Considering the callous strewing of nets despite years-long lobbying and negotiation from charitable trusts, along with other reports of developers breaching binding assurances to protect natural habitats – HS2 could signal a shift in what the future of effective conservation may look like. With direct action scoring back-of-the-net ecological goals – such as the recent climate emergency declared in parliament – it seems radical measures are the only way to derail radical problems.

But if you’re not quite ready to tie yourself to a tree, showing your support for the various campaigns can still be a meaningful and valid first step:

Header image by Peter S.

The Millennial Ecologist

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