Friday, July 11, 2008

House Points: Have environmentalists made us terrified of the natural world?


My House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

This week's issue is a special on the environment. I am not sure whether I was fitting in with that or acting as a devil's advocate, but this is an unusually heartfelt column.

I wrote at greater length about the beneficial effects of exposure to the natural world for Openmind a few years ago.

Fresh air

A survey for the National Trust has found half the children questioned cannot tell bees from wasps. A similar percentage cannot recognise a barn owl or oak leaf, and one in three cannot identify a magpie. But nine out of ten know the Daleks and Yoda from Star Wars.

Perhaps not so surprising it is. Yet I was struck by the comment from the Trust’s conservation adviser: "The more distanced we become from nature, the more difficult it will be for us to survive on this planet."

This concern with survival is typical of the environmental movement. All its talk of "saving the planet" is really about saving the human race. The planet would jog along without us quite happily.

But survival is a depressingly narrow aim for any political movement. And it is a dangerous one for Liberals, because it can be used to justify any amount of repression.

Years ago environmentalists decided their only hope was to scare us half to death. Peak oil and global warming are just the latest in a list of dooms. The result has been to make many people terrified of the natural world. The environment is all around us (you cannot argue with that) and it is out to get us.

This fear combines easily with parental concerns about traffic and strangers, so their children’s encounters with nature are increasingly limited. Yet the best of 20th-century education and children’s literature saw such experiences as central to a wholesome childhood.

Liberal Democrats should have a more generous view of the importance of the environment. There is abundant evidence that experiencing the natural world is good for everyone from behaviourally disturbed children to recovering surgery patients.

And the claim that a vengeful Nature is going to sweep away our economic system is a cop out. We are going to have to use our intelligence to reform it if we want more people to live happy lives

I leave the last word to the great Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies:

Let us get out of these indoor narrow modern days, whose twelve hours have somehow become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.

3 comments:

Andy said...

Years ago environmentalists decided their only hope was to scare us half to death. Peak oil and global warming are just the latest in a list of dooms. The result has been to make many people terrified of the natural world. The environment is all around us (you cannot argue with that) and it is out to get us.

Sorry Jonathan, but this para just strikes me as bonkers. I simply don't recognise this picture of the environmentalist movement at all. Environmentalism has always been a curiously paradoxical argument: we have the potential to do a good deal of damage to our environment, and that damage to the environment has the potential to seriously depreciate our quality of life. Not only could this be a matter of survival in the wafty-potential-future sense, but in the very real sense of people whose lives will be ruined by a rise in sea level.

But the crucial point there is that the natural environment is portrayed as very fragile, not as "out to get us". It's us who are out to get ourselves.

Phil said...

Re Andy: The biological evidence is that humankind is fragile. Amongst many factors, we are warm blooded, poorly adapted to living in water and depend on a particular breathing and feeding environment. Other creatures and organisms are more adaptable about where they can live. Don't you love those creatures that live at the bottom of the ocean, under incredible pressures and temperatures, feeding on the sulphur from a volcanic outflow? If humankind kills itself off, life on Earth will just continue, possibly evolving into a new intelligent form.

"Killing the planet" is a poor argument. Environmentalists need to argue (and prove) that irresponsible behaviour will affect the quality of life of their children and grandchildren. That is something that will encourage people to change. People don't think about abstract things like the date 2030, but they do think about their children's education, job prospects and housing. I am not saying that the environmentalist argument is 100% wrong, but it is 100% badly framed and presented.

Andy said...

Um... isn't that kind of what I was saying?