SUV in countryside. Photo: Eduard Kyslynskyy / shutterstock.com.
Brave New Countryside?
22nd November 2013
On the 50th anniversary of Aldous Huxley's death, Matt Williams remembers a little-known passage from his 'Brave New World', and asks if Huxley's dismal vision of our relationship to nature is coming to pass ...
We can make sure that Government policy is not captured by elite interests and industry lobbies, that the voice they listen to is ours.
Today marks 50 years since the death of author Aldous Huxley, whose best-known work, Brave New World, paints a nightmarish and seemingly unimaginable picture of the future. People are industrially bred, dissent crushed by a mix of free love and government-prescribed drugs, and citizens taught to hate nature. But is his vision of our relationship to the countryside so far from reality?
'Primroses and landscapes, he pointed out, have one grave defect: they are gratuitous. A love of nature keeps no factories busy. It was decided to abolish the love of nature, at any rate among the lower classes; to abolish the love of nature but not the tendency to consume transport. For of course it was essential that they should keep going to the country, even though they hated it. The problem was to find an economically sounder reason for consuming transport than a mere affection for primroses and landscapes. It was duly found.
'"We condition the masses to hate the country," concluded the Director. "But simultaneously we condition them to love all country sports. At the same time, we see to it that all country sports shall entail the use of elaborate apparatus. So that they consume manufactured articles as well as transport. Hence those electric shocks."'
In the UK today I would argue that Huxley's vision of our relationship to nature is on its way to fruition. Parts of the political elite are happy to frame nature as a barrier to progress. George Osborne has said that by seeking to preserve our natural heritage and the climate we risk bankrupting the country.
Quite the contrary according to a compelling body of scientific evidence: the Stern Review has shown that failing to deal with climate change now would cost us dear in the future, and other studies (in particular the landmark The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity report) show that nature provides us with many valuable services that we're currently very bad at factoring into economic calculations.
The political establishment might not be educating us to hate nature exactly, but given some of its policy choices you could be forgiven for thinking that it's trying to diminish our love for it. More evidence comes in the form of Government proposals earlier this year to remove teaching us to ‘care for' and ‘protect' the natural environment from the curriculum.
Corporate elites, like political ones, have no problem riding roughshod over nature. While this advert telling kids that woodlands are boring is aimed at an American audience, in the UK too advertising strangles our attention like a knotweed, encouraging us to shop and head indoors to go online.
As in Huxley's vision, much of our countryside seems, at first appearances, to be dominated by ‘sports', which we're taught to love instead of nature. Leisure activities such as cycling and horse-riding are fairly benign, and can even inspire a genuine connection to the natural world. Although, as Huxley predicted, in many cases they involve elaborate paraphernalia.
Even some of these more harmless pursuits are expensive ones. Over the years I myself must have spent thousands of pounds on tripods, telescopes, binoculars and lenses to enrich my pastime of birdwatching and wildlife photography.
Ron Lizzi, author of recently published Go Outside and Come Back Better about America's national parks, told me that "culture tells us that mountains must be summited. Nature instead teaches humility. Ideally, we learn not to treat all foreign beings and objects as adversaries that challenge us. Our egocentric aggression is replaced with a more enlightened appreciation and reverence for our surroundings". Lizzi is right, in the UK and the US alike we've been taught to use cutting edge equipment to conquer the most hospitable of rural landscapes.
The petrol guzzling behemoths of the countryside have also inspired a generation of ‘Chelsea tractor' owners, keen to emulate the image of living in the country.
Twitching, too, which I've occasionally indulged in (the practice of travelling as far as needs be, at very short notice, to track down an extremely rare bird) can involve racking up hundreds of miles. Birdwatchers, and others, need to be careful, as there's a conflict between caring about nature and emitting so much climate-warping carbon dioxide in its pursuit.
However, many parts of our countryside are owned or managed with far more sinister goals in mind: with the express purpose of creating the best conditions for hunting and shooting.
These blood sports not only attract thousands of participants every year, but they can have terrible consequences for much of our wildlife. Since the time Huxley was writing, much of the UK's wildlife has seen drastic declines, as detailed in the recent landmark State of Nature report. And as the report explains, much of this is to do with the way our countryside is managed and the attitudes towards animals that live there.
For example, for the first time in decades, no hen harriers bred in England this year, having been persecuted to the brink of extinction by gamekeepers on grouse moors. Many among these land-owning elites seem keen to demonise native wildlife, from buzzards to badgers. See this article and this video from Alex Hogg, head of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, for an attitude that represents not all, but many, in these communities.
And Government policy even shores up this industry, at the expense of our native wildlife: earlier this year licences were awarded in England to destroy the nests of buzzards (a native and recovering bird of prey) to, supposedly, protect pheasant chicks from predation.
Recent news shows that new recruits are signing up in their hundreds to join fox hunts up and down the land. They're drawn by the modern-day bugle call of social media, which the fox-hunting community has found to be a powerful new weapon in its arsenal.
Kitting yourself out for these pursuits isn't cheap. On this website you can spend a small fortune, with hunting breeches, £81, hunting shirts, £51, casual tweed jacket, £390, braces, £33, hunting horn, anything from £148 to £798!
But while the headlines might be grabbed by fox hunting, badger culling and grouse shooting, I believe there is great reason to be hopeful about the future of the British countryside.
Pursuits such as walking, birdwatching and cycling demonstrate a genuine commitment to enjoying the outdoors and genuine concern for it. Millions of people enjoy our countryside in their spare time, enjoying its wildlife and landscapes.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Bird's flagship nature reserve, Minsmere on the Suffolk coast, received around 87, 000 visits in 2012-13. The National Trust has over 4 million members, keen to support and enjoy the architectural and natural heritage of our country. These are just two examples of the understated but vitally important connection many people have to the UK's countryside.
Politically too, amidst the fallow wasteland of today's politics, there are fresh seedlings of hope springing up. The Deputy Prime Minister recently admitted that the current Government has at times been too quiet on this issue. But his speech was thin on proposals. Suggestions of an independent statutory advisory body on nature ring hollow as they crouch timidly, camouflaged in the long grass of ‘the next Parliament'.
We need to create the political space for this kind of intervention to be more bold and ambitious. In the current coalition Government, Nick Clegg clearly just doesn't have space for that kind of thinking.
The UK's landscapes and its creatures are some of the most majestic and beautiful anywhere on Earth. If we can learn to better tell the story of those who enjoy the countryside and those who love its wildlife and its landscapes, we can make sure that Government policy is not captured by elite interests and industry lobbies, that the voice they listen to is ours.
In this way, we can nourish our own connection to nature, we can secure its future and we can keep Huxley's vision as a fiction, rather than an impending reality.
Matt Williams is a conservationist and photographer. He is spending 2013-14 working for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project in Indonesian Borneo. You can follow him @mattadamw and find more of his work at mattadamwilliams.co.uk.
Photo: thanks to shutterstock.com.
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