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Pawley's nihilism can't get no satisfaction

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Martin Pawley's essay on conservation (AJ 28.10.04) contained some interesting ideas.

Despite our vaunted sensitivity about historic buildings, we Europeans have (he pointed out) spent much of the last thousand years blowing them up. Conservationists, therefore, stand accused of hypocrisy, or at best short-sightedness. This is bunker mentality with a vengeance:

let's not bother with anything above ground, since sooner or later nothing will survive. Undeniably true, but nihilistic.

Pawley clearly regards the 21st-century enthusiasm for sustainability (all that worrying about finite resources) as the mark of a truly decadent society.

Plenty of red-blooded consumers would agree with him: eat, drink and be merry, because - in the long run - we're all dead.

He has a go at ancestor worship, mainly it seems on the grounds of waste. This is a very odd idea. For one thing, nobody is much in the business of 'fossilising' old buildings, making them uninhabitable or unusable except as a museum - this is a straw man if ever I saw one. Has he ever read PPG 15?

The real waste is demolition.

Research has shown that a 'typical' Victorian house contains embodied energy equivalent to 15,000 litres of petrol. Historic buildings often contain irreplaceable materials (such as tropical hardwoods from nonrenewable sources) as well as craftsmanship that can never be replicated now that we no longer exploit the skills of Robert Tressell's ragged-trousered philanthropists.

The government's report on resource productivity has pointed out that more than 90 per cent of non-energy minerals extracted in Great Britain are used to supply the construction industry with materials - yet each year some 70 million tonnes of construction and demolition materials and soil end up as land-fill. He may want to go on turning this depressing, unsustainable and unnecessary merry-go-round, but (despite the risk of Armageddon) I find it infinitely more satisfying to make sensitive and imaginative use of what we have inherited from the past, so that we can pass it on, solid, commodious and delightful, for people in the future to enjoy Jeff West, policy director, English Heritage

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