On a brilliant April afternoon clouds of stone-flies, just hatched out of the river which runs through Downton, England, are winging to and fro along its main street. Rather weak flyers, they prefer crawling feverishly about on any vegetation they happen to collide with in their aerial wanderings. Stone-flies need clean chalk streams to breed in, so their emergence amounts to a clean bill of health for this stretch of the Wiltshire Avon.
But it isn’t the stone-flies that bring me to Downton. It’s the pub, in which the beer is very good. But that isn’t what I’m here for either. In the main bar of the King’s Arms a glass panel has been placed over one section of wall to display its internal structure. It is of ‘wattle and daub’ – nothing unusual – hazel, ash and willow branches woven between uprights, then plastered over.
Hazel ‘wattles’ from these walls have recently been examined by Dr Rebecca Yahr, a research biologist at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh. Yahr has been making some remarkable discoveries lately. If a 14th century building like the King’s Arms is inhabited continuously – that is to say, if it is kept dry – the lichens which were growing on the hazel wands now embedded in its walls are still readily identifiable, with a microscope and the right person looking down it.
Lichens, of course, are excellent ‘environmental indicators’. Growing mainly on rocks and trees, depending on the atmosphere rather than soil for their nutrients, they are highly sensitive to changes in its composition. It turns out, then, that these buildings kept their own record of pre-industrial England’s air quality.
Which raises some very present-tense questions. References to ‘pre-industrial levels’ of this or that component of our atmosphere are by now part of everyday language. We rarely stop, however, to examine the implications of that phrase – not only scientific but historical, even philosophical. In a place like Downton, such reflections come naturally and have, I think, been neglected thus far in environmental debates, to their detriment.
The traditional role of intellectuals has been connecting – with people and places, to be sure, but not only. The philosopher Mary Midgley, for example, sees ancient Greece as a world growing ever more complicated: drama, mathematics, politics, history, poetry, anthropology – each was developing into its own specialized expertise. Philosophy arose as a skill that would set these divergent spheres of life in a pattern, as ‘the general clearing-house for resolving disputes by relating different kinds of thought’.
‘Man,’ as she has put it, ‘is a social being and a part of the fauna of this planet. When the architects of our present ethics were campaigning for individual liberty, this did not need saying. It could safely be taken for granted. Today, with the damage which unrealistic individualism is doing both to the physical life of the planet and to the personal happiness of individuals, it does need saying.’
But who is saying it? ‘Freedom’ continues to equate with energy-obesity: clearly the assumptions behind that freedom need bringing up to date. But how many writers on the environment now, seeking the bubble reputation through remotest Wiltshire to climate talks in Bali and back again, find time to resolve the problems they report on ‘by relating different kinds of thought’?
There are other public intellectuals of this older stamp around. Warning: they tend to be, at best, ambivalent about environmentalism. I want to look at two of them, to ask why, and what we might learn from them anyway. Frank Furedi and Roger Scruton are usually defined by reference to their activities in the 1980s – summarized as: Furedi founds Revolutionary Communist Party while Scruton praises Thatcher in The Times. A right pair of nogoodboyos.
What their critics miss is that both were formed also – and crucially – by a wider intellectual context. Furedi watched his father participate in the Workers Council during the 1956 uprising in Budapest. His quarter of the city was wrecked by the Soviet Army. He was a student in Montreal by the time he attended his first political protest: against the fraternal assistance being meted out, Russian-style, this time to the Czechs.
So when the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke decried the French Revolution he was, for Furedi – now a Professor of Sociology – attempting to shut down the most inalienable human right of them all: the right to be master of our own circumstances. Through his memory of how Hungarians stood tall during those 10 days of genuine self-determination in 1956, through ‘the sense of possibility’ he felt in 1968, his quarrel with Burkean reaction continues. It is there too in his view of environmentalism as locked into a backward-looking and fear-driven narrative.
For environmentalists, obsessing over one prediction after another, it can feel a little strange – indeed, it is a little strange – to find ourselves characterized as people with no – correction, the wrong kind of – interest in the future. For several of Furedi’s colleagues at the website he helped to found – spiked.com – the legacy of the Enlightenment would seem to be best served by arguing that climate science might look like science to the unwary but it isn’t really. It can’t be, because it is now lending some plausibility to a view of the future which has been ruled inadmissible in advance.
What Furedi thinks about Edmund Burke isn’t ‘academic’. Intellectuals defeat an opponent’s argument by beginning with its strongest points. It is controversialists who pick on the weakest arguments of their opponents so as to achieve, with a minimum of time and effort, the appearance of a victory over them. Furedi’s version of the Enlightenment Project may be puzzling, but it is clearly a belief he holds in good faith.
Roger Scruton, prominent derider of 1968, again argues by reference to eighteenth century thought. ‘The mere “contract between the living” is a contract to squander the earth’s resources for the benefit of its temporary residents,’ he writes – echoing Edmund Burke, whose ideas he, unlike Furedi, applauds. Scruton seems happiest evoking those traditions and imaginative ties which bind us to both the dead and the unborn, to a locality. Environmentalists who can’t be doing with that Tory Scruton should read his account of Patocka’s underground lectures on ‘The Natural World’. These didn’t just report on the damage being done but attempted to explain our troubled relationship with that world. They found an explanation buried deep in the Greek idea of tekne (techne) and in the way this continues to affect our civilization. From awareness of what ‘techne’ has now grown into, arises our ‘care’ for the natural world and a re-discovery of what it might mean to ‘dwell’ in a landscape.
Which brings me to why I think this matters. At the climate camp opposing a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport last August, a banner reading ‘We Are Armed Only with Peer-Reviewed Science’ led the march. But were we? Many were local residents who didn’t want their homes demolished – and neither would I. Of those there to make a more general point, it would have been fairer to say: we know what has been written by people who are, we hope, the best-informed and most scrupulous in their field. ‘Look at the full range of the IPCC’s predictions and decide for yourself whether London needs more runways’ was our message.
That’s a legitimate position – indeed, it is one of only two positions available to people who aren’t themselves climate scientists: either this problem could be really serious and needs addressing, or it definitely isn’t, so the more runways the merrier – this latter being now the British Government’s official position in practice.
Harmondsworth is one of the villages which would be made uninhabitable by a third runway at Heathrow. As we entered it, a unit of riot police appeared from nowhere and deployed in the road ahead of us. I am no veteran of such protests, so perhaps it is only a measure of my ignorance, but that black phalanx positioning itself between ourselves and the village pub was more puzzling than frightening. The MP for that part of Middlesex was with us: we waited at a crossroads while he negotiated.
So I had time to observe the opposition to us before it exited stage right, at a trot. There was something about riot police being deployed ‘in defence’ of a village about to be devastated, something about those Perspex visors and long-shields lined up against a back-drop of Dream England, which just did not compute. Police defending ‘the right’ of this settlement to disappear? Whose ‘right’ is that? We’re back with Midgley.
Our goal attained, we stood on the village green, or sipped drinks outside the pub. The writer George Monbiot and the MP, standing in front of a row of Elizabethan cottages, gave speeches about the planned airport expansions, about the orchards which once covered this part of England. Apparently the breeder of the first Orange Pippin apple tree was buried next to the village’s medieval church, behind them and to the right.
This occasion was all the more mysterious to me because of the porch on that church. I had never been in Harmondsworth before, but I recognized it immediately: it’s the porch my grandparents still stand outside in their wedding photograph. I knew they lived nearby for a while but had never asked myself where they married – why would I? Realizations like that show just how rapidly such places are accelerating away from us into meaninglessness. Those riot police were there to defend ‘our’ right to trash places like this, whether ‘we’ actually want to trash them or not.
Of course, most English people don’t live in villages. A village green is a symbol: of the way a particular landscape was settled; of that freedom of association and speech which its people are proud to enjoy. Yes, we need peer-reviewed science, and the detail about the planned airport expansions. But we need everything that places like Harmondsworth, or Downton, intrinsically mean as well. We need the cultural confidence to give the right weighting to each of these.
Frank Furedi might have seen in this gathering further evidence of soft-headed, irrationalist tendencies in the culture around him. I imagine Roger Scruton slipping through police lines to have a quiet look round the church perhaps, muttering about environmentalism’s ‘capture by the left’.
It’s a pity neither of them was there: it might have been just the occasion to argue differences from first premises, for once; to go beyond the system of gratuitous controversialism and governmental steam-rolling which we have at present. There is still time for a civilization – if that is what we are – energized by the findings of its best scientists, to search its entire cultural repertoire for answers adequate to the scale of this question. We’re going to need everything we’ve got.
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