Capitalism v conservation: there’s only one winner

Wildness is quite the thing right now. On TV, suburban makeover shows have been supplanted by a new, hairier kind of fantasy in which man – represented by Ray Mears, Bear Grylls or Bruce Parry – pitches his wits against nature. Meanwhile, in the bookshops, the needs of armchair adventurers are being answered by two new books, Roger Deakin’s Wildwood and Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, both of which are selling briskly.

The demand for what are know as “Survive in the Wild” weekends has never been higher. Yet by a process which is now so familiar that it should have formal title – the Hypocritical Paradox, perhaps – fantasy and reality are moving in diametrically opposite directions. The more we dream about wildness, the more we allow it to be gobbled up by development and human greed.

That great admirer of nature, the American billionaire Donald Trump, has recently become fascinated 1,400 acres of the wild coast north of Aberdeen. His mother was Scottish – “she grew up in a simple croft until she landed in Manhattan at the age of 20,” the Trump reveals on his website – and he had been looking for a part of the old country to call his own.

“When I saw this piece of land I was overwhelmed by the imposing dunes and rugged Aberdeenshire coastland… I had never seen such an unspoilt and dramatic landscape,” he writes, adding (and I don’t think this is a joke), “The location makes it perfect for our development.” The setting – so unspoilt that the Trump just had to spoil it – is apparently a perfect site: for the ultimate large-scale golf resort: two championship courses, an academy, a conference centre, a 450-room hotel, surrounded by a sort of Golftown – almost 1,000 holiday homes and 500 private houses.

Predictably, the prospect of huge investment has caused the local planners to ignore their own rules and, with a rare passion, encourage the local council to grant planning permission. “Such an opportunity to diversify the economic base must be grasped,” urges Aberdeenshire’s head of development, Raymond Reid. “The social and economic benefits are of national importance, and these override adverse environmental impacts.”

This gruesomely familiar argument could, of course, be mounted by illegal loggers destroying the habitat of orang-utans in Indonesia, or oil-drillers in Alaska, or the most shameless pollution-peddler in China. Its logic is simple: growth comes first. There are specific guidelines protecting biodiversity and landscape but, the Aberdeenshire argument goes, if a planning application is not for a conservatory or a shed but a for Disneyworld for golfers, then they should be ignored.

In vain, the Scottish Wildlife Trust has pointed out that the coastal ecosystem which will be gobbled by Golfworld is highly sensitive and recognised as one of the tope five dune habitats in Britain. Scottish National Heritage has argued without success that the development will destroy a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a plea to the Trump to leave the area out of his plans having been rejected. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and groups formed locally to protest the despoliation of a beautiful part of Scotland have been ignored. “This is a proposal which no planner of development could have foreseen,” says Mr Reid, explaining why the normal rules fail to apply.

Of course. In the battle between conservation and capitalism, there is, for all the green talk, only one winner. Protesters have pointed out that the jobs involved in constructing this grim place will be temporary, that the long-term job-gains will be seasonal, that by casting a blight on an area of outstanding beauty, there will be other economic losses through the decline in tourism, that there are countless golf courses across Scotland. All the evidence, though, suggests that Aberdeenshire’s planning committee will follow the advice of their officials when they meet next week.

The council may be thrilled, but for anyone who cares about the environment, the loss of landscape must be depressing. No doubt Donald Trump, while counting the money from tartan-trousered executives jetting to Golfworld from around the globe, will at some point play the environmental card, placing a wind turbine on the clubhouse perhaps, and at that point the great con of the moment – that green and greed can live together – will be perpetrated once more.

The voices of those who believe that sometimes the environment is best served by being protected from development may not be heard in the scramble for the Trump’s investment dollars but if, against the odds, Aberdeenshire Council overturn their planners’ recommendation, they will have voted bravely and correctly for wildness.