Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Pulling down the Commonwealth Institute

I read in a newspaper that there are proposals to demolish the Commonwealth Institute in London. An outcry has gone up, because it is a Grade 2 Listed Building -- i.e. part of England's heritage.

It is a relatively modern book built after WWII, and I have no real interest in arguing the pros or cons of its preservation. But the building has no real function any more, and its architecture was designed to be modernist and functional. It will doubtless cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to preserve it (if not millions). And this set me thinking. What would be wrong with demolishing it? Plans could be preserved, and if in the future someone really wanted it back, it could be rebuilt. And that's the difference between human artifacts and endangered species.

Even if Michelangelo's statue of David was totally destroyed, there are sufficient numbers of plaster casts and copies for a replica to be made that almost no living person would be able to distinguish from the original. In fact the whole art world is littered with fakes and forgeries that most experts cannot detect. But whereas a man-made piece of art will sell in excess of a million dollars, and thousands of people regularly part with hundreds of thousands of dollars for mere scribbles and scrawls, and some people even pay hundreds of dollars, pound or Euros for a plastic disc simply because it has the signature of a pop star scrawled across it, raising money to save priceless, irreplaceable natural places and endangered species is a different matter.

Somehow, I don't think we have our priorities right. When Van Gogh's painting of irises was last sold, it was for nearly $50 million in 1989 (and would possibly fetch over $100 million now); think how much rainforest could be saved, and how many real species with $100,000,000. Certainly at least a million acres, together with an endowment sufficient to protect them for ever. Probably nearly twice as much. Think of all the tens of thousands of species which will be lost, many of them certainly found nowhere else in the world in a few years time, as the rest of the world's forests disappear to satisfy our all devouring 'civilization' with its burdgeoning populations.

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