Reimagining landscapes as socio- and agro-ecosystems [1]

Preamble: Dr Mike Joy brought a team of people together to consider the question of how we can help solve New Zealand’s freshwater crisis.  The contributions were published by Bridget Williams Books as Mike Joy (Ed) 2018 Mountain to Sea: Solving New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis

I would highly recommend Mike’s work, and this book.  It is a great team of people.  The book is available as a Google Book within the link above.  But the book is nicer to have, and no, we don’t receive any royalties if you go out and spend.

What follows was my contribution.  Water is just one of the crises we face.  If you look environmentally, New Zealand’s challenges include: water quality and water function (the capacity of a landscape to hold water to maintain stream function, and prevent both flood and drought); soil conservation and function; soil and terrestrial carbon stocks and flows; biodiversity; Greenhouse Gases; ecosystem gifts such as pollination; and energy dependency and demands. 

To those environmental crises, all associated with land use, we should add the economic decline of rural communities and economies directly associated with a way of viewing our so-called working lands as industrial factories focused on economies-of-scale and techno-fixes to reduce costs and increase production without regard to long-term consequences. 

The crises are multi-dimensional, and interrelated.  The solutions can be the same.

These crises relate to not just how we act *within* the landscapes to which we belong, but also to the ‘ideas’’that *underlie* how we act.  We are all philosophical first, and ‘rational’ second.  This chapter backgrounds some of these ideas, and argues for a fundamental philosophical shift from the Modern industrial paradigm, to post-industrial ways of seeing that embrace both the ontology of complex adaptive systems (CAS) and the values of indigenous and eco-feminine moral philosophy. 

These ideas are at the core of the crises.  We need to change how we see our world before we can change how we act.


Reimagining landscapes as socio- and agro-ecosystems.

Landscapes as philosophically contested spaces

Landscapes are a contest of ideas. We ‘see’ them through a cultural lens – from sinister to transcendent, as resource or pure cultureless nature, as utility or memory, as ‘other’, outside ourselves, or integral to community, wider environment and self. Such cultural lenses – whether called paradigms, world views, framings or metaphors by which we see and live – are built within us through upbringing and education.

A landscape is no objective place. So what is the better lens through which to see, study, act and even be?

For those of us raised in the non-humanities disciplines, such deeper questions are uncommon. We deal in the implicit analytical and ‘positive’ traditions: in uncontested assumptions of objectively measured things. And we tend to measure what can fit within our methods, our assumptions of metaphysics and epistemology, and even what is easily measured in time and place. The path of least resistance is studied. The less easy road, however important, waits its turn.

Research questions flow from our world view, our methodological ideals, and from our normative ideas of what we ought to or can more easily study. Questions arise not only from what matters to us, but from the particular ideas of powerful interests, with dollars to invest.

The roots of the machine

The existence of a cultural lens is not the basis for an argument in favour of relativism. It is the basis of asking what is it to best know a landscape, as a logical prerequisite to inform our actions, and how best to act.

To that end, the Modern Cartesian view of the world – a mechanical world knowable by reducing the whole to analytical parts – is overdone. It is not the best way to know a complex landscape, and arguably results in less insight, not more. It makes us create factories out of places that are very far from being machines. It is partly responsible for the declining state of our environment. Complex landscapes are first reduced to the metaphor of utilitarian ‘natural resource’, and then further still to an even narrower set of resources we are asked to favour and measure. That focus on short-term agronomic production transforms a real complex socio-ecological landscape into the simplified factory. We make a factory because that is our subjective view of the world – of nature as reducible machine.

The consequences that follow from such transformations are either reduced in relative importance, or not considered at all. Agronomic concerns do not extend to landscape ecological function, sociology, climate, river, soil, energy, carbon or wider consequences. It is these real consequences – to environmental, social and economic viability – that have emerged over the last decades. Yet the narrow view that actually causes these consequences defends itself by claiming some measure of technocratic success; be it statistical significance or some assurance of being ‘science-led’. ‘Science-led’ is no recommendation if the question of ‘whose science?’ is not asked.

This mechanical framing can break down vital functional connections because within a synthetic connected space such as a landscape the notion of Ceteris paribus (all else remains constant) does not hold. You can never do just one thing. It follows that, if we want to understand and act wisely, we need to synthesise as much as we analyse. Effective analysis has a synthesising context. Our context-less focus is the problem, not the solution.

Knowing landscapes as interconnected socio-ecological systems

A landscape is connected, always connected, to other forms of biophysical life, humans included. We cannot fully know landscapes without a sense of the connections, of a functioning whole. If you remove the children playing, or the caddis flies in the stream; if you do not extend the effects of fertiliser beyond mere pasture growth – on to, for instance, soil biology and carbon, infiltration rates, risk of drought and flood, economic health – then we are less wise, not more.

All those connections and functions are part of the system. The cleverness of disassociated agronomy cannot compensate for the trade-offs it may create when applied without context. Without the wisdom to make the right choice instead of focusing simply on, say, increasing inputs to maximise yields, or increasing scale to reduce costs, it cannot see the consequences that are obvious to those who can connect. Reimagining includes ensuring you look to those patterns and connections beyond a single discipline. Ask the question, ‘What else have we done?’ Because there is always something else; there are always lines of connection and feedback rippling out from any act.

The cleverness of any act is as of nothing before the wisdom of the choice. Cloning Tyrannosaurus rex may be clever, but not wise. Looking at land as if it is a reducible machine has turned that truth on its head. Disconnected cleverness has come to trump wisdom, and for each problem it creates, another piece of cleverness is devised: what Willard Cochrane called ‘the technology treadmill’, where the economic, social and environmental health of a place degrades until we lose Arcadia.[2] That Platonic story of Arcadia’s loss is being repeated not because technology is bad, but because it alone cannot make the right choices without a reimagined concept of the whole.

Reimagining is a prerequisite to redesign

So reimagine. Look to land as an integrated whole. People live on it. Animals are born and die. Energy flows from the sun through all the trophic levels, through one gut to another. There are water patterns, harvest patterns. There are spatial patterns where the grassland edges to woodland, which edges to wetland, and then to a stream, each vegetation cover with its own polycultural pattern.

There are economic patterns where the profitable pasture in one area turns to the unprofitable in another. There are multiple values where the woodland gully is both profitable and protecting, while an economic and ecological disaster in grass; where ecological diversity is an economic benefit, and the wetland a giver of biodiversity, water regulation, recreation, stock health and more.

There are temporal patterns, seasonal and through disturbances big and small. There are thresholds of change, feedbacks, synergies where building diversity and pattern begets improved function begets social, environmental and economic benefits.

A reimagined healthy landscape and the land-use strategy that has so much influence upon it can create free ecosystem gifts (pollination, drought resilience, etc.) and reduced costs.[3] A healthy landscape provides quality and diversity, as well as a marketing narrative required for a price premium. A functioning landscape can create diversity of enterprise because something new emerges. Where there was once just grass, there may now be kai moana, game to hunt, and an aesthetic that attracts the horse trekker.

We can redesign these systems – as systems not factories – and both rebuild and create benefits, including a sense of belonging. Those patterns move far beyond the biophysical function and health of any landscape. They affect humanity in so many ways, both social and economic.

That is the great shame in looking at land and landscapes as factories. The technocrat focused on one thing is more than likely disconnected from life’s meaning, and certainly from the rural sociology of degrading communities and the real price decline of commodities. Why care about the future of farming families and communities as land continually aggregates into increasingly non-local corporate ownership, or care about the real decline in commodity prices, or the nature of commodity itself, or wider primary-sector strategy, if all we are focused on is the agronomy of increasing production? Or on yet another techno-fix to a problem created by a landscape dysfunction, itself created by a previous techno-fix?

Competing silos where both lose

By being told to keep to our discipline, and ignore the context of life itself, we both turn away from seeing and thinking about potential, and unwittingly degrade not just that potential, but what we already have. Taken to a place where there is no understanding of broader context, analysis alone creates yet more dysfunction. It not only destroys the connections and the functions it cannot see outside its own analytical bubble, it also creates a competition between disciplines – where the relationship is seen as necessary trade-off rather than potential synergy. The woodland and wetland are seen as a loss for pastoral animal production, when the synergies are legion. Stream health is seen as a necessary trade-off for financial return, when a healthy stream is one of the best indicators of land and financial health[4].

The mechanical view of landscape focuses on the word ‘or’; the agro-ecological and socio-ecological systems view sees ‘and’ at every turn.

It is because of the ‘and’ that reimagined and redesigned landscapes can repair the damage we have done through colonial ‘extensification’, and particularly through the acceleration of ‘energy intensification’ trends after the Second World War.[5][6] We can become ‘knowledge-intensive’, and create multiple beneficial functions.[7] And we can restore environmental, social and economic health to place. And we can restore the functions of water regulation to mitigate or avoid droughts and downstream floods. And we can improve aquatic ecological systems and water quality. And we can reduce the boom–bust cycle of feeder streams. And we can improve biodiversity and with it the . And we can increase input–output productivity, even increase the great god of pastoral production, while reducing energy inputs and building deeply functional carbon banks, and reducing greenhouse gases. And we can increase the quality of produce and reverse real price decline. And we can improve the economy of farmscapes and their resilience to the irregular events of climatic extremes and market shifts.

And when we do it from a reimagined world view, there need be no trade-offs between the land, community and enterprise; just synergies.

Reimagining an agro-ecological world view

Reimagining landscapes as complex adaptive systems is both socio-ecological and agro-ecological. At the core of agro-ecological thinking is the idea that both biophysical elements (soils, soil ecology, animals, vegetation land covers, water and its function, microclimates, etc.) and land-cover patterns can provide multiple benefits in a designed and managed land system. Those patterns are premised on both the natural variations within a landscape, and the connections between and within elements and patches with potential for synergies (landscape mutualism).

Land-cover patches include pastures, crops, woodlands, wetlands, tall herbaceous leys, etc. This is a polycultural world with heterogeneity both between and within land-cover patches at its core.

The industrial factory view of landscapes works directly against pattern and potential landscape mutualism. It forces the land into a homogeneous uniform, marching in step whatever the limits and potentials of the terrain. The consequence is dysfunction, an increase in inputs of energy and work in order to keep the ideal of the machine far away from anything remotely like a natural patterned and dynamic system.

The classic New Zealand example involves those farm areas that are dysfunctional when in pasture but beneficial when in other land covers, which were historically cleared of functional woodlands and wetlands in order to create pasture with never-ending problems. Combined with the bad pasture came the bad environmental consequences: soil degradation, the damage to both water retention and quality, the degradation of stream systems, stock losses, mustering problems, ineffective returns on fertiliser, and high costs in chemical weed control and repairs and maintenance.[8]

In direct contrast, agro-ecology designs from within an understanding of the wider system, for multiple gains across economy, society and environment. It dances with the land and rejoices in the patterns of variation and connection. Agro-ecological design is effectively a process of creating a ‘self-organised system’, where the system runs without continued energy input, without negative environmental outputs, and with social, resilience and economic benefits. The soil health, permanently flowing streams, water infiltration and holding, water quality, stock health, resilience, low energy input, carbon neutrality, community-friendliness, profitability, productivity, financial efficiency and high-value produce – all go hand in hand.[9]

Historical challenges and alternatives

Challenging the current industrial–mechanical paradigm requires some understanding of its history, especially with the rise of energy inputs, first increased after the Second World War, and then again with the dramatic rise in fossil-energy derived nitrogenous fertiliser from the 1990s. Coupled with the increased energy intensification was the continued aggregation of land to provide the economies-of-scale needed for a narrow range of commodity producing enterprises to remain financially viable.   Both patterns shifted agriculture away from the more traditional economies-of-scope approach, which emphasised maintaining a coherent system without the need for expensive inputs. That paradigm shift was never uncontested, and the challenge has become more immediate and far wider with time.

In the 1940s, Sir Alfred Howard contrasted traditional farming systems, particularly in Asia, with the emerging chemical-fertiliser revolution that treated soils more as a hydroponic medium.[10] America had a number of proponents of treating the land as a system, with better yields, lower inputs, fewer pest-control problems and a better local economy and social and environmental values.[11] Both Edward Faulkner and Louis Bromfield write from their personal experience after the Second World War about managing lands as patterned and integrated systems, in part to contest the contemporary shift in emphasis in the opposite direction, to less pattern and more inputs. Their singular and successful case studies were exemplars at the time of the extraordinary, opening our eyes to what we could have, and be. They also wrote from a perspective of belonging, and touched on the philosophy of home and community.

More detailed philosophy challenging modernity paralleled these land management exemplars. Aldo Leopold led the way to an integrated world view with A Sand County Almanac. Leopold’s message was about far more than his famous Land Ethic. He premised that ethic on the nature of the environment, as far more than agronomy, to which we belong..[12] Rachel Carson responded to the first real consequence of industrial land use with Silent Spring.[13] The consequences to biodiversity sat alongside a crisis of farm economics.

The cycles of accelerating landscape dysfunction were the focus of Willard Cochrane’s treadmill metaphor. In 1958, he defined the challenge of continued economic marginalisation resulting from a vicious cycle of increasing production, reductions in real prices, cost reductions through scale, yet more landowner aggregation, yet more techno-fix industrialism, yet more social and worker marginalisation (mere resources), ad absurdum: an absurd process to which unsynthesised analytical thinking is blind. It is not looking, so it does not see. But here’s another techno-fix for this particular symptom, better to increase production.

Few were listening to these commentators on what was happening to the functional health of the wider landscape system in either America or New Zealand. The 1970s brought the call to industrialise further. ‘Get big or get out’ and ‘Plant fencerow to fencerow’ was the call of US Department of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz. Wendell Berry wrote his classic The Unsettling of America in response, lamenting the industrial effects on communities, families, local economies and the land.[14]

Agro-ecology emerged in the 1980s, as some academics saw the broader issues and the social, environmental and economic potential tipping points becoming uncomfortably evident. They were intent on looking at science-based alternatives. The science of agro-ecology pioneer Miguel Altieri was followed by an increasing number of researchers looking at the potential to work with rather than against the environment, while enhance productivity and other mutual values within and between patch polycultures.[15] Ecological approaches to land use as a challenge to a failing industrial paradigm have only expanded since those early endeavours to solve the problems of industrialism, from Wes Jackson to work by Jeffrey McNeely and Sara Sherr.[16] The academic literature is now considerable.

Novelists joined in to highlight the moral questions and the loss of values for the benefit of a few, Jane Smiley and Annie Proulx particularly.[17] Rural sociology arose as a serious discipline examining the social and economic consequences to farming families and communities.

The New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment directly challenged the current and increasingly industrialised paradigm, and raised the need for a ‘redesign’ of agriculture in 2004.[18] The result was a resounding dismissal by policy makers and the farmers’ union Federated Farmers.

From the late 2000s, the international reports began to emerge, the most significant being UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter’s report to the 2010 General Assembly.[19] The evidence he accumulated, which has been expanded in the years since, is clear. The industrial approach to landscapes that treats land as a factory, simplified to suit the mass production of undifferentiated commodities at low cost using high-energy inputs, is unquestionably contributing to significant and planet-threatening environmental problems for water, soil, biodiversity and the atmosphere, as well as social and economic problems.

So why isn’t It changing?

Change has yet to occur. Agro-ecological thinkers remain marginalised. Modern ideas dominate, despite their errors and their negative consequences. Those ideas, ironically considered value-free, are deeply embedded within the culture of New Zealand land use.

Wendell Berry was right to frame the crisis in American agriculture as ‘a crisis of culture’. New Zealand is no different[20]. Unfortunately, the culture has shifted from one mode – the modernity of colonial thought producing commodities from commoditised land and commoditised people – to another not dissimilar mode, the modernity of corporate agribusiness. Both have an interest in mechanical and homogeneous production systems (factories); both support cost-efficiency through scale rather than building the potential scope of values provided by healthy lands and landscapes. Both support increasing production and throughput of single financially marginal commodities; using (and marginalising) people and landscapes as sets of cheap resources to utilise for the efficiency of one thing, at the expense of all the other potentials.

Both impose those subjective reducible-factory beliefs on our landscapes with the justification of supposedly ‘objectively’ measured reports.

We need to decolonise and decorporatise our minds before we can decolonise our landscapes. Our problems lie deep within the metaphors we see by. Reimagining that mythology of machine is where the solutions lie, hidden from sight, obscured by seeing and doing what we always see and do, without thinking about why.


Chris Perley


[1] Published as Chapter 9 in Mike Joy (Ed) 2018 Mountain to Sea: Solving New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington.

[2] Willard W. Cochrane, The Curse of American Agricultural Abundance: A Sustainable Solution, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, London, 2003, ch. 2.

[3] Reimagining landscapes is strongly associated with the broader primary-sector strategies adopted by a country. In broad terms, there are two competing strategies: 1, the homogeneous, low-value commodity approach, focused on cost of production and high production marketed in bulk (e.g. Fonterra focuses on high volume ‘continuous’ throughput where input differentiation based on traits such as point of origin, quality of somatic cell count or organic certification is – essentially – a bother). This is in contrast to 2, a focus on retention of and increase in value rather than ‘cost-efficiency’, by emphasising the narrative, diversity and differentiation of the ‘batch-processed’ products (e.g. branded and crafted beers), with a variety of marketing (direct, local, cooperative, etc.). Our landscapes – as cheap factories or batch producers – are integral to the primary-sector strategies we choose. It follows we need a re-imagination of those production and supply systems along with our landscapes.

[4] An excellent surrogate indicator because a healthy stream – water quality, extended flow and rich ecology – indicates a healthy feeder catchment retaining its natural capital, soil and landscape function.. Generally, what is good on the land is bad in a stream. E.g. stream health indicates that the land is acting as a ‘sponge’ to infiltrate and hold water, the opposite of a hard rapid run-off ‘plate’, and soil, organic matter and nutrients are not being lost from the landscape system.

[5] ‘Extensification’ increases the amount of land under primary-sector production systems, primarily imported pasture at the expense of woodland, wetland and ‘unimproved’ grasslands. Termed the ‘First Food Regime particular to extending the world’s food system through the age of colonisation where large tracts of lands were transformed into agricultural productive landscapes – New Zealand included. These essentially colonial production systems distributed increasingly commoditised agricultural products for export to highly populated wealthy countries. The dominant meaning of land was as producer and supplier for distant markets, with land commoditised, as was its produce (and arguably its people). The Second Food Regime relates to the intensification of those lands primarily using increased energy inputs into the system (fertiliser and mechanisation), increasing yields. H. Friedmann and P. McMichael. Agriculture and the state system: the rise and fall of national agricultures, 1870 to the present. Sociologia Ruralis, 29(2), 93–117, 1989.

[6] ‘Energy intensification’ increases the energy input (chemical and mechanical) into a given land area in order to increase yields per hectare. The two major phases in New Zealand were the post-Second World War increase in aerial and ground application of mined phosphate using war surplus material, and the shift, with urea production from the Motunui plant, to increased intensification of both dairy (augmented by supplementary feed, particularly from palm kernel extract) and continuous-cropping systems. Mixed-cropping and mixed-dairy systems that used temporal rotations to manage their system health markedly reduced. Both of these intensification steps made landscapes seen and managed more and more in the factory image. The environmental, social and long-term economic consequences, in terms of ownership and local spend, are dramatic.

[7] ‘Knowledge-intensive’ refers to a refocus on the wider knowing required in order to manage ‘working’ landscapes, as well as the social and economic systems from which they cannot be segregated. The refocus involved a new science that is considerably more focused on connection than simply working within silos. It is more multi- and inter-disciplinary, including the humanities like philosophy, history and sociology, and the knowledge of local people within a particular place – a transdisciplinary approach, because complexity is place-based. It involves a directed sociological programme (‘learning by doing’, ‘action research’), including such examples as ‘integrated catchment management’ and ‘innovative communities’. This is a challenge to the current corporate CRI model and to our public-sector policy and university systems. It involves a re-imagining of our science, policy and tertiary-education models.

[8] Many of these costs are considered ‘overheads’, and so the agricultural profession – obsessed with grass – has repeatedly ‘analysed’ growing trees on such dysfunctional pastoral sites as ‘uneconomic’ in their factory eyes because they do not direct the overhead costs to site, and presume that, being a factory, the land production is uniform and without pattern. Nor are environmental costs considered. So a gully that may at best carry three stock units per hectare is presumed to carry twelve, and all the financial and environmental costs mentioned above are presumed not to apply. Using that logical framework, re-establishing wetlands and trees in certain highly suitable areas is ‘analysed’ using fallacious assumptions and data that such a change in land cover removes a profitable pastoral area, and therefore an opportunity cost (of pastoral returns foregone) needs to be applied. New Zealand farm foresters, as well as those who have established wetlands where they once wasted money and lost stock repeatedly, have debunked this myth and pointed out the analytical fallacies for two decades, but the modern factory view prevails. As well as a reimagining of landscapes, we need a reimagining of the within-farm economic teaching within university agricultural science.

[9] For agro-ecological examples from around the world, books by Jules Pretty are recommended. See

[10] Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1943.

[11] E.H. Faulkner, Soil Restoration, Michael Joseph Ltd., London, 1945; Louis Bromfield, Pleasant Valley, Wooster Book Co., Wooster, Ohio. 1945.

[12] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1947.

[13] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 1962.

[14] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1977.

[15] Miguel Altieri, Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture, University of California, Berkeley, 1983.

[16] Wes Jackson, New Roots for Agriculture, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, London, 1980. Jeffrey A. McNeely and Sara J. Scherr, Ecoagriculture: Strategies to Feed the World and Save Biodiversity, Island Press, Washington, 2003; Sara J. Scherr and Jeffrey A. McNeely, Farming with Nature: The Science and Practice of Ecoagriculture, Island Press, Washington, 2012.

[17] Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres, Anchor Books, New York, 1991; Annie Proulx, That Old Ace in the Hole, Scribner, New York, 2002.

[18] Parliamentary Commission for the Environment, Growing for Good: Intensive Farming, Sustainability and New Zealand’s Environment, 2004, (accessed 5 August 2018).

[19] Olivier De Schutter, Agroecology and the Right to Food, report to the United Nations General Assembly, 20 December 2010, and the Human Rights Council, March 2011, (accessed 5 August 2018). ‘Based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature, the report demonstrates that agroecology, if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty. The report therefore calls for a fundamental shift towards agro-ecology as a way for countries to feed themselves while addressing climate- and poverty challenges.’

[20] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, Cal., 1977, p. 39.

Starling Murmuration Shazz

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2 Responses to Reimagining landscapes as socio- and agro-ecosystems [1]

  1. anarkaytie says:

    An elegant chapter, Chris. The book is on my to-do list, once I sort out some other budgetary restraints.

    I’m writing for a kaupapa Maaori research methodology paper this semester, and while we in the Humanities are making inroads into ethics and research outside our silos, it’s hard to get traction sometimes.

    I need to have a fish around your blog for something around permaculture; it’s the big risk we currently need to address, that intensive ag has been predicated on cheap oil derivatives in agchem & fert’s. Yes, living in Hamilton & visiting Fieldays annually is rubbing off on me!

    My gummies & I have ambitions to leave Waikato after graduation, maybe fleeing back to Wellington. I can’t see Hamilton surviving the coming storms, due to their total refusal to prepare for climate chaos.
    (The big box churches are all insisting that only the sinners will remain to face the wrath of god/planet, so nothing should be done to mitigate effects of rising seas, permanent droughts, failing dairy farms, etc. Can’t help those who won’t help themselves…)

    • cjkperley says:

      Thanks Anarkaytie. Lots of stuff happening in agro-ecology. ‘Permaculture’ is really a commercial brandname for agro-ecological thought. You’ll go a way with Permaculture, but to dig into the wider stuff, you’s be better to search on eco-agriculture and agro-ecology.

      Sad to hear about Hamilton. “This is what we do.” Look at the Fox/Hedgehog table from the recent blog and you’ll see what you’re dealing with! Whether in the fundamentalist churches, or the council. And box-ticking, unthinking, procedural Hedgehogs are very much encouraged in the latter.

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