Nature, science and the politics of the common good.
This lecture explores some of the overlapping traditions of the Labour and environment movements, including areas where we have common ground, but also where there are bridges that we might need to cross, to mend, or even to build from scratch, if we are to work together in the future.
So I want to begin by telling you a story about a crisis of meaning and identity that happened to me much earlier in my life, and which has informed my choices and my politics ever since.
I am the daughter of a doctor –a physician my father would call himself – and of a writer on psychoanalysis and child development.
I was brought up in a lively intellectual home, but also a home where the chasms that now seem to exist between different ways of engaging with the world – between science, religion, the arts and politics – were largely absent.
My parents seemed capable of exploring these different paths to understanding, and of holding them in creative tension. For them, gaining from one tradition of thought did not require the exclusion or denigration of others.
And both of them found in their relationship with the natural world a source of joy, meaning and practical value, which could indeed be known variously through the study of natural history, through faith, and through poetry, as well as simply through being present in nature at the moment.
And so I suppose you might say that I was born into this relative state of grace – and that it was some years before I realised how eroded such a generous view of different traditions of knowledge had become in our wider politics.
But then a number of things happened to me as a teenager that unbalanced me in different ways and degrees, and in doing so perhaps helped me gain some of that bluer understanding.
The first was that when I was twelve, we moved house – and in doing so moved from a life and landscape that were so intimately blended with my sense of identity, that when I was torn away from them I suffered a physical sense of sickness and disorientation. This was my first experience of exile – of loss of meaning and value in my life, due to a loss of place.
The second was that my mother, upon whom I depended unquestioningly, became ill with the illness of which she was to die of a few years later. And I realised that the critical relationships that were the foundation of my life and happiness were also painfully fragile – and that death was not.
And then somewhere along the line a third thing happened to me that was much more trivial – a moment, a story – but which stuck with me.
My three brothers liked to push their intellectual explorations to the limit. And in doing so, one day one of them sat me down to tell me that there was nothing in the world that could not be understood by science; that religion was a childish lie and a danger; that free will was an illusion; and that any grand thoughts or ideas I had about moral and spiritual life were merely a by-product of the endless struggle of my individual genes for survival.
Now don’t get me wrong – I think Darwin was a towering genius, I am fascinated by natural selection, and I don’t find the idea of evolution alienating. Quite the reverse. I find it a source of wonder and wisdom.
But what was alienating, was the use of a brutal narrative of ‘hard science’ to attack the possibility of meaning emerging through other ways of experiencing the world.
Of course I largely recovered, and so I am glad to say did my brother!
But I had begun by then to know a little bit about the realities of exile, loss and alienation. And to understand that meaning is not equally distributed in the world. But rather, that it gathers in pools and pockets, in the creases of elbows that bend in work or love; in the places where we have kissed or argued; in our homes and favourite trees, if it is allowed to thrive undisturbed, and to grow strong in conditions of safety.
And many years later, I came to understand that for me, politics in its broadest sense is nothing more or less than our collective efforts to protect, restore, and nurture the possibility of such meaning, in our relationships with each other and with the world.
Which is how I come to be here today; since my personal acts of protection, restoration and reparation, are centred on trying to safeguard meaning in our relationship with the natural world.
I hope such a personal introduction is helpful, as we now go on to consider how some of the traditions of environmental thinking contribute towards a shared politics of the common good; and what these traditions have in common with the traditions of the Labour movement and the faith community.
So let’s begin with something quite simple but very important – what we might call the tradition of praise for creation – which to me is a foundation of the environment movement.
Embedded in our relationship with nature is our ability to take delight in the living world around us – a sense of being blessed with an abundant, diverse, extra-ordinary ecological home.
But also carried within it, is the importance of recognising and respecting that this home is something ‘other than us’ – it is full of life we did not make – life which was created before and outside of us and will persist when we are gone. This sense of nature’s independent existence allows us both a grounding sense of our own origins and limitations, but also a great feeling of intimate belonging. Nature is both beyond us, but also the context in which we have grown up as a species, and within which know and understand ourselves.
And sometimes, as Wordsworth says, it simply needs to be left well alone.
(I am going once in a while in this talk to include some poetry, because a few words from a good poet are better than many of mine. And also because someone in the Labour Party once told me that the trouble with Blue Labour that was that it did ‘too much poetry’, and I found that I liked that idea.)
So here is Wordsworth in ‘The Tables Turned.’
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
This tradition of praise, humility and wonder is obviously deeply felt in many faith traditions, and I would argue creates a great affinity between the faith community and the environment movement – one which (for example) is increasingly being explored by Pope Francis.
And sometimes this has also been understood by the Labour movement (for example, in the impulse towards the creation of our national parks). But it is also fair to say that it has as often been neglected in favour of a narrow materialism that persistently fails to value those things in our world which are non-human; that are created rather than ‘produced’.
But as the privations of agricultural intensification, enclosure and industrialisation began to take their toll on England in the 19th century, Wordsworth’s song of praise became too often a song of grief.
In one of the great waves of alienation from nature, work, and home that have swept our country in the hands of private capital abetted by state power, much of what he might have recognised in the English countryside was swept away.
And it was left to John Clare, a Midlands man and an agricultural Labourer, to tell this story. Between 1809 and 1820, Acts of Enclosure granted land owners the right to fence off and appropriate common land in the area surrounding Clare’s village of Helpston in Northamptonshire. The resulting changes evoked some of the most touching poetry of loss and memory in the English language.
Clare describes the landscape of his childhood:
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray
Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
And then its fate:
These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine
But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
John Clare never recovered from this breaking of bonds with nature, home and work. I am convinced that it contributed to his later mental collapse and alcoholism. After one terrible spell in an asylum in Essex, Clare almost crawled back to his home, so strong was his attachment, so devastating his experience of exile. More than a hundred years later, this story and his poetry still break my heart.
Fair enough, you might say – but why are you talking to us here and now about a dead poet, and a loss that took place so long ago, in a countryside that no-one can remember?
To which I would reply, that the echo of this loss is being heard in communities up and down the country now.
And it is this loss and the grief which follows it which is both the inspiration and the burden of the Blue Labour project; so that our common work together is to acknowledge it, to comfort it, and (most difficult of all), to heal it where we have the means to do so.
For example, these are the words of two British fisherman, with whom Greenpeace have been working as part of our joint project to restore fishing rights to coastal communities:
‘This is a way of life that has gone on around the shores of the UK for generation after generation and at the moment it’s in more danger than it’s ever been.’
‘When it’s too late, people will think we should have helped them, but it is too bloody late then. Now we’ve got the chance to do something, and we have to take that chance, otherwise it will be gone.’
Their livelihoods are threatened right now by the enclosure of the seas – the privatisation and marketing of the historic right to fish in local waters, much of which has passed into the hands of highly ‘efficient’ and therefore highly socially and environmentally destructive large-scale factory fishing enterprises.
One such ‘factory’ boat off our coasts has now accumulated 17% of our entire national fishing quota. This one boat now has more fishing rights available to it, than are available to the entire Cornish coastal fishing fleet.
The transfer of fishing rights into a small number of businesses has also seen an increase in the use of low-paid, foreign labour, and in some cases slaves – as emerged recently, when Filipino workers were rescued from ships off the coast of the UK having been captured and imprisoned for months.
And this story of loss of traditions, skills and wages is being played out in a different way in the ‘post-industrial’ communities of our major cities – where skilled work has disappeared and been replaced by low paid and temporary jobs for which workers are given little respect and in which they can feel little pride.
And it is quietly eating away at the lives and identifies of Welsh hill farmers, and former miners in Doncaster.
In fact, it is a story that would be recognised by communities all over the world, who are fighting a mostly losing battle to protect their identities and sanity and livelihoods against the impacts of global capital aligned with the enclosing and centralising forces of the state.
Which brings me to the question of how we might collectively challenge those forces. And to consider some of the things that might need to change in both the Labour and environment movements, if we are to have a chance of healing any of these wounds.
Because as it stands now, we appear often to be standing on the side-lines. Or even worse, to be adopting the position of the appeasers, who as Churchill said, feed a crocodile in the hope that they will be eaten last.
And in this context, I would like particularly to think about the relationship that our linked traditions have with science, and the value that we place on work; and in doing so, to consider together, how we can engage with the single most daunting environmental challenge we face today; rapid and potentially unchecked climate change.
So, let us think for a while about science.
As I said in the introduction to this talk, I find it painful and strange to see how problematized the role of science in our lives has become.
Because I come from a background where science is perceive to be essentially part of the wider tradition of praise, humility and curiosity; and not an alternative or an enemy to it. So how has science come to be regarded with such suspicion by many in our wider community?
The answer is obviously beyond a five minute dissection but let us assemble some thoughts. If we return to Wordsworth, perhaps we find the beginnings of an answer in his phrase ‘we murder to dissect’.
As the nineteenth century advanced, so did a remarkable project of classification, measurement, and codification. It was the age of the amateur botanist, the list maker, the mapper and the measurer.
And we learnt lots during that time that has since proven of value. But it is also arguable that the urge to measure and codify facilitated a relationship between politics, science and economics which gradually began to hollow out other forms of understanding of the world.
And it is equally arguable that once such codifying took hold in our political economy, a wider sense of value became subsumed into what could be counted and audited by the state on the one hand, or commodified and sold in the market on the other.
Nor is the environment movement immune to the seductions of this kind of reductionism. Sometimes we forget that when we make a list of all the species in a meadow, this does not allow us emphatically to declare its value. For after all, what room does this leave for memory, beauty, or any of the other places where meaning might have gathered?
Or that in promoting the idea of ‘biodiversity offsetting’, we are indulging in a terrible hubris – a trade in creation – which is both farcical and terrifying. Because surely no sane man or woman truly thinks we should employ accountants to consider how many ancient oaks are worth an aspen copse, or how many slow worms we can trade for an adder? And yet that is the logic we pursue.
So, like social scientists and economists, environmentalists have sometimes allowed our relationship with science to become debased, putting its measuring skills at the disposal of a particular kind of reductive materialism.
So far, so bad. But in our eager critique of this post-enlightenment alliance, lie other great dangers. And it would be a disaster if we made the horrible mistake of rejecting the wider value of science to society, because of its relationship with the economics of neo-liberalism. Above all, we must not mis-prise the great need we have of scientific enquiry to enable us to retain a humble and grounded understanding of the physical world in which we live.
Only the mad, the bad, or the silly (in I which include a growing number of barely fledged Whitehall spin-doctors) truly believe that ‘we make our own reality’. Taken to its extremes, such a belief leads to the world of the Big Lie; to the propagandising of Stalin. And it can never be the position of a democratic movement such as ours.
Instead, we need to acknowledge that science is one of the ways in which we remain in an open relationship with the truth. And it is in this spirit that we need to address the science of climate change.
Scientific enquiry is leading us with ever greater (and more sober) confidence to the conclusion that our activities are changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and that as a result we risk creating a climate which is unlike any we have known, through our long walk through history and pre-history.
Understanding and acting on the implications of this enquiry cannot be a matter of simple ideology, either one way or the other. We do not need to declare our ‘belief’ in climate science, we simply need to do what human beings do to survive; adjust our behaviour, based on the best understanding our reason can give us, of the world in which we live.
Anything else – including a lazy post-enlightenment rejection of our ability to test reality through science – is a step towards the self-regarding tyranny of extreme Idealism. It is not for us.
And at this moment, reality as best we are able to understand it is sobering. Because the risks of unchecked climate change are grave risks to the things that matter to us most.
To the natural world, upon which we depend, for which we have an intimate and wondering love, and to which we owe an indissoluble duty of care.
To the landscapes that are mapped onto our identities and upon which we have mapped our memories.
To the homes where we are rooted, and from which we rightly fear exile.
To the constructive work we do together, and our ability to pursue this in peace.
Which brings me to my last point, which is about nature and work; and the hope I have about how this can shape our shared project.
Because there is no question the environment movement has sometimes been perceives as anti-business, anti- industry and anti-work. And that this has meant an underlying hostility between nature and labour which I believe is anything but inevitable and which we cannot afford to sustain.
Not least, because tackling climate change will require us to build and make new things; it will require new ways of generating energy, new industries and industrial processes. It will require the work of invention, but also the work of manufacture.
But more than that, from a personal point of view, I also believe that our relationship with nature is forged in work and in how we live productively but sustainably on the land.
Whether that is through the action of farmers working with water companies and conservationists to restore life to whole swathes of moorland in the Pennines.
Or the determination of coastal fishermen in Africa, Spain and England to regain their rights to fish in their own back yards; and in doing so, to commit to the protection and restoration wildlife and fish stocks in our oceans.
Making, growing, catching, mending – these are the jobs that we can do together – building on shared traditions and memories, and working with the grain of the natural world.
This is my hope and perhaps can become our shared hope.
And in this spirit, I would like to finish with another poem, which is also a gift; a love poem, but one which is also an intensely beautiful invocation of all that we hold dear in the world.
And You, Helen by Edward Thomas.
And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.