Human environment is something inextricably bound to society. The resources on Earth are finite and yet we seem to be driven by a need for creating and building, something which has put prominent marks of change on our surroundings. Some human creations have been iconized and lists of ‘Wonders of the World’ have been produced ever since Antiquity. As the population of our planet is multiplying faster than ever, many of these wonders are endangered. Room is needed for other human enterprises than keeping old heritage sites alive. Presently human activities have put such stamps on Earth as it seems to change the very core of the planet and researchers have even suggested the need to name a new geological period, the Anthropocene, to meet with prevalent discourses.
In 1972 UNESCO launched the World Heritage Convention. It aimed to link the concepts of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural properties in a single document and also to recognize the way in which people interact with nature, and the fundamental need to preserve the balance between the two. As natural environment is in itself a cultural activity, resulted by active management by humans for millennia, the tangible result of the convention was the creation of a World Heritage List. During the passing years many important cultural sites have been listed and today the list includes 1007 properties, distributed amongst 31 trans-boundary, 2 delisted, 46 endangered, 779 cultural, 197 natural and 31 mixed properties. 161 states are participating.
The need to protect our cultural environments to keep them available for future generations is greater than we might think. Placing things on a list doesn’t necessarily mean that they are well-tended or even safe. Unforeseeable destruction can be caused by rapidly changing global climate or by humankind itself. Many of the sites in danger are placed in violent places of the world and intentional destruction of cultural sites with the aim of erasing the history of a country and undermining the peaceful coexistence of diverse communities is unfortunately something where history is perpetually repeated.
A couple of sites have been deleted from the list as the places have been altered in ways disturbing their original traits. This is something of an anomaly as many sites on the list have been heavily exploited by their hosting countries to create economical growth due to income from tourism or simply by using the sites for political ways and means. When surrounding a site with tourist paraphernalia they are actually changed, but in subtler ways than when constructing for an example a bridge through a natural landscape, as happened in one place now deleted from the list.
In theory any action to care for natural environment is also to consider its cultural value and here the World Heritage Convention is trying to manage our reserves on a global scale. Whether this noble aspiration can ensure heritage sites for the future generations is a complicated question as the pressure on human space, natural resources and social incongruities grows.
Photograph showing the Grand-Place in Brussels, put on the World Heritage List in 1998, here captured by Magdalena Midtgaard in 2012.